Jamal slammed his car door shut. He looked down through the tinted window at the resume sitting on the seat and shook his head. He kicked his tire and regretted it as he walked heavily up the stairs to his apartment, the pounding in his head now matched by the throbbing in his toe.
He stopped at the front door to compose himself. Tomorrow will be better, he thought, still the bitterness lingered. He put the key into the lock and tried once again to shake the resentment that had followed him out of the interview and all the way home.
“Hi daddy!” Dee ran to meet him at the door. The four-year-old ball of joy threw herself into his arms.
“Hi sugar!” he said scooping her up and kissing his little girl all the way into the kitchen. “Hi baby.” He set Dee down and wrapped his arms around his wife. She smiled warmly.
“Did you have a good day?” Cassie asked leaning into him. She had one hand flat on his lapel, the other on the stove, both of her eyes right on his, their daughter danced at their feet.
“Yeah,” he said breezily, his eyes communicating that he didn’t get the job, hers saying she was sorry. He sat down at the kitchen table and Dee climbed onto his knee. “So how was your day?” he asked, smiling into his daughters eyes.
“I unna get a baby,” she said proudly.
“You’re going to get a what?”
“I unna get a baby!” she said loudly. She jumped off his knee and ran back into her room to play with her dolls.
“That girl she adores at school, Sandra, her mom is pregnant. They’re all excited about the new baby.” She leaned on the doorframe of the small kitchen watching him. He took off his tie.
“I was so qualified,” he started. He unbuttoned his top two buttons, then rested his hands on his knees and let his head fall. “Cassie, the guy looked at me like I was a day laborer,” he said meeting her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” she said somberly, “you can’t let people like that get you down.”
“I know,” he said rising to set the table, “Where’s Chris?”
“He went out,” she said turning back to the kitchen.
“He’s barely ever here,” he said taking plates out of the cabinet, “and I don’t like those friends of his. Every time I try to talk to him he gets attitude and tells me I’m not his father.”
“You’re not,” she said taking the chicken out of the oven and bumping into the silverware drawer he had left open. She closed it with her hip. “You are his big brother. Chris loves you. He just wants your respect.”
“Yeah and he’d get it if he did something respectable. Have you seen the size of the T-shirts he wears lately? They could’ve fit Biggie Smalls.” She laughed. “I’ll try to talk to him tonight,” he said putting the broccoli on the table. “More like a big brother,” he mocked.
“He’s just a kid,” she said, “he’s mad at the world right now because it took his parents. You are all he has, be good to him.”
“Do you ever get tired of being right?” He asked. She shook her head smiling. He kissed her holding her face in his hands.
“Dee Dee,” he called, smiling. “Come to dinner.”
* * *
“The cluuuub went crazyyyy,” Jackie sang loudly, “the way she shake that ass sho’ amaze me. Come on,” she said laughing, pulling Tasha onto the dance floor.
The music in the club was loud, the dance floor packed. The two ladies wound their hips, tossed their hair, and shook their asses for that song and many to follow. Jackie fanned herself dramatically and mouthed, “So hot.” They were sweating profusely. Jackie stepped up to the bar and made eyes at a boy and then turned to Tasha embarrassed, smiling widely. Tasha looked around the bar for a man worth making eyes at.
It had been some time since either of the two friends had gone out. Tasha had left her job just two weeks before, after being hired at a significantly better firm. She felt like she had just ended a long possessive relationship. She had been looking forward to going out since Jackie called her earlier that week. On Monday, Jackie had finally gotten the promotion that she had been promised practically two years earlier. She left her young son with his grandma for the night in order to celebrate.
Six years ago Jackie and Tasha were just two freshmen at community college who had both signed up for a black appreciation class. They left class together that first day laughing about the red-eyed Rasta’s, the Malcolm X’s in training, and the granola eating white kids that made up the class. They were both ambitious, level headed, and intelligent, and had been close friends ever since. Jackie was there to remind Tasha of her dreams as she worked her way through law school at night, while slaving away for an unappreciative lawyer by day. Tasha had been there for Jackie while she worked and went to school all the way through her pregnancy, and then more than ever when Jackie found the nerve to take her baby and leave his ungrateful father. They were both finally happy with their lives. Tonight they celebrated that.
“Cheers,” Tasha said holding up her martini, “to us.”
“To us!” Jackie grinned tapping her glass.
The two friends laughed and drank and danced some more. Eventually the exhaustion set in and they decided to go. They stepped out of the club giggling into the cold and stumbled across the sidewalk to catch a cab.
Tasha saw a group of guys coming up fast on her right. She saw a black 9mm and time stopped. The street was eerily quiet. She could hear her heart pounding in her chest. She saw Jackie’s frightened eyes and pulled her to the ground. Another gang crossed the street towards them. She saw their hardened faces, the one in front yelling and waving his piece in the air. Lights blurred, the noise came back loudly and abruptly, and reality settled gravely over her.
Tasha squeezing Jackie’s hand dragging her backwards across the freezing sidewalk until they were flat against the building behind them. They held each other as if it meant they could hold onto their lives. The reckless teenagers pulled guns as if they were playing with toys. “This is real,” Tasha thought, “this is life or death.” She could not believe the wasted youth displayed in front of her. Her mouth was dry but she wanted to scream. She had never felt so alive, or so powerless. Jackie’s eyes were squeezed shut, her mouth was moving, and Tasha knew she was praying.
Tasha’s eyes were wide open. She stared at the kid in front. Suddenly everything slowed down again as he looked right at her. His eyes met hers and silence surrounded her. His face changed. He looked soft. She knew he didn’t want to be there. She saw him look down at Jackie and then back up into her pleading eyes. She wanted to grab him and shake him, push him against the wall and throw his gun in the gutter. She tried to hold onto his eyes for as long as she could but she could feel time speeding up again. The silence broke.
A shot was fired and sirens cried out. Jackie shrieked, the sirens screamed louder, and Tasha threw her hands over Jackie’s head pulling it down and covered her own head with her arms. When she felt safe enough, she peeked over her arms. The hoodlums had scattered. She took her hands off her friends head slowly.
Both women stared wide-eyed at the body left lying in the street. The cops were taping off the area and the crowd had shifted from ducking on the floor to standing on the curb. The people watched solemnly mumbling the words “wasteful” and “useless.” Tasha wondered when things had gone so incredibly wrong.
Jackie collapsed into her lap, tears streaming down her face. Her mouth was open in a wide cry but there was no sound coming out. Tasha rubbed her back staring forward blankly. She couldn’t shake the image of the gun or the boy’s sorrowful eyes. Her breath was short, and difficult. She had been laughing innocently one second and impending death the next. She never thought walking across a sidewalk would put her life in jeopardy. The simple freedom had been taken from her so invasively. She was appalled. The women sat curled around each other on the dirty sidewalk in the winter moonlight, their lives shining in a startling new light.
* * *
Chris’s hands shook as he unlocked the door. His heart beat down into his gut, banging against the iron drum sitting in his stomach. He opened the door and his brother stood staring at him. He thought he might be sick.
“What’s wrong?” Jamal asked, fearing the answer.
“Nothing,” he said automatically.
Chris looked down at the carpet wondering how he had let it get this far. He couldn’t shake the sight of that woman’s eyes. He never wanted to hurt anyone. He wanted to go to college. She looked at him begging to be spared. She feared for her life.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he said and with the words a tear let loose down his dark cheek.
“Do what?” Jamal asked putting his arm around him and guiding him to the couch. Chris’s thoughts swirled and a lump blocked words from coming out of his mouth. He met his brother’s eyes, tears now rolling down Chris’s cheeks.
He pulled a gun out of his pants and took out the clip, his hands shaking so badly that it rattled against the table as he put it down. Jamal couldn’t believe his eyes. Cassie and Dee flew through his mind and in that instant he considered throwing his little orphaned brother out on the street.
“Chris,” he said quietly, “what did you do?”
“I don’t know,” Chris said sobbing into his hands. Jamal took a deep breath and exhaled trying to focus on anything except the Glock sitting on his coffee table. “I don’t want to die.” Chris said looking up into his brother’s scared eyes, “I want to live to make you proud, to make Dad proud.”
“Chris,” Jamal said gripping his little brother’s shoulder harshly, “who gave you that?” Chris stared blankly. “Do the people who gave you that know where you live?” He shook his head no, sniffing and wiping his face on his undershirt. “OK, listen to me. I know they aren’t going to like you walking away, but you have to. You’ll get your ass kicked pretty bad.” He said still gripping his shoulder, but compassionately. “Have you seen anyone else walk away?” Chris nodded. “Did he live?” He nodded again. “Ok, then, it will be ok.”
Jamal sighed. He took his hand off Chris’s shoulder and placed his clenched fists in his lap. He wanted to throw him through the wall for bringing a gun into his home. He fought the urge to lay his brother out right there.
“I’ll walk away,” he said plainly.
“How could you do this?!” he asked standing. He shouted quietly through clenched teeth. “You think generations of people before you fought so that you could act like some ignorant fool running around like guns don’t kill people?” A vein was popping out of his forehead and his eyes were looking down hatefully at his little brother, “You think Dad got the shit kicked out of him by cops fighting for your freedom so you could hand it back to them?” Chris shook his head. “You think having that makes you free?!” Jamal asked pointing at the gun with intensity.
“No,” he said softly.
“By picking up that gun you’re throwing away your rights. You are throwing away your life. Do you want to be a statistic? You want to be the next black kid killed by a white cop? Do you want to rot away in prison!?” Jamal took a breath and lowered his voice. “Do you want to be the reason that people in the United States Senate think black abortions will reduce crime?”
“No,” he said standing, “Give me a second chance. I want to make a difference. I want to make things better.”
Jamal grabbed his brother and pulled him close. He wrapped his arms around him and breathed heavily into his shoulder.
“You know the thing about second chances,” Jamal said holding each side of his brothers face, his voice raw emotion, “you only get one.”
It was a cold clear night. The radiator smelled of burnt dust. The moon was almost full, and it shone down on them through slits in the blinds. Jamal’s eyes were closed. He held his brother tightly. Chris sobbed into his brother’s shoulder. He couldn’t shake the image of the brother left lying in the street, and how he would never get a second chance.