"get somewhere and sit down," 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas by Jewel Ham. Courtesy the artist
By Elias Rodriques
They smelled gossip the way they smelled rain.
Their noses twitched before they recognized the scent. They wiggled their nostrils as though trying to sift one fragrance from the other. And they drew in thick moisture until it filled their airways, leaving residues that tasted of screened-in porches, summer afternoons. When the cooling wind took hold, they cross-checked their noses with their eyes, heads turning for some glimpse of the horizon and the sky, which were never hard to see on their peninsula, where the highest point was a trash dump five hours south. They looked not for the clouds but for what lay beneath: gray lines streaking, thicker than shadows but patchier than funnel clouds, as if cross-hatched into the air. And they searched for movement, its approach, or its flight.
Theirs was a prophesying they had not recognized as such. They had accurately predicted summer storms so often that they thought it more science than magic. And they had been raised where everyone shared common weather antennae, where predictions of precipitation were such a well-established genre of speech that they did not notice it any more than they did their several kinds of present tense. But it was a kind of foresight. And on that late April evening in 2017, Jerome, the last surviving member of the Freeman family, took part in that Floridian ritual, having felt the air shift as though uncomfortable in its sleep, but he did not smell rain.
As he walked into the house party in Bunnell, he identified the scent when the eyes of the crowd in the dark lit up with recognition. He tried to quell his suspicions as old friends and relatives dapped him up and embraced him, guiding him in a switch-backed route to each person bobbing on the carpeted living room turned into a dance floor. And yet, even though the humidity hung heavy between the bodies crammed together in movement, he felt the rumors just departed and the ones on the way, the talk filling his insides like the smell of rain.
Jerome did not let his senses overwhelm him, as he had when he was young. He stopped every conversation short. He was looking for someone. When he finally made his way onto the back porch, shadowed by light peering through the kitchen window, he saw a group of young men holding their hips as if elderly and old men sagging their pants as if juvenile. They gathered around in the corner, yelling numbers and talking shit, pausing only for the click clacking of dice knocking together. When the dice came to a stop, some fell quiet and others erupted into screams. In their midst, one with close-cropped hair gathered stray bills, arranged them, and threw others on the ground. Before he could pick the dice up, Jerome said, “Peanut, I ain’t bailed you out but four hours ago, and you already shooting?”
The crowd turned and screamed, clamoring around Jerome and greeting him with handshakes and tapped fists. The last to welcome him, Peanut, threw an arm around Jerome’s back and dangled a hand in front of his shoulder.
“Rome,” Peanut said. “I ain’t even realize you got here. You fixing to lose some money tonight?”
“I’m straight,” Jerome said.
“You ain’t fixing to snitch?”
“Nigga, I’m your lawyer. What you tripping for?”
“The old Rome would’ve been thrown some bills on the ground.”
“The old Rome would’ve drove drunk and fought like three niggas on the way through the door.”
“Who you fronting on?” Peanut said. “You been a bookworm since you was eating lunch in the school library.”
The crowd laughed too loud for Peanut to hear Jerome’s response. A few added insults. When the noise quieted, Jerome said, “Rashida here?”
Peanut took a step back and looked Jerome up and down. Then he turned around, cocked an eyebrow, and inspected him again.
“Chill, God,” Jerome said.
A voice yelled from the corner, “Peanut, throw them dice.”
“Think she in the kitchen,” Peanut said as he rejoined the game. “Better hurry up though. You know she don’t stay single.”
“Appreciate you.” As Jerome walked away, Peanut tried to distinguish Jerome’s contours from the shadowy walls. He could make out the center of his blobby body but not its outline. He squinted, and Jerome blurred into the surroundings. Peanut rubbed his eyes, and Jerome opened the sliding glass door, which Peanut detected not through sight but from the squeak of the old screen.
Peanut’s eyesight wasn’t always this bad. He first noticed it getting worse after he started underwater welding for a company based in the Jacksonville port. He loved the work at first. Though breathing through a tube chapped his throat, he enjoyed patching up ships, seeing the way the torch’s light illuminated the submarine world. And the pay provided enough to contribute to his mother’s bills and to save to move out of her house. Things were so good that he did not pay attention to his coworkers, who began to wear glasses and eventually disappeared. He did not think much about them until fifteen months in, when he lay in bed with his eyes closed and saw a faint blue light. He assumed he was seeing things. The glow was dull. He was probably just excited about finally having a job he enjoyed. He figured it better to ignore it.
But in time, the light got brighter. Eventually, it kept him up at night. Sometimes, he could even see it in the day. Then it collapsed in on itself, and a spot of his vision went black. He spoke to his manager, who directed him to human resources, where a white woman in her sixties told him that this was common for underwater welders. She sent him to a doctor, who told him his eyesight was going. He would need glasses. After losing a day’s pay, he returned to work worried. He could not quite see; what if he accidentally cut his hand off? When he shared his fears with his manager, he sent Peanut back underwater, where dread made his thoughts race. In time, his anxiety and deteriorating sight became too much. Even though he had not paid off his student loans to the professional school that had promised him high-salaried, steady work, he quit. But his eyes continued degrading so that, even with his contacts in, on the night that Jerome came to his party, he could barely see his friend—his lawyer—who had gotten him out of jail on his bogus armed robbery case.
“Nigga,” a voice yelled, “you going to stand there all night?”
“Calm down, old head,” Peanut said, returning to the gamblers. He pulled his denim shorts up, crouched, and swept his hand across the floor so swiftly that undiscerning eyes were surprised to see the dice once lying on the floor gone. While looking for the vanished toys, they heard their clacking and realized Peanut held them. He had not seen the dice, of course, but he did see a glint of moonlight and swept his hands across the floor until he felt them.
“Nigga, let them dice go,” one of the older men said.
“This ain’t bingo night, Unc,” Peanut said. “You got time.”
Peanut threw the dice. Because he could not make out the numbers, he waited until the voices yelled. Unc stayed quiet, which told Peanut that he had rolled what he needed to.
“Learn your lesson?” Peanut asked. He picked up the cash on the floor. In the pile’s center, he saw the welder’s blue light again, emanating from the money. He had had the hot hand for some time now. He didn’t know how long his streak would last. He decided to bet conservatively.
“Peanut, who was that?” one of the men in the corner asked.
“You ain’t know?” Unc said. “You just roll up barefoot out the backwoods of Palatka?”
“You better tell him,” Peanut replied.
“That right there’s the prince of Bunnell,” Unc said. “Last son of the Freeman line, oldest Black family in the county. They been here since slavery. White folk let them roam because they knew how to handle dead bodies and the white folk sure as hell wasn’t going to touch no dead nigga, let alone bury them.”
“I heard they was runaways from farther south,” another voice said. “Planned on going north but got to this country town where ain’t nobody know them and just told everyone they was free. Said they last name was Freeman.”
“That’s what I heard,” a third added, “but I heard they ran from a Georgia plantation. Only dumb niggas who thought they’d get free running south.”
“Back in the day, runaways to New Spain got free.”
“That’s what I heard too, but I heard they was New Orleans slaves. Light-skinned folk. That’s where old man Freeman learned how to embalm Black folk so they ain’t stink. Then they started fucking on these Florida niggas and got dark.”
When the chorus of voices died down, Peanut threw a few more bills on the pile, figuring the dice had not let him down yet. He flicked his wrist. He felt a crick and heard a crack. The dice rolled off his hands erratically. Before the voices yelled to tell him what numbers showed, he knew. Peanut shook his head and let the dice lie, a blue light shining from them as a man from the crowd swept up the bills. A weight gathering in Peanut’s stomach, he stood up and stuck out his hand to Unc, who passed him a smoke.
“Read about them in seventh grade,” Peanut said. “Miss Funk’s class.”
“She the one whose classroom that driver crashed into?” Unc said.
“Poor Miss Funk,” Peanut said. “She just minding her business, standing at the white board when the ground shakes. Classroom fills up with smoke. Dry wall everywhere. Some drunk driver picking up their kid smashed into her classroom at Buddy Taylor. She probably pissed herself.”
“They never let her live it down neither,” Unc said. “Covered it in the paper for weeks. Called her the unluckiest woman in the whole county.”
“She the one teaching us,” Peanut continued. “Had us read this book about Henry Flagler. There was one chapter about niggas. Mostly about the Freemans. They was Black embalmers, but they was also slaves. Old man Freeman worked out an arrangement where his master leased him out to bury other folk, and Freeman got paid a little. Sooner or later, he saved up enough to buy himself and his wife. So Miss Funk was teaching us about the Freemans while little Rome Freeman sitting in her class. You know how kids is. We start calling him the Prince of Flagler. Sir Prince Freeman, Duke of the P section, heir to nothing.”
Everyone chuckled, and Peanut turned to the small window looking onto the kitchen. He tried to see past the heads hovering over the sink and the food. He was looking for Rashida’s hair through a clearing between shoulders, but he couldn’t see that far. He couldn’t see Jerome either. And he didn’t know if it was the distance, the darkness, or his eyes that blinded him.
“Freemans wasn’t alone though,” Unc said. “It was them and the Masons. House slaves on the old sugar plantation cross the tracks.”
“Read about them in the book too,” Peanut said. “Rome Freeman and Rashida Mason, the only two folk whose last names still in the town. The book said the Masons was house slaves, then poor folk. Women who made ends meet by cleaning houses. We was just kids, so we cracked on Rashida for always being broke. We might’ve had holes in our shoes, but at least we wasn’t no house niggas.”
“Kids cruel,” Unc said.
“I know it,” Peanut said. “Clowned the both of them then forgot. Then Rashida and Rome started dating in high school and we started cracking on them again. Saying shit like, ‘Check out Prince Rome slumming it up with the slaves.’ Then they’d break up and we’d stop. Then they’d get back together and we’d clown them again.”
“That’s the girl he going to see right now?” someone asked. Peanut nodded. “She fine?”
“She off limits.”
When Jerome walked away from the back porch, he assumed that the dice-throwers’ conversation turned to him and Rashida. In middle school, he had frequently overheard whispers about the two of them during classes where they sat next to each other. And in high school, he had felt the eeriness of silence that fell when they walked into a room together. He learned, in short, how to identify when people were going to talk. After all these years, foreseeing gossip still warmed his cheeks and made him reconsider finding Rashida, as though he were still the same boy who feared that she did not share his feelings and so avoided her, lest she reject him.
But Jerome had driven to this party after a long workday to see her. He could not let himself be dissuaded. As he repressed his stomach’s unease, he made his way to the kitchen, a corridor flanked by a stove keeping pots warm on one side and trays full of food on a counter on the other side. The fried fish, mac and cheese, sweet-potato pies, and more were cratered where partygoers drove serving utensils into the plates. In the corner, a jar of cash to help Peanut get back on his feet overflowed. Jerome shoved some bills in and then had paused to consider making a plate, though his desire to see Rashida rushed him on, when he heard a voice made husky by years of smoking. He turned to see Peanut’s mom, a heavyset woman north of fifty wearing a red apron and holding a wooden spoon. She hugged him. After she let him go, she smiled, gleaming white teeth carving laugh lines deep into her face.
Peanut’s mom, Mae, had not seen Jerome since he played high school football with Peanut. She had heard about Jerome going to law school and then returning to Flagler County to work as a public defender. She had also heard that his father had died. Though she had never much liked the wrathful mortician, who looked down his nose at the church congregation, and though she had heard that he charged Black folk more than white funeral home directors did, Mae felt a pang when she saw his funeral announcement. She wondered if that little boy from that long line of funeral home directors dressed his own father’s corpse. She didn’t reach out because she didn’t want to overstep. But looking at this grown man who had gotten her boy out of jail, stubble shading his face but his eyes the same as ever, Mae regretted not sending flowers. As she inspected his hollowing cheeks, she wanted to ask how he was sleeping, but this was not the time. This was a party and this boy was not so little anymore.
“Glad you made it,” Mae said.
“You know I wouldn’t have missed this,” Jerome said.
“So you say, but I know you college boys get busy.”
“I ain’t been in college for a minute, Ms. Robinson. Besides, you know I ain’t never pass up your food.”
“Let me fix you a plate then. Wasn’t for you, wouldn’t be no party.”
“I ain’t do nothing nobody else wouldn’t.”
“You always was humble. And too skinny.”
Jerome chuckled. As Mae piled food on a Styrofoam plate, he looked away and ran his hand down the back of his neck. The once prickly fuzz growing in was smooth now. He needed a haircut. How long had it been? Jerome tried to count the weeks since his last visit to the shop where Unc worked as he scanned the room for Rashida.
“Boy, you always had a one-track mind,” Mae said. “Go on. She over there.”
“I’m coming back though. Ain’t leaving without my plate.”
“It’ll be here.”
Jerome walked into the front room, where one of Peanut’s Jamaican uncles whispered something to his son, who held the aux cord. The music changed and the bounce caught hold of all the middle-aged men wearing push broom mustaches and Clark desert treks, who two-stepped to the reggae beat with grins. Jerome had heard the uncle and all his friends were tough guys on the island, known for shaking folk down to collect debts. He suspected they were remembering those hardscrabble days now, though it was hard to imagine those old men had ever struck fear into anyone. As Jerome mused about their past, the uncle raised his bottle and nodded. Jerome did the same.
Then Jerome saw her, leaning against the wall with a Solo cup in hand and talking to Wildcat. She was sun-burnished, wearing a dark purple lipstick, a black t-shirt, and white Forces. Her hair was a dark brown, cut close to the scalp, and she wore large gold hoops. She flashed a smile.
“Excuse me, partner,” Jerome said, angling his body between Wildcat and Rashida.
“Ain’t shit change,” Wildcat said, just before Rashida threw her arms around Jerome and her head over his shoulder. Jerome stumbled back. He caught his footing but did not move his arms, the knocking of their clavicles overwhelming him with memories of all the times she ran to him. After all their breakups and months apart, she always returned to him in the wake of personal disaster, sprinting toward him at first sight, until she didn’t.
Jerome last saw her six years ago. They were in his room in the Black fraternity house at the University of Florida. He told her he was not going to law school up north with her; he was staying in Gainesville to get his degree and to be close to his father, who had taken ill. She did not say anything. She pushed her books into her ratty JanSport backpack, left, and avoided him for months, during which time he knew she was angry at him for abandoning their plan and for refusing to cut the umbilical cord, as she once put it. But he assumed she would eventually come around. She might not forgive him for returning to the man who had always treated Rashida like a gold digger, but she would at least say goodbye.
Jerome was wrong. She did not pick up his calls, respond to his texts, or reach out until years later, when Hurricane Matthew washed onto the beach. She asked if he was okay. He was. He parlayed that exchange into a longer conversation, an email chain, and the occasional call, through which she told him about life in Philadelphia: The snow, the style, the people. Then, a few months ago, she said she was coming back to finalize the sale of her childhood home, and even though she agreed to come to Peanut’s welcome-home party at the last minute, Jerome didn’t expect her to hug him. He was surprised that she had buried their bones. When she tightened her embrace, he wrapped his arms around her and closed his eyes for a moment, breathing deep the lavender scent of her hair, the life it brought back to him.
As for Rashida, when the shock of seeing Jerome subsided, when she lost the familiar scent of his sweat that conjured images of the toned boy sweating through his track uniform, and when she realized they were holding each other the way they might in the privacy of a home she once imagined they would live in together, she opened her eyes, let go of him, and withdrew. She inspected her ex-boyfriend. Grays dusted his hair, which retreated from his temples. His body, once thick with muscles put on from high school football, felt bonier now. She knew that he would age, but she didn’t expect the years to be so visible.
“Think your man walked away,” Jerome said.
“I ain’t the type.”
“And you got no claim,” Rashida said.
“Ain’t never stopped me before.”
“Thought you wasn’t the type.”
“And then some more,” Rashida said, rolling her eyes. He was the same person that he was years ago, when he acted like they could just date long distance, as if nightly phone calls would quell his stormy emotions. He was still that boy peering through the crowded hallways to see who she walked with at Flagler Palm Coast High School. He looked older, but nothing had changed.
“Ain’t mean nothing by it,” Jerome said.
“Come on, Rashida. You ain’t got but twelve hours till you head home. You trying to fuss or you trying to have a good time?”
“Depends on what you got in mind.”
Jerome held out a hand, beckoning her to dance as the song came to an end. The silence lingered and the room turned to the boy with the aux cord. People heckled him, and the DJ told them to pipe down. Then he put on “The Electric Boogie.” Rashida hustled onto the dance floor, leaving Jerome hanging.
He watched her doing the Electric Slide, the smile spreading across her cheeks. She turned, bounced, stepped, snapped, and rolled her arms in unison with the crowd around her, composed of single-digit kids to older folks who lacked the full range of motion but still moved enough to evoke their long past, best dancing days. Though they all moved in sync, Jerome saw only Rashida, the rest seeming like a shadow cast by a flickering light. She looked up, down, around, and everywhere but at him, laughing and losing herself in the dance.
Figuring he would have more fun on the floor than hugging the wall, he joined in, occasionally bumping into the people around him. He knew the moves but never had that ability to predict the future and remember the past that everyone else called rhythm. He jostled elbows, hit hips, and knocked knees through the Electric Slide, the Wobble, and the Cupid Shuffle. Spectators clowned him loud enough that he could hear, but his stomach never unsettled.
“Alright, old heads,” the DJ said between songs. “You had your fun. Now put the kids to bed.”
He put on trap, the older folks slinked into the kitchen, and Rashida walked to the window. Sweat formed a thin film on her face and trickled down her neck. She had forgotten the way Florida nights retained heat as though they were under a blanket. She sipped her cranberry vodka, now more melted ice than anything else, and leaned against the cool glass. And she watched Jerome jump with his fists above his shoulders, screaming along the words. He looked at home dancing to trap. Something about the heavy bass and the deep voices yelling at full reverb possessed him so that he looked more like the football player he wanted to be than the left of femme boy he never realized he was.
Maybe he wasn’t the boy she remembered. Maybe this place had changed. None of the people in the room looked all that familiar. They said hello and reminisced, but the past they spoke of sounded different than the one she recalled.
As Jerome walked off the dance floor and toward her, Rashida saw Peanut’s mom wink at her and then whisper to someone. She was probably sharing a rumor that would likely be passed on, and by the end of the night, it would be the same old shit: The progeny of two Palm Coast families were destined to be together. All the stories about rich marrying poor came rushing back. Rashida had heard so much about ancestors who had been house slaves, about their descendants becoming domestics, about her great-grandmother getting paid pennies in segregated restaurants as the town boomed around the railroad, about her grandmother cleaning white folks’ houses after the bust, about her mother’s drug-addicted joblessness. She had tired of the gossip long before she went to college. She had hated that people talked about her as Jerome’s charity case, and she felt the same anger welling in her stomach as she imagined them talking about her in that way today. The old frustrations made Rashida turn away to look out the window, where her half-transparent reflection clouded her view of a masculine-looking woman she did not quite recognize.
“Still tripping off talk?” Jerome said.
“Easy for you to say.”
“You think I’m cocky.”
“Ain’t nobody thinking about you,” Rashida said.
“Can’t believe you still getting mad at me for other niggas gossiping.”
“You ain’t the one they said was poking holes in condoms.”
“I ain’t never said you was trying to trap me.”
“Be honest,” Rashida said. “You love when niggas say you lifting up the poor.”
Jerome watched Rashida chew the inside of her lip. His thumb rubbed the gold signet ring he inherited from his father, the same man who told him that he couldn’t date in high school. That did not stop him. Once he had his growth spurt, he snuck out his window and rode his beach cruiser to see any number of girls, until he and Rashida landed in the same International Baccalaureate classes and they started studying together. She never slept with him back then or even saw him after 8 p.m. because she was too busy studying, so he saw her in the hallways or at track practice.
Maybe he wasn’t the boy she remembered. Maybe this place had changed. None of the people in the room looked all that familiar.
Once, his father caught them holding hands as they descended from the school bus after a track meet. His father—five inches shorter than Jerome—rushed across the parking lot, grabbed his uniform, and dragged him to the car. He shoved Jerome in and rushed to the driver's seat. His father struck him open palmed across the face, the signet ring knocking against Jerome’s cheekbone and shooting pain down his jaw. He wound up for another hit, but Jerome grabbed his wrist and slammed it into the car door with all the anger he stowed away from his father’s many below-the-collar beatings. His father froze. Jerome’s coaches and classmates were watching. Jerome let go. His father smoothed out his blazer and drove away, rolling the window down to wave to the coaches whose loved ones he had buried. He never hit Jerome again, but he did not hesitate to lambast Jerome for dating a girl whose mother was an addict, whose father ran away, who came from nothing and would always be nothing. His son was tarnishing the name that all the men before him had worked so hard to preserve, he said repeatedly, but Jerome never listened. Even now, Jerome did not recall his father’s lectures so much as the anger that seethed in their house, as he fiddled with the ring he once felt against his cheek, still staring at Rashida.
“I’m sorry,” Jerome said.
“You fucking with me?” Jerome asked.
“No, I’m mad. But you ain’t never used to say sorry.”
“I done some growing since you been gone.”
“You outgrow all your old friends?”
“I ain’t say all that.”
“And your bad habits?” Rashida asked.
“Some of them.”
“You still smoke?” Jerome looked down. Rashida said, “Let’s go outside then.”
Rashida walked through the crowd, occasionally stopped by people who leaned in to whisper until they saw Jerome following, at which point they let her pass. Rashida smirked at the occasional bend in the neck, signaling that they would look Jerome up and down when Rashida could not see. Then she slid open the glass door and stepped onto the back porch, where arid smoke hit her nose. Her breath was shallowing with a craving as she walked toward the backyard when Peanut yelled, “Where y’all going?”
“We just going to smoke,” Rashida said.
“Oh y’all too good to burn with the hoodlums now?” Peanut said. “You move up North and think this screen just for show?”
“Ain’t nobody too good for nothing,” Jerome said.
“Y’all should’ve seen this nigga in court,” Peanut said. “Wouldn’t nobody believe this nigga in the black blazer and tight slacks was the same nigga who pissed his pants in the second grade.”
“Don’t forget who whupped your ass in the seventh grade,” Jerome said.
“I got you back in tenth.”
“I know you not talking about the time you sucker punched me. This nigga crying uncle because I had him in a headlock. Told him I’d let him out if he calmed down, and he crying for mercy and I free him and this nigga punch me in my face. You lucky Officer Macpherson got between us.”
Peanut and Jerome neared each other, their voices loudening. In the corner, Unc worked the toothpick in his mouth, a strand splintering that he tried to keep from his gums. He had seen Peanut puff out his chest and watched him get pulled into a fistfight he couldn’t handle before. When Peanut was younger, Unc was quick enough to snatch Peanut out of a scrap, though not without threatening the kids who wanted to hit his nephew. But tonight, his knees hurt. His hips ached. And he had to squint to see the two silhouettes overlapping like shadow puppets.
“Simmer down,” Unc said.
“They just measuring dicks,” Rashida said. “Ain’t nobody throwing hands.”
“That little Rashida with that foul mouth?” Unc said, hearing her but unable to discern her features. He hadn’t seen her since he used to hang around her mom, Leona. At the time, Leona and Rashida lived with Rashida’s grandmother. Leona never had any money, so Unc used to drive Leona back to his place to drink and get high in the hopes that she would eventually sleep with him.
Unc met Rashida once when she stood to four foot six. He drove over to pick Leona up and, as he was about to pull into their home, he saw a little girl—the image of Leona—drawing in pink chalk on their driveway as a stray cat circled her. Unc pulled onto the front yard, exited the car, and said hello to Rashida, who had turned grass sprouting from cracks of concrete into crowns for her stick figures. She didn’t respond. Unc took a step and she screamed. The cat hissed. His big feet were smudging her people, she said. Unc apologized, tiptoed carefully around her drawings, and rang the doorbell. Rashida’s grandmother came to the door first, inspected him in a way that made him feel small, and asked what he wanted. Unc said he was there for Leona. Rashida’s grandmother closed the door, Unc heard some yelling, and Leona came out. They walked by Rashida, who Leona patted on the back before getting into Unc’s car. Then they drove back to his house, where they lost themselves in a weekend haze. Occasionally, Unc was lucid enough to ask Leona if she needed to go home, but Leona always said her mother was taking care of Rashida.
Unc and Leona eventually fell out. After that, Unc only saw Rashida when he went to see Peanut run at track meets. On that night, more than a decade after the last competition, she looked like the ghost of Leona, the spirit of a woman not seen in years, not in Daytona or St. Augustine, not even as far as Jacksonville or Orlando. He did not know if he was hallucinating when he saw Leona’s mouth moving as Rashida said, “It’s me, Uncle Moore.”
“Come over here,” Unc said, “let me get a look at you. You all tall now.”
“I ain’t but five five.”
“Taller than you was the last time I seen you.”
“When I was drawing in the driveway?”
“You remember that?” Unc said.
“Guess some folk still remember the old days.”
“Ain’t that old.” Unc laughed, then said, “You want to separate these boys before horseplay turn to fist fighting?”
“Why don’t you do it?”
“These old bones too tired.”
“You owe me one,” Rashida said as she walked to Jerome, grabbed his hand, and led him off the back porch. She moved so quickly that she didn’t realize their fingers had interlaced until the door creaked behind them. Jerome’s palms were slick with sweat. Her breath shortened for a moment before she pulled away.
“We wasn’t going to scrap,” Jerome said.
“I ain’t got all night.”
“You in a rush?”
Rashida reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of Newports and a lighter. She lit hers and the minty chemical taste filled her mouth. She passed the smokes back to Jerome, whose long fingers brushed her hand. She let his graze linger for a moment, her hair standing on end, and then pulled away. The nicotine turning her head light and the occasional breeze cooling her, she wandered through the sandy soil of the backyard, staying close to the house where little grew. A thick oak tree stood nearby. Weeds collected at its base and thickened farther away from the house into a thick underbrush in the undeveloped lot behind. Rashida wondered what animals slept there—what mothers guarded their kin—as the party continued near them.
“Pretty big of you to post Peanut’s bail,” Rashida said.
“I just got the bail reduction. I ain’t pay out of pocket.”
“You threw in though.”
Jerome looked down at Rashida. He had never seen her hair this short. She wore it straightened and long in high school, the way people said her mom used to. All the boys on the track team ogled her back then, watched as she triple-jumped, seeing the ripples through her thighs and up her body through her ponytail when she landed in the sand, a cloud of it flying into the air as her hair settled. When she was in college, she cut it to shoulder-length, and she never let Jerome put his hands in it, but she still straightened it.
He had seen pictures of her new style on social media. In one, he saw her with a braided, masculine-looking person holding clippers; he assumed they were dating, but he didn’t know the person’s gender. The photos of them continued for months—them in restaurants, them at drag shows, them at a beach where the sand looked grainy and the water murky—until, a few months ago, the pictures stopped. Though Rashida and Jerome had talked on the phone through that time, Rashida had never mentioned a partner or a breakup.
“You still dating old girl?” Jerome asked.
“Like I said—”
“I ain’t the type. Only corny niggas repeat themselves.”
Rashida pulled on her cigarette and blew out, the wind flaring too hard for her exhale to plume.
“You broke up with her?” Jerome asked.
“They broke up with me.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It is what it is.”
“Still,” Jerome said. They were quiet for a moment, standing between the echoing music behind them and the drone of frogs coming from the undeveloped lot. “Way folks down here sniffing round you, you would think ain’t nobody know.”
“Like ain’t nobody seen a dyke before,” Rashida said with a laugh.
“What about you?”
“Ever been with a man?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t never that strange to me,” Jerome said, thinking of his father, who took up with a man named Leon after Jerome’s mother died. Leon worked at the funeral parlor with Jerome’s father, and Jerome had not thought much of him until one day, when he was twelve or so, Jerome saw them kissing as he peeked through a crack in the door to his father’s office. The way Leon deferred to his father’s touch, leaning his slender back against the wall as his father kissed his neck, looked strange to Jerome. But he didn’t stop watching until they separated. From then on, whenever Jerome spent his afterschool hours at his father’s funeral home, he spied on them. His father did not tell him the truth until he was sixteen. By that point, he had long since gotten used to it.
“I ain’t never had none of the airs about it other folks have,” Jerome said.
“Must be nice.”
“Ain’t nice or not nice,” he said. “Just is. After you left, saw a couple folk. Seeing someone now, but it’s casual, open.”
“You would use the ten-cent word.”
“Mr. Monogamy? Mr. I want to get married at twenty-six and have a bunch of babies?”
“After you left,” he said, “I was in a bad way.”
Rashida kept her eyes on Jerome, but he wasn’t looking at her now.
“After Pops died,” Jerome continued, “I realized keeping our name going was his dream. Not mine. So I just tried to forget and focus on what I got to do that day. Come to realize I’m good at working. Ain’t much good at relationships, but I can put in a twelve-hour day.”
Jerome looked out into the night, trying to figure out just how far his eyes could see in the dark before everything became blurry. The distance was less than he thought. The longer he kept his eyes open, the more the greenery blurred, piling into one large shadow.
“Work ain’t never going to love you,” Rashida said.
“That shit ain’t going to break up with me neither.” Rashida laughed.
“This funny to you?” Jerome asked.
“Would it matter if it was? Ain’t got nothing better to offer you. What I’m supposed to say? They was right and us getting married and having kids better than you working all day? Way folk talked about us, you’d think a ring came with the deed to Flagler County.”
“Like our kids get the whole kingdom.”
Rashida turned to him, but Jerome didn’t move. She followed his line of sight out into what they called wilderness, though it was little more than a plot of undevelopment. Even that was only true for now. One day, someone might buy it and build a home or raze the P section and build a golf course.
“What that kid got to inherit, anyway?” Rashida asked.
“The next recession.”
“Or all three,” Rashida said. “And that kid ain't choose to be born into all of this. Got to live with all the bad coming their way without any of the profit.”
Jerome was quiet for a moment. A wind rustled, sounding like static. Then he said, “You thinking about your mom?”
“You a therapist now?”
“Ain’t mad at my mom no more,” Rashida said. “But I ain’t choose none of that neither.”
“Ain’t the one who did drugs or fucked a no-good man. I just got the aftermath. Her sleeping all day. Never keeping a job. Apologizing to Grandma and telling her it was going to be different next week. Then the week after. And Grandma never said nothing. Just kept reading her Bible. Kept talking about Job and keeping the faith. Shit was hard to watch. Then there wasn’t nothing to see. Looking around the house and she not there. Just gone. Ain’t nobody seen her. Maybe she dead. Maybe one day she’ll turn up asking for money.”
“Ain’t your fault.”
“What good that do me?” Rashida said. “I still got to deal with the consequences. And I got to hear the shit people say about my folks.”
“Then them same niggas turn around, talking about, ‘You the history. You got to marry Rome. Keep our stories alive.’”
“That small-town chatter,” Rashida said. “Everybody talking so loud, can’t hear nothing.”
Jerome chuckled and shook his head. Rashida turned to him as he leaned against the wall tinted gray in the moonlight. He was a shadow in the shadow, a darker graphite in a drawing, visible mostly through the movement of his laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Rashida asked.
“You miss the talk, the stray cats. You miss it down here.”
“Everybody like the beach, but that don’t mean they want to live in a sandcastle.”
“They got beaches in Philly?”
“One,” Rashida said. “Little spit of dirt behind this Walmart on the Delaware. Seen some pigeons eating cigarette butts round there.”
“Way you talk, I don’t know why anyone would leave.”
Rashida hit his chest lightly and leaned against the wall next to him. She put her cigarette to her mouth. The smoke clouding at its end narrowed to a single tentacle. A breeze pushed it into her eye, which singed until she closed it. Then she exhaled.
“When I was younger,” Rashida said, “I used to have these images in my head. I’d be walking through FPC and suddenly I’d just see myself, running down that hallway. Out the door and through the parking lot. When I got to Route 100, I’d hop in a car. Gun it. Smoke coming out the tires. And then the car out the frame. Gone.”
Jerome nodded. He knew those images well. Sometimes, he lost himself in escape fantasies for so long that, when they left him, he realized he had been walking for some time and was many paces from where he thought he was. The daydreams came when with friends or alone, at school or at track meets, but they never came when he was with Rashida. He told her as much one night in college, when they tired of Gainesville and drove all the way back to Bunnell for her grandmother’s cooking, after which they sat on the hood of his car and pointed out stars. She said she felt the same. And here he was, again, the old fantasies projected onto the screen in front of him, interspersed with the occasional image of her driving him back to Philadelphia, as Rashida smoked in the shadow cast by the overhang of the gutters above.
“You ready to get out of here?” Jerome asked.
“Lead the way,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette on the bottom of her shoe.
Jerome grabbed her wrist, led her through the back porch, and waved goodnight to everyone as they kept walking. Rashida didn’t pull away, though she knew it was silly to let him guide her through the front room of Peanut’s house; it wasn’t crowded enough to lose him. But she was happy to play along as he pulled her to the kitchen, reminiscing about the old days when they were both Bright Futures scholarship kids in the big city that was Gainesville. She was so lost in the memory that she did not hear Peanut’s mom call out to Jerome and did not see Jerome stop, so she bumped into him. They caught their footing and he let go of her wrist, but they both laughed, shy grins lingering as they stood apart.
‘After Pops died,’ Jerome continued, ‘I realized keeping our name going was his dream. Not mine.’
“Jerome and Rashida,” Mae said, “I know you not sneaking out without saying goodbye.”
“We came to see you,” Jerome said.
“After making such a big deal,” she continued, “about getting some of this good food on your bones.”
“It’s my fault,” Rashida said.
“Don’t matter who fault it is,” Mae said, handing Jerome two paper plates wrapped in aluminum foil. “A wrong is still a wrong.”
Jerome laughed and hugged Mae goodbye, and Rashida did the same, promising Mae she would call her if she needed anything or if she was in town and wanted a good cup of coffee. Then Rashida followed Jerome out of the house, arms hanging by her side, watching when he looked over his shoulder to make sure she was still there. They passed two figures standing in the driveway—Peanut, who squinted to see through his failing sight, and Unc, who swore he saw Leona walking away—awaiting a chance to spy on history in the making. And after they said goodbye, Jerome and Rashida wiggled their noses, as if sniffing for the scent of what was to come.
To any passerby driving down that dark street, the two would look like barely distinct shadows. The distance between them wouldn’t give any sense of how close they once were nor would it show how the two managed the space between them, speeding up or slowing down to ensure they were equidistant, though neither would pull away if the other neared. In fact, both would welcome an unexpected, accidental touch—the brush of hands swinging, for instance—and the shock of feeling that would come with it, surprising like the cooling drops felt by runners when the skies open and bathe them in their waters, reminding them that their bodies will eventually feel refreshed again. Who was to say if the shock would come from their desires or their memories, from the stories they told themselves or from the stories they heard others tell about them? History, rumor, and prophecy had commingled for so long that they never could tell the difference between them.
Letting their hands approach the other’s may have been a capitulation to all the small-town legends, but neither of them believed anymore in making guesses about their futures, knowing that time makes fools of all fortune tellers, as it had of them more often than they cared to remember. Worried about looking silly in front of the other, whose opinion they had come to accept did matter a great deal to them, and reminded of the inaccuracies of history’s estimates of the days to come, if indeed they were dealing with history and not mythology, they stopped trying to predict the hereafter when they got into Jerome’s car. They were too lost in their conversation to hear the music playing in the house or the men yelling on the back porch or the rhythmic stepping of feet in the party, all of which dwindled to silence as they drove away.