Heavy Lifting

My mother said we have to wait until it’s late outside, and her sister Gina agreed. I knew they wouldn’t do anything until people dragged themselves off their porches and closed their doors, but I wondered if there ever came a time when no one in the projects was peering out a window or rushing back from a graveyard shift. Gina prayed out loud that my brother wouldn’t come home anytime soon. Just in case, Mom decided to keep the gun downstairs.

I figured he’d say it didn’t belong to him. Bernard was seventeen and seemed to do everything for his friends, and not the ones he’d known all his life, but this new bunch he hung out with all hours of the night. I pictured my brother pacing the living room and trying to buy some time with an apology or a pitiful excuse. Mom said if he came home soon or not, it didn’t matter. “One way or other, that thing is out of my house tonight.”

An hour earlier, she’d gone upstairs and into Bernard’s bedroom. She picked up a plate of old fries and a sticky mug and left, then changed her mind and went back. She dumped a pile of crumpled sweatshirts and jeans from the corner into the hamper. After she hung up his bomber jacket, she started in on the sweat socks littering the bottom of his closet. She spotted the corner of a towel and tugged on it, but it was stuck on something. She went in further and pulled. The towel fell away. Her hand trembled as it moved down the length of a double-barreled shotgun.

Mom tried her best to keep Bernard out of trouble. When she grounded him, he had to hunker down in his room or on the porch. Sometimes, she let him go next door and hang with his best friend. But lately, he found every excuse not to be home, and she missed him. At night they had watched movies like Boyz in the Hood and Total Recall and talked long after the credits rolled. But now Gina drove her through our neighborhood after dark sometimes, and they searched the streets for him. They had no idea that if he saw the red Subaru first, he’d duck behind his boys. Of course, I didn’t know either, but years later, my brother told me he’d become good at hiding. Bernard tucked his hard-earned money into an old pair of Nikes, stashed his new clothes and sneakers at his friends’ houses, and kept his beeper deep in his jacket pocket.

I stood downstairs in front of the coat closet with my mother and aunt on either side of me. We were close to the kitchen, and I heard my clothes spinning in the washing machine; they were almost done. I’d come over for a short visit, but now I’d sit tight. My mother needed me, even if I could do little to help. I opened the closet door. Mom picked up the gun and looked at us. “This damn thing feels heavier than the whole world.”

I stared it down and hated everything about it—the wide handle with its dull grain of wood, the perfect roundness of each barrel, one on top of the other, the metal side plates engraved with scrolls, and most of all the small curved trigger. I covered it with coats and jackets before closing the door. But for the rest of the evening, I felt the gun crowding the house and shaking loose the image I had of my brother.

I was his big sister by six years, and from the start, I saw it as my job to protect him. As a baby, he had the fattest cheeks ever and a butterball stomach. I watched out for the soft spot on his head. As a kid, he obsessed over the Pee Wee Herman show and collected baseball cards. I made sure no one in the projects messed with him. But I didn’t need to because he got along with almost everyone. He looked out for the younger kids and laughed easily. When he began high school, I bought him a banner for Morehouse College.

One morning, I gave him the maroon and white pendant that tapered to a point. He leaned against his dresser smiling. His locks finally reached his shoulders, and he twisted one in his hand every so often. All around us hung his posters, mostly rappers and basketball players at the top of their game. At fourteen-years-old, he admired them but didn’t plan on following in their footsteps. As much as he kept up with music and sports, books were his thing, and he knew so much black history that he had competed in a city-wide trivia competition.

I sat on the corner of his bed, and we talked up a storm about Morehouse.

A scholarly haven of all black men! The alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr! An esteemed sister school right down the street! A mecca in the heart of Atlanta!

He took the felt banner and rubbed his fingers over the words Maroon Tigers. He said he couldn’t wait to apply when the time came. As a junior in college, I understood that leaving the projects and even our city didn’t make everything better, but it was one more way to protect my brother. A month earlier, he confided in me that a guy approached him on the basketball court, asking him if he wanted to make a little money.

Bernard used thumbtacks to hang the banner over his bed. It stayed there for a long time. But he didn’t apply to Morehouse or anywhere else. It was hard for me to understand what went wrong. And now, with a gun in the house and the clock ticking toward midnight, I realized that he wasn’t safe, and he wasn’t harmless either.

Minutes after one, Mom dragged the shotgun from the closet. Gina told her to wipe off her prints because “who knows where this thing has been.” I guess that’s why Mom asked her to come over—to help her think things through. Mom nodded at her younger sister and looked like she wanted to cry. I handed her a kitchen towel, and she wiped the gun down. I don’t know why Gina asked my mother something she had no way of knowing, but she did. “Do you think Bernard ever used it?”

My mother never wanted to believe the worst about him. Even after she caught him with a wad of cash, and he claimed he had won big at dice. Even after she spotted him trotting away from a car passing through the projects and tried to go through his pockets. Even after she took away his key, and he lived with family across town. Maybe she stood by him no matter what, because she’d suffered enough heartache. She married her childhood sweetheart and had my brother and me before things fell apart. Her father, who had meant everything to her, died tragically in the projects almost a decade ago. Bernard was her one and only son, and even though it could happen, she didn’t want to believe she could lose him too. She answered, “No, I’m sure he hasn’t used it.”

There weren’t any bullets in the gun, and she bet he planned to sell it. It could have been true, because our family stayed short on money. When Bernard and I were younger, we’d crawl up with Mom on her bed and fantasize about winning the lotto. We’d picture the big house we’d buy with a front and backyard. Mom even knew the exact one she wanted, had her eye on it all through her childhood. It didn’t sit far from where we lived. Though abandoned for a long time, the sprawling Victorian was still beautiful with lots of windows and a wide porch. My mother imagined her life in that house would be so much better than the life she lived outside of it.

We didn’t talk about our lotto house anymore, and we were doing better as a family. Mom’s lights and telephone service stayed connected month after month. During the week, she sat at a lobby desk in a downtown office building, making sure visitors signed in and packages were promptly delivered. I had just moved into my own apartment after landing a job teaching high school. As a family, we had enough to get by, but not enough to line Bernard’s pockets.

My mother and Gina wrapped the gun in an old striped sheet. They each took hold of one end. Mom backed out of the door and down the two front steps. Holding the curtain open, I watched through the living room window. The glow from the nearby apartments lit up the dark just enough for me to see.

I asked Mom about that night, and she didn’t remember it. Maybe because after that, so much happened with Bernard. I still think about the shotgun. Even though it’s gone, I keep waiting for it to go off. My brother isn’t running the streets anymore, but my fear for him is the same. The dangers he faces are too many to count. And I don’t see any way for him to untangle himself from his past—the drugs he sold or used, the people he hurt, the sentences he served, the blows he endured, or the losses that piled up one after another. I wish the most difficult parts of his life were as easy to get rid of as the shotgun.

Mom and Gina hauled the gun about fifteen feet away from the front door to the peeling green dumpster in the parking lot. They lifted it over their heads, paused for a second, and then let it go.


A Free Woman in the Other Half of the Sky

During the final stage of the Cultural Revolution, I got hold of a thick tattered book in English through the underground book club. The cover was gone, front and back, and many pages torn out. It had passed through many hands. Many pages were marked with question marks, explanations and comments in English, Chinese, Russian, and in different handwritings. The title Free Women captured my eyes, along with Anna Wulf’s words “stretching myself” and “living as fully as I can.”

Holding Water

Keeping a family is like holding water on your palms. You must not let any of it drop to the ground. Your hands must remain balls of fists even if you have no use for them.

Headbutt UK

We talk, our breaths spilling in white gusts, and that old, fairytale London, where the wolves were very much real, comes back as vivid as a story whispered in a child’s ear. And something else, something surprising, begins to happen. For the first time in years, perhaps the first time ever, I’m sharing memories with my older brother.