Excerpt from The Family Jones
Siddhi and I conquered I-95 from Miami to New York with thumb wrestling, hangman, and sleep. “Gonna be great for us, munchies…” Jackson muttered, waking us both up just in time for a look at the City skyline. I wondered if we would ever see home again, or if we even had enough money to live in the real world, and I whispered my worries to Siddhartha, but then he started to look down and wring his hands like he always did when he got scared, so I cut it out.
“The Catskills,” Jackson said, pointing his finger at the purplish shadows rising out of a never-ending bed of green forest. A mom would have packed snacks. The three whole years of whatever I’d experienced with my own mother had long been squashed into the forgotten corners of my brain by the next nine years of newer, shittier memories, like the past sixteen hours of Jackson driving ninety miles per hour, the constant beeeeep of his Fuzzbuster insisting he slow down, and all the while with him mumbling how this guru was going to help him straighten out, get right.
Jackson turned onto a gravelly road that led to a huge, grassy field in the forest, then up a hill past a pair of old brown barns where a bunch of goats stood around nervously, like they were waiting to take a math test. Another quarter mile from the barns, and Jackson pulled up to a circle of little cottages—yellow clapboard with lacy white porch rails—and parked at the sign that said, “MAIN OFFICE.”
On the lawn outside, a circle of naked women in socks upended themselves into headstands. They looked like a rack of lamb. Continue reading
It’s March and too cold for Delia, who pulls her black wool scarf tighter around her neck and tugs her coat—missing three buttons—tighter around her body. Under the coat, her winter blue-plaid school uniform offers no protection against the chill. She holds a stack of textbooks against her body for added warmth and wishes she hadn’t lost her gloves. She longs for warmer temperatures, for spring’s kiss on the now-naked winter trees lining the streets. Her father, who has sayings for everything, once told her March comes like a lion, but leaves like a lamb. Today, the lion roars her to numbness. She reminds herself to remember to sew the buttons back on her coat and to possibly snag her mother’s gloves.
On Riverside Avenue she forces herself step by step toward the Inner Harbor, away from Mary Star of the Sea High School, knowing she must endure the cold for another twenty minutes before she reaches her neighborhood. First a piano lesson, then home to change, and then her cashier job at the grocery store where her mother knows the owner and finagled the under-the-table job. The stack of textbooks provides some protection against the cold air, but her arms ache from the weight. She sets the stack down on a nearby stoop and shivers in her thin coat until she picks them up again. The books hold her coat shut. A few days ago, she asked her mother for a warmer coat, but winter is nearly over, her mother said, adding that she’d get a new one next year. She also asked her mother to sew the missing buttons, which sat in a small, clear cup in her room, back onto her coat.
“You could do it yourself,” Ivy said. Continue reading
I gazed with both awe and skepticism at Kevin as he sipped his coffee, bit into his muffin and surfed the web on his phone. We had been together for four months, yet there were still times when he felt to me like a figment or dream. It seemed as if he might vanish at any moment, leaving me alone in my Brooklyn apartment.
In the decade before I met Kevin, there wasn’t one Sunday that I didn’t take breakfast alone. I’d had a few one-night-stands, but always crept away or convinced the guy to leave as quickly as possible. It was no wonder I occasionally doubted if Kevin was real. For my entire adult life and most of my childhood, solitude had been my only companion.
I met Kevin at a Hell’s Kitchen gay bar. I didn’t go to bars often, but once in a while did crave human company. Kevin walked in, slender, bespectacled, gawkily handsome, in khakis and a buttoned-down shirt buttoned to the top. Appearing as wholesome as a fifties sitcom character, he seemed as out of place there as I felt. That was surely what possessed me to approach him, ask him the name of his cerulean blue drink. We ended up having three rounds of “bluebirds.” At the end of the night, we exchanged numbers and went to our respective homes, a rarity in the gay world. If I were to find love, it couldn’t be with anyone remotely normal.
Kevin was strange because he was so “normal,” raised by two devoutly religious, yet wholly accepting parents in a small Minnesota town. He had moved to New York from Minneapolis a month earlier, transferred by his consulting firm. He’d recently ended a long-term monogamous relationship. There was no Grindr on his phone. The only “Molly” he knew of was his sister-in-law. Continue reading
Crawfish pie, succulent as any dish at Galatoire’s, beckoned from the counter alongside a platter of baguettes and, glistening under the skylights, a heap of romaine tossed with strawberries. Were cilantro and pine nuts wedged in there too? Either way, the silver platter caught Beth’s crab-like hand scuttling toward the baguettes, and her eyes as well, looking to elude her mother’s gaze. “I’m twenty-one years old, Mom, and I don’t care if I’m not emaciated like you,” she might have said.
But she didn’t. In this polite envelope of a crowd, gathered together at Uncle Adrian’s beach house, a rejoinder to her mother’s silences would be unthinkable. Every June they visited. As usual, her family had traveled from Chattanooga, though this time she’d driven alone after work, first with the radio blaring, then As You Like It on CD. While for her the trip to the Gulf Coast took seven hours, her cousins, who lived in New Orleans, except during and after Katrina, could make it in four.
“Okay, everybody!” bellowed a pious great-aunt. Continue reading
He told her he knew how to do it. He told her he’d camped in the northern forest, year after year, always in mid-autumn, just him and his dog, a foxhound mix with the lungs of an Arabian stallion, who tore up and down the mountain trails, covering three or four times the distance he did, the ecstasy never once dimming in its soft brown eyes. Each time he brought along an extra sleeping bag for the dog even though the dog declined to get inside it when the nights dipped near freezing and would maybe sleep on top of it but generally preferred to curl up against him, right in the crook of his head and shoulder so that, as he tried to sleep, he heard and felt the deep breaths rumbling contentedly through the dog’s body.
He liked this part of the forest, he told her, because the shelters along the trails eliminated the need to carry a tent. The shelters were simple plank platforms with shake-shingle roofs, each with four bunk bed frames, all of it sitting on sturdy foundations built with boulders and mortar. The weathered lumber was incised and initialed, some inscriptions with dates going back forty years and some in languages from other continents.
After the dog died, he lost the will to return alone, but the memories stayed strong, the scarlet and golden mountains and forest whispers and the dog splashing through and slurping up the clear water of every brook they came across, a doggie paradise loop running endlessly in his head.
“It was paradise for you too,” she said. Continue reading
Emily was the sort of six-year-old who would squash the end of an ant, but not the front, to prolong its suffering. Life had dealt her an unfair hand, and now life was dealing the insects an unfair hand. Her mother worried that she would become a serial killer and sent her to a child psychiatrist. Every Thursday she paid $300 for Emily to build Lego spaceships that symbolized her apparent penis envy. Mrs. Harris, who had never studied psychoanalysis, thought that the doctor meant that Emily had gender confusion, and donated all the child’s pants to the Salvation Army. She dressed her daughter in lacy, flowery dresses and party shoes. When Emily sat cross-legged on the floor, everyone could see her underwear. Her teachers forbade her from participating in sports. What a fat child she became! By the time she was eleven, she weighed one hundred and eighty pounds and Thomas called her Jiggles.
Everyone liked Thomas; he was the most beautiful boy in the world. He was small and thin and had curly brown hair. Emily wanted to envelope him inside herself and absorb his body into her bones. She thought about what it would be like to wake up one morning in his bed, with his curls and his penetrating eyes. How were his parents? What did his room look like? Emily saw the trophies lined up on his desk, the framed awards hanging above his bed. He won prizes in math every year, she knew because they had class together, and she knew he had baseball and basketball trophies because the principal gave them to him in special assemblies that took the students out of English class. He was always surrounded by girls but never dated any of them, and people told all kinds of lies about him, but in fact he was a gentleman and never told his friends what he did when he was with women.
“If he’s so nice, why does he call you Jiggles?” asked Emily’s mother. Continue reading
The starling paced back and forth on the windowsill making a low clucking sound, his bill catching here and there on the screen. Mostly it rushed from one end of the sill to the other but sometimes it only made it midway before it stopped and pushed its head into the screen and darted back to the point at which it started. Mark felt bad for the thing in its panic and wanted to lift the screen and let it out but he knew how John felt about the bird and didn’t know what to do.
Anyone who met Mark and John assumed they were father and son. They were both 5’6” and lean with wide set blue eyes and had an affable stoop to their shoulders. Both were amiable and soft spoken and both liked the Mets and the Jets. John was appropriately older than Mark to be his father, but they were not related at all. Neither had had children and neither had been married, both for no other reason than it just never happened. And even though they conveniently wore the same size clothes and shoes, they never borrowed or shared. Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
Jamal Brinkley’s debut book A Lucky Man is a collection of nine excellently written short stories that showcase a deeply thoughtful body of work.
The stories are set in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, the city serving as a backdrop for stories where complex familial relationships take center stage, as does black identity, and masculinity. These themes are all addressed through different stages of life: college aged, middle aged, and young boys serve as narrators throughout the collection.
In the first story, “No More than a Bubble,” two college-aged men, Columbia students, attend a party in Brooklyn. The narrator here jumps between the party, and how they fit into it, how he wants to be seen there especially by the women, and who he really is as he thinks of his parents. “We both preferred girls of a certain plumpness, with curves—in part, I think, because that’s what black guys are supposed to like. Liking them felt like a confirmation of possessing black blood, a way to stamp ourselves with authenticity.” It’s revealed he has a white Italian father and a black mother, something he reflects on through the course of the story as he and his friend follow two girls to their home, moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn.
Freudiana, I’m not a screw factory. It has to be something special to be with him. Otherwise what’s the point?
Freudiana, how are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time. Your hair is styled; not mine. Can’t stand my hair. Let it fall. It glistens, you tell me.
He said, Cutting ages you.
Longer is younger, I said. Do I need you telling me about my hair?
Vogue says, Shorter is younger.
Also, who’s Hal to tell me not to help my child? Before we flew to London, I handed my son, Van, four signed emergency checks.
Children need to be independent, Hal said. Continue reading
Life wants to be; life doesn’t always want to be much; life from time to time
goes extinct…. Life goes on.
—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
I have to write everything down while I still remember.
Dispatch called at 3 a.m. A hospital in Monterey. Insurance had sent a car.
I sat on the porch in the dark, reading the patient’s file. Erik Hagestad. A marine biologist and diver, a scientist at the research institute. He’d brushed against deepwater coral. The abrasions were severe. Antibiotic noncompliance led to sepsis. Headlights swept over me. My ride.
The driver had a serene soul. As he drove, he was thinking of his wife and daughters. Not words, just images. Very specific. The little one grinning, having lost a tooth. His wife’s hands forming masa into tortillas. It made for a peaceful drive.
In Monterey the sky was lighter. The air smelled of cypress and the sea. I tipped the driver $2,500. It was all I had on me. Nurse Devon Jagler met me in the lobby. She walked me to palliative care. A man stood outside the patient’s room. He was weeping. The nurse introduced him. Somebody Smith. Milton?
“Are you the husband?” I asked. Continue reading