It occurred to me I hadn’t posted a short story in a while. This one felt appropriate. Enjoy~
When I saw Dorian coming up Clinton Avenue, I’d cross the street. Whether or not I had the right of way. Whether or not it made me late. Whether I struggled with a packed shopping cart at nightfall, or strolled by in cutoffs and flip-flops to sun at Fort Greene Park. Only one thing mattered: that I avoid eye contact with my uncle.
Dorian had once been first in his class at Brooklyn Tech. He was in the Air Force for a while. In my childhood, he was the only consistent male role model I had, but I knew a different version of him then. He’d taken his high-school sweetheart on a first date wearing an all-white silk suit and grey shark skin shoes; it was tough, squaring that image with the man I later knew. The person he had become made rounds through the neighborhood wearing overlapping strands of red, black, and green beads across his neck. Over those were roped dozens of religious pendants: Jesus with neon white eyes, a brown Mary with outstretched arms, tangled among layers of crosses of fake silver and gold. And in the crook of one arm, always present, was his Bible. Dorian couldn’t eat or sleep without it. I mean this literally. Toward the end, he couldn’t use the bathroom without having it in his sight.
Sometimes he took me to day care when my mom needed the help. We took the bus up Myrtle Avenue in the mornings, and depending on my mother’s schedule in the evenings, we took the same bus down Myrtle back home. He would carry my book bag for me and say, “What’s in this thing, bricks?” He would chuckle at my loud, winding stories about important five-year-old matters. Later, when I was in the seventh grade and home on a blustery snow day in January, my uncle taught me how to play chess. He adjusted his thick, brown glasses often. His tone was quiet, measured and patient, as he explained the pieces: the rook, the knight, the queen.
It was distressing–an understatement–to see a loved one slowly and painfully morph into someone altogether different. A stranger, really. This version of Dorian needed fistfuls of medications to function. There were powdered tabs and multi-colored gel caps. Some were on his nightstand in squat orange bottles; others were liquids, kept in a fridge. I learned too much about them. Combivir, norvir, zidovudine. Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Gilead, Bristol-Myers Squibb. When he couldn’t remember to take his meds anymore, the bottles vanished and a nurse would come in with the pills in little paper cups. She came in every few hours, then every hour, depending on how sick he was on a given day. “I’m back, Dorian, did you miss me?” she’d ask playfully. He’d say “Yes” in the voice of a ten-year-old.
Dorian was the man I’d grown up with, and I’d loved him. And then later in life, I avoided him. He wore clothes given to him by shelters or emergency rooms, and scuffled around Brooklyn, clutching his Good Book—at this point almost unrecognizable beneath layers of neon Post-it notes. Occasionally though, he’d catch me off guard, connect with me through his scarred bifocals. He would take a step toward me, sometimes calling my name and sometimes not—and then whisper quickly: “Don’t send yourself to hell. Jesus has made me His almighty prophet. I’m the blessed messenger. Hear the Word and be made whole. He is the way. His wrath is on the horizon. Heed my words.” And then he’d wish me a great Agape day. I would turn from him, mortified and stunned into silence, while he shuffled away, often humming, utterly unaware of his effect on me.