On Friday, April 22, 2016, three months after my brother’s third release from S. Wilder Youth Development Center, he was rushed to the ER after being shot in the heart.
I asked the funeral director if I could see you before we all went home and he said, “Of course.” When I entered the chapel, your body was covered by a red velvet blanket but your face was visible. Your lips had lost some of their color, your skin as dark and smooth as it had always been, but your head had taken on a different shape. It had been flattened during the autopsy, and I thought about the times I’d whop you upside your head when you were little and up to no good. You asked me once, “Why you always doin’ that? Why you always hittin’ me?” You were eight years old when you asked me those questions, and everything about your face seemed to be trying to meet in the middle. I never hit you again.
In the chapel, I smiled at a hairdresser pressing and curling a deceased old Black woman’s gray hair. He offered a close-mouthed smile, bowed his head slightly when he did, and went back to pressing, curling, and humming, just a little bit. I walked over to your body, raised the blanket to look at your chest and then your legs, tracing over my name tattooed on your arm, then kissed your forehead and held your hand.
Everyone else joined me in the chapel after a little while. I told the funeral director, “He look good. He look just like his self.” He said, “Yeah, we takin good care of him,” and asked when we’d bring your suit by. I smirked and said, “Nah, we ain’t gone be doing that. He wasn’t no suit and tie kind of guy,” and we all laughed a little bit. I had never seen you in a suit. I didn’t want the first time to be in a casket. We buried you in a royal blue Ralph Lauren button-down and True Religion jeans.
Granny and Paris stood over your body teary-eyed, but they never actually cried. Paris, his wife, and his aunt stood on one side of your body. I stood on the other, and Granny and the funeral home director stood before your head. At your feet, Paris raised the blanket just enough to see. I could tell he looked at all of your toes. He moved toward your legs, touched your first gunshot wound. He moved toward your penis, and I looked away. I didn’t want to see him see you. I wanted him to have a private moment with you, his only son, his only child.
When you and your father were face-to-face, he brought his finger to your chin, stroked the shadow of facial hair there, said, “Look at his peach fuzz.” The women hummed a sweetness. I swallowed the sadness caught in my throat.
Paris didn’t warn any of us before he pulled the velvet blanket past your chest. The sweetness dissipated. Granny grabbed her heart and stumbled backward until she was stopped by a column and ran from the chapel without a word. We could all see where the bullet had pierced your flesh and taken your life. On the playground of Frayser Elementary, you’d been shot in your heart. Your father apologized.
I asked if I could be left alone with you. When they were all gone, I held my cheek to your cheek. I held my cheek to your lips. I kissed your forehead again. I kissed your eyes. I kissed your nose. I stroked your ears. I stroked your arms. I held your fingers. I held you. I held you for a long time. You’d been torn open twice and no one had hugged you yet.
Earlier that day at home, Mallory, Jeremiah’s girlfriend, had come into my bedroom while I was sleeping to wake me. She said, “Get up. Come outside. It’s something outside gone make you happy,” and shook my body a little bit. “Come on. Hurry up.”
In the driveway, I stared at your face in a 24×36 framed photo no one had ever seen of you. Nia had found it in your phone and had it printed at Walgreens. I couldn’t stare at your face for long. You were too you, too not you. You were too there, too not there. It felt like you were alive, like the photo had encapsulated your spirit. It terrified and confused me. You looked troubled, haunted by something, eyes filled with a sadness I’d never seen before. Your friends smiled, laughed, and posed for pictures with you, but all I could do was cry.
I went inside, sat on Mama’s bed with Granny. She said, “I caint look at it neitha.”
I asked her, “Why he look like that?”
She slowly shook her head, said, “You see it too. In his eyes.”
I asked, “Why my brother look like he askin’ me a question Ion know the answer to?”
She said, “What do death feel like?”
At N.H. Owens and Son Funeral Home that afternoon, before I left you, I whispered in your ear: “You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
At home later that afternoon, I sat in the very same chair you sat in for breakfast on the morning I wanted to be your first, last, and only release from Wilder.
You were too you, too not you. You were too there, too not there.
That morning, I thought you’d always be free, thought you’d always be home. Only you and I sat at the dining room table for pancakes, bacon, and eggs that morning. I’d taken more than a few bites of my breakfast before I realized you hadn’t said a word since we sat down, before I realized you hadn’t even moved yet. I looked over and watched tears roll down your face and onto your pancakes. I asked you what was wrong over and over and over again. I don’t know what you mumbled to yourself that morning, but you said it over and over and over.
We moved into the four-bedroom home on Whitney Avenue in Frayser the summer before I began ninth grade at Central High School in Midtown. Weeks before we moved, my best friend, Jadira, asked me, “Why Granny movin’ out there? It’s bad out there.”
I looked around. We were sitting on her father’s porch in North Memphis near Hyde Park Boulevard. I said to her, “It ain’t all that good over here eitha.” I was annoyed because Granny moving out there meant I’d have my own bedroom and I just wanted Jadira to be as excited for me as I was. Her father’s home was cozy with a well-kept yard, and so were several other homes on his street, but there was often garbage scattered about the neighborhood. There were more than a couple abandoned homes on the street, too. Addicts, hustlers, and alcoholics frequented Hollywood Car Wash around the corner on North Hollywood Street.
“My daddy been ova here for years,” she said, “before it was like this. They got gangs over there in Frayser.” I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything at all, and I didn’t think about what she’d said again until you died.
When we moved from North Belvedere Boulevard to Whitney Avenue, I thought having our own bedrooms would make us more normal. We wouldn’t be the children of drug-addicted mothers and fathers—fathers we didn’t know, fathers who didn’t call, fathers who were always in and out and in and out of jail again—sharing one bedroom where you and Jeremiah slept shoulder-to-shoulder on a top bunk.
I thought we’d be made whole with the acquisition of a true home: four bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a dining room, a den, a living room, lots of closet and storage space, a vast front yard, and massive back yard with a deck tall enough for us to climb onto the roof and watch cars drive down Whitney Avenue. I didn’t know our true home would only give us more space to be angry, to be beaten, to be neglected, to be arrested, to be isolated, to be ashamed, to receive from our elders what had been theirs, what was now ours to be had, all they had to offer: a slow death at a fast pace.
Eight years after we’d moved to Whitney Avenue, I had been home from college for almost a month in the summer of 2014 when one of your friends tattooed “cash” and “crime” on your forearms. It was after your second release from Wilder. The house was quiet, and I was on my way to sleep in the middle of the day. I worked downtown at Denny’s on the corner of Union and Third from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. five nights a week and was resting before my shift. I heard you walk down the hallway to the bedroom you shared with Jeremiah, right next door to mine. I was well on my way to sleep; I didn’t want to get up to tell you to be a little bit quieter, so I hoped you’d do whatever it was you needed to do and leave quickly. In the summer you were never home for long.
You rummaged around in your room for longer than I wanted to listen to, so I climbed out of bed. I walked into your bedroom without knocking. You didn’t even notice. You were bent over a storage tote rapping Rich Homie Quan lyrics and throwing clothes and shoes every which way. I asked, “What are you doing,” and when you turned around with a pile of clothes in your hands, I saw your tattoos for the first time and my heart stopped. You were fifteen years old.
Before you were fifteen, I’d spent more time than I should’ve in college writing letters to you about where fifteen-year-olds in our family had a tendency to find themselves. I made a list of every generational experience you’d already had, heard of, or might find yourself having trouble with when you were released: familial dysfunction, abandonment, secrets, shame, gambling, teen parenting, poverty, drug addiction, suicidal thoughts and attempts, complacency, domestic violence, dropping out of high school, gang involvement, depression, and recidivism. I told you it was time to make a choice. When I saw your tattoos, I was shattered. It felt like you were leaving me.
When I asked you again, “What are you doing?” it was a different question. When I wrote that first letter to you, you destroyed your dorm at Wilder and broke your finger, but during your second stay at Wilder, you read the letters I sent and wrote back. I owe these streets. The streets taught me everything I know about surviving. You stay in school and do what you gotta do for you. Imma keep thuggin’ cause the streets is what I know. I’m not saying it was right to do, but if I could go back in time, would I change my life? No. I would just do the same thing, but do it smarter.
In your bedroom, you held up your forearms, smiled, and said, “I’m hit.” When you found whatever you were looking for, you left. I leaned against the doorway and stared into your empty room for a while. I knew you knew what you wanted and would stop at nothing to get it. Summer 2015, the summer you began your third and final incarceration at Wilder, was your last summer.
When we buried you April 30, 2016, the sky was cloudy and a patchy drizzle fell on the Forest Hill Funeral Home and Cemetery. In the Garden of Memories, your sky-blue casket rested atop a lowering device. A bouquet of delicate greenery and pale blue roses wrapped in blue ribbon adorned your casket. Before we could leave, just as everyone began to climb into their cars, began to live lives without you, Paris called your friends over to your graveside once more. I stood near the limousine and watched as he gave as many of them as he could one of those roses. Beneath the lowering device, a cement burial vault was empty, was waiting for you. Chunks and bits of dirt were scattered about your grave. On the false sod surrounding the vault were three footprints. Mama wanted to go with you. I didn’t want anyone to stop her.
That’s where we left you. At least, that’s what I thought.
Monterica Sade Neil received her MFA from Louisiana State University. She was a Summer 2018 Tin House Scholar. Her work has appeared in Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. She is from Memphis, Tennessee and is currently at work on a memoir.