Devon Connors’ feet hit the pavement running. His eyes stung with tears. In the horizon, the sun set in a blaze of orange and red.
Men sat on apartment steps smoking and downing beer. Women with lop-sided wigs and made-up faces stood on corners. One hand on a handle and the other hand holding a paper bag, a boy rode his bike in a zigzag down the street. Despair hung in the air like black-stained lace. This was life. This was Detroit 1999.
DIVORCE: the word Devon fled from, the word shouted when he left the apartment. Divorce meant Daddy leaving. Divorce meant Daddy packing up his tattered, leatherette suitcase and speeding off in his mini-van. Divorce meant finding Daddy passed out drunk on the couch days later. And fighting...always fighting.
Devon turned a street corner. Breathing heavily, and looking either way, he slowed to a jog.
He sank on the curb to catch his breath. His blond hair stuck to his sweaty forehead. He pulled out a cigarette from his pocket and fumbled for the lighter.
Singing floated from the A.M.E. down the street. The white church glittered in the sun, like a pearl deserted among the rubble of shacks and burned-out buildings. The singing grew louder, the melody drifting over the dreary buildings. The singing pulled Devon from the curb, to his feet and toward it.
Wednesday night choir practice. The church sign read. Devon’s eyes lowered towards a smoker on the church’s steps.
Devon caught the singing smoker’s eyes. “Hey,” the boy called out to Devon with a nod.
“Hey,” Devon said, returning the gesture. He relaxed and tried to appear cool, indifferent. “Going inside?” He looked at the church’s wooden doors.
“Nah, that stuff’s bogus.”
The church smoker’s honesty startled Devon, especially in regards to what Devon’s father called ‘the good house’. In truth, Devon felt the same as the smoker, though he’d never been bold enough to admit it.
Devon tilted his head and looked the boy over. The church smoker’s face glared a mild brown in the heat, patched with pink in some places; as if he’d just exhausted himself and sat down to take a rest. Sweat dripped from the sides of his face like a personal shower. His lips stood full and pink under a nose so small and sharp it looked pinched.
“What are you doing here?” Devon asked.
The boy flicked his cigarette. “I dunno. You liked my singing, huh?” He chuckled.
“You’re waiting for someone inside?” Devon guessed. “Did throw you out?”
Instead of answering, the boy outed his cigarette on the concrete, dragging the ash on the steps until they formed the initials C.S. “Why were you sitting out there?” C.S. nodded toward the curb Devon left. “Family trouble?”
The question hit Devon harder than a kickball to the stomach. “No…”
C.S. cleared his throat. “People with happy families don’t cry outside when it’s dinner time.” He jabbed the cigarette harder into the concrete, going down to his knuckles. “People with happy families don’t sit on church steps smoking.” He murmured.
He tossed the cigarette over the railing, tilted his head and looked at Devon. “I know what can make them happy again. Promise.”
“That’s grown up stuff. What are you, twelve?” Devon swallowed roughly. How? Devon wanted to scream. How do you know? The darkness of C.S.’s eyes and the curve of his lips planted Devon’s feet in place, his palms started to sweat.
C.S. stood to his full height. “I’m fifteen.”
“Oh.” Devon had always been tall for his age. Seven years older, the boy couldn’t have been more than an inch taller than Devon. But, the boy was bigger. Fat and round, with a thick gut bloating from his shirt.
“Follow me.” The boy started down the street.
“What’s your name?” Devon called following the kid.
“Colin. Colin Santiago-Louis.”
Silent Mount apartments were anything but silent. A ginger-headed man sat in his car and blasted music in the parking lot. Stray dogs growled, barked, and mated on the apartment pavement. Devon could hear the sounds of a court show playing from someone’s bedroom window.
Devon passed with Colin up the complex’s rickety stairs. Wooden beams lay fallen on the ground. Paint chipped off the side of the building. A garbage bag covered a window.
Was it his imagination or could he hear singing? Yes, there it was again: a rusty vibrato. It reminded Devon of when he pressed his face against the kitchen’s box fan and sang. The voice continued its trills until it erupted in high-pitched squeaks.
Devon couldn’t stop chuckling.
Colin stopped; his stare violent. “Shuddup! Are you drunk or something?” Devon had doubled over in laughter.
“I…don’t…drink.” Devon said in-between gasps of laughter.
Colin’s eyes narrowed. “We’re going inside now, so be quiet and try to act respectful. You’re going to meet my uncle.” They stopped at the last room down the hall.
A sign taped on the door read HARRIS’ PIANO LESSONS. Colin removed a piece of wood, revealing a crock at the side of the door. He dug through it, his fingers picking up dirt, before he pulled out a key.
He knocked and then opened the door. “Hello, Harris?”
Harris sat in the corner in front of a keyboard. He missed a note and swore.
“Dammit!” he shouted. “What now?” The limber man trotted to the door and froze when he saw Devon. He stepped back. “Who are you?” Pinned back in a ponytail, the man’s hair fell in black, rope-like locks to his shoulders.
Devon’s eyes swept over the apartment. An orange tabby cat slept on a throw on a sofa. A few pictures of family hung on green walls in the foyer. Beyond that, supported by four wood columns, was an entryway that led to a modest kitchen. A stove, caramel-colored dinette set and bikini calendar made up its only furnishings.
Devon looked to his right.
Colin wasn’t there.
“What are you doing here?” Harris demanded.
Devon jolted awake. “I’m Devon, sir.” He stared at the man and quickly looked down, but not before Harris’ face implanted on Devon’s mind. Hairy. Freckled. Suspicious eyes. And Harris was skinny. Too skinny. As if at any second he would blend into the walls, becoming another brown piece of lumber supporting the ceiling.
“Your nephew, he was--”
“Well, Dev-on,” Harris stressed the name. “Does your momma know you’re here?”
The man’s brownish-green eyes hardened. “Then, get out.”
Harris snatched the cigarette from behind Devon’s ear. “And you’re too young to be smoking this. Now go home before the police gets here.” There was a wink of sadness in his rebuke, like a person who had seen and heard much in his life, and was aging slowly from the inside out.
“Police?” Devon timidly ventured.
“Some white kid wonders into my apartment…who else do you think will be here?”
Devon’s eyes returned to the keyboard. “How long have you been playing?”
“I told you to go home. Now. Get the hell out.”
Devon walked over to the instrument. Curious, he pressed a finger against a key. “What were you singing before?”
Harris shook his head and sighed. “If you promise to leave, I’ll show you quickly. I wrote it myself. It doesn’t have a name.” He sank at the keyboard, played a chord, and started the song again. His playing was as beautiful as his singing was bad.
Harris showed Devon a few chords. Devon copied the notes he was shown.
Harris stopped. “Now, go home.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Devon said. He wanted to learn more.
“You better not,” Harris retorted.
Running came naturally for Devon. The next day, he fled from his apartment minutes after his father drove away in the minivan. Daddy had gone away to serve in the military as a chaplain. He said it was for money, but Devon suspected it was mostly to get away from mom.
Devon stopped to tie his shoelaces before racing down the street and into the wind.
Rain started to fall. Running through the murk and grey, pass traffic and men who side-winded on bicycles, Devon put up his hoodie and sprinted to the nearest building. He stayed under the hooded pavilion of Silent Mount Apartments until gunshots spurned him from his hiding place.
Pound, pound frantically on HARRIS’ PIANO LESSONS, Devon shivered and waited, looking this way and that. Devon wiped his eyes and stared up when Harris answered the door. The man frowned, but let him in.
There was a single row of books on a shelf in Harris’ apartment. In his spare time, Devon would thumb through one. The books lacked pictures, but he was content to read them. He read poetry from e.e. Cummings, sonnets of Shakespeare and Countee Cullen. He removed War and Peace from the shelf. A few pages in, Devon put the book away, more perplexed and confused than he’d ever been.
On Harris’ mantle was a picture of a pretty brown woman and a white man. Devon knew little of who they were; Harris’ eyes would go dark every time Devon asked about it. From the newspaper clippings stuffed in Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, Devon knew they had been murdered.
Evenings, Devon would sneak rum from Harris’s cupboard, and sit on the steps outside to drink with Colin. The sweet flavor would dance on their tongues, the taste as intoxicatingly brown as Colin’s eyes.
“Hey, how come you always disappear at your uncle’s place?” Devon asked one day when he managed to look away from Colin’s gaze. A light shower had dampened the wooden steps.
“Don’t worry about that.” Colin sat with his head rested against the porch railing.
Devon took another swing of the rum, allowing the warmth to travel down his stomach. He cleared his throat. “I didn’t like it.”
“I wanted you to meet him by yourself.”
“You gotta be less shy, don’t you think?” Colin nudged Devon. “I want to show you something.”
Devon expected Colin to reach down for his pants’ buckle like so many times before. Instead, Colin reached down into his drawstring bag and took out a binder.
The white binder looked older than Harris. The protective sleeve had started to tear. Dirt collected in thick packets in the corners. Under the sleeve, a white sheet of paper held the words The Collection.
Devon opened the binder. Inside was a single sheet of paper with the heading Corner House. Nothing else.
Brows furrowed, Devon looked at Colin. A glinted shone in his eyes that Devon never seen before. “Well…aren’t you gonna write in it?” Devon asked.
“Don’t tell nobody.”
“You don’t want people to know what we do together, do you?”
Devon blushed. “I said I won’t tell!”
Colin grinned, the gap between his teeth showing. “Good. Writing will keep your family together.”
Devon swallowed. “What do you want me to write?”
“Whatever I tell you.” Colin scratched the hair sprouting from his chin. “I have more friends I want to introduce you to. I need you to write for them too.”
Friends? Devon nodded, wiped his palms on his jeans, and tried to calm his breathing.
The happiness he felt earlier evaporated just as fast as that afternoon’s shower. Even with the rum settling in his stomach and the brightness of Colin’s smile, Devon didn’t feel safe.
He felt trapped.