BY JASON LALLJEE
Runner-up for the 2019 Adroit Prize for Prose, selected by Jamel Brinkley
Some things I’m afraid of: that the burglars have taken the DVD player but not the VCR, climate change, a library book I forgot to return in 2006.
I guess it would make more sense to worry that the burglar’s still in the apartment with me. Someone who enters your home at three in the morning (without first knocking; without a bottle of wine they purchased down the block; with a blunt object through the front door) might have other unsavory proclivities, like folk rock or homicide.
They didn’t overstay their welcome, at least. The door is half open, punctured like a balloon hemorrhaging air, hemorrhaging the rest of Bed Stuy into the fifth floor walk-up. I only know that an intrusion has happened because when I got up, my apartment was a cave, and I guess even before then, when I opened my eyes and the air was charged, like it had swallowed a bolt of lightning.
It’s still only about five a.m., so the police won’t be here for at least an hour. The phone call goes something like, lock yourself in your room if you can and I’ve already gotten up and walked around then alright dumbass, just figure out what’s missing for the report.
Some things I’m afraid of: that they’ve taken something from Faris’s room; that they’ve taken something at all important. That I won’t be able to figure out what.
I picture her like this: hair that’s wild and dry and long, a skirt that’s longer. Feet that are eternally bare, that remain that way no matter where they take her — walking her six younger siblings too many miles to school every day, walking herself back afterward because her parents had her drop out when she was fourteen. Walking to the market to sell the dresses she makes. Walking to church, where there’s a pew and an excuse to finally sit down. This is the grandmother I know from pictures, from stories told over an iron pot boiling cassava or curried goat.
She didn’t talk about Jonestown. No one in my family did, or else it was in oblique terms that went over my head. That made the discovery of it shocking: that a thousand Americans drank poison and dropped dead. I vaguely remember our pastor bringing up the incident in church one day, the Greek chorus of older Guyanese women whose foreheads creased and lips pursed at the mention of Jim Jones. I remember him joking that he originally thought the cult was entirely made up of white people and being shocked that a vast majority of them weren’t.
I picture my grandmother — fresh out of school, selling wares in the market, washing clothes in the Canje River — curious. Hungry. A little piece of alien American life on her land and her needing to see the cult for herself. The question she might have once she did.
Some things I’m afraid of: scientology, ghosts, animals that can blend into their
environments. Animals that can decide to be anything at all, just like that.
I haven’t cleaned out Faris’ room since he died, even though it’s been a year. Even though mom might appreciate having some of his stuff. Even though Brooklyn is expensive and any accountant, could I afford one, would tell me I need a roommate.
I’d only made a cursory inspection of the room before dialing 911 — the type of inspection I’d been making all year, just a glance, just to confirm for myself that when I opened the door, there wouldn’t be someone waiting on the other side.
I walk around the room, which is mostly taken up by the bed. I freeze for a second when I notice something shift under a pile of clothes on the rug. A furry gray tail unspools from beneath the fabric, confirming it’s just the cat. Or at least, someone’s cat.
It’s that time of morning when there’s enough light to see things, but when nothing has a color yet. Someone’s Christmas lights across the street are strung in rigid, parallel lines streaking down the side of their building, like a formation of fighter jets barrelling toward the ground. They blink green red green red against the pile of books on Faris’ desk, which include some dime store thrillers but are mostly workbooks from his auto tech training.
Elsewhere there’s a bike struggling to fit against the largest wall, wheels pressed to either corner as if preventing the room from compressing. A ceramic bong on the table is filled to the brim with quarters, reaching slightly past his giant poster of the movie Cloud Atlas. It’s the only one he brought over from our childhood bedroom in Queens, not wanting to scare away any potential girlfriends with all the science fiction, but unable to resist completely.
A photo of us from his high school graduation is tacked to the bulletin board — people were always surprised to find out that Faris and I were brothers, and I’m reminded why by the photo; he looks like mom, who’s dark enough that the Nigerian women in our neighborhood will speak to her in Ibo before they find out she’s Guyanese. I look like dad, who looks desi enough that customers at his shop will ask him about his thoughts on the latest election in Mumbai, in an easy stream of Marathi.
I think about how our dad trained us when we were young to protect each other — from bullies, from sunburn, from him, even. The Saturday morning exercise comes to mind: both of us on the couch, spindly, prepubescent legs sardined under a comforter. Cartoons playing on a loop on the TV, the one with a tumor of dead pixels in the corner. Fighting that inevitably broke out by Hey Arnold! after a few too many sneak heels to the crotch.
My father, incensed at being woken up before dinnertime on a Saturday, would whap us both on the back of our heads for making so much noise. (Depending on how early it was, a paint stirrer might have been involved.)
“Who started this?” he’d ask. After deciding who was telling the truth (a process that I’m positive was completely random), the prosecuted party would get the beating. After he finished, dad would ask whether he thought the other should get a beating, too. It was a game whose rules we sometimes forgot: if you said yes, you got beat again. If you spared your brother, you were both left alone.
It’s a game whose rules aren’t always clear. There’s no protocol, for instance, about what you do when your brother is pulled over on the side of the road one night because he’s driving a nice car, because the police officer is curious about who it might belong to. There’s no protocol for what you do when the police officer doesn’t believe your brother, who explains that he’s been a mechanic at this luxury car dealership for six months now and that they take the vehicles home sometimes to make sure they’re working alright.
There’s no protocol for sensing it all happen, knowing somehow that you need to be there with him and getting there by lightspeed before the cop pushes too far, before the cop pushes back; before there’s another brown American body soaking the gravel red, and you’re not there to say I’ll take it, spare him.
I picture her like this: running barefoot against the heat-packed soil, dirt red with hell beneath, flying towards some fixed, unseen point in the distance.
I picture my grandmother like this because I’m sure she had some instinct that I don’t, sensing that something was happening that she needed to see. I picture here there: standing in the kitchen, peeling mangoes, or balanjay, or fresh hassa from their spines. Suddenly dashing the produce from her hands into the sink, running through the house, out the door, whole cities and bodies of water disappearing fast from under her feet.
I picture my grandmother there — on that day I often read about — because I can’t imagine her not being there. It makes sense that she’s there because all of Guyana seems close-knit to me, because that’s the way stories about the Old World sound when you grow up hearing about it: a lean geography that stacks together like folding chairs, disparate points sewn together so that you could see all the landmarks at once if you spun in a circle, eyes unblinking, whirring faster and faster together into someone else’s memory.
In my imagination Kaieteur Falls is there, everywhere, a constant companion of noise sent by the Blue Fairy herself, like it’s the conscience that will be your guide, like there’s no whale waiting inside to vanish you in the cave of its mouth. I picture the water vapor blanketing the air thick and dense like exhaust, not quite mother-of-pearl white but cousin-of-pearl off-white, the kind of white you wear to your second or third wedding.
I picture my grandmother running through it, jackknifing through a fog that descends over the squat houses and hides their rotting porches, the rooves longing to unhinge their jaws. I picture her running from the farm, from the two younger sisters and four younger brothers she needs to take care of. There she is, weaving through the miles of sugar cane separating herself from the horizon, from what holds the answer, needing to see for herself the other side of the cane, where there’s a mass of brown bodies axled on their knees in prayer.
I picture her like this: told explicitly to stay far away from that white man, from the brown American bodies that fan out from him in all directions like an earthquake from its epicenter. Like the outer rings of a spider’s web — I picture that she needed to see it happen for herself (how could she not know it was happening, the stories of the Old World they tell you stack together and retrospect causes the Babel of it all to collapse) —
If I were my grandmother, I’d need to know if they’d actually go through with it. I picture her speeding past the house, past the tireless chickens squawking in the adjacent field, Kaieteur protesting deafeningly from all directions, running straight into the arms of the sugarfield beyond. She starts in Canje and ends up in Jonestown because the cane is a wardrobe that leads to Narnia, she passes her fingers along top coats and hats, through towers of sugar—
I picture the cane deferent in her path, pressing flat against either side like the Red Sea parted for Moses, like they were being forced down by the wind. I picture her finally at the edge of the field in view of Jim Jones himself, his shared elixir passed around in communion. I wonder if she was parched; I wonder if she craved a sip.
I feel her shock: the brown bodies caught still like planets in gravitational orbit, my grandmother hiding between the stalks and watching it all unfold. My grandmother still among the stalks in the nascent dawn, indiscriminate as one of the field’s own—
I picture my grandmother watching these American bodies, dark like her own, thinking that they could be the ghosts of relatives she never knew; I picture her seeing them hold their glasses to the sun, glittering jewel-red in warning; I don’t know how their bodies are arranged, clustered and willowy like the stalks behind them, or already composed as the photographs that document them, prostrated spirals of bodies that wrap into each other like waves of water into a sinkhole.
I don’t know if she manages to watch its denouement, the bodies crumpling together, an igneous rock forming. I imagine she averted her eyes to Kaieteur but seeing a geography beyond it, finally asking herself what America does to its brown bodies to drive them here in the first place.
Some things I’m afraid of: mummies, the parts of the chicken that actually make it into my hot dog. Someone hiding in my apartment that I’ll never find, huddled under the coffee table when I’m in the living room or pressed against my bedroom door when I’m sleeping.
When the cops arrive, they ask about what’s been stolen. I tell them it all seems to be safe: the computer, the TV, the collection of rare stamps in my sock drawer. I make a joke about the burglar being unfortunate enough to choose a freelance artist’s apartment to break into.
The cops are kind. One of them says that she understands that I must be shaken up. She tells me that even if I’m sure that the intruder made away with nothing, it probably won’t register for a while, that I’ll spend the longest time trying to figure out what’s been stolen. That each time I try, I’ll come up empty.