My auntie Sammy had real red-velvet cake — not that she had the time to make it, bread-winning at Glaxo-Smith-Kline while my uncle Eddy moved slow up the state trooper ranks from officer to corporal with dreams of lieutenant, but she had bought some, good cake too, from the Hill. My mom’s side, Italian and white as ricotta, which none of us fucked with, was in love with the Hill.
My too long ago ex, Kalli, looked at the cake the way I clocked her body — like she was thirsty and the cake was a tall-boy before close in the kitchen.
She and I had been on and off since highschool. Kalli’s mom had showed mine how to make stewed ox-tail, even showed her the one grocery store that sold cuts of it for cheap, attached to the only Jamaican restaurant in the city, off Broad street. Her mom didn’t talk much.
In the ten years since, we’d grown apart — not enough to talk about who we were fucking or loving, or any combination of the two, but enough to not know and not question. I shouldn’t have been thinking any of these things because my girlfriend Madie was on a train back from her family’s summer home in Connecticut and I was in love again.
‘Go get a slice,’ I told Lili.
‘She surveyed the patio like there were cake operatives involved. It was just my family and she knew them well.
‘We haven’t even had dinner,’ she said.
‘It’s a fucking cookout. Not a gala.’
She cut her eyes at me but turned back to the cake. I imagined my girl, drinking and twirling and helping my aunts with the party, throwing slight shots at me to get on my mom’s good side. I hadn’t known Connecticut had country before I met Madie. I hadn’t known a lot of things about that side.
Some of my boys’ families had left Pawtucket for Hartford, or New Haven, but one moved to Danielson. Madie’s place in the country was only one town over from Danielson. But the feel was different. People sat around the same as we did and my boy chopped it up with some Laosians that danced better than us and smoked more too. At a party up that way, I got it in with a girl who wore gold trimmed Air Forces and whose friend came to get her half way through and ended up just watching.
At Madie’s place, the sun set for us, lowering itself slow behind the hills, throwing different shades into the sky to preserve our silence. The land made you say corny shit like that. That’s the difference between country and sticks. Country is manicured, made pretty for someone. Sticks just happen and you drive through them quick or stop to get gas and look around at white folks suffocating the same as the people you came up with, maybe I was wrong about it all, but I know grocery shopping at the corner store is a bad look regardless. Maybe you’re like me and your boys used to think your spot was a palace cause it had two bedrooms and only two people.
At Madie’s, in Salisbury, we had our quiet moments when her parents weren’t around, planning days around each other, doing our own thing and drifting back together, enjoying our own gravity.
When night finally came, we’d go back inside. She’d head up the front stair while I moved into the kitchen to crack a beer. After a few sips, I’d go up the side stair to find her waiting. There was always more than one way to go in her homes—more doors than Scooby-Doo chase scenes.
Dub made it out there one weekend when Madie threw a huge Labor Day party. Dub knew some of the people I went to college with from a weekend in the city with me. He slipped away from the party at some point, though, and twenty hours later I found him in town with his shirt torn and bloody. I asked if he walked and he asked for eggs. I bought him breakfast. I thought my Cornell people hadn’t given him a fair shake. Not everyone is a house hand.
At Madie’s, he’d heard some of the new music I’d been listening to. He asked me what the fuck I’d done on Vampire Weekend? He hadn’t realised it was a band name. Then he spit in his water glass and he fell asleep in the booth. We never spent another that was the last time I’d seen Dub.
Kalli was a few wines deep and eating the cake with her hands and I was loving her for that. Until recently, I’d still been able to get her wet and make her laugh. Once upon a time, I only got that kind of cold shoulder for the series of minor and major heartbreaks I dealt her.
She threw some shade at me.
‘My likkle-beef patty,’ I said. I got no response.
We were in our mid-twenties, on that self-defining bullshit, but her face still looked highschool-young. Even slumped into the porch furniture, her body was busting the seams of her black tights and poking out of her gray t-shirt. She caught me looking and shook her finger like Dikembe Mutombo.
She was right. I could’ve been on a train with Madie, probably should’ve been, but her parents always asked me about the mayor of New York and I couldn’t tell if they meant to ask me about his high-yaller family or his policy so usually, I came out sounding like an idiot. Lili’s legs were crossed, but the long shirt was riding up high on her tights. I got up and moved a folding chair closer to her, draping an arm across her shoulders. They felt small under me.
‘You thought,’ she said and ducked away.
Even leaning away from me, she smelled good, a little too sweet, but if I licked her neck I’d taste the salt. When we first started dating, her mom would bring over food and sit with my mom and grandma downstairs, listening closely while Kalli and I ‘studied’ in my room. My bed was too beat to smash on, so we’d move to the floor, though there wasn’t much of it in that old house, and go slow so I had to look in her eyes and smell the perfume and sweat on her neck and that’s probably how I caught feelings in the first place.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
She moved her plate. She’d peeled the frosting off, but it was too fresh to peel like drugstore cake and was in chunks everywhere. Then, her eyes found the sky, the house, the trees. My aunt had a beautiful yard. The other guests, the sun, really anything but my eyes.
‘You got a new man?’ I tried to smile.
She didn’t. I hoped. I hadn’t seen her in months, but we’d talked on the phone. She’d told me about the protests and rallies she’d been a part of. I didn’t know if it was to brag, or just to shoot the shit, make conversation, avoid the personal.
‘No new niggas,’ I sung.
She mean mugged me. She wasn’t about that. Back in the day, she’d told me that her family never threw nigga around. I told her, if you’re Black in America for long enough, it’s hard not to start. I had some friends from college that reveled in the word like a blanket. My family had never heard me talk that way, never heard the way my boys and I threw it back and forth like a game of catch, all our boys, wrapped in.
‘Do you really want to know?’ she said.
I looked out at the trees lining the property. I thought I saw hunters. Eddy flipped some meat on the grill in front of us. My aunt put a glass cover over the cake and Lili put her cake down. My mom mixed a drink she didn’t need — she was small and new to booze in general.
‘Cause I’ll tell you,’ Kali said.
Eddy started yelling like he was battling the six-burner Webber. The sausage smelled good but it was just the fat dripping. His dumb ass was trying to cook the links on high like a fucking steak. He didn’t even slit them and I waited for them to pop and burn. He was talking about his job and how no one knew how tough it was. He transitioned into the loaded weapons he kept around the house. ‘Everyone wants to be a cop killer. Go to the Dominican parade and watch how they look at me.’
I watched them talk and they kept going open and loud. They were on drink X, didn’t notice us listening. Another uncle, Bill, nodded. He was tall like me and carried his height well.
‘They turn every dead man into a saint,’ Bill said.
Lili looked across her face at me.
I shrugged. ‘Family.’
Sammy offered snacks, but Eddy waved her away. She looked at him like he was her tenant.
Lili was silent and I felt my image wilting in her eyes, which was twisted cause I didn’t judge her for her crazy-ass relatives. Families come with bullshit, everybody knows that. It was a Labor Day cookout and I didn’t feel like going on a Black Power crusade. I was cotton-mouth. I wondered if international holidays were as bloody as ours. Kalli’s eyes were cutting and I cared. Probably, she just made me stand up straight and I didn’t want to lose that.
‘I’m going to get some wine. Want anything?’ she said.
‘Yeah, get my dashiki off the rack.’
She poked her small middle finger out and fixed her tights.
Sometimes I wish Dub had never introduced us. I’d been thinking about him a lot the past week. I’d been hanging with Kalli, and I’d gone to Atomic, the shop we used to go to for cuts. None of the barbers knew my name except for an old dude, Damien, who never gave me a cut and never would.
Kalli came back with white wine filled too high in her glass. She swung her hips forward more than walked — sexy, but easy to trip. I looked at my phone to avoid staring.
Madie’s last message read, ‘be home soon, dear.’ I hated when she called me that. It was 50’s slang and was her way of writing off whatever I had to say. I thought about our life together—almost a year. The worst of getting to know each other was over. An older person would’ve laughed. She had some lactose intolerance, nothing a thick blanket couldn’t solve. She loved The Arctic Monkeys and would definitely fuck the lead singer if given the chance, but nothing could solve that, everyone’s got some crush. I imagined Josephine Baker in leggings everyday. One of my boy’s once told me, never think you got someone’s heart on lock, there is always a nigga with a spare key. I found out later that Tupac was the one who’d said it.
As far as Madie’s faults, I couldn’t think of much else. She broke the world into lists of pros and cons and neat angles. Everything tended to blend together for me, so we worked well enough. Kalli liked to make lists too, but she also screamed and threw punches, some shit Madie would never do. I missed that.
I watched Kalli take down a sip like a marathon runner, but she didn’t spit the drink out.
‘That glass family style?’ I said.
‘Do you get your jokes from cereal boxes?’ she said.
‘Nah, I get them from your blog.’
She stoned up. She wrote, time-to-time, for a ‘new-Black’ website and had her own social justice tumblr.
‘Relax ,Queen Nzinga. I’m fucking with you.’ I took the glass and took a heavy sip. It tasted awful. White wine always did.
She’d been coming around my family since highschool.
On the lawn chair, Kallia checked her phone. She was too far away for me to see her screen. The wine glass looked oversized in her hand. The sun was bright enough to show a zit on the right side of her chin smothered with make-up
‘Important text?’ I said.
She ignored me and took a sip of wine.
She didn’t know how serious Madie and I had gotten, and I’m sure she wasn’t without.
‘He ain’t better looking than me,’ I said.
She put down her wine and spread her pointer fingers about a foot apart.
‘Lyin ass,’ I said.
‘Fine don’t believe me.’
‘Don’t say that shit. It’s a holiday.’ I grabbed my dick. ‘Plus you love Richard, don’t lie.’
She gave me a ha.
‘Labor Day isn’t a holiday,’ she said.
‘Links are up,’ Eddy said.
My family liquored up. Eddy’s mom and sister, Sheila and Dela, drank sambucca and spoke in Greek with each other.
We waited on the porch for the meat, then Kallia and I sat down across from each other at the patio dinning room table that looked fresh out of a home magazine with fresh flowers in the center. My mom grew peonies, but I wasn’t the type to know what bloomed in September. If I was the type, I would’ve lied. I was proud of my mom for making a home.
The whole table was outside. It was worth more than all my mom’s furniture, big enough to seat 16 like Sammy was trying to one-up the last supper.
‘Who moves this in the winter?’ I looked at the Serena-Williams-table-legs.
‘We just refinish it in the fall and tarp it down,’ Eddy said. He was a loud son-of-a-bitch.
‘Hurricanes?’ I said.
‘A hurricane isn’t touching this.’
Kallia chewed loud on some cocktail shrimp and I hoped she’d get drunk enough to forget we weren’t in high school anymore. She sucked the tails out of the shell like no one was watching, using her fingers and teeth to pry it open.
The yard was two acres of undeveloped weeds and trees tethered to keep them safe from the storm. The oaks in Madie’s yards had been there for centuries.
Kalli was talking with my mom. We sat across from each other at the porch table. I imagined Lili in a sundress, hair straightened, a woman to worship. The fabric would of hid her body, made her look smaller. Madie was tall. She had pictures from her older sister’s wedding, where she was a bridesmaid. The dress was turquoise and didn’t read well on her pale skin, but it seemed like the photographer pumped the sun with extra light and Madie’s eyes with extra blue. She looked ready to board a horse-drawn carriage. When black folks say we’re kings and queens, I wondered how many of us imagined white faces. I checked my phone again.
‘Put that away!’ Nonna said. She smiled then started in on sausage ripping through the casing like string-cheese.
‘Hey, hey, we didn’t say grace!’
Everyone turned and looked at my aunt Liza.
‘Go ahead Brown Bear,’ she said.
Kallia cocked her head at me.
‘Damn auntie, it’s a cook-out, not Easter.’
‘Just say the God damned grace,’ Eddy said.
There was a minor chorus.
‘Yeah Brown Bear, just say grace.’ Kalli smirked.
‘Y0u gwan say it,’ I said. She ignored the comment. I put my fork down.
Say it bitch, Kalli mouthed.
I smiled. Bill and Lucy’s hands felt warm and dry.
‘Let us bow our heads,’ I started. ‘Lord God, we’d like to thank you for this bounty. This beautiful blessing you’ve laid before us. To thank you also for the hands that prepared it.’
Everyone’s eyes were closed tight.
‘Thank you for the love we share and the family we share it with. And thank you for the fortune you’ve bestowed upon us.’ I was thankful, that my family could cook so good and afford food this nice. That I was alive when men in my family were prone to die young. My lungs were clear. Peoples’ heads were still bowed. Bill’s hand felt weird in mine. We’d never touched before. My mom’s side wasn’t the touching type.
‘Thank you Lord, for your protection.’ I was far from being worthy of God’s protection, but I still prayed for it. ‘ And please protect those who need it more than us. So many need it more than us on this day Lord. Those without the blessing of food. Those without the greater blessing of kin.’
I felt my family stir. Bill tried to squeeze the hippie out of my hand. All of a sudden I could hear the clock-hand tick of a sprinkler in the neighbors yard. I zoned into prayer like something tipping and pouring.
‘Lord, bring us justice. Bring it to all of us.’ Eyes were still closed. Bill’s hand tightened. It didn’t shake me. I thought of Kalli sitting across from me.
‘Guide those who need guidance to do right by you. Cause your law is not our law. Our laws serve a few and your laws serve man. Please bring us into the light so that we may understand your divine will. Bring us into the light so that we may live up to your image. Let us not just speak justice’s name, let us live it. And punish those who’ve not upheld their duty to protect.’
‘Ok—’ Lucy said.
I stopped and people started to eat slow. No one looked at me. Kalli said Amen and I wanted to laugh cause her sense of humor hadn’t changed. Bill was attacking a chicken breast before I could even make sense of it.
‘Dela, get me more sambucca,’ Sheila said.
‘Ma, I just got you some,’ she said.
Eddy glared at me as I started in on the dry ass sausage. Nonna was already deep in hers. Kalli drank and turned back to Mary. Conversations started slow. Sheila downed her drink. Eddy downed his.
Lucy turned to me and nodded across the table.
‘You should marry that one,’ she said.
Then, while we were all loud with the sounds of eating, Eddy asked—’Gio, why are you so angry?’
The table fell silent. I looked at him.
‘It was grace, Eddy,’ I said.
‘No it wasn’t.’
‘Do you have a problem with how I make my living?’
‘It was just grace,’ Liza said. She squirmed a little and pushed some food around her plate.
‘If you’re gonna say it, fucking own it.’
‘Eddy!’ Sheila said.
‘Hold on mom,’ he said. ‘Why do you blame everyone else for your problems?’
Kalli wasn’t smiling anymore. No one spoke.
‘You attack the police?’ Eddy said. ‘You need a cause so you make one up?’
‘Attack the police? Ha.’ Kalli said. She belted the ha that I’d always loved. The one she belted when you tried to play it off like you hit it like a porn star around your friends and she overheard your corny lie and said you always got too high and wanted to cuddle.
I thought about Madie sitting quietly across from me, pushing food around her plate, taking sips of wine, or maybe just focusing her eyes on me begging that I just be quiet.
‘You have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Eddy said.
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ Sheila said.
‘Gio’s right,’ my mom said, but soft and I was mad that she didn’t offer more.
Kallia’s voice got louder.
‘Watch the news,’ she said.
‘Do you feel persecuted?’ My uncle took a sip of water and stared at Kalli.
‘Don’t patronise her,’ I said.
‘There’s a video of a Black man strangled to death on camera,’ Kallia said.
‘He had a heart condition,’ Eddy said and took a massive bite of pork. ‘You know the officer in charge was a black woman right?’ he said. He picked up his pork rib-bone.
Of course Kallia’d known, but she hunched a little in her seat.
‘You don’t think she felt pressured?’ I said.
‘Pressured? She wasn’t under fire,’ Eddy said.
‘Pressured to fall in line,’ I said.
‘She was in command.’
‘So?’ Kallia said. ‘She could’ve been influenced.’
‘What, do you think the academy teaches us to be racist?’
‘No, America does,’ I said.
I grew valiant and the table grew silent.
Eddy bit off some cartilage, spit it out.
‘You have no clue what you’re talking about,’ he said.
‘I don’t?’ I said.
‘No you fucking don’t!’
‘He was choked to death,’ Kalli had straightened up again.
Eddy put the bone down and picked a piece of meat out his teeth. ‘Gio, remember when you got pulled over for drunk driving and Ricc had to call my cell to ask if you were my nephew. I told him you were, right?’
The table was silent. It was a story that’d never been told. My mom stared at me, her worst fears confirmed. Kalli looked away from me.
‘Right?’ Eddy said again. ‘You don’t even need to answer, of course I told him you were my nephew. I told you my badge number the day you got your license. He stopped you on the Newport bridge, let you drive into Jamestown and park. He gave you a ride home in the fucking cruiser. You know what he’d have done if you weren’t my nephew, drunk as you were?’
The sprinkler shut off in the distance.
‘I knew your badge number. He didn’t have to call you,’ I said.
‘You were drunk enough to drive off the damn bridge.’
‘No, I was a nigger in a Nissan,’ I said.
Eddy didn’t miss a beat. He put the bone down. ‘Nice try. We’re not going to do this. Now, we are going to eat,’ Eddy said. Most people waited. ‘The police have done nothing but give you breaks. You are a bout a much a nigger as Derek Jeter.’
My family looked at me but I went mute. Content to pretend it hadn’t happened, they continued to eat. Kalli looked embarrassed for me.
I wanted to say something else, but Eddy was already onto his second pork-chop and talking to Bill.
I got up. ‘You want a ride home?’ I asked Kalli.
‘Sit down,’ Bill said.
‘Sure.’ Kalli got up. She stood up and thanked my family for the food.
My aunts tried to say some things to get us to stay. When I got near the patio door, my grandma called out, ‘Brown bear, please take some more to eat.’
Madie and I lived in Seekonk. That’s where the three-family homes stop and the lawns brighten up. The drive wasn’t too long from Kalli’s.
I took a left on York and saw the cars spilling down her driveway in the distance. I asked about her present because I was out of touch.
‘Why do you want to know about my love life?’
‘Cause I do,’ I said. I pulled up alongside her mailbox going the wrong way. I put the car in park.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Fuck, either tell me or get out.’
‘He lives in Philly.’
‘He’s a Kappa. Went to Harvard.’
I unlocked the door. She threw me a look, pulled the handle. The lights came on.
‘My dad says you should come in,’ she said.
‘Tell your pops I said mi know.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘What’s Kappa’s name?’
She had one foot out the door and her gray sweater rode up again. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘The nigga from Juice?’
She turned to avoid laughing.
‘How long are you in town?’ I asked.
She took a few steps and her motion light turned her to a silhouette.
‘A few more days.’ She turned, became an outline, and another ghost was born between us. The one that stood next to her at the anti-police brutality rallies, the ones I never attended. A ghost that would’ve kept Ag off the edge maybe.
When I came in, Madie was in her panties and one of my t-shirts. I thought it was too hot for any clothes, but she was calm and comfortable, listening to reggae while she read. She was going through an Americans in Paris phase — Stein, Dos Passos, Porter. Senior year, I used to pretend to cut class in high school and sit in the empty gym reading Manhattan Transfer.
Madie didn’t look up from her book. Then she did.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said. I looked at my bloodshot eyes in the mirror that hung on the opposite wall. She patted the seat next to her. My t-shirt made her smell like a man. She always told me the smell of my clothes made her wet. I imagined her touching herself with my clothes on. I sat and leaned my head back. She massaged my temples. ‘Dinner was rough?’ She moved her hands down to the base of my skull. ‘Take some cleansing breaths.’
I remembered the day the cops rolled up and Dub and I in my own drive-way. We were fourteen and had just finished playing one-on-one on the hoop outside. We were sitting on the asphalt throwing pebbles at one another and talking shit about the game. He told me to get up and walk inside slowly when he saw the squad car roll up. He knew what was going on before I could even guess.
Before I could make it ten yards the cop asked me where I was going.
I said, home.
I wished I’d told Eddy that story, but I think maybe if Dub wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have been anything.
Madie was massaging my head. The apartment windows were open and I could hear the summer-hum insects.
‘You don’t have to stop that,’ I said.
‘It’s all or none baby. I’m a package deal.’
I got up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To get a glass of wine.’
‘Yeah, I feel like a drink.’
‘Ok.’ She looked up at me.
‘You want one?’
‘Yes.’ She smiled like I caught her stealing cookies. Her whole face brightened in an instant. I leaned down and kissed her. She knew how to make me hard with her lips, barely touching me, staying almost out of reach. She just waited for me to lose control.
I came back with a large mug of wine, downed it, then drank another.
‘Relax on the shine General,’ she said.
She had a thousand phrases like that. She said her family in South Carolina used them but they sounded like make-believe. She took a few sips and asked again what happened. She rubbed the base of my neck and asked if it was about her. I stayed silent, starting to feel good and relaxed from the wine.
‘Tomorrow, I’m too tired.’ I held up the bottle of wine. There was about a third left. ‘How is Labor Day contentious?’ she said.
I just wanted to sit with her. I kept replaying the night.
‘Ok,’ she asked.
‘Just heavy,’ I said.
She rolled her eyes and started to lick my ear. I loved when she did that and she knew it. She gave me the back of her hands to kiss, then her palms, then the tips of her fingers. Blood rushed back into me. She swung one leg over and felt me. Her bare thighs were so pale. She kissed me for awhile in her teasing way before she unbuckled me. I was wide-awake then. I rolled her onto her back kissed all the way down to her feet and stayed there for awhile kissing the tops of her toes and massaging her legs. Licked her arch. I made my way back slowly. She arched her back so I could slip her panties off. I caught her scent again and felt myself turn so hard it almost hurt. I kissed her between the legs, but I couldn’t wait. I finished undressing myself. I saw my body—broad and brown in the mirror that hung across from me. I pulled her up and made her look at us in the mirror. I looked even darker beside her milk frame. I didn’t feel like a king, I felt like a pillager. I felt out of bounds. I bent her forward on the couch.
‘Beg me,’ I said.
She gasped and closed her eyes.
I reached my hand down and teased her — just a fingertip. I stopped. She looked her blue-eyes back at me and I flipped her in one motion.
‘Beg me,’ I said.
‘Fuck me,’ she said.
I slid a hand down to her throat and the words came out: ‘Call me a nigger.’
Her face looked pained. ‘What?’
‘Tell me to fuck you like a nigger.’
She started to sit up to get away from me, but I was on her, my right hand on her collarbone.
‘Say it.’ I reached my other hand down to grab her. She sagged under my weight and winced. ‘Tell me. Tell me to fuck you like a nigger.’
‘Please stop,’ she said. Her voice trailed off so weak it got lost in the light music.
‘You like it. Tell me you like it.’ I kept repeating myself until I thought she was going to cry. I saw her skin starting to turn red under my weight. I kept pushing and holding her down. I went to go inside her.
‘I know you like it,’ I said. ‘Tell me to fuck you like a nigger. Tell me I’m your nigger.’
She was squirming wildly to get away, but my weight made it difficult. She tried using her feet to push me off but couldn’t. Our bodies were too close.
‘Say it!’ I had my hand on her throat again, harder now. She reached up and tried to put her hands on my face but my arms were too long. She slapped at my shoulders. I pinned her arms down at the biceps and she whimpered, then she bit my forearm hard and I let go for a second. She reached up and slapped me strong and I fell back on the couch from shock. Her legs draped over me. We were both short on breath. She stared at me.
I looked down at myself, still hard from the thought of it. I lifted her left ankle and felt the softness of her skin there. I kissed the bottom of her arch. She pulled her foot away.