A Place for Jamaal
In the tenth grade, Jamaal had torn the waist of his pants so that they’d hang lower. T.C. and Logan were already railing on him for doing so well in English and History: the last thing he needed were pants that fit. When they asked him to hang out after school, Jamaal didn’t think twice about his ma and her “come straight home” rule.
His friends stopped railing on him as soon as they saw how well he could tag. He didn’t just paint graffiti on dumpsters: he created works of art. T.C. once made him paint “Terrence Christopher” on the back of S&S Deli alongside a giant wolf. The owners of S&S covered it up, of course, but not before Jamaal had shown it to Ma. For the first time since he was five years old and Mrs. Hamilton praised him for coloring within the lines, he felt like maybe he was actually good at something.
Jamaal had wanted order in his life, and the gang did that for him. He knew who his friends were and who his enemies were. He knew what to wear, what to say, and how to act. The gun wasn’t something he asked for. He didn’t even want it, and he told Benny that much.
But he had to hold onto it, Benny said. “You never know when you might need it.”
Jamaal didn’t find out that Celia was pregnant until they’d already broken up. He told her that he still wanted to be there, that he wanted to be the man his own father never was. She told him it was better this way. “My daughter ain’t gonna have no gang-banger for a dad,” she’d said. When he was arrested for shooting Alice Wilkes, Celia could say “I told you so” to all the world. Didn’t mean shit that he had been innocent.
Four years later, Jamaal was out of jail and hoping Celia had changed her mind. On the far side of the park was the beginning of a path that led to Winton Terrace, a square mile of low-income housing units built by the government about twenty years ago. Hundreds of families moved in back then, all of them poor, all of them black. Jamaal was twelve when he and his Ma left the Terrace for a real house in Winton Place.
There was a seven-foot gate between the park and the path. It hadn’t been there before he left. Jamaal wondered why they would put a gate in a public park. Jamaal wondered, each time he passed. A closed Master Lock hung from the fence, but the latch was still open. A sign said it was locked after dark. He lifted the latch, opened the gate, and continued on his way. A hundred yards of woods—and now a gate—separated Winton Place from Winton Terrace.
Jamaal recognized Celia’s unit only by the “27” on the door. Otherwise it was exactly like all the others. The shades had been drawn on both of the windows. He peeked through the sliver of space between the window’s edge and the shade, and wondered if he should knock.
“Jamaal?” The door opened to reveal a young woman. He kissed her hard on the lips until she pushed him away. She shook her head. “You shouldn’t be here,” she said.
She shook her head again.
“Yeah, she is.” Celia stepped out of the doorway, pulling the door shut behind her. She was wearing a yellow bathrobe, loosely tied around her waist. Her feet were bare. “So you’re out.”
“I’m out,” he said. “I missed you, girl.”
“You missed me so damn much you sent me one letter in four years? What are you doing here, Jamaal?”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Well, now you have. Anything else?”
Jamaal stood, silent. Celia looked exactly like she did four years ago, except her hair was pulled straight against her head; last time, it was in braids. “You heard anything from Benny?”
“No,” she said. “Last time was just after the trial. People say he’s down in St. Louis, now.”
Jamaal smiled. “He’s probably afraid of me.”
“Would you really do something to him?”
“Why shouldn’t I! I don’t want to talk about Benny.”
“You’re the one who asked about him,” Celia said, looking down at her feet. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her robe, took two, and offered one to Jamaal. “What are you doing now? Still living at home?”
“Yeah,” he said, taking the cigarette from her. He pulled a lighter out of his own pocket, lit her cigarette and then his own. “I’m working down at the AR. Feels pretty good showing Ma a paycheck instead of a welfare check.”
“Are things alright with her?”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw her down at Krogers a couple months ago. She looked real sick-like. Just the way she was walking, I don’t know. When I yelled over to her, she didn’t even turn. I had to grab her from behind.”
Jamaal’s mother had been looking more tired the same way Celia was looking more tired. He figured everyone was just getting old. “Ma ain’t mention nothing about being sick. She tell you anything?”
“Not about that, no. She did say you never called or wrote. She wanted to know if I knew what was going on. I didn’t know what to say.”
The rows of housing units, many with bars on the windows, and all with the same structure, reminded him of jail cells. It made him uncomfortable. “I didn’t want to depress her or nothin by telling her how bad the food was.”
“Yeah, just depress her by not talking to her for four years.”
“She could have visited. It’s not like I was in solitary. You could have visited.”
Celia shrugged. “She’s learned the alphabet. She can recognize all the letters and tell you what sound they make.”
“Our girl’s smart, huh?”
“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found her reading a book tomorrow.”
“Can I see her?”
“You expect to come back after four years and just all the sudden be her daddy? It don’t work that way.”
“Damnit, Celia. What am I supposed to do? Act like she don’t even exist? Nah, nah. I can’t do that.” Jamaal reached behind Celia and grabbed the door knob. He turned it and started to push it open, but Celia grabbed his arm with both hands.
“Stop! I said no.” Celia was pulling on his arm, but he was too strong for her and continued into the small apartment. “I’ll call the police, Jamaal.”
He stepped backwards. “You acting like I’m some kind of criminal. Everyone’s acting like I’m gonna pull out a gun or something.”
“You’re still such a boy. I thought the joint was supposed to make you grow up. It’s always someone else’s fault with you, ain’t it. You think everyone’s looking at you different, but maybe you’re the one looking at people different. The truth is, you ain’t changed a bit.”
“You know what the funny thing about truth is? It ain’t real sometimes.”
“The truth is the truth, Jamaal.”
“Well it ain’t when Benny gets up on the stand and tells everyone that I shot that little girl.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, J.” She motioned toward the door, but Jamaal reached over and made sure she didn’t.
“Tell me I’m innocent. I gotta hear it from you.”
“I can’t do that. I don’t know. You get so angry sometimes.”
He had been tried as a juvenile. A few months older and he might have been tried as an adult, with adult sentences and adult jail. Celia had the baby a few weeks later. When the sentence was read, she was sitting there in the courtroom with her arms folded over her belly, and his ma to her side. Only Ma wasn’t crying.
“You should go,” Celia said, leaning against the closed door. “We’re doing fine.”
It was dark now. By the time he got to the gate between Winton Terrace and the park, it was locked. He climbed over it and made his way home.
It took three men to lift the cylinder of petroleum onto the forklift. Mike commented that the cylinders were bigger than they used to be; management was making them lift more. Frank said they were lifting the same amount as before. Every day, it was two hundred or so twenty-gallon cylinders. Jamaal didn’t know one way or the other, since he’d only been working at the plant for two weeks.
“Coming to lunch?” Frank had worked there for fifteen years, since he was twenty-five, and he seemed alright. He told Jamaal which guys to stay away from and which ones to be friendly to.
Jamaal took a brown paper sack out of his locker and then joined Frank in the break room. He pulled out a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips. Frank had a can of pop and cold pizza.
“You got a wife at home?” Frank asked.
“Nah,” Jamaal answered.
Frank laughed. “Then who’s making you these sandwiches each morning?”
“My mom,” he said. “She’s getting up there in the years. Someone gotta look after her, you know?”
“My mother died three years ago.”
Jamaal wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say, muttering, “Sorry to hear that.” Jamaal took a big bite out his turkey sandwich. Frank was checking out his boots, scraping off some residue with a plastic knife. Jamaal felt like he was supposed to say something, now. Maybe ask Frank a question. He couldn’t think of anything besides, “Bengals suck this year, huh?”
“Don’t get me started on the Bengals. Each year we hear they’re going to be a new team, that this is going to be the year they finally make the post-season. If there’s one thing I’m sure about it’s that they’ll never make it back to the Super bowl with Mike Brown running the show…”
Jamaal continued to take big bites of his sandwich as Frank went on about football. Frank was sure about a lot of “one things” whereas Jamaal was sure about very little. Nietzsche had written that convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. Jamaal wondered what Frank would say about that. Chunks of half-chewed turkey on bread descended through his body. They felt like little knots or tightened fists. He wished he had something to wash it down with.
“…and why the hell did they take so long to get rid of Coslet?”
It wasn’t hard to fit in here, Jamaal thought. Just do what you’re told, laugh at their jokes, and agree with them when they’re talking about sports. That’s what Frank had said to do. Jamaal nodded and shrugged.
“They should make me the goddamn coach,” Frank said.
Jamaal smiled. Frank thought he should be coach of the Reds, too. Fifteen minutes had passed. Jamaal crumpled up his paper bag, tossed it in the can, and said. “I’m gonna get back to work.”
“Okay, take it easy, Mac.”
The Metro from work let him off in front of Meiner’s. On the sidewalk was the same liquor bottle, the same cigarette butt, and the same old plaid couch waiting to be collected by the salvation army or some old friends at the sanitation department, whichever came first. As he walked by the alley next to Meiner’s, he saw two kids spray painting on a dumpster. They were holding the cans too close to the surface, Jamaal thought. He barked out, “Hey! You kids!” The kids ran off, laughing.
The sun had set by the time he got home. He sat on the porch and waited for his uncle to arrive.
“You didn’t pick up your room like I asked,” his ma said, sticking her head out the front door.” Jamaal, a messy person has a messy soul. Lou’ll be getting off the bus around eight. Meet him at the bus, if you wouldn’t mind. It would do you good to listen to him. He’s been in your shoes and more.”
He hated that because somebody had gone to prison, they must have been in his shoes somehow. If Lou went to prison he was likely guilty. His uncle had been in jail for eight years. Jamaal wasn’t sure what it was for because Uncle Lou never told him. It didn’t matter, he said.
Lou was standing in front of the convenience store in a suit and tie, carrying a sack. He greeted Jamaal with a handshake.
“Well, Jamaal. How are you young man?”
“I bet you are. I bet.” They walked past the convenience store and turned up Orient.
The three of them finished dinner and then an ice cream dessert. Uncle Lou turned to his sister and said, “The boy’s twenty-one, isn’t he?”
“I turned it last month,” Jamaal said, as his uncle pulled a wine bottle from the sack.
Uncle Lou opened the bottle and poured two glasses. Ma excused herself to do something upstairs. Probably clean.
“I hear you’re working over at AR. How’s that going?”
“It’s alright,” Jamaal said.
“How many hours you doin?”
“Thirty-six,” Jamaal said.
“If you get a chance, ask your boss why they don’t let you do forty.” Uncle Lou didn’t explain. He leaned back and finished his glass. He immediately poured another. “C’mon,” he said, and they moved onto the front porch.
Jamaal took out two cigarettes, handing one to his uncle, and then lit them both.
“What kind of people did you hang out with in jail?” Lou sat on one of the porch steps, a glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Jamaal joined him on the step. “I don’t know, I mostly kept to myself,” he said. “I read books, got my GED…”
“There’s some pretty rough people down there.”
“It could be dangerous to get mixed up with them.”
Uncle Lou was looking somewhere across the street, finishing his first glass. “Son, I know you didn’t shoot no little girl.”
Jamaal tried to see what his uncle saw. On the other side of the street were houses in the same shape as Jamaal’s. Modest, two-story places with vinyl-siding, a front porch and a small front yard. One had a ceramic white goose. Another had a jack-o-lantern.
“Come on, it’s too chilly out here. Let’s go inside.”
Jamaal took a last puff on his cigarette then tossed it out into the lawn. He later walked Uncle Lou to the bus and helped him on when it arrived, telling the bus driver to make sure he gets off at Reading and Lincoln.
He peeked in his Ma’s room when he got home. He listened to her slow breath and watched the silhouette of her chest rise and fall against the light from the street, streaming through the window.
“Who was smoking in the break room?”
The room was silent except the gentle whir of a processing machine. A bald man was scratching his scalp, while another shifted his weight from his left to his right. There weren’t any women.
Mr. Garrison, the floor supervisor and the only man wearing a tie, repeated the question: “Who was smoking in the break room? We work with petroleum, people. How many times did we say absolutely no smoking inside? I know it was one of you six. No one else was back there.”
Mike stood. He had been slouching in one of the plastic chairs, biting his fingernails. “I have a pretty good guess,” Mike said. He was smiling.
“Why don’t we step into my office.” Mr. Garrison and Mike walked off, leaving five men to decide if they should get back to work or wait for their boss to return. Jamaal looked at Frank for some kind of cue, but Frank was sitting, his eyes shut.
Jamaal walked to the supply closet and removed a mop and bucket of soapy water. He cleaned the floor in large, sweeping motions. The tanks were supposed to be vacuum-tight, but drops of petroleum still managed to escape. He tried to imagine the damage that would be caused should a lit cigarette fall to the floor. There would be a fire. An explosion. People running around. Maybe some would even die.
Three of the guys were standing, talking. One said it wasn’t him, that he quit those cancer sticks years ago. Another said that the last person caught smoking inside was fired. The third just nodded.
“Don’t worry,” Frank said to Jamaal. “I’m sure Mr. Garrison won’t fire you.”
Jamaal stopped mopping. “What are you talking about,” he said.
“It’s only been a couple weeks on the job; you’re still learning some of the ropes. It’s understood that you’ll make a couple of mistakes.”
Jamaal said that it wasn’t him.
“Son, I can smell the smoke on your breath. We all saw the way Mike was looking at you. He must have seen something.”
Jamaal said he wasn’t his son. He turned away from Frank and resumed mopping. He had put too much water on it. Puddles kept forming. He tried to spread it around with the mop, but it still looked as if he had dumped gallons of water onto the smooth cement floor. He squeezed the excess water back into the bucket, and then used the mop to soak up the moisture on the floor. At least it was clean, he thought.
Mike touched Jamaal’s shoulder as they passed each other in the doorway to Mr. Garrison’s office. It was a sorry-looking room: no windows, cinderblock walls, and stacked crates as shelves for file folders. Jamaal would choose working in the open plant floor over being cooped in this office any day.
“Sit down. You’ve only been here a short time, Mr. Anderson. You’re a good worker. You arrive on time and you do what you’re told. So I’ll make this easy for you. Promise it will never happen again and I can pretend it never happened in the first place.”
“It didn’t happen, sir. Not with me.”
“We’ve got a seven-year veteran saying he saw you smoking in the break room. I’ve seen the cigarettes in your locker. Young man, I’m saying that you’re not in trouble. All you have to do is admit your mistake and promise you won’t do it again.”
“Goddamnit!” Instead of taking a plea-bargain, going to jail for six months, and saying to the world that he shot a little girl, Jamaal went to court so that the judge could say he was guilty and send him to jail for four years. Jamaal hated the way Mr. Garrison was looking at him.
Mr. Garrison looked like every single white person who’d ever had power over Jamaal’s life. Sure, their faces and hair color may have changed, but that look in their eyes stayed cold. He said something about it being Jamaal’s choice. But Jamaal stood silent.
“Well I’m sorry to hear that. Be sure to leave your work boots in your locker. The last paycheck will be in the mail by Thursday.”
As he left the office, Jamaal noticed the eyes of the other workers diverting away from him. Only Frank approached, extending his hand. Jamaal shook it and then walked out into the daylight.
When the 47 metro arrived, Jamaal waved it by. He crossed the street and caught a bus headed the other direction, getting off at Reading and Lincoln. He wasn’t sure that his uncle would be home, but he didn’t know what else to do.
“What a nice surprise!” Lou said, inviting Jamaal inside. It wasn’t neat and clean like his ma’s. Piles of books cluttered the floor. There was a couch and two recliners: none of them matched each other, but they looked comfortable. “To what do I owe this afternoon visit?”
Jamaal didn’t tell him much about what happened at work. Just that there was a misunderstanding, and that he felt forced to leave. Lou put his hand on Jamaal’s shoulder and said he understood.
Uncle Lou was a little older than Ma. He had thick black hair with gray creeping up around the edges. He wore a brown fisherman hat, taking it off only at meals. Maybe at night, too, but Jamaal wasn’t sure. Jamaal sat down on one of the recliners, a brown and white plaid. There was a canvas hanging from the wall; Jamaal could tell it was hand-painted because of the thick texture. It was of a woman standing in a large, open field next to a honey-colored horse.
“I did that a few years ago,” Lou said. “When you were in your cell, did you ever have any images you just couldn’t get out of your mind? Well this was mine.”
“Who was she?”
His uncle was staring at the painting. A smile appeared on his face. “Ain’t she something?” he said. “I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.”
Jamaal slid onto the floor and sat, cross-legged, beside a pile of books. Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright rested, one on top of the other.
“Take any of those,” Lou said, appearing in the doorway to the kitchen. “If you want.”
Jamaal jumped, startled, and sat back on the recliner. Lou handed him a glass of water. “Thanks,” Jamaal said.
He finished the water and then followed Lou to the backroom. A tan-colored tarp covered the entire floor, and on top of the tarp rested a pile of wood slabs, a power saw, and an open toolbox, overflowing with screws and nails and other materials.
“You any good at carpentry?”
“No,” he said.
“No better time to learn. If you at my place, you’re working.”
Lou showed him where to measure and make pencil marks on the wood for drilling. If he did well at this, maybe Lou would let him hold the power drill.
“What did you do to get eight years?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lou said. “I did it and I served my time.”
Jamaal measured three-quarter inches from the edge and drew a tick mark. Then, using a T-square, drew a straight line through that mark, parallel to the edge. He measured, made marks, and drew lines until the board-an 8” by 24” slab-was covered with thick dots where the holes should go.
Jamaal showed it to his uncle.
“Good,” Lou said. “Now do the same with those.”
There were five pieces left. It took Jamaal an hour and a half to mark each of them, and it took another forty-five minutes to sand them all.
“Good good,” Lou said. He had been measuring a pair of larger boards. “Okay, son. Ready for the drill?”
Jamaal nodded, smiling, as his uncle walked across the room and came back with a giant drill. He plugged in one end and asked Jamaal to put one of the slabs across the two workhorses.
“It’s heavy,” Jamaal said.
“That’s why you hold it with both hands.”
Lou showed him how to place the drill bit, how to make sure the drill is perpendicular to the board, and where and how hard to squeeze.
“Pretty easy,” Jamaal said, after they had finished putting holes in each of the boards. “You gonna tell me what we’re making?”
“Help me get the screws started, first.”
They set an 8” by 24” board perpendicular to an 8” by 36” one. Lou fastened them together as Jamaal held them steady. Before long, they had four boards connected, making a two by three foot frame, eight inches deep.
Lou shook his head. He picked up one of the remaining slabs and fit it within the box. He fastened it on both sides. He repeated with the remaining three, as Jamaal stood back, dumb.
“Help me get this up,” he said.
Together, one man on each end, they set the shelves vertical to the ground.
“What are you going to put on them?”
“You saw all those books out there,” Lou said. “They gotta go somewhere.”
Jamaal offered to help put them on the shelf. He could organize them by genre, publishing date, or alphabetical by author. Lou declined. He said the shelf wasn’t ready.
They had walked back out to the front room. “Your ma says you draw.”
“I got these months ago, but I don’t got the time to use them,” Lou said. “Thought you might like to have them.”
He brought a wooden box out from behind his back and set it on Jamaal’s lap.
“Open it,” he said.
Inside was a set of paints, six tubes of color and a giant tube of white. There were also several brushes of various sizes.
“This is mine?”
Lou nodded. “Now don’t get feelin too special now, they’re just acrylics. Someone else gave it to me as a gift. I’m just passin it on. I thought you might want to paint the shelf some time. Course you can use them for whatever you want.”
Jamaal thanked him and closed the box. When he got home, he called Lou and thanked him again. Lou told him to stop by any time. There was a lot more stuff that needed shelves.
In the weeks since he got out, Jamaal often thought about all the books he’d been able to read: novels like Native Son and Adventures of Tom Sawyer; poetry by Langston Hughes and E.E. Cummings; and then all those essays, by Emerson and Thoreau, Kafka and Nietzsche, and by anyone else he could find. Jamaal liked to imagine himself going on some great journey, earning money along the way doing odd jobs here and there, and then returning to Cincinnati. He and Celia would build a house in Kentucky, by the Bone Lick River. He and Lou would make a boat for Dee to use, once she was old enough.
He took the box of paints and walked out of the house. It would still be light out for another hour. He walked to the park and then waited for everyone to clear out. He paced around the fence of the pool a couple of times before stopping at the side of the pool house, a small cinderblock building colored a pungent yellow. He opened the box and set it on the ground. He picked up a piece of bark to use as a makeshift palette. He squirted a blob of each color onto the palette, chose the largest brush in the box, and began to cover the yellow cinderblock wall with his sweeping strokes of brown and gold and red and purple. Every once in a while, he turned around in fear that someone was coming. But every noise turned out to be a squirrel or a car passing on the street, a hundred yards away.
He brought his ma to the park later that night. She couldn’t understand why it was so important for Jamaal to go back there. “Come here,” he said, as they walked to the other end of the park, just outside the chain link fence of the pool. “I was standing right here when that girl was shot.”
“What are you trying to say? I know you’re innocent, J.”
It was cold outside. It had been cool, like fall, yesterday. Today it felt like winter. He took off his jacket and put it around his mother.
“Thanks,” she said. “Tell me. Why’d you bring me here?”
“She was in the pool with T.C. and Logan and a couple other guys. The sound came from over there.” He pointed to a picnic table.
“I know son, I heard all this in your testimony.”
“You heard lots of things up there, Ma, and you ain’t talked to me the same since you heard them.” Jamaal stepped up to the fence and gripped his fingers around it. There wasn’t any water in the pool, only a thick carpet of dry, crinkled leaves.
“I can’t keep apologizing for what I did and didn’t do. I can’t. I can’t.” Jamaal turned away from the pool and toward his ma. “They fired me yesterday. AR. Said I did something I didn’t do. Me, I didn’t even fight back. Didn’t see no use in it. But now I’m thinking I should have.”
He took her around the pool to the back of the pool house. In the moonlight, the image seemed even brighter. “I pictured her as having your eyes,” he said. His ma took a step back. On the wall was the face of a little girl, smiling. It was two feet tall by three feet long, the skin the color of mahogany and the hair a collection of braids sticking out freely from her head. “You ever have these images you just can’t get out of your head?”
She said it was beautiful and then hugged him. “My baby,” she said.
The next morning, Jamaal took the bus to his uncle’s apartment. “Nice to see you, young man,” Lou said. “Let’s see what I have for you to do today.”
Jamaal smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
Lou took him to a workshop and showed him a power saw and a drill even bigger than the heavy one in Lou’s apartment. It was a wide open space with eight foot windows and men spread about the place, each with his own station. “Here’s where I work,” Lou said.
Two weeks later, Jamaal was back at the workshop with a Mr. Tillman telling him to call him Pat. “You’re a quick learner,” Pat said.
Jamaal said, “Thanks,” then looked back at the power saw and carefully rounded the edge of a square slab. He dusted it, set it to the side, and started on another piece. He wasn’t sure how all the pieces would fit together—Pat had just left him with instructions on how to cut each slab–but he knew it would turn out alright. Jamaal picked up another slab, this one a rectangle, 1′ by 2′, and lined it up parallel against the saw.
A Place for Jamaal