Even as kids, we had learned to be gentle with each other’s hopes and dreams
|John Gutmann - The Soap Box Brothers, Georgia, 1937|
Once he showed me his place in the sky. That hydro pole in a parking lot all weed-broke and abandoned. Looking up, you’d see the dangers of the climb. The feeder lines on insulators, the wired bucket called a pole-pig, the footholds rusted bad and going way into a sky cut hard by live cables. You’d hear the electricity as you moved higher, he warned me. Feel it shivering your teeth and lighting a whole city of fear inside your head. But if you made it to the top, he said, you were good. All that free air and seeing. The streets below suddenly patterns you could read.
A great lookout, my brother told me. One of the best in the neighbourhood, but step badly on a line, touch your hand to the wrong metal part while you’re brushing up against another, and you’d burn. Hang scarecrow-stiff and smoking in the air, dead black sight for all. “You want to go out like that?” he asked. So when you climbed, he said, you had to go careful. You had to watch your older brother and follow close his moves. You had to think back on every step before you took it. Remembering hard the whole way up.
He taught me that, my older brother. Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone. Memory’s the muscle sting of now. A kid reaching brave in the skull hum of power.
“And if you can’t memory right,” he said, “you lose.”
You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time. You’ve got to carry yourself better and think about your look. Doesn’t matter how poor you are. You can always turn up the edge of a collar to style a bit, little things like that. You can always do things to let the world know you’re not nobody. You never know when your break is coming.
Here was Raj, the Talker, and the only one among us lucky enough to live in a home his parents actually owned (or so he said). He wore a Kangol hat low over his eyes and a long chain of plated gold. He was a skinny guy, but he’d perfected a brawling posture that made him look bigger than he was, his arms propped out by the invisible bulk of his back and chest muscles. On my second day at Desirea’s, he reluctantly confessed to having a rare medical condition. An elephantiasis of the penis, a burden that had nevertheless won him the tender sympathies of several ladies. Although, later that evening, when certain flesh-and-blood women came into the shop, Raj’s tone suddenly changed. Carla, Yash, and Meeshi, official neighbourhood Beauties, their fingernails honed like weapons, their eyes squint-pools of steel. They sported designer jeans and bossy hairdos. In the suddenly quiet shop, they sat scowling, chewing gum, looking bored, waiting for something to happen. And during the hour the girls were there, Raj, the boy who’d once bragged magnificently about pussy, could barely get a sensible word out of his mouth.
In Desirea’s, you postured but you also played. You showed up every one of your dictated roles and fates. Our parents had come from Trinidad and Jamaica and Barbados, from Sri Lanka and Poland and Somalia and Vietnam. They worked shit jobs, struggled with rent, were chronically tired, and often pushed just as chronically tired notions about identity and respectability. But in Desirea’s, different styles and kinships were possible. You found new language, you caught the gestures, you kept the meanings close as skin.
He spent hours every day at his set-up of Technics 1200s, the turntables easily the most expensive things in the shop, and probably in our lives. With a headphone on one ear, his fingers moving from mixing board to the twinned vinyl, he’d discover and isolate the break beat, that precious particle of meaning, that three-second glimpse of the bigger story of a song, extending now forever. Jelly was a master at this, and he could also scratch as good as anyone we’d heard. But he was weird even among the new class of DJs, for his genius was all about continuous flow, about ceaselessly mixing in one sound, one style, one era with another. He worked magic with the cross-fader and the different equalizers, allowing us to recognize connections we’d never otherwise imagine. Between ska and blues. Between Port of Spain and Philadelphia. Between the 1950s and the late 1980s. Sometimes it failed, and the noise had no resonance. Even I could understand that. Other times it worked, the old and elsewhere summoned back and enthroned in an amplified rhythm that sent everyone in the shop suddenly pouting and nodding and calling back.
Francis had always before played cool and sensible. He protected himself, the way you had to. But now I glimpsed in him not only a strange and dangerous hope but also something else. There is a thing that sometimes happens between certain neighbourhood boys. It shows itself, this thing, in touched hands, in certain glances and embraces, its truth deep, undeniable, but rarely spoken or explained. Sometimes never even truly spotted. Although now, in the midst of my own thing, I could see.
But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
And in the quiet that followed, my aunt found the voice to make a confession. It had not been easy since Mother had left. And sometimes, explained my aunt, she had even been jealous of her older sister, and the perfect life that she alone had found by going away.
Mother stayed quiet. She did not say that our father had left us years before. She did not admit that she had not had the time or money to complete her studies to become a nurse. She did not hint at the debt or struggle or the aches she often felt. As we headed to the airport, she just nodded and looked out the window at the coconut trees towering black against the evening sky, and the old untended fields of cane stretching out like a sea.
All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who took day courses and worked nights, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by a freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies. “Examples” were raised.
Our mother, like others, wasn’t just bare endurance and sacrifice. There was always more to her, pleasures and thoughts we could only glimpse. The times she visited her beauty salon, and how she leaned her hair back into a sink, her eyes closed in pleasure, another woman’s hands in her hair. The time our neighbour Sonny Barrington put his arm around her and said something into her ear and made her laugh, a silly real laugh. The time we watched her spend a day on the couch with an amazingly thick library book. That whole day never once driving herself frantic with duty, just reading. Whole chapters of time spent in quiet aloneness. Reaching up in concentration to touch her own earlobe, to pinch it gently while something on the page stilled her.
Francis climbed down from his bunk and helped me up from my own and led me down the hallway towards Mother’s bedroom. Mother wasn’t sleeping, she hadn’t even changed out of her uniform. She was just sitting on her bed in the dark. Her face turning towards us.
“He’s afraid,” Francis said, touching me.
“Come here. What is he afraid of?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the black murderers.”
“The murderers. In the news. The black men…”
She closed her eyes, pressed her temples. She recovered. “The criminals, Francis. The criminals will be caught by the police and punished. They do not stand a chance. Please try to understand. We’re lucky here. We’re very safe.”
“He doesn’t believe we’re very safe.”
“We are, Francis.”
“We’re not. We never were.”
“You are confused and tired. You must please, for me, calm down.”
“You’re not telling him the truth.”
“Yes I am, Francis.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“But I need you to believe me.”
She was gripping him by the arm and shaking him. Pain upon his face but sudden terror when he met her eyes. Mother touched her face, realized she was crying.
“I have to ask,” said the doctor. “Why on earth were you boys up on the roof of your house at night?”
“To see,” the younger brother admitted softly.
Now, behind the light blue drape, I hear the mother speaking discreetly into her phone. “Yes, he’s all right. Yes, he’s very lucky.” And it’s true, for this family at least. Sure as day, there’ll be scolding and punishment, but no funeral. No “complicated grief,” no greater meaning in this everyday accident. Just two boys hoping to see.
I could picture Francis sitting with a father, though not his father, listening together to Nina Simone and maybe Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. I could imagine, too, on a later visit, when the mood and sound were right, Francis telling something to this father who was not his father. A declaration that he, my brother, understood the old music, that heritage of love, because he felt it himself. He loved his family, and also his friends. He loved a young man named Jelly.
David Chariandy - Brother (McClelland & Stewart, 2017)