This year the party goes on without Marvin, who has been transferred to the hospital at Jefferson Barracks, where his doctors believe he's on the mend. The house is packed with Kings and aunts and uncles and cousins, not to mention members of the JPEK family. In the kitchen Rosalind, wearing a purple apron emblazoned with sparkly letters that spell out "Lady Roz," supervises the mixing of giant bowls of punch and macaroni and cheese, as well as black-eyed peas to bring luck in the new year. Out in the living room, everyone's waiting. A little boy brandishes Rosalind's camcorder, aiming it at the front door. "What's taking Uncle Joel so long?" he moans.

King wanders in late, dressed in SIUE sweats and looking a little bleary from the previous night's revelry. ("I got home at one," his roommate, Rojas, tells the other guests, "and people were just starting to come over.") Immediately he's mobbed by a horde of kids fighting for the privilege of being picked up. He leads the crowd to the TV room, where he turns on Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" video and gets the girls to swing their hair around.

After all these months, he finally has a definite departure date: Saturday, January 8. Everything's arranged: the apartment in East LA, shipping his car, the final goodbye party at the downtown club Jade, right across the street from his apartment.

Joel King surveys his fictional stamping grounds of St. Louis Avenue.
Jennifer Silverberg
Joel King surveys his fictional stamping grounds of St. Louis Avenue.
A scene from Real Life.
Christopher “King Yella” Hawkins
A scene from Real Life.

Then it's time for grace. Everyone gathers in the living room, joining hands to form an ungainly shape that bulges out into the hall and nearly to the kitchen. There's no question of who will lead.

"Lord, grant everyone success on their path in this new year," King says. "May you all stay lovely and kind."

As the grownups and teens meander toward the buffet line, the pint-size crew rushes back to take turns getting picked up by Uncle Joel. One little girl can't contain her excitement and pees on him.

King strips down to his wifebeater and makes his way to the bathroom to wash up, still followed by the kids and accosted every few steps by well-wishers.

"Ah well," he says. "That's showbiz."

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