By the Light of the Moon
By: Kanyla Wilson
The odds were stacked against him today. No, the odds were stacked against Elijah every day, but today they were tall enough to scrape the cracked, faded blue paint from the sky hovering above his building. The air in his one room apartment smelled of teeth grinding and sweat like his fitful sleep the night before had materialized into a stench permeating every surface. He’d risen four hours too early, and the sun outside crept up his body where he sat, scanning him and deciding what kind of day he deserved. The alarm on his phone blinked to life and he stood at attention leaving his nerve behind in the chair to decide if it was brave enough to leave the apartment. The place wasn’t anything to see. Ancient charcoal gray carpet covered the floor looking suspicious enough to make Elijah avoid ever touching bare feet to it. A mattress set upon a plain bed frame was pushed against the wall of the only window, and one battered hotel chair stood in the middle of the room beneath a dim light connected to the ceiling fan. This was the dwelling of a man who was unfortunate enough to love the unfortunate. The kind of love that would always leave you on the wrong side of life.
No matter how many times he’d scrubbed the bathroom tiles with baking soda and abrasive cleaners he couldn’t turn it any other color than dinge. The grout snaking its way between each one may have been white in its early days of life, but now it was black, the kind that doesn’t wash off. The kind you have to learn to tolerate. He looked at the image reflected back at him from the cloudy mirror and realized he still wasn’t familiar with the man looking back at him. So much had happened over the past few years and he wore it on his face. He looked hard like peat, pressed and compacted beneath the Earth’s surface until it became something to use, something to siphon energy from. He wasn’t a man anymore. He was a commodity, a heat source; revered as an object before a human. He needed a haircut, but a brush would have to do today. He raked it roughly from crown to forehead over his coarse curls not doing much else than flattening them for a second before they popped back resilient. He had stubble on his chin and jaws, but it didn’t matter. Even buzzing clippers wouldn’t change his appearance to those that mattered today. He couldn’t be different; he wouldn’t be on his way to the courthouse if he could. He straightened his thin black tie and pressed it against his white shirt. He had to remind himself he didn’t want to be different. That fact was easy to forget when his kind of different could be dangerous or mistaken as a danger through eyes not primed to see him as more.
His roommate rumbled by on the elevated tracks outside his window on schedule. The city was waking up, stretching and yawning in protest as it increased to top speed. The people on that train were off to face their day ready or not. Elijah walked over to the stack of orange sshoe boxes kept in the corner and removed the top box. He carefully organized the cash he found inside and folded the bills into his wallet. He slipped his jacket off its wire hanger in the closet and took a deep breath. One last moment of solitude before he had to leave out the door and assume his role as misidentified predator and hidden prey.
He pulled his hood up when he was outside those walls. He knew the hood could be as dangerous as an easily identifiable uncovered head, but today the hood felt safer. That’s how he moved in the in between everyday calculating the right strategy that would bring him home alive. The variables were constantly changing, and guarantees were luxuries he couldn’t afford. He imagined this was how Moses felt, walking through the narrow crevice between towering walls of the sea on either side of him. On one side of Elijah, words like “I don’t fuck with that nigga,” were the deadliest of dismissals and trying to save your own life was viewed as disrespect. On the other side, they didn’t care what you were if your packaging was too opaque, you belonged to them, and they were free to do whatever they liked to your body. These were the walls he moved between too afraid to breathe from sun up to sun down.
Elijah kept his inconspicuous car parked far from his building beneath the same train tracks running past his window. He learned early on that distance was probably the only thing that could keep you alive in his world. Keep business and family separate, keep work far from your home and keep product and cash separate by any means necessary. He kept to the quiet side streets and alleys he knew would be empty besides the people leaving the neighborhood to show up on time to their empty promises of a way out. He passed by a woman clutching the hand of a child with a baseball cap pulled down over his ears that looked two sizes too big. The woman had a handbag, a laptop case, and a larger tote all strapped to her back but she moved like she was light as a feather in her white track sneakers. Elijah had known many women like her in his lifetime. They could shoulder the world every day like Atlas but never got statues carved in their honor. She nodded to him and greeted him good morning and Elijah returned the same. As they passed, he heard her tell the boy, “See that’s why you need to keep your nose in them books and out these streets then one day you’ll be dressing like you got some sense and going to work every day like him. Don’t nobody have shit for a black man that’s not trying to work out here, you gonna learn sooner than later.” Elijah cringed at her words, but he didn’t look back. Those were the same vague instructions that led him through his life, but the boy would have to learn on his own that black folks were the only ones concerned about the clothing of a black man. To everyone else, they looked the same no matter what the wardrobe.
He’d been told all his life there was a way. If he just worked hard enough, he would find the formula that would lead him outside of the highways structured to trap him inside. But, the how of it all was always just out of his grasp. All he had was t-shirt slogans of “Be all you can be” and “If you believe you can achieve” from teachers and advice from people who never managed an escape themselves. He was a product of lack of clarity and unmet needs. The only thing clear was the money. He saw athletes and high-paid actors level the playing field enough to live out loud by having that one thing. Elijah could see that much, the way out of purgatory was lit by dollar signs.
Even if he could go back, he knew he would do it all again. At least this time he could go in with his eyes wide enough to see the set up that brought him there. At least this time it would be his decision and not a clever bait and switch to ensure advantage. His circumstances would have been the same. He wasn’t that great at sports and even if he was most of the kids he knew that were had a snowball’s chance in hell getting to play professional ball. He’d had his moments in school, but he wasn’t an academic and he’d never been much of a rhymer. What else was there? Every rich person he knew of who shared his hue seemed to have one of the three in common. He chose the fourth option and what started out as ‘pick this up and drop it off over there’ turned into ‘talk to my buddy he’ll give you some credit’. He put his hands on every trinket he’d ever dreamed of as a little kid watching people live on tv. He got outside of the four concrete walls that boxed them in and saw the world. He made enough money to dull the pain of helping the enemy mainline death into the bloodlines that got him this far. He was paying for that now. Here he was back in the same hood, in the same state of mind as he was when he started and he had nothing but the destruction around him to show for it.
Entering a courthouse is like being processed for a crime you haven’t committed yet. The guard’s rough hands jerked and thudded against his body searching for anything that resembled the long list of items on a large poster behind him. Elijah could point out the various stages of anxiety on the people moving around him being poked and prodded physically before going to be poked and prodded mentally. A few of them nervous and hopeful headed towards the bond hearing courtrooms. Their biggest worry was having enough money; they were at the mouth of the rabbit hole. Violators headed towards the traffic hearing rooms looked more hassled than concerned. They were the nickels and dimes of the system; the rapid flowing revenue that would stay guaranteed and steady. Everyone heading in Elijah’s direction was somber with a world of worry hidden away inside. They were headed to the rooms where fates were decided. Where you get a fleeting glance at what was taken from you. Where you might have to say goodbye.
They brought his brother in shuffling but still with his head held high. The ashen beige shirt hung formlessly on his shoulders, but you could tell his stature was that of a royal being escorted to his throne. The surly guards on either side of him jostled him unnecessarily to break his stride, but he seemed immune to them as he moved. He gave a crooked smile to his mother who wasn’t Elijah’s mother and nodded at Elijah. They didn’t share a father either. They were the kind of brothers that are forged in struggle. They’d drawn this out for almost two years. Two years of fighting to keep him, to allow him to remain a man but they always knew the outcome had already been written. Today was the day they would read the last chapter.
His mother screamed out after the god with the gavel gave her final decree. Elijah wanted to go to her, but she had no love for him. She saw him as the safest reason she could blame, and he would take that burden and give her space. No one would ever acknowledge the trauma she suffered when she accepted the reality her child had no future but Elijah would. He would carry the sound of her sobs as they led away a life she created in chains. His brother smiled one last time before he passed back through the doors. The next few months would unfold rapidly they would visit at every opportunity and send whatever sliver of light from the outside to him they could, but soon he would be moved to the place he would call home for the next sixty years. Elijah had no way of knowing if his next facility would be near or far but he knew that eventually as time dragged on and life faded staying close would become a struggle. Unless they both lived past ninety, the brothers would remain on either side of a wall for the rest of their days. Elijah exited the courtroom listening to the clerk call for another inmate like they hadn’t just witnessed the succession of a king.
Every piece of his life with his brother he would leave behind only taking with him his guilt laden heart and survivors remorse. He’d felt what it was like to be alive; no highs would ever feel that good without his brother by his side. Elijah would remain in his little apartment until his brother was transferred and if no one had managed to put a bullet in his head before then, he would move on. His path after that was still uncertain. Maybe he’d climb out a different way this time, carve a different path of his own choosing. He couldn’t think that far. Right now all he had was regret and time.
He felt lighter as he lay in his bed. For so long he carried the uncertainty of his brother’s fate, but now the verdict was in. He’d convinced himself he was prepared for the outcome, but he had no clue what to fill that space with in the aftermath. The walls were closing in on him again. That trapped feeling that stifled him before he made his first grand. The train outside his window roared its way through his thoughts, and as it faded away with a reverberating clack, Elijah noticed a slender girl dancing on the thin border of the elevated tracks. Her body moved and swayed in tune with the sounds of the irrepressible city below. She dipped her hips and twirled on her toes thrusting her hands up high to the cold gray moon above shaking her shoulders and bobbing her head in time. Her skin was charcoal doused in lighter fluid ready to ignite. She didn’t make a sound, but every pop of her hip drummed a beat in Elijah’s ears as he watched. She moved to the rhythm of pride, strength, and subjugation reaching for the stars just trying to tear free.