by Mark Ali
The balcony door slid open and Warren stepped outside.
It was another Oakland winter. The winds were westerly. The climate was Mediterranean. Rain was absent on this evening, the sky was clear. The air was sharp and crisp. Warren moved to the balcony to escape the rising temperatures inside his home. His back was to the swelling throng of family members who crowded the living room, making themselves more and more comfortable.
Warren leaned on the lip of the balustrade with both elbows, hands cupping his face, staring out, eyes searching the dark heavens before him.
The winter winds were beginning to sashay.
Oakland winters didn’t bring snow; the temperatures didn’t drop so much as they dipped. The evening skies were canvases, some nights painted overcast gray; others, like this one, clear obsidian, dotted with constellations. When fog did appear, it didn’t roll in like a San Franciscan postcard, but drifted northerly from Berkeley like a tourist, safely nestling in Oakland’s hillsides and moving no farther—even the fog didn’t want to settle in the town’s flatlands.
The cooler season showed itself in layers, not just peacoats and jackets, hoodies or sweaters, but the briskness that appeared in speech—breath held more gravity in the chippier months; outside, the air’s atmosphere showed the weight words bore, capturing pregnant utterances in gray plumes; inside, people simply put on airs and blew smoke.
Warren always believed his brother could cause an eclipse if he wanted to.
It was Christmas, the past and the present were reconvening. Bomani was trying to unthread a yarn his mother would rather he not unspool—how Warren was given his Christian name. Bomani was going to tell a whopper, as if Warren had been born with a caul instead of a birthmark, like he had sight beyond the veil since beginning. Warren’s mother would want the story to be spun another way. She wanted the focus to be on her—one that showed her in a grand light. Whenever she was in the limelight, Warren’s mother would deliver a pained soliloquy as if no one were around when everyone was on the stage.
Warren’s mother wanted to be viewed as a perpetual virgin, believed to be deflowered by Holy Spirits rather than reckless ones, as if Warren’s creation were a miracle. It wasn’t. He was a product of poor family planning. It would be hard to believe his mother and father were thinking about love, marriage, or baby carriages when they created him. Warren’s grandmother backtracked her grandson’s inception to a drive-in double feature his mother had tickets for but couldn’t speak to—Warren’s mother didn’t know the major characters from the minor ones, and his mother’s mother was convinced they were rolling around in a car’s backseat making hay, doing grown folks’ business.
There was nothing God-fearing or immaculate about Warren’s conception.
Warren’s mother would swear a divine promise was reneged upon—her last child should have been a her instead of a him.
“Hey, Bird,” Warren’s fork-tongued uncle said. “Bomani still on the tit?”
Whenever Uncle Johnny appeared, family ruckus followed—not that he created as much drama as he incited, though he did take exceptional pleasure in ruffling his big sister’s feathers.
Warren’s thick-haired aunt chortled.
“Johnny,” Warren’s mother said. “Shut up.”
Uncle Johnny began making puking sounds.
“Bug,” Johnny said to his younger sister. “You still pretty enough to be a hand model.”
“Johnny, you grown,” Warren’s grandmother said. “But this my self-house, hear?”
Kenyatta, Warren’s middle brother, in a homage to his only uncle, and in an attempt to fit in, emulated Johnny’s diddy bop, swaggering around in circles. He rolled his shoulders. He let his backbone slip. His legs dipped. Kenyatta popped up and down as if he had a jazzy neurological disorder. One arm swung like a pendulum; the other hung tough, its hand flat on the left thigh.
Kenyatta had a pair of tube socks stuffed down his pants.
“Nephew,” Uncle Johnny said. “I dress to the right.”
“Don’t make me come out this kitchen.”
“Momma, that wasn’t me!”
Warren’s uncle named all eight of his kids, boys and girls, after himself. “The Johnnies,” as his clan became famously known in an infamous place, remained in the neighborhoods that originally cradled Warren’s family. Oakland was a port city. The shipping and defense industry drew many transplants to the town during the second Great Migration, people came west instead of east or north. Victorian homes proudly dotted the district once hailed as “The Harlem of the Golden State,” an area whose glimmer lost its shine when expressways and rail transport came, cutting Seventh Street off from the rest of the city, birthing “The Bottoms.”
Those same Victorian homes were now dilapidated eyesores.
“I don’t make nothing but soldiers!”
Uncle Johnny was boasting about his children for dubious reasons.
“Go sit down, Unc,” said Bomani.
“You bat-shit crazy telling me what to do.”
“I got a story to tell.”
“Bird, you breast-fed this one entirely too long.”
“Keep my name out your mouth!”
“Leave her alone, negro!”
“Sit down, Unc, your time is over.”
A chorus of voices erupted, not only Warren’s mother and aunt, but a hubbub of others, nieces and nephews, cousins and next of kin, all reacting to the men sparring in the den, watching one enter his prime and the other hold on to his. Warren’s grandmother ignored her only son and oldest male grandchild’s jousting. They were just signifyin’. Besides, she had a dinner to fix, and, as the tribe’s matriarch, Warren’s grandmother’s knew which lion really led the pride.
“Bird, you didn’t even want him,” Uncle Johnny said. “Everybody know that.”
“You better watch out how you talking to my mother, man,” Bomani said.
Uncle Johnny smelled of a distillery.
“Bird, If I’m lying, come smell my finger.”
Warren listened to the rolling banter inside as he stayed on the balcony. He was within earshot of the sound and fury. The wind brushed across his face as he looked for the Big Dipper to help him navigate the night sky.
“I had dreams, too,” Warren’s mother said, her eyes glossing over as she spoke. “I have dreams.”
“Bird, don’t nobody care.”
It was Christmas now, the first time in several calendar years Warren’s family—immediate as they were, separated as they have been, and as whole as they could ever be—saw each other face-to-face in one place. The kinfolk bartered stories in the middle of the living room like they were swapping white elephant gifts. The television flickered with images like flames, its low volume crackling like kindling, creating the hearth big houses had. The heart of the home wasn’t a fireplace, or even the tube, it was the conversations taking place, a roaring of stories where branches from the same tree shook their leaves with family members fanning the flames of personal histories.
“You gave birth to him,” Bomani said. “But he’s my son.”
Warren’s mother humphed.
Warren’s aunt sniggered.
Warren’s mother rolled her eyes at Bomani, and cut them toward her little sister.
“That’s my baby right there,” Bomani continued, beating his chest with his right hand. “That’s my heart.”
Uncle Johnny groaned.
Although Warren’s mother would never admit it, her firstborn was right—that last man-child of hers looked at Bomani as if he were someone other than who he was. She told Warren it was good to look up to his older brother. She told Bomani it was redemptive for him to act fatherly. Warren’s mother did not dispense those same glad tidings and well wishes for the way Warren looked upon his grandmother, a regard beyond stratospheric, as if she were out of this world.
It was a favor escaping Warren’s mother that vexed her.
What she told her youngest son and his oldest brother was now rearing heads in a way she hadn’t anticipated—they were looking past their mother for validation of who they were and confirmation of who they could be—things were spinning out of her control.
Warren heard his mother complain about his admiration for her mother before, most often on the back end of long-distance phone calls when the receiver was passed from grandson to grandmother.
On Christmas Eve, when Warren’s mother’s arrived from southern California, she cornered him, talking to him of trails she was going to blaze, ideas cooking up. Warren’s mother talked a blue streak. Warren had become deaf to promises unkept. Warren believed his mother was truant, playing hooky, and relatively speaking, there was more than time and space that kept them distant.
He was numb to the experiences she was trying to create in her absence—he didn’t want to go places; he wanted to do something.
Warren’s mother was blind to the obvious.
“Lord knows, I prayed, no more male negroes.”
Warren’s mother left a child behind, and the tribe’s clanmother did what clanmothers do—pick up slack and then some.
Warren found the Dipper’s handle, and began connecting the astral dots.
“No one could have named him but me,” Bomani said.
“That boy’s name came from a phonebook.”
Uncle Johnny jabbed blindly at an invisible directory.
“You was locked up.”
“Johnny’s a jailbird,” Warren’s mother said; she was crowing.
“I ain’t never been on nothing but work release,” said Uncle Johnny, slurring. “Tell it right, I’m a captain of fuckin’ industry.”
“You drive a hack.”
Despite the mythology of how Warren acquired his name, he himself was an afterthought in his own story; no one included him in the very tale that began the shaping of who he was to become. Warren was trying to find his place not only in the family circle, but his footing in the world as well; both were equally uneven.
Uncle Johnny was calling Warren.
Warren’s feet were on the balcony’s cement floor, parts of his upper body rested against the facade, his chin was couched by his hands, but his mind was elsewhere—he was routing stars.
“Boy, you hear me.”
Warren, reverie interrupted, turned, saw the crowd, faced his uncle; the wind was at his back, and like Bomani taught him, he stood square.
“Bird, look at this fool,” Uncle Johnny said. “He smelling himself.”
All eyes were on Warren.
He stood at the innermost edge of the balcony door, the evening sky framing his developing body as he tried to show respect to his elder as he maintained respect for self—a shroud was around him.
Warren met his Uncle Johnny’s glassy glare, iris to iris, pupil to pupil, man to man.
Uncle Johnny was surveying the young man.
They locked eyes like they were drawing six-shooters at high noon, as if they were squaring off before a prizefight began, rather than engaging in a staring contest between elementary students picking first for kickball at recess.
Warren would not blink.
Warren’s mother boasted she didn’t suffer fools gladly.
“My o’my,” she said. “How I despise niggers and flies.”
In moments like this, Warren remembered what his grandmother told him: “Everybody’s shit stinks; none of it smells like roses.”
It seemed Uncle Johnny had expected his nephew to cut his eyes when looking his way, but Warren was looking him straight on; Uncle Johnny looked to be both offended and fascinated.
“What makes you special?” Uncle Johnny asked.
Warren shrugged his shoulders.
Uncle Johnny sucked his teeth. Warren, days from turning sixteen, was on the verge of becoming something else; he had not flinched.
“Can I tell my story now?”
He broke the silence stilling the room.
“If you can make a short story shorter,” Uncle Johnny said.
He fell back to the crowd.
“That’s my baby right there,” Bomani began, beating his chest with his right hand. “That’s my heart.”
“Oh, lord,” he said. “There’s a god-damn prologue.”
Warren turned back to the sky, walked in the wind, looked again to the stars, reclaimed his place on the balcony, and went back to his search.
“Once upon a time…”
Bomani’s gesticulations planted a flag, his words waved off others. Warren’s brother created a vacuum, clearing the space needed to deliver a monologue he felt mattered, asides notwithstanding.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“You gots to be shittin’ me.”
“A long, long time ago…”
“We ain’t never going to eat.”
“Nineteen and seventy-one, first day of a brand new year…”
Though Warren was the heart of the legend, no one ever addressed him directly, or even included him in his own story; they talked about him, spoke around him like he was a ghost of Christmas past, an old soul, a fictitious being instead of one of flesh and blood.
“Warren’s pop’s was sozzled…”
“Hell, boy, he got a hollow leg!”
“Lit up like Times Square on December 31 at 11:59.”
“Ma was squashed.”
“Hot damn, crushed was she!?”
“Gran held Warren, Ma was pointing, kept saying ‘him,’ over and over and…”
“Woo wee, what a sight!”
“It was me, a TV Guide, Bonnie and Clyde, a newborn baby.”
“Did a white boy, a Chinaman, and a Mexican walk into the room, too?”
“I had to do something…”
Though Warren was the heart of the legend, no one ever addressed him directly, or even included him in his own story, not in a tangible way—he was just subject matter. They talked about him, spoke around him like he was a ghost of Christmas past, an old soul, a fictitious being instead of one of flesh and blood.
It was the holiday season.
Oakland winters were usually calm and cool, though they weren’t always collected—rain was absent this evening, but the hawk was out.
Warren’s family had come together to celebrate life’s victories, not to commiserate its defeats. The house was full, and so was the evening sky. The backdrop was rich in its depth, bright in possibilities. Warren found the North Star. Bomani and Uncle Johnny showed him the devil may lay in the details, but he, or they, didn’t matter if one knew where they wanted to go.
A new year was on the horizon.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing