Standing rather than sitting, and allowing the train to rock her from side to side, Joselyn focused on the window to her right. Held up above the city, she regarded what the El carried her by with a sort of tired trepidation: the pawn shops and Dollar Trees lining Kensington Avenue; the Chinese restaurants that sold Newports and the corner stores haunted by hookers and slingers.
Joselyn acknowledged them all in pairs. They too seemed to acknowledge her right back. They turned and stared. They watched her pass by and move farther and farther away, both parties knowing she would be back not much later. And as she left them, as the scenery began to change, her focus shifted down to a book she’d been holding. She fanned its pages: Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel.” His sharp Nebraska landscape clawed its way down her pupils, and she wondered, what stood against this grey swampish hush? How did she fit in to all of this? What character would she have been, had Crane met her?
She didn’t know.
What she did know, though, was that she would soon hide her book away in her backpack and pull out a knife instead. She knew that she was leaving Kensington and going downtown to find a certain solace in the pockets and purses of strangers. She knew about the pistol in Kenny’s waste-band, but not if he’d listened to her when she told him he didn’t need to load it. She knew that some people found ways to leave and not come back. As to whether or not she was one of them, she couldn’t say.
Kenny had been squinting at the book, so quickly, she turned its cover away from him. She didn’t feel like explaining why she was reading it; he wouldn’t understand. Even less would he get why she’d snatched Jackie Curtis’ college English syllabus. She had tried to get Kenny to read certain books. His reactions had always been brief and staunch, though: Holden Caulfield was a spoiled little white boy; the invisible man was a bitch and a poser; and Scout Finch was really just a punk. So, she figured, she would keep Crane from Kenny.
“Yo,” she said to him, trying to distract his attention from the book. The El was pulling away from the York-Dauphin station. “You think Nebraska’s a fucked up place.”
“It’s hella sus,” he offered, taking his backpack off and setting it on the floor between his legs. “Little niggas be gettin’ lost in the mountains and shit.”
“Dumbass, ain’t no mountains. It’s plains, motherfucker.”
“And you know this cuz you been there and shit.”
“Don’t need to. Read a book, son. Real talk, though, I ain’t never been outta Philly.”
“Shit,” she scoffed, “you say that like you have. My nigga, you never even left Kensington.”
“We leavin’ Kensington right now, my nigga.”
“Yeah, well business is business and pleasure is pleasure. Tell me when you leave for the latter, son.”
“Nevermind.” She looked back outside, embarrassed and feeling Kenny’s confusion spread between them.
“Man,” he said, breaking the silence, “speak for yourself. It ain’t impossible to mix business and pleasure. This shit can be fun, yo. Maybe just loosen up. Put the book away for once, you dead look dumb tight lately.”
The doors opened onto Spring Garden Avenue. Joselyn wasn’t tight, she told herself. But if she had been, Kenny would’ve known shit about it. She hadn’t told anyone that her pops had been arrested the previous night for breaking into the church on Girard. He’d been caught at it once before. Supposedly there was a kid who used to be an altar boy there, and for a pack of blunt wraps and a pint of gin, he would tell her pops where the priest stashed the donations. He never reached the cash, though. They always caught him in the walk-in cooler, a bottle of communion wine turned upside down and pouring all over his mouth.
It was only a matter of hours until Joselyn’s aunt would find out, and then subsequently the rest of the neighborhood. Until then, though, Joselyn didn’t want people, least of all Kenny, knowing when she was tight. That’s why she didn’t tell him about her pops. That’s the same reason she held Andrea Beck up against the fence on Hagert Street with Kenny’s knife at her throat. She made white girl promise she wouldn’t tell anyone at school that she served Joselyn’s mom at St. Francis Inn.
For a moment, she looked at Kenny and wished that he were Stephen Crane. Then maybe she’d have a chance to ask someone a real question. She loved Kenny more than she would ever admit, but real talk with him would never answer the questions that kept her up at night.
Like, Am I the Swede?, buying into a generalized idea of a society? How many times had Kenny told her these people wouldn’t miss a few bucks? Or, Am I Johnny? – The cowboy? – The gambler? Had she given in and accepted these stereotypes that she had for so long denounced as racist and untrue? Was she simply preparing to thread herself into the fraying fabric of human history?
Either way, Joselyn realized as the El barreled from 13th to 15th in a mad panic of overdue epiphany, she was fucked. If she had to choose, it’d be the latter considering they were on their way downtown where they would hold up as many drunk hipsters as possible.
Joselyn had been staring at Kenny since 8th, and he finally noticed just as the El was slowing. He laughed and asked her what she was bugging for. How many times did they have to do this before she got used to it? She wouldn’t have had an answer. But she almost asked him whether or not he was okay with becoming his pops. She almost asked him if he even figured that he had a choice. She almost asked him if he figured it made a difference whether or not they went through with the run or gave it up and went back to Kensington. Were they not becoming their parents either way?
Instead the doors opened onto 15th and Kenny smiled, patted her leg, and told her that they’d be good – that he wasn’t going anywhere.
Kenny was scanning a two-story bar and grill on 15th, his fingers running over the new fade Joselyn had pretended not to notice earlier. “Yo, real talk, though,” he started, “this part of town is wavy. We should deadass come back here and turnup tonight after we done.”
“You mean after we clip enough money.” Kenny turned away from the bar and looked down at Joselyn. She knew they’d had this conversation before, and each time, even she grew tired of bothering him with it.
“You tight,” he smiled.
“Okay, so you not tight.” He’d taken off his backpack and pulled an L from behind his ear to light. “But straight up we go back and forth like this…shit, it seems every time we make a run now. So what’s good? You not tryin’ to fuck with me no more or some shit?”
Joselyn dropped her backpack as well and began tying her hair into a ponytail. It was the same one Kenny used to tug on as he chased her around the playground when they were in kindergarten.
“Shit, son,” she began, puffing twice on the L she’d taken from him, “you a lowkey cry baby you know that.”
“Who a cry baby?”
She smiled, dropped her head onto his shoulder.
“Nah, son,” she went on. “It’s not like that at all.” As she pulled on the blunt again, those same questions seemed to unfold before her in curls of dirty yellow smoke. “Fuck, I don’t know, son. You never liked any of the books I gave you.”
“Wait, what we talkin’ about here? You tight with me cuz of some whack books?”
“Nahh, son. I don’t know. I guess, like, do you ever feel trapped or some shit? Like no matter what you do, you’re gonna run back into a cycle of things you don’t want to be a part of? Like you’re just a clone of your parents or some shit and Kensington is just one big hamster wheel that you’re going to run up your whole life until you’re shot or busted or some other bullshit? It’s like this Crane dude. Do you ever feel like Johnny? Or the gambler at the end? I mean fuck, son, this dude wanted out. Wanted no part. Do you ever just say you want no part and then you just get shoved in anyway? And then you’re the one who’s left fucked up even though you knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. Come on, Kenny, you have to feel like the gambler, please tell me you feel like the gambler.”
Kenny took the blunt from her and pulled nice and long on it before responding.
“Nah, nigga, I feel like Kenny most days.” He tried to laugh her off, but she could tell she’d gotten to him. Even if he didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. “Shit, B, what do you want me to say? What are we supposed to do?”
He gave a soft tug on her ponytail and planted a kiss on her left cheek.
“We don’t need to go on a run today,” he offered. “Deadass we don’t need to go no more if that’s how you want it. You just gotta speak English, B. I don’t know who this Crane bum is but he be speaking some Russian or some shit.”
She laughed, sat upright. He dropped the L on the ground and put it out under his boot.
“So is that how you want it?” he asked. “We out?”
Joselyn looked from Kenny and then back onto 15th street. The sun had began to set onto an assembly line of teetering twenty-somethings. Out of one bar they came, and then down the block and into another they went. They shoved one another up and down the sidewalk, laughing hysterically into the drunkenly warm night.
And then there was Joselyn’s mom, somewhere back in Kensington, maybe waiting on Hagert for a ticket to tomorrow’s lunch.
“Jos.” She looked up at Kenny who’d already stood, his backpack on and smiling down at her. “We out? Back to Kensington?”
In turn, she looked up at the bar they had been sitting under and, again, couldn’t help but wish that Kenny had been Stephen Crane, even just for a moment. She would’ve asked him what difference it would’ve made.
“Nah, son,” she said. “We can stay. I’m straight.”
Bo Fisher lives in the Belmont section of the Bronx, NY and is originally from Columbus, OH. His fiction and poetry have most recently appeared in Monkeybicycle, Contraposition, The Underground, and 826NYC's SuperSaver.