James rented the room for two nights. He stuffed the key, a plastic card advertising Domino’s Pizza, into his jacket before and drove to Claremont Village where Darrell and his mother still lived.
A Jet’s skull cap lay on the passenger seat where it had been for six months, price-tag attached. James had been certain the Jets were Darrell’s team, but now he didn’t know. It was two days before Christmas, twenty-seven years after they’d first met. He’d known Troy, but not Darrell or Barry. He couldn’t remember whose idea it had been to get on the subway.
James hadn’t been the one to ask for the five dollars. That had been Troy who wanted to play video games. James hadn’t even had a screwdriver, much less a sharpened one. Some reporter must have made that shit up. Darrell got it the worst, two bullets, one in the spine. The one that hit James grazed his spleen. He’d walked out of Bellevue two months later. Darrell spent the next year at St. Vincent’s.
Now James sat outside Claremont Village in the car his brother had taught him to drive after his release last year. He had been living with him, his wife, and two kids ever since, everybody telling him it would take time to get on his feet. Nobody thought he’d serve his entire sentence. At least he didn’t have a parole board telling him they hoped he’d learned his lesson. He’d already heard that line.
Darrell’s mother answered the door
“I brought this for Darrell,” he said, handing her the cap. “I know how he loves football.”
“ James. It’s been forever,” she said, hugging him.
Once inside, he shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the artificial Christmas tree, the branches laced with bare patches where the needles had fallen off, as if it were real after all.
“That is too kind. How you doing, son?” She placed the cap under the tree. “I’ll tell him it’s from you on Christmas. Something to look forward to. He’s in his room for the night, but I don’t think he’s asleep yet.”
She led him down a small hallway into a room where Darrel rested on a hospital bed. He noticed the Jets’ pennant on the wall.
“Darrell, you got company.”
Darrell sat a small computer on the bedside table and looked at his mother. “Who is he?”
“You remember James. He was there that day.”
“It’s been a long time.” James felt guilty, even though he’d been to visit him in the hospital when they didn’t know how much brain damage had occurred after his heart stopped. He’d overheard Darrell’s cousin saying that Darrell was going to be a retard now on top of
“Time pauses,” Darrell said. At least that’s what James thought he said. “I stay here.”
“Yes, baby, you stay here,” his mother said. “James brought you a present. But we’ll open everything on Christmas day.”
Darrell shrugged and turned back to his computer.
“He loves that thing. His sister bought it for him so he could stay connected. But all he does is play Club Penguin.”
James didn’t know what Club Penguin was, but stayed quiet. He felt like every conversation exposed how much he no longer knew about what was happening. It gave him a lonely feeling. As did this room which looked like a cross between a child’s bedroom and a hospital, with its pale blue color and tiny bookcase crammed with coloring books and medical supplies.
“He always did like to play games,” James said.
“You hungry? I got some snacks.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble.” He felt like a giant standing at the foot of Darrell’s bed, careful not to lean on the railing.
“Ain’t trouble at all.”
James followed Darrell’s mother into the living room, relieved. He waved at Darrell who didn’t look up from his screen.
Darrell’s mother set down a plate of cookies. “Store-bought. I didn’t have time this year to cook anything. Not even Divinity. Gonna miss that sweet Divinity.”
He took a cookie even though he wanted to run. Darrell’s mother handed him a napkin, a Christmas scene with Snoopy and all the kids in the cartoon, even the one black kid. He couldn’t remember the black kid’s name.
“How things been since you got out?”
“Okay. Hard to find a job. Prison don’t train you for much.” James looked at his shoes, a pair of Nikes he’d found at his brother’s house
Darrell’s mother looked at him and shook his head. “Today’s the day. I try not to think about it, All I know is he got a squirrel rescue now. You mean to tell me that a squirrel means more than my boy? Bible says His eye is on the sparrow, Mr. Goetz. Don’t say nothing about squirrels.”
“No ma’am.” James hadn’t known about the squirrels.
“Don’t do anyone good to hold onto revenge. And you got nothing to be ashamed of. You boys made the history books. Isn’t that something?”
He nodded. “May I use your restroom?”
“Of course. I got to change Darrell’s leg bag.”
Hunched on the floor, he opened the cabinet underneath the sink. He ran the water and took out a box of pads. In the back, there was basket full of pill bottles. He pocketed a bottle of Valium that dated back to 1984. They were prescribed to Darrell’s mother, no doubt by a doctor who took mercy on her during the months she waited to see if Darrell would live.
He walked back into the small living room, glancing at the hat he’d brought, wishing he’d wrapped it.
“He’s resting now.” Darrell’s mother washed her hands in the kitchen sink with a bar of Lava Soap.
“I best be going,” he said, edging toward the door.
“You have yourself a merry Christmas, James.” She looked at him. “You got somewhere to go?”
“Yes, ma’am.” His room at the Paradise Motor Lodge awaited him.
Someone had hung a string of lights outside their window across from his room. Closing the curtains, he ran tap water into a Styrofoam cup. He took all the pills and then scratched the label off the bottle so that Darrell’s mother wouldn’t get into trouble. The bottle fell off the sink into the toilet.
Back in bed, he took off his jacket and set his driver’s license on the table. Now he would sleep without nightmares forcing him awake.
In his dreams James glimpsed Bernie’s blonde hair, the tall skinny man reminding him of a praying mantis, a bug pictured in his middle school science book. Bernard Goetz with his Smith and Wesson aimed to fire. Twenty-seven years ago on this very day, and no one has forgotten, least of all him.
He thought about the bottle bobbing up and down, nodding yes, and closed his eyes. He could see Bernard Goetz taking his final shot at Darrell, saying, You don’t look so bad. Here’s another. He put his hands over his ears, forgetting that he couldn’t muffle the voice coming from inside his head.
Image by Edward Honaker
Michelle Brooks has published a collection of poetry, Make Yourself Small, (Backwaters Press), and a novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy, (Storylandia Press). A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in Detroit, her favorite city.