A wise man once said to me, at Pen’s Chinese store in Logan, “bitch niggas like you couldn’t handle it in jail!”
No, I hadn’t provoked him. I was just waiting in line— mouth watering at the thought of my stingy serving of shrimp with broccoli.
I was confused, and just said, “Well, it’s a good thing niggas like me don’t usually go to jail.”
Clarence was cracking up so hard after the guy left that his eyes began to water, and I couldn’t help laughing either.
“What the fuck was boul’s problem?” He said.
“I don’t know, niggas always trippin’ around here,” I replied.
He was right though, I’m more Tom Dubois than I would have admitted back then. Homeboy saw right through me. Pulled my card.
When I remembered that occasion later, I thought of someone much more likely to need booty defense classes than I; Julian. My little brother had officially chucked the deuces at high school like everyone else, but he knew, and I knew, and he knew that I knew that he was not made for the anyone’s streets. This is the same kid who stood even taller than me, but answered his own denial of fear with complete silence and passivity. He was so tender, but smart enough to know that our tenderness was a death sentence. I don’t remember him actively participating in any fight, or even a serious complication. When he was in middle school, and I in high school, I had to threaten some kid on our block because he dropped Julian in the middle of the street. Little did I know, he was kin to some drug dealer who pulled a gun on me before I even considered whether I could beat him in one of those “fair ones,” that used to exist.
Julian and I were both light-skinned and lanky, people often thought we looked alike. When my son was born, everyone—including Yana, who I think started it—joked that the resemblance was uncanny, it could be Julian’s kid. Since my brother started talking I always imagined that he and I would grow so close together, play ball together, travel together, watch anime together, argue about the same books and movies, but rarely did any of that occur.
Thinking of him officially entering the life of doom made me nauseous. Once, after I returned from Iraq, back from disowning everyone, Earl called and asked me to “come talk to my brother.” We sat in my car and I tried so damn hard to connect with him, then I tried to empathize with him, then I threatened him— “Do you want to end up like them?” After this failed shotgun approach he mentioned one of those low expectation, for-profit universities that typically take advantage of poor folks and black people; I cringed. If only I could keep him away from Steve Harvey, maybe that would help.
Nothing I said mattered one bit. On my ride home, I cried for the first time in a while, at something that wasn’t a major motion picture. My laziness as an older brother was partly to blame. I hadn’t triaged him as expectant, like my mother, grandmother or most friends, I just thought he would figure it all out and leave the house, move on to bigger and better things. So I never shared any plans with him and I didn’t put much effort into hanging out with him when he was still impressionable. When he had troubles getting picked on at school—just like I did—I never consoled him. I just thought, he’ll figure it out. I just knew he would figure it out on his own. When I’d come to visit after that, he would be sitting in the living room, mid-day with all the lights off, shades drawn, smoking weed in his pajamas with several rock-faced boys.
Nowadays he has a job, working with Earl. Certainly, it isn’t the job I’d imagined for him. I’d hoped engineer or artist, educator or designer. But I am not him, and he is not me, and he seems to be happy. But I can’t help thinking about the limited versions of “happy” that will ever be accessible to him. And I have no idea how to tell him.
When he sent me a picture of his daughter he was elated, excited, proud. But I couldn’t respond, since I only felt sad.