The day breaks sweaty like the last. Like every day in summer. And especially so in the city where there are no trees to provide shade – only countless blocks of cement baking like the desert, or like the desserts baking in oven pans from the church basement after service. All we can do is hope for rain.
Luther at the edge of the alley will offer to sell you a gun but no bullets. The news is on, floating from open windows across the neighborhood, all channels report the same in a monotone chorus of violence and strife – the riots, the riots, the riots. When will order be restored?
Mama Yea fans herself with the church bulletin on her front porch as we pass by on our bikes. She rocks back and forth and tells us that great change is coming – but not before great cruelty from those in power.
There is a mural of a rising sun on the south-facing wall of the corner store, a sun red and orange over a garden and the city skyline against it. It was painted twelve years ago after Mike Yellow was murdered by police. The same day Ronny died after he jumped from a bridge downtown –
Ronny would have shot himself, Mama Yea said, her voice just above a whisper. But there weren’t any bullets in the gun Luther sold him, so –
It’s the anniversary today.
As Long As I Breathe, I Hope
The pastor of the church at the end of the block, Pastor Johns, has breath that smells like sour milk. He leans in close when he’s talking to you.
I am in love with Casey. She lives three buildings down from mine and she knows I’m in love with her. But she has to stay inside most of the time – it’s too dangerous on the streets, her father says, especially now.
She waves to me from the window and smiles and pushes the hair across her forehead.
Ah – Pastor Johns says – but a life alone with your thoughts! with nothing but time to ponder… what a life this would be. This world has grown too noisy, and soon there will be nowhere left at all that is quiet enough to hear yourself think.
Casey is the sort of woman you see who immediately takes your breath away.
Ponder, the pastor says. In silence.
But his congregation is dwindling, fewer and fewer people in the pews each week.
We see Casey’s father sitting outside and he calls us over. He has a cut on his arm and blood runs to his elbow. No one should live in secret. But, he says, the only way to become a genius is by reading and studying – they say – by researching and following the rules. There is a dollar sign attached to genius just like there is to everything else.
I have always been here with these thoughts, he says. They have progressed, perhaps, but they have not changed. If only we weren’t so afraid of wrinkled skin, hunched backs, and the death of hope.
Sleep with the window open. Fall asleep to the sounds of the street. Think of the zoo and all of the animals in cages. Are they the same?
Casey’s father brushes his teeth three times a day: Before breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner. Routine is very important to him. He gets physically ill when he misses an appointment. Chaos! he would say, Chaos! and regimentation is the only relief.
Falling asleep with the lights on, he flails his arms and kicks his legs. Yelling as the veins in his neck bulge so much they look as though they will burst from his skin. So afraid of dying; so unwilling to succumb to nonexistence was he that violence – the sort of unchecked, uncontrollable energy we all hold somewhere deep inside ourselves – was unleashed on everything and everyone around him.
I have often said that I do not live in fear – or that I will not live my life in fear. Knowing full-well that I will not know this is true until I am faced with something of which I should be afraid.
But would we have forgotten how to love? Pastor Johns asks, rubbing his arm. Or no – love is only a young man’s game, the sort of adventure the world at-some-point decides must come to an end. But the sweet smell of misspent youth hanging from her shirt in the closet, our dreams plastered to the walls, what are we if not creatures who feel? To bottle this emotion up and sell it…
Pastor Johns looks at us then. But love, he says, like hope, and like everything else, exists only in the soul.
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