Jamal held his breath, waiting for one of his parents to freak out. The freeze-frame of his face on the television screen looked like something from America’s Most Wanted. When he noticed there wasn’t a change in their conversation, he peeked over to see they were debating about something on a medicine bottle label; Mrs. Washington pointed out her proof as Mr. Washington put on his reading glasses to see it. Jamal grew very still, as if a wrong move might set off a bomb. “Pops, what time does the game come on?”
Without looking up from the bottle, Mr. Washington grabbed the remote control and changed the channel to ESPN. Jamal quietly thanked God; he knew it would stay on sports until Law & Order came on, the only show his parents loved to watch together.
Jamal put the cell to his ear and pretended to make a call as he went to his bedroom. At his laptop he scrambled to check the local TV stations’ websites. Sure enough, the story was on each site, almost word for word, along with the dreaded surveillance footage. He leaned back and tapped his hands nervously on the desk. Hundreds of thousands of people saw that broadcast, he thought. Even more would see it again at 11 o’clock, the next morning, on the web and probably for a few days until the story went cold. With any murder case on the news, the only thing worse than being a victim or the culprit was to have the news broadcast that he was at the scene of the crime. That meant soon everyone would be looking for him. The cops. The killer. Anyone that was hungry for reward money. To make matters worse, he knew he was probably the only person that could lead the police to the driver and, ultimately, the shooter. The longer he avoided contacting the police, the longer they would play that surveillance clip.
Just then, the house phone rang. Jamal jumped up to the window and peeked through the blinds. All appeared normal on the street.
“Jamal,” Mrs. Washington called out from the den. “That was Aunt Edwina. There’s a Sidney Poitier movie marathon coming on tonight — she needs you to come fix her VCR.”
Slowly he turned back toward the window and paused, realizing what his greatest immediate threat — the neighborhood. He wasn’t too worried about the thugs and hoodrats. They ran the streets 24/7 and didn’t keep up with much outside of a few blocks around. It was the elderly neighbors that would be a problem. Most of them watched the news religiously. Even his next-door neighbor Mrs. Johnson, as sweet as she is, wouldn’t think twice about calling crime line and turning him in like a winning Pick-3 Lottery ticket. He needed a day to figure out his next move. Aunt Edwina’s place was a godsend. “I’m on it, Ma,” he briskly replied as he stuffed a change of clothes into his backpack. “I was gonna check in with some friends out there anyway.” By the time his mother asked if he needed fare for the trains he was already out the door and halfway up the street.
As Jamal made his way onto her street in Flatbush he passed by the basketball courts. The ballers were still living out their hoop dreams, a reminder of how some things never change. Most of the tenements were still maintained just enough to satisfy city inspection code. The few friends he used to play with as a kid had long since left her block one way or another. Only the cars changed, kids grew up, and the grownups grew gray.
Aunt Edwina was actually Jamal’s great-aunt, his mother’s oldest aunt. Everyone except Edwina’s children and grandchildren called her Auntie. For an 87 year-old, Jamal saw a level of cool in her that surpassed most people half her age. Her life was like a slice of African-American history; growing up she had listened to stories told by an emancipated slave. She dated Bumpy Johnson twice during her days partying at the original Cotton Club. She was there on the mall when Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. She was introduced to Winnie Mandela shortly after the fall of Apartheid. Even with all the changes she has witnessed, she still considered herself a simple country girl from the islands.
Jamal had barely knocked once before the door opened wide. “Jay-Jay,” she affectionately declared with a mother hen hug as she led him into the den. Fish cakes, rice and peas, cornbread and plantains carried from the kitchen. The scent was like aromatherapy. As long as he could remember, Edwina’s apartment was a safe haven. There, he was always reassured that things were going to be okay.
Edwina meandered back into the kitchen. “Just see what you can do to fix it. Dinner will be ready in a minute,” she said then began proclaiming that Sidney Poitier was going to be her next baby daddy. As Jamal inspected the antique VCR he discovered that it was broken and would cost more to repair than replace. She responded by telling him to come and eat his meal while it was still hot.
The kitchen television was tuned into ‘Wheel of Fortune’. After Edwina blessed the table she went back to coaching contestants in between talking about the latest in the neighborhood. Jamal caught every other word as he ate. “What’s been bothering you, baby son?” she finally said.
He avoided eye contact. “Everything’s fine, Auntie. Just been busy.”
“THE GRAPES OF WRATH,” she called out to a contestant. Without turning away from the television she sucked her teeth and continued, “Baby, I can’t move like I used to… but if you tell another story I’ma take a switch to you.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” he said with a humble nod. When Jamal began to explain he opened up like a faucet — the internship, the situation between Leila and Leslie, and witnessing the shooting that resulted in his face plastered on the news.
By the time he finished her mouth was ajar. “Blasssst, bwoy!” she said; a hint of her Bajan accent surfaced. “Lawd forgive me but that’s some mess.”
He nodded and laughed; it was the third or fourth time in his life he had ever heard her come close to swearing.
“So are you goin’ to go talk to the Man and get yourself squared away?” she asked.
Echoes of Justin’s advice against cooperating with the police silently churned inside as Jamal slowly stirred his rice and peas. He had always been told by young and old on the block that a black man squealing to the cops was as bad as owing the Mafia — even the strongest soul could be on the hook forever.
Edwina read through his silence with ease. She knew that if he had witnessed the incident and didn’t know anything else he would have already gone to the police. By the way he was stirring his rice she could tell he knew more than he was letting on. She understood his angst. Having lived in New York City most of her life and survived incidences like the Harlem race riots of ’35 and ’43, she still had a few lingering apprehensions of her own regarding the NYPD. “If someone hadn’t come forward about Justin’s murder, how would you feel?”
“That was different.”
“I dunno, Auntie,” Jamal said as he followed Edwina into the den. Suddenly he wished he hadn’t said a word. She took her phone off the hook and turned on the TV just in time for the opening credits to the first movie in the marathon, Porgy and Bess. Any minute now she’ll forget this conversation, he thought.
Deep down he already knew he was going to talk to the police. His biggest concern was anonymity since if Donny was arrested in association with the murder, there was no telling whether or not Jamal’s name would come up as the rat. A collect call from prison and a few ounces of coke would have some jokers auditioning to land Jamal as another nightly news fatality. There were even a few local kids that would do the hit for free, all with the hopes of earning rank in some crew before they entered the 9th grade. When she asked for his answer again, he quickly changed the subject. “My real problem is losing this internship.”
Halfway immersed in her own fantasies about Sidney Poitier, Edwina asked how he came to get the internship. About halfway through his explanation she cut him off. “So what’s stopping you from setting up your own internship?”
Jamal began to re-explain as if she wasn’t paying attention the first time; she interrupted again. “But that doesn’t explain why you can’t set up your own internship. Is it against the rules?”
As Edwina went off on a tangent about how Poitier was from Bahamas, Jamal stared at the mosaic of family photos on the wall, reviewing everything he could about his internship. Nowhere did he recall any contracts connecting the campus to his paycheck. She was right. Why should he be like all the other students, praying for the university to send an internship his way like a pigeon in the park? Something his grandfather once said came to mind – until people stop sitting around waiting for someone to give them something, they’ll continue to accept anything. At that moment something opened up in the depths of his mind, a strange curve. He had always taken ventures like Andre’s Mother’s cleaning service and his grandfather’s barbershop for granted as not being real businesses. Even with all its ghetto glory, Justin’s deejaying hustle didn’t seem like it would amount to much beyond phat groupies and VIP treatment in clubs around town. None of them were what he considered companies, the kinds that got featured in Black Enterprise, Forbes or WSJ. At that moment he realized most businesses aren’t like castles where outsiders wait for someone to throw down a rope or open up a drawbridge. They are like vehicles, whether they are cars, boats or even planes – and the sooner he got his own, the better. He couldn’t wait to get on campus to pitch the idea to Mr. Steiner. It was time for him to create his own internship – and start his own company.
Just then his cell rang; when Chantalle’s name popped up on the caller ID, his stomach bubbled. His sister almost never called him unless he was in trouble, she was in trouble, or she wanted him to cover for her while she was out with her friends. He set the phone on silent and closed it as the screen flashed. Suddenly the phone vibrated fiercely. He reopened it to find a text message waiting: 5 o was here. talked to ma. u in trouble.
If the police had talked to Mr. Washington, that would have been one thing. Mrs. Washington, on the other hand, would break down and confess to stealing paper clips at work — he knew Edwina’s was their next stop. Blissfully lost in the movie, she continued with her occasional comments and giggles. During a commercial break she wandered back into the kitchen. “Fixin’ a bowl of ice-cream, you want some?” she said.
“No thank you,” Jamal said as he quickly gathered his things. He scrambled to figure out a way to leave without having to tell her much. He knew if she got a good look at his eyes she’d somehow see right through him and refuse to let him leave. His only option was to get to Andre’s house all the way back in Queensbridge.
Just then the doorbell rang. “Can you get that Jay-Jay? That’s Mrs. Philips; she was supposed to come watch Sidney with me.”
The doorbell rang again, followed by a knock.
“Nevermind, I got it.” Edwina said as she approached the front door.
She raised her voice. “Who is it?” There was a low response, followed by the chime of her disarming the alarm system.
In a flash of desperation he looked across the den at the backdoor. Although he knew the security code, there were deadbolts on both doors and Edwina had all the keys in hand. As the sound of unlocking deadbolts echoed down the hall, his throat tightened…