Sections of an orange.
The train bursts out of the subway tunnel onto elevated tracks that climb up to the Smith Street Station. The gritty postcard shot--stark contrasts of shadow and light, Manhattan skyscrapers against Brooklyn tenements--launches me into the world, reminds me that I haven't been out of my apartment in well over a week. The day's glided by with slick ease, and I'm glad to be doing something other than sitting in front of my computer, playing Free Cell and trying to break my record in Minesweeper.
The theft at the 63-year-old store was captured on videotape, though the police said the footage was of poor quality.
As I step off the G-train, I feel the rickety platform vibrate under me, and a moment of uncertainty flashes through my mind. I remember my encounter with Brian last month. Truth be told, if he hadn't spotted me, I'd have walked right past him. But he came walking towards me with body language that seemed to say, from half a block away, that we'd planned to meet right there, he and I; and if not at that time, then five minutes earlier. On Fulton Street that day, he looked different--he'd cut his locks off, he'd gained a couple pounds, and aged a couple years--but he still looked good, especially when he smiled. When he smiled, he looked like a 10 year old who'd just stoned down a juicy, yellow mango and caught it before it hit the ground.
Getting past "damn, it's been a long time" and "oh man, I almost didn't recognize you," we talked outside South Portland Antiques, in a bright February light that masqueraded for spring. "Every last barber in Brooklyn jealous me," he explained why he wasn't working, "but that's a'ight 'cause I still have my photography, yuh know, my vision." I thought back to the last I'd heard about him, before this encounter: "Brian's off his rocker, yo," my regular barber had said. "I don't know if it's drugs, or what, but that cat was acting strange, they had to get rid of him." Not the response that my offhand question had been seeking, I'd discounted it at the time: "nah, you're exaggerating again, Karly." And then I'd changed the subject. I'd always had a thing for Brian, and I hadn't been ready to give up on him so easily.
On Fulton that February afternoon, Brian was wearing a furry headband. He stooped down to tuck his jeans into black combat boots, talking all the while, bouncing through a stream of unconnected ideas--thoughts separate from the moment. But at intervals he returned to the sidewalk, radiating clear charm. "I can see that life's treating yuh well ... yuh looking good." And I was flattered that he'd remembered me. "Yeah, it's good to see you, man." At the end, he left with my phone number and a promise that I'd let him cut my hair.
A hit-and-run driver sparked mayhem on midtown Manhattan streets early yesterday--mowing down pedestrians in a wild, zigzag ride, police said.
Now before doubt turns me around, I walk the short blocks from the station to the address I jotted down earlier. Brian answers the door. "Yuh early," he says, in a black t-shirt, that looks too small, and gray sweatpants that look too big. "I thought Trinidadian people don' show up on time for nothing." I walk in as he pulls the door wide and steps back. "First time for everything," I say, glancing at my watch, "this place was easy to find." "This place" is a small private house. He locks the front door saying that his sister and her husband are out at work; he's been staying here for a while; they let him use the basement.
I follow as Brian walks down the hallway, opens a door and heads downstairs; our feet hit alternate steps drumming an impromptu tribal rhythm. I sit down in a chair next to a battered dresser. Rough wood frames an abandoned space where a mirror once was, and bare spots show through cloudy lacquer like a telltale birth certificate. A large aluminum lamp, clamped to the top, cuts sharp arcs of light into the dim room, drawing curves that a geometry class could convert to an equation in two variables.
Brian drapes a cloth around my shoulders, clipping it at the base of my neck. "Damn, man, so when was the last time this head saw a pair of scissors?" he asks, laughing. His fingers wiggle through the long, tight curls of my hair, moving close to my scalp. "Well, it's not my fault, man," I say laughing, too. "I lost my barber--Karly, got married and moved down to Atlanta," I remind him. "Hmm, huh," he mumbles. He reaches over to the dresser, opens a drawer that protests with a squeak of wood against wood, and pulls out a pair of scissors.
Standing behind me, he starts clip-snip, snip-clip passes in the air--a silver hummingbird flitting around my head. This is the start of the rite, and though I can't see him because there is no mirror, I know he's sizing up the hair--his canvas--snipping those blades together with practiced flourishes. American barbers don't give me this sense of ceremony. No, this is a Trini style thing that always takes me right back to my adolescence, back to childhood. Here, with only the sound to create the image, it takes me back to my first haircuts in San Fernando. Gawd, I used to hate haircuts--I got in trouble with my father on many-a Saturday over a trip to the barber. It started with Mr. Thorpe, an old friend of my dad's; they'd been in the same football club as teenagers, played bridge together as adults. "Torpers" did the clip-snip thing, too, but back then it was menacing to me. Torpers had an extra digit on each hand--useless little joints next to each pinkie. One nub bounced in and out of focus under the scary blades on my right, and on the left, the other hung limp on the hand that held my squirming head in place.
As an adult, I'm still uneasy in the testosterone-laced world of the barbershop, uneasy with discussions of last night's game, and last week's conquest. And as Brian's scissors go to work, I find myself thinking, "I could get used to this special, private haircut arrangement."
The driver struck several people ending in Chelsea, where he plowed into a group of high-school students while zooming the wrong way down a side street. None of the injuries was life threatening.
"Yo, I dig your mini, soul 'fro, though," Brian says early in the rite. And once he's renamed what I'd just been thinking of as my unemployed-black-man-who-don't-care-look, making it somehow legit, we agree on a trim--just shaping up the edges, making it a more definite statement. Snip-clip, clip-snip as cut hair falls quietly past my eyes. Before long there's a dark, irregular aureola of hair sprinkled on the floor around me, and Brian's snip-clipping air again. In this final flourish, maybe only one or two strands of hair will be cut, maybe none--it's all about style and the perception of precision.
Next, the presentation of the mirror, normally matched with the slow spin of the barber chair to give a three-sixty view for inspection in the wall-mounted mirror. But today we have no swiveling barber chair and only a hand mirror, so I move it wide from left to right, angling my head and cutting my eyes to see the top and sides--settling for just a bit more than 180 degrees. I nod my head once for the left angle, again for the top and finally a double nod on the right while saying my line, "cool, cool." I pass the mirror back to him; he puts it down, undoes the clip at my nape and whips the cloth away from my body with a brisk matador's sweep.
Now, nearing the end of the ceremony, I stand so that he can brush any wayward hair off me, my final movement in the pas de deux. "Ah don' have a clothes brush, so don' mind this okay," he says grinning. Once again we improvise; he grabs a little cloth and flicks it at my chest and shoulders, moving all around me, "brushing" my white t-shirt clean. "Oh, gawd, man," I say. "Yuh beatin' me like yuh is a obeah man trying to drive out a spirit." And this time I have him laughing. But standing directly in front of me, he takes the joke to the next step, places the palm of his right hand flat against my forehead, pushes my head back hard, and in the same movement his left arm is loose around my back to steady me as I rock backwards. "Be clean, my son," he says in the assumed priest's role. "Be cuh-lee-een." We're both laughing like kids now.
The driver scattered pedestrians like bowling pins. "He started hitting people and they kept falling and falling," said witness Gerald Cromwell, 31, of the Bronx.
As we settle down, Brian says, "so, you want a drink--I think we need to offer a libation." And before I answer he's bouncing up the stairs, saying, "lemme go and raid my brother-in-law's liquor stash." I follow, trying to catch him. "Nah man, skip that." Not sure of what the living arrangement is here, I don't want to contribute to any domestic trouble. "You know what, I'm no big drinker anyway," I say, at the top of the stairs. It's brighter up here. "Let's just go to that bodega I passed on the way; get some beer, you know." Brian agrees without too much discussion; he throws on a 'hoody', I grab my jacket, and soon we're walking down the street.
"Yuh know yuh ain' going to get no Carib in this 'hood," he says. "Yeah, I know we not on Church Avenue, but I don't only drink Trini beer...." He cuts me off with, "mira, I hope you up for a Corona then." "You wrong for that man," I say. "Just wrong." And as if to prove my point, the corner store is stocked. "See, your ass was way off!" I say. "We got selection." "True, true," he nods. "A'ight, you in charge, I drinks anything, so you can pick," he says wandering off. I reach for a six-pack of my favorite dark ale, but then I mix in a couple Heinekens to be safe.
I find Brian near the door. When he sees me coming over, he starts to juggle some oranges. He does a throw-catch thing with a couple of them and ends up dropping one back on the heap. The graying Arab man behind the counter is looking at us evil. "Okay, I got the beer, something new for you to try," I say. "Let's roll." "Ahm, okay if I get some of these oranges too?" Brian asks. I shrug agreement, surprised when he fills up a plastic bag with about ten of them.
At the counter, Brian grabs one of the oranges from the bag, tossing it high and then snatching it out of the air. The deli man jumps when Brian telegraphs a fake throw straight towards him. "Think fast," he says, catching it in his left hand as his right comes within a foot of the man's face Brian laughs and the deli man's face registers fear, quickly followed by a brave annoyance. I pay, and we walk outside. Feeling that I've just glimpsed the Brian of Karly's story, I remind myself that up to now Brian's been real cool. As we walk back up to his sister's house, though the sky is bright, I'm drawn to a striking, new formation of metallic-gray clouds coming over the hill.
"I don't know what is happening in this city," said accountant Roselyn George, who suffered a broken ankle in yesterday's crash. "I got knocked down and one of my legs folded under me."
Back in the basement, Brian puts on a cd, bragging that his boy brought it back from Carnival this year. "It's hot, you'll like it." I open two bottles of Dos Equis, telling him, "you'll like this ... it's cold." He groans at my bad joke, but grabs the beer that I hold out to him. Minutes later we're sitting on a futon mattress against the wall, drinking. He pulls out a pack of Bambu, a nickel bag from his pocket and starts rolling a joint. And I'm thinking, "damn, what the hell am I doing?" I've never hung out with this cat before, he didn't ask me if I smoke, or if I mind if he smokes, and I don't even know what the deal is with him. But I just sit back, secretly glad that he didn't ask. I haven't smoked weed in years, and right now I just feel like saying yes. And if I'm not lying to myself, I know that I'm enjoying being here with him. I don't want to leave. Back when he'd started working at Nappy Image, I'd deliberately gone into the shop on a day when I knew Karly was off, just so I'd have an excuse to sit in Brian's chair. I'd wanted to be close as his grin lit up his face and his loud jokes brightened the whole shop.
By the time he's done rolling, the first two bottles are empty. He hands me the sleek joint, gets up to get two more bottles from near the dresser and adjusts that aluminum lamp so that it's now angled up, casting the light towards the ceiling. There's no more or less light in the room, but the glow is easier now, no longer a sharply defined area on the floor. He sits again, pulls a book of matches out of his pocket, strikes one and holds it out toward me. Again, no questions asked. I put the joint to my lips and puff until it's lit. Then I take a nice drag, and pass it over to Brian.
We sit in the long narrow room, beneath an artificial sky of smoke-clouds and aluminum sun, and the talk comes easy. A haze captures the low ceiling tiles, dancing around the exposed pipes and reveling in the upturned lamp light. I'm on a plane of calm that I haven't known in a long time, and I see that Brian's made the same journey, too; and even more, I fees that we needed each other to get here. I pass the joint to him, warm from my lips on one end, glowing fire at the other. His fingers brush against mine, encircling the weed. On his dark hands, the tendons and veins form a pattern like exposed roots. Energy transfers along an unseen path between us, where forgotten spirits now walk.
When I release the last herbal mist from my lungs, Brian takes a drag at what is now a roach, looking at me through tiny eyes. "I want to take your picture," he says, unguarded in this found space. I don't react right away, the question bobbing up and down on the river of my thoughts. And he goes on, "with the oranges, when I saw the oranges I decided that I wanted to take your picture with them." In the silence that follows, he exhales, puts the roach out and looks back towards me, his eyes brushing my neck, my jaw, and my mouth with a soft force, and then resting deep inside my eyes. "Where's the camera?" I reply.
After hitting George, the car lurched into the intersection and swerved; barely slowing it turned left onto Seventh Avenue, jumping onto the curb and scattering commuters.
Soon, he comes balancing the oranges--piled on a shallow, wooden bowl--in one hand, a professional looking camera in the other, and a plain white sheet folded over his arm. I remain on the futon, watching as the preparation goes quickly: he drapes the sheet over the seat of the chair, letting it fall in a pool on the floor; he sets the bowl on the seat; he swings the light down to frame the chair again; and then, he peels an orange, a knife orbiting the golden fruit, disrobing it, and leaving bright strands of rich natural fiber that fall on the chair and floor. Slicing the orange, he looks over to me, for the first time since he's started creating this scene. "Want some?" he asks, holding out half.
I take it and sit on the floor with my left arm resting on the chair, bent at the elbow, I lean, my face close to the bowl, half an orange in my right hand. I look up at Brian about to ask him "what now," and he just picks the camera up and starts taking pictures. I stare at him for a while, hearing the click of the shutter, the advance of the film, watching him move as I sit. But I have the munchies, and I bite into the orange, feeling the flesh give against the pressure of my lips, mashing pulp against the roof of my mouth. Each individual bead gives up its tiny treasure, until sharp-sweet juice flows past my teeth. I slurp and eat--conscious on one level of the camera, yet enjoying being as messy as an unsupervised kid.
When the juice starts running down my chin and spilling unto my hands, I stop to push my shirtsleeve over my elbow. But before I've picked the next half of the orange up, Brian is kneeling next to me. He rests the camera down on the floor, and his face is close to mine, staring. Holding the stare, he grabs the hem of my shirt, and pulls it over my head. "I don' want yuh to dirty your clothes." Before I respond, he's standing again, camera back in hand. "A'ight, go ahead." Bare-chested now, I let the juice bead and run where it will, as Brian continues to snap.
Before long, I'm cutting the oranges in quarters and not just drinking the juice, but tearing pulp from pith, absorbed in the act. Brian comes over again; this time he grabs a section of orange, holds it six inches in front of my face, and steadying himself with one hand right next to me, he squeezes with the other hand. Juice falls through the air, hitting my chest, pooling at the center and trickling down my belly. He waves his hand around, still squeezing, so that juice hits my face and shoulders, collecting in the hollow at my collarbone and forming a liquid necklace at my throat. His eyes follow the movement of his hand, a hand that seems to swallow the orange, tracing some deliberate pattern that only he knows. His fingers, smooth dark peninsulas that end in crowns of perfect pink nail, are wet now, and I want him to touch me. I want to bridge the scant inches between him and me, to follow the trail of his ring finger with my tongue until I reach the center of his palm.
After the crash, the man pulled his car over to the curb and waited as a traffic cop walked toward him. But then he sped away.
But Brian doesn't touch me. Instead he grabs the camera and starts shooting again. He's talking all the while now: I had to do this ... since you first sat in the chair today ... when I reached in to cut your hair, you smelled like chocolate ... and I knew then, when I smelled the back of your neck, like chocolate ... like I was a pregnant woman, I had a craving man, a craving ... I wanted some chocolate ... then I saw the oranges ... I saw you covered in juice ... I had to see you ... and drink man ... just drink ... smell you, chocolate and orange ... tell me it don' feel good, eh ... cause damn, it looks so good ... you have lil shiny beads of juice on your neck ... nice, nice ... like plenty, plenty little diamonds, man ... on your beautiful skin ... and that juice baby, yeah ... so good.
At 18th Street, the driver turned right as Pablo Vargas walked to work at a nearby bistro. Vargas jumped back but couldn't get out of the way as the car again bounced onto the curb. "I thought the guy'd had a heart attack and lost control," said Vargas, 36.
Then the camera's down for the third time. And when he nears me, he doesn't stop all those inches away. His lips are soft on my neck, and his fingers trace thick lines of electric current over my arms and chest. And then, his mouth sticky and hot right next to my ear, he says, "I want you to be naked, man ... naked." And when I close my eyes, and sigh deep, he knows that the answer is yes. While he loads new film into the camera, I drape the sheet in a wide, loose sash over my shoulder and between my legs. I feel cool cotton cloth gather around me, and he matches my thoughts, telling me how good the white looks next to my skin. He snaps slower now, and we take our time, changing positions, exploring poses: sitting on the chair with the sheet on my lap, holding the bowl in outstretched arms; standing with the white cloth shirred at my waist, knotted in front and falling to my knees; the sheet wrapped around my back, crossed at my collar and knotted at my nape, the bowl resting between my widespread legs. I remember playing "fashion show" with my cousin Gail when we were young, excited but afraid that I'd get caught "acting like a little girl." But when the fabric is girding my middle and slung over my shoulder, Brian tells me that I look like an African prince. I feel like a man, like all that is a man, aware of each taught, strong curve of muscle that I wear--raw and real, with the orange's sugar and my salt about me, strong through the lens of his wanting, male through his eyes. Chocolate and orange, muscle and cotton, a camera's lens and Brian's vision, fit together like sections of an orange, making me feel whole and natural now.
Later, I walk to the train station with a newfound posture that lifts my step and props me as I surf the urban waves of the subway. I fight uneasiness that's vague and wispy in the gray moments before sleep, but becomes so specific, as I rise, that I can almost smell it. Brian calls early that day. "Just wanted to let you know I had a great time yesterday, Chocolate Man ... can't wait to see you again ... I have a great idea for us ... just wait, gonna make you shine, baby." I don't know Brian well enough to plot his next step, so I wonder if I'll spend the next days and weeks avoiding strange calls or enjoying the vision of an eccentric artist. Worried, but thinking all the while of accessories for our next encounter--silk and mangoes, raffia and honey, body paint and flowers.
On the second day, in this web of afterglow and anxiety and desire, I'm stopped in my tracks as I walk past a newsstand. Brian's face, black and white, beneath a tabloid headline:
After a jewelry heist yesterday, the thief sparked mayhem on Manhattan streets, plowing a stolen car into crowds in a ride of terror. Almost $200,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from the Van Cleef & Arpels store on Fifth Avenue early yesterday after someone smashed a small front window, grabbed the jewelry and fled, the police said. "No one made any penetration into the store," said a spokeswoman for the jewelry store. She declined to say what was stolen, but police identified the items as a $98,000 necklace, a $72,000 bracelet and a $25,000 ring. The theft at the tony jeweler was captured on videotape, and the items were found later in the green Buick Regal driven by a hit-and-run driver who was cornered by cops in Chelsea.
Anton Nimblett is a Trinidadian living and writing in Brooklyn. He has been published in Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters and in African Voices. His fiction will be included in the anthology Contemporary Caribbean LGBT Writing, edited by Thomas Glave.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Fictional Work|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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