Walking with a hunched posture, strolling through a windy day, being pelted by cool dots of water. There’s something inevitable about my bent gait. Somehow, somewhere deep down in there I must believe it will protect me from the rain. Does no such thing, of course.
Today is breezy and cold and I’m wearing a thin jacket as I expected it to be warmer when I left the house this morning. I’m soaked. I’m shivering.
I’ve never been one to watch weather reports. Weathermen are such wacky, pretentious attention whores that it’s distracting and then they’re often wrong. Seems like a waste of time. Besides, it’s more honorable to take the weather as it comes.
Forgive me if I digress; you wanted to know what happened to my brother.
So it’s raining that day, pretty heavily. The sky’s an incandescent gray, shimmering overhead. I nervously smoke a cheap cigar, my lungs burning. I imagine them a flaming red, shining through my skin and then through my clothes. Now I imagine them a crusty, charred black. But really, they were likely still a fresh soft pink, like uncooked salmon. I only smoke at times of distress.
The Cross River’s waters have again breeched the Southside, at least part of it, the part that’s always taking the brunt of the floodwaters; the part where all the poor folks live and where my little brother lives. From what I understand, first it was dry, then it started to rain and just like that the water rushed in, a steady flow of the dirty brown liquid. I have never understood why people live there. This is nearly a yearly occurrence and nobody seems to care. There’s a trailer park down there that regularly becomes a scattered field of overturned trailer-homes; the flimsy material they make those pieces-of-shit with strewn all about the place. I see pictures, almost every year, on the front page of the Days & Times. And then they rebuild like a great flood never happened.
I told my brother not to move into that trailer-park, but he has a real problem listening. The bastard that owns that place calls it Riverview. What a fucker.
In the morning when they were threatening rain and promising a flood like this town hadn’t seen in 100 years, my mother called me up, nearly in tears, telling me to go find Stephen, make him come home.
Mom, I told her, the last time I talked to him, he said that trailer-park was home. He cussed me out. He’s not going to listen now.
Nobody had talked to him in weeks, since he didn’t have a phone. Every once in a while, he’d call, sounding distant and scratchy, just a disembodied voice offering a mumbled cry. Usually he requested money, some emergency was always arising, and my mother would send me to Western Union with a fat envelope of her social security earnings. Those times, I couldn’t help but imagine the phone call I knew I’d receive one day telling me they’d found his gaunt, lifeless body lying on a dirty floor.
This stormy day, I saw her before I went off on my way. She put the money in my hand, clutched my free palm tightly and stared at me soulfully with those big gray eyes and said, Go and get your brother, bring him home.
She tried to appear strong, but I knew she’d been crying for him as she’d never cry for me.
When I left her house it had already started getting chilly, but the rain hadn’t begun for the day. I didn’t believe it would rain, at least not as hard as it did. I needed to think about what I’d say to Stephen when I saw him, so I decided to walk. It would be a long walk, but it would give Stephen a chance to sober up for the day and me a chance to choose my words carefully.
Ever notice how the weather can turn your mood? As I walked, the sky became darker. I watched the churning clouds move. They seemed black with rage and so was I. How could Mom allow herself to be played over and over by this con man? I pulled a cigar from a package and lit it as I rehearsed my words and they became more rage-filled and the rain started falling. I had heard that tobacco can calm the disturbed soul and it only became a problem when modern man started using it as a crutch. At first it tickled the back of my throat then it felt like pin pricks in my windpipe. Before long, my lungs burned and I started to think about my mission and I hunched over. Rain poured and the high wind blew my jacket about and caused me to stumble. The rain pellets stung as they sprayed the exposed flesh of my cheeks. My cigar became soggy and the tobacco damp, blotting out the glowing tip. I huddled underneath a tree, but then the thunder clapped. It was a loud and deep rumbling, accompanied by a bright purple fork of lightning. I kept moving.
As I walk, I notice two squirrels, scurrying ahead of me. One is chasing the other, so I assume they are male and a female. The rain’s a problem for them, but aside from that, they look carefree. It reminds me of the story my mother used to tell my brother and me late at night about the boy that willed himself into a squirrel rather than live a difficult life. I really don’t know what my mother was trying to get at with that story, but I loved it. Stephen loved it more than I did. I figured my speech to my brother would involve squirrels somehow. Now I’m trampling through pools of water and the rainwater is collecting inside my shoes and I think I can hear my socks squishing beneath the weight of my steps.
I walk underneath awnings and beneath the eaves of houses. I’m stooped over like an old man. It’s all so ridiculous and I stop preparing my speech in order to address the stupidity of my gait. I straighten my back and raise my head to the glowing gray. And as soon as my walk is somewhat automatic, I take my mind from it and return to thinking of what I would say to my brother. About a block or two down the road, a man with a black umbrella calls my name. He looks scratchy in the rain. I don’t recognize him.
He tells me his name and it still doesn’t sound familiar, but he’s speaking as if we’re friends.
Say, jack, where you heading to in this storm? he asks.
Going to see my brother, I reply.
Yeah? How’s he doing?
Man, I haven’t talked to him in like months. He lives his life, I live mine.
You have his face.
I’m older. He has my face.
And your mannerisms. It’s like you’re the same person.
I assure you—
Let me ask you something, jack.
I really got to run.
It’ll only take a second.
OK, but make it quick.
OK, he pauses without saying a word. The rain rapidly splatters against his umbrella, making a clopping sound. I let out a frustrated sigh and he continues: So, would you like a ride to the Southside? It’s pouring and it’s a long walk. I haven’t seen Stephen in a little while and I’d like to see him.
Well, man, I appreciate it, but I need to clear my head and I got some real brotherly shit to say to him, I reply. It’s kind of personal, so I need to talk to him alone. You understand, right?
He takes a step toward me, in a way that’s meant to be menacing, but it doesn’t really scare me. Some rain from his umbrella splashes into my eyes.
Listen, jack, he says as I snap my eyes shut and wipe the water from my face. When I open them, a woman wearing a black veil over her face and a black hijab that nearly covers even her feet strolls up to us and he stops talking.
She’s holding a bright yellow umbrella spread out overhead. The bottom of her garb is damp.
Do either of you have the time, she says softly and I’m transfixed by her eyes. They’re an incandescent brown and green. The most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. The rest of her body is totally covered, except for her hands, with their soft, slender olive fingers and flaking henna design. But her eyes are two celestial bodies. Clouds of luminous gases floating through space. I want to ask her if her eyes are real. Instead I simply look at my watch, and as coolly as possible, tell her the time.
She chuckles. Laughing at me, I think. Then she says with a serious voice, You’re not going into that mess are you?
I have to. My brother…
Yeah, he’s a superhero, the man says.
She gives him a frowning glance —I can tell by her knotted brow—and turns her shoulder from him, cutting him from the conversation.
You should leave it to the professionals. Ordinary people get lost on the Southside on regular days. Just imagine a day like this. Your brother will be fine.
You know my brother?
Everyone knows your brother.
He’s like a cold or something, the man says. He comes around to aggravate everyone once in a while.
That’s not how I’d describe him, she replies. Sometimes he’s a good man. And then sometimes he’s high off drugs. He’s helped enough people over the years that everyone knows where the real Stephen lies.
I wish I knew where he’s lying right now, the man says. Shit, wherever the fucker is lying, you know he’s lying. He laughs.
Listen, she moves closer and whispers and I think she whispers my name. Be safe. Keep your brother safe. Don’t let anyone take advantage of him. You know what I mean, right?
I nod, though I’m not sure what she means. She smiles. Of course, I can’t be certain, but I believe she’s smiling Then she thanks me and walks off.
The man with the black umbrella and I watch her disappear in the pouring rain. The curtain of water makes her look wavy as she strolls into the distance all upright instead of hunched over.
Damn a-rabs, the man says. He’s looking at me knowingly, preparing to share a laugh, but I remain stone-faced.
Where were we? he asks.
I was leaving.
I walk from him and he calls after me, Better get under this umbrella, he says, It’s raining. Don’t be an asshole. You’ll regret not riding with me.
Some blocks from where I had seen the man with the black umbrella, I notice the woman with the iridescent eyes just ahead of me. All alone in a rainstorm. She’s so unreal. Mythical somewhat, then I remind myself that she’s not mythical. Just a woman like any other. Which makes her more mythical.
After the twin towers fell, back when my brother drove a taxi, he stuffed a bunch of them into his cab and drove them home for free. A group of guys from the projects yelled filthy things and threw rocks and even brandished weapons, but Stephen never backed down. He did that all week until it seemed like the coast was clear. That was the one time he made me proud. I spent that week drunk.
I wonder if my new obsession was one of those Muslims he helped during that time.
She’s crossing the street, I need to go straight, but I cross with her. She takes me down a narrow road. She knows I’m behind her, but doesn’t look back. And the day becomes like any other day because I forget my brother. She walks slowly and when she comes to her door, she lowers the bright yellow umbrella and with a bump of her shoulder, stumbles inside.
I spend a great deal of time deciding whether to knock or to just go. The rain doesn’t matter as I can get no wetter. Nearly an hour and I come up with a compromise. A light goes on in a room on the east side of her house. I remember my brother then I move to get one last glance of the woman before I go on my way.
I creep to the window and glance over a bush. What I see startles me and I nearly gasp. She had removed her head covering and her veil. The woman’s gorgeous black curls fall to her shoulder. Her lips are covered with the brightest red lipstick and cheeks dabbed with smooth rose makeup. Of course, her eyes shimmer. She begins removing the rest of her clothes and part of me, deep in my animal heart wants to stay, but we’re not ready to be so intimate, so I start to ease away from the window. But I’m too late. She turns, perhaps my vision has burrowed into her flesh, perhaps our connection on the level that all human minds are connected deepened at this precise moment. But she turns. Her beautiful eyes widen.
It occurs to me that I’m not myself. Not in her shimmering eyes. In those eyes, I’m a creep. A common peeping tom. A flash of fear bounds through my chest and rattles me.
I ease backward and dash through the puddles. When I look back, she’s at the door. She’s robed. Her face is uncovered. Out of respect, I look away. She’s calling my name. It’s unreal. And if it is real, it is wrong and I want no part in making this woman violate herself in this vulgar way. I’m like Stephen with his touch that turns all to shit. I’m scared to admit that it’s a family trait and I want no part of it. So I run, splashing rainwater on my legs, chest and back as her calls fade behind me.
The showers slow to a drizzle and when I reach the Southside, the rain, which had fallen all day, has stopped. The river that once knew its place now escapes its bounds. Part of the Southside, the lowest part of the Southside, is gone, replaced instead with a putrid brown lake. I wade in, up to my calves. A drowned shaggy black dog floats by. In the distance, I think I see a dead squirrel. My brother’s out there in the muck, alive or dead. I stand in awe of the brown waters, shaking my head at the enormity of it all. A black Jeep with a canoe strapped to the top pulls up and two men hop out and walk toward me. I recognize one of them as the man I had spoken to earlier. The other man is tall, bald, chocolate-skinned and wearing a black leather jacket.
A third man, a squat dreadlocked man with dark glasses, hangs back untying the canoe from the top of the Jeep.
You ready? the man from earlier asks.
Thinking of no better response, I nod. We set out into the water, the two goons rowing and the first man and I making small talk. I point and direct the rowing men guided by the tops of street signs peeking from the water, partially submerged houses and neighborhood landmarks. The statue of the town founder on his horse looks heroic on normal days. Today it looks like the horse is struggling in a pathetic attempt to avoid death.
Your brother is a good guy, the first man says, he’s just made some bad, bad choices.
I don’t say anything at first then I say this, He came down here to help these people and became one of them.
The tall bald man in front gives me a sharp glance. I don’t know why I said what I did. It was a half thought out comment. That’s what happens sometimes when you have to fill the gaps in conversation, you say strange things. But there is nevertheless some truth in what I said. Down here is where people hop out with guns and take your money; then, for sport they take your life as if whatever feeling they get from murder is more important than any plans you had for the next day. I don’t regret what I said. People live like animals here. There is such a breech I often can’t understand the language of the people here no matter how hard I listen. The two goons, they are talking, but I only nod and pretend I am listening intently as I have no understanding of their words. Even when the first man speaks to them, I listen, but it makes no sense to me.
What has my brother gotten into? What has he gotten me into? There were rumors that he had run afoul of the Jackson Crime Family. But I never believed that. Most of those guys had been rounded up by the cops or wasted in family rivalries with the Johnsons or the Washingtons or with themselves. There wasn’t much money in gambling or protection to be made in Cross River. The most reliable drug customers were dying off. The Jacksons that remained had crossed the bridge to do business with the Italians. All of that is probably bullshit, however. What the hell do I know about organized crime? Just what I heard or half read in news magazines. Or what I saw in movies and heard in rap songs. I’m out of my depth and I imagine my brother is too.
People wave and shout to us from rooftops. I wish we could stop and rescue them all. Bring food or water. We ignore them as if there cries were silence. We pass the bodies of floating cats and dogs, mostly cats. Dead insects float by as do dead rats and pigeons, but they all deserve to be dead. I imagine myself shot and tossed overboard, floating next to them. The men are rowing in the direction of my brother’s place. A human body is floating in the distance. Face-down, his white t-shirted back an island.
Maybe that’s your brother, the first man says. There is a smile in his voice. I scowl at him, but can do little else. I want to jump from the boat and swim to the floating man. We get close enough to flip the corpse. The nose is smashed in. Eyes filled with redness. Face all bloated and cracked. A sad case, but not my brother.
We pass the next several minutes in silence. The light creeps out of the sky, making it a darkening gray. I spot my brother first on the top of a roof with two other men. I don’t dare say anything. Don’t want to alert the goons to Stephen’s existence. He waves his arms and jumps, calling out to me. Expressionless, the goons turn their heads toward him and row in his direction.
Stephen’s face is gaunt and pock-marked with scars. There is a bulge in his pocket that I take for drugs, but could be anything. My brother’s a mass of bones and baggy flesh and hair and eyes that are too big for their sockets. It’s as if he’s a mess of parts that don’t quite fit together. His garments are too big for him. Dirt-caked jeans droop and bunch at his ankles. A flannel shirt is askew at the shoulders. He looks like a boy wearing his father’s clothes. I tell myself I have never seen him looking so bad, but that’s untrue. He always looks this bad and I always look the other way, but now I can’t turn from him.
He’s smoking a cigarette, again looking like a child doing an adult thing.
Big brother, he says, all this water and I’m thirsty as shit. Didn’t God promise he wouldn’t flood the earth again?
When have you ever known God to keep a promise? the first man says.
What are you doing with that asshole? my brother says sharply, pointing with his smoking hand.
I stand to cross from the canoe to the rooftop and feel a hand on my shoulder. I stumble from the boat and trip unto the roof.
What the hell are you doing? the first man screams from the boat. You almost capsized the shit. You are as dumb as your brother. Don’t share his fate motherfucker. I appreciate you bringing us to see him, but you can get it too dumbass.
Look, I don’t have time for this nonsense; I need to talk to my br—
Threats always put steel into my spine. There is something about an asshole trying to make himself bigger by acting like a toughguy that brings out the thug in me. Thug me disappears the minute the bald men cross from the boat to the rooftop. They’re holding guns in their hands.
Maaaaan, my brother says. What kind of shit is this? I spend months ducking these clueless niggas only to get soldout by my family. Thanks, big bro.
Fucked up, one of the dirty men with my brother says.
I…we…they had a boat, I say. All that I had thought to tell my brother sputtering from my head. Mom sent me.
At that he scowls. The men with him laugh. Mommy, one of them calls and I shoot him a look. He shoots me one right back.
Your brother loves you, the ring leader says. I, on the other hand, don’t. Stephen, you made us look like fools. Running around town looking for you. And for what, a few thousand bucks?
Look, man, I got robbed by some big gorilla looking pig. He be shaking down every—
What makes you think I want to hear your bullshit?
I’ve been working to get you your money. You can kill me and get nothing, or you can work with me and get paid back.
The first man and one of his goons walk toward my brother. The talk is done, but I can’t help screaming, like my voice can make up for all the time I ignored my brother’s existence, all the phone calls I didn’t return, emails, old fashioned letters. When my voice mattered all there was was silence.
I’ll pay you triple, dog, I scream. You’re throwing away a fortune. Don’t be a f—
I feel something seize my throat from behind. I reach for it and trash around, but that only makes it tighter. The weight of another human being is on my back. I sway side to side to shake him. We topple from the roof into the dirty water. Free from whatever choked me, I thrash around like a bucking beast trying to tread water. The water soaking into my clothes is making me heavy. Pressure to the back of my head and my shoulders prevent me from rising. The more I thrash about, the more nasty brown water spills into my mouth and swims down my throat. My head bobs above the surface and I gasp, taking in a mouthful of water and then a lungful of air. Then I’m shoved back under. Everything’s black.
Then it’s emerald. Those eyes. They hang above me like twin suns. She blinks every few moments and the world becomes black again and the emerald again then black and on and on. The woman whispers to me in a broken Arabic. Like it’s not her native language. Like she’s struggling with it. Amina. Cadeejah. What could her name be? She’s here to watch over me. Magical, mysterious, mystery Muslimeena. Madam, my muslim, make me more than a mark who’s made my brother mortuary bound. My brother. I’d forgotten about him through this meaningless obsession. How do I return?
I awake face down on the roof, shivering and coughing. My brother’s gone as are the two goons and their leader. I cough up thick brown phlegm and a bubble presses against the inside of my stomach. It seems sometime during my unconsciousness I vomited and shat myself.
The two men my brother was with sit on the roof smoking cigarettes.
He’s alive, the younger one says.
What happened? Where is my brother?
Yes, your brother was a good man, the older man says.
May he be blessed with long life, the younger man replies.
They both wear flat, creased faces that look like abused rubbery masks. The older one is completely bald in the center of his head. The sides of his head are lined with long gray and black dreadlocks. The younger man has a black afro. They both wear white undershirts and khakis.
How long was I out? I ask sitting up.
Hours, the older man says. I would say it’s the middle of the night, but them dudes took our watches. You was mumbling. Kept going ma-ma-ma-ma, like you was sucking on a tit. Mama. Mama. That’s what it sound like you was saying when you was out.
There’s a big moon that casts a white light over the slowly moving water. The sky is navy blue.
I glance at my wrist and my watch is indeed gone. I reach for my pocket, the money my mother gave me for my brother has also disappeared.
I ask again: Where’s my brother?
He’s paying some of his debts, the younger man says.
I’m gonna miss the little guy, the older man says.
Yeah, the younger man replies. That guy always had a story. Say, jack, you remember the one about the squirrel?
The older man laughs.
Yeah, the younger man says. That dude in the story went through all kinds of things and then zap, he just turns himself into a squirrel and he don’t have to deal with none of that shit no more. I wish I was a squirrel. That’s how I’m gonna remember your brother, as a squirrel. Yeah, man it would be cool to be a squirrel.
You a damn fool, the older man says. How being a squirrel gonna get you out of this mess?
I guess it wouldn’t, he replies. They say it’s gonna rain again.
Who say that? the older man asks. It’s only the three of us here. You got the Weather Channel beamed into your skull?
You think anyone’s coming for us?
Naw man, don’t nobody give a fuck about us down here.
Can you believe it? That nigga Stephen used to be my social worker. Then he was my taxi driver. Ha!
And you was gonna sell him out for a few dollars?
Can’t trust nobody these days, right?
The men start laughing and then they shut their mouths, but the laughter won’t stop. It’s deep-full-throated-open-mouthed-laughter. They look as if they are silent, but they’re not. They’re laughing. That’s how I know I’m mad.
Say, jack, the older man says, you alright? You look all fucked up.
Even as he speaks, he’s competing with his own laughter. His words and the laughter are like a chorus singing different parts of a composition at the same time. I turn onto my side and vomit. I’m shivering. Sweat pours down my skin though the night is cool. This must have been how it was for Stephen every blessed time he tried to kick the stuff.
I lay on my back, coughing up the saliva and bile that is caught in my throat. The men stand over me. I hear them through the persistent laughter.
He not looking good.
I’d be surprised if he makes it through the night.
Shit he ain’t no good no more.
What you think we can get for him?
I said he ain’t no good no more.
But he looks enough like his brother, we could still get some money.
He ain’t no good. Won’t no one pay us nothing for that. Help me with him.
Man, I ain’t touching this dude. I’m not letting the sickness jump from him to me.
You don’t want him to make you sick? Then help me flip him into the water.
I try to scream out, but the only sound I can make is a donkey-like neighing, which causes the men’s laughter to become more pronounced. Water touches my skin. Soaks into my clothes.
Everything, again, is black.
I awake to the rocking of a boat and the watery sound of paddles thrusting through the water. The putrid sulfur smell of the filthy water below fills my nostrils. I cough. A voice calls my name. It sounds like my brother. I glance upward at the figure who strokes the oars back and forth. The person is hunched and cloaked in all black. I become convinced that it’s my brother; he survived and, in turn, has come rescue me.
It’s nearly morning, you were out for some time, a voice says.
The voice is a feminine one. I want to respond, but still I can’t speak. It takes all my strength to pull myself up. What I see, though it’s not my brother, fills me with joy. First, the dazzling eyes, two burning brown and green sparks dancing on her face. Then the veil. It’s her.
She tells me to lean back, to relax. Still unable to speak, I mutter a horrible sound over and over until I get frustrated.
You were out there clinging to a piece of wood, she says, I don’t know if you remember. But you’re safe now. We gotta get you to a hospital.
I start to mutter again, but it’s no use. My face hurts and I can form no words. I try to ask her all the pertinent questions. I try to tell her about my brother, who I know I would never see again and my brain feels tired; I can’t remember his name. I want to tell her about myself, about my mother who would soon be crying. I want to tell the woman that I love her, that she is beautiful.
She reaches her slender arm back to me and takes my right hand in hers, telling me to rest and reassuring me that everything will be OK. And it is only then that I notice how warm it has become and how the light from the expanding sun has taken over the whole sky and how it makes the ripples in the dirty water shimmer.
I rub her arm; it’s like a slim branch from a beautiful tree. Drunk off her presence, an amorous feeling rises through me and I feel we can remove our clothes and continue what we began at her window the previous day; though I have no energy for that sort of thing. It doesn’t occur to me, as intelligent as I am, that maybe she isn’t there at all, that it isn’t her rescuing me from the Southside floodwaters, that all the shit and death in the water is making me dream of a woman I’d never again see.
The rain’s stopped. The river, I’m certain, has crested and soon the floodwaters will recede. The people would return and forget about the flood even while living in fear of it. The Southside would be rebuilt, not as sturdy as before, but sturdy enough. The dogs, the birds, the people and even the squirrels will find their place again. And soon, the plants killed in the flood, will again come bursting through the earth, all green and full and new.