after John Keene
And so you were. Not some child genius but another immigrant whose parents’ choices would give you pause for years to come.
Before The Bronx, New York, there had been Corona, Queens and before Corona there had been Essex, England, a place of German neighbors, aqua and yellow tricycles, treasured red sneakers, and a knee wound that Mother didn’t tend to with love. Your mother’s side had planted roots in New York first from Jamaica by way of Canada. Your father’s side, via your paternal grandfather and by way of Barbados, came before that. A paternal uncle cut through the mess of by way of and stationed himself all over the country with his wife due to his military work. Your parents had left for reasons unknown for New York, an obvious choice regardless, in 1981.
In 1986, you were twelve. It was the year of rocket explosions, nuclear reactor explosions, Shaka Zulu, insults (“Your breath smells like Shaka Zulu”) and a woman named Oprah. Your aunt said, no, you were shaped like her own twin sister, small chest and wide hips, who had died when they were young in Jamaica. In that sense, DNA had been passed on, your place in the family cemented.
You lived in a three-family attached private house on 222nd Street in the Williamsbridge section of The Bronx. The blue-grey steps of the building led to a glass-paneled front door that did not lock. Inside, up the compact stairway, you and your mother and father lived a small life in the back apartment on the second floor.
Your family’s landlords were a trio of siblings – a warm, thin, curly haired black woman bearing cheesecake when the rent was due, a tall, thin brother losing his hair who joked as if your father understood what it was like to have an unruly child, and a sullen overweight brother with hair like a laurel around his head who just wanted the money, thank you, and who would eventually own the building.
Everyone remarked about the den in your apartment, “the extra piece” behind the living room that held father’s closet, the stereo, and the fish tank. The first pets you had – grey finches – lived in the den. They flapped nervously around the house when their bamboo cage door was magically open. They were eclipsed by the fish, a source of interest and bent backs to everyone who visited the house. The fish food smell, mild and musty, always lingered on your hands after you’d finished sprinkling it onto the surface of the tank.
The backyards on your side were rectangles of personality separated by wire fences – sometimes jails, sometimes adventures, always windows into how people used the space available after they’d parked their cars back there. Cats and raccoons visited after dark; dogs never seemed to be invited. The church built behind your house loomed over all, literally, with its huge shit brown roof that blocked out the neighbors on the other side, and forced you to peep into stained windows opened a crack while you listened to the songs and hymns.
Your block encompassed two sides of a wide street and was situated between Barnes Avenue and Bronxwood Avenue. From your house, a driver could be on I-95 within five minutes by shooting east on 222nd – past Denise’s house, who lived so far from school (a whopping five blocks, the furthest distance that you knew of), past Laconia Avenue, where your next door neighbors moved when they bought a house for all twelve of them, past the Lavelle School for the Blind, with its immaculately kept jungle gym, and the right turn to grandfather’s house where you went on Saturdays, sometimes till Sundays. Continuing on, you had the low slung housing projects that sat like dirt chips, each after the other, the Burger King with the best burgers and finally – just before the entrance to the highway – The Valley, a mysterious section of The Bronx that sank lower than the streets around it, and whose residents seemed to be comprised of wealthy black people. There, you imagined golden colored black children whose clothes all came from Macy’s, their skin glowing with Vaseline Petroleum Jelly in the way you’d read about in books with Black American children. From East 222nd to East 225th, the three blocks from your house to school, a church dotted each block off Barnes Avenue. Your best friend Iverlisse’s house was two blocks away on the corner of 224th and Barnes, an earth brown apartment building with dim foyer lighting, and dark stairs that suggested long abandoned apartments waited above.
On your block, you dreamed of hanging out on Errol’s steps after dark, going past the corner of the block without permission, being at Rachel’s for all night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons with the lights going out, followed by quick feels and kisses of the kind you’d dreamed of. This would be followed by a bike ride with Dionne off the block to The City or at least to Van Cortlandt Park. Crossing the street led to Rome, Italy so foreign the world seemed when you were on that side. From there, your house looked different. The view provided perspective, distance, thoughts of a future without restrictions.
People in the neighborhood worked as nurses or at auto dealerships. Some ran babysitting businesses from their home. Some held three jobs. Some came and went within the usual work hours with no hint of discernible employment. Still others were veterans from a war unknown who appeared outside several times a week to rule the concrete and remind the block in indecipherable speech who owned the house. You never found out what Iverlisse’s mother did but she always welcomed you with a snack on a plastic plate if she was home when you came over, her long dark brown hair back in a ponytail, her eyelids replete with dark eyeshadow.
The North East Bronx – your section – seemed to miss out on violence or at least have it happen on the periphery. Crack was known in the neighborhood as a scourge, but it was relegated to the thoroughfares of White Plains Road and Bronxwood Avenue, and after respectable working people had bought their groceries and patties and soup and gone home for the day. The occasional gunshots at night received no fanfare during the day. Cops did not scour the block looking for escapees or wanted men. When Errol was arrested and taken to prison because “the girl ran up on the knife,” he was taken when you were at school in the same early morning during which he walked the dog few knew he owned. The excitement came when you, Denise, Nicole and others gathered in his front yard after school after his arrest to talk with his brothers and uncle about the details. The victim – Carol – remained important to someone for years after, her name and date of death spray painted in red on Barnes and 225th Street near the spot where she was stabbed. You wanted to speak up when other kids would gather there for weeks after to talk about what happened so as to provide details of how it all went down, but you weren’t there when it did, and the girl wasn’t really from around your way anyway. You stood on the outskirts of the gatherings, listened, pushed up your glasses, and made sure not to tarry too long with people you didn’t know. The spot of her death soon became a memorial of concrete with no context.
The stabbing occurred one block from Iverlisse’s house. Iverlisse was your bona fide crush in addition to being your best friend. She was Puerto Rican with long dark brown hair like her mother’s. She never wore the same outfit twice, and always had shoes to match. She walked deliberately, her braid touching the waist of her pants and bobbing from side to side as she did. She was smart and not to be messed with. When she wasn’t at school – which was often by fifth grade – she was home, babysitting her brother Enrique at her mother’s request. She introduced you to heaven – hard rice cakes from the Asian deli wrapped in blue cellophane. Her room, shared with her younger sister Isabel, looked like it came from TV. Bunk beds, dolls, pink and purple pastel items everywhere, and a white dresser with a white wood mirror on top to match. You gave her something every time she came to your house as if she was a goddess. She took everything you ever gave her.
Summer was a friend to all – the luckless, the tight pants wearers, the lispers, the ones who could only play in the driveway, the ones who could not be left alone unattended, the ones who could not leave the house when no one was home, who got beatings that everyone on the block could hear, had foreboding fathers or had beautiful mothers.
Your apartment never had air conditioning despite the daily forecast. Father prided himself on the industrial fan found somewhere, a hulking heavy metal and wood thing placed in the living room that would give you the moniker “three fingered” in mere seconds if you got too close to it. Box fans were the de rigueur for the rest of the house. The porch connected to your room was likely put in so the occupant could feel like the lord of East 222nd Street as he or she looked over East 221st Street, and it did not provide cool relief no matter how many times your father seemed to believe differently by sleeping on the plastic lounge chair.
You did not ask others if they too did not have air conditioning. That would have been impolite, and you had gleaned from conversations from your mother while she was on the phone that you were to be a polite girl who did well in school and did not bring anyone to the house except direct next-door neighbors when she and your father were not home. Polite girls did not ask questions about money or possessions or decisions that did not make sense. You wore a size 13/14 pants now, bigger than mother. When she called you “thunder thighs,” you never saw the joke in being seen as a full-bodied woman at your age. In the apartment, nine mirrors, one enemy. You spent a lot of time looking at yourself from all angles after you’d gotten dressed knowing that you’d never be able to hide the stomach that almost eclipsed your toes when you looked down. You would thusly always be a slight disappointment to mother. This was the time when you would hit her back now when she hit you, and you pretended to kill yourself to escape her by lying dead on the kitchen floor with ketchup on a napkin on your dress and the largest kitchen knife next to you, eyes closed, head slack. At night, you dreamt of King Kong chasing you relentlessly, you a small brown monkey relying on mere knuckles to propel you away as fast as you could from the beast that would not quit.
Everyone had relatives from back home in the Caribbean who visited throughout the year and especially during the summer, because we were automatic millionaires living in mansions due to the fact that we lived in the United States, and in New York City no less. It was taken for granted that you would host your cousin who would be studying at some downtown college for a semester, or Ms. Daisy who took care of your mother for years while her mother ran the flower shop, or that you would send money for a young cousin because she needed a couple of dresses and tings for school and church.
Car crashes continued during this season as they did throughout the year. Vehicles were prone to careening into the fence in front of the house on the corner as if the traffic light needed amusement and was also bothered by ninety-degree weather. We would hear the noise, announce that we thought it was another crash, and stand on front stoops before walking closer up the slight incline of the block to the disaster on Bronxwood Avenue. It didn’t pay to go closer, though. The scope of the fury was best seen from far away. The mangled car. The number of participants. The wishbone lean of the fence again. Perspective. And yet the family never moved.
During the eternal heat, Double Dutch became the game of choice for the girls. The Con Edison man donated a thick heavy yellow rope that became “the good rope” that was kept either with Nicole or Gayle but never you. It was big and dirty and your mother would question how long it would be kept in the house if you brought it in, you knew. You did not play with Iverlisse or Alice or Nichelle or Shakina or any other friends from school during the summer. There was a tacit understanding that family would come first during this time. You lived through the challenges of playing with block friends only for three months and simmered, burned through books on days they were not available. Bike riding was the sport of choice for the boys – to stunt and wheelie and preen and show physical prowess. Later, we listened out for “Faith of Our Fathers” from St. Luke’s Church. When we heard that, we knew it was late and that the serious part of the evening had begun as parents would be home from work and looking to end our respite from them.
On the 4th of July, the East River came to the block for those not lucky enough to have enterprising older people take them to The City to watch the fireworks in-person. 222nd Street became the place to be. You were allowed to stay out until the last firecracker went out, though you always hated Blockbusters, the firecracker whose name you instantly understood the first time you heard it as it was the sound of the block’s extinction so loud was the noise it made. During that night, you were outside the gate watching at a cautious distance as your boy neighbors – usually Reggie – lit the fuses, his younger brothers forever on their bikes around him and forever too close. You never got too close, and you never asked to light a firecracker yourself for fear of an explosion in your hand.
Excited but remaining your bookworm self, as you’d come to be known, you stood at the fringes, ignored, but not necessarily an unappreciated audience member. At times, you were pushed back from the sparks absentmindedly by the lighter, perhaps as protection or maybe so you’d get out of the way of their safety. Jumping Jacks jerked on the ground in fits and seizures, neon pink and green, awe still evident by all even though it would be the tenth or twentieth time for the evening that they had made an appearance. The night would be warm and open to all possibilities, even tired ones. There was no need to listen out for the church bells of St. Luke’s that night. No one was going in when they struck eight.
Some of us who were lucky did go into The City to see the fireworks. This event was signaled by an adult in jeans appearing and bending down to someone, a bike put inside, skates rode home quickly, and then a disappearance made whole again when the lucky party came home later that evening, punctuating the silence in our conversation after the block had dissolved to sitting on someone’s stoop, looking at firecracker innards all over the sidewalk.
It’s possible that your love of reading and writing came from your father’s side. He did your homework for you in grade school, taking your vocabulary words and using them in sentences to make up a story just like the teacher asked. He did this without asking. You enjoyed his support in helping you look like a good student, and his allegiance during that hour that proved he liked you more than mother.
Mother said you had taught yourself to read.
Once it was determined that you were bookish, the quality of the local school system, and thusly your destiny, was quickly assessed. You considered Olinville, a middle school to be attended after P.S. 21, mediocre but it scared you just the same. It was in the opposite direction – the teens – around East 210th Street or so, an area you always drove through with your parents but never dwelled in. Fights at that school involved lye and knives based on what you’d heard. After Olinville, there would be Evander Childs for high school. This would likely bring more lye and knives, fights that might involve police and hospitals, serious conversations where parents had to appear during the day for instructions, suspensions, and expulsions. You envied the boys you knew whose parents had already been making plans for their entry into the calm organization of St. Michael’s School for Boys – the only private school you knew of in your area – after sixth grade graduation.
Long car rides allowed for two things – a view out the backseat window of the family Chevy Malibu to stare at everyone and everything, and time to read chapters in the book of the moment. The latter allowed relief from drinking in everything with your eyes, and listening to mother chastise you about something or other. Moreover, it was an escape to adulthood since you read books past college level, no boys liked you and your period only meant that you had to suffer through bulky wet pads so as not to mess up your underwear.
When school started again in the fall, Principal Paul addressed the students over the loudspeaker each morning, and you had short vocabulary exercises before assembly on Monday mornings to learn about context clues. Poetry and haiku writing were among the usual subjects in the afternoon. You had been in love with William since the second grade when you traced the letters on the back of his blue football jersey during story time and he turned around and smiled. Now he was with you forever because he was in your sixth-grade class for the year. This was before you knew of bad breath and physical abuse. Margaret had bad breath early in the school year. You told her about it while everyone was on line, ready to leave for assembly. You’d never been so rude before, and you immediately saw the error of your ways as she anxiously explained the reason for her offense. William had taught you how to be rude. He’d talk down to you sometimes; once he smacked you in the face when the teacher wasn’t looking. The romance left entirely when Thomas got your attention by making dirty jokes that only you seemed to hear and you found his eyes to make sure he knew that you’d heard him.
All the boys were in love with Iverlisse.
At recess, the daring crew in their Lee jeans and leather bomber jackets stole trips from the schoolyard to the stores across the street and around the corner. Two dollars gave you twenty boxes of candy and schoolmates who were hangers on. A dollar bought you 100 pieces of candy from the penny store, and untold friends flapping at the boundary between where we could be and where we were not supposed to be. Occasionally, fights occurred after school. The reason was clear – someone dared to repeat that thing in another’s face as per the challenge or had kept staring even after the staree had said “Well?” several times – but it always looked petty afterwards. The class would crowd like a swarm around the parties in front of the school at three pm, waiting for the main attraction. Teachers and school staff never made an appearance, leaving us to settle our own scores.
Iverlisse and you and some of the other girls would walk home together often after school, past the yellow and red church, past Mary’s house where we dropped her off, and down Barnes Avenue toward safety. One fall afternoon late in the trimester, our ears were suffering from the reigning bully. Not Marvin, the round faced, angry boy who yelled when he didn’t get his way. Not Tony, who was scrawny and had sleepy eyes and uncombed hair and who had unbuttoned his pants on the front porch of your house last year in an effort to have sex with you. The offender was Charles, the dark-skinned, violent boy who was always distracted and who always wanted the teacher’s attention and who touched girls and beat people up. When you’d seen him last week walking with the first graders, when he’d been sent to their classroom as punishment, he’d seemed possessed.
You were with Alice and Nichelle and Shakina as well as Iverlisse when he struck. Iverlisse had on her magenta quilted coat with navy trimming that you admired, her hair was in a braid as usual, her school bag lay across her body in sophistication. Charles did not disappoint; he appeared while we were in between churches – 225th and 224th – to fight with Iverlisse because…It was not uncommon for people to dislike her just because.
The boy man stung, his hisses from origins unknown. Iverlisse did not back down. Charles, the undefeated conqueror, attacked Iverlisse.
We froze. Then we squawked, fussed, yelled. The conqueror convulsed with more rancor. He took Iverlisse by the collar of her coat and its hem, held her like a U, and jerked her up and down violently like garbage that didn’t sit right in the bag. We were just past Carol’s memorial in red paint. Iverlisse screamed, protested, was furious. We withdrew closer to the other side of the street, away from the fray. Charles’ act formed a different category altogether in violence and cruelty than we’d ever seen or experienced. What could we do? We could not leave her alone, but we could be next.
Charles shook out his frustration and anger as he pumped her up and down. It appeared to give him relief, an out, from what we did not know. Eventually he relented. Other people walked by, and Big Joe, a tall Puerto Rican friend of Iverlisse’s family, was purported to be in the area according to his little brother who came by. We felt relief. Someone bigger would come and rescue us, put Charles in his place, pull him out of his raging self.
Iverlisse looked none the worse for wear when she was on her feet again. Her coat smoothed out; her ponytail righted itself.
Charles slipped away down 224th, in the other direction of Iverlisse’s house. For his getaway, you knew he had to pass the church you knew the least about in the neighborhood – the one close to Bronxwood that always appeared empty and deserted, perpetually unavailable for prayer.
We drew around Iverlisse and waited for Big Joe, who arrived on his bike and brought his long baby face with a mole on the right cheek and his black baseball cap. Iverlisse barked the account to him. Big Joe would find Charles, see about things.
We walked Iverlisse to the door of her building, which has been in the backdrop of the event. Her mother was not home, we knew. Iverlisse wanted to tough out the aftermath without her anyway. You were sure her mother wouldn’t learn of the event unless it was from someone else. Iverlisse would not tell her. Fights came with living in the neighborhood.
Class photos were taken the next morning. All the witnesses of yesterday’s fight were there. Charles was also there, somehow. You were there too, with Iverlisse, who was looking all grown up in her buttercream yellow sweater vest and matching yellow pants, hands in her lap like all the other girls sitting in the front row.
All of 6 – 1 was accounted for. Where else would we be?
Kim Gittens is a writer of Caribbean descent. Originally from London, she grew up in The Bronx, and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in The Rag, Cosmonauts Avenue, Promethean, The Lit Guide to the Galaxy and Oye Drum. A graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program of the City College of New York, she is currently working on a novel.