'I Feel Safe Here'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tequita Jefferson sits down on the front porch of her great-grandmother's house and watches her four children disappear down a road lined with potholes and a promise.

It is a hot summer day, 101 in the shade of a chinaberry tree, and they are carrying fishing poles and bullfrog nets and a can of skinny worms dug up fresh that morning.

Peanut, the oldest, is kicking a rock, and Toryonn, the youngest, is kicking up a cloud of dust, and Maurice, the stick man, jousts with the air.

Eva, the only girl, skips rope to the beat of a ditty: "Your momma's in the kitchen cooking up rice ... and your daddy's out back shooting dice."

They left Southern California five years ago and moved to this lonesome patch of farm country, where Tequita and her husband, Morris, grew up as part of a small community of Black Okies.

Like a handful of other young parents who were born in the alkali and left to seek their dreams in the city, they had come back to give their children a taste of rural life.

The children had seen things in Los Angeles' High Desert that no child should see. Maurice and Peanut were living with their birth mother in Lancaster when her boyfriend took them on a hit job. They were 5 and 6 years old at the time. He shot a man to death as they played tag with his children.

"He got some money and then he killed him," 11-year-old Maurice said. "We ran."

Back home in the San Joaquin Valley, Tequita Jefferson doesn't worry about drive-by shootings or the color of the clothes her children wear. She knows there are Bloods and Crips up the road in Delano and Tulare where such things matter.

But on Road 132, where the big muddy fishing hole lies across from a field of billy goats, the only sting worth worrying about comes from a catfish's pucker.

Even as she loses their shouts as they slide down the hole and cast their lines into the silty water, she knows they will be home by twilight.

They will be lugging a pail of jumping bullfrogs and wiggling fish. In a day or two, like every other catch, they will hold the mass funeral under the persimmon tree.

"Call me a fool, but I feel safe here," Tequita says. "Palmdale used to feel like country. Then everyone moved in and brought their little gang wars with them. We decided to move back here to give the boys a 50-50 chance of becoming decent men.

"I know that doesn't sound like much. Maybe I should say 90-10 or 80-20. But they've got learning problems and their father is an ex-con trying to deal with a drug addiction. If you add it all up, 50-50 sounds pretty good."

She considers her husband's three children her own, and she works hard at keeping the family intact, knowing their chances would be slimmer in a broken home.

But the Teviston they returned to isn't the Teviston they left behind as teenagers. That reality hit home when they discovered a crack house in the field out back.

Still, they believe enough of the old country can be found here to make their lives whole.

Besides, Morris has no steady job and neither does Tequita, a physical therapy technician. If nothing else, the welfare check stretches much further here.

"After everything I've been through, I need this place," Morris says. "It's off the map, forgotten, and that's just the way I want it."

Their wooden house, an old brothel, was moved here by Tequita's great-grandparents, cotton pickers from Texas. They plopped it down on some concrete blocks, and now the blocks have sunk in the soil.

The house sits crooked and the window panes fall from their frames. Saran Wrap keeps out the wind.

Even so, the place hasn't looked this good in years. They put in new carpet and prune the fruit trees so that green shoots replace mossy limbs. Tequita has plans to do more.

"A garden over there and some chickens and pigs and a cow over there. I won't call them 'big plans' because that might hex them. But I'll call them 'reasonable plans.' "

First on the list is building a fence to keep the puppies from getting into trouble.

On a warm winter morning, she gets the children out of bed early and explains the family custom of "Cranstons." This is her word for a breed of people who can fix things with the barest of supplies and tools. They have a post hole digger, chicken wire, nails and no shortage of salvageable wood.

They dig, fill, saw and hammer. When it comes time to test the fence, 6-year-old Toryonn carries over the two tiny pit bulls by the scruffs of their necks. He sets down the first puppy with a gentle hand but drops the second one from several feet in the air.

It sits frozen in the dust, whimpering.

"Come on little guy," 8-year-old Eva cries. "You can do it. Walk, walk."

The puppy seems too afraid to try. "Go get a piece of meat in the house and let's see if we can coax him to walk," Tequita says.

She understands the puppy's hesitation more than her children know. She had been born with an affliction that caused her legs to bow so badly that she nearly walked on her ankles. Playmates called her Magilla Gorilla. She had six major surgeries as a child and still walks with a bad totter.

She holds out the piece of hamburger and watches the puppy limp forward. "I don't think it's broken," she says. "He'll heal."

The three older children have a glow in their faces and a sparkle in their eyes, but it is a light that conceals deep problems.

Maurice grasps only pieces of conversations, an auditory deficit that relegates him to special education classes. Peanut and Eva have attention disorders that Tequita is trying to fix without Ritalin.

Their school, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade, is so overwhelmed with the language problems of students from Mexico that the needs of a handful of black students get lost.

Stressing an Education

Tequita decides to enroll them in a nearby school district where the teachers do more one-on-one instruction.

"Peanut is a great athlete and he keeps talking how he's going to be pro this and pro that," Tequita says.

"I don't want to discourage his dreams, but I tell him that pro sports is a one-in-a-million. 'You've got to get a good education."'

She knows her words ring hollow as long as she and Morris get by on welfare. She applies for a job as a data processor at the IRS and fixes the hair of neighbors.

She says she has lived around enough welfare families to know that the guilt of poverty causes them to spoil their children.

There will be no $125 Air Jordans under their Christmas tree. They will get a pair of no-name $15 sneakers from Kmart. "I told them guilt does not live in my house. I'm not going to try and buy you off. I don't play that game."

It is hard living in this farm belt counting every nickel, but she watches in amazement as the children explore their world with nothing more than a few sticks, boards and wheel rims from cars. They have discovered a creativity, a freedom, that the city had stifled.

Their father has had a harder time making the transition. The slow pace of country life doesn't suit him. He begins smoking crack again and lands in a 60-day program at the local prison. Tequita considers it a temporary setback.

"There's this saying that black women have: 'As soon as you get rid of your man, he turns the corner. He becomes the man you always knew he could be," ' she says. "If I throw Morris out now, I'll never see it."

After his release, he gets a job mixing concrete two hours from home. The commute is a grind, but he clears almost $2,000 a month.

None of it goes for crack, but now Tequita confronts another problem. Morris has strayed with "a young thing named Rochelle," she says.

Tequita doubts whether her plans for pigs and cows and a big garden will ever materialize.

She packs her bags and leaves. Five days later, she returns--for the sake of the children and just in time for Peanut's big football game.

His Pop Warner team had made it to the Tulare city championships.

It is a foggy night and the mist turns the field slippery, but that doesn't stop Peanut from making six tackles and an interception.

The whole family sits in the bleachers surrounded by Portuguese dairy farmers. Tequita wins the award for the loudest parent but loses the raffle's grand prize: a Holstein cow.

Peanut's team gets trounced, 34-6, and Morris runs out on the field and gives him a big hug. "I'm proud of you, son."

They drive back to Teviston in the fog not knowing where they are headed.

The vineyard takes them to the almond orchard and the almond orchard takes them to the fishing hole and the fishing hole takes them to the small wood house with missing windows.

It is a home with children now where persimmons line the kitchen waiting to be turned into Christmas cookies.

She bakes and bakes, wondering what the New Year will bring. A split in the family? A move back to Los Angeles?

Eight months later, their future still in doubt, she frets over the uncertainty.

"The kids are scared and they want some assurance, but I just can't give it to them," she says. "I don't know where it's going to end."

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