Five fucking years, I thought. This is what my brother’s life is worth in Mississippi. Five years.
Image from Flickr via Dave S
Born: October 27th, 1980 Died: October 2nd, 2000
This is where the past and the future meet. This is after the pit bull attack, after my father left, and after my mother’s heart broke. This is after the bullies in the hallway, after the nigger jokes, after my brother told me what he’d done as we stood out on the street. This is after my father had six more children with four different women, which meant he had ten children total. This is after my mother stopped working for one White family who lived in a mansion on the beach and began working for another White family who lived in a large house on the bayou. This is after I’d earned two degrees, a crippling case of homesickness, and a lukewarm boyfriend at Stanford. This is before Ronald, before C. J. This is before Demond, before Rog. This is where my two stories come together. This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer that I will spend with my brother. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.
When I finished my master’s coursework at Stanford in April 2000, I packed my things and shipped the detritus of my life via UPS to Mississippi. I was moving home. I wanted to live in southern Mississippi or somewhere near Mississippi in the South for a few years because I was tired of being away: I was tired of being small in the big world. I was tired of being perpetually lonely. During my senior year at Stanford, I’d sat in my college dorm room, a single with shag carpeting and a sink in a closet, and stared out into the courtyard at the moon, which shone brightly through the weave of oak trees. I ached so badly for my family and DeLisle that I’d cried. How do I get back? I’d worked hard in high school, spending weekend nights during my junior and senior years studying for standardized tests and navigating the unfamiliar lingo of college applications alone. Going to an elite college far from home hadn’t molded me into an adult, made me confident and self-assured; instead, it had confused me, made me timid and unsure of myself. I yearned for the familiar. I wanted to live at home as an adult, independent but not far from the cradle of my family, my brother and sisters, my friends. My boyfriend at the time told me that he’d decided to take a job in New York after graduation, and even though we were five years into a relationship, I felt presumptuous following him to that city.
I packed the rest of my clothes in large suitcases and flew into the New Orleans airport, where my mother and nineteen-year-old brother picked me up in the large cream-colored Caprice that my mother’d bought for herself and then given to my brother for his first car. They loaded my luggage, straining at the seams, next to the speakers in the trunk. My brother played the music low, even though he had ridiculous beat. At our house, my sisters ran out to hug me. Nerissa was seventeen, while Charine was fourteen. They helped me unload my bags and bring them inside to the room I shared with Nerissa and De’Sean when I was home. Josh dropped my black suitcases on the floor with a grateful grunt.
I was home.
At Stanford, I’d longed for home and asked myself how to return, but I was shortsighted. I’d never asked myself how it would be to return. I hadn’t thought about finding work, about how long I would stay in my mother’s house, about what it would be like to return to Mississippi and feel mired, feel like I’d never left. To begin with, I couldn’t find a job.
Both of my sisters were in school, and my mother still worked as a housekeeper, which meant that when I woke up each day to begin my tedious, demoralizing job search, I awoke to the silent house, barely cool in the heat, with my brother asleep in the next room. He’d endured only one school year with my father, coming back home when my father couldn’t afford to pay his mortgage and moved into another apartment. The next summer he’d lived with my father again for a few months, but then come back to my mother’s again. When he moved back for the last time, he told our mother, jokingly but not: “I’m never leaving you again.”
Joshua and I awoke every day near noon, groggy and hot. He’d stumble out of his room, the smallest in the house, where his frame took up all of the double bed he slept in. He’d decorated his walls with art he’d done while he was still in school. He had a wall of VHS tapes on the bookshelf my mother’d installed for him. When my mother had upgraded to a double-wide four-bedroom trailer a few years earlier, she assigned Josh the smallest bedroom. He’d argued with her about it.
“You’re never here,” she’d said. He was always at work or spending time with his friends. “If I had a bigger room, I’d be here more,” he’d said. And then: “I’m the oldest now.” Still, the smallest one was his, and, pressed by its confines, he sometimes left the house before I could ask where he was going. The sound of his car was louder than the sound of the day, the summer bugs buzzing in the trees, the electrical hum of the trailer like another larger bug: this is what woke me.
I went to friends’ houses to use their computers to search for jobs. I filled out job application after application, printed out and mailed multiple resumes, but my English B.A. and my communication M.A. were virtually worthless in the southern coastal economy, which was ruled by casinos, factories, hospitals, and military bases. I began to apply to jobs farther away, in Alabama, in Louisiana, and after I realized I was failing, I extended my job search to Georgia and farther north, but had no idea about the challenges of being selected for a job when not in residence. Many of my Stanford classmates had been recruited by top consulting firms and investment banks, and my understanding of the job search was confused by the ease of their process. I called employers, pleaded for news, and my mother’s long-distance phone bill grew.
My brother spent his days riding in his new car, an eighties-model Cutlass he’d bought after he accidentally shot the gas tank of his Caprice while playing with a gun. He dropped off applications at gas stations, casinos, factories. He’d worked at a wax factory first, from which he brought home huge chunks of wax melted to look like amber. “It’s beautiful,” he said as he spun it before me. After that, he worked as a janitorial attendant at a large gas station, the first of its kind on the coast, that catered to truckers. It was directly off I-10, and he hated it. Part of his job included cleaning restrooms. He quit after working there for only a few months, but while he was there, he saved money and ate at the truckers’s restaurant adjacent to the station, where they served cheap steaks and all cuts of meat thick with gravy. He liked the food, sometimes bringing plates home. While he may not have loved this low-wage work, he could still find beauty wherever he was; this was how he tried to understand the world, what gave his life some meaning, made his employment tolerable because the ugliness was clear to him, too.
He’d thought about joining the military briefly, but after watching Full Metal Jacket, he’d decided that he was not a soldier. I don’t want to die like that, he’d told me when I asked him why he’d changed his mind.
“Why don’t you like working there?” I asked him once. “Truckers are fucking disgusting,” he said. It was June. Nerissa and Charine told us my mother had hinted she might kick Joshua and me out of her house if we didn’t find jobs. Weeks later, Joshua found a job. The Grand Casino in Gulfport hired him as a valet parking attendant. He wore a purple shirt with the name of the casino and a little pot of gold coins embroidered in gold thread over his heart. He liked this job. He told my mother he was able to drive nice cars all evening and get paid for it. It was easy. My mother took the long-distance service off the phone because she said I was running it up too high, so I asked my brother to drive me to the gas station during his off hours, where I bought phone cards. None of it did any good. I remained jobless.
Before Joshua found the casino job, and in the periods between working at a fast-food place and the wax factory and at the gas station, he continued to occasionally sell crack to a few junkies in the neighborhood. This was his stopgap. It was a necessity for most young Black men I knew in the community to do so, at one time or another, to sell some kinds of drugs in a sluggish economy where their labor was easy to come by and totally and completely expendable. It was another cold day when I found this out, during December 1999, before the spring that I moved home. I was visiting from Stanford for the holidays. We were on St. Stephen’s, and we were in a neighbor’s front yard. Their house was old, dilapidated. Each piece of its siding was rotting, peeling away in gray and black and brown strips. The front steps were coming apart, nails surfacing like unshaved hair. The neighbor called Josh to the front door and he went, tall and pale, his puffy green and white Philadelphia Eagles jacket making him appear bigger around than he was. In the darkness of the house, the eagle dimmed to cream. He talked to her and she laughed: full and loud, throaty with a smoker’s gravel. It threaded the air. She handed him money for what he gave her and hugged both of us before we left her and her friends to their talk, the dust-dark air, the clouded windows of the house. Later at our mother’s house, I followed him into his room. It was warm, the Christmas lights my mother strung over the mantle in the living room shining rainbow bright under the crack of the door.
“You selling again?”
“Yeah.” He glanced away from the television and toward me. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on the screen. “I’m looking for a job.”
“You think I like to do this shit?” he said. “I ain’t like the rest of these fools out here. You know when I got a job, I work.”
I was his big sister: I was worried about him. He’d dropped out in ninth grade, enrolled in and attended Job Corps for a couple of months. After he was written up for not making it to school on time and threatened with expulsion, he’d quit. Why’d you stop going to Job Corps? I’d asked him. Because when I drive to school in the morning, I got half-naked girls running out the projects and flagging my car down when they see it. He’d shrugged. What the hell am I supposed to do? He wasn’t kidding. Girls he dated actually did that, and I didn’t doubt him when he said it; he was that handsome. Eventually he enrolled in GED classes. He’d thought about joining the military briefly, but after watching Full Metal Jacket, he’d decided that he was not a soldier. I don’t want to die like that, he’d told me when I asked him why he’d changed his mind.
I knew then, dimly, how the world was changing, how America was hemorrhaging blue-collar jobs overseas, how factory jobs like the one my father had once supported a family on were becoming a rarity while only dead-end service jobs remained, and my brother was burning through those in search of something with a future.
“What you watching next?” I said, and sat on the edge of his bed. He made room for me, assessed his VHS collection.
“Don’t know.” “Want to watch Total Recall?” He shrugged, and I saw my father in him then, in the lovely lean globes of his muscled shoulders, in the straight, clean line of his collarbone, in the dimpled seat of his neck. He’d been husky so long it was a surprise to see him before me, suddenly a muscular, square-shouldered man.
“Okay,” he said.
I settled in the dark to watch the movie with him, waiting for him to say something else, but he squinted at the television, and there was a line between his brows, his black-brown eyes serious. He rubbed the bottom of his foot on the carpet, and the smell that was him, that aroma of cut hay and coconut oil and salt, settled in the room. I drew my knees into my chest, set my chin on them, and watched Arnold fight the alien predator that threatened to kill him. He was outmatched and outmuscled. He was scrappy with brawn and foolish hope.
There was only one time that summer that I felt like the big sister to his little brother. Most of the time I felt like the little sister, since Joshua had managed to find work and get his own car and tell me things that emphasized how naive I was about my life and his, repeatedly. I’d spent all the money I’d saved in college, around $3,000, to buy a used white Toyota Corolla in the summer of 2000. It was old and loud, and I was ashamed to drive it. Shit, I’d drive it, Joshua had said when I complained about the car. One day I called my father, asked him if he would change the oil in my car if I bought it and a filter, and he said yes, so I asked my brother if he would ride with me to the auto parts store because I had no idea which filter and how many quarts of oil to buy.
As a member of a community where trust—between children and fathers, between lovers, between the people and their country—was in short supply, my brother was struggling.
It was fall and chilly, so I cracked the windows, but it was warm enough that we rode without heat. Josh wore a dark blue plaid jacket, and he was large in my small car. Some of our friends from the hood, Rob and Pot and Duck, had given him the name Ojacc. Because he looks like a big-ass lumberjack, Pot said.
“Stop driving like a old woman,” he said. “What you talking about?” I said. “You drive too slow.” “No I don’t.”
“And why you act like you scared to pull out?” He laughed, and I shrugged. I felt chastened, his little sister. “You can’t drive.”
We drove through the backwoods, evergreens tall at the sides of the road, the sky a pale blue strip above our heads, quiet houses here or there, the smell of the country in fall strong in the air: burning wood rich with the scent of pine needles and smoke. Josh lit a cigarette.
“You need to stop smoking,” I said.
“I’m stressed out,” he said. He’d seemed so much older than me for so long that I was surprised when he began talking about his girlfriend, who was living with us for a time because an older male relative had tried to sexually assault her.
“I love her,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. What do you do when you love someone this much? What about trust?” As a member of a community where trust—between children and fathers, between lovers, between the people and their country—was in short supply, my brother was struggling. Joshua drew in deep, blew the smoke out of the crack of the window; some of it butted against the glass and wove back into the car. She had cheated on him earlier in their relationship. He was asking me for advice. I tried my best.
“You just got to try,” I said. “Forgive them. Trust them even though they did you wrong.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I think that’s how it is. If you’re meant to be together, it will work.” “I just love her so much,” he said. “I hear you,” I said. It was the only thing I could think to say to let him know I took my designation seriously. “I hear you.”
In the auto store, he led me to the oil and filters and then to the counter. After I paid, he grabbed the bags and carried them to the car. My head came to his shoulder. This was only the second or third time we’d been in the car together while I drove: we’d learned to drive at the same time, and since I’d never had a car before, while he’d acquired one early, he usually did all the driving. He was better at it, drove with one tattooed arm, the words Sunshine and Scorpio on it, resting on the sill, and the other, the words Dedeaux and Ojacc on it, at the wheel. At the exit from the auto store parking lot, I revved the engine, and in an effort to prove to him that I wasn’t afraid to drive, I peeled out with speed. This was a mistake. The exit to the parking lot masked a large dip, and the car bounced down, the front bumper hitting the concrete and sounding a loud boom before bouncing back out. I swerved out into traffic.
“Oh shit,” I said.
Joshua looked behind us. I expected to hear a dragging sound.
“I fucked my bumper up,” I said. “I know it.”
“It’s probably all right,” he said. Always level. Mature. One time I’d gotten mad at my mother, worked myself into a fury. Joshua had laughed at me. Calm down, he said. Just calm down.
“We’ll look at it at Daddy’s house.”
At my father’s house in Gaston Point, we stood in a trio and assessed the damage.
“It’s fine,” Josh said.
“Naw, look at it,” I said. “There’s a gap between the bumper and the car body. That wasn’t like that before.”
“I don’t see it,” Josh said, his arms folded, his hip cocked to one side.
“You talking about right here?” my father asked. His long black hair was pulled back into a braid, which snaked down his back. He was in his early forties then, and his hair was still undiluted by gray, his physique still that of a young man, his skin still unmarked by wrinkles. I could tell he was proud that my brother was taller than he was, that he had grown into a serious young man, able to work on cars and provide for himself. “You sure that wasn’t there?”
“It wasn’t.” “You sure?” Josh asked.
“Come on, son,” my father said. He and Joshua leaned on the bumper in tandem, trying to push it back into the body of the car. Joshua slid his tall frame under the front of the car, pulled, grew warm in the weak autumn sun and had to unzip his jacket. My father hauled him from under the car and helped him to stand. Joshua brushed his pants off and I went around to his back, swiping at the dirt and gravel and grass on his back and messy braids.
“It ain’t doing nothing,” my father said. “It’s alright,” Josh said. The car was already old and junky and now I done fucked up the grille, I thought. So stupid. “You can hardly even see it,” Josh said. I breathed hard and imitated his stance, but folded my hands into my armpits for warmth. Josh was attempting to comfort me.
“You still want your oil changed?” my father asked. Years later, this ordinary memory gains heft, representative of all the ordinary days we shared, all the ordinary days we lost. It generates so much heat, it makes my fingers ache like a phantom limb as I imagine my brother alive and close enough to touch, how he would be warm on that cold day: the keloids of his scars, his scalp the color of butter.
My father changed my oil because I couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to do so. When my timing belt broke while I was riding to Pass Christian with my sisters and nephew in the car, one of my mother’s brothers fixed it. My credit card debt climbed to over $5,000. I’d resorted to applying for a job at the local Barnes and Noble; they didn’t hire me. I was desperate. When my former college roommate, Julie, told me she had a friend who worked at Random House, a book publisher in New York City, I asked her to send along my contact information and my resume and cover letter. My college boyfriend was living there, working in banking, and so was another close friend from college who was working for a record company. I knew a few people. If I was offered an interview, I’d make a four-day trip. If they hired me, I’d return to Mississippi, pack my bags, and move to New York City. If I had to, I’d leave.
Joshua and I met in the hallway. This is my last real memory of him, and I hate it. I cannot remember the last time I actually saw him. I only remember this.
Joshua saw my suitcase on the floor in my room. “Where you going?” he said. “To New York to interview for a job,” I said. I looked down and away and back to his face, tilting my head back. I wanted to say: I’m coming back right after or I might not get the job anyway.
“To stay?” he said. I wanted to say: It’s just a visit. “Yes,” I said. His face fell. I have read that expression in books before, and it is true: his expression slid from his forehead over his beautiful eyelashes, his brown eyes, to his mouth, where it settled in a frown. My brother did not want me to leave again, to lead. I frowned. I felt I had no choice: I had graduated in March and it was now September, and I still had no job and had racked up debt. I charged a round-trip plane ticket to New York City and arranged to stay with my boyfriend while I was interviewing. My mother and grandmother took me to the airport, and as we stopped at the end of Hill Road, I sank down into the seat, feeling terrified and cornered.
“I forgot my ring,” I said. My grandmother had gifted me a ring for my tenth birthday, which, on threat of never receiving another gift from her, she warned me against losing. It was gold and white sapphire, she told me, but later I found out the stone was glass. I’d worn it every day since I turned ten, and thirteen years later, in the back of that car, I didn’t have it. “It’s in the bathroom. I took it off before I took a shower. Please get it,” I said.
“Okay,” my mother said over her shoulder. She and my grandmother continued their conversation and I slid down in the backseat so my mother could not see my face in the rear- view mirror as I cried silently, wiping my tears away with the backs of my hands. I didn’t want her to see the irrational fear I felt at taking that trip to New York to interview; I wanted to appear brave and adventurous and smart, be the child she’d always wanted, the kind who took advantage of all the world offered, who journeyed forth from Mississippi with no remorse. I had no idea what I was doing.
When I arrived in New York City, I went directly to my college boyfriend’s apartment, in a brownstone in Cobble Hill, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was in NYC for four days for interviews, from October 1st to October 4th, which I’d scheduled so that I could return home for Charine’s fifteenth birthday on October 5th. On October 3rd, I had an interview in the afternoon, with a placement agency in a high-rise somewhere in midtown. The woman who talked to me asked me questions and listened to my answers as if I were some sort of oddity. She smiled to herself at the South still evident in my voice, and perhaps wondered if that was going to be a problem with potential employers. When I exited the building, I looked up at the thin strip of sky between buildings, felt the city like a giant hand closing over me. I felt the energy of the place, the feel of limitless possibility and potential, but I was afraid. So many people, and how could I live without the sky? Without trees? I got lost on the subway, went uptown before realizing I had to head south through the Village to return to my boyfriend’s apartment in Brooklyn, but I was proud of myself for eventually finding my way, alone, when my previous forays into public transportation had been limited to taking the bus from Stanford to San Francisco. In Brooklyn, I rounded the corner that led to my boyfriend’s brownstone, which was on the edge of the neighborhood and next to a highway, and he was at the door. He was a banker, and he worked eighteen-hour days. What was he doing at his door?
Every time some ill luck befell my family, some unique confluence of events that bespoke what it meant to be poor and Black and southern, it shocked him.
“What are you doing here?” He was tall, slim, movie-star handsome, which made sense to me in some way since he was from L.A. He was from an upper-middle-class African American family, and while I’d been born red, he’d been born golden. His father was a doctor, and his mother’s family had connections in Hollywood. He’d done all the popular, normal things in college: he’d joined a frat, been an RA, played intramural sports. What was not normal about his college experience was dating me. We came from such vastly divergent backgrounds. Every time some ill luck befell my family, some unique confluence of events that bespoke what it meant to be poor and Black and southern, it shocked him. He hadn’t signed up for that. He wanted to be young and moneyed and have fun, and all the messy facts of my life, my history, who I was and where I came from, were anything but fun. He was the first real boyfriend I’d had, possessed of the same preternatural beauty my father had, and in the end he walked away just as my father had.
My boyfriend shook his head, didn’t say anything, but his mouth was tight. He unlocked the front door and I followed him up the stairs, and he turned to me in the hallway and in a weird, slumped-over posture hugged me. He was breathing heavily. He let me go, and there were tears. Now his face was slack.
“You’re scaring me,” I said, but that wasn’t true. I was nervous.
“You need to call your dad,” he said. “Why?” He led me to the phone. “Just call your dad.”
I sat on his bed. Now I was afraid. I’d been sweating during the interview and I began to sweat again. The phone, black and cordless, was slippery in my hands. My boyfriend sat on the bed and watched me dial.
“Hello?” “Hey, Daddy, it’s Mimi.” “Hey, Mimi.” “What’s going on?” “I have something to tell you.” He breathed, and the breath broke. “Josh was in an accident last night.” “Is he okay?” Again that broken breath. “He didn’t make it.”
The phone came away from my ear and I leaned forward and opened my mouth and sounded—I could call it a keening, a groan, a cry—something inside me, broken. My boyfriend’s arms were around me but I leaned away from him, thought I would vomit on his bed. What am I doing here? I thought. Why am I here and they are there? Where is my brother? Where is he? But my daddy said, my daddy said, he just said he didn’t make it he’s gone he’s gone. He’s dead. What? He’s dead he’s dead he’s dead. And then: My brother is dead.
Joshua’d gone to work on the afternoon of October 2nd. He hadn’t been scheduled to work, but he went in anyhow to pick up extra hours, to make a little extra money. He’d worked his shift, parked expensive cars and not so expensive cars, left his body’s warmth and indent in their seats. Nerissa and Charine drove to the casino to pick up Nerissa’s check: she worked in a restaurant on the top floor of the casino’s hotel. With check in hand, Nerissa and Charine stood near the main employee entrance, hoping to catch a glimpse of Joshua coming in to work. They’d seen him drive past the entrance of the casino in his gray-blue Cutlass, sitting high in his front seat, looking straight ahead, his face serious, his hair coming out of his messy braids, his profile sharp. They waited around fifteen minutes, and when he didn’t walk through the entrance that was closest to the parking garage, Nerissa and Charine decided to leave, assuming Josh had walked into the casino through another entrance. That is the last memory they have of him. I wish we would have stayed, Nerissa says. Five more minutes, Charine says. We grasp at minutes, seconds, milliseconds. Years later, I would be grateful my family waited until October 3rd to tell me Josh died: I’d had seventeen more hours wherein, for me, Joshua was still alive.
The night of October 2nd, he clocked out, and instead of driving up Highway 49 to take I-10 to the DeLisle exit, to home, he decided to take the beach road. I’d like to think it was a beautiful night, which is why he would have taken Highway 90 home. That the moon was full out over the Gulf, that it shone cool and silver in the clear sky, that the water glittered with its reflection. That the barrier islands were thin eyelashes on the dark horizon. That the air swooped down from the north and was unseasonably cool for October, so when Josh walked out of work and started his car, he rubbed his arms and said, I love this shit, loved the chill air on the down that wouldn’t turn to beard on his cheeks, loved that he could look out of his window and see an open horizon over the water, where the waves from the Gulf quietly lapped the shore, where the oak trees in the median stood witness over centuries to wars, to men enslaving one another, to hurricanes, to Joshua riding along the Coast, blasting some rap, heavy bass, ignorant beats, lyrical poetry to the sky, to the antebellum mansions our mother cleaned and whose beauty we admired and hated. Eventually he split from Highway 90 and turned onto Scenic Drive, a silent, stately road set off from the highway by another median, by million-dollar real estate, when the drunk driver, a White man in his forties, sped up on my brother from behind in a white car he’d borrowed from a friend and hit Joshua’s car at eighty miles per hour. Josh pressed his brakes by instinct, leaving black rubber smeared across the road, but there was so much momentum, so many bodies and cars and histories and pressures moving all at once, that my brother could not stop his car. He skidded sideways on to the front yard of one of those mansions. His car hit a fire hydrant, which came up through the floor, peeled back the metal like the lid of a sardine tin, and smashed into his chest. There was no mercy in this motion: the car plowed along, glancing off an oak tree before rolling and landing upside down on an immaculate lawn.
At my brother’s funeral, after the wake, after I walked up to the casket and glimpsed Joshua, who was powdery pale and awfully still (I thought: This isn’t my brother), after I panicked at the lie of him lying dead, and after I sobbed through the service, hugging Charine, our skinny arms around each other, I walked to the podium and read a poem I’d written. I’ve since lost this poem, and I only wrote it because my mother asked me to, as part of the service. “I can’t do it,” I told her, “I can’t write a poem.” My mother asked me to pick out a picture for my funeral T-shirt, and I chose a picture of Josh and me when we were young, five and three, and we are sitting in the back of my father’s black Riviera. I am looking seriously at the camera, and my brother is asleep on my small shoulder, his hair blond in the flash of the camera. We would have taken that photo around the time he and I sat on the front steps of the small, high, boxy house, me hugging him, bats flitting overhead, our parents arguing and breaking things inside. My mother asked me what I wanted my brother’s funeral shirt to say, and I replied: “Nothing.” I did not wear the shirt to the church ceremony, or afterward at the repast at my mother’s house. I would wear it for the first time five years later, after Hurricane Katrina.
“What do you expect?” he said, impatient to return to work. “It’s Mississippi.”
I can only remember one line from my elegy. Nothing about the line is original; I have since read it in other books. There is a common truth in its message, a hopeful refrain for those who remain. My voice broke when I read it to my family, to our friends, to the boys who would later lie in caskets, but who stood alive on that day in the back of the church.
He taught me love is stronger than death.
Eight months later, Nerissa called me. I’d been in New York City for five months then, and was living on a sofa in the West Village with wealthy friends I’d made in high school. It was 2001. Winter had broken, and tulips burst through grime-caked ground. It was the spring before the Twin Towers fell. I brought the phone with me into the small half bathroom off the living room, which was lined with ceramic tile. The girls who rented the apartment had begun taking Polaroids of their friends and taping them to the wall of the bathroom, so when I locked myself in it to privately speak with my sister, I had an audience, a sea of pale New York hipsters bearing the bored, poised, often beautiful faces of the rich. They looked at me.
“Mimi?” “Yeah, I’m here.” “Mama and Grandmama went to court today. Mama said when they read the verdict, she started crying.” “What happened?” “They sentenced the drunk driver who hit him to five years.” “What?”
“They didn’t charge him with vehicular manslaughter. They charged him with something else. Leaving the scene of an accident.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mama said the judge called her and Grandmama in there afterward, told them why they couldn’t charge him with manslaughter.”
“But why?” “Mama said all she could do was cry.” I began crying. All those faces on the wall were so still, so young. I hung up with Nerissa and called my college boyfriend and told him the verdict. I could hardly speak.
“What do you expect?” he said, impatient to return to work. “It’s Mississippi.”
All those eyes looked at me with such disdain. Here, a young woman with a perfectly symmetrical face and dark eyes, so beautiful it hurt to look at her. There, two boys shoulder to shoulder, each with one arm casually looped over the other’s shoulders, sandy hair, pointy jaws. My conversation with my boyfriend was short, over after he’d asked, “What do you want from me?” and I’d replied, “I want a hug,” and he’d said, “I have work to do,” which meant no. When I hung up the phone, I sat on the floor and hid my face in my hands.
The man had been drunk. The police had found he’d been in several bars, and also been drinking in the casinos. He’d swerved at Ronald’s sister, run her off the road, the night before he killed my brother. He’d hit Joshua from behind and had been going so fast that he’d swerved off Scenic Drive and his car had flown across two lanes of highway to land on the beach. That night, what had caused my brother’s wreck had been a mystery. The police thought he’d simply lost control of the car, but the next day, someone called the Pass Christian police department and reported a car on the beach. The drunk driver had staggered home after he hit my brother. By the time the police tracked the car to the owner’s house, it was the next day, and the driver was no longer drunk, and everything was cold. The drunk driver was in his forties and White. My brother was nineteen and Black. The man was arrested for and ultimately convicted of leaving the scene of an accident, which was a felony. He was sentenced to five years and ordered to pay my mother $14,252.27 in restitution. The man served three years and two months of his sentence before he was released, and he never paid my mother anything. Nerissa attended high school with his nephew, who attempted to apologize to her for his uncle. He always fucking up, she said he told her.
Five fucking years, I thought. This is what my brother’s life is worth in Mississippi. Five years.
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the Univ. of Michigan and has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and a Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. She is the author of the novels
Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones: A Novel, for which she won the 2011 National Book Award, and was a finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as a nominee for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Excerpted from Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Copyright © 2013 by Jesmyn Ward. To be published on September 17th, 2013 by Bloomsbury USA. Reprinted with permission.