Getting Free

Matt Denis

When I came out the back door on that first morning of my suspension, the air was still and the dawn chirping of birds I couldn’t see echoed slightly. Robert had dragged supplies into the middle of the yard—ladder, ten-gallon bucket of white paint, roller—and his first can of Stroh’s was sweating in his hand.

“You’re gonna paint this mess,” he told me, nodding at the house. Like I couldn’t have guessed. I shouldn’t have even been awake. If I were going to school, my alarm wouldn’t go off for another hour. But Ms. Farley, our librarian at Detroit Southwestern Middle, always wore white tennis shoes with her long skirts and dark tights and I never even heard her right behind me, watching quietly as I peeled the bar code off a book on football and dropped it into my backpack.

“Deldrick,” she said, so hurt sounding that I didn’t even bother trying to lie. They gave me two days, and Ma and Robert agreed that he’d put my ass to work during. So hard that I’d be dying to get back to school and act right.

“Otherwise, you gonna sit around and read all day, and that’s not any kind of punishment,” Ma said, smiling a little. I couldn’t argue.

Robert pulled a tool from his back pocket. Rubber handle with a flat metal top.

“This is a scraper,” he said.

“OK.”

He showed me how it worked on a little patch of the house, told me how we had to make sure all the loose bits were gone or the new coat would look just as crappy as the old one did.

“Got all that?”

“Press and scrape. I don’t know, can I see it one more time?”

Two sentences into the day and I’d already pushed my luck.

“You better shut your mouth and listen.” Robert refused to blink. “No one’s ever going to pay you to sit in your room and read about dragons all day.”

“Yes, sir.”

Robert pulled a lawn chair into the shade of the one tree in our backyard and I took the ladder around front to where he couldn’t see me sitting on the top rung eating the Snickers I’d grabbed on my way out. It was the first week of April. Ma had just got paid at the gas station and the EBT had been refilled, which meant our pantry was loaded for a couple weeks. The sun was coming up behind a low haze that made the traffic on Vernor highway glow whitish on its way to the Rouge, where they made pickup trucks and kept telling Robert that they weren’t hiring. Behind me, I could feel the thrum of the interstate and just make out the hydraulic hiss of semis unloading at the produce terminal.

I heard laughter beneath me.

“What’d you do?” Darnell said.

Darnell was my older brother. He had braids that hung in his eyes, his shoes were never laced, and his smile was a nuclear weapon of charm. Not to mention speed and hands enough to be Free Press third-team all-city receiver, his picture in the paper and everything. All my teachers at the middle school who’d slipped him through with straight Ds acted horrified when they learned we were related, but a month in they were all asking me to tell him hello and stay out of trouble.

“I got excommunicated,” I told him.

Darnell shot me a hopeless look. Meaning I was hopeless.

“In English, shithead,” he said.

“Like banned,” I said. “From the library at school. I was stealing books.” I tried to say it nonchalant, like Darnell would.

He just laughed—covered his mouth with the back of his hand and looked up at me. “God damn, Deldrick, you even make getting in trouble nerdy.”

I’d been doing it for two months—taking a book every couple weeks, building a little library underneath the bunk bed that Darius and I shared. I didn’t even like football. When we went to Darnell’s games I lobbed gravel at a trashcan under the bleachers and made airstrike noises under my breath. In my mind, Darnell would see me reading the book I’d taken from the library and say something like, “that book don’t know shit about football,” and teach me himself.

“I don’t see why it’s cool for you to get in trouble, but it’s nerdy when I do it,” I said.

Darnell gave me a knowing look. “So many reasons,” he said, patting my foot where it dangled off the ladder. “You ain’t gotta be me, either. Just be yourself.”

Which was an easy thing to say for someone who didn’t actually have to do it.

Robert’s voice came from inside the house. “You better hope I don’t need to come out there.”

I handed the Snickers down to Darnell in case he did.

“Or what,” Darnell scoffed, so that only I could hear it.

Most of the kids I knew at school caught whoopings when they messed up or talked back. Robert tried to get all deep about why he didn’t.

“That shit’s about fear,” he’d say. “I’m about respect.”

Ma told Darnell and me once, though, that it was also because his own dad used to wail on him all the time. That’s how come he had that scar from his cheek to his jaw and one eye was smaller than the other and he wouldn’t talk about either. Ma wanted us to feel bad for him. She wanted us to call him Dad. But Darnell never changed his mind about anything, and I still hadn’t climbed out of the hole in my memory where my real dad was supposed to be. I asked Darnell about him, our real dad, sometimes, because I was barely three when he left, and Darnell was eight, but he’d just say, “Fuck that dude. Seriously,” and I’d leave it at that.

When I figured Robert wasn’t actually coming out to check on me, I asked Darnell for my Snickers back. He wagged a finger at me and popped it in his mouth.

“Go get ’em, champ,” he said with his mouth full.

I got the whole house scraped and most of a first coat on before Ma got home from work. It was dusk, and the white paint looked pale gray in the low light, like the skin of someone dying.

“You’re still out here?” she said. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

Robert made dinner every night since Ma didn’t get home until pretty late. She always said it was romantic. I figured it was the least he could do. During the summer, Robert helped a buddy of his from high school paint rich white people’s houses in Bloomfield Hills and the rest of the suburbs, all cash, under the table. Every now and then he’d hustle—change folks’ oil for fifteen bucks, help them wire a stereo, that kind of thing—but mostly he just made an ass-sized dent in the couch and got heavy-lidded with beer. So I wasn’t about to give him too much credit for stirring some chopped-up hot dog into a pot of mac and cheese.

My little brother Darius was sitting silently at the kitchen table, eyes straight ahead and fists clenched hard enough that the sides of his fingers were yellowish. Nobody said anything to him. The special counselor he had at the elementary school told Ma that sometimes it was best to just not engage him. That he’d learn to work himself through his “incidents,” as we called them now.

“I’m not eating. My stomach hurts,” he said as the rest of us dug in.

“Are you getting sick?” Ma said, and got up to check on him. Robert rolled his eyes.

“You want pizza instead?” he said. “Double cheese?” Ma shot him a look, like take it easy, and Darius fell for it like he always did, smiling and nodding.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Robert said. “You’re not sick, you just don’t wanna eat what I made for you. That’s called being ungrateful.”

I looked at the paint flecks on my shoes and wondered if I’d be able to get them off before I had to go back to school.

“How’d it go out there today?” Ma said.

“I’m tired,” I said.

“He’s all right,” Robert said. “Now you know how a man feels at the end of the day.”

I wished Darnell were at the table and not out at practice or whatever he did after. Whenever Robert said some stupid man shit like that, we would make eye contact and swallow back laughs, and I felt like we were really, truly brothers.

“He says that shit all deep like he’s in a movie or something,” Darnell would say later, out of earshot.

“Sounds like the inside of a greeting card where the front is just a big picture of an engine,” I’d say.

Robert got up for another beer and Ma leaned over to me. “So how was it?” she said.

“I about fell asleep on the ladder,” I said, and she laughed and ran her fingernails through my hair, and I thought about how it was unfair that she was always at work and I barely got to see her.

“I am sick,” Darius said from his end of the table. His face was all twisted up and little tears were forming at the corners of his eyes. It looked like someone was wringing him out.

Robert set his can down on the table and stared across at Darius.

“Quit fucking around and eat, all right?”

“Robert,” Ma said, calm, like she was reading his name off a role call, and he raised his eyebrows at her, but stopped staring across the table.

Darius picked his plastic bowl up over his head and brought it down on the table. His fork got catapulted off the rim, helicoptered by me, and clattered on the kitchen floor. The bowl split right down the middle like a fault line—it was cheap plastic, probably, but still—and the unnatural yellow of the mac and cheese oozed out both ends onto the table. No one said anything for a few seconds; we all just watched Darius seething, wondering if he was done or just starting. We’d seen it happen both ways. Finally, Ma said, “Darius, go to your room,” and he did.

“Now he’s not gonna eat anything all night,” Ma said, to no one in particular. She worried about his weight.

“That’s his own fault,” Robert said.

“Maybe he was sick,” I offered.

Robert set his fork down gingerly and looked at me. “Don’t start,” he said.

 

Some combination of me reading all the time and the scores that I got on the tests every spring meant that no one paid me much attention. Darnell had teachers at school offering him the chance to come in early for make-up work to pull his grades up. He had football coaches who gave him rides home after practice. Darius had his special counselors, and Ma always worrying about him, everybody at the elementary parent-teacher night Ma dragged me to because I couldn’t stay home by myself putting their arms around his shoulders and talking about what a good kid he was. How he’d be just fine next year at the middle school. Like if they said it enough, or were nice to him, all his other shit, that other side of him, would just go away. I was in the middle. I had Darnell’s old clothes, which didn’t fit me quite right, and nights in the mirror practicing the tossed-off way he talked to the girls with tight jeans and fire-engine-red streaks in their hair who came by the house when Ma and Robert weren’t home. I had teachers saying things like I should know better, instead of letting me eat lunch in their rooms or checking to see if I had all my books for homework that night like they did with the kids who were always fucking up. I had Ma’s almost pleading, “Deldrick, go talk to your brother” whenever he got that certain way, like he had at the dinner table.

Darius sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor. I wondered if he had moved at all in the three hours I’d spent in the TV room with Ma and Robert after dinner, avoiding the bedroom he and I shared. When I sat down next to him, I could see little flecks of salt on his face from dried tears and half-moons of crusted blood on his forearm from where he’d dug his fingernails in.

“You hungry?” I asked. He shook his head. Ma always said I was the only one he’d listen to but I never could think of much to say. I sat down next to him and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Can we do dragons?” he said.

“Yeah, get the flashlight,” I said.

I’d been reading to him from the Tantamount series—my favorite books—whenever he couldn’t sleep. Cam, a poor kid from West Virginia, finds an abandoned mineshaft that transports him to Medieval Times. Once he’s there he becomes the greatest dragon fighter the place has ever seen.

Darius never stopped me much—only to ask who a character was or what a word meant every once in a while. I could always tell when he’d drifted off, though. Even from the top bunk it was like I could feel the room change when his body finally relaxed.

 

Early the next afternoon, when I was halfway through the second coat on the house, I fell off the ladder. I’d been leaning way off the side, just one foot on the top rung, pretending that I was reaching over the edge of a cliff. My fingertips clutched at a princess with tight jeans and fire-engine-red streaks in her hair. I felt my foot go, saw a blurry wedge of sky, and landed on my shoulder so hard that I couldn’t breathe for a few panicked seconds. When my breath came back, I cried.

“Jesus,” I heard Robert say from somewhere, and then his shoes were in front of me and he was leaning down to tilt the paint can right side up and wipe his fingers on the grass.

I closed my eyes and the sun ignited the lids so that all I saw was this screaming orange color. This is what the inside of me looks like, I thought.

“Get up,” Robert said, standing over me. I sniffled, and he crouched down, tilted his head so he could see my face. “Hey,” he said, snapping his fingers in front of my eyes. “Stop fucking crying.” I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

“Is it broken?” he said. I had no idea and shrugged with my good shoulder. When he took my wrist and raised my arm, pain lit up inside me from shoulder to elbow, and it took everything I had not to cry again.

There wasn’t much traffic on the way to Urgent Care. The cab of Robert’s truck smelled like beer. I looked out my window at what trees still stood on the side of the road because when I looked ahead, I got scared that Robert didn’t see the red of traffic or taillights in front of us.

We were in the waiting room for forever. At least it felt that way because neither of us said anything the whole time. For sound, it was just the rustle of turned magazine pages and the secretary apologizing, saying they’d been understaffed for a long time now. When I finally got to go back, it took all of about six seconds for the nurse to tell me I hadn’t broken anything. I almost asked her if she was sure, but instead I just looked at the floor and felt a queasy mix of dread and shame spread through me. I’d jammed my shoulder pretty bad, she told me, and bruised a few ribs landing on my arm like I had. Another nurse fitted me for a sling and I wondered if it would be enough.

The long breath and quick look I got from Robert when the nurse told him my shoulder was just jammed let me know that it wasn’t. He signed some paperwork at the front desk and walked straight out the glass doors.

In the truck, I waited for him to call me a pussy, or tell me how much money I’d wasted not being able to tough it out.

Instead, after a long time, he said, “Sorry if I was hard on you back there.”

I didn’t say anything, but made a noise to let him know that I’d heard.

“I know you’re good at other stuff. But look where we live. Look at all the money we never have. I’m just saying, work gonna be your life sometime. And if I’m playin’, and I fall off a ladder, there’s twenty motherfuckers just sitting there waiting to take my job. See what I’m saying?”

I wouldn’t look at him. The sun was almost down and red light was pushing itself sideways over everything—the mass exodus of a bus on the side of the road, kids Darnell’s age weaving their bikes up the road slowly, shop owners rolling gates down over their front doors.

“I’m never gonna paint people’s houses,” I told him.

I rolled down the window. The vacants got worse the closer to home we got—taller weeds, bigger piles of bricks strewn in dust, bigger and bigger chunks of structure missing. At 30 mph it looked like a flipbook of something imploding. Robert laughed a little to himself and turned to look at me.

“Yeah, me either,” he said.

 

Everyone at school wanted to know what happened when they saw the sling—I’d never had so many people talk to me in one day. I chose not to tell them that I’d fallen off a ladder pretending to be a knight. I just shrugged, instead, and said it wasn’t a big deal. My English teacher Mr. Reese told me he wanted to talk to me after class and I felt special, like one of the kids he really cared about—the ones who claimed gangs, and never turned anything in, and beat on each other regularly on the blacktop during lunch.

Ma had sat up with me the night before, watching the DVD she’d brought home for me from the gas station. We had Faygo Redpop and candy, too, and she kept asking after my arm and smiling when I’d shrug and lie that it didn’t hurt any. Robert had gone to bed with a beer when we got home, so I didn’t have to worry about him snorting and telling her how I’d cried. But in the morning, her alarm went off at the same time as it always did and she was out the door and walking to work before I even got my cereal poured.

“You’ve got work to make up in here,” Mr. Reese told me. Everyone liked Mr. Reese. He was young, wore his hair in long braids that he pulled back while he was at school, and drove a long old Cadillac painted pale gold. When we argued about which NBA team was best, he had an opinion, and he could even still talk like we did—told us it was an official dialect and not to listen when other people tried to correct it to white.

“Yes, sir,” I told him, disappointed that all he wanted to do was sigh at my grades like he always did.

“You wanna know what you’ve got in here?”

“Not really.”

“Too bad,” he said, pointing toward a box on his spreadsheet. “71. Barely a C. You don’t need me to tell you you’re way better than that, Deldrick.”

I didn’t feel better than that.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What’s up with the arm?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, trying to play it cool. Mr. Reese stopped typing and swiveled in his chair to look right at me.

“They don’t give you a sling for nothing,” he said. His eyes were wide and unblinking. It was the same look the nurse at Urgent Care had given me the day before, when I told her I fell off a ladder. “You’re sure that’s all that happened? You just fell?” she had said. “It’s only me in here, Deldrick.” She had her hand on my forearm and she looked concerned, but that was just her job, I thought.

Now, with Mr. Reese, I understood.

“He didn’t mean to,” I told him, and I saw the warm blur of tears in my eyes before I could even think to try and manufacture them.

I heard the creak of Mr. Reese sitting forward in his chair.

“Who didn’t mean to? Didn’t mean to what?” he said.

I couldn’t look him in the face. Robert would be disappointed in that. The floor swam up a little in my tears and then snapped back into place when I blinked them away.

“Robert,” I eventually said.

“That’s your mama’s boyfriend?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Reese put his hands on my shoulders for a second, then got up and closed the door to his room. My insides shivered. I remembered the amused, effortless way that Mr. Reese shot down all the lies we tried to tell in class. When he sat down in front of me again, he titled his face down so that he could see my eyes.

“Look at me for a second, Deldrick,” he said. I did.

“First of all, I’m always here for you. You can come to me with anything, no judgment. Yeah?” I nodded. “But before you tell me anything further about this, you’ve got to know that whatever you say, I have to pass it along to the proper authorities. I can’t keep secrets for you, and I can’t help you myself.”

I nodded again.

“You still wanna tell me?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.”

My voice shook bad through the whole story. Either Mr. Reese didn’t hear it, or he didn’t realize it meant I was lying. Even now, I don’t know what I expected to feel in that moment. Strong, maybe. Instead, I was gut-punched with guilt.

It’s probably hard to believe me when I say I never hated Robert. But I didn’t. During a snowstorm the previous winter, he’d taught me how to fight. We circled each other in the shadowy yellow light of the living room lamp, the TV on mute behind us, the snow drifting on the windowsills outside. He showed me how to set my feet and count my steps, like dancing. He said to always keep my hands up, told me that the precise moment to land the perfect straight right is something you just have to feel.

“This is all only if you need it, though,” he said when Ma looked disapprovingly up from her magazine on the couch. He winked at me, or maybe I just imagine now that he did. “Cowards start fights,” he said. “Men finish them.”

I liked that Robert—the one who still had his hands up. But I didn’t see him in the car on the way home from Urgent Care. The Robert I saw then was weak and defeated and telling me I’d already lost. So he had to go.

When I finished, Mr. Reese didn’t say anything, just made a few notes on a yellow pad of paper.

“I’ll write you a pass for the rest of this hour,” he told me. He gave me a bag of chips from under his desk and we sat there not saying much until the bell rang. Even with everything going on, it felt good.

 

I still think about that night all the time, even though I’ve never been able to make a complete scene out of what little pieces hardened into memory. I was in my room when the agents came. They were one woman and one man. Both white. I couldn’t see everything from the doorway to my room, but I could hear Ma’s voice, thin with panic, as she talked to them.

The man introduced himself as Roy to me when he came back to my room. The woman stayed up front with Ma and Robert. Roy’s dress shirt looked old and I could see multicolored tattoos on his wrists when the cuffs rode up a little. There was a tripod under his arm, and when he pulled up a chair I noticed he had new-looking sneakers on with his khakis. He set the tripod up and I told my story again on video. I thought it was going to be an investigation—I pictured a cold white cone of light surrounding me from above, like in the movies—but Roy just kept nodding at me, telling me to take my time, that I was doing a very brave thing. I started to feel shame then; I felt like I’d been up all night worrying about a big test, only to have someone help me through all the answers when it came time.

I don’t remember where Darius was during all of this. Darnell either. I couldn’t hear what the woman was saying to Ma and Robert in the other room, and I’ve never asked. I don’t even remember if I was in the same room as Robert during any part of it. Eventually the woman said something about a “voluntary agreement,” and told me not to worry. I don’t remember her name.

Something seems wrong about knowing so little about everything that happened in that half an hour or so. Whenever I’m home alone after school, I think it’s because I had to focus so hard to keep everything from unraveling. When Cam’s fighting the dragons in the Tantamount books, he’s not also making sure he memorizes the look on everyone’s face. I tell myself that, and my breathing evens out; my heart stops hammering.

But that’s all bullshit. Every now and again I can admit the truth to myself, that everything that happened—Robert’s dad hitting him, my dad leaving us right after Darius was born, the CPS agents coming, Robert leaving quietly—happened on some level that I didn’t understand then and barely do now.

The closest I can come to explaining is to say how easy it all was. While I was giving my statement to Roy, I kept waiting to hear Robert rise up in the other room. Get indignant. I wondered when I’d feel his footsteps coming down the hall to throw open the door and ask me what the fuck. But none of that happened. By the time I left my room, hung limply in Ma’s hug, heard her whisper “I’m so sorry,” Robert had gone to the back of the house to pack one bag, and I never saw him again. Maybe he already knew what I was finding out: that everyone I told my story to would jump to believe it. That no one would push back, rise to his defense.

We’re better off without Robert. I still think that. But I also think that what he told me in the truck on the way home from Urgent Care was true—we don’t really have shit to do with where we end up. You spend your whole life trying to be better, different—from your neighborhood, your school system, your father—and then someone like me comes through and wrecks it all without even trying.

 

When I went back to my room at the end of the night, Darius hit me in the mouth just as I got inside the door. It was dark but I could hear his hands windmilling around in front of my face before they landed.By the hallway light coming in, I could see silver flecks of tears on his cheeks. Mr. Reese would ask me the next day about the fingernail mark under my eye, and I’d tell him it was just horsing around with my brother.

“Are you sure?” he’d ask, and I’d nod, annoyed with him.

“Why,” Darius said as I caught him by his wrists and held him away from me. “Why, what are you doing, what happened, I hate you.”

When he relaxed I steered him over to the edge of his bed and sat down next to him. I was in charge of him now, I thought, and already letting him down.

“What did you do?” Darius asked me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Because I was—it’s the closest I’ve ever come to telling anyone what I did.

 

I run errands for the front office during my homeroom period. I’m eligible for the job because I made honor roll my first semester, and it seems like I’m the only one in homeroom without a friend to talk to, anyway. The other day, one of the secretaries hung up the phone, where she must have been talking with a parent, shook her head, and said, “I swear, God’s the only father we can trust.” The rest of the office laughed.

I called Darnell later that night.

“What’s good?” he said, and I could hear the music behind him being turned down. I pictured him in his little apartment, his fast food uniform still on, bagging the weed he sold to the kids who worked with him.

“Where do you think Robert is right now?” I asked.

Darnell sucked his teeth.

“At the bar,” he said. “Where else?”

“Yeah,” I said. That’s not how I like to picture him, though. In my mind, he’s walking down a long road at night. He’s all by himself and storm clouds are coiling around one another overhead. He doesn’t run and hide, or look for shelter. He stops, tips his head back, and waits for the lightning.

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