Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fiction Series: Free Verse: Part 12

This story is part of an ongoing fiction story. To read all of the installments, head here.

I was suffocating. 

I got up and I ran.

I ran through the streets I’d grown up in.

I ran, like I was eleven again, awaiting someone to catch me during a game of manhunt. 
My body closed in on itself, reminding me of the new condos slapped between antique brownstones. My neighborhood was suddenly a claustrophobic place. Structures were pushing themselves where they did not belong.
It was all too familiar. 
Brooklyn had turned into my ex: 
a good looking, almost-got-it-together, f-boy. 
I caught glimpses of our love, as I turned corners and watched the children play before the streetlights went out, in the moldings of the buildings, in my writing.
I'd lose sight of it; once I was reminded of the rat race it took to stay here and the amount of work it took to keep us together. 
Nostalgia cannot help me hold it together.
My nostalgia was muddled with tragedy. 

It was as if the flatlining of my parents was the decline of the borough I’d grown to love. It seemed as though my womb had given birth to the trickle of newcomers we never thought were harmful. The only place that's gone untouched was bittersweet. 

Free Verse was merriment and melancholy all at once. It was where I could be myself, but find shards of my broken at the same time. I wasn’t surprised when my feet stopped in front of the brownstone. Mr. Mills was closing up shop when I collapsed on his steps.

Mills watched me, as he prepared tea for the both of us. He’d propped me up on a chair, close to the bar, and waited for me to speak. He wasn’t the type to pry, but his stare meant he wasn’t letting me leave until I told him something. 

“He’s home.”

Mills pushed the tea towards me and walked around the bar to sit beside me, “Who’s home, love?”

I barely cooled the tea, hoping I wouldn’t have to say his name if I burned my tongue. Mr. Mills watched me sip it and waited about three minutes, before asking again.

I could not escape, “Benjamin.” 

“He’s out? Does Jones know?”

“He’s the one that brought me to him!”

Mills was confused, “What?! How could he do that, knowing your history?”

I was silent. Moments before, I’d been ready to curse Mr. Mills out assuming he knew all along, but time taught me that assumptions destroy relationships. My father’s relationship with Damali, my interest in him, his relation to the man I most feared, I couldn’t have fathomed any of it. 

“He knows, but I didn’t say names.”

Mills sighed and wiped the bar down with the same cloth he’d been using for years, “He didn’t know. He probably thought he was taking you home to see family.” 

I knew Damali would never try to intentionally hurt me. Even though I initially doubted his intentions, after taking so long to show me the items my father had left behind, I knew deep down he was a good man. 

This was the second time Benny was in trouble and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. It was hard for me to understand why Benny couldn’t keep his shit together. Mom always treated him like he was the special one like he was going to be something amazing. She treated me like I would turn out just like my father. Benny got his love of reading from Carlos, my father. He may have been a drug dealer, but he was heavy into anything written about the hood. He taught Benny about Ann Petry, Donald Goines,  Ralph Ellison and anything that he could get his hands on that he could relate to. We spent hours in Free Verse talking about the authors that Carlos put into Benny’s hands and I spent hours despising the fact that he’d had two father figures in his life.

The only time Benny wasn’t acting the fool was when we were at the bookstore. Mr. Mills lit up every time Benny and I walked in. He ran through the aisles showing Benny new books he thought he’d like, while I wandered into the children’s section looking for picture books. My brother was a different person with a novel in his hand. He’d curl up in corners and transport himself to another world. Eventually, I got tired of asking Benny to leave and curled up into a corner too. 

It was through reading and writing that I felt close to Benny, even when he was gone. The first time he was locked up, he and a few friends had robbed a church member in the dead of the night. They stole a wallet and were caught a few blocks down. He was released in a few days and had community service for the entire year. 

This time it was different. I was coming home from playing in the park with my friends, when I spotted Benny and his goons running in the opposite direction. I chased after them, hoping to have something to go home and tell mom. Benny had been in and out of our home, spending time at other folk’s places. When I finally caught up with him, I noticed Benny had a blood stain on his white tee shirt. He was standing in an alleyway, next to Dillon and James two knuckleheads that were way older than he was. They were talking about hiding something and snitching. 

“Mom has been looking for you, Benny! What are you doing? Come home.”

Benny turned to see me standing behind a dumpster, scared to come all the way out because I didn’t want to be accused of eavesdropping, “Mali? What are you doing here? You need to go home.”

I stepped out from behind the dumpster and stood my ground, “I’m not going anywhere! You know how momma gets when you aren’t home. She isn’t nice to me. Why are you bleeding?”

Benny walked over, signaling to his friends that he had this under control, and lifted me to sit on the dumpster. Some of the blood on his shirt got in my arm, but I was too angry to notice.

“I’m not bleeding, someone else…,” his voice trailed off and he looked around as if someone was coming to get him. 

He finished, “Forget the blood. You need to go home, you need to get…”

Suddenly we heard sirens and everyone started running. His goons were long gone before he pulled me off the dumpster and started to run too. I ran alongside him until we got to the street. He pointed down Fulton in the opposite direction of where he was about to run, “Go to Free Verse, Mali! You remember how to get there, right? Go! Don’t worry about me.”

I turned in the direction and tried to jog my memory. I turned back to my brother, but he was already halfway down the block. 


I knew they were talking about me. 

I’d been coming by Free Verse, every day since Benny was arrested. I didn’t know where else to go. Momma was so upset about Benny that she’d started to throw a fit every time someone asked for him or I mentioned his name. I’d been sleeping outside, more than usual. My third time, to the shop, Mills finally suggested a book to me. It was a book of Langston Hughes poems. I’d learned a little bit about him in school, but I wasn’t a huge fan. 

Mills asked, “Do you mind if I read one to you first?”

I shrugged. 

Mills sat down next to me and started reading: 

When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
Since I come up North de
Whole damn world’s turned cold.

I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong.
Yes, I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong,
But this world is weary
An’ de road is hard an’ long.

I fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
Fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
She made me lose ma money
An’ almost lose ma mind.

Weary, weary,
Weary early in de morn.
Weary, weary,
Early, early in de morn.
I’s so weary
I wish I’d never been born.

I started laughing when he talked about falling in love. 

Mills smiled, “What’s so funny?”

“I’m never falling in love with a gal, but sometimes I do feel that way."

“What way?”

“You know…the never been born part.” 

“Why do you feel that way?”

“I just feel like no one wants me here…on this Earth.”

“I want you here.”

I sighed. I’d heard this before, from Benny, from mom. Benny was locked up and momma was out of control. There was no way they wanted me here.

Mills continued, “I mean that, son. You can come here anytime. You’re more than welcome to read and borrow anything you’d like. Better yet, you can buy and keep the books with your new job.”

“What new job?”

“The one you’ve got here. Bookstore Assistant Manager.”

I jumped up, “Really? Like you’ll pay me?”

“Yes sir. You’ve got to give one hour to homework and another to reading, every time you come. You’ll be able to start working, right after that.”

I could not believe this man that barely knew me was offering me a job. I was still in middle school and could not fathom making my own money. Benny would be jealous if I could tell him. 

“I’ll be here, every day at 3:15 pm. Can I take this book with me? I want to finish these poems before I go to bed.”

Mills got up and straightened one of his famous colorful sweaters, “Of course you can, son. See you tomorrow.” 

During my first week of work, while sweeping the steps, I saw Mills down the block talking to a man that looked vaguely familiar. They talked in hushed tones, but my ears seemed to make out my name twice. There was a girl, about my age, playing under a tree nearby. She was pulling leaves off of it and playing with them in her palms. As I watched her she turned right towards me and caught me staring. She skipped up to the steps and waved at me.

I continued sweeping and tried to ignore her. She was beautiful, a small afro atop her head, and an orange sweatsuit on. The man that spoke to Mills must’ve been her father. They looked exactly alike. 
She spoke, “I said hi.”

I smiled at her and put down my broom, “Hello.”

I looked over at Mills and her father. Mills was still talking, but her father looked over clearly worried about what she was doing. They soon started to walk towards us. The guy Mills had been talking to extended his hand, as I leaned down from the steps, to do the same. He was wearing tracksuit similar to his daughters. He was tall and stocky but had kind eyes. I’d seen those eyes somewhere before. 

“I’m Michael. I hear you’re quite the worker.”

I kicked around the few leaves that were left on the steps, Mills motioned for me to speak, “Yeah, I guess. Have I seen you before?”

The girl had lost interest in our conversation and was playing with another tree nearby. I regretted that I didn’t tell her my name.

“I believe we met in the park one night.”

I was suddenly embarrassed. I remembered. I’d run off that evening, afraid he was some creep out to get me. 

Mills jumped in, “Michael has a really great program at the center and I was thinking you could do you homework and some sports over there and then come over when you’re done.”

I thought about it. I really trusted Mr. Mills. He’d been amazing these past few weeks, with Benny gone, and I knew he’d lead me in the right direction. 


Michael handed me a card with the address on it and took his daughter’s hand to lead her in the direction they’d come from. Mills gestured for me to come inside, “Love that man. Jai’s getting to be such a big girl.”

“Jai? That’s her name?”

Mills started counting the money in the register, “Yes, yes it is.” 


I was taking inventory of new book arrivals when Mills walked in with Benny. I’d been going to the center for a month and with all the activities I was involved in I didn’t really have time to come and work. This was the first Saturday that we didn’t have a game and I was excited about helping Mills get the place in order. 

I’d placed a dozen McMillan’s on the shelf when I looked up to see my brother. Mills left suddenly, “I’ll leave you two, to speak.” 

Benny looked better than when he’d left. He seemed fit and well rested. He was wearing a suit, too big for his body, and I wondered where he was coming from.

“Jail looks good on you.” 

Benny walked closer, “I went to juve, not jail. The last two weeks of this month I was in a home. I’m doing good. I’m even enrolled back in school. I’m sorry I bailed on you.”

I went back to putting books on the shelf, “You bailed way before that. You’re never home. We hadn’t been to Free Verse in years, before that night.” 

“I know little bro. I’m glad you made it here that night. Things are going to be different this time. I’m on my way home to talk to mom, right now. I’m so proud of you. You’ve got a job with Mills and everything, even though you didn’t tell him I was your brother.” 

I rolled my eyes, “Because being your brother is something I’m supposed to be proud of?”

Benny looked down at the floor. I knew I’d hurt him, but I couldn’t ignore the rumors about him hurting others. 

“Like I said…it’ll be different. I’m going to head home. When will you be there?”

“I’m actually going to stop by the center to pick up my new uniform.”

“New uniform?”

“Yeah. There’s some guy who’s started a team out here. He’s got a center. You should come check it.”

“I will…I’ll be here at the store, more often, too. It’ll be like old times.” 

I tried to give Benny a smile, but I couldn’t get my hopes up, “Yeah, we’ll see.” 


You can find Erica's books, here.

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