Advanced at Nine
My mind so advanced at nine... was the rhyme in my head that morning as I walked down the street outside our brownstone. I used to geese hoes for Easter clothes—Memphis Bleek held real estate in my mind that morning, still wet from the shower, passing the Rasta, Trees? Trees? And a line of people spilling out of the bodega because the lotto just reached 25 mil. Just off the neighborhood’s main strip of hustle, my street was a residential community of three-story Brooklyn brownstones, most with short gates, huge, old-fashioned doorways, and well-kept stairwells with potted plants or flowers. Every three of four houses were abandoned or just shy of it, a reminder of the street’s crack-house-ridden past.
Hip hop blasted from the oversized speakers of a passing SUV. I could hear the peripheral noises of my childhood, the skip and clap of hopscotch, the leather-and-air smack of a basketball on pavement, the street rhythms of a freestyle cipher, the ice cream truck’s addictive jingle. I didn’t know any of the four kids gathered on one of the stoops in standard-issue, ironed, oversized white tees. I didn’t know any of the kids playing a reckless game of stickball across the street either. I managed to refuse a pack of socks from the same junkie carrying a garbage bag full of them twice on two different streets. Of the passing people, I picked out a few Caribbean blacks as they passed, whether they had African faces or, like most, American style. Their tempo was a bit faster, seemingly strutting on the balls of their feet, with the high hat instead of the bass. The man who cut my hair for maybe twelve years of my life, whose name happened to be Chuck Berry, stood outside his barbershop with a hello. Old and generally out-of-sorts, Chuck’s white facial hair remained impeccably well-groomed, but his gut hung out of the barbershop doorway while his feet remained well inside.
I smelled the cigar stink at Bear’s Bail Bonds and debated whether or not I’d drink his cognac. On the wall behind Bear were framed photos of black boxers, famous and unknown, old and new, from Jack Johnson to Roy Jones. Brooklyn’s Tyson was up there a few times, in the center of the wall a still of Iron Mike, locked in a hold with Evander Holyfield, Tyson’s teeth clamped closed on the other’s ear. I laughed every time I saw it. Just below was a typed message: MAY NOT KNOW WHERE I’M GOING; HERE’S WHERE I’M COMING FROM.
“Kamal,” he said, his bloodshot eyes deep in his oversized, rottweiler head.
“How you been?”
“Chillin’. What’s good?”
He raised his big hands, smiling. “BI is good. Long as niggas gettin’ locked up. What brings you?”
“I’m trying to find somebody.”
“Who?” he asked, putting a plastic cup on the table and pouring a warm shot from the bottle of Hennessy V.S.O.P. that stayed on his desk like another office supply.
“Sharrone Ward,” I said. It had been a while since I had said the name out loud. The taste was sour.
Bear passed the cup toward me and looked at me like and? Until I put a twenty on his desk. He’d share forty dollars’ worth of his cognac, but business was business.
“Sure, Slim. You want some yac?” he said, typing on his computer. “This guy’s a real winner. Drugs, possession, 1980, in Chicago, second-degree assault, ’84, possession here in ’88, CDS possession with intent, 1990, possession with intent again, ’95. Arrested for rape in ’89, and murder in ’86.”
“He still locked up?”
“No. He got out earlier this year. He’s on parole.”
“It say where he live at?”
“A person to contact? A telephone number?”
“Here, there’s a Loretta Whitherspoon. No number, but an address.”
“Cool. Can you give it to me?”
He wrote the information on one of his business cards, handed it to me, then gestured to the plastic cup in front of me. “You gonna handle that right there?”
I didn’t want it, but if I refused he might take it wrong. The warm syrup burned down my throat and dripped to my stomach. I left and Memphis Bleek’s rhyme sounded louder as I felt the yac cloud the morning. My mind so advanced at nine...
When I doubled back past my brownstone toward the subway, my old friend Jerome was out, arguing with two cane-ridden, toothless older folk. He saw me and waved off the discussion and jogged across the street, his hands on his belt, holding his jeans in place at the downward slope of his ass. His red Yankee cap lay sideways on top of his white do rag, the same flashy red that bordered his white Nikes.
I kept walking. Jerome caught up and put his arm around me, with a Garcia Vega cigar in his hand. “K, what’s goin’ on baby? What, you got a job interview?” He was covered with tattoos. A scar made a lipless grin across his forehead. Other scars traveled his skin as though self-navigated and seemed to find different trajectories for different days. To talk to him was to be performed for, since he spoke sideways about whatever he wanted to tell, without regard for the subject at hand, keeping an eye tilted just past his audience, right over their shoulder, as if forever focused on someone’s back.
“Something like that,” I told him.
“Yo,” he said and held a dramatic pause. “I’m about to bless you. I got that fire. You’ll love it, dukes, come with me right quick.”
He gave me a pat on the back and didn’t wait for an answer and walked down the nearest alley. The plastic wrapper dropped on the street and he licked a straight line from the tip of the cigar to the mouthpiece. With his thumbs, he broke the cigar paper apart per-fectly down the line, brushing the tobacco out as he walked.
I followed the trail of tobacco on the sidewalk behind a stoop to where Jerome sat, holding the cigar paper with weed piled in it, picking out stems and seeds.
“What you been listening to?” he asked, his usual first question.
“I was rocking that old Jay this morning. Had that Bleek in my head all day.”
“The intro, right?” Jerome lit the blunt. “Where he like, “Flashy, fly little nigga—nosy bitch from the third floor like, Why little nigga?”’”
I filled up on smoke, and bust out the reply with Jerome. “Bitch please, twist the trees, took a long pull, like bitch to breathe!”
We laughed. The smoke rose slow in the humidity, the base of its trail blown apart by the next exhale. When I could feel the red heat of the flaring ember at my fingertips, I knew it was time to go. “I’m going to holler at you later,” I told Jerome with a pound.
“It’s getting cold out here. I need some heat.”
I turned and left Jerome before I could watch his disappointed head shake.
* * *
The door looked thin, with the white paint cracked and ready to fall. I knocked lightly.
“Who is it?” asked a female voice from inside.
“Loretta Whitherspoon, please.”
“I don’t mean to trouble you, ma’am. I just need to ask a few questions about Mr. Sharrone Ward.”
“Young for a cop.”
“Ma’am, I’m not a police officer. I’m an investigator for Mr. Ward’s parole office. He listed you as a reference and I just need to compare your knowledge of his activities with our information. I’m sorry we didn’t call, but the phone number he gave us must have been old.”
She opened the door to the limit of the chain lock. I had plan B ready. Me, if I don’t see a warrant, I say, fuck off. But that’s me. A wide cheek and an eye appeared in the crack.
“Are you kidding me?”
“It will just take five minutes.”
The eye gave me a once-over, the door slammed shut. It was two or three breaths before the chain lock came undone and the door opened. She had large bags under her low-set eyes. Her teeth were so white they looked fake in her chubby, freckled squirrel cheeks, and she wore a silver cross around her neck. I doubt she really believed me, but she could tell I wasn’t a threat. Or she just let me in because she had nothing of value, unless I wanted a photo of Our Savior. Pictures of Jesus were everywhere, the way Tyson and other boxers decorated Bear’s office. Holy hoax power—I smelled a born- again.
She offered me a seat on the couch and I offered small talk about the weather before I took out my pad and pen.
“So, do you mind if I ask how you know Mr. Ward?”
“He was my boyfriend. He lived with me for a while.”
“To your knowledge, is Mr. Ward currently employed?”
“Yes. He works for Golden Liquors.”
“Do you have that address?”
“I’m sure you have all that information,” she said in a mocking tone, looking at me with a sideways smile.
I began to feel how lonely the place was. The room we sat in was for company, but there was a thin layer of dust on the coffee table, with some outdated issues of People, Ebony, and some Jesus pamphlets. I could see the kitchen, where the television was above the dishwasher, so she could cook and watch.
Her head was slowly shaking.
“Who are you, child? Since when do parole officers make house calls?” For a moment, her eyes widened, and I saw the whites all the way around her pupils. “How did you get my address? In God’s name, why would a respectable young man make up things to find out about Sharrone?”
The flesh on her face looked worn and tough, like old shoe soles. There was bereavement in her eyes even then, a defeated way that her hands folded in her lap, a tired curve in her back, as if the sediments of mourning rested in her belly. She looked at me as though I’d been silent too long. “I’m sorry to have troubled you, Ms. Whitherspoon, this is difficult for me.” It was the truth. I could barely speak.
“Child, you have the opportunity to relieve yourself of this lie. Now, sit down and tell me the truth. If not for mine, then be honest before the eyes of the Lord.” Now I could see why she let me inside. Born-again need company. Still I heard her and knew if I told her the truth it would all end now, regardless of my resolve. “I feel your burden, child. Here is a place you may set it down.”
Her patience was unnerving, like she meant for me to relax, but she didn’t know what that meant. The silence was a pressure, and this voice, Memphis Bleek, spouted lyrics in a continuous staccato so low and fast it was barely even words anymore, more like the running mumble of a subway car, the beats on the tracks now the rhymes, dropping reliable as a heartbeat—Shit is constant, that’s why I pack the Johnson and Johnson for the nonsense who wants it?
“I apologize, Ms. Whitherspoon, I only intended to find him, not mislead you.”
Twist the trees.
I wanted the conversation to end, but not to leave until I got what I came for.
“To actually see him, speak to him. He’s my father...”
Took a long pull,
Like bitch to breathe.
“Father?” she repeated.
That’s my answer,
Life’s like cancer.
* * *
That night, I defrosted some hot dogs from the freezer by running water over them in the sink, and Ma sat in the dining room, reading a newspaper with her back to the kitchen. I sat and ate my hot dogs and she hardly looked up from her paper. I realized that I never read the newspaper in the evening. There was no point. We were closer to the next morning’s paper than to today’s. I almost told her this, but then she had already gone to bed.
I stepped out on the staircase and forgot what I was doing outside. A junkie nodded out on his feet beneath a broken streetlamp across the way, slowly sinking closer to the concrete, but never falling. I could barely see his shape in the darkness. White eyes and teeth were embedded in his skin like porcelain jewels. His face was the negative of a skeleton.
I thought I would go to the liquor store right then, though I was sure it was closed. Instead, I turned my bitch ass around and went back inside.
I left my clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor and turned on the sink. I cupped water and splashed it on my face, watching the mirror, the drops falling from my chin. I flicked my hands at the image and watched the water land on the glass. I stayed there while the drops left crooked trails down the mirror. It looked like I was melting.
When I got in bed, the calling was like gunfire: Roll call, motherfucker! Line up soldiers, check that bitch shit at the door. Time to blaze, son, burn ’em. Roll call, is you here? Is you here? Line up if you hear!
A metallic weight in my hand burned, kicked. I saw a man’s chest and small holes burst. He caught hot ones, like how cigarettes burn through paper. Then I pounded on the face with fists and I wanted to see who it was but the face was black blue and blood, a child’s messy watercolors. It all felt soft, like the skin of an orange, its liquid bursting through where the flesh had broke. The repetition sparked friction, a lust waiting to crest, until I stopped. It was over. I looked away into darkness, where the red remained, drifting through my sight like clouds. There was music, but no beat. Just peace. A single note, held for measures on end, but no beat. The redness gradually left like a parting storm.
Maybe I was awake then. Maybe the dream was over, but I didn’t know it, I thought I did it, and I breathed a long relief, and my eyes squeezed shut and my heartbeat was a celebration. It tasted like sunshine.
* * *
Jerome lived in the basement of his mother’s apartment. His closet was a rod attached to the ceiling with clothes hanging from it above his bed. The clothes were usually too nice for him to wear, covered in plastic, and different every time I was over. I wondered where they came from and where they went but never asked.
Still chewing his cheesesteak, he reached beneath his bed and pulled out a small, cardboard box marked RUGER. Inside the box was a thick plastic box with a lock. Jerome put it on the bed and lifted the top, revealing a 9 mm pistol next to a full clip. He picked up the 9, crammed the clip in, pulled the slide back, and looked at me.
“Look at the hole in this thing,” he said, holding the gun at an angle so it didn’t point at me, but so I could see it. “Big, right? Go straight through somebody. Good for exchanging one kind of drama for another.”
He pushed the slide release and the clip fell into his palm. He then pulled the slide back again, and the bullet that was in the chamber flew in an arc to the bed. Like the shell would do if he’d fired it. He turned it around and handed it to me.
I put the clip in. I saw where the serial number had been scratched off. It was cold and dense. But it felt alive.
My nine, my nine mm, nine er, my baby, my baby nine, my baby Nina, my Nina.
* * *
The rumbling clang of the C train thumped between the steady beats in my headphones. The two noises joined to an almost peaceful blend. The voice of Method Man rose only slightly above the drone of the train, like a hand above a marionette, holding the strings of the baseline, the beat falling in the phrase gaps. Then the pace slowed down—longer gaps between the beats, slower still, metal on metal screeched, the brake signaled the voice of the next man on the song. The train rocked back, throwing my body temporarily off balance, then yanked me straight again. I felt Nina, wedged inside my belt, jab me in the abdomen.
The doors opened and a group of four young black girls walked in, no older than six or seven, followed by two old women with large, thick faces, tough like worn leather. The girls filled up an empty row of seats, and the women sat across from them, watching the kids without looking. The music got louder, clearer, the doors signaled a ding dong, shut, and the train moved, rising and joining the baseline pace behind the hip hop.
The heads of the placid passengers made loose circles with the bumps in the ride. Above the row of heads was a thick glass window, revealing darkness with intermittent flashing lights, and before that were reflections. I saw myself, the backdrop opaque like black marble, like the glassy eyes of the fish in my father’s tropical fish tank. The ones he spent time on and fussed over, so he could work through mundane hours while they lazily passed back and forth, brilliant colors on a constant creep like a slow drive-by. Their eyes saw everything or nothing, I never could tell. All you could be sure of was that they were alive, and when they held still it was hard to tell even that. I’d watch those fish for hours, thinking how I’d scoop one out and kill it so Pop would know I could.
One day I was mad enough. I took the wire net and scooped one long, bright red fish out, and held it down against the desk with the metal of the net, while its body struggled against my hand. I stabbed it in the head with a pen and the thing just squirmed twice as fast. I freaked out and quickly threw it. It flipped and bounced around on Pop’s carpet with that long pen sticking out its head, as the slanted light from the desk lamp reflected tiny crystals off its scales. The thing didn’t just lay dead, it fought, getting water all over Pop’s carpet, flipping every which way like it was cooking itself on a skillet. I waited for the thing to calm down, and for me to calm down, but it struggled for what felt like forever. Gradually, its gills expanded less and less. It flipped a few last times, stopped blinking, and its eyes glazed over, and I finally saw the difference from how they looked alive. I grabbed the pen and went to the toilet and pushed the head off its tip. I was afraid the thing was too big to flush, but the fish circled three times around, and the throat of the bowl swallowed it. I went up to my bed and lay down and let it out then, soaking my pillow like how the fish soaked the carpet.
After my eyes and the carpet had dried, Pop took me into the backseat of his black Lincoln like a makeshift hearse, driving without speaking while I looked around the nighttime Brooklyn streets without speaking, young breath slightly fogging the car window. He pulled over, pulled me out of the car by my wrist, the same wrist he’d once grabbed to show me the rootlike way the veins ran down my arm. He squeezed it and dragged me while I twisted and pulled against where his fingers met his thumb, trying to break free. He wasn’t having it, all the way through the cemetery gates he wasn’t having it, on the winding walkway through shadows of shadows, the shadows of even the smallest gravestones stretching across to the flood of dark that was everywhere else. He wasn’t having it as he marched so fast I lost my footing and the top of my sneakers scraped against the asphalt. He took me to the grass and let go and stood still and I did the same. By then I was crying some-thing awful but it did nothing to provoke any weakness or sympathy. He’d been violated and nothing else was remotely important. He let me stand and soak up the scene—the tall tomb-stones, the cold and wet grass, the bodies beneath. I didn’t say shit. He was just mad because his soldier exploited a contradiction in him—the criminal lawyer turned criminal.
I was his golden son. I was his little soldier. Before me, he and Ma would drive all night to visit family in South Carolina. After me, they would spend a night at the Hotel Marriott. His little man, his little soldier, who went fishing with him, years before, and when he came to the kitchen with three bass hooked to his line, his soldier, only as tall as his knees, stood by him as he lay the fish on the cutting board then lifted a cleaver and let it fall, like it was a habit. The two pieces of the fish were each dropped into their own bucket, and each twitched and flipped as if they believed they could find their lost half. The head made two solid jumps and cleared the bucket with the third, landing on the kitchen tile, gills expanding like breath rising and falling, the nub of its spine protruding slightly, looking at the little soldier with black marble eyes. That’s when the little bitch of a fake soldier ran from the kitchen crying.
* * *
I was nine years old when he was taken from me, shot by a man named Sharrone Ward.
I know where I was when he shot Pop. In my room, watching my reflection on the water of my fish tank, the circular currents echoing as the gunshot echoed in Crown Heights. I didn’t hear it but I heard it. It’s been ten years and I can still hear it.
I know it’s stupid to think I can pinpoint the time. The detectives could only narrow it down to a three-hour period. I thought about it so much now I’m like a boxer who watched the replay of himself getting knocked out too many times. I scrutinize the replay, and what happened only seems avoidable. Memory is deceptive like that.
Nine years ago, I had loosened my church tie and we left the courtroom defeated. It poured during the taxi ride home, rainwater streaming down the window like tears, and all the passing buildings in Brooklyn looked smeared, the colors bleeding into one another, as the surrounding lights reflected bright like diamonds in the wetness. You got to be suicidal to kill somebody, I remember Ma saying to Auntie. Murder is suicide for cowards. Kill somebody else, and wait for somebody to get you, she said to Auntie, only to Auntie. I was quiet in the back, busy being jealous of the window.
Not long after, I wasn’t in high school yet, I came home and all the lights were out. I heard Sam Cooke’s voice carry some word so long it wasn’t a word anymore, just his voice, visceral and sweet and somehow floating, like airborne honey. Ma sat on her bed and listened to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which she had listened to hundreds of times. I stood in the doorway. In the distance I heard some pipes squeak as he sang on, and I smiled, because the song was so beautiful it made me wish I believed in Jesus. Ma’s faint silhouette swayed like a shadow within a shadow. Swear it was minutes before I realized she was crying and had been the whole time. It’s not even right, a strong woman crying like that.
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die...
Then the crying became the only sound I could hear. Sam Cooke was gone. I held Ma, and I’m not sure anything was said, but we knew, he’s never coming back, ever. Her sobs pounded and vibrated, like I held a five-foot speaker. I just tried to be there and be strong when she couldn’t, because how does that look, two people crying puddles into each other? Someone had to hold up. It was a sick feeling, for real. Like a finger poked down my throat, and there was nothing to throw up.
From then on it was quiet around the house. Ma had similar episodes and I came to like her quiet better. I would expect to hear the door slam like it did when he came home, or hear the shish of his linen pants, like when he would fold his legs, or I would mistake a hallway shadow for his passing body. All the photographs of him were gone from the house. In fact, I think Ma removed the photos of everybody. I began to forget what he looked like. Memories are like scents, and they can be blended and diluted. I kept seeing that gap-toothed face instead.
Waitin’ for my day to come,
Just give me the word.
* * *
The girls split into two groups, playing patty cake, slapping each other’s hands, thighs, hands, clap, hands across, clap, hands together, adding a new rhythm. The beats played all around me, each with a different engine, the girls’ slaps now taking front stage with the voices in the headphones. I looked around the car at each face. One Latino kid with a shirt that read, DON’T PANIC, I’M ONLY DOMINICAN. A black albino. A skinny, awkward black teenager with glasses, a tight army fatigue shirt, and big headphones, headbanging to maybe some rock music. At the end was a man in an African fur suit and hat. He stood out in the rows of random New York faces as a unique bystander, a foreigner within a collection of foreigners.
I looked at my Walkman, the one some crackhead sold me, drunk at Gray’s Papaya after three in the AM. Wound up with two fifty-cent dogs and one five-dollar Walkman, with headphones worth at least thirty new, probably relieved from someone touchable minutes before it came to me. I thought I would need it to get me up for what I had to do, but I did not need it at all. When my stop came, I set it down on the seat next to me.
I stood in front of the subway car door, watching the platform reel by through the window as the train screeched to a halt and threw my body back. I stepped on the platform and the electronic bells rang and the doors shut. The express train pulled out of the track opposite, and I walked down the platform with two moving trains in place of walls on either side of me, moving with me, then faster and faster, a periodic clang banging, the sound detached from either train, echoing long in the hollow tunnels. Then both disappeared. The loose paper and garbage rose and chased after the trains, floating higher than the platform for a moment. The debris landed and rested on the tracks again, still and quiet now, occasionally twitching from an errant breeze.
I walked through the turnstile and fished from my pocket the card with the address that Loretta gave me. Down Franklin, under the huge bridge that connected the subway stops. The street was flooded with people, black skin in bright colors, everyone vocal and aggressive, and my Brooklyn walk came back. A man did pull ups on the yellow bars of a flashing DON’T WALK sign, streetlight glimmering on his prison-yard biceps. Four skinny kids had jacked open the base of a streetlamp and hooked up a TV and Play-station to it, jumping up and down and fighting over the controllers. I walked farther from the subway and the crowd thinned, and I could hear Inspectah Deck in the distance: in the housing, thousands seen early graves.
I passed real young guns on the corner in pairs, walking with a ditty bop, waiting for the rain to come. An excited Korean swept a huddled crackhead from the steps of her store. I thought everyone could see Nina now. My strut was exaggerated now. Everyone knew now, who walked on water, who taught the fish how to swim. It was raining. I was wet before I realized. I was barely thinking now. Just watching huddled figures moving for cover from the rain. Or maybe from the dark. The rain caught streetlamp light like fine, silky white strings within the pouring. The sort of strings that can be bowed or plucked. The dark was everywhere else. An awning was torn up, the ripped canvas flapping from its metal frame like flesh from the bone. Imagining now, Nina seeing him and bark bark bark. That mean- bitch bark. Everything else being a matter of reacting. Everything but the bark bark bark. At least three. No chances. Three at least. Dead in the dome. Then creep silent.
Walked past the liquor store now. Didn’t notice. Went back, stepped inside, roaring rain now a gentle rhythm. Smelled like MSG. Two men inside. Easy, Nina, wait, he’ll leave. Man with his back to me in an old-style porkpie hat and some dirty clothes and he stank. Easy, Nina. Had a guitar case. Could bang ’em both out real quick and be out. Nina fiending. Man behind the counter was him, knew it in an instant, small eyes spread far apart in his wide face, thin goatee, gap teeth, same motherfucker. Easy, baby. Same mother-fucker, seen him only in my mind for so long, wasn’t sure he was real. Got excited at first, thought he was a movie star. Looked in my eyes and nigga’s jaw dropped. Like he knew. Blood knew. Root to fruit to dirt, here it all was. Old man, weak on his legs, beggin’ for that damn drink. Thought, could bang ’em both out right quick and be out. He needed a drink real bad. I needed one too. Thought, I’m in the right place. Grabbed a bottle of Rémy and took a sip. It burned in my lungs. Actually heard them talk. He wasn’t begging, just talking and keeping a close eye on me, and maybe he even said hello. I turned and looked at the bottles like it was nothing. For the first time in nine years, I faced the man who killed my father. And it was nothing.
“I known several men who went ’n’ got themselves locked up, said they found Jesus, said they was forgiven. Okay. Whatever makes your mind right.” Old man talking.
“Ain’t no forgiveness,” said Ward, and his voice was sharp and definite and loud. He held the words in the front of his mouth like cigar smoke. “Never had proof there was such a thing as forgive.” I felt his eyes on me. He knew. He was talking to me. “Myself, I done some dirty, dirty shit. Peace is sumin’ different. Could find that.”
He would go quietly, that’s what I heard. He knew what I came for and he would let me take it. I saw the other. An old Southern pale high-yellow nigger with long, gray scraggly whiskers here and there.
Ward kept talking. “Wasn’t no peace in prison. Never did find Allah or Jesus. Just found silence, like something you wouldn’t believe. Even people talkin’ and cryin’, it was like quiet. Like you don’t even realize and never knew what quiet is.” Then he shut up and let the quiet fill the space, now respecting it. “I wouldn’t mind if you played that guitar of yours until the rain lets up.” He was looking at me again. “There’s room by the front door.”
Okay, nigga was slick. Real slick. Old man set up his guitar and sat on a milk crate and Ward looked at me like, it ain’t worth it. But hell yeah it was. He didn’t even know that celebration was so close to my heart. Then do it. Shoot that man behind the counter right fuckin’ now and shoot that man with the guitar. Get ill. You want to be sick, be sick. Blow out his candle. Don’t just stand there and drink. Act. A man who does what he got to do. A man who does not break a promise to himself.
Dingy, twanging country chords sputtered from the guitar, and then, like a drunk just picked himself off the ground and started walking, a bass rhythm, then another layer of chords, and he sang how his heart stopped beating and my hands went cold and still with that hint of speech, so for a second I forgot it was a song, and he quieted, and the guitar came relentless, layering simple blues melodies, figures twisting, drowning in the strumming echo. The rain galloped on the awning under the sound of the guitar, like an orchestra, and Ward just bit his lip and smiled and looked at me like he knew I felt that music, and the song became something big. Ward smiled like he could have cried, if we weren’t so far past that. I wish he had cried. Just let one tear fall for me or the song or whatever, I’d have shot his bitch ass for sure.
Have you ever heard a church bell’s song? wailed the old man, and the bass beat halted, like an airplane suddenly lifted off, and silence filled the space, and he plucked a deep, low note twice, the echo like the metallic hum of a bell.
Have you ever heard a church bell’s song?
The bell rang twice again.
Ward clapped and gave him a small bottle of Jack, and I clapped, to be polite. Because why else was I there? Why had I stayed?
The old man began another number and I left. I did. I took my ass out of there. I left. Because I wasn’t going to kill them both. That was it. Shoot two men up and it doesn’t look like a robbery. Too bad, too, because I was ready. On the way out, I looked at Sharrone Ward and noticed how one eye was lower than the other, the froglike way they slanted toward his mouth and the calm way he inhabited his body, like it was past his old corrupt vitality, not calm before the storm, but calm because it’s wise to be so. Because life was through surprising him and he was through fighting it. He sat ready to work another ten years or go to sleep. I couldn’t tell if he was glad I left. I guess he was, because even somebody who’s ready to die doesn’t want to. He didn’t follow me out for the bottle I stole. I’ve never been so lucky.
A traffic light changed green and there were no cars in the street. I remembered the first year without Pop, unable to sleep without the television on all night. How quiet the house was. The cold and bright sun on the cemetery grass the day we buried him, the last day I ever set foot in a graveyard. The flowers vibrant in that sun, the grass an unnatural green like Astroturf, then the black huddled masses, and the big body hole darker than the suits, and the casket. Something in Ma’s eyes dead, the woman holding, swaying, giving way. She was beyond consolation from me, as long as I looked like him and walked like him. Associates and friends everywhere, characters with upper end suits and excessive style, silk handkerchiefs and alligator shoes, men with large presence, with women elegant and appropriate. And so many strangers. As they lowered the casket, I remembered once Pop asked me, If you are buried in an avalanche, how do you know which way to dig? Surrounded on all sides by snow, turned around a few times, buried alive, what’s up and what’s down? How do you know you aren’t digging closer to the earth?
I stood a few blocks away from the liquor store, watching the rain fill a puddle, each drop leaving a quick circle of current before disappearing, like hundreds of matches lighting and going out, leaving a brief trail of smoke.
You spit, he told me. Buried alive, that’s how you find gravity. You spit. And hope it don’t hit you in the eye.
I took my ass to the train station, and waited, who knows how long, obeying the remainder of the plan that forgot the goal. The train roared through the tunnel and screeched something ghoulish as the brake slowed it down. The doors opened.
The panorama of the river stretched wide, beyond my periphery, a flickering scroll of ripples, lights and shadows beneath the towering bridge. The brick waited where I had left it, days ago. I pulled a roll of duct tape from my soaked jacket and wrapped it around Nina and the brick. I threw the bundle like a baseball, as far as it would go, and the river swallowed it up, as it swallowed the pouring rain.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro