E. R. Frank’s seminal first novel weaves together the stories of eleven teenagers in one city over seven years in this groundbreaking and “impressive debut” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
Why does Gingerbread always have a smile on his face? “Because life is funny,” he tells Keisha. But for her—and almost everyone else in her Brooklyn neighborhood—there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.
China, Ebony, and Grace are best friends, but Grace’s mother isn’t crazy about her being friends with two girls who aren’t white, and each cut Ebony makes on her wrist seems to drive them even further apart.
Just across the schoolyard there’s Eric who has to raise his younger brother Mickey, even though no one expects him to amount to anything. Meanwhile, Sonia’s Muslim parents expect everything of her, and it may be more than she is able to give after she suffers a shattering loss.
When Drew brings his father’s Jaguar into Sam’s family’s auto body shop across town they seem to be from opposite sides of the tracks, but Drew’s the one hiding a dark family secret. And he’s not the only one.
Life Is Funny China AT FIRST EBONY and I don’t want to, but then her mom, Ms. Giles, says she’ll pay us, and we say okay because Ebony’s twin sisters’ day care isn’t that far, plus it’s across the street from McDonald’s.
We wait in the playground tire swings, sipping Cokes and dipping nuggets in hot sauce, and I’m wishing I’d asked for sweet and sour, when we see him. I’m guessing he’s younger than us, but he’s way bigger, and he’s real dark, and he doesn’t look around or anything. His eyes are set straight ahead, and he walks right by and up to the front-door stoop and just stands there, waiting.
“We’re fine, thank you. And what’s up to you, too?” Ebony goes, loud, so he’ll hear. Only he acts like he’s deaf or something.
Ebony sucks her teeth for a minute, and then she tells me, “He’d be fine if he was dressed half decent.” It’s hard to know if she truly cares about stuff like that or if she’s just trying to get me aggravated, for fun.
So I tell her, “You’d be fine if you weren’t a bitch.”
“You know it’s true.” Ebony fakes a sulk, and I check him out again.
“He wouldn’t be fine anyway,” I go. “He’s scary.”
“What do you mean?”
She sticks her foot way out and leans way over to pretend-tie her shoe.
“You’re right,” she says. “He’s mad scary.”
A bell rings, and the doors open. A bunch of little kids shoot through, and me and Ebony hop up out of the swings. A couple of day care ladies laze out behind the kids, and that boy crosses his arms and leans his back to the brick.
Ebony’s twin sisters, Mattie and Elaine, bounce outside, holding some kind of Popsicle stick craziness.
“What’s that?” Ebony asks them.
“A dollhouse,” Mattie says.
“It’s not done,” Elaine says. “We have to make the roof.”
“Hi, China,” Mattie says.
“Hi, baby,” I go.
“Hi, China,” Elaine says.
“Hey, baby,” I tell her.
They’re six but like it when I call them baby. Ebony’s not allowed. They get mad at her when she does it. They let me because I don’t have any little sisters, and I talk to them when Ebony just thinks they’re around to get on her last nerve. They would let our other best friend, Grace, because she’s white and she’s prettier than anything, only Grace would never say baby anyway.
“China, look,” Ebony goes, poking me.
One of the day care ladies is staring, pole up her butt, at that boy. “Can I help you?” she asks, nasty.
The boy stares back at her. He doesn’t say a mad word.
“Do you need something?” the lady goes, like he better not.
He keeps his face shut tight, and the lady opens up her mouth again, but then this real small kid—way younger than the twins—zooms out with this Popsicle stick thing and goes to the scary boy, “Mama sick?”
The scary boy gives the lady a big old cold eye and then scoops up the real small kid and flips him over his shoulder and takes off. The kid giggles like crazy.
“Eric!” he squawks. “Eric! Let me go!”
“Bye, Mickey,” Mattie yells at the small kid’s upside-down giggly head.
“Bye, Mickey,” Elaine yells.
“Bye, y’all!” he calls back.
But that boy Eric, he doesn’t smile or slow down or anything.
* * *
On the first Friday the twins get to color mad bunches of yellow balloons with Magic Markers, and they let me and Ebony carry the balloons home. When Ebony’s mom gets back from showing apartments, she taps at the bunches, making them nod and shiver all over their living room, and she goes, “‘In Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and it’s spring when the world is puddle-wonderful.’”
“It’s not spring,” Ebony cuts in. “It’s summer.”
Ms. Giles leaves the balloons and the poem and digs into her pocketbook. I wanted to hear the end, but Ebony hates it when her mother says poetry. She’s always making her mom stop in the middle like that.
“Thank you, girls,” Ms. Giles goes, and she hands us each a fresh green bill, stiff as a new bookmark. Ebony holds hers by the edges, pushes them forward, and then pulls them back to make a loud snap. I fold a box out of mine, then undo it flat again and snap it, like Ebony.
“What’s the rest of that poem?” I ask Ms. Giles.
“Ugh,” Ebony moans.
“Ugh right back,” I go.
“Be patient with her, China,” her mother tells me. “Ebony’s poetry hasn’t bubbled up to the top yet.”
That makes me picture the fish tank at school.
“Mom!” Ebony moans again.
Her mother touches my chin with her fingertips. “China,” she goes, “your poetry is closer to the surface, just under your skin.”
Ebony drags me to her room and then calls Grace so the two of them can tease me stupid.
“Under her skin!” Grace goes, all sarcastic. Ebony’s got her on speaker phone.
“Y’all just wait,” I tell them both.
* * *
At Grace’s I work on mini-collages from old magazines, to fit into flat plastic key chains, while Grace and Ebony rip the hems out of the bottoms of their jeans. You have to do both projects just right, or you mess things all up.
“Make sure you don’t get glue on the floor,” Grace reminds me for the millionth time. I don’t get an attitude, though, because of her mother. We’re not even supposed to be at Grace’s because her mom’s sort of mean and doesn’t like people who aren’t white. I met Ms. Sanborn once on the sidewalk, and she was kind of nasty to me and Ebony both, but it was hard to tell if it was because we’re black or what, because she was mean to Grace, too, and Grace is white, plus she’s her mother’s own daughter.
“Y’all want to sleep over this Friday?” Ebony asks, right when I get done cutting out the words hip and sex.
“Yeah,” I go, spotting ultra and fine and Wow all on one page. “Can you come, Grace?”
“Depends what mood her mom’s in,” Ebony says quick, so Grace won’t have to.
Grace rolls her eyes, which she is real good at, especially for a white girl.
“Word,” she goes, just to make us laugh.
* * *
That boy, Eric, stares right past us again and waits with his back to the day care wall. This time Ebony keeps her mouth shut about him, and I try to catch his eye, but he won’t see me. The day care lady doesn’t say anything. She looks at him like he stinks or something, and he acts like she’s a speck of bug doo under his shoe.
Another girl shows up waiting today, too. She’s younger than us, like that Eric boy, only she looks it more than he does because she’s real small and skinny.
“Hi,” she goes when she has to pass us at the tire swings.
“Hi,” we go.
She sort of stops near us when she notices that Eric taking up the stoop by the day care door. Nobody knows what to say for a minute, so we all stare at him until Ebony finally goes, “You know him?”
“He switched to special ed last year,” the girl says. “He fights.”
“Figures.” Ebony smirks. The girl kind of shrugs, while I kick at Ebony’s tire. “Isn’t he ugly?” Ebony goes to her, kicking my tire back.
Then the doors swing open, and the kids spill out. A real small girl, the same size as that little Mickey, skips over to us, all excited.
“Keisha!” this real small girl squeaks. “We made cookies!”
“You make some for your mama and Nick?” this Keisha asks her, all calm and still, like she’s grown or something. The small girl’s face goes guilty. Keisha rolls her eyes at us. “See you,” she says, and they take off.
Little Mickey shows up right after that, and he grabs Eric’s hand and then hums a little while they walk down the stoop and away. Like he knows underneath that hard face, Eric’s smiling down at him.
* * *
“You sure you don’t want to take some day classes in arts and crafts or karate?” my mom asks, over the TV.
“Uh huh,” I tell her.
“Deadline’s next week,” she reminds me.
“I just want to hang out this summer.”
“Twelve-year-old girls ought to keep busy,” my daddy says to me. Then, to the TV, he goes, “What is the Suez Canal?” He knows every Jeopardy answer. The only one I ever saw him miss was “What is sulfur?”
“I keep busy,” I tell him. “Grace and Ebony and me do stuff on our own.”
“China’s getting a little pay each week to help Ebony watch the twins on their way home from day care,” my mom tells him.
“You’re putting it all in the bank, right?” he goes.
“Wrong,” I say, and he tries to swat my behind, but I get away, because he never for real tries to get me, plus I’m fast.
* * *
Grace and Ebony don’t have daddies. Grace thinks her mother doesn’t even know who he is. Ebony’s lives somewhere in the South, and she hasn’t seen him since she was five. Ebony’s mother won’t talk about him except to say that he loves Ebony but isn’t enough of a man to know how to show it. They think my daddy’s mad cool partly because he’s got these slanty eyes like me, plus he’s got a pierced ear, plus he’s real nice.
“Have you ever visited him at work?” Ebony’s asking me. She’s pulling at the let-out hem of her jeans, to make fringes. She does stuff slower than Grace, who’s putting her jeans on to see if her done fringes are even enough.
“Once,” I say. I’m busy gluing all my cutout words onto three different pieces of small cardboard. When I’m done, each collage will slip into a plastic key chain frame just like a picture would.
“Did you meet a lot of stars?”
“There’s not really any stars on the news,” I answer. “But he’s going to switch over to a soap opera soon.”
“I bet stars don’t even talk to the cameramen anyway,” Grace says, and then we hear the front door bang open and Grace’s mother yell, “I’m home!”
“Shit,” Grace goes, and the next minute her mother’s standing in the bedroom doorway, hands on her hips, mouth wide enough to catch a truckload of flies.
“Hi, Ms. Sanborn,” I go, to show her how polite black girls can be.
“Hi, Ms. Sanborn,” Ebony goes.
“That’s Ebony, and that’s China,” Grace says. She looks real calm, but I can see a vein, or something, bouncing in her neck.
“Nice to meet you,” Grace’s mom says. But she’s not looking at us, plus she met us once already. I guess she doesn’t remember. “Now you’ll have to leave.”
* * *
“What a bitch,” Ebony says while we’re waiting for the day care to let out. We bought McDonald’s again, but we’re too mad to eat.
“You think she’ll let Grace sleep over with us Friday?”
“You think she’s going to shit honey anytime soon?”
“Hey,” I go. “That boy isn’t around. That Eric boy.”
“What. You like him now?” Ebony starts smirking.
“It’s not like that,” I go.
“Riiight,” she says, all attitude.
“For real,” I tell her.
The bell rings, and the twins run out. They’re wearing all kinds of painted and strung-up macaroni. Bracelets, necklaces, belts.
“Y’all want some nuggets?” we ask. They grab them and run off to the jungle gym.
I see that Mickey looking around. I see him walk to the playground’s fence. I see him stare over at a lady I didn’t notice before who’s leaning on the fence gate. She’s way skinny and ashy like you never saw. Mickey scuffs over to her. She starts walking away as soon as he’s near. He speeds up to get next to her and hands over his macaroni necklace. She puts it on over her head, without stopping or even looking at him or anything.
Today he’s not giggling. Or humming.
* * *
“May I speak to Grace, please?” I go.
“No, you may not,” her mom says. “Grace is grounded from the phone.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t have your permission,” I say. I don’t want to get Grace into more mess, but still.
“Your apology is accepted.”
“We’re real clean,” I say. “And we don’t make any noise or bother your neighbors.”
“I’ll tell Grace you called,” Ms. Sanborn says.
“Grace is our best friend,” I tell her.
“I’m aware of that.”
“Maybe you could ask our mothers to punish us instead,” I say. “Because, really, we kind of made Grace let us come over.”
“Good-bye,” her mom says. Then she hangs up the phone.
What a bitch.
* * *
On Thursday me and Ebony don’t hang out together at Grace’s first, so we meet up at the day care. I get there early. That younger girl, Keisha, is hanging out by the tire swings. Eric’s leaning up against the wall. I wave to Keisha and then walk up the stoop to Eric.
“Hi,” I go. He doesn’t say anything. Plus he does kind of smell.
“You want a nugget?” I ask. He glares at the nuggets, and then he glares at me.
“I saw your mother yesterday,” I go.
He won’t say a mad word. Maybe it wasn’t even his mother.
“Is she sick?”
“Get the fuck out my face,” he tells me.
* * *
Friday Grace races into the McDonald’s right when me and Ebony are ordering.
“Hey, girl!” Ebony goes. “How’d you get out?”
“I’m grounded for a month, same for the phone,” Grace pants. “But my mom’s at work every day. So screw her.” She’s red and shiny from running in the heat. All the McDonald’s boys are staring at her under their baseball hats. She plays like she doesn’t notice, though.
“My mom’s not paying you,” Ebony warns.
“Like I want your money,” Grace says.
“Oooooh,” I go.
Outside we see Eric walking ahead of us.
“That’s him,” Ebony tells Grace. “That’s the one China wants to get with. Isn’t he nasty?”
“I do not either want to get with him,” I say. “And don’t call him nasty. Something’s wrong with his mother or something.”
“So?” Ebony goes. “He’s still nasty.”
The thing I notice today just about knocks me over. You’d think he’d slide his eyes over Grace if he slid them over anybody. But it’s like he doesn’t even see her. The person he watches is Ebony when she stoops in the middle of the playground to help Mattie reglue her milk carton castle.
* * *
Grace’s mother has a date with some new neighbor, so Grace sneaks out to Ebony’s.
“Somebody would get with your mom?” Ebony goes, and then she says quick, “No offense.”
“Like I care,” Grace tells us. We’re in the kitchen, making brownies. When we’re at Ebony’s, we bake. At my house it’s usually popcorn. We don’t eat at Grace’s.
“You girls want a movie?” Ebony’s mother asks, poking her head into the kitchen.
The phone rings, and Ebony grabs it. “Hello,” she goes.
“That’s the twins,” her mom tells us. They’re at an overnight somewhere.
“This is Ebony,” Ebony says. Then she gets real quiet. I guess it’s not the twins.
“Who is it?” Ms. Giles asks.
“Uh huh,” Ebony goes.
“I don’t remember,” Ebony tells the phone. “I didn’t get any.” Then she says, “Hang on.” She holds out the phone.
“He says he’s my daddy,” she goes. “He’s crying.”
Ms. Giles grabs the phone and covers the receiver with her hand.
“Go upstairs,” she orders us. “Now.”
* * *
We stretch across Ebony’s bed and try to figure out how to listen in, but even though Ebony’s got mad phone stuff, like call waiting and speaker and three way, we can’t figure out anything for spying.
“What did he sound like?” Grace asks.
“He was all happy at first,” Ebony goes. “He was real happy.” She’s swinging around her sock monkey doll by his tail.
“He was all how he sent me these letters on my birthdays, and did I like them.”
“You never told us about any letters,” Grace says.
“Well, I never got any, girl,” Ebony goes, popping Grace’s knee with that monkey.
“You said he was crying,” I say.
“But you said he was happy.”
“He was crying from happiness,” Grace guesses, rolling her eyes.
“Wrong,” Ebony says. “He was crying when I told him I never got any dumbass letters.”
We all think about that for a minute, trying to figure it out, and then Grace asks me, “Did you ever see your dad cry?”
“Did y’all ever see your mothers cry?” Ebony goes.
We shake our heads, and then Ebony’s mom walks in.
“Was that really my daddy?” Ebony asks. She doesn’t sit up or anything. She just keeps swinging that sock monkey over her head.
“Yes,” her mom says. “Do you want to talk about this now, with your friends here?” she goes. “Or do you want to wait until you and I can discuss it on our own?”
Ebony shrugs. Me and Grace look at each other. I know she’s hoping what I am. We want to hear all about it.
“Maybe we should wait until tomorrow then,” Ms. Giles says.
Ebony shrugs again.
* * *
Grace sneaks home an hour later, and I wake up in the middle of the night without Ebony next to me. I get spooked, but when I find Ebony all tucked in with her mother, I step away because it seems like something private.
“ ‘. . . and how you first fluttered,’ ” I hear Ebony’s mom whispering, “ ‘then jumped and I thought it was my heart.’ ”
* * *
At the tire swings Ebony chomps at her nails and spits the bits out in a pile.
“That’s disgusting,” Grace tells her.
Ebony’s daddy called again yesterday. Her mom doesn’t know. Ebony said he was telling her all about some woman he wants her to meet. Ebony said he was talking slow and sounded like he was forgetting words a lot of the time. Grace said maybe he’d been drinking.
“Y’all want to sleep over at my house on Friday?” I go, while I’m looking at Eric, trying to figure out what that mad bulge is in his back pocket.
“Mmmkay,” Ebony says.
“I’ll come by for a while,” Grace goes. She’ll have to sneak out again. She’s still got a week left on punishment.
Ebony squints over at Eric. “He stinks,” she tells me, evil. “I can smell him from here.” That’s a lie.
“It’s not his fault,” I go.
“How do you know?” Grace says, not evil, only curious.
“I just do.”
“You’re the one who said he was scary,” Ebony tells me, standing up from the swings.
“I changed my mind,” I say. “And stop talking loud. He’s not deaf.”
“Hi, girls,” we hear, and Ebony’s mother comes through the gate.
“Do we still get paid for today?” Ebony asks when her mom gets to our swings.
“Of course,” Ms. Giles says. “I can’t stay anyway. I’m on my way to Fifth Street to show a two-bedroom.”
I’m trying to catch Eric’s eye, but he’s stupid stubborn. I guess Ebony’s mother sees me looking. “Who’s that?” she asks.
“Some fool,” Ebony says.
“He’s not a fool,” I tell them.
“He kind of is,” Grace says.
“He is not!” I go, loud.
“What’s your problem?” Ebony snaps, and then Grace, instead of rolling her eyes at me, she sucks her teeth hard at Ebony and kicks near the fingernail pile.
“He’s not a fool,” I tell Ebony’s mother. My voice is crazy shaky, and my face is all hot, and I don’t even know why.
Ms. Giles puts her hand on my shoulder and looks over at Eric. I try to keep from crying while the bell rings and the kids fly through the doors. Ebony’s mother watches the day care lady glare at Eric until Mickey comes out, his nose all nasty. Eric yanks a tissue from his back pocket bulge and holds it up to Mickey’s face.
“Blow,” he goes.
“Battered by the tides like an abandoned ship, a spirit adrift,” Ms. Giles says, real low.
“Mom!” Ebony groans at her.
“Just chill,” Grace snaps at Ebony. “Jesus.”
“He’s got poetry,” I go, all choky. “He’s got mad poetry.”
* * *
I get a runny head and start feeling wobbly, and my mom takes my temperature and then kicks my daddy off the couch during Jeopardy so I can lie down. My daddy gives me the clicker and sits in the armchair, and my mom puts the tissue box and a blanket, even though it’s about a million degrees outside, on the coffee table. Then she brings me this special kind of aspirin she gets for free from her boss at the drugstore and lemon honey tea and tells me to drink it hot. My daddy feels my forehead and the fat mug with the back of his hand and then makes my mom drop ice cubes into the tea, to cool it.
“You’re going to kill her,” he scolds. “She’s going to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Then they sit with me watching whatever I want to for a while, and right in the middle of a car commercial I understand “a spirit adrift,” and I feel this thing ease through my skin with the fever, showing me how mad stupid mean the world can be and just how lucky I got, and it’s a warm sad feeling, like tea steam wrapping comfort around some new, crying part of my heart.
E.R. Frank is the author of America, Friction, Wrecked, and Dime. Her first novel, Life Is Funny, won the Teen People Book Club NEXT Award for YA Fiction and was also a top-ten ALA 2001 Quick Pick. In addition to being writer, E.R. Frank is also a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. She works with adults and adolescents and specializes in trauma.