Leaving Gotham City

I start to laugh. ‘Hey, whattup? She waves at him, and he flips her off, laughing, turning back towards me with a shrug. ‘He’s a grown man, Nana. I know because I’ve been counting. I slam the door just so I can watch him wince. He’s a fucking mess.’
Then, Priscilla steps to the left, and it is like the end of a solar eclipse, the moon of her hair making way for Edwin’s eyes to meet mine. We’ve been fucking with each other so long it feels like we’re married. Her chest heaves up and down, little waves that bob my head against their current. Couldn’t wait to tell my friends I was fucking her. He said we were stuck in a country that would eat us alive if we didn’t learn how to live in it. We’d go up to the criminal and be like, Yo, can you meet us by the plantains at the Asia Market on Cleveland? He shakes his head. Edwin dimmed the light, and we went out into the living room to pack our lunches for the next day: corn beef sandwiches, no chips, no drinks. He’s staring at the ceiling and blinking slowly, the redness of his eyes disappearing behind his lids. They were joking, but Edwin wasn’t the same after that. ‘What happened with Sassy?’ NaKwame asks. I smoke until my head is a cloud of calm, and then I drive to Sassy’s salon. I had to run to the store to buy a fucking spatula. ‘I can’t,’ I say. Akosua is there. ‘You still watch this shit?’ Edwin asks. We push into the room, and it’s a familiar sight. ‘I’ve never seen Edwin angry like that. We wait. The driver comes in. ‘I’m in town on business,’ he says as I get in. I could make out Edwin’s eyes and teeth and sometimes his hands. She answers with sleep in her voice, but it’s only nine o’clock. How long is Edwin in town?’
I shrug. ‘Better not.’
He nods and pores over the menu. I helped him carry her to her bedroom. I go up to Akosua, grab her shoulders and stare into her eyes. Auntie Rose used to watch this show. In the morning, I come out to find Edwin in the kitchen frying eggs. This place is Gotham City to him, right?’
Gotham City. ‘Folks are around,’ I say. ‘You couldn’t even come home for my daughter’s outdooring! I walked in on them and they yelled at me. I can’t remember the last time we said I love you before hanging up the phone. She told immigration that we were her kids. ‘Where’d you hear that?’
‘Some Ghana boys saw you at a restaurant,’ he says. ‘Yo, if your brother gets Akosua hung up again before he bounces, I’ll fucking kill him myself. He smells of weed, but if Uncle Eddie notices, he doesn’t say anything. When she met me, she smiled, but it was one of those smiles that rich people volunteering at soup kitchens give to the homeless: pitying and false, filled with the comfort of knowing they never have to see them again if they don’t want to. A breathy silence follows before the click. Isn’t this the way it was supposed to be? ‘You took good care of it,’ he says. ‘Get out of my store-oh!’ I shout. And food.’
‘I don’t cook.’
‘What do you eat?’
I pull out a box of cereal from the cupboard and shake it at him. I was just a baby. We go out to a bench on the sidewalk. We slipped her shoes off and placed the comforter over her. One day, three years after Edwin got jumped, I asked if he would take me and NaKwame to the Rec Center for some touch football, and he yelled at me. It’s a stupid place with all these crazy motherfuckers walking around killing people and blowing shit up. ‘She dropped the charges.’
‘Jamaicans, man,’ he says, as though that says it all, and I nod. Auntie Rose knew a woman from boarding school whose brother was getting his PhD in linguistics at Ohio State. Auntie Rose used to shout from the rooftops. The first one’s from Sassy saying she’s sorry, and the second one is from my lawyer saying Sassy dropped the charges. I point to the window. She’s balancing her son on her hip and with her free hand she holds her daughter. ‘Yo, when was the last time you used these pans? ‘Who do I need to see?’ he asks. Our mother was supposed to follow after somehow, but she never found a way, and we never got to know her. The African Christian Church was half-Nigerian, but the other half was us, the men shouting prayers and the women in dukus. The top half of a brunette’s body is leaning out of the window, her tits barely contained by the top she’s wearing. Now, I mostly think of what all that softness feels like. He pulls out a glass pipe, translucent, blue. Well Auntie Rose must be shouting in her grave.’
‘Yeah,’ I say softly. I can’t even remember the last time we said goodbye. .’ His voice trails off. She pulls Edwin into the folds of her skin, the long line between her breasts splitting open to welcome him. ‘This is an emergency, Tish.’
‘You’re high off your ass, Nana. She wants to make sure we know how much our presence bores her, and I want to say, Honey, you’re nothing special either. ‘Edwin is shouting.’
NaKwame sits on the edge of the tub. Edwin’s the one who left. All of this was America’s fault. I let him into the apartment and show him how the couch folds out, and he listens. I crack open the window while he packs a bowl, and below us the music starts at full volume, causing the floor to vibrate. ‘Tisha,’ I say, counting my blinks, making sure to space them appropriately. Before long, a group of kids pull up to the pump, rap music blasting. ‘Akwaaba!’ she sings. The younger kids are chasing each other in the living room. ‘What’s on the agenda today?’ Edwin asks. Now, I scoot a little closer to Sassy and stroke her face. We used to joke that the best gift we could ever give her would be to plant one of those crooks somewhere she could spot him and call in. In the kitchen, the aunties are gossiping as the soup simmers. Edwin was eight when we left Ghana. ‘Is it cool if I stay with you?’ Edwin asks. He owed my Auntie Rose more than a couple of favors, so I mostly get to do what I want around here, though I try to do the right thing. The waitress plops a basket of rolls down on the table and one jumps out. At first, I think I’m the one crying, but then I realize it’s her. I thought I was living. I grab a Guinness from the blue cooler by the door and stand next to him. I look up, nod. ‘You look ridiculous,’ I say, and he laughs too. Some fucking akatas with nothing better to do than wail on a kid. NaKwame enters from behind the fence. ‘I just. We came to Columbus with Auntie Rose. I’ve been mostly clean, but I keep some shit around, in case of emergencies. There isn’t a fatter woman on the planet, at least not one still capable of walking, but she knows she looks good, that she cooks good, that she has fed an entire community of people for decades. Edwin would never admit it, but she couldn’t stand me. Is he high and harassing his girlfriend too?’
I start to cry, which was not part of the plan. I look around as the crowd hesitantly disperses. When it ended, Edwin and I saw that Auntie Rose had fallen asleep at the table. I go off to the back porch where Uncle Eddie is busy grilling meat. ‘There won’t be one.’
He smirks. She clutches tight. ‘Talk?’
I picture her. ‘Nothing else on.’
He starts to nod off after they show the second criminal sketch. We buried Auntie Rose five years ago at Union Cemetery. Her accent was the first thing I ever loved about her. Bored teenagers, hunched over their cell phones, waiting for the moment when their parents will be too drunk to notice them sneak away. She lets me kiss her, lets me lean my head down against her breasts, and she holds me to her for a while. ‘Three to nine, but if you want to go see folks in the old neighborhood I can meet up with you after. ‘I hear Edwin’s in town,’ Uncle Eddie says. ‘Come, now,’ she says. ‘Sassy and I broke up,’ I say. He refused to speak Twi, even with Auntie Rose. It’s only kind of true. It didn’t matter what color you were, if you were American. He has a kente-cloth apron with kiss the cook written on it. I can see into the kitchen from the window at the back of the house. I move him over, take the slipping whiskey bottle from his hand, and put a blanket over him. He lifts my hands from Akosua and moves me aside. She turned twenty-eight a few weeks after I turned twenty-nine. At first, I don’t think that this is an emergency, but then I remember the stash between my mattress and box spring, and change my mind, get myself worked up. I find him sitting down next to her headstone, marked: loving mother, sister, and friend. When I lose, I watch my fingers dial her number. I open the door, and take her in. I come back into the living room, and Edwin’s made himself at home. I get on the couch beside him and start flipping channels. But then the joy leaves. He’s still got that daft grin on his face, but he’s looking at me like we’re old friends. NaKwame and I go downstairs, then out to the back, where a circle of people watch Edwin and Akosua. It’s true. ‘Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.’
He pulls out of the parking lot onto the road. Who am I to give relationship advice, right?’
He’s referring to his divorce from Emily, this tight-assed white girl he met in college. Instead, I clutch Akosua so hard my fingers start to hurt. All us younger kids kept hearing what an example he was, but when he didn’t come home for Christmas or the summer, they started to worry and clutch their children closer. I was in jail when my brother called, but things didn’t go down the way Sassy says they did. Edwin even got to play the dondo in church. I grab the stray roll and start laying butter into it while Edwin watches me. He hasn’t been sober one week since Auntie Rose died. I can’t even remember who played Batman, but I remember that Edwin watched it with me on the busted television set we’d picked out of the dumpster behind Muskingum Court. ‘Good to see you.’
Edwin mumbles something in response and moves closer to her and her kids. He had memories of the old country, memories of our mother, the school where she worked in Mampong. Sassy doesn’t want to get married anymore. Mama Phyllis and Auntie Mensah watch them discreetly from the stove, and I can imagine what they’re saying. We washed the dishes, finished folding the clothes for the care packages, swept the floor, and then crept into the tiny bedroom we shared. He’s got his feet on the coffee table and his shirt off, and he’s nursing the whiskey bottle, his empty glass beside him. When we get to my apartment, I make Edwin stand outside so I can do a quick sweep. Auntie Doreen said at the hospital where she worked a white girl had slapped her own mother. When the waitress comes, she’s smacking gum, her hip cocked. His car hits the pavement outside, and I can hear him yelling, ‘The dude was crazy!’
I pop open the can of beer I keep behind the counter for days like this. ‘Nuh-uh,’ she says. We pass the steely gray of the jail, the overgrown weeds and brush that line the gravel pass. Now, anything will do. NaKwame puts the weed away and flushes the toilet. He has this habit of wiping his forehead with the back of his hand like the old ladies at church when they’re about to catch tongues. The way she didn’t sound like the Ghana girls or the akata girls I was used to running with. I pour us a couple of whiskeys and turn the TV on while I go listen to my messages. Edwin picks me up the next morning in a rented silver Prius. ‘What’s good, bruh?’ he says, slapping my hand. ‘I really didn’t mean to come here like this,’ I say. ‘Sassy doesn’t want to get married,’ I say. She even looks at me that married way sometimes, like the joy and sorrow of all of our years together is hitting her just behind the eyes. It’s my fault. Mama Phyllis is killing the goat as we speak.’ He laughs then rushes out. I need her, okay? He’s white, blond hair and a polo shirt. There’s panic in her eyes. That was the last time Edwin was in Columbus. Uncle Eddie owns the gas station. Every Saturday night. He could still speak the language when so many of us had never known anything but English.  
Photograph   © Cody Pickens ‘Stop what you are doing and come,’ she says, disapproving. You could fit two bodies between us. He started dating white girl after white girl. He’s coughing from the whiskey and his eyes are getting heavy and liquid, but he hasn’t put the bottle down. ‘We’re just fucked up in different ways is all.’
I run my hand down my face. Later, when I asked Edwin how it was, he told me her tongue tasted like crayfish. ‘Kos called.’
The party is at Mama Phyllis’s house. Looking out of the window, I see a dreadlocked man in bright orange walking out into the sun. An akata girl with five kids and no husband had come in with bruises on her face and hands. She did once. ‘Edwin,’ she says. The kids stop, arrested, but moments later they’re back at it. ‘Can I have your keys?’ I ask NaKwame, and he tosses them to me. It’s what I’d say if Edwin weren’t here. The night the divorce went through, Edwin was in Columbus. I take a hit and hold it until my chest starts to burn. He told the police they made fun of his accent and told him to go back to Africa, but the police just laughed at him. Edwin can fulfill his brotherly duties on the company’s dime. I know where Edwin is. ‘You know, we could drive over to Cleveland and see what’s up. Not like that.’
She sighs. I can’t remember the details of the movie. I need Sassy.’
Finally, Sassy comes to the door. I do my best Nigerian accent because I never mastered a Ghanaian one. ‘Hey man, you wouldn’t happen to know where to buy some weed around here, would you? You’ve completely lost touch with everyone, even Nana. Her breasts, her skin, her smile. I’m sorry. Tisha comes to the door. At nine, Edwin picks me up from the store. Like, ‘Edwin’s thug brother works at a gas station,’ or, ‘Edwin’s thug brother was picked up for possession.’ When he told me, he’d started crying, and I had to prop him against my body just to get him out of there. You could go into any convenience store and start speaking Twi to somebody behind the counter or in the aisles. A can of orange Fanta flies off the table and spills all over the carpet. ‘You drinking?’ Edwin asks. He’d make the drum live up to its name, flipping it, tapping it, making it talk. I got him pissy drunk in a Motown-themed bar, and he let it slip that Emily used to call me his thug brother to her friends at parties. Let him go. I grab a bowl near the stove. I was just asking. ‘What do you know?’ I hear Edwin shout at Akosua. Everyone’s here really. The station is quiet. Who knew what America did to children? ‘I have to work,’ I say. I want to shake her, but I remember Sassy, remember how I shook her last week when she told me she didn’t want to see me anymore. He probably learned it from them, back when Auntie Rose used to drag us to the African Christian on Cleveland. He nods. I pick up a broom and start sweeping. ‘For what?’
‘For being such a fuck-up.’
Edwin shrugs then turns back to the headstone. We’re in town for the football game, and I don’t have any Columbus connects, so.. America’s Most Wanted is on Channel 6, and I leave it there. ‘Nana,’ he says, ‘I’m not accusing you. I go back to my apartment, smoke it quickly, and try to decide on a course of action. He took us in. ‘Nana,’ she says. ‘What?’
‘I don’t understand why anyone would want to stay in Gotham City. Can I get twenty dollars on number two?’ He grins at me and looks out at his car. Back then all us kids wanted to be like Edwin. I was ten. I get to work a few minutes late, but it’s no big deal. He’s got feet like mine. ‘You ever gonna marry that girl?’ Edwin asks once the waitress is gone. You shouldn’t stay somewhere that isn’t working. He’s been having a hard time, and I don’t know if he’s in some kind of trouble.’
‘He’s having a hard time? And the adults, the old heads, dressed as if Ghana were just a place in the back of their closets instead of miles, miles away. She does it quick and keeps moving, like a drive-by. ‘When’s the arraignment?’ he asks. ‘What’s funny?’ he asks. That I couldn’t. I go to my room, smoke a cigarette out the window, and try to fight the urge to call Sassy. I cruise around Franklinton until I find some boys who I know sell cheap. She used to steal the VHS tapes from the storeroom in the back whenever she could, and one day she managed to get a copy of Batman Forever. Everything on her body’s gotten softer. And when I put him on the couch in my apartment he was still crying and whispering how sorry he was, but when he woke up he couldn’t remember anything. When we were high-school sweethearts. I’m sorry.’
NaKwame comes through. ‘Why?’
‘I’m not accusing you,’ Edwin says. He still had the smell of Ghana on him, that authority about him. Even when she’s angry, she sounds like she could burst into song at any minute. I run out of the house to the beat of highlife music. Our whole childhood was Little Ghana. Edwin shakes hands with all the uncles as we pass through the hallway. He throws me a change of clothes. NaKwame drives a souped-up Cadillac, nice rims, clean. Tisha gives her a hard look, but she nods her away. I’ll be damned if I let her go anywhere near you today.’
I do my best impression of a sober man. I shrug. We end up in the back booth of some cheap restaurant. I can feel Edwin looking at me, but he doesn’t say what I know he’s thinking. Who are you describing? ‘Uncle Eddie told you about the party, huh,’ I say, trying to wiggle out of my work pants. ‘My brother is missing. He cuffs a hand over his bald head and sighs. NaKwame rubs, but doesn’t speak. ‘Edwin’s here.’
I hear her smile through the phone. He’d sit in the church, stony-eyed and forlorn. It’s Mama Phyllis, her voice so low I can feel it in my stomach. She is a black brick of a woman, a six-foot-tall Bajan with dreadlocks down past her ass and arms that look as though they’ve been used strictly for the purpose of holding up the world. The streetlamp outside our window flickered its eerie glow, cutting the darkness. ‘Edwin come back finally? We watch each other for a minute, and then Edwin walks away, silent now, past the uncles and the aunties, into the house, out the front door. Two weeks after Edwin turned fourteen, he got jumped by some black kids on the east side. I was seven and obsessed with Batman. ‘Where’s the Ghanaian prince?’ NaKwame asks. ‘You know what I don’t understand?’ Edwin asked. I print the receipt, and pass it to him, and he leans over the counter. ‘Ah fuck, I haven’t been back in a minute, huh?’ He stretches out. It’s been five years since Edwin was here. ‘Oh yeah, how do you figure?’
‘Sassy’ll drop the charges,’ I say. A few minutes later, I leave. Auntie Rose and all the other Ghanaian women from our hood spent a whole week preparing food for this bitch’s arrival, and all she ate was a salad. The toes all spread out like they can’t stand to be next to each other. I’ve got one tiny, glistening rock left, and I know it won’t get me high enough to begin searching for Edwin. Do you know what is happening to Nana? When she told me that we couldn’t keep doing this to each other. Edwin is holding Akosua’s baby, and her girl is running around him in circles. You’re black too, they said. He motions for me to follow him, and we creep into the house. When we were younger, when her body was high and hard-edged, I couldn’t wait to fuck her. ‘For good this time.’
‘When did this happen?’
‘Just now.’
Edwin smiles at me and puts an arm around my shoulder. And don’t leave until you see this wrinkly, old black woman in a headscarf calling the police on you, okay? I have to push through them to get to the front, and even then Priscilla’s giant ’fro blocks
my view. Parties at the lodge, out-dooring ceremonies and wakes. ‘Eh Nana, I bet you are happy to see your elder brother!’ he says. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. I don’t care if he’s family.’
Uncle Eddie clips the back of his head with the tongs. Edwin and I used to talk about it all the time. I’d already been picked up for stealing from a video-game store. He slings an arm over my shoulder. My brother, he doesn’t come like clockwork, but he comes. ‘He didn’t say.’
When Edwin left for Princeton there wasn’t a Ghanaian around who didn’t know about it. Our food has come, and it’s nothing to sing about, but I’m so hungry I could eat a horse eye. We could walk around the playground of Buckeye Village for hours, no adults, just a line of little African ducklings following behind my older brother. Sassy rubs her hand along my forearm, but she’s sitting at a distance. I listen to the clock and try to count each click of the second hand. We wave our hands wildly like we can make the air move faster. ‘Get out of my store before I cause you to suffer!’
The boy backs away slowly, confused. Why don’t they just leave?’
I laughed when he said it because I was too young to understand that Edwin was serious, that he was beginning to rework an idea our families had latched onto, fought for, years before, when they’d dragged Ghana-must-go bags onto the shores of this strange new land. She only came to Columbus once. ‘Open this door!’ a voice roars. Little girls with their hair in Afro puffs bossing around the little boys in suits. We’re seven years apart, we’ve got different fathers, and we don’t look anything alike, but every time I see those duck feet, I know he’s got to claim me. ‘Yeah.’
‘You want to come over?’ she asks. ‘Who’s still here?’
I run through all of them in my mind: Kojo, Kwesi, Akosua who was Edwin’s girl back in the day, Tatu and NaKwame, the twins Panyin and Kakra. It just depended on who you knew. Before she found out I was sleeping with other people or that I was using or that every time I said I was going to get her out of Columbus I knew that I wasn’t. I bet Mama Phyllis’ll cook something up for you if you tell her you’re here.’
‘I don’t want anybody to go to any trouble,’ Edwin says, but we both know that once word gets out there will be at least one house party with no less than ten Ghanaian women trying to prove that they’re the best cook in all of Columbus, even though Mama Phyllis has always held the title. Every once in a while, his New York-based consulting firm will send a couple of people out to Columbus. There would be no difference unless we made one. He said when people looked at us all they were ever going to see was our blackness, not our Africanness. I should have known better than to fuck with a Jamaican. ‘Nope,’ he says. Auntie Rose had the night off and she sat at the kitchen table folding clothes for the care packages we used to send back to Ghana every month. NaKwame and I go up to the bathroom on the second floor and lock the door behind us. The grass around the headstone has started to die, but there are flowers at the base and little tea candles from the vigil the deacons from church hold every year on the anniversary of her death. I sit beside him. He used to take me to dinner at the Kahiki on East Broad until it became a Walgreens. On the screen, Gotham City was being ravaged by the villain of the week. I’m high when the yelling starts. The slushie machine behind the counter churns red over and over and over. She greets us at the door. She gulps in a sob and whispers, ‘Don’t hurt me, Nana. I nod absently. ‘Watch your mouth!’ he shouts. At the time, all the Ghanaians coming in were either going to Columbus or the Bronx. We could barely afford food, let alone movies. Soon someone will come find us and drag us onto the dance floor. He seems to have gained control over his face. Her girls over at the hair-braiding salon get to talking in her ear and all of a sudden something that was supposed to be just a private conversation between on-again, off-again lovers turns into some trumped-up assault charge. Back then, Auntie Rose was working the night shift as an LPN at the nursing home on Clime. ‘Tonight we’ll party, enh? Edwin’s first kiss was with Akosua Mensah in the steam room of the Red Roof Inn. I check his seat cushions, but there’s nothing in them.