Lamont Curtis was having that pain again. He had described it to many doctors as a sharp, squeezing sensation, as if his heart was gasping for blood. It also caused a twitching behind his eye. The doctors were unable to pinpoint an exact cause--poor diet, his living conditions, or maybe just the stress of raising a daughter by himself.
His wife just walked out. There was no abuse, save for the alcohol. He stood by patiently while she had drowned her sorrows each and every day. It would be a miracle if his daughter did not end up like her mother, either taken in by alcohol or drugs. Lamont blamed himself constantly. He would curse himself constantly for not being smarter, but the problem was he could not make words make sense when he read them. He blamed himself constantly for what he perceived as his own failures.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his medication. The doctor said to take it daily, but he had to stretch the budget a bit this year. The strike at the soap plant had left him without work for quite a while. It was the rare factory that operated in the major cities like his that allowed what were the lower educated black men to achieve a job that could pay the bills, and more importantly make a man feel like he was contributing something back to his community. All of those jobs were going overseas now, and men like Lamont did not know what to do with himself.
He swallowed the pill without any water, straining to swallow without choking. He did not think to bring any water with him, and he was stuck on the subway car for another ten minutes. Everything about the city made him feel ill, but the subway was probably the worst. An elderly woman had stepped in the car while Lamont was fiddling with his medication cap. He had only noticed because she had nearly fallen over when the train started up again. Lamont wondered why did not she just sit down.
He realized that no one had even looked at her, let alone offered her a seat. She was an old white lady, but he still took pity on her. He slowly got up and offered it to her, and she accepted. He was hoping that the young people had taken note and would do the same for next time. It was wishful thinking. Most of these kids would look at these kinds of social courtesies as outdated, too many of them staring at their phones to notice. They were in constant communication with the world, but all too willing to ignore their more immediate surroundings. Lamont now had to hold on to his strap, making sure not to lose balance himself.
He felt weak. The worst thing you can do on one of these trains is pass out. What little he had in this world could easily disappear. He thought of his own father telling him as a boy about some of the great things that were going to happen in the city. They rode on this train together when it first opened. He still remembered the innocent days when dad took him out for ice cream afterward, simple memories that he dared not let go.
The most vivid memory was how nice the city felt. There was a reassurance in the gleam of the shiny new metal and glass. Now he looked out of the subway window at the mess of graffiti, the trash-strewn streets, and the people who looked just as sad and worn-out as he felt.
When the train came to a stop at his destination, he tried to head for the exit. The same kids who would not give up their seats now bolted for the door. One of them smacked his knee into the back of Lamont’s leg and continued on without missing a beat. Lamont winced and slowed his pace a bit, which only made more people walk into him. He wanted to hurry out of there, and he dreaded the extra half-mile he now had to walk. He could catch the bus, but he just wanted to be away from people.
It was not an easy walk for Lamont. The back of his leg was still hurting, and the panicked breaths he was taking while on the train were starting to come back. He thought that maybe he should try walking home every night. There was just something about the night that made him worry. The young people just seemed to get more and more mean looking. Even the young black kids would at least shoot him a sign of respect. Those days were long gone.
After what felt like an eternity of walking, Lamont looked up at the building they called the Castello. Someone opened this apartment complex near the bay over eighty years with the hopes that decent folks could find a nice, quiet place they could call their own. Despite its aged exterior, to say nothing of its interior, it was sturdy and comfortable. Something about the stained granite and near-Gothic design made it felt like a fortress. Perhaps this was the last refuge from the gangs in this neighborhood. There was no graffiti on any of the walls, and the street in front was kept tidy.
This might have been also due to Mrs. Jablonsky, the manager. She must have been seventy years old, and yet she was able to paint, fix plumbing, or any other task that the tenants could not do for themselves. She and her husband had managed the place for nearly thirty years. She had insisted that he teach her everything about the maintenance, and she had not forgotten any of it. Lamont had met Mr. Jablonsky only a few months before he had died. He was a tough old man, which fit nicely with the missus. Lamont was sorry to see him go. There were very few men in the neighborhood with whom he could form a bond.
Lamont entered the door and began his walk up the creaking stairs. He noticed Barbara Shefford descending just as he was coming up. She did that pause and back up a step he had noticed her always doing, sometimes grabbing her thin purse string with both hands. Lamont did not know why she did that. Even if he wanted to steal it and run, she could have caught him easily, and for that matter probably beaten him up and taken it.
“Oh. Good evening, Mr. Curtis,” said Barbara, almost as if obligated.
Lamont also had no idea why she insisted on calling him mister anything. She did not look it, but they were probably close to the same age. Lamont figured he must look pretty worn-out.
“Ms. Shefford,” he returned. “Goin’ somewhere? Kinda looks like rain.”
“I won’t be long.” She shot him a nervous smile and took it back immediately. “Excuse me.”
This was likely the longest conversation the two had had since she had moved in about a year ago. She scurried past him, grabbing tightly to the spaghetti straps of her purse so that it did not swing wide and hit Lamont. She was careful to shut the door soundly behind her as she left.
Lamont looked over his shoulder at her and watched her walk down the steps, started to walk in one direction, then quickly turn and walk in the other direction. He heaved himself up the stairs and made his way to his own apartment. He fumbled the keys from his pocket and was about to place them in the keyhole when a slight pain shot into his heart. He clenched his teeth and jammed his eyes shut, dropping the keys. Now he looked down at them and blew air hard from his nose. Bending down was going to hurt.
He picked up the keys, got them in the right spot, and opened up to his apartment. Lamont did not have much of a budget for straightening the place up, and he felt guilty asking Mrs. Jablonsky to do any of it. Still, it was clean and rat-free. He could not ask for anything more comfortable. He shuffled to his favorite recliner, sat down, and picked through the mail next to the table. There was a letter for Taisha for some book orders, the gas bill, and a letter from the building association having their meeting about what to do about the development offer.
Since there were only a few families living in the building, basically everyone who lived at the Castello was on the board. It was a friendly chance to meet everyone once a month, although probably nobody told Barbara because she never showed up. There were some serious talks about having to move out. A development agency wanted to demolish most of Van Huys, their neighborhood. Most of the people voted no, as they would not have anywhere else to go. This was the way things went now--they demolish what was otherwise a fine home, put up some new place that was cheaply made, and raise your rent. It got to where you just got pushed out of the city.
Lamont listened for his daughter to see if she was in her bedroom. She was probably reading another of her mystery books again. He sometimes he wished he could pay more attention to what it is she read.
“Taisha!” Lamont couldn’t bring himself out of the chair. His breathing was heavy and rasping.
Taisha burst out of her room, holding one of her Suzy Sleuth detective novels. “Yeah, dad?” She took one look at her father and started to worry. “Are you feeling okay?”
“A white boy kicked me on the train.”
She walked into the living room, her eyes getting wider. “He beat you up?”
“Nah. It was probably an accident. Just hurts.”
She walked over to where he was sitting and sat down next to him. “Did you see the mail?”
“Yeah. You read this here letter?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
Lamont shook his head. “Naw, don’t be. I should have said something to you.” Lamont wiped his forehead. “We’re not leaving.”
Taisha sucked on her upper lip. “Okay. But...aren’t they offering money?”
“You learn fast when you get older that can’t be moved around all the time. I get told what to do at work, what to do on the train, what to eat, what to drink, and who to vote for.” He shot a smile at his daughter. “Ain’t nobody telling me where to live. Dig?”
“I get it, Dad.”
“Okay then. What’s for dinner?”
“Boiled chicken, beans, rice, and Jell-o for dessert.”
Lamont grimaced. “Girl, are you kiddin’ me? A man’s gotta eat!”
Taisha giggled. “You know what the doctors said, Dad. We can’t have fried food anymore.”
“Psssh. Fine, we’ll eat it then.” Taisha got up to go back to her room. “Eh eh eh, miss. Did you talk to that boy downstairs yet?”
Taisha turned slowly. “I am not asking him to any dance. That boy is weird.”
Lamont knew that this was his only hope for keeping his daughter away from some hood-rat gang-banger. Young men are drawn pretty quickly to a thirteen-year-old. “Hey, give him a chance. I seen him starin’ at you.”
Taisha called over her shoulder back to her room, “You should date his mom.” She closed the door.
Lamont sat and read the letter again from the tenant board. His eye started to twitch, so he stopped. He looked out the window, most of it a brick tapestry of the extended wall. Maybe they could sell their shares in the building and move somewhere. He did not know where, and he was not sure who would take a broken-down old man without a high school education. All he knew was that any place beyond here sounded like heaven.