They called him “Baby Brother” because he was the only boy and he was the youngest. When he came home from the War, he demanded that they call him by his given name. But his given name was his late Father’s name, and his Father had been a man not too nice (though the Women–even the one who still bore his scars–would never admit it now that the Father was dead). So they and he settled on his middle name–the name the Father had but had not been called.
But to each other, the Women called him “Brother.”
He got into a little trouble with the law. After his conviction, all the Women got together and cried. They worried about what would happen in prison to his beautiful smile that could sunshine the darkest corners of a room. They worried that he would lose his ability to play his guitar in that way that could lift the joyful and pure spirit from the devil himself. Would his laugh dim, his stories dry up? They worried and cried.
The Women took turns visiting him, enduring the long bus rides with other women and their crying babies and sullen-looking little children. They brought him cigarettes and homemade brownies and fresh socks. He looked across the table at them and cried and the Women’s hearts fractured. When he was released after years all the Women were there at the gate to welcome him back to their lives and their homes.
Brother had found God in prison, and upon his release he checked in first with his parole officer and next with his boyhood church. Preacher welcomed him into the congregation, thanking God that he had managed to save such a lost Soul. After church the church ladies hugged his head to their chests and cried and thanked God for this one’s return. They remembered Brother as a small boy, playing his guitar with the choir, everyone amazed at his talent–evidence, surely, of God’s gifts. (A few people remembered small-boy Brother pulling all the bows out of little Pearl’s hair and pushing little Yvonne down the basement steps and stealing little Joseph’s money that his grandmother had given him to put in the collection plate. These people said nothing.)
After four Sundays Preacher asked Brother not to return. Over $600 for the church fund to replace two broken windows was missing, and he had been the last one to see the money. Brother called Preacher a bastard and loudly proclaimed his innocence to the White Jesus in the broken stained glass window on his way out of the sanctuary.
At home the Women cried and cursed Preacher for blaming Brother just because he had a record.
That evening Brother used the money he had taken from the church to make $300 more playing dice and pool.
Two weeks later Brother had caught another case.
His second conviction, one of the Women chose not to make the bus rides to the prison. She had remembered his smile and his guitar playing and his laugh and his stories. But she had also begun to think about the time Brother shut the kitchen door on her hand. She remembered how the other Women scolded her for frightening Brother with her screams and for not watching him as she was told. She thought about the time she caught Brother behind the shed with the slow girl from down the street, the one the neighborhood children had called China because of the way her eyes drooped. She remembered the girl’s tears and Brother’s pleas for her to remain quiet.
The other Women cursed her for not supporting Brother. They visited the prison without her. When he was released after years the Women minus the one were there at the gate to welcome him back to their lives and their homes.
Brother had found Allah in prison. He had also met and married a Wife. The Women minus the one went with Brother and his Wife to the temple. They sat on one side of the aisle and Brother and the other men sat on the other. They went to the naming ceremony when his first child–a Son–was born.
A year after the birth of his son, Brother caught another case. The Women minus the one held their breath in court, fearing Brother’s third and final strike. But the only witness–a small, elderly Hispanic woman who ran a neighborhood grocery–understood and spoke English so poorly that she contradicted herself several times. At one point she pointed to Brother and called him Denzel Washington. The courtroom laughed. The jury had no choice but to dismiss.
Five months after the trial Brother and his Wife welcomed their Second Son. The Women minus the one went to that naming ceremony. The Wife wore dark glasses and a scarf around her neck as well as around her head. The First Son was quiet and his eyes were dull. The Women did not stay for the meal.
By his third conviction three others of the Women did not even attend the trial.
One did not attend because she had died. She had been found dead in the home she had purchased 30 years ago. All of her jewelry was gone, as well as the artwork on the walls. Her refrigerator was empty, and her electricity had been shut off for at least two weeks. The windows were shut tight. Even with the bars over them she had, apparently, nailed them shut to increase her safety against the creeping neighborhood danger beyond her doors. The temperature outside had been 102 degrees. Inside it was at least 10 degrees warmer. The local news channel did a story about the Woman, and 14 other elderly people who had died that week from the heat.
Brother had been living with her. He had claimed no idea what had happened to the jewelry or the artwork or the food or the electricity. He claimed he had been staying with a girlfriend (his Wife was no longer his Wife) and had assumed the Woman was fine.
The second Woman had been beaten in her formal living room by three men who said Brother owed them money. They threatened to burn down her house if she or Brother did not pay them what he owed. The second Woman had called Preacher and he and four others had taken turns on guard at her house for the next four days and four nights. The men never came back. Brother had come by a few days later. He told the Woman it had all been a misunderstanding and that he had gotten paid from a new job he had, and then paid the men. She vowed to never see or talk to Brother again.
The third Woman had gotten into an argument with Brother (after the first Woman had been found dead and before the second Woman had been beaten). Brother had arrived–unplanned and unannounced–at the high school and picked up her Daughter and one of her daughter’s friends from volleyball practice. The girls had thought it cool at first to be riding around with a fine man in an even finer car, instead of taking the 4:23 #17 as they did usually. He had played them the latest songs on his car stereo and let them roll all of the windows down. They cruised past friends waiting at bus stops and hanging outside of fast food restaurants. He had offered them a joint. The Daughter had refused but the Friend was grateful. After more than an hour, though, the girls had started to feel odd about the adventure and asked to be taken home. He told them both how beautiful and grown up they looked for their age and offered to pick them up the next day. The Daughter had nervously said yes before running with her Friend inside the house.
The third Woman had told Brother to never come to the house again and to never ever come near her Daughter. Brother said she was sick for thinking such things about him and his own niece.
So one Woman was left to visit Brother in prison, this time in a neighboring state. The first year she traveled seven hours by car to visit him. By the second year he had been transferred and the drive was now almost 12 hours. By the third year she only sent him packages in the mail. By the fourth year she had stopped opening up his letters telling her he was saved again, or going to earn his degree, or getting a new attorney to reopen his false conviction and, at the end, always, asking for more money. By the fifth year she had asked prison officials to take her name off of the list as a person he was allowed to telephone.
Years after this, the second Woman long since dead by cancer, the last Woman heard a knock at her door. Opening it, she gasped and was for a moment taken aback. Standing before her was Baby Brother. Not Baby Brother who was now in prison for the rest of his life, but Baby Brother as he had been at 19. This was Baby Brother’s oldest Son, who she had not seen since he was a small boy. Could he stay with her for a while, he wondered, his smile full of sunshine, just until he could get back on his feet? He had been in a little trouble with the law and was looking to make a fresh start in a new city. Did she have room in her life and in her home for him?