by Kesi Bem Foster
He could feel his brother watching him from the doorway as he played video games. He heard his brother's cast thump the linoleum floor as he made his way over to their room. Hunched over, sitting on the edge of the bed, he stared at the television screen. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the window to the fire escape was open, enough for him to slip through. Even with his brother hobbled by a broken foot, Lil D knew he would have to be quick. He wasn't going to fight. It would only fuel the rage behind the blows. At nineteen, his brother had him by six years and fifty pounds. He looked up at his brother, ready to jump through the window at the slightest movement, but his brother just stood there, looking at him, grinning. His foot was arched up and his brown toes were hanging outside of the cast, motionless. The silence made him uncomfortable. He shifted to move back and his head lightly tapped the bottom of the top bunk bed. He looked back at the television screen. The remote control slightly shook between his fingers every time one of the little computerized football players smashed into each other. He thought about something to say. Something that might make his brother hesitate before letting his fists fly. He knew nothing he said would save him. His teachers were always saying to talk through a conflict. But his teachers had never gotten into a conflict with his brother. On his block, you had only two options. Fight or run. He couldn't run forever, but he was going to run until he got caught.
“Daren, Mom's going to kill you for scratching the floor. You better use your crutches,” he said.
“Yeah, you're right, I should use the crutches,” his brother said.
His brother turned around and limped away. He watched his brother limp down the hallway and then he turned and looked at the window.
He borrowed Daren's Casio watch, without asking for permission. It was an oversized watch with a black face, a white plastic band, and white casing. It was as white as the clouds that floated over his block that afternoon. As white as the brand new Nike sneakers that he pulled out of the box from under his bed. As white as the white tee shirt he bought last week at the African stand by the 145th Street bus stop. He needed the watch. Everything he had on was just plain without the watch. He needed the watch.
When he left the apartment, Daren wasn't home. To be safe, he went out on to the fire escape to see if Daren was on the block. He looked up and down the block. No sign of his brother. He wasn't going to be outside for long. Ten, maybe, twenty minutes. His mother called from work. She wanted him to pick up some pancake batter, so she could make breakfast for dinner. He went into her bedroom and took out six dollars from the dresser next to her bed. Then he left the apartment and skipped down the four flights of steps, skipping one step, then two steps, and finally three steps before pushing through the front door and out onto 142nd Street.
The north side of the block was empty. No one stood on any stoops, or sat on any milk crates, or fold-out chairs. Everyone was hanging out on the south side of the block. The buildings on the north side and the south side were virtually the same. Five-floor beige brick and stone walk-ups that merged into each other. Small three-step stoops were centered in between the buildings that shared walls. The only difference between the north side and south side buildings were blue and orange signs on top of the steel vestibule doors of the north side buildings. Frederick E. Samuel Apartments, Property of NYCHA. The north side tenements were public housing. They weren't like most public housing in Harlem. They didn't stretch out over blocks, staking out their place in the City. They blended into the block. There was no iron fence, no large “Welcome” sign, and no courtyards.
He crossed over to the south side of the street shading his wrist behind his back. Everyone on his block knew it was Daren's watch. When he got to Lenox, he would walk freely. He knew who he was going to see and who was going to see him on his block, but once on the Avenue, he might see anyone in the three blocks it took to walk to the supermarket. And they wouldn't know whose watch it was. He hurried off his block. When eh got to Lenox, it was filled with people rushing, hustling, and bouncing. Familiar faces and unfamiliar faces. He walked, swinging his arms high, like he was ready foran imaginary partner to pass him an imaginary baton. He crossed the street, narrowly escaping the oncoming traffic. When he got to the supermarket, he stopped momentarily before entering. The people stepping off the M7 bus nearly knocked him over as he stood there waiting. He walked past the old-timers, perpetually drying out in the Harlem sun, and into the supermarket.
When he got home, the groceries in his right hand, he opened the apartment door with his left hand. His wrist and watch crossed the threshold first. Before he completely opened the door, a hand clamped down on his forearm and gripped his arm like a vice. He dropped the pancake batter in the doorway and with all his might spun his arm loose. He turned around, grabbed the railing in his hallway, and swung down the steps. His brother flung the door open, and kicked the pancake batter through the railing. Lil D flew down the first flight of stairs trying to get a jump on his brother. If he could get outside, he knew he had a chance. He would keep running. It seemed like he went downt he second level of steps without touching one. He heard his brother's feet hitting the steps. He jumped down the second level of steps, and grabbed the banister to regain his balance. Then a fleeting moment of silence, before he heard his brother scream out, followed by a crash. He stopped. He looked up, but coudln't see where his brother's body lay crumpled on the steps. He listened, and could hear hard muffled sporadic breathing. He turned to walk up the steps when his brother called out, “I'm gonna kill you!”
He paused; he thought if he was strong enough to make threats, he might be strong enough to hurt him. He turned back down the stairs and ran until he crossed the 145th Street Bridge. An old man in a loose tank top weaved in and out of the cars on the bridge yelling, “agua...agua...water...water...” He didn't stop running until he reached the Bronx on the other side of the bridge. He ran through the fence and retreated into the park under the Major Deegan Expressway. He was ten minutes from his apartment, but he felt far away among the grass and plants. He found a bench near the waterfront and lay down looking up. It was supposed to be a sprawling park but the city only cleared the area leaving the weeds, grass, and plants to grow freely. He watched as the planes glided through the sky. Then he heard the water breaking, waves crashing into the waterfront wall. He got up off the bench and walked over to the waterfront where he saw a speedboat passing. There was a woman lying down on the bow, her milky skin burning in the sun. Her blond hair whipped in the air. He imagined the brown water of the river splashing up and staining her skin.
Then he spotted a big Circle Line cruise boat slowly making its way under the 138th Street Bridge. He could see tourists lined up on the side of the boat facing his direction. Many of them had cameras held up to their faces. He raised his arms into the air, threw up two fingers on each hand, and mugged for the cameras. He could see the faint light of daylight flashes. One of the tourists, maybe Japanese, started pointing. He put his hands down and turned around. Over the highway he could see the top of the Y on the Yankee stadium sign. He went back to the bench to lie down until the sun started to fade behind the buildings. He got up before the brown river water was completely blackened by the night. He ran out of the park and back over the bridge. Safe or not, it was the only place he had to run back to. With two dollars left in his pocket, he stopped at the corner store. The clerk behind the counter smiled when he walked through the door.
“Hey what's up ack?” he asked.
It didn't matter who was behind the counter, it was always, “What's up ack?”
“What's up Lil D,” the clerk responded.
“Let me get some lemon heads,” he said.
“How much?” the clerk asked.
“Dollar,” he said.
“Hey it's too bad what happened to your brother,” the clerk said.
“What you mean what happened to my brother?” he asked.
“The ambulance came and got him. They said he broke his foot. Mrs. Williams found him lying in the stairs. She said he was covered in some powder, like cocaine or something, but brown,” the clerk said.
“That wasn't cocaine,” he said. “Give me my lemon heads, I got to go.”
The clerk put the lemon heads in a brown paper bag and Lil D reached his lef hand up over the counter impatiently.
“Nice watch,” the clerk said.