Tag Archives: americans

A Second Chance

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, but 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 daughter’s 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 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 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 no-good 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. There were no puffs of breath in the darkness before her. 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 friend’s 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. Her freedom had been taken from her so invasively, momentarily. She was appalled at the display of wasted life. 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. I want 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,” Chris said plainly.

“How could you do this?!” Jamal asked standing. He shouted quietly through clenched teeth. “You think I’m out there busting my ass, like generations of people before you, fighting for our rights as human beings, so that you can 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.

 

Writer’s note

I wrote this story in 2007 for a Black History Month Contest at Broward College. I won, and when I showed up to receive the award, they were shocked that I was white. They hadn’t meant to pick a white person. But I hadn’t ever meant to be white. The thing about race is, no one gets to choose. We are each just people, hopefully trying to do the best with what we’ve got, maybe we get lucky, maybe we don’t. We’re all human.

I dug up this story, because I am so shocked at the behavior of Donald and of his supporters and so many American people that I know and love. I have not been able to word an essay that doesn’t make me hateful as well, and that is not what I want. This story is an appeal. Black lives matter. Women’s pussys matter. Make your vote count.

The Comfort of the King

The road stretches out before me unwavering, like the heat. The little brown camper that we’ve called home since the start of our month-long trek across India moseys along crookedly, leaning always away. Dried up ditches frame the road and I imagine them as gushing rivers in the wet season. Beyond the dusty windshield, the sweeping flat land extends utterly unoccupied but for an occasional tree and the man that I love riding an elephant that we call Elvis.

The orange tweed interior radiates against my freckled skin like a fake tan. I’ve been wearing the same white linen shirt for so long that there is no longer a white thread to be found. I smell curry spice and compost coming off of my own self as much as anything else, and it has been weeks since I’ve actually minded. This makes me feel like I could belong, something I desperately hope to achieve.

Gone with the town we just departed from are the two men who stood beside the camper each dawn screaming at each other through the dewy haze in a language that I simply can’t understand. The possibility that we might sleep in tomorrow is stifled, like everything else, by the heat. I yawn and stretch, feeling sand stuck to the back of my neck. When I wash I find it in my nose and in my eyeballs as well. The humidity is relentless. Soon, we’ll be to the coast.

The camper finally leans too far away. It takes all my strength to keep it on the road, but in the end I give up and surrender it to the ditch. I step out casually as the rusty mess settles itself into the non-river.

“We’re leaving it,” I say swiftly, deliriously, amused. I hope the lightness of tone will prevent a quarrel.
“Lucy,” Wyatt says, his voice loaded with disappointment, but he stops himself. He looks up at the sky as if for an answer. When he jumps down off the elephant I smile in a way that I hope reads remorse. He walks over to where the camper is.

“Be careful!” I call.

A few minutes later he returns with our packs, the necessities and our sleeping pads. He fashions them to Elvis in silence. I stroke Elvis’s trunk as he tries to fish non-existent peanuts from my pockets.

The man who sold us the friendly mammoth spoke no English. From what Wyatt could gather the elephant was either twenty-four or forty-eight years old and called ‘aracan,’ which means ‘the king.’

“Elvis,” I say looking into his big black eye, “I hope you don’t mind me hitching this ride.”

“Will that be all, Pricilla?” Wyatt asks and I pout. He kisses my cheek and I’m smiling again before he’s through. I stand on my tiptoes to sneak a kiss on his lips before he turns. He gives me that half smile that fills me up with love, and then shows me where to step.

Sorry, I mouth to Elvis as I place one foot on the back of his knee. I take Wyatt’s hand and it feels like I’m climbing up a strong tree trunk. Elvis’s abdomen is hard, stable and sturdy. Aside from the coarse hairs poking through my khakis, it’s not at all uncomfortable.

We both jerk as Elvis starts down the long dirt road. I grab tight to Wyatt and then the animal’s massive shoulders fall into a rhythm that moves us up and down with him. We rock as if in a hammock strung above a small boat in calm water. I loosen my grip. There’s the slightest hint of a breeze. I feel fearless. A surreal sightseer, a tour by the dirty blue sky.

This is why I’m here. This is the adventure I seek.

Elvis’s grey skin reminds me of old people in a winsome way. It makes me think back to the wrinkled faces I’ve met in the villages we’ve passed through. There have been many of them over the last month and yet I feel myself missing the individual strangers. How easy it is to settle into a small towns routine. The beast’s appalling scent overpowers my nostalgia. I remember something that I forgot to tell Wyatt, my nose begs for the distraction.

“I made a friend yesterday,” I say straightening the little saffron colored towel we’re sitting on.
“The girl at the market?” he asks.
“Yeah. She gave me a pear and watched me until I took a bite. It was like she wanted to know if I would eat what she gave me, or if I chewed the same way as her.”
“And?”
“She was glad to find out that I did. Her eyes sparkled and warmed to me.”
“That’s beautiful,” he says patting my thigh.
“It was,” I say, resting my hand on his for a moment. “I really thought that I’d gotten acclimated to the smells. Elvis, I’m sure it’s not your fault but it doesn’t seem very like a king to smell like old baby diapers.”
“You mean to tell me, diarrhea and old eggs aren’t regal?”
“Ew,” I squirm and pretend to vomit over his side.
“He smells better than you do,” Wyatt says smiling.
I laugh so hard I almost fall off. I grab Wyatt’s chest and hold onto him like a seat belt, feeling my ribs shake against him. Better to laugh than to pass out from the scent.

I take the scarf from my hair and cover my face with it like a bandit. It helps the way a single rose might mask a pile of manure.

The winning purchase of the journey has been the cone shaped straw hats we were sold in the first town. They have served as gallant protectors from the sun and the rain. With the hat on my head and the scarf on my face I feel less like a foreigner. I yearn for someone to believe that I’m a local. My dream would be to assimilate so fully that I could shimmy right out the light skin I’ve always worn and try on this culture’s for a time.

To see what they see. To feel how they feel. To learn all the details.

To walk mile after mile on the back of a hard stinky elephant passing salt fields and plantain tree farms, slowly, pontificating over weather patterns, placing space before time.

Westerners aren’t always accepted in the agrarian villages that we explore. Some embrace us, some fear us, and some have no idea what to think of us. I think that people are either fond of those different than them, or not. It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s the same with the people on the subway back home.

Elvis walks steadily, but with purpose and direction. I feel powerful floating on the giant, like a goddess from an ancient world. He carries us proudly down the flat brown road away from the pumpkin sunset.

Wyatt whistles “Fools Rush In,” I sway to the music, and after only a few bars Elvis begins raising his trunk in tune with the notes. He’s so smart! I hug Wyatt, lay my head on his back and close my eyes trying to commit the moment to memory. This is joy.

We stop when the night falls around us. The moon is small and the stars are vast.

We sleep on mats beside the riverbank under a tarp shelter that Wyatt fabricates with sticks and twine. I can smell the sea in the air.

“The coast isn’t far,” I say. “Do you think Elvis likes the sand?”
“I don’t know,” Wyatt looks at the elephant grazing in a patch of grass.

We lay to sleep and within my imagination slow-paced fishing villages that haven’t changed in two thousand years are busy with commerce. I can’t wait to meet the people. In all of my travels I have always felt most at home on small islands, like the one where I grew up.
One never knows if the sea will be fair or furious, but we always have absolute faith in her anyway. Those who reside near the ocean are equipped with an intrinsically easy feeling. For me that faith is simple.

I dream of lush mountains falling into a turquoise sea.

When I wake the sky is light grey and it’s so quiet that I can hear the dust blowing across the road.

Elvis is gone.

At once my eyes well up with tears. I jump to my feet. I walk up and down the road but its no use. He is an elephant in the middle of an even, far-reaching land, and he is nowhere to be seen. I let out a sob and cup my mouth with my hand. I feel tiny and lost, suddenly stuck in the middle of a strange country without a guide.

“Wyatt,” I whisper. “Wake up.”
He squints one eye open and looks at me. “What’s wrong?”
“Elvis is gone,” I say sweeping tears away with the back of my hand. He carried us across the broad land all the time sinking his elephantine footsteps deeper into my heart.
“What!” he sits up quickly, looks around for a moment, blinks into the daylight, and gets up. Shielding his eyes from the sun he looks in every direction.
“We took him from his home,” I sob, “and he left us for it. Why didn’t we tie him up? Why didn’t he want to stay? What’s wrong with us?”
“Shhh,” Wyatt coos, his arm around my shoulder squeezing me to him. He kisses the top of my head and I collapse into my hands sobbing. “Breathe,” he whispers after a minute or so. I try to get it together.

Wyatt stares down the way we had come for a long time.
“Well,” he says finally, “we wanted to live like they live here. This is part of it.”
He takes my face in his hands and speaks sweetly wiping my cheeks, “We have enough water and food. We’ll survive.”
I gaze back at him, dumbstruck and heartbroken.
“It’ll be ok,” he promises and kisses my salty lips. Then he gets started rolling up our mats and packing our things. He distributes most of the weight to himself.

My friend’s abandonment sits on my spirit. Why hadn’t Elvis wanted to stay with us on our voyage? Were we just dead weight to him? Will we only ever be dead weight to the rest of the world? Worthless and spoiled and weak? This is what I came here to understand.

An hour into the walk the rain starts. It soaks us to the bone. Before long my pack weighs as heavy as my heart, like the saturation has added one rock for each of my deficiencies. The road turns to mud. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other on the wet ground.

With each step I fight the muck as it sucks at my foot. I pretend I’m trying to step out of that circle thing on the tentacle of a giant squid. The slurping sound is a small kind of reward. I can’t distinguish my skin from my sandals. My toes might very well be growing webbed.

I watch the steady patterns in the puddles. I count steps. I sing show tunes in my head, almost the whole first act of Wicked. Anything to keep the crushing load on my shoulders from my mind.

The dutiful clip-clopping of a cart approaching comes on slowly. The animal pulling it towards us has hooves that are just as slopped in the latte colored mud as my own feet. I look up having to crane my neck in order to see the driver around my hat. An elderly man smiles at me in front of a grey sky. As I blink into the rain at him he closes his toothless mouth and nods. The uncomplicated act of human compassion carries me farther down the infinite path.

The dull ache of my feet is punctuated by intense jabs that I know mean the blisters are giving way to lacerations in the places where the straps of my sandals meet the backs of my heels. I try not to think of that, or the knotting pain in my back. I think of Achilles and how his mother tried to protect him and failed and what pain my own mother might know if she witnessed my current suffering. I’d like to know what that feels like, that all encompassing maternal love.

The rain lets up and when I no longer feel my skin being saturated, I take off my hat. I say a silent prayer of thanks to Achilles’ mother, though I can’t remember her name, and my own for always staying with me. The clouds have finally relented and a low, verdant mountain stands before us. The wet leaves are like glittering emeralds radiating greetings our way.

“Look,” I say, blinking back tears. My voice cracks and it occurs to me we haven’t spoken in hours. Wyatt looks up and I hear myself let out a long, raspy laugh.

He drops his pack and I drop mine and I lean against him, trying to hold some of my weight. I wrap my arms around his middle and squeeze. The jade mountains are a gleaming symbol of our feat. The ocean is on the other side. I stare in awe, satisfied by the road we never wavered from.

The sun breaks through and begins to dry the happy tears that joined the raindrops on my cheeks. I wonder how hard it’ll be to cross the small mountain range. Wyatt has absolute confidence. I can feel it under my fingertips in the muscles on his back. I love him for his conviction.

We sit on the side of the road. He eats wet salami from the bag of emergency food. I lay down resting my head on his leg, too exhausted to eat. Looking up at the new blue sky, my back pressed into the muddy ground, soaked, starved, and blistered, I have never felt such contentment.

When I wake its twilight. The stars are barely shining through the violet sky. Wyatt is asleep. In the absence of rain I hear the sound of the mountains: trees rustling, birds chattering, water rambling down a hill.

I stand and stretch, my back and hips competing for attention with their throbbing. My feet cry at the movement, each millimeter of ripped skin sears with pain. I blink twice into the dark horizon and shriek. The sound of the scream hangs in the moist air.

“Lucy?” Wyatt calls out of sleep.
“Look,” I whisper.

At the foot of the mountain stands an elephant.

“It’s Elvis,” he says, already on his feet.
“You think?” I ask laughing. My eyes are so full they’re over pouring yet again.
We study the possibility, our faces frozen.
“It can’t be him,” I say, sure that it is.
“I guarantee it is.”
“Get back here!” I call. “Elvis! Don’t be cruel!”

He walks leisurely towards us.

I wipe my eyes, and give Wyatt a happy shove. I know in my heart that I proved something to myself. I might be a Westerner, but I’m not worthless, or spoiled, or weak. Tomorrow we have to cross that mountain and it’s sure to wipe this grin off my face, but today I’m a survivor.

I have never seen something so beautiful as that sparkly green mountain, nor felt more humbled than by the comfort of that king.