He stuck his head through the window. From four floors up, Wendell watched Brian glide over the sidewalk on a brand-new bike. He would only go to the corner and turn back, because it was as far as any of the kids could get without answering to their parents, and whenever Brian was bold enough to go off the block, he got his bike stolen. Everyone always laughed when they saw him walking back home, and his mom always beat his ass when he got upstairs. A few months later she would buy him another bike. Brian’s little sister, Bianca, chased after her brother on her blue scooter, and Brian yelled to her to stay in the courtyard. They lived on the third floor, on this side of the building. Champ, from the first floor on the other side, was posted by a parked car and teasing Roman, his little brother, with the basketball he dribbled between his legs, and the twins, Karen and Kiana, who lived up the block, were turning double-dutch with a long telephone cord while Taylor, from across the hall, danced between the ropes.
Sharon was already on her last nerve when Wendell came to her, for the third time, to ask with a forced politeness if he could go in front of the building to play with the other kids. Every half hour or so since he’d come to her house from school, he quietly walked over the fake tiles to wherever she was and disturbed her from watching the news, fluffing a pot of rice, or folding laundry as she stacked it in a basket.
She sighed. “Wendell.”
“Can I go outside?”
Her eyes narrowed and the straight line of her lips curved downward at the edges. “What I just tell you?”
“It’s just out front. I won’t go outside the courtyard.”
“Damn right you won’t. Imma’ tell ya’ mother you not behavin’. Go find sum’n to do.”
A new pair of sneakers lay next to the bed Trevor was either struggling or pretending to sleep on. He refused to open his eyes, and tried to ignore Wendell reentering the room.
“Trevor,” Wendell said, standing next to him.
“Hm,” Trevor moaned.
“I’m mad bored,” Wendell said.
Trevor sighed deeply, unable to half-commit to his attempt at napping. “Go to sleep,” he said.
“I can’t,” said Wendell.
If he’d had even the slightest interest in passing the time by laying down and pretending his eyelids were glued together, Wendell’s growing anxiety would keep him, like Trevor, from ever really dozing. It’s hard to sleep when all you can think about is how bored you must really be to try and take a nap at—he looked at the cable box—4:07. He sat down near the bookcase in the corner. He looked at his backpack on the other side of the room, leaning against a drawer where Sharon kept old bills, receipts and miscellaneous objects; nuts, screws, broken watches and electronics, trinkets, chargers, pieces of furniture and appliances of which origin she’d had no idea, let alone how to reattach them, and things that hadn’t been thought of for a long time but held the possibility of someday being used again. A large textbook bulged from the side of his backpack. In it was the homework that he promised Sharon was finished at school, and she either believed him or didn’t care enough to check.
He used his finger to write his name in the dust on the side of the bookcase. He ran out of space and stopped at the second E, leaving the letters W-E-N-D-E as the only clean spots on the wood. He began examining the few books on it and carefully wiped away the dust on them with the meaty part of his palm. They were mostly self-help and diet books, photo albums, and old encyclopedias. He found four bibles, and these he returned to the shelf without opening. On the top, he found a CD case, a foot long and made of cheap leather, the type that could be scratched away to reveal a gray, fibrous layer underneath. He tugged the zipper and pulled his head away to sneeze.
There were many pages for discs, with two slots on each, but most of them were empty. On the CDs, he saw images of brolic black men, almost all of them bald, and women with shiny lips and short haircuts like the one Sharon wore, only more expensive and natural-looking. On others, he saw crosses and religious imagery, words like ‘Gospel’, and ‘Him’, with a capital H. A Richie Spice album, a Michael Jackson album, a Boyz II Men album, and on one disc he did not see a name, but only a man in a green jumpsuit kneeling in front of some corrugated metal. He carried the case to the window.
The children had all migrated out of view, into the courtyard where Wendell imagined they were probably playing hops, or Champ and Brian were beefing because Brian kicked Champ’s ball onto someone’s fire escape, or Champ said something about Brian always getting his bike took, or the twins were convincing Taylor not to go home, to stay a little longer because it wasn’t 5:00 yet and it was her turn to turn the cord, or fussing over the cord that was now broken and deciding who to blame for it, or Roman was becoming frustrated because Bianca wouldn’t let him ride her scooter. Some people walked down the block and stopped for a moment to talk to each other. Others seemed to be on missions. Old whips cruised through traffic.
The first disc he pulled out of its slot was a gospel CD. He examined its gold lettering and almost-sharp edge, and the colors that magically appeared when he held the underside to the light in just the right way. He wiped it with his shirt, then held it between two fingers, stepped back from the window, and bent his arm so exaggeratedly that the edge of the disc touched his neck before he flung it through the window. It dipped, tilted and glided, a dark line on the sky, like a faraway bird, and the wind took it to the street, where it collided with the antenna of a passing Camry. It shattered and the pieces lied scattered about the yellow lines. Excitement flooded his brain and blood as he imagined himself a ninja, dressed in all black, with the mask and everything, and possessing superhuman finesse.
He moistened a finger in his mouth and held it in the air. In his mind, he carved a course for another disc to follow, threw it, and watched it ride the breeze to nowhere near where he’d intended for it to go. He took two more discs. Two old men in patterned shirts and tattered caps chatted on the sidewalk. He could throw both discs, or maybe just one (if he were really impressive), and cut both their heads off, and they would have no clue what hit them. Should he use one hand or both hands? He put one disc down, and decided he would prolong his fun by throwing one at a time, until the case was empty and all of Sharon’s CDs were lying in the street.
He watched Trevor breathe lightly into the comforter, noting his apparent success at forcing himself to sleep. He walked over to the bed and wiggled a finger at the opening of Trevor’s ear. His arm spiked, and Wendell held in his laughter as he heard the satisfying smack of Trevor’s open palm on his own face. He glared at Wendell as he held his hand over his stinging and ringing ear and asked what was wrong with him, with more exclamation than inquiry, as if he were sure there was a definite answer, and when he received only more laughter, he showed Wendell his back.
Wendell took it as a test, or an attempt to downplay his existence; Trevor trying to ignore him and dropping his guard, so sure of himself that he must’ve imagined his lack of fear or consideration manifesting just that in others, like someone’s tired father who’d been asked too many questions and would not answer any more. Really, he just wanted to sleep, but Wendell wouldn’t let him get away with that either. He put his finger into his mouth until he was sure it was covered in enough spit, and then crept over to the bed and plunged it into Trevor’s ear again. Trevor slapped himself again and rose to his feet. Wendell saw his fists and smiled. Trevor didn’t know how to fight. Outside, Wendell was always fighting.
“So, what up?” Wendell said, smiling.
Trevor took a long stride and put a shoulder into Wendell’s gut, and wrapped his arms around his waist. Wendell shifted his body, tightened his stomach, locked his arms under Trevor’s, and squeezed the boy’s head against his hip, so that he could only feel solid bone pressing into his skull. He grabbed Trevor’s wrists, and carefully twisted his hands behind his back, folding his arms into a pair of wings. Then he clucked like a chicken and smiled as he tortured his screaming playmate.
“Do you give up?” he asked.
“Fuck you!” Trevor screamed. He tried not to cry. “Get off me!”
“Uh-uh!” Sharon shouted from the other room. “Which one o’ ya’ll cursing in my house?”
Wendell looked at the sneakers next to the bed. He lifted his foot, and with his face downward, Trevor saw his shoes get punted and disappear out of view. He tried to get out of the arm lock again. Sharon stomped through the apartment.
Wendell let him go. As Sharon marched into the room, Wendell stared at her, and he held still just long enough for Trevor, his cheeks moist with tears, to swing and connect his closed fist with Wendell’s jaw. He tasted blood. Trevor flipped over the bed and ran past Sharon, straight to the bathroom. She pushed her hands in front of her to keep Wendell from catching him, and savored the force of his chest on her hands. The bathroom door slammed.
It was close as she could get to hitting someone else’s child, a child who was too out of order and needed his ass beat more often. Wendell turned his back to her and looked at Trevor’s sneakers, like a meal, or something just as gorgeous, and breathed heavily as he lifted them from the floor and chucked one through the window.
“Boy! You ain’t just—”
Wendell stuck his head through the window and watched the second sneaker fall. It landed on the roof of a car and bounced onto the windshield, before finally settling into the company of the windshield wipers in the crevice of the hood. The kids were all looking up at him. Sharon pulled him by his shoulders and he shoved her hands away.
“Have you lost ya’ damn mind? What’s wrong wit’ ‘chu? Who supposed to go get that boy shoes?”
Wendell stared at her, breathing heavily, his face screwed like a pair of puckered lips.
“I’m tellin’ ya’ mother I ain’t babysitting ya’ bad ass no more!”
He pushed past her and ran for the bathroom.
“Ya’ mother don’t gimme nearly enough to put up with this!” Sharon shouted behind him. “Why you botherin’ that boy?”
Wendell pounded his fists on the door, promising to fuck Trevor up once he caught him. Sharon pulled him away.
“Somebody oughta’ fuck yo’ little ass up!” she said, and as Wendell turned, he thought for a moment of hitting her instead.
But he softened his face and lowered his hands to his sides. Sharon looked like she could finally taste the bitter venom that coated her tongue, and she held her hands in front of her, as if she were deciding what to do with them. He stood still and she straightened her back.
“Go put on your shoes and go get his sneakers!”
He picked up his sneakers from near the bedroom door. Without untying the laces, he pulled the back of his shoes with his finger and slid his heel in. He stomped, then looked at Sharon again. She breathed sparse, heavy breaths through her nostrils and held her toxic stare. He walked past her, still stomping, and focused on the door. He passed the bathroom. He passed the kitchen and smelled the burning rice. He heard the news anchor’s blah on the living room television and Sharon tell him not to stomp in her house. He heard Trevor come out of the bathroom. He opened the front door, and the scrape of the metal against the frame echoed through the hallway.
So did the slam. It was humid, and for a second he stood smiling in front of Sharon’s door. A window glowed at the other end of the hallway, and Wendell thought about the warmth awaiting him outside. Then he took off, and listened to the echo of his footsteps as he ran down the stairs, through the lobby, and escaped into the courtyard, forgetting all about Trevor’s shoes.