by Nane Quartay
Tokus stood looking out the window at nothing, wondering what would happen next ... and he wanted to say goodbye. 'Peace' to the violence that lay outside, on the desolate streets below. 'Later' to the hunger that plucked at his insides, that gnawed at him until his soul went raw. 'See ya'' to the cold harshness of people, to their salty numbness that dripped like bitter syrup into their eyes and mouths and lips and teeth. He felt them all ... and he dealt with the barren landscape as reality. An entity that was very, very real. He brought the binoculars to his eyes and looked down at the street from the eighth floor apartment. A people watcher in the ghetto. All the despair of a sixteen year old, saddened by abuse and devoid of love, arose in him as he watched his peoples and listened to his drunken stepfather rage at his mother.
"You just a lying-ass ho!" his stepfather spit out. Tokus fertile young mind conjured images of the hookers he passed downtown everyday. They wore outfits that stirred his imagination into hard places. They'd let you feel 'em up and everything for two dollars, but Tokus kept that to a minimum. That wasn't his mother though, and he could gladly kill his stepfather whenever that word came out his lying, drunken mouth. He looked down at the people crawling on the street below.
The nothingness of the big city glared back at young Tokus, invading him, filling him with emptiness. I'm gonna get outta here one day, Tokus thought. Education would be his rescue, his lifeline out of the ghetto. One day he wanted to have his own business, be his own boss. Take care of his mother and help her cast off the line of losers she always picked, present husband included, and leave this street life behind them. Soon he would enter his junior year in high school, and if he kept his grades where they were, he was sure he would be able to get a grant to attend the university. Yes, he would 'learn' his way out of the projects, and nothing could stop him.
The usual suspects were hanging out on the corner. A coarse sky loomed over the drab neighborhood spreading dreary light over the mundane existence known as the projects. There was a corner store with bars on the windows, and various colored brick buildings lined the rest of the block. Morning, noon, and night the desolation was the same: poor people crammed on top of poor people with the only common denominator being pain, hunger, and devising a means to get beyond and above the cycle of sleeping and waking. With no hope in between. Everything is fair when ya' livin' in the city, Tokus mused.
He watched through his binoculars as a Black Jesus stumbled around the corner, running down the street as if the devil were after him. He wore a tattered pair of shorts and a tiny vest seemed a few sizes too small. On his back was a cross made of cheap wood and printed in big, red letters on a placard attached to the top of it was the word 'America'. His eyes bulged in fear as he pumped his fists, snatching at momentum, frantically reaching for speed to add to his cumbersome frame. Black Jesus wasn't made for running. A carload of teenagers came screeching around the corner after him with automatic weapons pointed out the windows. Tokus watched as the usual suspects sprinted for cover and rapid gunfire spit forth, showering the sidewalk. The first shot caught Black Jesus in the leg and spun him around as the car pulled up beside him. The second shot pierced his side and slammed him against the wall. The third bullet hit Black Jesus in the chest, and he danced, dead against the cold, brick building. He slumped to the ground lifeless. 'America' was stained with his blood.
"Why you always got to wait till you get drunk to come in here with your mess?" his mother asked the drunk. She didn't yell. "Crazed people yell," she'd once told Tokus, "and I ain't crazed." Tokus loved her for her understanding, but he just wished she would leave her husband and move on. He had long ago stopped asking his mother why she stayed, and at some point Tokus stopped caring. She had chosen her path, and she walked it with determination. She could walk it alone as far as he was concerned, but something, somewhere had to change.
The harsh reality of his stepfather's wrath was an early lesson for Tokus. From the age of four until he was nine there were savage belts and wicked belt buckles. From ten to twelve there were stinging electrical cords and big, thick handled straw brooms. But at fourteen, Tokus developed into a strong, muscular banger, and his stepfather resorted to fists. Solid, heavyweight punches that overpowered the boy, laying him out, heaving him flat on his back, looking up through the pain at a twisted face, flared nostrils, and bulging jaws that sorted air and a twisted disposition. Sweat poured angrily down the wild man's face, yellowed teeth showed unevenly as he sneered, standing over the fallen child, cursing the day of Tokus' conception. Tokus had taken many beatings, but as he grew in mental and physical strength, a lifetime of fear was replaced by a burning desire for payback. He waited. His time would come.
A piercing scream, a chorus of pain, came down the hallway. Tokus winced inside and ran toward its source. He came to a stop in the bedroom doorway, catching his breath in horror. His stepfather knelt between his mother's legs, her skirt was hiked way up over her thighs and her blouse was ripped open. Her breast flopped out lewdly, exposed as the man reached out and pawed them. Then he slapped her face.
"You don't tell me 'no', you lying slut!" he screamed. "You! Don't! Tell! Me! No!" he ranted, punctuating each word with a backhand.
"You just open your legs and get ready!" he bellowed, his chest heaving from alcohol and physical exertion. He never saw Tokus charging toward him with his shoulder aimed like a battering ram.
Tokus saw his chance and hit harder than he ever hit anyone on the football field and sent the man sprawling, face first, into the night stand near the bedside. Tokus sprang to his feet in a defensive stance, the afternoon sunlight streamed through the window behind him, bathing him in ninja shadows. The stepfather rolled onto his back, skin on his face puckered where he had been cut, the blood leaded down his face as he climbed to his feet, wobbled a bit, then threw his head back and screamed like a banshee. Tokus waited. His stepfather rushed toward him, a bulldozer with bared teeth.
Reality slowed for Tokus and he entered the 'zone', a place where everything and everyone was moving in slow motion. As his stepfather covered the few feet between them Tokus realized that, pound for pound, body to body, he would get steam rolled. So he went low, throwing his shoulders at the older man's knees. The stepfather sailed over Tokus head, the shot to his knees had flipped him, and he went crashing through the bedroom window, eight stories to the ground below.
Tokus looked at the window, shocked! For a second. Then he went over to the window to see where the creep had landed.
"Help!" came a panicked cry.
Tokus looked down, surprised to see that his stepfather was hanging onto the window ledge, shards of glass were biting into his fingers, blood spurted out against the window pane. He was holding on with both hands, but Tokus wondered, for how long?
"Help me!" he screamed at Tokus.
"Help me, who?" Tokus asked.
"Help me Tokus!" he yelled.
"Mr. Tokus," came the reply.
"Mr. Tokus! Mr. Tokus! Mr. Damn Tokus! Now pull me up! Please!" The glass bit deeper into the tender flesh of his fingers. Tokus' mother hurried to the window, saw her husband hanging there and got frantic.
"Oh my God!" she shrilled. "Oh! My! God! Tokus pull him up! Tokus pull him, pull him up!" she ordered and began to cry, her fingers dug deeply into the soft flesh of his shoulder.
Tokus leaned his head out the window. "You gonna die," he said.
"Please, Tokus! Please?" The dangling stepfather kicked frantically at the building, his fingers pressed further into the bits of glass as he fought against the fall.
"You know," Tokus started, "when you fall? Before you hit the ground? You gonna feel like I do when you hit me. When you hit Ma."
"I won't do it no mo'!" cried the stepfather. His fingers slipped a fraction, tiny squirts of blood shot against the wooden frame of the window. He cried out in pain, and his arms tensed, tightening, gripping against the gravity that was pullin his body toward the hard concrete.
"Never no mo'! Promise! I promise! Please Tokus!" the dying man cried for his life.
"A feeling of nothin'," Tokus continued. "Nothin' you can do about it. As you fall. Nothin' you can hold on to. Nothin'."
"Tokus! Pull me up!" the stepfather begged.
"Tokus help! Pull! Help him up!" his mother sobbed and collapsed to the floor, whimpering.
"Tokus don't kill me! Don't let me die!" the stepfather begged. Then he lost his grip.
Tokus lunged forward and caught his hand. The momentum almost pulled Tokus out the window, but he held strongly to the wall next to the window frame with his free hand as the flailing, screaming man struggled against him. It took all his strength to pull the big man back up, at one point he had to brace his foot against the wall and heave, but after a minute the both tumbled inside and sprawled on the floor, exhausted.
His mother fussed over her husband, ministering with a grateful, gentle hand while she cried with relief and happiness. Tokus sat opposite the pair and looked into the man's eyes, surprised at the anger and fear he saw there. His stepfather was a changed man. There would be no more beatings.
The next day passed with no abuse. On the contrary, not a single word was exchanged in the strangely quiet, dysfunctional household. Hollow silence echoed ominously off the thin, plaster wall within the tenement as the three of them avoided each other in the small, two bedroom apartment. Nothing mentioned, nothing gained.
Two days later, Tokus' mother and stepfather went away forever, leaving him alone in a man's world to fend for himself.
Tokus stood looking out the window at nothing, wondering what would happen next.