“Andre, sweetie, it’s time to get up.”
Groggily, Dre awakened to the face of his mother. She’d already made her face and brushed her red hair, which shined like copper wire in this light.
For about the hundred-thousandth time he wished he’d ended up with at least the color of his mother’s hair, which, as far as he was concerned, was the best part about being white –the red hair.
Her pale milk-white skin burned. She couldn’t stay out in the sun very long and you could always tell when she got mad or embarrassed.
Dre didn’t have red hair and he didn’t have her eyes, either, which were bright blue, like the color of crayon.
He had his father’s hair, his father’s eyes and his father’s skin which were all dark brown, which he was perfectly happy with –well, mostly. Red hair looked cool, but you could dye your hair whatever color you wanted, so it wasn’t really all that big of a deal.
“You slept with your headphones on again,” she told him. “You can’t do that, sweetie. Those things are expensive and if you break them, I can’t buy you another set.”
He nodded. He understood, but then told her, “Mama, call me Dre.”
“Dre?” She said. “What brought this on? You were Andre yesterday.”
He put the big, ear-hugging noise-cancelling headset on the nightstand and sat up. He looked toward his musical heroes, plastered on his walls –Drake, Kendrick Lamar, XXXTentacion and Ski Mask.
How to explain, Dre wondered.
He thought about the rappers on his bedroom walls. They didn’t always get along with each other, sometimes seemed like they might be on the verge of killing each other, but they universally preached to be true to yourself.
On the back of the bedroom door, Darius Rucker looked down at him and Dre tried to ignore whatever whitewashed, hillbilly nonsense was coming up from his evil heart.
His mother had tried to explain that it wasn’t particularly weird for a black man to be a country singer, that there’d been others, though she couldn’t recall their names.
Dre’s grandma had given him the poster, even though he’d been very clear regarding his opinions of country music, even country music performed by a black man. Dre’s mother understood his feelings but told him that he needed to be respectful.
Grandma was trying really, really hard.
Dre’s mother was waiting for an answer.
“I guess this is just the next phase for me,” he said. “It is the next level. I have plateaued in my development and I find myself needing to define myself, appropriately. When I was a child, I spake as a child and all that. Now…”
“Now, you think you’re a man?” Dre’s mother looked both concerned and amused.
“I think I’m well on my way,” he replied.
She laughed, but it wasn’t a mean laugh. She sat down on the bed next to him and said, “Andrew Sean Collins, if you want to be called Dre, so be it, but you’re going to have to settle on a name and stick with it.”
Dre nodded, acknowledging the truth. He had gone by Sean through kindergarten, even though the school counselor, Mrs. Perry, told him that maybe changing his name wasn’t such a great idea at his age. He’d tried Andrew for a little while to humor her. She was a nice lady, but he didn’t feel like an Andrew.
He’d insisted on Sean and gone by Sean, but he didn’t like Sean. The word hung in his mouth wrong and the only Sean that he sort-of identified with was Sean Combs, who also had trouble settling on a single name.
Sean might have been alright until he found his real name, but his grandma watched Sean Hannity on television and that man was the devil.
So, he tried Drew.
The name change flustered his teacher and the school counselor asked him if he thought his difficulty with settling on a name had to do with his father being black and his mother being white?
Dre asked her if she knew she smelled like day-old hotdog water?
That response got him into a little trouble, but Dre didn’t mind. Lots of kids in his class had parents, grandparents or brothers and sisters that weren’t the same color as they were. He knew a kid who had two moms, somebody else whose parents were both in jail, and another kid who carted around an oxygen machine.
None of them seemed to be having any trouble adapting to not being whatever Mrs. Perry thought they were supposed to be, not that it was any of her business.
He just didn’t like his name.
The artist currently known-as Dre kept Drew through most of the third grade before switching to Andre. Now, that he was two weeks into being 10-years-old, Dre felt like the person he wanted to be, even if he wasn’t him yet.
“OK, mama. I’ll stick with Dre, I promise.”
She kissed him on his forehead. Her long hair brushed his face, but she smelled nice, which was another warning sign, along with the makeup.
“You need to get cleaned up and get dressed,” she told him. “I got called into work. You’re going to your grandma’s today.”
Dre sucked in his breath. Anything but that. He loved Grandma, but he preferred her in small doses –like pretty much everyone else did.
“Can’t I just go stay with Dad? You could trade a weekend or something?”
“He’s busy,” she told him. “I called him first, but he said he’s got things to do today and he didn’t think he could get away with taking you with him.”
Dre was disappointed. He saw his Dad often; usually went with him for the weekend twice a month, and then worked out a weeknight (usually Sunday or Monday) to go do something at least every other week.
His dad sold cars for a living but hadn’t been doing it for very long. His schedule was complicated and dependent on the whims of the people who’d been at the dealership much longer.
Sometimes, he had to go to work when he didn’t want to, but he did always pick Dre up in a nice car, which was always a nice perk.
He never showed up in the same car twice and Dre liked that.
If his Dad had to work on a Saturday, Dre would usually hang out with his Dad’s girlfriend, Teri, who looked very similar to Dre’s mother, but wasn’t as smart.
Teri was nice. She let him play whatever video games he wanted, let him watch Youtube videos on her laptop, and usually took him to get Taco Bell for lunch.
Dre would have hated her anyway if his Mama had told him to, but Mama said it was OK if Dre liked her.
He didn’t really remember his parents ever living together, only barely remembered a time when Teri hadn’t been with his Dad.
His father had it easy compared to his mother. Dre’s mother had gone through a string of boyfriends. Some had been friendly, took them out to eat or to movies. Some had been ugly to them and while Dre couldn’t always remember the good boyfriends, he always remembered the jerks. He remembered their faces, where they lived and where they worked.
It was pretty easy. Dre’s mother tended to find new boyfriends wherever she was working, which occasionally meant when they broke up, one or both of them had to get a new job. Getting the job at the makeup store in the mall fixed all that. His mother didn’t work with any men she could date. There was just Clifford, who did manicures, and he had a boyfriend.
“I could just stay home,” Dre offered. “I do that after school all the time. I can handle a whole day.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “While I am certainly aware of your capabilities regarding food preparation and general cleanliness.” She cast a modestly disparaging glance at the crust of clothes, toys and junk covering his floor. “I feel that it would be better if you had some supervision. We may revisit this matter in about two to three years.”
“Oh, don’t make such a fuss,” his mother told him. “She’s already working up a breakfast for you, all your favorites –biscuits and gravy, sausage and fried apples.”
He relaxed. Nobody cooked like his grandma.
“Can I listen to my music?” he asked.
His mother shrugged. He could try.
Grandma Collins lived in Mink Shoals, which was just outside of Charleston and practically a different planet from where Dre and his mama rented a house on the city’s west side.
On the west side, the houses were closer together. In his neighborhood, they weren’t as nice as the houses around where his grandma lived and some of them were abandoned. Every once in a while, Dre saw ragged men, most of them white, wandering past his house, either on foot or peddling a bicycle.
Sometimes, they smoked while they pedaled, which Dre thought was funny until he figured out it wasn’t.
The strangers frightened him because he seldom saw the same man more than a few times before that man was replaced by someone else who looked just like him –just washed out and sick.
There were gunshots from time to time, yelling down the street and the police, but Dre liked where he lived. His friends were there. He fit in and there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Tudor’s Biscuit World just a couple of blocks one way and a McDonalds and a Taco Bell the other way.
All Grandma had was a regular sit-down place next to the hotel and a pizza place. They were OK, he guessed, though mostly, Grandma wanted to eat at Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans, which made slightly fancier stuff than what she cooked at home.
At least Cracker Barrel had candy.
Grandma lived not far from Coonskin Park, which had tennis courts, a playground and swimming pool with a slide.
It wasn’t as crowded as the city pool his mother sometimes took him to during the summer and he could walk to it, if anyone ever let him.
Dre packed his things. His mother said she wasn’t sure, but she might have to close her store. If that happened, she’d call and then pick him up in the morning.
“Before church?” He asked.
Grandma went to a big, white people church. The choir sang like they’d all been kicked out of a high school show choir and the preacher talked like he was trying to sell you something you didn’t particularly want or need.
Dre didn’t always know what Brother Almond was talking about at Luther Street Gospel, but he appreciated how much he cared about it.
His mother rolled her eyes.
“It isn’t that bad,” Mama said.
Dre thought about pointing out that she was also white, but both of them already knew this.