It’s tough to hit rock bottom when you live there.
Raymond Ramirez blinks tears away as he takes a drag from his cigarette. He’s sitting out on his back steps looking at the two lone objects his mother left him: his inheritance.
The first item is a five-by-seven photograph of her in black and white. She stands underneath a weeping willow and her head is thrown back in a bout of laughter.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Ray says to her through his hand. “I should’ve been there for it all, for everything…”
Ray sets the picture aside and takes a deep breath. He glances at the scars on his arms and the faded needlepoints. Two and half decades spent in and out of prison and slinging on street corners will do that to you.
Ray focuses on the second object, a small shoebox. The outside of it is decorated in blue tissue paper that has faded over the years. My Memory Box is etched on the side in large, sloppy lettering. When Ray opens the box, he notices a handwritten letter beside an old cassette tape. There’s a drawing of little Raymond holding hands with his mother, too. His brothers are nearby, playing a game of basketball.
“Alright, let me have it,” Ray says as he opens the letter, half-expecting a final lecture. It reads:
My dearest Raymond,
Though life wouldn’t allow us back together, know that you were always in my heart. My only request: don’t listen to me. Listen to you.
Ray pretends to cough on his cigarette as a group of teens walk by. He’s not sure if he is able to hide his choked tears. They look at him funny but continue on their way. After they’re gone, he thinks maybe it’s time to drop the tough guy façade.
He picks up the tape, looks it over, and then hustles inside toward the old Sony stereo. He powers it on, hits the eject button – Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain is still in there after God knows how long – and then slides his mother’s tape into the player. He pushes play and waits.
He hears an unfamiliar voice. It belongs to a young woman. “Hello, Raymond. Can you tell me how old you are?”
“Four,” a tiny voice replies. Hearing his younger self brings a small smile to Ray’s face. And then it registers: he is being interviewed by his pre-school teacher.
“Good! And tell me, what is your favorite color?”
There’s a slight hesitation before little Raymond replies, “Um…red.”
“Really, man?” Ray says.
“And what about your favorite type of food?”
“Ooh, that’s a great choice.” The teacher laughs good-naturedly. “Now, here’s a tough question. What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Like what kind of job do I want to have? Hmm…probably a hockey player. Or maybe a teacher, like you.”
Ray hears the teacher’s smile through the recording.
“Wonderful. And finally, who is your hero?”
“My mom.” There’s no hesitation.
Ray’s Adam’s apple bobs up and down.
“I’m sure she is. You make her so proud. Do you know that?”
Ray can hear his own anxious laughter. It hasn’t changed after all these years. He rubs his eyes with his palms.
“Well, thank you for joining me, Raymond.”
Ray presses the stop button and sits back on his heels in front of the stereo.
“Don’t listen to me…listen to you…what do you mean, Ma?” he says. He rewinds the tape and plays it again. After the second play-through, it hits him.
“A teacher?” he asks no one, the empty space around him. “Really, Ma? Is that what you’re getting at?” Truthfully, it isn’t new news: she’d told him for years and years that he could make a difference in teenagers’ lives if he wanted to.
He looks again at his arms. He’s brought back to his old life – the constant cycle of selling, drugging, checking in to rehab, going through withdrawals, relapsing. Getting arrested. Prison.
“I’m almost two years sober,” he says. “You think kids would listen to me, Ma? You think my stories would sink in?”
Ray knows what her answer would be. Yes, she would say – a resounding Yes!
He only hopes it isn’t too late to make her proud.
Thank you so much for reading “Inheritance” — I hope you enjoyed it.
Though a sad tale, and perhaps a little on the darker side, I couldn’t help but let the story take its own course. The first line came to me and then I saw the outline of Ray Ramirez’s character hunched over his inheritance.
If you have a minute, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.
Have a great week!