Through the crack between the door and its frame, I see the blue-gray light of the TV on the wall. I can’t see Jerome from the bedroom, but I can hear his reed-thin voice. Now and then I can make out words like, “My pa this” or “My pa and me that.” Jerome’s the spitting image of his daddy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him talk so much. Nobody’s in the front room except him and that new puppy.
On the far side of my bedroom is Jerome’s ratty old cardboard suitcase. Its got a bungee cord holding it together. Everything inside is packed nice and neat, socks, underwear, t-shirts, and jeans for school.
6 months ago, when I came home after dark, my headlights pounced on something near the front steps. It was Jerome. He had a bruise on his face and his suitcase. He said, “Can I sleep here?” I asked what happened and he said she threw him out. I believe he got tired of the way things were and left, knowing it wouldn’t matter to her anyhow. Since then he’s been here, sleeping on the couch. He don’t seem to mind, but he keeps his suitcase packed.
When he first got here, Jerome would sit on the couch for hours doing and saying nothing. One night it drove me crazy.
I said, “Jerome, don’t you have nothing to do?”
“No sir, Drew,” he replied.
“Ain’t you got no friends?”
He shook his head no.
“Wanna watch TV?” I offered.
“You sure it’s all right?”
“It’s all right with me if it’s all right with the TV,” I replied, switching it on.
Now Jerome turns on the TV though it took awhile. For a long time, we kept having the same conversation, me offering and him asking if it was all right.
After Jerome had been here a few weeks, I went down to see Star. When she answered the door, she looked a mess. Her hair was all disheveled and she was wearing a green check housedress covered in tomato colored stains. It looked like a ratty old dish rag. A cigarette was hanging from her mouth and she smelled of liquor.
“Your boy’s up at my house,” I said.
“You can have him,” she replied, setting her hand on her hip.
“You shouldn’t hit him.”
“He tell you that?”
“The boy hardly…”
“He’s a liar!” She glared. “I don’t hit that boy. Drew, don’t you come around here accusing people of what you don’t know.” She scratched her side. “You want him?”
“Yeah. I want him.”
“Fine,” she said, smiling kind of weird. “He’s yours.”
I shook my head. “You need help Star. The Reverend…”
The door slammed in my face.
“You need help,” I yelled at that door.
Star wasn’t always like that. When Jerome was a baby, she was crazy about him, cooing and playing.Then, on July second, nine years ago they found Henry with his pickup on top of him, the right side rear tire flat, and the jack lying on the pavement beside him. His chest had been crushed.
That’s when Star snapped like a twig in a fire. It’s also the day Jerome got scalded. Star had water boiling on the stove for the potato salad she was making for the church’s Fourth of July picnic. When she heard about Henry, she forgot all about it. Jerome, being curious about the bubbling sound reached for the pot. He’s got a scar as big as the state of Texas. It’s shiny, smooth, and looks like rubber that’s been stretched to the max. He keeps it covered with t-shirts.
Every day after school Jerome goes to his job at the supermarket. He’s a stock boy and works until 7 pm. Sometimes I stop in to see how he’s doing. They tell me he’s good with the customers and real polite, but quiet. They know he ain’t sixteen but they made an exception given his situation and that he’s living with me.
Most nights after dinner, I’m at the kitchen table working on a ship. The kind that’s in bottles. Jerome usually pulls up a chair and watches me with those big brown eyes. He doesn’t say a thing, even when the ship’s done, masts raised and sails unfurled. When I was finishing up the other night, I looked at him and that’s when the idea about the puppy sprang into my head. At the pound they had lots of cats and tried to talk me into one, but they’re too independent. I wanted a puppy.
Today, when Jerome got home from work he went into the bedroom to get a change of clothes from his suitcase. When he came out the room, I had the puppy sitting on the kitchen table. He walked over, looked at it, and didn’t say a word.
“What you think? I asked him.
“About what?” he said, rubbing his hands across his scar.
“The puppy. You want him or not?”
“You think it’d be all right?
“It’d be all right as long as you teach him to do his business outside and not on my floors.”
Jerome nodded, scooped up the puppy, and went into the living room. He turned on the TV, then sat down on the couch.
Later, I was working on a new ship and Jerome came over carrying the puppy. When I looked up, two pairs of wet brown eyes were staring at me.
“What you gonna call him?” I asked, threading some rigging.
“What’s the name of that one over there?” he asked pointing at the Barque near the fireplace.
“Freedom,” I replied.
“That’s what I’m gonna call him,” he said, stroking the puppy’s head.
Now, though it’s late and TV’s flickering light is playing shadow games on the wall, Jerome’s still out there on the couch talking a blue streak to Freedom. And I suspect that puppy’s sitting there listening.
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 30 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Rigorous, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.
© 2019, J L Higgs