“What the fuck was I saying? Nothing about what you were saying right?” My hand fell on Tasha's arm. We were on Canal Street going towards Broadway. We'd been waiting for the light when Natasha, in this sly way she does—with a fluttering of the eyes—she said, “When we went out this morning you were about to tell me a story.”
“No,” she smiled, all white-eyed. “Not that.” She wasn't beautiful, Tasha, but she could be pretty in an imperfect way. First off, her cheeks were pretty high. They weren't of bone but of a lighter substance, of flesh and faint perfume. She had soft, big brown eyes as deep as a little girl's and thick lips that curved to a sexy peak in the middle, two tender flares at the top. She'd shot me this lingering look—the love eyes—and her grin all of a sudden was even gentler and fragile almost, when this squat woman crossed in front of us shouting at her kid in Spanish. She ran right into Tasha. But she didn't look up startled, begging pardon, or say “Excuse me,” or wave and duck her head, nothing. Only the kid seemed stunned a little.“People are fucking idiots, I swear.”
“Don't say that, Sean.” She sighed. “Anyway, you said something about your cousin getting out of jail.”
“That's right. I remember,” I said, as though apologizing. I felt all worked up without knowing why. “I'm trying to think.”
A few brassy-ass police officers dangled from the windows of their patrols eating franks, drinking, stalking the corners like the fucking kings and queens of Mesopotamia. The funny part is I didn't despise them, didn't have a problem beyond their arrogance. You've got to be at ease with random madness and with death to be a cop.
Too at ease for me, I'm sorry. Frankly I was surprised I'd said anything memorable and that Tasha admitted remembering it. Lately between us we had been unusually subdued. Distant, pretty much. I'd sensed her slipping away. This wasn't the first time.
“Why they call him Jelly?” she said, giving me a restless look.
“Because how he got locked up...” A little man zipped between the tangled Sunday traffic on a black motor scooter. Tasha, striding ahead, looked back to see where I was, smirking for no reason really. There were sirens despairing somewhere in the distance and, just underneath them, like another life inside the sound, music beating from the long river of cars. My stomach turned and clawed itself in hunger. “Because,” I said, “when we were kids he used to love to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He'd eat that bullshit all day if he could. My aunt would beat him, though. That was her answer for everything, the belt. After while she got my mother punishing me too.”
“I don't fucking know...'cause Jelly'd get sick. I was the oldest so I had to pay for it, I guess. Plus,” I remembered, “Jelly was very dark. Still is.”
“Mean he look African?”
“We just thought he looked like a jar of jelly. Like grape jelly.”
Natasha laughed. “Jelly got a little ring to it, too.”
The giant ad overhead was of a ripped, unshaven guy with his crotch up in the camera, frowning and glaring intensely at the sneaky flash of the coming sunset. Armani bullshit. I nudged Natasha and hugged and kissed her with tongue. I was so damn happy that she was up, in a cheerful mood and exuberant. We could have pretended we'd lost nothing, that nothing had happened, but that wasn't quite possible. I was thinking that Jelly had something to do with it.
“So, so what happened to him?”
We'd been sailing along from the Little Italy side toward Broadway and the highway, but now people were stooping to check out the DVDs strewn across the sidewalk. Africans, large-toothed men, in ropes of layered gold and fake mink jackets hawked CDs with the usual bootlegged blockbusters. Books, titty mags and tattered shoes for sale too, if you wanted. We were caught in this boiling knot of bodies.
A one-eyed Chinese vendor pushed handbags—Gucci and Louis, Rocawear, Prada and Coach—pens by Waterman and Mont Blanc, aquatic kids' toys, a whole panoply of perfumes. The guy looked desperate, claustrophobic even, behind his display. The patch cupped on the absence of his eye. A pinprick of food or fresh blood on his lip. Tapping his foot. A Diet Pepsi bottle and plastic shades on the folding table behind him.
“See, my mother did well enough for me to go to private school. But Jelly and them were poor. I used to get sick from what they ate on a regular basis. True story. You know: beef that's almost green and canned corn and peas and shit, not much else. Serious. The times when they had something was because Jelly's father had some money. He'd come over sometimes, Montgomery. He had a big mustache, used to push this old Benz. One of those they don't even make any more.”
“A baller before his time,” Natasha said, grinning tightly at the dirty architecture around us. I felt like we were in a jar, some weird display of a stranger's devising. It was terrible if you thought about it, Canal Street. Plenty of first-storey windows, beautifully designed originally, shattered in neglect. That, or too shitty for the sun or any phantom of sunlight to pass through.
“He was, sort of,” I said. “He wasn't rich by a long shot but Gloria wanted him to be. She wished he fucking was. Even I could see that. All day she'd wait on him doing nothing, so he could chauffeur them downtown once in a blue moon, like dignitaries. Go to Red Lobster, Olive Garden. That's where Jelly got his big ideas, from her, always wanting all this money. Always talking about it. Jewelry and all that. All day she sit with those rollers in her hair, I remember with her bra busting open and a cigarette smoking in her fingers.”
“Smoking itself,” Natasha went, throwing her head back. Her eyes got big. “She smoked Virginia Slims I bet.”
“She just watched soaps. All day. Guiding Light, General Hospital, all that crap.”
“Young and the Restless, Santa Barbara.”
She came off breathless.
“Like she was wooing herself in a way. Summertime, I saw it all. Everything. Her walking around that little-ass crib like a goddess undressed. Like she was the black goddess of summer. Think I'm playing! She should have a star on the fucking Hollywood Walk of Fame. I'm telling you.”
Tasha, she shook her face into her green, knotted scarf.
“The True Hollywood Story!” she said with noisy laughter.
“I swear. Plus Montgomery'd always come pulling me aside and try to be poetic and wise. Like he was my father and shit. ‘Mucho trabajo, poco dinero, O'Sean. Lot of work, little money.' I always remember him saying that. We all got the short stick, might as well make the best of it. Fuck it. By we he meant us, but I always thought it was more general. A general rule of thumb.” Natasha stared at me sort of glowingly, thinking and wondering. Her face watchful and lovely. “That's our whole relationship, just that one saying,” I said. “Then years later I find out the nigga had another family the whole time, wife and kids in Long Island. Matter fact, he was married already when my aunt met him.”
“Where'd they meet at?”
“Atlantic City, gambling,” I smiled.
Natasha squealed laughter, her fingers jumping hard and slacking, bouncy eyes brightening with a special intensity of encouragement. My heart was beating in a heavy rhythm.
“Jelly falls in with this bunch of thugs, niggas from the hood with nothing to do. You know these niggas. It's nothing at first, but soon they're robbing bodegas for little candy, cigarettes and soda. Little bullshit. One cat had a thing for porno. Niggas start lifting TVs, camcorders, DVDs whatever. Long as they made some money it didn't matter. Niggas had names like Peru, Heroin and Taj Mahal—like, that's what they actually called themselves. I mean, my mom named me O'Sean, but that's different.”
Her teeth gleamed like a keyboard under the hot glass of the sun. I winked at her wild eyes.
I said, “I got a grandfather somewhere that's part Irish. The thing was niggas started fighting themselves, amongst the group of them. Egos. It wasn't but a few weeks ago somebody told me—this dude Pat that still lives in the hood—he told me two of these niggas got murked in they car one night. They old running buddy Cochise set it up apparently. A old deal gone wrong.”
Natasha rolled her eyes to the pale spits of daylight between rooftops.
“It's another kind of life. It's no rules, no morals. No nothing. Crazy thing is, it's funny, I used to idolize Jelly, and I was the older one. He was the suave one, good with the girls, all that stuff that matters.” “I still can't tell what the fuck happened. It's like he never had any other choice. Someplace to go.”
“No he didn't want to,” Natasha said, pointing a finger at me. “He didn't want to have nowhere to go. You ask me, that's what it was. I sorta feel bad for him, but...”
The crowd got murkier. High, wild voices raced up ahead. My heart beat crazily. Whatever the reason I feared the worst. There wasn't much in our control. I hated that feeling and despised myself for being afraid, desperate, for even eyeing the prospect of fear. I cursed myself, spine-chilled, and a steely shiver of remorse cut through me. Just past Lafayette I caught the fierce yellow blood-rimmed eyes of one of the vendors (her limp hands drooping with veins) and wondered what darkness it must be to live and goddamn die on Canal Street. Maybe there's much more to it.
“You might be right, though. He never had all the chances you've had.”
It wasn't a swipe. She seemed so serene. I felt vaguely comforted but baffled by the sudden fullness of her calm, freaked in heart and head like you feel staring at your own stupid smile in old pictures.
“Sad part is, Jelly got caught stealing stereos and shit from this spot up on Fordham Road. By then he's got his girl six months pregnant. I can never remember her damn name. Richelle, Raquel. Something like that. Richelle Brown. And Jelly got sent up north. Rikers. The sad thing is he was changing. He even started reading, stuff like Stephen King.”
She's astonished. “She had the baby?” It's like the unavoidable had somehow crept next to her, discreetly dressed, in bed.
“He got sentenced six to eight years. Pleaded that shit down from like fifteen since he was unarmed. He's just in the car, the getaway guy. The fucking driver. You believe that shit?”
Natasha clenched her eyes and nearly mouthed my words as I was saying them, like some first-time actor in the spotlight. “You just waste something so precious because...because you, you just don't have the drive.
Something. The willpower. Don't you think that's so selfish? I know he's your family and everything, but Jesus.”
We‘d fought tooth and nail about this baby she wanted. I figured I was too young for a kid and thought we were clearly and obviously both children still. Natasha wholeheartedly agreed. She'd started grinning and nodding, so deep was her agreement. Her argument, however, and her sort of furious need, was all about that state of innocence. “I'm too selfish,” she cried to me then, full of fear and loathing. “I don't want to be alone!” “You won't,” I said. My heart in mad pieces, thundering. “I don't want to just wander through life for nothing, O'sean. I love you and—” “And that ain't enough?”
A bitter sadness hung over my shoulders. Reluctantly, slowly, I brought the palm of her hand to my lips. I thanked God in Heaven (like my mother says) to have made my mistakes and not Jelly's.
I followed Natasha inside one of the bigger storefronts.
“So my aunt Gloria, who to this day will defend Jelly as the victim—”
“Of course,” Natasha said over her shoulder, without looking at me.
“—she's raising the kid with this girl, Richelle or whatever. The mom and the baby mama.”
Natasha asked the baby's name. I made up something, smirking to myself.
“Oh so it's a boy!” she laughed. She had three purses she'd tried on in hand.
As we were leaving a couple in short black fur coats—they looked like fucking gorilla suits, I'm sorry—talked about a carjacking with the lust of fight analysts after a particularly nasty knockout. The dude's friend used to whip a gold Lexus coupe on 24s, a sick ride, and some nigga one night in Brooklyn threatened to jack him if he saw him again. This happened on Flatbush Ave., the guy not knowing where he was. The story stopped right there. Natasha shot me a smirky grin.
“That's Jelly,” she said as we stepped outside. The sun danced on her skin in strange colors.
“So that's it? They back together? Just like that? All happy ever after?”
“Jelly got out early. Came back home,” I said. “Same old crew all over again. Some of the guys were back on streets already. New ones too. There's always new ones. But Jelly, he wants to walk the straight and narrow, right? He's reading The Art of War and Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer. His cellmate turned him onto this stuff, some guy used to teach high school. He read all these books on acupuncture. Hells yes—acupuncture.” Natasha was beaming. “Eastern Asian medicine.”
“Just ‘cause you went to college, smart ass.”
We both laughed.
“But the whole acupuncture thing—Jelly said himself—he liked it because of the needles.” Tasha threw me a funny, screwfaced look. “Seriously. Said the needles gave him control for once. The first time. Like he could finally pinpoint some—”
“Literally,” she went, looking past me.
“He finally could pinpoint his problems. Little personal things. He called it black damage. Like black ice. The damage you can't see.” Natasha frowned heavily like she had something rotten in her mouth, as you see intellectuals and sometimes children do. My chest hammered around my heart. I couldn't hear a damn thing, as if the street had dropped away. “He never knew how to get to it before. Course he hadn't done shit, mind you, but just thinking about it it's like he's putting chaos back in the right order. All the broken pieces back in place. You can numb the body and bring it back to life. You don't remember,” I said, grinning almost, “I brought up doing it myself, when we went at it about the baby?”
“So she waited for him?” Natasha said sharply, as if out of breath. A bright diamond braid of water ran down the gutter at our feet. She had to lift her voice over the unanimous chorus of horns. Two fatasses shouted and spat at each other from their cars. “She stuck around, this Richelle chick?”
“In a sense, yeah. It turned out she was loyal til the end, then she disappeared. Bitch just left all of a sudden one day. Went to stay with some family she had out in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. Jelly was heartbroken more than anything. He wanted her back, and the baby too of course. Especially his son.” “Of course,” Natasha repeated, picking through old boxes of “Drakkar Noir” and “Eternity” at one of the kiosks. “He was a fucking mess. What he didn't know but quickly found out was she'd been seeing this old ex of hers. Truth is, she tells Jelly, the honest truth is she never stopped loving the guy. She's like, it's not over between them.”
Natasha searched in my eyes.
“Here he's still thinking he loved her, but he knew it wasn't true.”
“Sounds like his father cheating, but reverse,” she said with ridiculous satisfaction.
We came to a crawl in front of a big decrepit lot on Mercer, maybe Wooster, I don't know. Black men with blue milk crates and cardboard boxes were inside playing cards.
“Here he go! Here he go now!” one of them stammered, running in place. He stood grinningly off to one side, holding an unlit but clearly smoked cigar in one ashy hand. His partner slapped down the cards, meanwhile. I looked at them and laughed. There was raw freedom in his voice, a boyish exuberance for the crowd. But I was too embarrassed to go up to them. I thought about it though. But what the fuck, besides skin, did we have in fucking common?
Blood rushed to my head, crowded my pulse. I turned to Natasha, stiff as hell.
“She's crying telling him she doesn't love him. Like it hurts her too.”
“Maybe it does...”
“Bullshit!” I said. “Jelly ransacks the place looking for his son. Hasn't seen him in months. Richelle hesitates out of sympathy, sort of, but she calls the cops anyway. Jelly makes a threat but he bounces. Bitch puts a order of protection out against him. He breaks it. He's like she called him telling him to call her from a payphone down the block. Said her ex's been beating on her and threatened their son. ”
Natasha slid her head toward my armpit, nestling there like we were in bed about to fall asleep.
“Same story all over again. He got caught out there. This was the second strike. But he just got home yesterday. So now there's this little party.”
“A homecoming, like.” She watched the guy with the cards amp the crowd. Her fingers went slack when he got really hyped.
“What's he gonna do?”
“Anybody know where the ace of spades?” the hustler hollered, glancing up to cajole everybody curdling around him. Bunch of dead faces. He flipped the cards like a goddamn maniac, had the polished glare of a shaman, and I still went numb.
“Watch the spade, watch the ace of spades! Where it go? Is it gone?”
“No fucking clue,” I said to myself. Natasha had a weird, distracted look.
“Where the ace? Ace of spades, the one and only, ain't no phoney. Seek and ye shall find, the game is in your mind. Look again...”
“Right there!” somebody said shrilly, a woman in a big droopy cotton hat almost like a bonnet. Like Driving Miss Daisy. She tapped the cracked sidewalk with a wooden cane. “Just right there, that one!” she cried in a stern, seasick sort of voice.
It was a yellow Jordan t-shirt and jeans that Jelly'd had on when I last saw him. He was down. Didn't want to hear or really talk about much. Even the intimate blessings of acupuncture. There's a photo from that night too. Ragged clouds catching fire and the sun's savage eye being sucked from the room over his shoulder.
“He reminds me of somebody I know,” Natasha murmured sullenly, jerking her chin at the cardsharp. Him and his fat cigar-chewing friend, the friend especially—he still hadn't lit the fucking thing, just chomped the end until the tobacco swelled out like a black eye—gave me a thrill of horror and sadness, sort of a shameful dread—they were funny but slightly dangerous, childish and grotesque. They knew it, the spooky bastards. Pissed me off. Coming from where I came from it's probably who they were that bothered me. I'm being real. They were just like niggers—but niggers loving being niggers, hollowed men, and nothing more.
Natasha said, “But I can't think who it could be though.”
Whatever I whispered was a lie. Everything got mysterious. Even the uncut curve of Natasha's nails, the spiced odor of her hair. I couldn't think of anything. What good would goddamn thinking do me? I know that the white sky moving over the street seemed inexplicably near and whole. A big lake of alien light.
“What's he gonna do?” She'd asked before and I hadn't answered.
“Maybe...I don't know, my aunt says he want to join the Marines. Change his life up. But we both know that won't work. Can't just switch it up all of a sudden.” I sighed and my throat tightened like a fist. Leaked oil gave the street a dark sparkle.
“If he goes back it's like it's three strikes. That's it. Game over.”
The big motherfucker with the cigar flashed his fried-on grin and people from all over—Brazilian, Italian, Japanese—laid their money down for the pleasure of being duped. It was the same bullshit game the players played where they were from and yet they offered themselves up in charmed astonishment. Somebody even clapped.
“They hoping they could cure him, so to speak,” I said, remembering the wishlist my aunt had rattled off for the party: a computer, a plasma TV, DVD player.
“You think it'll work?” Natasha asked, smiling. She laughed, “And don't lie, ‘cause you know I could read your mind!”
A man in a windbreaker was selling DVDs. Not one but two canes leaned at crazy angles on the brick wall behind him.
“Two for eight, one for five,” the guy said languidly. He sold his shit out of the gigantic garbage bag behind him.
The beard devouring his face and throat was all flames, unbrushed and ugly but alive. He didn't have any legs.
His eyes were red and watery as ice on a hotplate.
Natasha looked at him, then at me, pumping my fingers. I suddenly felt crushed by a nauseous sensation. I had to look down. That feeling spread out and I was left with something else neither better nor worse.
“You're scared he's gonna do something aren't you?” She was all agitated too.
“I can't exactly say that,” I said with a forced grin.
The guy, rubbing his bloody eyes, handed me a DVD.