Following Joey

We weren’t supposed to be out after the streetlight came on. But here we were, my older brother and I, walking down the street to the corner store. Joey was supposed to walk me back home after getting me from my best friend Kayla’s house, but he had other plans.

“I just have to meet with Rob real quick,” he told me. “The streetlight only been on for a second. Mama won’t trip.”

Mama was old school. We had phones but she still went by the streetlight to give us a curfew because that’s how she grew up. I thought I was old enough to walk home by myself. It was the first time Mama let me hang out at Kayla’s—after I begged her for a million months—and she made Joey walk me there and back. She had two jobs and was always at work so she couldn’t take me. But as hard as Mama worked, she couldn’t afford to get Joey a car.

“She’s gonna kill us, Joey,” I said. Mama was as mean as a bull when we ignored her rules, and Joey knew it, but he always chose to do whatever he wanted. Since he claimed to be the “man of the house,” I decided it wasn’t worth the fuss. We’d be home soon and he’d explain the situation to Mama.

Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it.

Joey walked me by my wrist, his head whipping left and right to check his surroundings. Screen doors hung off hinges and bricks were missing from fronts of houses. Residents sat on their porches, smoking a joint or enjoying a beer. Their children played curb ball in the middle of the narrow street until a car came, or until their parents cussed them out and told them to come play in the yard—what little yard they did have. A small tree in front of the neighborhood church was surrounded by teddy bears, flowers, and balloons to mourn a black male in the neighborhood who was murdered by an officer a week ago. I remembered the story from the news.

“Why you gotta meet him right this minute?” I asked, wiping sweat from the summer’s heat off my forehead.

Guys older than me in tank tops and sagging jeans stood at the end of the block on the corner, yelling about sports or betting money in dice games. Everyone seemed to know each other, laughing as they leaned over the dice, picking up cash from the sidewalk as quickly as it was thrown down. This neighborhood was only two blocks away from our house, but it was different. I was used to greener yards that were mowed and neighbors who were too busy to hang out on the porch. But this place was beautiful in its own way, because our neighborhood didn’t have this type of community. Mama wouldn’t see it that way if she knew we were staying around here though, especially after dark.

“Just stay close to me,” Joey said, gripping my wrist and pulling me. I rolled my eyes. Joey thought because I was only fourteen I didn’t have the right to demand answers. I wasn’t “grown enough,” he always said. But he was only four years older than me.

Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it. Our dad left us when I was twelve. Mama wouldn’t tell us why and neither did he. I came home from school one day to see Mama sitting at the dining table crying, Joey rubbing her back. Her soft, plump hands covered her face.

What’s wrong? I mouthed to Joey.

Dad left, he mouthed back.

I squinted and cocked my head at him. Why? I didn’t want to ask Mama, so I kissed her hands and went upstairs to my room, throwing myself on the bed. I stared at the ceiling and cried for hours, wondering what we did for Dad to leave us. Joey came in my room that evening and said Dad packed his clothes, took the rent money, and left while Mama was at work. He told me it wasn’t our fault. I didn’t believe him. Joey said we had to make Mama’s life easier from then on. Because we were all she had.

Since then, Joey did everything to provide for us. If Mama was short on rent, Joey came up with it. If I needed school supplies or new clothes, Joey figured it out. If I needed to talk about the annoying boys at school or the girls who didn’t do anything but gossip, I could go to him for advice and laughs. And of course, he also gave me fake big brother threats like: “You better not be worried about these lil’ knucklehead boys or I’ll rough ‘em up.” Aside from Kayla, he was my best friend. I owed him a lot. But I owed Mama just as much.

We walked past that group of guys and they sized me up. Their eyes were glued to my chest like they were watching a Superbowl. Mama said I developed quicker than other girls my age. Boys at school called me “thick” because of my large thighs and wide hips. I hated it.

“Hey lil’ mama,” one of them said as his coarse hands reached for mine. I snatched my hand away. Joey pulled me closer. He stared at them with a clenched jaw, eyebrows meeting in anger, and mumbled, “Hurry up, JaCie.” I could tell they were much older than him, and we both knew his chances of winning a fight with them were slim. Joey had the build of a boy my age. We blamed it on my skinny dad.

“If you didn’t have me out past the street light, I bet you no one would be grabbing for me,” I challenged, rolling my neck. The older men were out of earshot.

“Now you and I both know that’s a lie,” he chuckled. “This neighborhood is bad in broad daylight.”

“So why the heck you got me out here after the streetlight?” I punched him lightly in his arm. He rubbed the cursive tattoo on his bicep, which read: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

“JaCie, chill out man. I got business to handle.”

I was ready to go home. I had been ready since I left Kayla’s. But Mama would have a fit if I went home without Joey. And I wasn’t trying to get him in trouble.

After walking up another block, we arrived at the corner store. It sat in front of a Popeye’s, with only an alley separating them. The red Mini Mart sign atop the store glowed in the darkness. The store was small with “WE ACCEPT EBT” signs plastered on its glass walls, along with other taped-on flyers. People leaned on the store’s glass or chatted in a circle. A cop car slowed down as it approached the store, then turned the corner to check out another street. I figured the cop was just doing his rounds.

“Shit, the police out tonight,” Joey said under his breath.

“Can I at least tell Mama we’ll be late?”

“What? No. Do this for me, just this once.”

“I got that New Drake,” a man announced as we approached the door, walking toward us. He opened his large, black CD case and pointed to the disc.

“I’m alright,” I said and waved him off. I didn’t know people still listened to CDs anyways.

“There go Rob right there.” Joey spotted him leaning on the glass further away from the entrance. Joey never told me what he did when he met with his “friends” but I wasn’t dumb. No matter how young he thought I was.

“Wassup, boy,” Rob said, shaking up with Joey.

“Wassup,” Joey replied with an upward head nod.

“Who’s this? Your girl?” Rob looked me up and down. He smoked a Black & Mild Cigar. I waved the grape-scented smoke out of my face and crossed my arms over my chest.

“Oh. This is just my little sis, JaCie,” Joey said. I didn’t know whether to wave, so I opted for silence.

Rob nodded and let out more smoke from his cigar. He had the darkest skin I’d ever seen and a silky goatee. He looked older than Joey. He wore a permanent frown and his eyes were hard, like he didn’t have a smile left to give.

“So, what’s up? Let’s talk without your sister around.” Rob gestured toward the alley.

Joey glanced back at me, forehead wrinkled and eyebrows raised.

“She’s only 14. I can’t leave her out—,” he started.

“I said let’s go talk in private.”

Rob walked away and put out his cigar. He slipped his hands in his pockets. Joey combed his dreads with his fingers and his light brown skin turned rosy.

“Stay right here. Do not move, JaCie. I mean it,” Joey stressed. He followed Rob into the alley. I joined the others against the glass and pulled my iPhone 5 out of my back pocket. Three texts and eight missed calls from Mama.

8:59 p.m. I’m worried about y’all. Answer the phone

9:01 p.m. You two should have been home by now

9:05 p.m. CALL ME ASAP! I MEAN IT JACIE

I didn’t click on the text thread so she wouldn’t know I read them.

“Mama” came across my screen again. I let it ring until she hung up. Knowing her, she’d call again. But what would I say if I answered? Guilt rushed through my body. I hated ignoring her just for Joey to do dumb stuff. Mama had been through enough with us.

And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.

There was the time when I told Mama I was spending the night at my old best friend’s house when really, we had snuck to a party thrown by high schoolers. Our ride wouldn’t answer the phone once the party got shut down, so we had to call Mama instead. There was the time Joey got suspended from school for fighting—actually, there were a bunch of times that happened. And there were plenty of times Mama had to leave work midday or leave her bed at night because of us. We were supposed to be making her life easier.

“Come on, Joey,” I mumbled. I tapped my foot and my eyes darted around as I waited.

Men were gathered outside as if hanging at the corner store was a rite of passage to live here. And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.

“Man, chill out!” Joey yelled. His voice squeaked like one of the boys at my school. That’s how Joey got when he was nervous.

I walked toward the alley, heart thumping in my chest loud enough to bury the rest of the noise on the street. I stood at the corner of the store and strained to hear their conversation. Mama started calling and against my better judgement, I ignored her.

“Rob, why you acting like I don’t keep my word?” Joey’s voice shook.

“Shut up,” Rob said through clenched teeth. “You supposed to have my money. You know who you playin’ with?”

“I told you I’ll have it. Just give me a few days.”

“I already gave you a few days!”

Mama called again. I put the phone in my pocket and let it vibrate. What looked like the same cop approached the corner store and slowed down near the alley. He rolled down his passenger window to look at Joey and Rob, then pulled into the parking lot. Men who previously stood against the store window scattered as if they had plans to leave anyways. I didn’t budge but white cops always made me nervous.

The officer got out and adjusted his hat. He walked past the store entrance, walking by the men who were leaving, and headed in my direction. He nodded at me, but I stared back with furrowed brows. The officer gripped the gun in his holster so tight his hands were red like blood. My stomach felt hollow as I realized the danger Joey could be in if the officer approached them.

“What’s going on?” the officer asked as he approached Rob and Joey. I inched closer to the edge of the building to see what the cop would do next. His hand was still on his gun.

“Nothing, just chatting,” said Rob.

“Chatting, huh? Let me see your IDs.”

“Don’t you have to have a reason to ask for our IDs?” Rob asked.

“You two standing in the alley arguing is reason enough. IDs,” the officer reinforced.

If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news.

Rob and Joey dug in their pockets and handed the officer their IDs. The officer examined Rob’s then handed it back to him. He brought Joey’s ID to eye level and peered over the edge to look at him.

“You’re only eighteen. What are you doing out here?”

“I’m grown.”

Wrong answer, Joey. Wrong freakin’ answer.

“Grown,” the officer scoffed, shoving the ID back in Joey’s hand. “I asked what you were doing out here. I didn’t want a smart aleck remark.”

Joey glanced at Rob, hoping he’d offer the officer an explanation. Rob looked in the other direction.

“I told you, we were just chatting.”

“Well if you were just chatting, smart ass, empty your pockets for me.”

Joey stood still.

“I said empty your pockets. Both of you!”

Rob emptied his pockets, setting a 2-pack of Strawberry Swisher Sweets, a lighter, a wad of cash, and his Galaxy S5 on the ground. The officer turned to Joey.

“Your turn, boy,” the officer urged.

Joey stuffed his hands in his pockets but didn’t move afterward and didn’t say a word.

“Joey, just do it!” I yelled, walking to the front of the alley. The lights from Popeye’s drive-through shone into the alley. A dumpster sat against the wall of the corner store, with broken-down boxes leaning against it.

“JaCie, back up. Okay? I don’t want you to get hurt,” Joey turned and said. He turned his body back to the officer and the officer had his gun aimed at Joey’s chest. Joey put his trembling hands up in surrender. I had never seen a gun, in person at least. It was small but the metal gleamed in the dark. Sweat glistened on the back of Joey’s neck and his upper body heaved with every quick breath he took.

“Little girl, listen to him. Get back,” the officer demanded. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what move to make. So, I stood there, feet planted to the cracked sidewalk like they were cemented in.

“Empty your damn pockets,” the officer said, gun still trained on Joey. Rob watched. If Joey emptied his pockets, he’d probably go to jail. If Joey didn’t empty his pockets, he’d probably get shot. And from the looks of it, he was too scared to move. I knew the officer was ready to shoot Joey. He was black. He was in an alley. And he seemed to be up to no good.

If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news. He’d be one of those hashtags on Twitter but instead the tweets would say #JoeyGreene #BlackLivesMatter. It would be my fault for not protecting my big brother after the countless times he’d protected me and made sure I didn’t need for anything. Maybe if I just directed the officer’s attention toward me, Joey could get rid of whatever was in his pockets and we could go home.

I bolted toward them. My crossbody bag smacked against my hip and my kinky hair blew away from my face. The olive oil from my curls leaked down my face and neck. A bead of sweat crept to my eyebrow. My sandals slapped the ground and my mouth was wide open but I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know if it was because I was running or because I was scared but I kept going and my chest heaved and my heart pounded and tears stung my eyes. Even when I tried to blink my tears away and my wet eyelashes brushed against my skin, I kept my eyes on Joey. Even when I took the back of my hand and wiped underneath my eye, I kept my eyes on Joey. His body jerked like he wanted to stop me. I couldn’t let him out of my sight. I knew I wasn’t as quick as a bullet could be but I had to distract the officer before he decided that Joey’s life wasn’t valuable. Because it was. To me and to Mama.

I ignored the constant vibrating of my phone from Mama’s call. I ignored the many eyes that begged me to stop running toward the officer. I tuned out Joey’s yells to get back. I didn’t hear the officer shout “Freeze!” I didn’t see him turn the gun toward me instead. I didn’t hear the click clack of the officer cocking his gun. And I didn’t hear the bang the gun released when the officer pulled the trigger. Then, I collapsed, one foot from Joey.

 

Arriel Vinson is an Indiana native who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a BA in journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry has been published in [PANK] Magazine and also won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly. She has had essays/articles published in Blavity,HuffPost, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Reece T Williams