The High Price Of Freeways
Judy Juanita
Co-Winner Tartt First Fiction Award

The High Price Of Freeways




“Provocative and insightful, these stories set in Oakland, California, look at black experience through a lens that surprises with both its innocence and its sass. Engaging and enjoyable.” —Anthony Grooms


Judy’s Manhattan My Ass, You’re In Oakland,  a collection of poetry, won the Before Columbus Foundation’s 2021 American Book Award. Her semi-autobiographical novel, Virgin Soul, chronicled a black female in the 60s who joins the Black Panther Party [Viking, 2013]. Her DeFacto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland examines the intersectionality of race, gender and spirituality experienced by a black activist and "feminist foot soldier."










            When I walked into my bedroom, I saw a little brown boy – cocoa brown, not much hair, big round baby head – playing in front of my son Khiron’s picture. He disappeared as soon as I stepped through the door, like he was playing peek-a-boo.

It startled me. I was afraid of seeing “ghosts”- of the dead, again. I hadn’t seen one for a while…pretty much since I saw Dad sitting on the chair in Mom’s living room, laughing his head off, his hair black and cut to the curl, like when he was on his way to the racetrack. Of course I don’t count seeing Raina’s mom who had died in a hospital in Gainesville on Thursday. That Friday I was skimming the freeway to be Raina’s friend in her time of need, and a lady in a rickety station wagon, with doors a different color than the car, was in front of me. She looked like she’d stepped out of the kitchen in her slippers to get some milk. As she got off at my exit, she turned her head ever so slightly and I recognized her as Raina’s mom. She drove off and vanished over the crest of the hill-into San Francisco Bay for all I know.

            Of course I didn’t mention it to Raina. You can’t do that. Talk to the relative about seeing the person who just died. They’ll think you’re off in the head and even be insulted. Anyway, there was the time I told Raina about going out-of-body. About it being a sweltering day and lying on my bed, one minute chilling, the next, a foot above my bed, suspended, begging the spirits to let me down. Which they did after a long while, though the clock had marked only a few minutes.

Raina said, according to what she’d read, out-of-body stuff only happened at death. People don’t like to think about the dead or spirits hanging around, even though they say Jesus Christ fifty times a day. I stub my toe. Jesus Christ! Uncle Sam wants another $400 from me. Jesus Fucking Christ. Can’t you see the no left turn sign, Jeez-us! But I’m people too. Seeing the dead can be trying. Life is very comfortable – at least during the day–without consciously making room for the dead. I’m kind of trying not to get back to the little brown boy because he has a history, a life of his own, if you will. I will get to him because he has to be heard. The dead are persistent.

            My mother taught me about the spirits when I was a girl. She said I was the only one who listened to her stories. My dad called her a Gracie Allen. Gracie was George Burns’ wife and straight man. But my mother never meant to be funny. She got very hurt when people laughed at her, and she’d clam up. Whenever she was braiding or pressing my hair, though, she told the stories. Stories about growing up in Oklahoma. About Washington, DC where she went after her graduation from college and saw FDR in a parade. About first coming to California and catching the streetcars, and about being the dispatcher in Dad’s cab company in Berkeley and the cabbies falling in love with her voice and wanting to take her out until they found out whose wife she was.

            She told me about her Papa dying when she was the same age I was then-nine. Papa had caught tuberculosis from walking eight miles in the freezing snow to his laundry job in downtown Muskogee. The family set up his sickbed in the living room so people who had heard he was dying could pay their respects. His last night Grandmother made her go to her room. But my mom told me that in the middle of the night she woke straight up. She saw these little people, the size of children, rotund and nimble and kind of glowing, walk past her bedstead and down the hall to Papa. When they marched back through, Papa was with them. And they were walking but not on the floor - a bit above it.

Of course she doesn’t tell this to every Tom, Dick and Harry. My mom’s a fifty-years-and-a-gold-watch kind of person. She was one of the first blacks to integrate the civil service - soon as FDR issued Executive Order 8802. She is Missus Solid. She pays parking tickets as soon as she gets them and never U-turns in the middle of the street.

            But she knows about the dead.


            She used to get these federal credit union loans for when Dad had gambled the money into the Bay, and somehow, the way she told it, it was always a struggle. Would it be approved? Would they give her enough? Would she get to the union office before it closed? I suppose Mom was hurrying in that gray Ford with as much an eye for the loans as Dad had for his horses – Misty Light, Pretty Patty or Rump the Roast – rounding that last lap at Golden Gate Fields. Dad kidded before he died that the only reason their marriage lasted was because they always had two cars.

            On one of her trips to the credit union, she encountered someone walking down the stairs as she was going up, Mom with her worried head down, suppliant, thinking I’m sure of our five open mouths, parted like a nest of baby wrens. She said the person bumped into her, causing her to look up for a minute and see that the person was smiling. But Mom was concentrating on the loan. As soon as they passed one another, Mom realized it was a woman with “great big huge upside-down teeth.” She looked back. But the woman was gone.

            Of course she got the money, cashed the check, fed us, comforted us to sleep, locked my Dad out of the house for the night and thanked the good Lord for the angel on the stairs that had been there to tell her it was all going to work out.

I still look at people’s teeth like I’m going to spot divinity there. Jesus Christ. Like divinity is a guessing game. I hope it’s not. But you do have to be on your toes to keep up with the dead. The ones I’ve seen move quickly. And, for some reason, I’m usually tired or stressed when they whiz by. I saw Dad streak by in a car down 69th one day, looking like Joe Louis in his prime. It reminded me of how he and Mom argued over money (do married people argue about anything else?) and he backed out of the driveway at 30 mph. Thank goodness no car was coming. When I dream of Dad, he looks like the Brown Bomber. He and Joe favored, even in old age.

            Before I tell about the little brown boy, I have to tell my dad’s favorite Joe Louis story.

            Dad was a Tuskegee Airman, 337th, W.W.II, serving in Italy; Joe Louis back in the states was at his peak as The Brown Bomber. Dad’s CO came up with a brilliant idea: get the real Joe and the look-alike Joe in an exhibition bout. Dad went along for a minute. Then, being a bright guy and knowing the real Joe wasn’t famous for his smarts, my dad said to himself, what if the real Joe forgets it’s a fake fight? Dad bowed out.


            The little brown boy playing with Khiron’s picture-that’s what got me. I keep that picture – one of those 8 ½ by 11 school photos – next to my bedside. Khiron hates it because it’s pre-braces. But I love his all-over-the-place smile; I loved that age, nine or ten, before he stopped asking, “right, Mommy?” like I knew everything,

            The year before Khiron was born, I was, as we say, “out there” and had an abortion. Legal and all. But I had a hard time deciding to do it, getting a doctor, the whole bit. It was a second trimester. I guess not quite a partial birth one. But I had to go in the hospital and, in a way, deliver it. They flooded my uterus and basically drowned it, I guess. I remember asking the nurse if it was a boy or girl, and she said in a kindly tone that I didn’t need to know. What can I say? I had tried to abort it myself by taking a hundred Carter’s little liver pills, contemplated going to Sweden or Mexico (yeah…and my rent was $87 a month), and finally saw a shrink in Berkeley twice who then okayed the procedure. I did it, mourned it, then fell madly in love, married and had Khiron as fast as I could. I picked the name because Chiron is the god of healing. I fell in love with my baby. Adored him. Isn’t that what a mother does?


 “Welcome to the exquisite pain of parenting an adult,” Raina tells me when I complain about Khiron-the loss of contact, the unreturned phone calls, the advice not solicited.

            Exquisite pain. Yet here is the little brown boy. Ever since I moved here, I’ve been buying yin-yang for kids - friends’ kids, anybody’s kids. I have a yellow rubber ducky on the bathtub, a teddy bear and a wicker chair the height of a ruler next to the window. But my friends bring wine or cheesecake and juicy gossip. I have this picture of brown boys on the wall, playing stickball, going fishing. I cook spaghetti and bean soup – like I used to for Khiron – and throw it away, hoping rats somewhere taste my cooking and rave over it. Jesus, I chase enough spiders out of this place. I provide them a home - why not the little brown boy? There’s even a little ceramic house on top of the bookcase for him to go in at night and rest his bones. I think the little brown boy is begging me to think of him, too. Somebody said cats spend three-quarters of their time being cats. That’s why they don’t pay us much mind. Maybe the dead are like that. High maintenance in their own convoluted way…little brown boy, I’m sorry you didn’t get to be loved and live a life like Khiron…I mean, who else knows that he was playing with Khiron in the picture? Who else remembers? Who else cares?