He seemed to read my thoughts. He said, “That’s right. We’re sitting on your doorstep.”
I looked back, saw the skyline glittering above us in the midafternoon sun, close enough to kiss. I wondered what it must be like, living here, this close, knowing you’d never get to taste it. Not for free. A couple of miles and a world away.
I said, “Oh well.”
Roland said, “You can’t keep doing this to us forever. Can’t hold us back.”
I said, “Roland, ‘we’ didn’t create you. Don’t try and put that off on the white man too. Your father and you made you what you are.”
“And what am I?” he said.
I shrugged. “A sixteen-year-old killing machine.”
“Damn right,” he said. “Damn right.” He spit on the ground to the left of my foot. He said, “But I wasn’t always.”
I thought of the skinny boy in the photographs, tried to imagine what benevolent, possibly hopeful thoughts had run through his brain before someone had burned it out of him, overloaded the circuits until the good had to go just to make way for all the bad. I looked at the sixteen-year-old man in front of me, the massive, bulked-up stone with the bad eye and the arm in the cast. I couldn’t, for the life of me, connect the two.
I said, “Yeah, well, we were all little boys once, Roland.” I looked at Angie. “Little girls too.”
Roland said, “The white man ”
Angie dropped her shopping bag and said, “Roland, we’re not going to listen to this ‘white man’ shit. We know all about the white man. We know he has the power and we know the black man doesn’t. We know the way the world works and we know that way sucks. We know all that. We’re not too pleased with ourselves either, but there you are. And maybe if you had some suggestions on how to change things for the better, we’d have something to talk about. But you kill people, Roland, and you sell crack. Don’t expect violins.”
He smiled at her. It wasn’t the warmest smile I’d ever seen Roland has about as much warmth in him as a polar cap but it wasn’t completely cold either. He said, “Maybe. Maybe.” He scratched at the skin just above his cast with his free hand. “You kept... that thing out of the papers, so maybe you think I owe you.” He looked at us. “I don’t. Don’t owe nobody nothing, because I don’t ask for nothing.” He rubbed the skin beside his bad eye. “But, then, I don’t see much point in killing you no more either.”
I had to remind myself he was sixteen years old.
I said, “Roland, let me ask you something.”
He frowned, seemed bored suddenly. “Go ahead.”
“All this hate, all this anger in you any of it go away when you found out your father was dead?”
He turned a cube of cinder block over with his foot and shrugged. “No. Maybe if I’d been able to pull the trigger myself, maybe then.”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t work that way.”
He kicked at another hunk of cinder block. “No,” he said, “I suppose it don’t.” He looked off beyond the weeds and the tenements on the other side of the lot, past the torn brick blocks with coils of soldered metal sticking out of them like flags.
He said, “You two go on home. We forget about each other.”
I said, “Deal,” but I had a feeling I’d never forget Roland, even after I read his obituary.
He nodded, more to himself than us, and started to walk off. He’d crested a small slope of industrial waste, when he stopped, his back to us. Somewhere, not far away, a siren rang hollowly. He said, “My mother, she was all right. Decent.”
I took Angie’s hand in mine. “She was,” I said. “But she was never needed.”
His shoulders moved slightly, possibly a shrug, possibly something else. “Can’t say that she was,” he said and started walking again. He crossed the lot as we watched him, shrinking slowly as he neared the tenements. A lone prince on his way to the throne, wondering why it didn’t feel as sweet as it should.
We watched him disappear through a dark doorway as a breeze cool for this time of summer came off the ocean and swept north past the tenement, past us with chilled fingers that mussed our hair and widened our eyes, moving on into the heart of the city. Angie’s warm hand tightened around mine as we turned and sidestepped the rubble, following the breeze back to our part of town.