The day breaks sweaty like the last. Like every day in summer. And especially so in our neighborhood where there are no trees to block the sun. Only cement blocks baking like sand in the desert. Or like dessert bars baking in oven pans in the church basement after service. All we can do is hope and pray for rain that won’t come until the fall.
Luther is in the alley selling guns. He will sell you a gun but he won’t sell you the bullets. The morning news is on, floating through 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?
Oh – so much violence. You see? It was never like this when Papa George was in charge…
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 anger from those in power.
There is a mural painted on the south-facing wall of the corner store of a rising sun; a red sun over a garden and the city skyline against it and the word HOPE rising through the clouds. It was painted seven years ago after Mike Yellow was murdered by the police. It was the same day Ronny jumped from the Washington 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 he jumped from the bridge instead.
Today is the seventh anniversary.
As Long As I Breathe, I Hope
Pastor Johns from the episcopal church has breath that smells like sour milk. He leans in close when he’s talking to you. He stands outside the church preaching to passersby – a message too important to wait until Sunday.
Gogo is the only thought on my mind. She lives three doors down and she knows I love her. But she has to stay inside most of the time – It’s too dangerous on the streets, her father says, especially now. So I can only see her from the window. She waves to me from the window and smiles and pushes the hair across her forehead.
Ah – Pastor Johns says, leaning in close to me – but a life alone with your thoughts, with nothing but time to ponder… What a life this is! This world has grown too noisy, and soon there will be nowhere left that is quiet enough to hear yourself think.
Gogo is the sort of woman you see who immediately takes your breath away.
Ponder, Pastor Johns says. In silence.
But his congregation is dwindling, and there are fewer and fewer people in the pews every week.
I see Gogo’s uncle sitting outside the house and he calls me over. He has a cut on his arm and blood runs to his elbow. He is wrapping it in white tape as he speaks to me. No one should live in secret. But, he says, the only way to become a genius is by reading and studying (so 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.
I sleep with the window open. Fall asleep to the sounds of the street. I think of zoo animals in cages. Are they the same? Gogo’s uncle 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 that violence – the sort of unchecked, uncontrollable energy we all hold somewhere deep inside ourselves – he unleashes on everyone and everything else around him.
I say I do not live in here – or that I will not live my life in fear. Knowing full-well that I will not know if this is true until I am faced with something of which I should truly be afraid. They say the most dangerous thing most people will ever do in life is get into the seat of a car. I wonder if that’s true in this neighborhood.
But would we have forgotten how to love? Pastor Johns asks, rubbing his forehead with his hand. 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? Ah, to bottle this emotion and sell it…
Pastor Johns looks at me then. But love – he says – like hope, like everything else, exists only in the soul.
I can only think of Gogo.