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Ties

I met a man in the joint. He was from Trinidad and mentally fine-tuned to crazy. But he was also harmless and we all took care of him. A gentleman philosopher honest as sunshine, Trinee had a saying for every situation. You listened to him and you'd think he was a hundred years old. Yet he was as young as any of us.

Once I heard him say how, when Lion gets old, common Dog fucks him. I cracked up when he said this to make a point in a funny story. But there's serious sense in Trinee's nonsense. And I, for one, never want to grow old so feeble. Not unless things change around in this town.

I went to the joint because I wanted to live the American Dream. Not too much, or too fancy. Just the ordinary American Dream featuring food, good appliances, some fine clothes, and a steady income. No fancy cars! They're not for me. I will always pay the taxi-man. I'd even take the trains, rather than have sanitation trucks, dogs, and vandals make my ride ugly. Yes, all I wanted was an average portion of the apple pie, minus the car. Thing is, nobody ever showed me how to get it, except my brother Stone. And he was a hard man.

Mama had named him Winston Shaka Jones. But his real name was Stone. He was six years older than I, and by the time I first could talk he had the name already. He was a watchful guy, never spoke much about anything. That doesn't mean he was a thinker, now. Neither does it say that he was stupid. Stone was a one to do what someone told him. It had to be the right someone, of course. Mama used to tell Stone to make something of himself, because his father had made him a ravager. She always told him that: 'Your father made you a ravager'! It was as though she fancied the sound of it. Stone never said anything back. You ever hear a rock talk?

Stone's father had raped Ma when she was sixteen. He was her father's good buddy, and could visit the house when Gramps was away. He raped her twice in one week. When she told her mother, and Gramma told Gramps, he said somebody had to do her the favor sometime. But then Gramps was a no-good anyhow.

Once when Ma was upset, she told Stone what she thought of his father--mean, bitter things. Stone begged her then for permission to find the brute and end him. He was a fist-hearted fifteen-year-old man, but that night his tears were running full as he asked. Ma looked at him as if long lost, and then she said, 'Don't bother, son'. She hardly ever called us 'son'. Then she went over and held his face to her bosom. She was crying, too.

Stone was my man. From since I was in kindergarten, he was who I wanted to be. He was the nearest thing to Superman that I knew. He always got a job done, whatever the job. When I was about twelve, Stone took me under his wing. I was very careful to be cool about it. But I was happy as a soap bubble in summer. He taught me to play ball, to fight dirty, to steal and rob and hustle and con people. Even though it was much harder than school stuff, I learned everything. Stone didn't like to teach the same thing twice. Soon I felt I could do some things better than he. But we had no hassles. For a while it was all good life. Then Stone decided to make a soldier of himself. So he joined the Army to see the world, and they showed him a Gulf war.

Sometimes, in the joint, time gets long. It's best then to just sit and think. I call it 'monking', because you can become so inspired with revelations and understandings. After a monking spell you may get angry in a strange way. Every time you remember a wrong done you, a chill embraces you, forcing your belly muscles a little tighter, permanently. Make a check of all the brothers in jail. Those who look strong and lean, I bet they're either revenge-bent hating, or hugging madness close. If there's a difference.

Whenever I thought about Stone, I would read a book, any book. I read a good bit. I suppose I have a sort of angry prison education.

I admired Stone more than anyone else in creation. Yet he lived and died close to me and I never knew him. Maybe I love him because I didn't know him. Maybe Stone was a mean guy. I don't know. I don't know if Stone had a sense of humor. I don't know what he liked in women. I never knew if he had a favorite beer. So now I get mad thinking of Stone. Somehow, someone stole my brother's personality from me. But then, I might've been careless with it. So I am cool.

Seven years in the joint taught me one or two tricks. A good one is how to be patient in anger. I learned patience from being bored working in the prison library. In a few years I had patiently read every book they stacked. That way I picked up a liberal education, too. Otherwise I could've been a reluctant bookkeeper. That's what the authorities in the joint had decided to teach me to be. I guess they were trying to show me the pathway to upward social mobility. I didn't apply myself, though. I figured that if it was so hot, why weren't they all doing it? They wanted riches. And on the other side, I didn't expect many business folks would be eager to hire a bookkeeper with my record.

Watching the power of justice was another trick I learned. Up on the top edge of Central Park, like layers and layers of stubbornness, there is a great mass of black stone, a hard cap to the natural heart of the city. I always picture it when I think of the Justice System in this town. Being involved in that system is like being stuck in the middle of that unfeeling mass of hardness. That's if you don't have power: to slip, to slide, or explode out. And to folks like me, power comes in different guises. It's not easy to hold, or even recognize.

I have seen guys pray to the jailhouse lawyer as though he was God. Just because he, a prisoner like them, could comprehend that unnatural legal thinking, those traditional laws that changing times have made foolish. So, to them, the jailhouse lawyer is a great man. Guys would beg him to listen to their cases. They'd approach him as though it was Judgment Day, and they have a fifty-fifty chance of getting in, and he's the one with the deciding vote. They're so reverent! You find out that these 'common criminals' are men who could tell a good joke. Or movie buffs who want a good education for their kids. And it's the prison lawyer who has power to change them so. For to many a brother in jail, he is the best and last hope.

This lord of promise was no help to me, though. I had an open and shut case: accessory to murder of an officer and a civilian; attempted robbery; assault of all the officers who tried to kill me after they had handcuffed me; and a few misdemeanors they ganged up as writing space ran out. The trial didn't take long. The prosecutor mentioned my address and the judge became red in the face. Then his lips closed up tight like a disturbed oyster. My legal-aid defense counsel was like a little boy on a big seashore: you hardly noticed he was there.

What saved me some was my minority. I qualified as juvenile, unschooled, and unable to understand the best ways to progress in regular society. So I got life, meaning three to ten. Not too bad. It kept me out of wars and other trouble.

When Stone came back from the government's war, we had begun some serious hustling. The difference from before was Stone. With a gun in his hand he had become a mechanic of menace. His moves had incredible smoothes. This was from his Vietnam training. People who saw him armed knew he was dangerous. They did exactly what he said. Which was very nice, since we were able to stop mugging poor folks, and lived off the high-priced little stores, and such-like. It was quicker money, less time on the streets, and easier on everyone. We never hurt a soul.

Stone spent a lot of the money on Mama, giving her a good time in the fancy life. I sort of let him. They had their special thing I stayed out of. Once he bought her a fine mink coat. Mrs. Saunders, who had a true eye for style, said Mama wore it like she was born to mink. And Mama seemed to believe that. For you wouldn't have believed her graciousness when Stone and I took her to those fancy-named restaurants. I'm sure Ma went to every Caribbean country boasting a hotel and an airport. Yes, she did make merry of her little self. She knew that Stone was trying to make up for his birthright. Just as she had to know we were robbing and stealing. But we never spoke about such things. What was there to say?

I got the idea for the numbers joint take-off by accident. It came on a cool fall day. Angel and I had been playing ball in the park, him in dungaree coveralls, me in jeans. He was going to show me the mightiest dunk shot ever by a six-foot-one, unknown high-school player. He started fifteen feet right of the hoop, driving in powerfully from an angle, then he leaped for height and-- only managed a mighty miss.

The ball took off, ricocheting over the fence and into the street. Then a telephone repairman ran out from behind a repair truck and tossed the ball back to us. The freaky thing was that the guy, even down to his coveralls, was Angel's double. We agreed that it was some kinda weird, then ended the game and started for the bodega to get something to cool down over. As we passed the telephone repair van, Angel decided he'd play the van's license plate number. And surprised me by going into a little doorway almost blocked by the repair van: a new, but thriving numbers joint.

Half-hour later, Stone was satisfied with my answers. I had told him that, yes, there was a fresh-dug, open trench between the curb and the truck. That the men were working in it. And that, yes, the numbers-man with the gun sat his protection well inside the joint's door, as he didn't want to be conspicuous to the repairmen. Only then did Stone agree to go shopping with me. We bought apparatus that telephone repairmen carried: coveralls, two yellow hard-hats, oversized plastic goggles, pliers, and some colored wire. And we were ready.

Next day, there were no newspaper stories about the stick-up of a numbers joint. To street people that meant no one had died, so the police were staying out of it. But, the street also had it that the numbers people had lost near one hundred thousand dollars' worth of very spendable money. They had no idea who'd taken them off. The two robbers had entered saying they were from the phone company. Every man, woman, and child who heard the news wished they'd been the heroes.

About three hours after that non-stick-up, two quietly dressed young men stepped into a small hardware store on the East Side. If anything was remarkable about them, it was that they were so circumspect in deportment. They virtually trod the pavement softly. The younger, more outgoing one asked the storekeeper for some rubber bands. He was courteous and spoke nicely. The other young man stood by silently. He remained just inside the door and carried in one hand a large, filled shopping bag. There was something magnetic about his silence. He seemed charged, alert, set like a rattleless viper. This quiet one was looking at the store's only other occupant: a brown-skinned, middle-aged woman. In that neighborhood, perhaps somebody's maid. She was in the store's phone booth occupied at frowning as she concentrated on her conversation.

While he was bagging the rubber bands, the shopkeeper glanced over to the watchful young man. The gesture was more of curiosity than caution -- as if he didn't like the boy's quiet, but wasn't threatened by it. The transaction completed, the young men turned to leave.

Exactly that moment, the door opened and a new customer entered. Instantly, the quiet one fastened his gaze on this new man. And right then came a moment when time paused on the brink, before the events of its smooth flow jumbled on together. Some things went so fast it took enormous effort to recall them at all. And some things happened too slowly for ever forgetting.

The new man wrenched round to face the intense stare. Then he spread his legs and put his back to the door, defending it against the boys' exit. His reassuring voice announced, 'All right, everybody, take it easy'. The take-charge tone identified him. He was a well-trained plainclothes officer who knew trouble when he saw it.

The nice young man was quick in his response. 'No trouble, officer', he said, 'no trouble at all. Ask the man'. And the boy looked over to the shopkeeper.

The shopkeeper was smiling nervously. He didn't want trouble in his store. Meanwhile, the nice young man leaned privately on the hard one. He urged in a whisper, 'Let's go, man. Chill, chill out'! The defiant one responded reluctantly, like a rock shifted by a great effort. But he was moving. The nice one reached for the door handle. He was working hard being casual.

The new man now seemed embarrassed by his overreaction and relinquished the door slowly. The nice boy moved aside for the other to leave ahead of him. But as this young man passed, the man reached over to poke suspiciously at the bag. He demanded, 'What you got in there'? At that, the hard young man flowed into action.

Stone released the bag most gently. With no other motion, and before the bag had hit the floor, he was holding the poking hand. He twisted it somehow and the officer's face was jerked down to collide with Stone's rapidly rising knee. At the same time Stone's other hand reached for the man's hair. He grabbed it and twisted violently. And I heard the muffled, crunching sound with which life deserted the bewildered man. It was all done faster than I can say.

I was fascinated. I couldn't speak and tears rushed to my eyes. I had never seen physical action so perfect. He had performed the brutal act of killing with a graceful finesse that was wonderful. He must've felt my emotion, for he glanced oddly at me, his face set proud. Then, as our eyes met, I saw him flinch and go dead. Same time, I heard the shot.

A big hole had splattered out the top of his chest. It went from a quick jagged white to a brown flowing red. I spun around to see the shopkeeper with the shotgun still in his hands. He was trembling badly and spitting white froth from the side of his mouth. He looked older than he had just a moment before and shook his head as though violently negating the scene, dislodging his glasses. He clutched the wavering shotgun with one hand and snatched to right his glasses, but only succeeded in completely knocking them off.

My bullets hit him somewhere in the trunk region. I saw no wounds or bloody spots appear on his haggard face. He just seemed to brace unsuccessfully against some invisible, avenging whiplash. Then he crumpled across the counter and with a sobbing, gargling sound started to die.

I felt Stone pulling at my pants-cuff. My eyes were rivers and snot was running in between my open lips. I looked for something to blow my nose and wipe my face with. Stone kept tugging at my pants-cuff. Impatient with the irritation, I blew out my nose onto the bloody floor. Then I dried my face with my jacket sleeves and looked to attend my main man.

Stone's left shoulder and arm were almost blown away. The thick blood was surging out of him and onto the floorboards. It seemed so much. Stone wanted something. He was trying to tell me what, but all I heard was a gurgle. His face showed a lot of damage, but mainly, it looked sweat dirty. Then he looked at my hand and I understood. It was the gun he wanted. So I put it on his shoulder and let some blood run over it. Then I pulled up his good hand to hold it there, making him look like some macabre marksman at rest after firing. Then he did the one thing that could break my heart. Stone cried.

The tears were seeping through his half-closed eyes and running down the sides of his face into his ears. I thought it must feel uncomfortable. But I was at a loss for what to do. I seemed unable to move, to comfort him. All my life he had taught me to take care of business. But I didn't know how to comfort someone when they were dead. So I just sat there in his sticky blood, crying and feeling protective.

He was trying to talk again and couldn't because the blood was in his throat. After a while he began to cough and cough and cough. I said, 'Take it easy, man', concerned that his shoulder couldn't take such a jarring. Then he said something. It sounded like, 'I ain't no rapist'. But it was a wheezing rasp of a whisper. What was clear in it, though, was the righteousness of the innocent. Then Stone died.

I never told Mama about that part. I didn't want her to know what he was thinking last. For no one loved her more than Stone. I didn't.

I never found out what happened to Stone's body. I was in hospital recovering from the arresting officers for a month after he died. Mama lasted about two years more. When I got to jail, she used to come see me once every month. But we didn't have much to talk the hour out. She really wanted to know more about Stone. She was asking me something I couldn't tell her.

After she passed, they took me once to see her grave. Her neighbors in the building had buried her. They had also petitioned for my pass to visit the cemetery. At the gravesite, no sadness came to me. Instead, I found myself wondering what had become of the mink coat and all that jewelry Stone had bought her.

Jail was good to me. I was educated there. When I went in, I was like that officer Stone destroyed: just an average dummy with minimal education and a lot of good instincts. I learned to think in the joint. I came to understand that time is friendly if you keep yourself ready. And of course, I never went anywhere. But I had one joy: a pleasure I fought with every day. You see, I didn't want to become dependent on it. For I had no control over it. 'It' being the letter I got every two weeks.

Men in jail become pathetic in their dependencies. Without ever realizing, they make themselves into puppets. Everybody manipulates them: other prisoners, guards, officials, then by chaplains, by entertainers, by their own children and their women, and most of all, by their hopes.

This can cause some strange changes. I've seen lover-men go weird. From Romeos who broke and balled the ladies outside, love-sickness turns them into lisping, stubble-chinned, prison-yard queens. For salvation from prison, men have been born again, lost themselves in hobbies, developed occult philosophies, become militant, or mental defectives. Sometimes they seek death with rash cunning, smiling all the while. Sometimes they just go mad. But they hardly ever recognize they're dancing for an uninterested puppeteer named Hope. For in prison, salvation is not your own to find. They have no saviors there.

Sometimes when I knew my letter was due I would begin to avoid mail call. I learned to enjoy the pain of avoiding mail call. I'd do it gradually, a day at a time, holding myself in check when I felt the anticipation rise. After a while, I learned to like the thrill itself, minus the gratification. There were times when I suspended pleasure until I could pick up two letters at a time. Once I did three.

The letters always got to me looking old in their cream-colored, six-by-three envelopes. Regardless of postmarked origin, which changed frequently, the return address was always one word: Harlem. I liked that. I read it as a defiant camaraderie. They were addressed in liquid black ink, used by an old-fashioned nib pen dipped in an inkpot. Fine lines were impressed on the envelope so that the writing was neat and straight. Yet, the handwriting was nervous and unpracticed, a crochet of words formed letter by letter and linked by flourishes. It was mostly this time and concern in production that made these letters my constant comfort and solace.

They always began, 'My dear son Othello. . . They always ended with, 'A Prayer for Those Awaiting Deliverance'. I never said the prayer, but I respected it. The letters themselves didn't give anything much in the form of news. I usually flushed them down the toilet just after reading. I kept the stamps, though. These I dated and put under my mattress in a prison envelope -- my treasury. What these letters unspokenly said was that the old cleaning lady was keeping up her end.

After Old Man Death walked away with his full bag, the shop knew a moment of relief. That was just a feeling, though. The fact was, I was sad and very frightened. There was blood and dead people all around. One of them was the law. There was also a shopping bag containing one hundred and twenty-six thousand dollars wrapped in a bath towel. It was a bad spot to be in. I knew I should get out of there but was too listless to move. Moreover, there was blood all over me. And I really didn't want to leave my man. But neither did I want to face those officers who were radioing their rapid approach.

As if from a distance, I heard Mama's voice saying softly, 'You'd better soon get away from all this trouble, son'. For a moment, terrifying thoughts of angels and the supernatural overwhelmed me. I actually gasped for breath. But immediately I realized she wouldn't have said that, or in just those tones. So then I was only surprised. I looked around. The old lady who'd been in the phone booth was walking toward the front door, carefully avoiding the spots of blood and disorder. She was obviously leaving, intent on minding her own business. In a confusion, I also knew there was nothing I was going to do about it.

Suddenly, without thought, I said, 'Wait! Please, wait'. She paused, one hand on the doorknob, and the words spilled out of me. 'Here, take this', I said, grabbing the bag and holding it out to her. 'Please, ma'am. Use whatever you want. Please. Keep the rest safe for me. Anyhow you want. Here! These keys are to safe-deposit boxes. Take them. This is all my ID. Please, ma'am, hold it for me. I love my brother. I have to suffer with him. His name is Stone. Please!'

I was moving all the while: rushing things to her, handing the bag to her, explaining, pleading, and crying again. Sniffling like a baby. At last she said, 'Well, okay, son, okay. I'll take care of your business for you. Just as you ask. But now I need a change of air'.

She had been peering at me head aslant, still half-facing the door and looking uncertain. Then when she said, 'Well, okay', she smiled at me and winked. A spry wink it was. An okay-let's-do-it wink. And with that twinkle, she gained my absolute trust. Then she took the loot and walked out the door still being careful to avoid the gore. The only things that I knew about her were her voice, that she'd worn a red scarf around her neck, and that her accent was Caribbean.

Leaving the joint is an emotional experience. Some men can hardly take it. They ask their people to come and meet them to help them go through the gates. You're glad to leave, of course. But if you've been in for a while, you're leaving old friends. Sometimes they're your only friends. And they're glad to see you go, but they also wish it was them leaving. So in the morning or the night before, when you tell them good-bye, you feel the coldness of their envy. Yet you ignore it. You're too glad to be getting away from that cage of anger and despair. And you know, too, that they're really glad for you. There's just no way they could show it.

But that's not the hardest part of regaining your freedom. The most difficult is stepping into that strange, spacious, glaring world again. You're like a country boy walking first time into a slick, big-city nightclub. Everyone is looking at you. And you know they all think you're a piece of shit. And you have to be cool, 'cause you're not sure about it yourself.

In addition to the usual 'Harlem', there was a real address on the last two letters. It was near Marcus Garvey Park and this was where I headed when I hit the City. That afternoon it was the only certain place in this world. Everywhere else was just a blurred understanding. I headed there express; no stops nowhere. Just having that place to go to made me forever owe the old lady. Lagniappe was that she let me come out on my own.

The house was a four-storied brownstone. It looked solid and secure -- as Trinee would say, 'as though it dere since Hatchet was Hammer'. I rang the super's bell as instructed in the letter.

After a minute, an older man opened the door, put his head out and asked before I could speak, 'You Othello Jones?'

I didn't answer right away. After such a long time locked up, the sound of my name, public and free, was soul music. I savored its song, the cadences: la-la-la laaa.

'Yes, sir,' I told him, 'I'm Othello Jones.'

The man smiled at me. 'Well, sir boss, your apartment's on the top floor. It's nice, spacey, private. Can see the Park from up there. Lots of light. Mrs. Dean said I must see you have everything -- even unto the fatted calf. . .' he chuckled at his reference.

I smiled away, too. Although not so much at what he said, as for his manner. He went on, 'She said you'd see her two weeks from tomorrow. She left some things with me for you. Looks like she's. . .'

. . . he kept on talking, treating me like family, making me welcome.