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It was Sunday, the Lord's day; an unusually cool morning in July that gave all of Baltimore a break from the clothes-sticking heat. No ghetto birds or sirens. No pop-pops or beef-defining ruckus. The city echoed. Baltimore was resting.
The sun shined brightly into my room. Rashid and I had stayed up late battling on Xbox and eating crab chips. My head pounded, punishing me for getting only three hours of sleep. But skipping service was not going to happen in the Washington household. My parents were adamant that every Sunday, the entire clan—all four of us—were present at New Saints Tabernacle's 9:00 am service. Church was my parents' way of keeping our lives in order.
I could hear the shower through the thin rowhouse walls. The bathroom was sandwiched between me and my brother's rooms. I was thankful that big bro was giving me a few more minutes to chill in the bed, although that wasn't easy to do with Mom's strawberry pancakes calling my name like one of the cuties at me and Rashid's school.
A bang at the door knocked my senses.
"Your turn," Rashid yelled through the door before heading to his room to finish getting ready. He didn't have one of those deep voices but the fellas around the way still listened when Rashid talked. Some of his boys joked and called him young Barack because he could make even the most ignorant cat pause and think. I didn't tell anyone this, but sometimes I would practice making my voice sound like his. It didn't work.
It took me another few minutes to convince my body to get up. I slowly rolled out of bed like a car on the creep and went to check my brother before getting clean.
He was shining his shoes like somebody's grandfather, a task I hated but one he did every week. Our father had taught us, told my brother and I that clean shoes were a sign of a man in control. I didn't really think that was true, but I guessed my brother did.
"Yo, we should wear the new shirts we copped from Macy's," I suggested. Rashid nodded his head in agreement.
"Oh most definitely," he said as he brushed his shoes. "You know how we do. I already ironed them, playboy." He pointed over to the pale blue and light green shirts that were hung neatly in front of Rashid's closet door. Not one wrinkle in sight. We used part of the money we made at Moe's Car Wash to buy the shirts. They were on sale for twenty-five dollars each. Rashid said we were getting a crazy deal because they were made by some designer dude with a name I couldn't pronounce.
"The honeys gonna be on us," I said confidently, although I was really only hopeful.
"You better hop in the shower before Moms come in here getting on you."
"You right." I grabbed my shirt and headed to the bathroom.
It wasn't long before Rashid and I were fighting over our mother's smoked bacon while Pops was reading aloud all the depressing articles from the Baltimore Sun.
"Man shot dead. Economy in the toilet. Test scores at an all-time low. This is the world we live in," he announced. He was rocking his reading glasses at the bottom of his nose like a teacher. Pops had dropped out of high school, but eventually got his GED. He was the smartest guy I knew, even smarter than my teachers. He was always reading books or newspapers and telling Rashid and I about things going on in the world. "Learning is a lifelong process," he would say to us.
But I was tired of always hearing about the bad stuff going on in Baltimore. Rashid and I had become used to the messed-up headlines. After a while, all the murders, wars and disease became just that, words on paper.
"Look at my sons looking good," Moms bragged. She bent down and hugged her boys simultaneously. Strands of the brown hair that she dyed red fell gently onto our heads. Like every Sunday, she was dressed in office attire—blouse and skirt—that she wore to her desk job at Social Security.
"Well you know how we do," Rashid said as he brushed his shoulder. I followed. With our new shirts, we had on some crisp black slacks and matching dress shoes. So fresh, so clean.
"We make some handsome kids." My father patted Moms on the butt. "When are we going to get working on a little girl?" he said jokingly. They kissed like it was the first time their lips ever touched. Some kids thought it was nasty to see their parents kissing or talking about getting it on, but I didn't mind. I would much rather have them all in each other's face than to be arguing like they hate each other. Too many of my friends lived in single-parent homes. I knew Rashid and I were lucky.
"Dad got game," Rashid joked as he gave Pops a pound. I laughed at the thought of our father being a ladies' man. It was clear that I got my looks from him. He was a few inches shorter than Moms. He and I shared a wide nose, eyes made for old men and a bubble forehead. Rashid on the other hand favored our mom—her tightly curled hair, welcoming eyes and small set of freckles. Chicks always asked Rashid about the brown dots on his face. The ladies thought they were cute.
"Now you know, if we have a little girl, she going to have you wrapped around her little finger," Moms said as she hugged Pops tightly.
"Man, I don't know if I can deal with having a younger sister," Rashid jumped in. "That means I'm gonna have to keep all the cats around the way out of her face. None of them would have the chance to try to disrespect her." Rashid pounded his fist into his hand for emphasis. I nodded my head in agreement. Rashid wasn't a fighter, one of those guys who would rumble for the stupidest stuff, but he stood up for what was right.
"You know it," I said while drowning my bacon in syrup.
There were a few times when Rashid came to my rescue in elementary school when older boys were trying to clown me. Being small made me an easy target.
"Y'all know this my brother, right?" he'd say. Kids would nod their heads. "You got a problem with him? You got a problem with me." Cats would usually mumble something like, "You know we cool, Rashid. We was just messing with Lil' Avery." They'd give me a fake pound and move on. I didn't care if they meant it. I felt good that my big bro put them in their place.
"Both of you would make perfect big brothers." My mother kissed our foreheads. Rashid's first, then mine. She once told us that every time she looked at us, she saw perfection, even when we weren't acting perfect.
The four of us sat around the kitchen table and continued to joke around. It was an easy Sunday morning.
Everything about New Saints was small—the size of its old brick building, the amount of members in its congregation and our short pastor who was often mistaken for one of the teenagers when his back was turned. But my family liked that. The church was always at the center of important events in our lives. My mother loved to retell the story of how, on a rainy day in September, it was at New Saints that nineteen-year-old Yvette Anderson and twenty-one-year-old James Washington, high school sweethearts, got married. Two years later, the young couple baptized their first son there, whom they named Rashid after a mutual friend who hooked them up. Another two years later, they baptized me, their second son, whose name they took from a character in one of my mother's favorite books, The Color Purple.
My brother and I grew up in New Saints. Everyone knew us: the two well-behaved big-headed Washington boys. Going to church wasn't really a chore to us, mainly because New Saints had the prettiest girls. The girls never disappointed by wearing their cute dresses that showed a nice amount of leg.
And because of Rashid's lively and passionate drum playing—he was known to completely zone out, eyes shut, head bobbing hard to his own beat— my brother was a minicelebrity. Although he was supposed to be playing for the glory of the Lord, the fast girls in the congregation all thought he was rocking praise and worship for them. That made me famous by association.
That morning, we sat in our usual pew, fourth row on the left. Every week, the program was the same. Service started with greetings and fellowship. That's when we got to go around and hug everyone. And of course, Rashid and I made sure we hit up the cuties.
"So nice to see you this weekend, Sister Regina," Rashid said to one of the finest girls in church. Rashid called her a twenty because she was two dimes in one.
"Nice to see you, too, Brother Rashid. Did you have a good week?"
"Always," he said as he held her hand longer than necessary. He flashed her one of his golden smiles and she blushed like she was in elementary school. I stood next to him taking mental notes. I was trying to get my game on Rashid's level.
After chatting with everyone, it was time for praise and worship. It was Rashid's Sunday to bless the drums and that morning, he was on fire, banging the instruments with passion and purpose like he was trying to speak through his music. The beat pounded through the small church like a car's bass. Everyone felt it. His solo made Sister Thomasina jump out of her seat and perform her holy two-step. Pops was nodding his head, man-style. My mother yelled, "That's my son," like she was at one of his basketball games and everyone didn't already know that.
"Thank the Lord for our band!" Reverend Sullivan said when they finished. "Our young Brother Rashid has a God-given talent to make the drums come alive, doesn't he?" The congregation gave a collective amen.
When Rashid returned, my mother gave him a big kiss on his cheek and Pops gave him a hug. I gave him a pound.
"Did I do okay?" he asked me.
"Man, you tore it up!" I told him. He smiled. Even with all the applause he received, my opinion mattered to him.
After New Saints had calmed down from the lively praise and worship, there was offering. Rashid and I agreed to put in ten dollars a week between the two of us. It was his idea. "Yo, we'll get back ten times the amount we put in," he said to convince me when we first started last year.
Then came announcements, the sermon, more prayer and depending on how long that last prayer session lasted—which usually depended on how many people were sick, needed to repent for the sins of the week or wanted to give their life to God— church lasted about two hours. Then there was the after-service lingering when the whole family made the rounds to chat with everyone we hadn't seen in a week. Rashid was showered with compliments about his drum playing and everybody congratulated me for being accepted into the accelerated academic program at Baltimore Central High. Rashid and I left church feeling ourselves.
Soon as we got home, Rashid changed out of his sharp church clothes and threw on blue balling shorts, an old pair of Air Jordans and a white tank top. He was built like a college freshman guard. Not too tall, with small muscular arms and bony legs. The heat didn't stop him from hitting the courts on Sundays.
My basketball skills were sloppy at best, though Rashid was never embarrassed by them. He would always pick me first on his team.
"Damn, why you choose him?" cats would say to Rashid. "I mean, he's your brother, but he's sorry."
"You said it, he's my brother. You got a problem with him being on the team, switch sides," he'd reply.
So I usually did homework, played Xbox to get my skills up or took a nap while Rashid was hooping. That day, I decided on the latter. Sleep was the most perfect state of being. No thinking. No doing. No feeling. Sleep and I got along real well. Rashid thought I spent too much time in the bed versus experiencing life. "I'll have time to sleep when I'm dead," he would always tell me.
"Sure you don't want to come and get your ball on?" he asked me before jetting out the house. I was sure. We made plans to battle on Xbox after Rashid did his thing.
Before leaving, he gave Pops a pound and kissed Moms on the forehead. Our parents were watching an infomercial for some expensive-ass vacuum cleaner.
After changing into gym shorts from the previous school year, I hopped in the bed and dreamt about Beyoncé dropping it.