"We're back!" Shayla announced as she and her mom came through the front door. I looked at my watch: 1:30. I shook my head. I knew if I went with Shayla and her mom, I would have missed the time to put on the cream. I'm glad I stayed behind.
"Mariah, go help your mother and sister," Dad instructed her. I put on my shoes and got up to help. "You're going to need a coat before you go out there, Michael," he warned me.
"I'll be fine. I'll just be in and out," I shrugged as I opened the door only to get slapped in the face with a gust of freezing cold air. "Jesus!"
"Didn't I tell you?" He laughed. "Go on in that closet right there and pull out one of my coats. It may be big on you, but it will keep you warm." I did exactly as he said and pulled out a thick coat and hurried to put it on. "I bet you'll listen to me next time."
"I sure will..." I made my way outside to the car.
"Michael, where are your boots? You're going to slip and fall." Mom asked me.
"I'll be fi-" I slipped and fell flat on my butt.
"You forgot about that black ice, huh?" Shayla laughed. I rolled my eyes as I got back up and walked slowly to the car so as to not slip again. I did not sign up to vacation in Antarctica. I gathered a couple of bags and walked slowly back to the house. "Here," Shayla met me half way from the door. "I'll help you."
"No... I got it. Just let me get to the door."
"Okay, Michael," She shrugged and headed back inside. Stupid snow. Stupid black ice. Stupid cold weather. I can't believe Shayla likes this stuff.
"Michael!" Mom called.
"Yes, ma'am?" I sped up, finally making it to the door.
"James tells me you and Shayla are going to Gary."
"We are?!" Shayla's eyes lit up. Well, I didn't think it was much of a surprise, but there goes the surprise.
"Dad and I were talking about it. We were actually talking about making it a family trip with you, dad and Mariah."
"Yeah, ya know, Michael's a California boy. He doesn't know how to drive in no snow. I figured we could drive up there and I could teach him about it a little." Dad laughed.
"I hope you don't intend on actually letting him drive as you teach him, daddy," Shayla chimed in. "I plan on living a very long life."
"Ha-ha. Very funny, Shayla." I rolled my eyes at her. "I bet you don't know the first thing about driving in snow either."
She gave me a look, "wanna bet? I'll drive circles around you. Black ice, snow, and all. You ain't seen nothin' yet." She smirked.
"Any way!" I laughed. "When can we take this trip? I'm ready when you all are." I asked them. Shayla looked at her parents.
"Well, Mariah is on break from school until next Wednesday... I don't see why we can't go before the new year starts. What do you think, James?" Mom asked.
"I'm all for it. As long as we're back in time for the New Years celebration downtown. I'm not missing those New Year fireworks."
"Oh, daddy," Shayla laughed. "It's the same ever year!" She looked at me, "ever since mama and daddy started dating, they've never missed the New Year's fireworks downtown at the river. It's literally a tradition in our family. Daddy likes to get the best seat early in the day. Mind you, it's that time of the year where it's twenty and thirty degrees out, but he will camp out all day for that good seat."
"You're absolutely right. And none of my children have complained about the Johnson Family spot, have they?" Dad asked her.
"Nooo," she laughed. "We've never opened the New Year without those classic Cincinnati River Fireworks."
"Sounds exciting. I might want to go, but do I really have to camp out all day while it's so cold?" I asked.
"You don't really have a choice... Daddy's not going to run the car for heat all day and it gets really crowded down there. Once you leave, you lose your spot." Shayla shrugged.
"What if someone stays and holds our spot?"
"It gets so crowded down there, you might not want to have to get through all those people just to get back."
"We'll see about that."
"Well, wait a minute, Michael, if fans are the way you and Shayla say they are, maybe it'll be best if you all meet us at our spot when it gets close to when the fireworks start. That way no one notices you. I want you all to have a good time and bring in the New Year without any ruckus." Mom chimed in.
"That's actually not a bad idea," Dad said.
"Agreed." Shayla nodded.
"Well, I guess that's the plan then. But back to the trip... When did you all want to head up there?" They all looked at each other.
"I don't have work until next Wednesday," dad shrugged.
"I'm on call at the moment, but I should be fine until Wednesday too," mom said.
"And Michael and I are on vacation, so how does tomorrow sound?" Shayla suggested.
"So soon, Shayla? You and Michael just got finished traveling," mom asked with a concerned look on her face.
"We were flying mom. I think we'll be fine in the van for a couple of hours. How far is Gary from here, Michael?"
I shrugged, "I'm sure it's about a good three or four hours from here."
"Yeah, we'll be fine, mom. What do you think, daddy?"
"I don't mind. Just know, that we're staying up there for a night or two. There's no way that I'm going to drive four hours up there and drive four hours back that same day. That ain't happenin'." Dad shut that down quick. I laughed.
"Dad, I could drive. It's no biggie." Shayla offered.
"No... I've got to teach Michael the ropes about driving in weather like this. Besides, Gary is around Chicago. Matter of fact, I might want to stay the night in Chicago."
"Sounds like a fun last-minute trip then," mom agreed. "What time do you all want to leave tomorrow?"
"Well, it gets dark at around four or five. If we leave around nine or ten in the morning, we'll get to the house while it's still light out and we could visit a couple of my cousins as well," I suggested.
"Sounds good. How far is Chicago from Gary, son?" dad asked.
"Um, about a good forty-five minutes."
"Hmm. I was thinking we could spend the night in Chicago, but I don't want to go north just to go south just to go north again, ya know?" Dad thought out loud. "Maybe we'll save Chicago for another time then."
"I'm sure my cousins wouldn't mind us staying the night. Not to brag about myself, but I can't just stay anywhere..."
"Michael's right, dad." Shayla agreed.
"Are you sure they'll be able to house all of us?"
"I'm sure they'll be more than happy to, but in the event, they start to act funny, I'll put you all up in a nice place. I won't be able to stay with you, but I want you all staying somewhere nice at least."
"Sounds fair enough. I suggest y'all get to packing and start cleaning up because we have a long trip ahead of us." Dad stood up, "Mariah!" He called.
She came running down the stairs, "yes, daddy?"
"We're going on a trip. You need to pack some clothes and help clean the house, baby girl."
"Where are we going?"
"What's in Indiana?"
"Can Andy come?!"
"No. You need to spend time with your sister."
"Ugh! Okay..." She huffed as she made her way back upstairs.
"What's her problem?" Shayla asked.
"She's convinced you two have nothing in common," I told her.
"Aww, really? Well, I'm going to go pack my clothes with her. I have to take as much quality time as I can. Were you able to put on that lotion, baby?"
"Yeah. I'm glad I didn't go with you and mom. I would have missed it."
"You're right. I'm sorry. What's that lotion for by the way. Do you have sensitive skin?"
"I'll tell you later. I'm going to go ahead and call my cousins."
"Gotcha," she said as she made her way upstairs.
"Mom, dad, do you all mind if I use the phone to call my uncle?" I asked.
"Sure, Michael, just don't make it long. Long distance cost around here. Don't go running up my phone bill, ya hear?" Mom looked at me.
"Yes, ma'am." I laughed.
"Alright, we'll be upstairs if you need anything." She said as she and dad made their way upstairs.
I grabbed the phone and called my uncle. It's been a while since I've seen him and my cousins, so I know he'll be glad to see me.
"Hello?" He answered in a monotone voice.
"Hey, Uncle Luther, it's Michael."
His voice perked up, "hey, Michael! Hey kids, I got ya cousin, Mike on the phone. How's it going?"
"Everything's going great. I'm actually on your side of the country and we're planning to come visit Gary. I figured I'd give you a call to give you a head's up."
"Come on over, Mike! You know you're more than welcome any time, now. Who's all with ya?"
"I'm actually with a special friend right now and her family. We were wondering if you could lend me the key to the house on Jackson street." I couldn't give away that Shayla was my wife to him yet. I'd rather tell him in person if at all. My immediate family knows to keep my marriage a secret. My extended family not so much...
"Is this that girl I've seen you with all over the tv? Who is she to you, Michael? You know with the fame you have right now, I wouldn't be tied down if I were you. You have to sow your royal oats, son."
"She's just a special friend, unc. We've been friends for a while now. I figured why not show her my roots, ya know?"
"Show her and her family your roots? You must be thinking of marrying her. It's a mistake, son. I'm telling you."
I sighed, "Uncle Luther, I'd really like to see you all. It's been a while."
"Well, you're welcome to come on by, Mike."
"Great. We should be in town by noon or one tomorrow."
"Sounds good! I'll have your aunt fix some lunch for you when you come by."
"Thanks, unc. See you tomorrow!"
"Bye, Michael." He said as I hung up. How am I going to explain to Shayla and her parents that my uncle doesn't know we're married? I hope mom and dad don't question me too much about it.
"Has everyone used the bathroom? We will not be stopping for the next four hours, so I suggest you use it now." Mom called as we all got ready to go. "Mariah?"
"I'm good to go!" Mariah assured her.
"How about you, Michael and Shayla? Y'all okay?"
"Mom, I do have to put my lotion on at eleven thirty, so maybe we could find somewhere to stop by at eleven fifteen? Other than that, we're fine. You alright, baby?" I asked Shayla.
"Mmhm. We're good, mom. We have a family of travelers here. We know how to road trip." Shayla assured her.
"Good. When you and Michael have kids, I hope you raise them the same way. And Michael, I'll find somewhere to stop so you can put that special lotion on. Now let's go." Dad opened the door for everyone as we all filed out. "Angie, if you don't mind, I want Michael to sit in the front, that way he can learn how to drive in weather like this."
"Michael, do you think you'll be okay in the front seat with those windows not being tinted?" Mom asked me.
"Ooo... She's right, dad." Shayla made a face.
"Oh, now come on now! We're just driving. You mean to tell me people are really going to notice Michael Jackson in the passenger seat with me going eighty-five in a seventy-five?" Dad rolled his eyes.
"It's possible. Don't you think, Michael? And let me find out you plan on speeding, Jimmy. It's still the holidays and you know those highway patrolmen are out." Mom cut him a look.
"I'll just sit in the back with Shayla and Mariah..." I'd rather not get in the middle of this.
"Well, keep your eyes and ears peeled, son. Because you've got to learn one way or another."
"Yes, sir," I said as I opened the door for Shayla and Mariah to climb in. I've had trips with my family before, but never Shayla's family. This will be interesting.
When we finally arrived in Gary, I was excited to see my old stomping grounds. While I'm excited to be here, it's sad to see what Gary has become. It looks stuck in time with deteriorated buildings that are still standing to represent the good ol' days.
"Which way, Michael?" Dad asked me.
"You're gonna turn left, right here on 25thavenue and once you see Jackson street, you're going to turn right," I said as I looked around. It's crazy how far we've come from such a small town like this to stars in Hollywood.
"How do you feel being back where you first started?" Shayla asked me.
"It's surreal. You know, I haven't been back in thirteen years."
"Does it feel good to be back home?" Mom asked.
"It feels like I never left..." As we turned down Jackson street, a flood of memories rushed through my mind. Memories of my brothers and I playing in the snow, practicing in the band, putting on mock concerts for the neighborhood kids and selling candy. Times were simpler then. Although, Joseph always had us rehearsing. Sometimes I feel like I may have missed out on my childhood. Sure, I had days when my siblings and I would have fun all night long. But it would hurt me often to see my neighbors play outside while we had to stay inside and practice for a show at a local club. I remember Joseph used to work long hard hours at the steel mill and mother working at a department store. I remember The Falcon's, Joseph's R&B band, and when they would practice in the living room. I remember playing with my cousins. With the little time I spent in Gary, we sure did make some lifelong memories here.
"Here we are," dad slowed down as we pulled up to the house. Mother still puts money into this house and because of that, it's the best-looking house on the block. She's attached to this house and I completely understand why.
"Go ahead and make this left, dad. My uncle's house is literally right around the corner. Then you're going to make another right onto Jackson Street," I told him.
"Why are there two Jackson streets? I've never seen the same street on two different sides like this before." Shayla asked me.
"I don't know. Maybe it's to keep it consistent." I shrugged. "Then you're going to turn right on 22nd. My Uncle's house is on your immediate right, right on this corner." Dad parked right in front of the house. Everyone was quick to get out of the car and stretch. Not me. I had to put on a hat and sunglasses or something. I only want my family to know I'm here, not the whole town. As soon as I put on my disguises, I got out to stretch and grabbed Shayla's hand, "you ready?" I asked her.
"Mmhm." She nodded.
"I'm going to tell him we're married. My uncle can be pretty outspoken, so please don't take anything he says personally."
Shayla took a deep breath, "okay. You hear that, dad?" She turned her attention towards him, "don't take anything Uncle Luther says personally."
"Well, if he insults my family, you expect me to sit back and watch?" He challenged.
"Just keep your cool, dad, okay?"
Shayla and I walked up the porch hand in hand with dad, mom, and Mariah in tow. I'm excited, yet nervous at the same time. They've only met my immediate family. Not to say we think we're better than our extended family, but my extended family definitely reminds me of where I come from. I knocked on the door and rang the doorbell. I haven't seen my cousins in a while. This is going to be a trip.
"Who is it?" Someone shouted from behind the door.
"It's your cousin, Mike," I called back. At that, I heard the locks being unlocked and the door swung open to find my cousin Keith. "Keith!" I smiled as I pulled him in for a hug.
"What's going on, Mike?" He smiled as he hugged me.
"Well, I was explaining to your dad that I was on this side of the country and we thought we'd come to visit my old stomping grounds."
"Uh huh... Who's this pretty lady you got on your arm here? Hi, I'm Michael's cousin, Keith and I'm-"
"Seventeen." I interrupted as a matter of factly. "You're seventeen, Keith." I gave him a look to which he returned with a glare.
Shayla laughed, "it's nice to meet you, Keith."
"The pleasure is all mine. Excuse my indignant cousin here," he rolled his eyes. "You all can come on in. I don't want you to freeze." We all filed in.
"Way to gather him, Michael. That was a good one," Dad whispered to me.
I laughed, "thanks, dad."
"Dad, Michael's here!" Keith called as we sat down on the couch.
"It stinks in here," Mariah held her nose.
"Don't be rude, Mariah, where are your manners?" Mom asked her.
"Outside with the fresh air," she rolled her eyes.
"Enough, Mariah." Dad snapped. "I don't want to hear another word out of you. You've been complaining the whole way here. If you don't have anything nice to say, I expect you to zip it. Do I make myself clear?"
Mariah slouched, "yes, sir," she mumbled.
Uncle Luther came out from his bedroom with the biggest smile on his face, "my nephew, Michael." He opened his arms for a hug to which I gladly gave him. It's been a while. "You're big time now, huh? You've got the whole world in your hands and then some. Who do I have the pleasure of meeting today?" He asked as he looked at everyone on the couch.
I reached my hand out for Shayla to grab and helped her up, "Uncle Luther, this is my wife, Shayla-Elizabeth." I smiled.
"Pleased to meet you, Uncle Luther," she smiled.
"Your wife?!" A whole different expression replaced the smile on his face. "Didn't I just tell you yesterday that you shouldn't get married right now? You're going to ruin your career being tied down. You see what happened to your brothers because they got married so fast. Are you kidding me?"
"No, Michael. You are a Jackson. You're supposed to sow your royal oats before you get married. You're at the height of your career and I know you haven't sown your oats yet. Shoot, the whole world knows."
"Nah, Michael, this is a mistake. You messed up, man. Once everyone finds out you're married, it's over for you, you're going to end up just like your brothers."
"Now, hold up now," Dad made his way over to us. "Now, Luther, this is my daughter here. She's been by Michael's side since before all this Thriller fame. She has been a friend, a true companion and confidant to your nephew here. She's been hiding in the shadows far too long before she ended up on the news. Now, I'm not about to sit here and let you disrespect my daughter and son-in-law's union. You are family and instead of sounding like some disappointed fan, Michael and Shayla need support, not another critic. That's all my baby girl has been dealing with for the past couple of weeks and I refuse to sit here and allow you to ridicule her right in front of me." The room was silent for a moment as Uncle Luther and Dad stared each other down. We didn't come all this way for nonsense...
I cleared my throat, "Uncle Luther, whether you like it or not, Shayla-Elizabeth is my wife. We've been married for about a year now and we plan to keep it that way for a very long time. I just came here to show Shayla and my new family where I came from. We didn't come here for nonsense."
"But, Michael, you see how your brothers turned out. They all got married and their careers went downhill, but yours soared because you weren't tied down. And if it weren't for you, there would have been no Victory Tour. Do you see what I'm saying?" He asked me.
"My career will still soar with Shayla by my side, Luther. It's all based on what we choose to focus on. My brothers chose to just focus on their relationships, but I'm going to focus on my relationship and my career."
"It's not going to work, Mike. I'm telling you." He shook his head.
"Maybe, we'll just prove you wrong then," I shrugged. "Do you have the keys to the house?" He pointed to the key hook by the front door. "I'll bring them back. We're just going to visit the house for a moment." He waved us off and went to his room without a word. I didn't think my relationship would affect him so much. That was wild. The family followed me out the house and we continued on foot to the house on Jackson street.
"Well, I certainly did not expect that," Shayla said.
"I don't think any of us did." Mom replied.
"Can we go home now?" Mariah asked.
"Not another word out of you, young lady." Dad held her hand. As soon as we got to the back of the house, I unlocked the gate, letting everyone in before I locked it back.
"This feels like holy ground..." Shayla smiled with excitement. I opened the side door letting everyone into the tiny kitchen. It's been years since I've been in this house. I don't know how my parents were able to raise nine children here, but they made a way. Mom has redecorated it both inside and out, but the memories stay the same.
"Sheesh, this is tiny Michael. How was your mother able to raise all of y'all in here?" Mom asked me.
"Her faith in God made it work, mom." That's all I could say. What else could I say? My parents definitely made a way and I love them dearly for that.
"So, you're telling me your whole family would eat in this tiny kitchen?" Dad asked.
"Yes, sir. All eleven of us." I nodded as we made our way to the living room. "This is where all the magic happened. Before 'The Jacksons' and 'The Jackson 5,' there was The Falcons, Joseph's R&B band. He and my Uncle Luther would sit in here and play songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, you name it! They played it and my siblings, and I watched. Now, me, I was absorbing every little thing. I would always watch Joseph play that guitar closely and listen keenly as he sung those amazing blues songs. I definitely get my ear for music from Joseph. This also doubled as my sister's room. Rebbie and Latoya would sleep right on the couch."
"Where did you and your brother's sleep?" Dad asked. I led them to the room across the hall.
"Back in the day, they used to have bunk beds with three beds. I don't know if they do that anymore, but we had two sets of those bunk beds. One on each side. I remember Jackie and Tito would sleep on the bottom bunks because they were the oldest out of us boys."
"All six of you slept in one room?" Shayla asked.
"Mmmhm. And in this room," I led them to the other room. "My parents would sleep here with Janet in a crib. And that's it. That's the house." I led everyone back to the living room.
"It's amazing how everything started right here, Michael," mom shook her head in amazement.
"I know, right? My dad would have us rehearse for shows right here in this living room and the rest is history." I stared at the floor laughing to myself at the memories this house holds. "Joseph was really strict with us, but sometimes he would make me so mad that I would try to get back at him. One time, I threw a shoe at him. I don't recommend you ever do that, Mariah. It's funny now, but at the time, man I was scared."
"You threw a shoe at your father?" Dad asked me.
"Yeah, when he made me mad enough. Joseph was mean, dad. Real mean. Especially during rehearsal, but I never got punished during rehearsal. My punishments were always outside of it."
"I wish my sons would throw a shoe at me. They wouldn't have lived to see the next day."
"That's how it was," I shrugged. "He tore me up that one time. I'll never forget it."
"I bet you didn't throw a shoe at him again."
"No, I didn't, but I still fought back."
"You're a bold one, Michael."
"I get it from him." And it was true. I did get it from Joseph. That's probably why we butt heads so much because we're alike in some ways. As mom and dad conversed, I walked around the house. I needed this reminder of where I come from. We needed the trip to Ohio for Shayla and I'm glad we took the trip here because I really needed it.
"You okay, baby?" Shayla hugged me from behind.
"I'm okay, love. I'm just thinking."
"Thinking about what?"
"How far I've come. We've come a long way."
"You sure have. You're an inspiration, Michael. To people and children everywhere. You are a true representation of the American Dream." I never thought of it that way, but she's right. She's absolutely right.