Dwight and Myrrh
It was early in the morning on the 15 of August when James took his first real breath of fresh air, or what he thought fresh air should smell like. He enjoyed the cool mist in his lungs, the faint heat on the back of his neck and the subtle odor of smog that lingered over the city from the previous day. There was nothing like the sound of the city of Angels coming alive in the morning, he thought to himself. It's idled engine’s roaring to life in the driveway’s, the screech of wet brake pad’s from the metro, the horn from city bus, the cries of a newborn and the laughter from people that walked along the perimeter of the prison fence. All of these thing’s he drew on the walls of his cell in the morning with a tube of toothpaste and the hard plastic ends of a shoelace while he brushed his teeth.
On the damp concrete next to the sink, he outlined each painting with a deep mark to count the number of month’s that passed by. In the last picture before his release, he carved out an image on the wall with a spoon he traded for earlier in the week. It was his first carving. The cheekbone’s that should’ve been flush were plump, the eye’s that should’ve been wide were narrow, the nose took on a cartoonish shape and the hair resembled something a child would carve out into the sand. In fact, the only thing that James got right was the slight bend in his little sister’s awkward smile. Satisfied with the carving, he folded his bedding one last time, rolled up his assigned uniform and placed it next to his faded prison shoe’s.
The exiting procedure was quick and painless. The senior correctional officers gave a nod and the doors buzzed open. Once outside, James was blinded by the brightness of the sun. He placed his hands above his eye's and made his way down the steep stairs with a slight limp in his left leg. He would tell people that the limp was from an old football injury, but in reality he was bitten and thrown to the ground by a German shepherd and would suffer from reoccurring nightmares of a sheriff giving the signal to attack. James slid his fingers down the frigid wet handrail and looked around for his sister at the bottom of the stairs. On the sidewalk, a hot dog vendor began her morning ritual of getting ready for the breakfast crowd. She toasted bagels in an old toaster oven taped with duct tape, warmed pastries in a steam pan and heated water for the instant coffee grains that sat at the bottom of a thermal coffee dispenser.
Before James could reach the bottom of the stairs, she gathered her dirty blond hair with strands of gray into her wrinkled fingers and tied it into a loose ponytail. “The bacon will be ready in a couple of minutes.” She said without looking up from the cooler. James noticed her unattractive layers of clothing, a thick blueish-checkered flannel shirt, heavy khaki construction pants and scratched black steel toe boots. The multiple layers soiled with condiments hid her figure from the bitter cold, but not his imagination. What would make most men look the other way, only intrigued him more. After so much time in solitary confinement, he had learned to appreciate the simple things that made a woman beautiful. So he waited for her attention, for the sound of her voice and for her laughter. He tried to think of a joke, but none came to mind. Therefore, he kept walking and began his search for his sister.
There were very few vehicle’s parked on the street, an old dented burgundy Buick, a white Honda Civic and a couple of patrol car’s parked across from the courthouse next to the public parking lot. James walked pass the Buick into the crosswalk and as he got closer to the patrol car, he began to feel his heart pound against the inner walls of his chest. He gazed into the empty metal cage and recalled the scratching of the hard plastic seat against his skin, the cold melt cage on his face, the vibration of the engine beneath his feet and the trembling in his hands. As he looked through the front window passed the shotgun into the parking lot, he noticed his sister waiting in the car with her face buried in a book. He thought about all the book’s he had read in prison, Mosley, Morrison, Dumas, Baldwin, Steinbeck, the list of author’s seemed endless, but he had never heard of the book she held in her hand.
James tapped on the passenger window to get her attention, but she didn't look up, so he walked over to her window and tapped again. Startled by his presence, she cranked down the thin tinted glass and threw the ballpoint pen she was spinning between her fingers into his chest. He smiled and waited for her to open the door and leap into his arm’s, but instead she reached over the emergency break and unlocked the passenger door.
“Kara!” He said.
She managed a small grin and closed the book, “get in.”
James picked up the pen wedged underneath the tire, slid it through the window into her hand and climbed into the car. Once inside he glanced over at a note taped to the steering wheel that read: Always remember, that in order to do good, you must first, be good. It didn't make much sense to him the first time he read it, but after the second and third glance he started to question why Kara would write such a message and tape it to her steering wheel. Was it him that needed to do good, or was she seeing him as some sort of charity case. Angered by the message, he reached over, tore the note off the steering wheel and rolled it into his moist palm’s. He then threw it against the backseat with such force it surprised the both of them.
“Why would you tape that to your steering wheel?” He asked.
“I like to write notes to myself, little reminders.” She said.
Kara reached back and dug through her student’s papers that littered the backseat. She shifted a few textbook’s, scattered her handout’s and picked through notes she had previously written, but she still couldn't find the balled up wad of paper. She then searched the floor which consisted of a collection of empty water bottle’s, book’s, coffee mugs and a towel with frayed corners and holes. Next to last week’s Mocha and a greasy food wrapper, the note was stuck in a syrupy puddle. She pried the paper from the mess, unraveled the note and licked the syrup off her fingers. It was sweet with bits of hair and sand.
As Kara glanced back towards her brother, she noticed the dry blood stains on his jeans, the tear in his blue shirt, the hardened brown skin on his elbow’s and the scab above his brow. His innocent hazel eye’s had darkened and wrinkled around the edge’s from the dim artificial prison light. It all add up to a lifetime of hurt. Her former teenage brother, a Compton High School track and field standout, a man she once admired had grown into a thin frail forty-three-year-old creature in dishevel clothes shuffling his way through life.
James noticed the random circle’s and line’s drawn on the back of the note.
He smiled, “stick figure’s?”
“Don’t talk about my drawing’s, besides you wouldn’t know Henry Tanner from a Rembrandt.”
“Exactly, where are we going?” She asked.
James contemplated all the place’s he wanted to go. He thought about running his hand’s through the coarse sand at the beach, he thought about hiking up into a canyon to sit in a tall patch of grass and watch the blade’s bend beneath the force of the Santa Ana's, he thought about going for a swim at the local YMCA or grabbing a bite at Tam's burgers off Rosecrans and Central. Overwhelmed by so many option’s, he leaned into the metal springs of the seat and pulled down on the straggly hair’s beneath his chin. Two police motorcycle cruisers pulled up in front of them and backed into the curb.
“I figure we could just ride. You know, like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.”
James kicked off his decrepit white sneakers and revealed the gaping hole at the top of his Athletic socks. Damn, I have my father’s feet, he thought to himself. He slipped off the socks and examined the bruise’s and blister’s he called internment wombs. Kara thought about the hour’s she and her brother spent on Saturday evening’s watching two men on motorcycle’s ride out into the middle of nowhere. It was a freedom most people from the neighborhood would consider crazy, a freedom her brother had probably always longed for. She recalled the two of them pretending to ride side by side on the open road with nothing but the sound of the wind blowing against their helmet’s, leaving behind the gunshot’s, the gang’s and the siren’s. Kara smirked as she recalled the last movie they watched together before James got lockup.
“We’ll end up somewhere in traffic, like Michael Douglas,” she said.
James rubbed his calloused hand’s against his face, dug is finger’s into his beard and scraped at the flecks of dead skin. He remembered the movie about the guy that had a nervous breakdown on the freeway and laughed.
“How about we just go home.”
“I have a better idea.” She said.
Kara pumped the gas pedal, turned the key in the ignition and with a long push on the accelerator she brought the rusted Ford to life. As they drove through the side streets of Los Angeles, James looked out onto the sun bleached bungalow’s with barred window’s and apartment building’s hidden behind ivy fences topped with barbed wire.
“When did the outside world become a prison?” He whispered to himself.
James saw how miserable people looked as they rushed into their morning commute. Most fumbled out of the door disheveled and tired with their faces buried into a small electronic device while other’s pushed their kids out the door onto the school buses. The rat race has a starting line, he thought to himself.
The car backfired and crept through in potholes down Redondo Beach Boulevard before merging onto the narrow 110 Freeway. Kara darted in and out of traffic. She squeezed the compact Ford Focus between big rigs, cement trucks and minivans before cutting off a massive Suburban. She drifted dangerously behind the Greyhound bus and nearly kissed the back of a Prius. As they sat in traffic on the freeway, James flipped off the drivers too busy to notice him and waved at the children who stared. Occasionally, he would flip off the right person with a grin. To him, it felt good to know that the simplest gesture could make such an impact. It meant that people were alive, paying attention and not just drifting along in a catatonic state. Maybe there still are people in this world that cared about something outside of themselves, he thought to himself. A few cars sped up, cut them off and returned the gesture while slamming hard on the brakes.
“What are you doing?”
Kara honked the horn and yelled at the traffic.
“Entertaining myself.” He said.
James looked at the thin worry line’s that grooved into the soft skin of his sister’s face. The narrow edges of her hazel eye’s hid behind a pair of square framed glasses and the caked on layer of makeup receded unevenly down her neck. She was no longer the little girl from the picture he kept underneath his pillow, nor was she anywhere close to the woman he imagined her to be when he carved her image into the wall. Her curly black hair was disheveled with streaks of burgundy dye that faded into brown split ends. Her lips were plump and the contours of her cheek’s had filled in. She was beginning to look like their mother.
Kara took her eyes off the road and noticed the unusual grin on his face.
“What are you smiling about?” She asked.
He shook his head and pointed out towards the traffic as if he could avoid the question. “Nothing, you drive like her you know.”
Kara crossed over two lane’s without checking her side and rear view mirrors.
“What makes you say that?”
As she tailgated the car in front of her, a teenage kid with music loud enough to vibrate the windows had wedged between her and the other car. She slammed on the brakes and cursed at the windshield which made James tighten his grip on the door handle and recall a prayer he said every night in his cell. It had been decades since the last time he rode in a car.
“If you have to ask then you know it’s true,” he said.
She honked again at the car in front of her as James dug through the cubbyhole beneath the radio.
“What are you looking for?”
“A pen, so I can write that shit down and tape it to your steering wheel.” He laughed.
James opened up the glove compartment and went through all the miscellaneous things Kara had collected over the years. There was a rosary she found in the grass one night while she was out drinking with some friends, a broken piece of chalk she used on a school project, three empty cartons of gum, a compact mirror, a glue stick, a package of marbles and a picture of their mother wearing a wedding dress. The photograph had water stains along the edges and was faded from constant exposure to the sun, but it didn't stop James from savoring what little he remembered of that day. He rubbed the edges between his fingers and placed the picture on top of the dashboard along with a deck of cards he found beneath an old broken cassette tape case.
“Do I remind you of her?” She asked.
He picked up the picture again and held it up next to her headrest. It was an exact match, all the way down to the small double chin and thin pierced earlobes. She wore his mother’s expressions like a mask. Even the way she dressed was similar to something out of her closet. Tight faded blue jeans with rips around the knees, a tucked baggy school t-shirt with a green eagle emblem printed on the front, worn tennis shoes and thick athletic socks. She was a carbon copy of her mother, but James looked at the picture and shook his head, no.
Kara's eyebrows narrowed as she sucked on her front teeth and pushed her top lip forward to compose herself. It was the same condescending look his mother would've given him when she knew he was lying.
“You have the look.” He said.
He pointed at her face and waited for her head to tilt and for her right eye to bulge like it was going to pop out of her head. That one, alien like, he thought to himself. James reached into the glove compartment, pulled out her compact mirror, popped the hard plastic lid open and showed her the protruding eye that indeed resembled something one might see in a Hitchcock film. Kara stared for a brief moment then looked away.
“Do you remember when she would take us to the beach for picnics and layout on that old towel she loved so much.”
James recalled the loose wet fibers that felt cool against his fever and the way his mother stroked the top of his forehead, down his cheek and across his neck. When the laundered cotton laid on top of the hot sand, it reminded him of the softness of the sea foam he use to run threw his finger’s as a child. It wasn't until his sister came along with her small strands of hair and toothless grin that he began to hate the very thread’s that gave him so much comfort.
“I threw it out the window, onto the freeway.” He said.
“And she made you go get it.”
Kara imagined her brother darting in and out of traffic like some clown in a circus with a towel draped over his shoulders, which made her laugh so hard the car jerked to the right onto the highway markers. The wheels vibrated. She veered the car back into the lane and slapped the top of the steering wheel.
James smiled, “you can stop laughing now. I was almost killed.”
She continued to laugh, “I always knew you were fast.”
The traffic had begun to clear and Kara had stopped laughing long enough to put her foot on the gas.
“Didn’t you put it in the trash once?” She asked.
“Yeah and she tore my ass up.”
“That’s what you get.”
James put his hand out the window and felt the cool mist against his palm. He moved his finger’s in the wind, held up his hand and embraced what little heat there was from the sun on his knuckles and wrist. He thought about the first painting he created in prison. A portrait of his mother sitting on the couch reading the newspaper with the towel draped over her shoulders. It was a painting that took him over a year to finish and even after it was done, he never thought it was quite complete, there was always something missing.
“What was so damn special about that towel anyway?” He asked.
Kara exited the freeway and slipped back onto the side streets. She ignored a stop sign and slowed the car to a stop three blocks away next to Tam's Burgers. The scent of bacon, eggs and caramelized onion’s lingered into the window. Kara thought about the Saturday mornings she spent with her mother eating breakfast burritos on the roof. She recalled the laughter and stories told between each small plane that sputtered along the skyline full of palm trees and power lines as they flew in and out of the Compton Airport.
“Big Mama gave her that towel.” She said.
Kara put her foot on the gas, looked up into the sky and noticed a small plane over the trees. There you are mom, she thought to herself as the small plane mutated to a white speck. As they came to a stoplight James noticed a homeless man that stood on the median at the corner holding a bent cardboard sign stating: Please Help Need Money 4 Beer. Amused, he waved him over to the side of the car and handed him some change he found in the glove compartment. He always liked it when a person was honest and straightforward with the world.
“So why did mom lie to us about her?” He asked.
James felt the car jerk back into motion and come to an abrupt stop behind the crosswalk. He worked the window up and down to let the dust fall off the outside of the window. A woman hurried past the front of the car. He pointed at the loose lace’s on her shoes and watched as she clutched her purse and nearly tripped on the curb.
“What makes you think that?” She asked.
The neighborhood kids raced shopping carts along the sidewalk like go carts and yelled into the crowd that stood at the bus stop. James thought about the homemade scooter’s and skateboard’s he built with lumber and wheels from the carts he found in an alley. He remembered the scooter him and Papa Jim attempted to build that only traveled to the left because of nails that were hammered incorrectly.
“She tried to tell me once, the day before she left.” He said.
James thought about the night his mother came home late from work carrying a bag of groceries. Her black mascara had streamed down her face into the corner of her half smile. She tried to speak, but instead she spread the groceries out onto the counter, pulled out a loaf of bread, a butter knife and a few slices of bologna. He wanted to ask about the bruises in the corner of her mouth and the cut above her left eye, but he couldn't do it. Instead, he opened the fridge and took out the mustard, lettuce and a tray of ice cubes. He grabbed a plastic bag from the drawer, filled it with ice, crushed the cubes with a spoon and placed it on the counter. She put the bag on her wounds, wiped the moisture from her face and kissed the top of his forehead. The kiss was moist like the mist in his palm.
“She just kept making sandwiches.” He said.
He remembered his sister sitting beneath the TV watching cartoons as his mother stuffed sandwiches into brown paper lunch bags. He recalled the number of times she stopped to write notes in her pad, little reminders she use to keep posted around the house.
“She tried...” He whispered.
Kara traced her fingers along the sticky edges of wheel and rolled the residue of the tape between her fingers.
“She packed up a bag, put us in the car and drove… Drove like a drunk woman, swerved in and out of lanes, past pedestrians, stop signs and through red lights.”
Kara leaned uncomfortably against the armrest and tried to envision her mother driving like a drunk woman down Central, but all she could recall was the woman that pointed towards the specks in the sky and sung over the stove. Such a beautiful voice, she thought to herself.
“When we got to the beach she laid down the towel, placed you on the corner, her bag on the other end… She sat for hours watching you play in the sand, hours and...”
Tears seeped through the makeup on Kara's cheek. “She told me James.”
“What did she tell you?” He asked.
Kara closed her eyes and recalled the last conversation on the roof with her mother.
“When mom was little, Big Mama use to take her to the beach, they would sit, watch the waves and wait for the moon. She said those were the best days, when the planes from LAX would touch the water and disappear into the sunset.”
Kara took a deep breath and sat up in the seat. She rolled her neck and stared out of the window into the park where children swung high in the air and played hop scotch, jacks and tag.
“There’s no easy way to tell you.” She said.
James cleared his throat and watched the people pile onto the city bus two blocks away.
“Tell me what?” He asked.
Kara rolled the window down even further. She steadied her hands and took out the crumpled note she had stuffed into her pocket.
“Be good.” She whispered to herself.
James sat up in his seat and fidgeted with the propellers of a toy model airplane he found on the floor. He pretended not to be interested in what she was about to say, but a part of him longed to hear her voice for it had been years since their last time conversation.
“Papa Jim would come home late, drunk, leaning on the walls, searching out the sound of a woman’s voice.” She said.
She gave James a blank look.
“Big Mama would wake mom when the keys rattled in the door. She would shake her legs, pull her arms, pry open her eyes and pour cold water onto her face.”
James sat deeper into the torn seat and placed the plane back onto the floor.
“Big Mama wrapped her in a towel and hid her in a pile of dirty clothes in the closet. She would say to her, sweetheart don't scream, no matter what hear, no matter what you see, please don't scream.”
Kara's lips quivered and her voice began to crack at the end of each word.
“Mom watched Papa Jim beat her, blacken her eyes, break her bones and split her lip. It was mom that carried Big Mama to the neighbor’s house after he was satisfied, passed out on the couch.”
James shifted in his seat and pressed his foot into the carpet. He felt his muscles begin to tense up.
“Bullshit!” He said.
This can't be the same man that took the place of my father who abandoned me, the same man that taught me respect, the person I admired half my life, he thought to himself.
“Mom hid from that beast, who wanted to bathed her and defile her in her sleep.”
James noticed the street noise through his window. People screamed profanities, talked crap about random subjects they knew nothing of and embraced in front of the liquor store like long lost friends. The bass from another car that drove by made the window vibrate. The junior high school bell rung and kids scattered onto the playground. Embarrassed, he rolled up the window thinking someone might over hear their conversation.
“That’s why she had a limp half her life, why she slurred her words and frequently closed her eyes. He beat the shit out of her James, the same way you beat on Alisa.”
The brutal image of Alisa on the ground pressed into the corner of their bedroom like a wounded animal made his hands shiver and his palms sweat. The blistered lip, the running mascara, the black eyes he gave her haunted him in solitary confinement. He realized in prison after Alisa's visits that he blamed her for reminding him of his mother. She made him feel vulnerable when he wanted to be strong.
“I never touched that bitch.” He mumbled.
James put his fist into the dashboard and felt a sharp pain in his arm, a pain he welcomed. He stared at the scars on his wrist from the times he tried to commit suicide. He reached underneath his shirt for the scars on his back where Alisa clawed her way out of his arms.
“I just picked you up from jail!”
Kara turned and struck him the same way she imagined he hit Alisa, open handed, across the face, allowing the fingernails to scratch and peel a thin layer of skin from his cheek.
“Why do you care? She...”
He stopped himself from saying something he might later regret.
“She left to protect us. That's why she left.”
James eyes started to water as he wiped the trickle of blood on his cheek with a tissue he found in the glove compartment.
“She made the choice to leave.” He said.
“You were 17 when she kissed you and walked out!”
People that walked along the sidewalk started to stare into the car which made James uncomfortable.
“It’s not her fault she didn’t tell you Big Mama loved her husband so much she committed suicide less than a year after his death. It's not her fault that she couldn’t handle life without him.”
He gritted his teeth and punched the door which startled the people outside.
“She didn’t have it in her to go on.”
He looked again at the jagged scars on his wrist.
“They’re dead James and there is nothing we can do about it.”
He leaned awkwardly into the seat and massaged his hands into his thighs. James felt the friction build up under his wrist. He wanted to run away and hide in the adjacent park somewhere in the trees. He wanted to drown his pain with a shot of bourbon and let the heat consume his anger or jump into oncoming traffic where he could end it all, this argument, his life.
“They’re gone and we’re here.” She said.
She reached behind his seat, dug through a pile of dirty clothes and pulled out an old towel. James snatched it from her hand, reached for the handle and opened the door. He stepped away from the car and walked to the curb.
“They're gone James, stop running, stop blaming.” She said out of the open door.
He wrapped the towel around his neck.
“I'm not blaming nobody, it was her damn fault, not mine!” He said.
“James! Get back in the car.” She pleaded.
Kara stretched across the passenger seat for the door handle. Her foot slipped off the brake and released the car into oncoming traffic.
“James!” She yelled as the car rolled forward.
He looked back and saw the fear in his sister's eyes', the quiver in her lips and the glimmer of sunlight peeking through the thin layers of her hair. It reminded him of his mother, the day she kissed his forehead and closed the door for the last time. There were no loud bangs, when he stepped into the street to try and save her, no screech from the brake pads as he reached for the door handle, no horn that rung when the car spun out of control and smashed into his pelvis, not even a spec of sound when he was thrown into the air from the impact. There was only silence, the type of silence found at sunset on the beach when the tide rises and pulls driftwood back into the Pacific.
James laid lifeless in the street gutter, with bone protruding out of his right leg near the knee cap. Was this it, was this how life came to abrupt end, he thought to himself. He closed his eyes and felt the cool metal grate against his head, he listened to the faint sound of water below that brought a vivid image of his mother and sister at the beach singing, dancing and digging up the hot white sand to get to the wet layer beneath. They pushed the wet sand towards him, smiled and ran into the waves where the bright sun swallowed them whole.
“Sir, are you okay?”
James opened his eyes and focused on the man standing over him.
“This is going to hurt, but you’re going to be alright.”
He felt an immense pain in his right leg that made him arch his back and grit his teeth.
“You're going to be alright.”
He tasted the blood in his mouth that rendered him speechless and felt the pain from his leg start to creep up his spine. He sat up and looked onto the scene with horror. What was left of his sister’s car resembled scrap metal in a junkyard. He tried to talk as the sirens rang louder in all directions but he was too weak.
“It's going to be okay.”
He imagined the soothing sound of his sister’s voice and looked down at the tourniquet wrapped around his thigh. He leaned back onto the hot pavement and let the water swell in his eyes, for he knew that his sister was gone and that the damn towel he hated so much, had saved his life.