“Guess what today is?” he says, rolling his bike over the cracked sidewalk. “It’s fucking Picture Day.”
“What’s Picture Day?” I say.
“It sucks, that’s what it is. I can’t wait to get out of here.” He runs his fingers over the mass of curls on his head. The ones that got him grounded, tongue-lashed, and banished to his room.
“It’s not going to happen. We’re not even Seniors,” I say. “And what the hell is Picture Day?” He steadies the handlebars and slows down. We walk past Vintage Vinyl.
“It’s the day you feel guilty about stuff you can’t change,” he says. “Every Wednesday, Dad gets pissed off—some meeting at work—and he comes home and yells at everybody. Mom takes off her glasses and says she has headache. Or she just leaves the room. My brothers cover their ears and he tells them to take their hands down—now. And if anyone starts crying or tries to leave, he looks at me and says, What’s wrong with you? You going to let them get away with that? Then, I tell everyone to calm the fuck down.”
“Wait. You tell them to calm the fuck down?”
“No, but I want to. I just tell them to be quiet.”
“What’s he so pissed off about?” I say.
“I don’t know. Everything.”
He kicks a blue recycling bin outside Mindy’s Florist, just like he kicks a soccer ball. Not too hard, just enough to make it land in the right spot.
“You can come to my house for dinner,” I say.
“That’ll piss him off more,” he says.
“Then, do it.”
“No. Then, he’ll do the fucking sweep.”
“What’s the sweep?”
“He gets a trash bag and goes through everyone’s room and sweeps everything off the shelves and the desks and dumps it into the bag.”
“No, it’s random—or if you really piss him off, which is all the time. If he thinks you’re hiding something, he tears the whole room apart.”
“Okay, your family is more batshit than mine.”
“Told you,” he says.
He jumps on his bike and races down the street. I sprint two blocks and catch up with him. Just like when we’re in trouble and we have to run laps. He always gets sent out first and I have to catch up with him. When I get close, I tag his shoulder and run as fast as I can. He catches up and does the same. Then we run next to each other until we’re out of breath and it feels like we could keep going and never come back.
“Don’t be an asshole,” I say, when I get close.
“Sorry, “ he says, getting off the bike and walking next to me. “Sometimes I’ve just got to do that.” He bumps my shoulder. I bump him back.
“So, why do you call it Picture Day?” I say. He lifts the front of his bike and puts it down, again.
“All right…we’re sitting at the table. The food’s out. He tells us we’re goddam spoiled and we’ve never had to work a day in our lives and we don’t deserve anything in the house. Mom takes off her glasses and leaves. I tell my brothers to stop messing around. Then, he looks at me and says, Do you know what’s going to happen to you? Do you know what’s waiting for you out there? Do you? Mom comes back and tells him to stop. Then, he leaves the room and comes back with the fucking pictures.”
“You know those videos where the kids are starving and they ask you for money and you feel like crap because you don’t even know if it’s going to get there? Or if there’s any food at all? Or the whole fucking thing is a scam? It’s like that. And the kids look like skeletons and their mouths are open and they’re crying and they’ve got flies on their faces and their stomachs are big because their guts are full of worms and—“
“Stop, I don’t want to hear anymore.”
“I know, it’s fucked up. So, he puts the pictures next to our plates and paces around the table and tells us not to move or mouth off, but we better clean our plates because we’re not leaving until we do. Then, we sit and we stare at the meat until we feel like we’re going to throw up and there’s nothing we can do about it.” He lets out a breath.
I listen to the whirring of the tires and the dead leaves under my feet. It makes me sick, but I don’t tell him.
“You get good grades,” I say. “What’s his fucking problem?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “He thinks every black person should feel as bad as he does for succeeding.”
“What’s to feel bad about?”
“I don’t fucking know. Maybe he feels bad because he got out and they didn’t,” he says.
“How is that your fault?”
“I don’t know,” he says. I put my hand on his shoulder, but only for a second. “So, yeah, I want to come to your house. I want to stay real bad, but it’ll only make things worse.”
We stop outside Lucky’s.
“You want anything?” he says.
“No,” I say, grabbing the handlebars. He disappears through the automatic doors and reappears with miniature apple pies. We tear off the wax paper and bite into sugary crust. We walk the sidewalk until rectangles of green take over the landscape.
“Thank you,” I say. “It’s good.”
“You’re welcome,” he says. I smile.
“Hey,” I say, “Maybe he’ll screw up and give you a good picture this time.”
“Shut the fuck up,” he says, laughing.
“You shut the fuck up,” I say.
We get to my house. There’s no sidewalk in front. Just flower pots and wood chips. He says he likes the smell of wood chips and things seem better when he’s at my house. I finish eating and crumple the wax paper into a ball. He takes it from me and puts it in his pocket. Then, he hands me his dessert.
“Here,” he says. “I can’t finish it.”
“You only took a few bites,” I say. He shrugs.
“I better go.” he says.
“I’ll walk you to the top.”
“Naw, I’ve got it,” he says.
My sister parts the blinds and looks out. She holds her fingers up to her eye like a telescope. Then, she makes a duck face. I wave her off and turn around.
“Be careful,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, staring across the street. I wave my hand in front of his face. “That tree’s going to fall on that house,” he says.
“How do you know?”
“Look at the way it’s leaning,” he says. “And the roots are coming out of the ground. I could go over there right now and tell them what’s going to happen and they won’t do anything about it,” he says.
“You worry too much,” I say.
“Maybe,” he says, letting the bike roll backwards, then forwards. “Maybe not.” He pretends to run the front tire over my foot. I tag his shoulder.
“I better get this over with,” he says. “Next time, we’ll talk about your shit.”
“That would take too long,” I say. “We’d never get home.”
“That’s not a bad thing.” he says. We look at each other until the sprinklers come on across the street. Then, he gets on his bike.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he says. “When I get my pilot’s license, I’ll fly his ass over there and make him deliver the food himself.”
“You better,” I say.
He rides up the hill toward gated gardens, hidden driveways, and floor-to-ceiling windows without blinds. I stand on the street, watching him go—thinking about children and trees and flying and all the things I’m too scared to say—wondering what will happen when he reaches the top of the hill and disappears.
© Darlene Eliot