Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fiction Series: Free Verse: Part 9


It suddenly crossed my mind that I hadn’t eaten, after spending an entire day in front of the computer. I was working on a book of poetry. I’d started it my freshman year, slipping pieces of paper and napkins I’d scribble on, in a portfolio. It wasn’t until having coffee with a fellow writer, notes protruding from the folder, that it was suggested that I start to compile them for a book.

The process was a daunting one, filled with doubt, perfectionism, and the urge to erase things. I tried to be new Jai, in my words. I wanted to write poems, as if I’d only been living since I left for college. Unfortunately, my mind conjured everything familiar. Bodegas, melanin, and Brooklyn’s beautiful decay slipped from my pen continuously.

I pushed the gate that enclosed my apartment building’s steps, open. Fall was winding down and the chill wind indicated that winter was on its heels. There was a fish fry place a few blocks away. I knew I’d regret the calories later, but longed to feel the comfort of grease and fullness.

I walked down the block and took in the night sky, bereft of the stars that I’d become accustomed to in the south, and listened to Brooklyn whirr. I lived on the cusp of Bedstuy and Bushwick; a housing projects across the streets and fast-food still abundant. I picked a portion of Brooklyn that hadn’t been altered yet. Partially, for the cheaper rent; another for the rawness of it. As horrible as some of my memories were, I couldn’t deny that Brooklyn was suffocating. There was an air of audacity; an abundance of folks who dismissed concern with the impudence of conquerors.

I watched faces bereft of melanin, scurry from trains, not acknowledging a world that's been born on the concrete they stepped on. They awaited a time, in the coziness of renovated homes, when they would no longer fear what was happening outside of their window.

I often feared that I was considered one of them. I could not tell if it was this anxiety, my genuineness, or my upbringing in “The Fort” that made me greet the brothers on the corner. Usually engaged in conversation about pop culture or block gossip, they’d nod and concede my existence.

“Good evening, ma.”

I smiled back.

I was not one of them. I was not one of those that scurry; those that deemed others invisible. At least, I didn’t think I was.

I had to think of it this way: If it were an abundance of us, wealth included, would the city move to change the environment? Would sirens wail louder? Would help arrive faster? Would the cracks in the sidewalks suddenly disappear? Would potholes come with cautionary signs? Would trees sprout overnight?

I didn’t think so.

On the walk I thought of Damali., His demeanor reminded me of the borough I grew up in. I was still annoyed that he’d only just mentioned that he had my parents’ items stored somewhere. He had several instances to tell me.

As I neared my destination, I paused. Would I have been willing to receive Damali’s news, when I first met him? I was a ticking bomb, diffused by the right tone, touch, and time. He seemed to have that effect on me. But did he know?

Before I opened the door of the restaurant, my hand found its way into my pocket for my phone and dialed his number. It was his voice that woke me up from my trance, “Hey, Jai?”
I’d only seen him twenty-four hours ago. His voice sounded worried. He probably wanted to know whether I’d looked through the box’s contents if I was ready to talk.

“Hey, are you hungry?”

I wasn’t ready to talk. I wasn’t prepared to confront the past and be the person I thought I left behind.

“I am. I was about to cook something. Did you want to come by?”

I didn’t want to take him up om his offer. I wanted to be in control.

“No. I was about to grab something from this fish fry spot, near my house. Come over. I’ll grab you something, too.”
Damali snickered, he sensed my need to sway things, “Okay, Jai. Text me your address. I’ll be over in a few.”

“What did you mean by ‘you’ll break my heart’?”

Damali and I finished eating our dinner and we were seated on the futon in my studio that in a few hours would fold out to become my bed. I thought about this, as Damali put away the garbage. He walked away, to the kitchen area, his back bulging from the shirt he wore. We’d been close to each other before, but never in such a solitary place. My heart was beating a mile a minute. I jumped at the sound of the forks hitting the marble sink. Everything seemed intensified, when he was around. He came back over to the futon and sat on its other side.

“I meant exactly what I said.”

“Why do you think I’m interested in you, that way?”

“Oh. In that way? So you’re interested in some way?”

I gulped and buried myself beneath throw pillows, “Don’t flatter yourself, Damali.”

“Your father was like my own.”

What did my dad have to do with this moment? I hadn’t felt this way, about anyone, even Malaki, in a long time. This was not the time nor the place to discuss the bond between him and Michael Merendez.


Damali moved over. He was sitting right next to me. He placed his hand on my knee, as he spoke, “I need you to understand that I would not be sitting here if it wasn’t for Michael.”


January 13, 1997

Today I saw, D, again. That's not his real name. He refuses to tell me who he is. He says he doesn’t know if I’m a “snitch” yet.


Mills watched as the boy swept the stairs, in front of the shop. Autumn approached slowly, the leaves cascading onto the welcome mat. The day came to a close, while the purple and blue of the sky swirled into the night. The boy was doing well: He showed up to work on time, greeted customers with a smile, and cleaned up before he left. When Mr. Mills placed a “now hiring” sign in the front window, he hadn’t expected a boy of that age would ever be his most faithful employee.
Mills stood at the end of the block, with Michael, smiling at the boy’s vigor.
“I think he’d do well, in your program.”
“I know. I saw him a few months back, sleeping on a bench. He ran away from me. I’ve been looking for him, ever since.”
“Well, he won’t run now. He and I get along. I’ll call him over, here.”
A few months ago, while Mills was counting his profits for the day, police cars littered the block in a matter of moments. Despite the slow integration, crime was a steady reminder that few things had changed. They pummeled on every door of the neighborhood, looking for a young man. They wouldn’t disclose the crime, only his description. At the very moment, the police turned away from his door, Mills heard rustling between his shelves.
“Who’s there?”
The reply was the quick pitter-patter of small feet, and suddenly a small child almost ran past him. Mills grabbed his dirtied collar and stared at the little boy, who couldn’t have been older than nine, raising his fists and feet in protest. He lifted the boy and sat him on the counter while he spit and cursed violently.
“Let me go!”
Mills blocked his path of escape with his body and looked over the brown boy whose legs dangled from his store counter. His clothes were too big for his body, draped over his skeleton like figure. A blotch of red ran down his arm, and Michael recognized it as dried blood, against his brown skin.
“Are you hurt?”
He was quiet, now that he realized he had nowhere to go and would probably be trapped until the police arrived for him.
“What’s your name?”
“Why does it matter? Call the cops back here and let them take me.”
“How did you get in here?,” Mills asked.
“Front door. You were in the back, and those dumb ass chimes are finally gone.”
Mills laughed at the boy’s last utterance, “What are you hiding from?”
Mills stared into the small boys’ eyes. His voice, too big for his body, was clearly that of someone who’d seen far more than they should be allowed. There was a small commotion outside. The police officers cuffed suspects and pushed them into their squad cars. Mills and the little boy stood on the steps and watched alongside the rest of the neighborhood. The small boy began to cry. Mills knelt down and handed the boy his pocket square.
“You want to tell me what happened now?”
“I don’t wish to tell on my brother. I don’t know anything.”
“Who wants you to tell on your brother?”
“Everybody. I ain’t no snitch! I don’t know where he’s at, anyway.”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know. My mother ain’t home. They’re all over our place. I can’t go back there.”
An ambulance passed through, bereft of sirens. A woman, still in her pajamas, arrived for the boy and grabbed him tightly. Mills sat back and looked on in wonder, saddened by the lack of shock on her face. Her hair was strewn, eyes were wet, and alcohol was lingering on her breath.

She pulled on the boy’s arm, annoyed that she couldn’t find him, “Only one I got left.”


“Mr. Mills gave me a job. I didn’t keep it for very long, because after I had met your father, I wanted to work for him. It took months to convince him, but I eventually got small responsibilities that lead to larger ones at the community center.”
“I guess that’s why you’re so good at what you do now.”
Damali smiled, “Indeed.”
“I have a confession.”
“I’m listening…”
“I didn’t open the box, yet.”
“I figured that. You haven’t talked about it.”
“I’m not ready.”
“I don’t think we’re ever ready, but life is deciding to confront our worst fears.”
“What if you’re safer not confronting them at all?”
Damali put his arms around my shoulders. My heart was no longer beating fast; it had stopped. I could not feel it in my chest. It seemed to have jumped out and found its way somewhere else.
I spoke again, “I haven’t opened it yet because I’m still angry at my father. I know it sounds ridiculous. How could you be mad at someone that isn’t alive? How do you mend things with a ghost?”
“Jai, were things so horrible that you can’t forgive him, even in the grave?”
Damali was blinded. He’d known my father as a leader in the community, a leader. He would never understand the lies, the cover-up, the shatter that my family became.
“Damali, I didn’t even know about you. What does that say about our relationship?”
“I’ve always seen it as his way of protecting you.”
I looked down at the floor and followed the lines of the wooden panels to the box, which still sat in the corner I’d kicked it into, “Or isolating me.”
“I’d like to think that I knew your dad pretty well. His office at the center was filled with pictures of you. He told us stories about your triumphs. He used your stanzas, as bookmarks. He read us things you were working on and begged us never to repeat it. We all aspired for him to love us the way he loved you.”
Damali’s words were new to me. They bounced off of my ears and wrapped warmth all around me. My father, Michael Merendez, bragged about me. He read my work when I wasn’t looking. He loved me.
Damali’s arm seemed to tighten, around my shoulder, “I told you. He was the father I never had.”
I didn’t want to talk about him anymore. I took my next thought, stared at the box, and mentally tucked it there for safe keeping.
“Does that mean you see me as a sister?”
Damali wore the same expression he wore the day we stood in the cafe; he wanted to push me away, but there was something in his warrior eyes that wouldn’t allow him to, “No, I don’t. That’s why I’m going to kiss you.”


You can find Erica's books, here.


Anonymous said...

I love this column, keep them coming. Please do more of these. The story wraps me up, and then, bombs, leaves me in a mystery for 3 weeks.

Anonymous said...

Just came back and re-read this entire series. Please bring it back. I would love to see what Jai's going to do now that she's in this little love triangle.