It’s true. I was in jail when my brother called, but things didn’t go down the way Sassy says they did. Her girls over at the hair-braiding salon get to talking in her ear and all of a sudden something that was supposed to be just a private conversation between on-again, off-again lovers turns into some trumped-up assault charge. It’s my fault. I should have known better than to fuck with a Jamaican.
Edwin picks me up the next morning in a rented silver Prius. ‘I’m in town on business,’ he says as I get in. I slam the door just so I can watch him wince. ‘When’s the arraignment?’ he asks.
‘There won’t be one.’
He smirks. ‘Oh yeah, how do you figure?’
‘Sassy’ll drop the charges,’ I say.
‘Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.’
He pulls out of the parking lot onto the road. We pass the steely gray of the jail, the overgrown weeds and brush that line the gravel pass. Looking out of the window, I see a dreadlocked man in bright orange walking out into the sun.
My brother, he doesn’t come like clockwork, but he comes. Every once in a while, his New York-based consulting firm will send a couple of people out to Columbus. Edwin can fulfill his brotherly duties on the company’s dime. He used to take me to dinner at the Kahiki on East Broad until it became a Walgreens. Now, anything will do.
We end up in the back booth of some cheap restaurant. ‘You drinking?’ Edwin asks.
He nods and pores over the menu. We wait. When the waitress comes, she’s smacking gum, her hip cocked. She wants to make sure we know how much our presence bores her, and I want to say, Honey, you’re nothing special either. It’s what I’d say if Edwin weren’t here.
‘You ever gonna marry that girl?’ Edwin asks once the waitress is gone. He has this habit of wiping his forehead with the back of his hand like the old ladies at church when they’re about to catch tongues. He probably learned it from them, back when Auntie Rose used to drag us to the African Christian on Cleveland.
‘I’m not accusing you,’ Edwin says. The waitress plops a basket of rolls down on the table and one jumps out. She does it quick and keeps moving, like a drive-by. I grab the stray roll and start laying butter into it while Edwin watches me. ‘Nana,’ he says, ‘I’m not accusing you. I was just asking. Who am I to give relationship advice, right?’
He’s referring to his divorce from Emily, this tight-assed white girl he met in college. Edwin would never admit it, but she couldn’t stand me. She only came to Columbus once. Auntie Rose and all the other Ghanaian women from our hood spent a whole week preparing food for this bitch’s arrival, and all she ate was a salad. When she met me, she smiled, but it was one of those smiles that rich people volunteering at soup kitchens give to the homeless: pitying and false, filled with the comfort of knowing they never have to see them again if they don’t want to.
The night the divorce went through, Edwin was in Columbus. I got him pissy drunk in a Motown-themed bar, and he let it slip that Emily used to call me his thug brother to her friends at parties. Like, ‘Edwin’s thug brother works at a gas station,’ or, ‘Edwin’s thug brother was picked up for possession.’ When he told me, he’d started crying, and I had to prop him against my body just to get him out of there. And when I put him on the couch in my apartment he was still crying and whispering how sorry he was, but when he woke up he couldn’t remember anything.
‘Sassy doesn’t want to get married,’ I say. It’s only kind of true. Sassy doesn’t want to get married anymore. She did once. When we were high-school sweethearts. Before she found out I was sleeping with other people or that I was using or that every time I said I was going to get her out of Columbus I knew that I wasn’t. That I couldn’t. We’ve been fucking with each other so long it feels like we’re married. She even looks at me that married way sometimes, like the joy and sorrow of all of our years together is hitting her just behind the eyes. But then the joy leaves.
‘Is it cool if I stay with you?’ Edwin asks. Our food has come, and it’s nothing to sing about, but I’m so hungry I could eat a horse eye. I look up, nod.
When we get to my apartment, I make Edwin stand outside so I can do a quick sweep. I’ve been mostly clean, but I keep some shit around, in case of emergencies. I let him into the apartment and show him how the couch folds out, and he listens. I pour us a couple of whiskeys and turn the TV on while I go listen to my messages. The first one’s from Sassy saying she’s sorry, and the second one is from my lawyer saying Sassy dropped the charges.
I come back into the living room, and Edwin’s made himself at home. He’s got his feet on the coffee table and his shirt off, and he’s nursing the whiskey bottle, his empty glass beside him. I start to laugh.
‘What’s funny?’ he asks.
‘You look ridiculous,’ I say, and he laughs too.
‘Ah fuck, I haven’t been back in a minute, huh?’ He stretches out. He’s got feet like mine. The toes all spread out like they can’t stand to be next to each other. We’re seven years apart, we’ve got different fathers, and we don’t look anything alike, but every time I see those duck feet, I know he’s got to claim me.
It’s been five years since Edwin was here. I know because I’ve been counting. I get on the couch beside him and start flipping channels.
He cuffs a hand over his bald head and sighs. ‘Who do I need to see?’ he asks. ‘Who’s still here?’
I run through all of them in my mind: Kojo, Kwesi, Akosua who was Edwin’s girl back in the day, Tatu and NaKwame, the twins Panyin and Kakra. Everyone’s here really. Edwin’s the one who left.
‘Folks are around,’ I say.
He nods. America’s Most Wanted is on Channel 6, and I leave it there. I can feel Edwin looking at me, but he doesn’t say what I know he’s thinking. Auntie Rose used to watch this show. Every Saturday night. We used to joke that the best gift we could ever give her would be to plant one of those crooks somewhere she could spot him and call in. We’d go up to the criminal and be like, Yo, can you meet us by the plantains at the Asia Market on Cleveland? And don’t leave until you see this wrinkly, old black woman in a headscarf calling the police on you, okay?
‘You still watch this shit?’ Edwin asks. He’s coughing from the whiskey and his eyes are getting heavy and liquid, but he hasn’t put the bottle down.
I shrug. ‘Nothing else on.’
He starts to nod off after they show the second criminal sketch. I move him over, take the slipping whiskey bottle from his hand, and put a blanket over him.
I go to my room, smoke a cigarette out the window, and try to fight the urge to call Sassy. When I lose, I watch my fingers dial her number. She answers with sleep in her voice, but it’s only nine o’clock.
‘Nana,’ she says. Her accent was the first thing I ever loved about her. The way she didn’t sound like the Ghana girls or the akata girls I was used to running with. Even when she’s angry, she sounds like she could burst into song at any minute.
‘You want to come over?’ she asks. ‘Talk?’
I picture her. She turned twenty-eight a few weeks after I turned twenty-nine. Everything on her body’s gotten softer. Her breasts, her skin, her smile. When we were younger, when her body was high and hard-edged, I couldn’t wait to fuck her. Couldn’t wait to tell my friends I was fucking her. Now, I mostly think of what all that softness feels like.
‘I can’t,’ I say. ‘Edwin’s here.’
I hear her smile through the phone. ‘Edwin come back finally? Well Auntie Rose must be shouting in her grave.’
‘Yeah,’ I say softly. A breathy silence follows before the click. I can’t remember the last time we said I love you before hanging up the phone. I can’t even remember the last time we said goodbye.
In the morning, I come out to find Edwin in the kitchen frying eggs. ‘Yo, when was the last time you used these pans? I had to run to the store to buy a fucking spatula. And food.’
‘I don’t cook.’
‘What do you eat?’
I pull out a box of cereal from the cupboard and shake it at him. I grab a bowl near the stove.
‘What’s on the agenda today?’ Edwin asks.
‘I have to work,’ I say. ‘Three to nine, but if you want to go see folks in the old neighborhood I can meet up with you after. I bet Mama Phyllis’ll cook something up for you if you tell her you’re here.’
‘I don’t want anybody to go to any trouble,’ Edwin says, but we both know that once word gets out there will be at least one house party with no less than ten Ghanaian women trying to prove that they’re the best cook in all of Columbus, even though Mama Phyllis has always held the title.
Edwin was eight when we left Ghana. I was just a baby. We came to Columbus with Auntie Rose. She told immigration that we were her kids. Our mother was supposed to follow after somehow, but she never found a way, and we never got to know her. At the time, all the Ghanaians coming in were either going to Columbus or the Bronx. It just depended on who you knew. Auntie Rose knew a woman from boarding school whose brother was getting his PhD in linguistics at Ohio State. He took us in.
Our whole childhood was Little Ghana. Parties at the lodge, out-dooring ceremonies and wakes. The African Christian Church was half-Nigerian, but the other half was us, the men shouting prayers and the women in dukus. You could go into any convenience store and start speaking Twi to somebody behind the counter or in the aisles. Edwin’s first kiss was with Akosua Mensah in the steam room of the Red Roof Inn. I walked in on them and they yelled at me. Later, when I asked Edwin how it was, he told me her tongue tasted like crayfish.
Back then all us kids wanted to be like Edwin. He still had the smell of Ghana on him, that authority about him. He had memories of the old country, memories of our mother, the school where she worked in Mampong. He could still speak the language when so many of us had never known anything but English. Edwin even got to play the dondo in church. He’d make the drum live up to its name, flipping it, tapping it, making it talk. We could walk around the playground of Buckeye Village for hours, no adults, just a line of little African ducklings following behind my older brother.
Two weeks after Edwin turned fourteen, he got jumped by some black kids on the east side. Some fucking akatas with nothing better to do than wail on a kid. He told the police they made fun of his accent and told him to go back to Africa, but the police just laughed at him. You’re black too, they said. Who are you describing? They were joking, but Edwin wasn’t the same after that. He refused to speak Twi, even with Auntie Rose. He started dating white girl after white girl. He’d sit in the church, stony-eyed and forlorn. One day, three years after Edwin got jumped, I asked if he would take me and NaKwame to the Rec Center for some touch football, and he yelled at me. He said when people looked at us all they were ever going to see was our blackness, not our Africanness. There would be no difference unless we made one. He said we were stuck in a country that would eat us alive if we didn’t learn how to live in it. I was ten. I’d already been picked up for stealing from a video-game store. I thought I was living.
I get to work a few minutes late, but it’s no big deal. Uncle Eddie owns the gas station. He owed my Auntie Rose more than a couple of favors, so I mostly get to do what I want around here, though I try to do the right thing.
‘I hear Edwin’s in town,’ Uncle Eddie says.
I pick up a broom and start sweeping. ‘Where’d you hear that?’
‘Some Ghana boys saw you at a restaurant,’ he says. ‘Tonight we’ll party, enh? Mama Phyllis is killing the goat as we speak.’ He laughs then rushes out.
The station is quiet. I listen to the clock and try to count each click of the second hand. The slushie machine behind the counter churns red over and over and over. Before long, a group of kids pull up to the pump, rap music blasting. The driver comes in. He’s white, blond hair and a polo shirt.
‘Hey, whattup? Can I get twenty dollars on number two?’ He grins at me and looks out at his car. The top half of a brunette’s body is leaning out of the window, her tits barely contained by the top she’s wearing. She waves at him, and he flips her off, laughing, turning back towards me with a shrug.
I print the receipt, and pass it to him, and he leans over the counter. ‘Hey man, you wouldn’t happen to know where to buy some weed around here, would you? We’re in town for the football game, and I don’t have any Columbus connects, so . . .’ His voice trails off. He’s still got that daft grin on his face, but he’s looking at me like we’re old friends.
I do my best Nigerian accent because I never mastered a Ghanaian one. ‘Get out of my store-oh!’ I shout. ‘Get out of my store before I cause you to suffer!’
The boy backs away slowly, confused. His car hits the pavement outside, and I can hear him yelling, ‘The dude was crazy!’
I pop open the can of beer I keep behind the counter for days like this. At nine, Edwin picks me up from the store. He throws me a change of clothes. ‘Uncle Eddie told you about the party, huh,’ I say, trying to wiggle out of my work pants.
‘Nope,’ he says. ‘Kos called.’
The party is at Mama Phyllis’s house. She greets us at the door. There isn’t a fatter woman on the planet, at least not one still capable of walking, but she knows she looks good, that she cooks good, that she has fed an entire community of people for decades. She pulls Edwin into the folds of her skin, the long line between her breasts splitting open to welcome him.
‘Akwaaba!’ she sings.
We push into the room, and it’s a familiar sight. Little girls with their hair in Afro puffs bossing around the little boys in suits. Bored teenagers, hunched over their cell phones, waiting for the moment when their parents will be too drunk to notice them sneak away. And the adults, the old heads, dressed as if Ghana were just a place in the back of their closets instead of miles, miles away.
Edwin shakes hands with all the uncles as we pass through the hallway. In the kitchen, the aunties are gossiping as the soup simmers.
Akosua is there. She’s balancing her son on her hip and with her free hand she holds her daughter.
‘Edwin,’ she says. ‘Good to see you.’
Edwin mumbles something in response and moves closer to her and her kids. I go off to the back porch where Uncle Eddie is busy grilling meat. He has a kente-cloth apron with kiss the cook written on it. I grab a Guinness from the blue cooler by the door and stand next to him. He slings an arm over my shoulder.
‘Eh Nana, I bet you are happy to see your elder brother!’ he says. I nod absently. I can see into the kitchen from the window at the back of the house. Edwin is holding Akosua’s baby, and her girl is running around him in circles. Mama Phyllis and Auntie Mensah watch them discreetly from the stove, and I can imagine what they’re saying. Isn’t this the way it was supposed to be?
NaKwame enters from behind the fence. ‘What’s good, bruh?’ he says, slapping my hand. He smells of weed, but if Uncle Eddie notices, he doesn’t say anything. ‘Where’s the Ghanaian prince?’ NaKwame asks.
I point to the window. He shakes his head. ‘Yo, if your brother gets Akosua hung up again before he bounces, I’ll fucking kill him myself. I don’t care if he’s family.’
Uncle Eddie clips the back of his head with the tongs. ‘Watch your mouth!’ he shouts.
NaKwame rubs, but doesn’t speak. He motions for me to follow him, and we creep into the house. The younger kids are chasing each other in the living room. A can of orange Fanta flies off the table and spills all over the carpet. The kids stop, arrested, but moments later they’re back at it.
NaKwame and I go up to the bathroom on the second floor and lock the door behind us. He pulls out a glass pipe, translucent, blue. I crack open the window while he packs a bowl, and below us the music starts at full volume, causing the floor to vibrate. Soon someone will come find us and drag us onto the dance floor.
‘What happened with Sassy?’ NaKwame asks.
I take a hit and hold it until my chest starts to burn. ‘She dropped the charges.’
‘Jamaicans, man,’ he says, as though that says it all, and I nod. ‘You know, we could drive over to Cleveland and see what’s up. How long is Edwin in town?’
I shrug. ‘He didn’t say.’
When Edwin left for Princeton there wasn’t a Ghanaian around who didn’t know about it. Auntie Rose used to shout from the rooftops. All us younger kids kept hearing what an example he was, but when he didn’t come home for Christmas or the summer, they started to worry and clutch their children closer. Who knew what America did to children? Auntie Doreen said at the hospital where she worked a white girl had slapped her own mother. An akata girl with five kids and no husband had come in with bruises on her face and hands. All of this was America’s fault. It didn’t matter what color you were, if you were American.
I’m high when the yelling starts. NaKwame puts the weed away and flushes the toilet. We wave our hands wildly like we can make the air move faster.
‘Open this door!’ a voice roars. It’s Mama Phyllis, her voice so low I can feel it in my stomach.
I open the door, and take her in. There’s panic in her eyes. ‘Come, now,’ she says. ‘Edwin is shouting.’
NaKwame sits on the edge of the tub. He’s staring at the ceiling and blinking slowly, the redness of his eyes disappearing behind his lids.
‘Stop what you are doing and come,’ she says, disapproving.
NaKwame and I go downstairs, then out to the back, where a circle of people watch Edwin and Akosua. I have to push through them to get to the front, and even then Priscilla’s giant ’fro blocks
‘What do you know?’ I hear Edwin shout at Akosua.
‘You couldn’t even come home for my daughter’s outdooring! You’ve completely lost touch with everyone, even Nana. Do you know what is happening to Nana? He hasn’t been sober one week since Auntie Rose died. He’s a fucking mess.’
Then, Priscilla steps to the left, and it is like the end of a solar eclipse, the moon of her hair making way for Edwin’s eyes to meet mine.
We watch each other for a minute, and then Edwin walks away, silent now, past the uncles and the aunties, into the house, out the front door.
I go up to Akosua, grab her shoulders and stare into her eyes. I want to shake her, but I remember Sassy, remember how I shook her last week when she told me she didn’t want to see me anymore. When she told me that we couldn’t keep doing this to each other.
Instead, I clutch Akosua so hard my fingers start to hurt. She gulps in a sob and whispers, ‘Don’t hurt me, Nana. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’
NaKwame comes through. He seems to have gained control over his face. He lifts my hands from Akosua and moves me aside.
I look around as the crowd hesitantly disperses.
‘Can I have your keys?’ I ask NaKwame, and he tosses them to me. I run out of the house to the beat of highlife music.
At first, I don’t think that this is an emergency, but then I remember the stash between my mattress and box spring, and change my mind, get myself worked up. I’ve got one tiny, glistening rock left, and I know it won’t get me high enough to begin searching for Edwin. I go back to my apartment, smoke it quickly, and try to decide on a course of action.
NaKwame drives a souped-up Cadillac, nice rims, clean. I check his seat cushions, but there’s nothing in them. I cruise around Franklinton until I find some boys who I know sell cheap. I smoke until my head is a cloud of calm, and then I drive to Sassy’s salon.
Tisha comes to the door. She is a black brick of a woman, a six-foot-tall Bajan with dreadlocks down past her ass and arms that look as though they’ve been used strictly for the purpose of holding up the world. ‘Nuh-uh,’ she says.
‘This is an emergency, Tish.’
‘You’re high off your ass, Nana. I’ll be damned if I let her go anywhere near you today.’
I do my best impression of a sober man. ‘Tisha,’ I say, counting my blinks, making sure to space them appropriately. ‘My brother is missing. He’s been having a hard time, and I don’t know if he’s in some kind of trouble.’
‘He’s having a hard time? Is he high and harassing his girlfriend too?’
I start to cry, which was not part of the plan. ‘I just. I need her, okay? I need Sassy.’
Finally, Sassy comes to the door. Tisha gives her a hard look, but she nods her away. We go out to a bench on the sidewalk.
‘I really didn’t mean to come here like this,’ I say.
Sassy rubs her hand along my forearm, but she’s sitting at a distance. You could fit two bodies between us.
‘I’ve never seen Edwin angry like that. Not like that.’
She sighs. ‘He’s a grown man, Nana. Let him go. This place is Gotham City to him, right?’
Gotham City. Edwin and I used to talk about it all the time. I was seven and obsessed with Batman. Back then, Auntie Rose was working the night shift as an LPN at the nursing home on Clime. We could barely afford food, let alone movies. She used to steal the VHS tapes from the storeroom in the back whenever she could, and one day she managed to get a copy of Batman Forever.
I can’t remember the details of the movie. I can’t even remember who played Batman, but I remember that Edwin watched it with me on the busted television set we’d picked out of the dumpster behind Muskingum Court. Auntie Rose had the night off and she sat at the kitchen table folding clothes for the care packages we used to send back to Ghana every month. On the screen, Gotham City was being ravaged by the villain of the week.
When it ended, Edwin and I saw that Auntie Rose had fallen asleep at the table. I helped him carry her to her bedroom. We slipped her shoes off and placed the comforter over her. Edwin dimmed the light, and we went out into the living room to pack our lunches for the next day: corn beef sandwiches, no chips, no drinks. We washed the dishes, finished folding the clothes for the care packages, swept the floor, and then crept into the tiny bedroom we shared.
‘You know what I don’t understand?’ Edwin asked. The streetlamp outside our window flickered its eerie glow, cutting the darkness. I could make out Edwin’s eyes and teeth and sometimes his hands.
‘I don’t understand why anyone would want to stay in Gotham City. It’s a stupid place with all these crazy motherfuckers walking around killing people and blowing shit up. Why don’t they just leave?’
I laughed when he said it because I was too young to understand that Edwin was serious, that he was beginning to rework an idea our families had latched onto, fought for, years before, when they’d dragged Ghana-must-go bags onto the shores of this strange new land. You shouldn’t stay somewhere that isn’t working.
Now, I scoot a little closer to Sassy and stroke her face. She lets me kiss her, lets me lean my head down against her breasts, and she holds me to her for a while. At first, I think I’m the one crying, but then I realize it’s her. Her chest heaves up and down, little waves that bob my head against their current. She clutches tight. A few minutes later, I leave. I know where Edwin is.
We buried Auntie Rose five years ago at Union Cemetery. That was the last time Edwin was in Columbus. I find him sitting down next to her headstone, marked: loving mother, sister, and friend.
I sit beside him.
‘You took good care of it,’ he says. The grass around the headstone has started to die, but there are flowers at the base and little tea candles from the vigil the deacons from church hold every year on the anniversary of her death.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
‘For being such a fuck-up.’
Edwin shrugs then turns back to the headstone. ‘We’re just fucked up in different ways is all.’
I run my hand down my face. ‘Sassy and I broke up,’ I say. ‘For good this time.’
‘When did this happen?’
Edwin smiles at me and puts an arm around my shoulder.
Photograph © Cody Pickens
Photograph © Alexander Mueller