Editor’s Note: Press play above to listen to the author read her story aloud.
Hamzah came home and headed right to our door. We didn’t know he was coming that day. His last letter said he was going to face the board, and then nothing, and then he was standing there with a few hundred dollars, eight years’ worth of prison labor, which he handed me, and said, “Put y’all shoes on so we can get some food.” We went to the buffet because he loved that bogus Mongolian grill and all that orange soda. He loved those well-rationed crab legs and would stand at the station until the owner brought them out, a dozen at a time, annoyed that our father would take the whole dozen with him back to his seat. We thought that was real funny: him and Twin, back and forth for plate after plate. I only really liked the shell-on shrimp. Connie liked the cheesy spinach. “What refill you want?” And we all stopped breaking crab legs and laughing long enough to say, “Orange!”
Hamzah always came to see about his children first. He asks me, “Do you remember? You were only about four years old. You were coming down 149th Street on a red bicycle, and you jumped off and screamed, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.’” I don’t remember, but this is his favorite story, so I know it to be true. It never changes. Hamzah’s memory is butter. He insists that my bicycle was red; he insists that I wore pigtails; he insists that even though the hill that separates Amsterdam from Convent is steep, too steep for a four-year-old on a new bicycle, that I was riding fast down 149th and jumped, midair, off that tiny machine and into his arms.
Twin would get caught up in North Carolina. We didn’t have money for a lawyer, so Hamzah told him to plead out. They put our brother on the chain gang, picking fruit and vegetables. We all said “chain gang” like an idea we’d heard of in a book, not real men bound together in a field filling steel buckets with tomatoes and okra and cabbage heads. Twin was losing weight and getting sick. “They put pork in everything down here.”
We called the prison; we spoke to the chaplain; he said our best bet was to send food. And money. Every check, I sent Twin $75, and once a month a package of king mackerel and Pop-Tarts and sardines and cheap cocoa butter.
Twin picked vegetables all morning, beginning his work before dawn. He made fajr in the tillage, his forehead pressed into the soil and field greens, bringing up bits of dirt with him each time he stood in qiyaam. He learned to recognize swiss chard from tatsoi from spinach. Like the other men, to relieve himself, he walked off as far as the dogs would allow with nothing to shade his shame except distance. Midday, they hauled the vegetables into the kitchen; by supper, they were cooked down in fatback and pounds and pounds and pounds of potatoes, filler. He called it slop and slave food and doodoo.
We laughed when he called and asked him if he was holding up. We double checked to make sure he got everything we put in his box. He sold cans of tuna and beef jerky and Uncle Ben’s microwaveable rice to other inmates to build a little savings for when he came home and to cushion himself for any week I missed sending that spare change. I was somebody’s wife and had my own house that needed tending. It was those times, when my brother’s hunger would visit me, crushing everything between my throat and pelvis with an acid lingering, that I understood desire. I understood void.
Twin was a young man and met a girl while he was inside. She had a little baby, and he would come home and put another baby in her — fast. Hamzah drove down to North Carolina under the cover of night — he was still on papers and wasn’t supposed to leave the state of New York — to make the birth of this first grandchild, a grandson. We were still eating Thanksgiving leftovers when the baby was born. So close to the holiday, someone said, almost.
“Strong arm robbery,” Twin says, and then he doesn’t say anything for a long time. We have the phone on speaker so everybody can hear: me, Connie, Jack, Hamzah. We’re not even worried about the police recording, because he’s gonna plead out. “Me and Nitti was riding around looking for something else to get into. We had been robbing people all day, jumping out at the red light and jacking shit. We stopped at this little spot to get some lunch. White dude and his girl approached talking about do we know where they can get that dog food. Nitti says, ‘Yeah we got that dog food.’ I told him to give them some of that fake shit we keep in the back, but Nitti says, ‘Nah, we gonna rob them.’ White dude got some jewelry, iced out, so do his girl. We know they got money on them, so we pull that thing out and beat white dude’s ass. I tell Nitti to grab the keys, but the nigga forgets to grab the keys, so now the white dude is chasing us down side streets, and somehow we end up on the highway. He shooting at us and everything. I come out the top of the sunroof to shoot back while Nitti drives. This nigga Nitti so scared he swerves into a tree, and the white dude slams into the back of us. The whole windshield comes down on me, and I can feel the heat of the car on my leg. Nitti takes off running with all the shit. White dude dipped with his girl. I’m crying because I can’t even reach down to pull my legs from up under myself. There’s glass in my fingernails, and I’m making d’ua because, you know, I’m thinking this is it. I’m gonna die alone. But then I hear this nigga Nitti calling my name. My nigga came back for me, you know, he just wanted to dump the work first. He was pulling me out the car when the police came. That nigga saved my life.”
Clinton Dannemora did it to him. Hamzah said they called Dannemora Little Siberia, but he called it the Lady Killer. Wind so cold it whistled through you like a woman. Sixty-foot concrete walls and no pussy in sight. So ice-cold Hamzah tore the heads from mops to stuff them in his boots. So ice-cold he slept with stolen towels down his back to protect him from the concrete slab they called a bed. So ice-cold he killed a man with a service tray. The way Hamzah told the story, the Lady Killer was built to be a mining prison. The warden rented the inmates out to local mines, and if they came back, they came back, and if they didn’t, they didn’t. Hamzah said at night you could hear the pickaxes tink, tink, tink so loud you’d think it was your own eardrum. Hamzah said it was like sleeping in another man’s grave.
Eight years into his bid, Hamzah left Dannemora with a few hundred dollars, a photo album, and Sugar.
We loved him, so we sent candy. We loved him. We did not want him to be hungry, because we loved him, so we sent salmon, and good tuna, albacore. We loved him, so we sent him mackerel and Pop-Tarts. We sent green peppers for seasoning. We sent Sazon and Adobo packets. We sent Tang. We sent turkey pepperoni. We loved you, so we we sent oodles and noodles. We sent bread. We sent cashews and pistachios, we sent cold cuts, we sent potato chips, we sent raisins, we sent cookies, we sent pretzels, we sent cheese twists, we love you, we sent brownies, we sent crackers, we sent chocolate bars, we sent kidney beans, we sent creamed corn, we sent corned beef, we love you, we will see you soon, not much more time, parole hearing, we love you, we sent your favorite, we sent Twizzlers, we sent cigarettes for you to sell, we sent nudie mags for you to sell, we love you, we sent the winter boots, we sent the winter jacket, we sent another blanket but they sent it back, we love you. They said less salt. We love you, the doctor said less sugar. We love you we sent a hoodie, we sent long johns, we sent new sneakers, we love you, we sent compression socks, we love you. Doctor say you got Sugar. Doctor say insulin. Doctor say Lasix. We love you here you go. We sent what you asked for. We’ll be there this weekend. We’ll bring change for the vending machine. We have single dollars for Polaroids. I will wear a khimar. We love you we cooked. We love you fat. We love you full. We won’t let them starve you. We love you. We set aside money for your package we love you. We sent Ovaltine, we sent V8, we sent a tin of butter cookies we love you. We love you. We cooked for the visit. We will eat like a family. We made stewed chicken, fried cabbage, rice and peas, plantains we love you we love you we love you. We will be there on time. We won’t leave until the guard blows his whistle. Even then until he calls out your name. And not even then, not until he comes over to our table, taps it with his fingers, and says, “Alameen, enough.”
We said, “Jack, do we need to come home,” and Jack said, “Y’all better come on home to see your father,” so we knew it. We heard it in our mother’s voice, so we came from North Carolina and California and the Bronx. We sent money for tickets until we were all there. Thank God we made it, we said. You look good, we said. Them kids is mighty big now, we said. You got fat, we said to one another. We filled the waiting room with pots of rice and we ran out for cheap pizza and we stayed down in the cafeteria eating hard bread and cold meat with a packet of mayo until we could get home to some real food. Can’t control the Sugar, doctor said. They will have to take his whole arm. They want to take both feet. We tell each other to stay strong, but strong ain’t nothing. They said his arm or his heart. We know Sugar is the lady killer, and Sugar ain’t letting him go. Sugar got him since Dannemora. Sugar got him in our packages. Sugar got him at chow. Sugar got him at the buffet. Sugar got him when he working. Sugar got him in the car. Sugar put him to sleep.
Our mother said crash. Our mother said come home. Our mother said hurry.
Hamzah loved machines. He loved gadgets. He never slept. At night, he would print out his customer orders and work away. He built computers, refurbished computers, scrapped them, made them something new altogether. He built simple machines. He built small race cars. He rewired security systems. He could make anything electric. He was a whiz. He kept a two-liter orange soda at his workstation and would say, “Let me show y’all this,” so we’d pile up at his desk, looking at the maze of green circuits and metal parts and loose keys trying to make sense of what he saw. Hamzah, the fashioner. Our maker. He’d grab small parts and big parts and build faster, better engines. He had a little screwdriver and a little probe, and he worked while we slept to drown out the noise in his ear, he would say. Tink, tink, tink went his wire cutters, his wrench, his crimper. Our lights were never off, our cars always new, very green gas. We had a childhood.
Someone jokes and says that if you can see your mother, you will leave us. I am in your room, your beautiful face, my sweet father, my best friend, the scabs about your body, your blackened fingernails and rotting fingers and swollen feet, your chapped lips, the salt stains coming from the one eye that opens, running down into your chest. I ask you if you see her. If she is here with us, is Ma in this room, is my grandmother, Consuela, here? Is she calling you? Has she made your favorite thing, Hamzah, my love, is she here with you? The wedding dressmaker who came to this country with her children and a long dream? She cannot be standing next to you, because I am standing next to you, your firstborn, the one you named after her. I have your mother’s name, Connie has your mother’s name, we are here, come back to us, you are still counted among the living. Someone says that if you can see your mother, you will leave us, but I can’t understand the leaving. I crossed this country to get to you, my love, my father, my measure. Twin is here, Connie is here, Jack is here, but we are nothing to you right now. Your grandchildren are here. My husband is here. Your sister is here. Brother Anwar is here. We are living in this room with you; we are washing your face and greasing your lips, and I am kneading your feet in my hands, every hour, to keep you warm, my love; we recite the shahadah; we say fatiha, surah asr. There are no spirits here, not yet; you are still counted among the living. I lean into your ear with our secrets. “Do what’s best for you, my friend. I will not be angry.” Your mother is here with her army. There are a thousand jinn in this room. I dare not address them. “Hamzah, you are still of this earth, I say. I am your first child, and I am wearing your face,” I say. Ma stands in front of me. What handsome thing has she brought for you that makes you not want to look at me anymore?
I know she was there. And she took you.
Me and Twin are at the masjid to wash Hamzah’s body for the janazah. The brothers won’t let me in. They say this death was too hard on his body. His body, the 400 pounds of it, too hard for a woman. It is not sunnah for a woman to wash a man—not even his daughter, not even his first child. The brothers say I can stand outside the door and listen. The brothers say they will call me in to groom Hamzah’s hair when they are done. Twin kisses my fingers and my face and says he will wash Hamzah for me, for all of us. He locks the door behind himself. I hear them instructing each other. I hear them frustrated. I can hear the imam say, “Shush, his daughter is sitting right outside.” After the wash, it is my turn, but Twin is leaving. He walks out of the masjid, to the curb, and I follow. He lights a blunt and keeps walking without me. He walks until I can’t see anything but smoke swirling above his head in the distance. I go back to Hamzah. The brothers step aside and remind me not to scream. The deceased is tormented in his grave because of the lamentations over him. Hamzah looks small. I say fatiha; I press oil into his scalp and massage his dreads the way I have since I was a child. His shroud is fastened three times. I don’t make a sound.
My father is my ancestor. There is a man who wants to love me, and I want to let him love me. I told him we washed your body. I told him that Toya listened to me scream in the mountains for 14 days and pretended not to hear a thing. He holds my stomach when we sleep together. He feeds me from his hands. This man wants to die in Jamaica, where he was born. I told him I want to die in the desert with God on top of me. I want California or New Mexico or Arizona. I want dry heat and a lemon tree. I want nothing for miles as far as I can see but sky and dust and me and my aching. I ask him if he’s ever loved a fat woman. I told him I don’t sleep at night. This man wants babies. We talk about good, strong family names. His father’s name is Paul. I tell him the doctors say I can’t make babies. I told him I tried once and lost a husband to it. My lover sucks my titties and teaches me things. He lays out a good life for us before me. “Over there will be our house,” he says. “And there will be a child. There,” he points, “will be our lovemaking; there, a kitchen; there, our books; there will be our bed; right up there will be your writing room; there will be our pantry; there will be the music.” “And room enough for my lemon tree?” I ask, and he points and says, “Look, I’ve put it over there.” “And room enough for this grief?” and he points and says, “There.” “And Hamzah?” I ask. “Is standing right behind you,” my lover says.