Fiction • Jamel Brinkley
Lincoln Murray was sucking in his stomach on the crowded morning subway. He struggled to keep it from touching anyone, especially the young woman in front of him. Her throat was cool with perfume. Now in his midfifties, Lincoln withheld himself by habit, letting his stomach settle into its full hanging bulge only in the privacy of home. His wife would tease him while reaching out in the same moment to soothe his paunch and his pride. Like his wife’s scent, the young woman’s perfume recalled for him bright citrus. A finger drawn lightly across her throat, an accident of that kind, and he’d have some trace of her for the rest of the day. The young woman’s face was smooth and dark and glowing. She looked only a few years older than his daughter. The white plastic buds in her ears let out a loud, constant hum, and the wires connecting them to her phone were caught in two tangles. The young woman had eaten a healthy cereal with almond milk for breakfast, he guessed, or maybe she’d taken the time to pack spinach and cucumber and apple into a machine for fresh juice. Drank it wearing whatever she slept in, something pale yellow and good for springtime that floated around her at the thighs. Maybe she had a lover and had stood this morning drinking the juice in one of his shirts.
As the train rocked, not always gently, Lincoln leaned in to see if he could discern what the woman was listening to. Working at the Tilden School, even more than his relationship with his daughter, meant that he knew the music of young people. All he could tell was that the voice was female. He imagined one of those new soul singers with respectable clothing and a bloom of natural hair. His wife would watch them on television. This prompted him to smile at the young woman, but she kept her lids narrowed, eyes dull crescents, and her attention lingered somewhere beyond him. The cooling system in the car wheezed as it pumped in air that was almost hot, and sweat pearled a little on the woman’s nose and darkened her T-shirt at the chest.
They were in the last car, which would let Lincoln out at the stairs closest to West Ninety-third Street and Broadway, only five blocks away from the school. The way the subway operator drove made the last car feel dislodged from the rails; it seemed only loosely connected to the rest of the train. Approaching Penn Station, the train took turns that he hadn’t felt on other mornings, turns that seemed to belong to another route and knocked the commuters in the last car against each other. Through it all, they avoided making eye contact, as people in the city tend to do.
When the doors opened the crowd dispersed somewhat and the young woman took one of several seats that opened nearby. Lincoln stood over her and held on to a pole. He took his phone from his left pocket, a gift from his wife, who had said when she gave it to him that it wasn’t fun anymore to ridicule his old, dented flip phone. Lincoln was slow to follow technology. He read the message from Tanisha again, even though there was nothing to it. He’d read it several times since it had been sent the previous night. My bus gets to Port Auth at 4 tomorrow, daddy, the message read. Meet me? I can’t wait to see you. That was all. She had a job on campus for the summer, but was coming home for a couple of weeks after her first year.
The sweetness of the message had gotten to him. He hadn’t expected such sweetness. The safe bet was that his wife would have turned their daughter against him. In his mind, they were always together. Even when their daughter misbehaved as a child, Lincoln was often alone. In the middle of a scolding, something would overwhelm his wife’s anger—some deep pleasure, he sensed—and she would be drawn toward the defiance in Tanisha’s face. When they talked alone in the bedroom before sleep, she called it strength and argued that they shouldn’t be so quick to discourage it in a little girl. But even before she said anything he could feel her softening and drifting to the other side. He knew. She and their daughter were the same way.
The young woman was the same way too. She could use her face like that, he thought. If she had a lover, she would show him that face. Something like a scowl, it seemed different on women of a certain beauty, like they never had to justify their use of it—they just assumed they had the right. Like some children of wealth, children who grow up making no effort in life, only demanding from it. Lincoln could see the young woman fussing about any little thing or wearing an outfit too revealing when she went dancing with her girlfriends. He could see her being cruel to her lover in everyday speech, doing worse things. The lover would forgive her soon, if not at once, but why? The secret had to be in that face, the way it ripped at symmetries, contorted beauty. He felt it was a kind of threat, and he, like the woman’s lover, was weak against it.
The train pulled away from the Times Square station, and there were more seats available, but Lincoln saw no point in sitting for only two stops. The train took an abrupt turn, and he fumbled his phone a bit. Pleased about not dropping it, he held it up and smiled, showing the young woman his little triumph. He noticed they had the same hard blue casing on their phones, so he showed it to her again and said, “Will you look at that?” The young woman didn’t reply. Still listening to her loud music, she exhaled heavily and turned her head to the empty space on her left, as if to share a bug-eyed glance with a friend there. One of her earrings, a long and loose silver strand, made a brief spiral around one of the white wires and unwound itself. Lincoln then forced his attention to his phone, touching the screen. The young woman looked up at him and there it was. He touched the part of the screen that made the phone into a camera and quickly took a picture, without noise or the flash of light. He took another picture before thumbing the button that made the screen go dark. Pocketing the phone and holding it there, as if it would leap out otherwise, he made a show of studying a poem by Robert Hayden above him where product advertisements would normally be. “Those Winter Sundays,” he read, but couldn’t get beyond the title because he felt the steady eyes of the young woman questioning him. After the Seventy-second Street Station, Lincoln moved away from her, stood for a moment facing the nearest doors, and then went to the ones farthest away. In the tunnel, until his stop, he swayed with the movements of the train and shivered in front of the scratched glass, rapt in the darkness, oblivious to the passing streaks of light.
Something feverish coursed through the avenues of the city that morning. After weeks of disappointing weather, it was finally and fully spring. Rain clouds had been wrung away, leaving a clarity of unbroken sky and a sheen on everyone’s limbs. Lincoln unbuttoned his cuffs and folded them back, exposing his wrists to the mild breeze. He walked toward the school still holding the phone in his pocket. Passing the Goldfinch Academy, the all-girls school that obsessed the boys from Tilden, Lincoln knocked on the loose pane of a window and waved. Sidney had been a security guard there longer than Lincoln’s sixteen years at Tilden, and his hair was more fully gray. Over beers he liked to use the authority of his tenure and his grayness to proclaim, in a heavy Bajan accent, that Tilden boys had always preferred the girls at Goldfinch to their own. They were prettier, he said, and more likely to participate in those rainbow parties. Lincoln had heard about the parties. He heard lots of things from students, but he had also heard about them from Tanisha after she transferred from Goldfinch to Tilden. She had called the parties nasty, said that they were things the white girls went to and that she would never go, but though he didn’t admit it to his wife, Lincoln wondered what their daughter did once she was allowed to have late nights and sleepovers in the city.
The Tilden School was the longest continually running independent school in the city and the fourth oldest in the country. Lincoln liked to walk past the doors and place his palm on the cornerstone, still cool in the early morning, before he went inside. The kids addressed him by his first name, and he was almost popular among them. He got high fives from three freshmen outside the student lounge, already raucous with shrill laughter, deodorant, and young sweat, boys hooting and girls lifting their faces to the fluorescent lights. At the security desk, James wasted no time in starting a chatter, in the middle of a sentence, it seemed. A younger man, still a bachelor, James kept his shirtsleeves rolled far past his ashen elbows, showing his hard forearms and the slopes of his biceps, and he flapped his blue necktie as he talked, about sports or in poorly coded language about his latest triumph. In Lincoln’s opinion, he really thought about women that way. James talked on, and Lincoln still held the phone in his pocket as he halfheartedly listened. When he took his hand out he rubbed the moisture from it on the thigh of his uniform.
Before long he took a break from James’s coarse jokes, and from idle chats with students who had free periods, to linger in a stall of the boys’ restroom with his phone. Sitting in his pants on the toilet seat, he slid his thumb across the screen and studied the pictures of the young woman on the subway. The first image was blurry, the second one clear: Her rigid mouth—the scowl there—and tensed nostrils. Her earrings had managed to seize the light, forming two slivers of visible heat on either side of her jaw. But what disconcerted Lincoln was a kind of raw serendipity. He had caught her gaze at a moment when it seemed to shoot directly into and almost through the frame. She stared from the phone directly at him. None of the other pictures were this way. There were nearly seventy now—mostly women who looked like they were in their twenties or thirties, a few clearly in their middle years—and in every one but this, the looks coming from the agitated faces were unaware, oblique.
Two students came into the restroom, and Lincoln put the phone away as if the door to the stall weren’t closed and locked. As the boys gabbed at the urinals, he thought about his pictures. They were all pictures of faces, not that other kind. He knew how easy those would be to take, trailing a college student, her long hair swaying in a braid as she walked in workout clothes on sun-warmed streets, or behind a young wife coming up from the subway in her ladylike way, slim fingers pressing the billowing edge of her skirt against the backs of her thighs. Tanisha said that boys took these sorts of pictures all the time. When the two boys left, without washing their hands, Lincoln felt uncomfortable staying in the restroom and took one last look at the most recent picture, trying to fix the image in his mind. This might be the one. As he received visitors and checked IDs at the desk, the image would be there and at some moment he might understand it, the power held by such a face.
It didn’t take long for James to ask about Alexis. He made no secret of his fondness for Lincoln’s wife, and she inspired many of his jokes. He said her first name familiarly, almost lewdly. She was forty-six, ten years older than James, but she could have easily passed for his age or younger. Unlike her husband, she had kept her looks. Her arms were toned and her stomach was nearly flat. The years had only improved the shape of her hips. Her face was smooth, marked by a few tiny lines around her eyes only when she lost herself in laughter. She liked to say, “Black don’t crack.” When James joked, she was the inspiration and Lincoln was the target.
“Lexi hasn’t been by here in a while,” James said. Lincoln had warned him before about calling her that. He thought it was a pornographic name, a stripper’s name.
“She’s off visiting her people down by Richmond,” Lincoln replied, telling all he was willing to admit.
“I miss when she brings in those cakes.”
Lincoln crossed his legs at the ankles and began tapping the blunt end of a pen on his clipboard.
“Chocolate frosting,” James said, flapping his tie. “Lemon frosting… Lemon’s good but you know brothers like that chocolate best.”
Alexis worked three-quarter time assisting the manuscripts curator of the Schomburg Center in Harlem. She would sometimes take the short taxi ride down to Tilden during her lunch break on Mondays and bring in desserts she had baked over the weekend. She liked to show her appreciation of the security and maintenance staffs, “the invisible folks,” she called them, because they seemed to be the only black and brown people in the school. This wasn’t far from the truth. After Tanisha transferred in for high school, Alexis become known among some administrators as a rabble-rouser for diversity. Her Monday visits always caused a stir—not only among the men—but she hadn’t been by in a month. It had been nearly that long since Lincoln had seen her, that long since they had last spoken. Before taking vacation days for her trip to Virginia, she had spent some time in Jersey City with her girlfriend Petra.
“I think you might be keeping her under lock and key,” James was saying. “Can’t blame a man for wanting those cakes all to himself.”
Lincoln smiled weakly, trying to be a good sport, but he was gripped for a moment by a reckless idea. He tried to think instead about the face of the young woman on the subway, to see it clearly enough to contemplate it.
“Hope to God you bring her to the end-of-year party, though. She looked like a queen at Christmas. Finer than frog hair, like my cousins and them say. Jet Beauty of the Week, you know what I mean. Tell her I said hello, all right?”
Lincoln gave an imperceptible nod and tapped his pen more rapidly. The woman’s face was vague in his mind, then gone.
“Hey, tell Lexi I said hello, okay chief?” James said.
His face burning, Lincoln threw the pen at James, a blind, broken gesture. It bounced feebly off the younger man’s chest.
“What the hell, man?” James said, rising. “What the hell?”
A group of students nearby fell silent and stared at them.
“You could’ve put out my eye,” James continued. This wasn’t true, but his brow and the activity of his arms said that he was ready for a fight.
Lincoln picked up the pen and held it in the space between his knees, rolling it with his fingers as he spoke. “Don’t talk about my wife,” he said quietly.
James’s face softened to puzzlement and then consideration. He noticed the students and told them to go on about their business. He sat back down as the students turned or walked away. “Come on, man,” he said to Lincoln, tapping him on the shoulder. He leaned closer and let his voice fall to a whisper. “Come on, chief, you know I’m just messing with you.”
Lincoln acknowledged this with a nod, his head still heavy and hanging low. All that he held at bay from even the surface of his thinking sank to an unavoidable depth.
“I’m just jealous is all, man, you know that. You’re a lucky dude. I wish I could get me a fine woman like that. A good woman.”
“A good woman,” Lincoln repeated vaguely.
James tilted his head sideways like a cat. He sucked his teeth and shook his head, commiserating as if Lincoln had already explained everything, or as if he didn’t have to. Men were men and women were women, his gestures seemed to say. And that was that. “I know how it is, man,” he said. He rose again and the students stared again. He leaned over and wrapped Lincoln’s slumping body in his powerful arms. Lincoln felt like he was held for a long time.
After that, James mostly left him alone or, in a brotherly way, uttered vague words of support. “It’s gonna be all right,” he’d say, or, “Don’t even worry about it.” He started doing everything. He jumped to answer phone calls, hand out visitor passes, sign when the UPS man showed up with packages. He made sure the kids hanging out in the student lounge stayed under control. But he was mistaken if he thought he was doing Lincoln a favor, because the older man was left with nothing to do but confront his wife’s face, which loomed at him now in a spectral way. Lincoln tried to read the Times, the article about the Cleveland man charged for his crimes against those girls, but he kept thinking about his wife and her face.
When Lincoln met Alexis, twenty-two years earlier, they were commensurate with one another. He was as handsome as she was beautiful, and despite their age difference he had as much to expect from the coming years as she did. Lincoln courted her in Richmond with a passion rooted in his certainty about himself. He’d been a good student, and had excelled at boxing and football; his life had been full of prizes, trophies, and scholarships. He’d had more than his share of attention from women and had enjoyed the warmth and cheer of many friends. He thought often about the question of what lay ahead in his life, but when he tried to see the firm outlines of it, he couldn’t—it was indistinct with light. It had been that way with her. With other girls, there was no limit to how long his eyes could feast on the shape of legs glistening out of their stockings, the coy retreat of a trembling hand, the flash of tongue in their laughing mouths. Looking at Alexis Whitfield was like gazing into the sun. After just a few moments, he had to look away. At Garfield’s Bar he would tell his friends that it hurt to look at her, and they would agree, mistaking his words for hyperbole. On one of those nights at Garfield’s it occurred to him only briefly that love was pain.
His father, who dispensed wisdom while rubbing his knees or soaking his feet, had always told him you better don’t. Better don’t be fooled by the slenderness of a girl’s waist or the roundness of her behind. Not if you’re thinking about marrying her. If your heart and mind were inclined in that direction, he’d say, what you’d better do is have a look at her mother, because that’s what she would become. It was the lore in those days—heard as often as stand by your man—so he took it seriously. He would succeed where his father, for many years a lonely man, had failed.
He was worried on the drive down to meet Mrs. Whitfield. Despite the lovely girl sitting beside him, he didn’t expect much from a widow in a little unincorporated town called Hobson. “What’s the name of the creek again?” he’d ask in the car. “Chuckatuck,” she’d reply with a laugh. “And the river on the other side is Nansemond,” she told him. “Then there’s Nix Cove. Good fishing.” All he could do was shake his head. When they got to Hobson, there were men on Mrs. Whitfield’s porch, none inside. During the visit, Lincoln would have to leave from time to time to sit out there with them. Men of a kind can bear only so much light. It might not have been true that Mrs. Whitfield was even prettier than her daughter, but Lincoln couldn’t tell because his eyes wouldn’t follow her. Sitting out with the men, blowing steam from his cup of coffee as they blew it from theirs, he knew he had more in common with them—a small part of him had fallen for the widow too. He and the men shared a certain affliction but they wouldn’t talk about it; in fact, none of them said a word. Better not to speak than to tell a lie. On the drive back, Lincoln decided before the car even got to Newport News that he had to marry Mrs. Whitfield’s daughter.
James kept busy doing the work of both of them, with energy but not much effort, while Lincoln sat with his belly on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets tired of saying thank you, sick and tired of good luck. When he was engaged to Alexis Whitfield, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would agree, saying how thankful he was for her, but this wasn’t really true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was wrong with the world.
Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? Lincoln wondered again as James snipped withered leaves from the spider plants, a thing he never did. Has Petra said that to her? Does her mother tell her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Lincoln sensed that this was foolish thinking, just as it was probably foolish to think that Tanisha would spend these years breaking the hearts of Georgetown boys because they weren’t like him. He understood this had always been part of his vision for himself—to have children who adored him, a son who idolized him, a daughter for whom no other man would ever measure up. This was part of what he couldn’t see before he married. But there was no son, and the years of his daughter’s life had marked his decline.
She had grown up watching it. His professional gambles had failed, the boxing gyms and the attempts at training and managing. He was no longer given opportunities because of his charm or stature, and in New York he had no reputation. He was lucky, he knew, to have his job at Tilden. Years ago he and his wife had deserved each other, but time had not treated them equally. Why did he expect otherwise? With any two people one would get the brunt of it, and time had hit him worse than any beating he’d ever seen in the ring. He felt it had brutalized him. What did his wife think about it? She had to have thoughts; long-married, you were forced to witness or suffer such brutality. He wondered, not for the first time, if this was what marriage meant.
In front of the director’s office, across from the front desk, James pulled the director of security aside. Lincoln couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the discussion had the look of seriousness. He rose and approached them, but the director stopped him short with a flat stony hand, which he closed into a fist before lowering. Lincoln went back to his chair.
One day his wife’s looks would go. Creases would line her face, the skin there would loosen and thin, pouches would form under her eyes, maybe little dewlaps like his under the jaw. Everything cracks eventually. But when? How long would it be his good fortune to have her? How long until he could just have her again? Her still-smooth face. He longed for it even after all these years, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair—there was no diminishment of that feeling, he still had those appetites. Yet he felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face too, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it. When pulled by contrary desires you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.
But Lincoln was a man with luck—yes, he had it, James had said so and he was right. Good fortune can change in an instant, however, or it might never, but whatever it does has nothing to do with you. For years it had persisted in following him. It went home from work with him, lived with his family, claimed its space between him and his wife on their bed. She still had her light, but his was his luck. If it left him, she would too. No one would blame her. Neither Petra nor her other girlfriends, nor her mother, nor their daughter. Nor James. Maybe James had been wrong earlier. Maybe Lincoln’s luck had already abandoned him—his wife was gone for now, after all. Or maybe Lincoln was the one with wrong notions—maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the strength to even hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.
The director of security came over with James smiling at his side. He told Lincoln to take off early; he didn’t look well and hadn’t for days. People on this team looked out for one another, the director proclaimed. He nodded to James while saying this and then fixed his light gray eyes back on Lincoln. The director was a big man, a former marine and police officer. He had a hard face that splotched red in winter. When he started working as the director, Lincoln had the impression that he was still learning how to be gentle. The cushion on his voice was thin, and he didn’t like it when his kindness was declined. Not knowing what to say, Lincoln ended up thanking him, but the director dismissed this and told Lincoln to take the next day off too, a couple of days if need be. The team would pick up the slack.
Lincoln spent a long time eyeing the labels on the packages and moving things around on the desk, lingering until dismissal time to leave so he could be swept out of the building by the onrush of students. Outside, he kept looking back through the glass doors at James and the director, who waved him on, playfully shooing him. All three divisions flooded the sidewalk, and SUVs had started to line up on the curb. As he approached Columbus Avenue, passing Tilden’s more modern middle- and lower-school buildings, Lincoln had to take special care to avoid bumping into the youngest students. The next few blocks would be like this, as the kids from Tilden, Goldfinch, and two other neighborhood schools liked to intermingle.
He thought about tapping on the window at Goldfinch to gloat, but his leaving early didn’t feel like a thing to gloat about, and Sidney was busy dealing with the girls and their mothers and caregivers. He made slow progress on the sidewalk between the avenues but he didn’t want to cross the street or change his usual route to the subway station. The girls’ voices, a net of sound that rose into a kind of keening, comforted him. He remembered walking over from Tilden to get Tanisha at dismissal time, before she was old enough to cross the streets by herself. She never liked it when he held her hand, and would snatch it away as soon as she set foot on the sidewalk.
The uniform the youngest girls wore hadn’t changed much over the years. The jumpers were a darker shade of blue, and the shirts now had rounded collars; otherwise they were the same. A few familiar faces remained among the caregivers, though they were older now, and Lincoln exchanged nods or smiles with even those brown faces he didn’t recognize. High-school boys, some from Tilden, wove their way through the crowd grinning. One boy shouted to a tall Japanese-looking girl about the upcoming weekend, but to Lincoln that seemed very far away. This moment appealed to him, and he didn’t want it to end. As he stood there, he felt a stirring on his body, but it was only the vibration of his phone in his pocket. After being jostled by a couple of lower-school girls, he moved over to an open space near the curb. It was a message from Tanisha, telling him that her bus would get in about half an hour early. He took a few idle steps as he typed his reply, then stopped because he kept hitting the wrong letters. He walked a few more feet and stopped a second time to delete another error. “Lord have mercy,” he muttered. All that trouble for a simple response—Okay, ill see you soon. He stopped walking a third time, apologized to whoever had bumped into him from behind, and searched for the apostrophe.
“What are you doing?” It was the voice of a woman calling out.
Lincoln took a few more steps and was about to send the message without the apostrophe.
“Are you taking pictures of the girls?”
From the left, a middle-aged white woman entered his field of vision. Her lips were drawn tight. She flipped her hair as some women do before scolding a child.
“Were you taking pictures of the girls?”
Lincoln panicked. “What girls? No.”
“I saw you!” the woman said, her voice even louder now. He realized she meant the girls around them, the Goldfinch girls. He stared at the shock of silver hair at her temple to avoid looking in her eyes.
“You want to know if I?” he said. “Was taking pictures? Of these girls?”
“Yeah! I saw you!”
The eyes of other women, mothers gathered in a group, were fixed on them. A pigeon glided by, cutting a fine arc just above their heads. The keening of the girls hadn’t stopped but it was quieter now; some of them were watching the altercation as well.
Lincoln found himself blurting out, “Miss, I work at the school just down the street.”
“The Tilden School.”
“Why were you taking pictures of the girls?” the woman insisted.
“Let me have your phone.”
Lincoln found himself shouting then, telling the woman she didn’t know him and asking who she thought she was.
“You’re damned right I don’t know you,” she said, and he took a few steps away from her. “You’re damned right!”
She started shouting about the police, and Lincoln walked away more quickly, bumping into several people before turning the corner on Broadway.
For almost a mile he kept looking behind him, and though he knew after a block or two that she could no longer see him at all, the distance between them seemed no greater. Her voice still rang in his ears. It wasn’t that she was right about him. What she had said about him was wrong, the accusation wild and coarse, her words just hacking away, but he also knew that he carried something in him that was large and impossible to defend.
Lincoln walked without purpose, taking random turns but generally making his way south along the city’s grid. Under the awnings of storefronts, on the steps of churches, against the papered-up windows of failed restaurants, he would stop and delete a picture from his phone, willing to do that now, though it had nothing to do with his will. When Alexis discovered the pictures, there were about thirty of them. It wasn’t clear how long Alexis had known, but judging from the change in her demeanor it was probably a few days. She would get home about an hour and a half after he did, as usual, look at him and not say a word. She’d bring takeout Chinese or Mexican food for dinner and leave some for him in the kitchen, eating her portion alone in the bedroom with the door closed. During those evenings, she would run long baths even though she showered every morning. After a few baffling days of this, he had come home to find a letter from her on Schomburg stationery. Even with what poured out in the letter, her handwriting had the constancy of a font—the upward flourishes at the end of each word, the fullness of the counters. She told him she would be staying at Petra’s, but the letter never explicitly mentioned his pictures. If you ever want to talk to me, to try to explain yourself, I’ll be ready and willing to listen. Each time he deleted an image from his phone on the street, Lincoln took a last look at it, as if the thing that would fortify him for the talk with his wife was there and he would discover what he had overlooked until now.
The news about her trip to Virginia came in a phone call. Lincoln saw when she called that day, both times, but didn’t answer. Finally, Petra left a message in the evening that Alexis was going to stay with her mother, and that Tanisha knew she was going but not why. “She’s already gone but you know how to reach her,” Petra said, and hung up without saying good-bye. Lincoln lay in bed that night looking at the pictures glowing on his phone, up to almost sixty by then. He practiced saying things to several of them in the dark before giving up. He didn’t feel lonely yet, so he knew he still had time.
“I just want to say…,” Lincoln murmured somewhere west of the theater district before deleting a recent image. The light from the still-cloudless sky of the long afternoon felt harsh on his cheeks and prickled his skin under his uniform sleeves. He pulled his shirttails out of his pants and, making careful folds, exposed his arms past the elbows like a working man. He walked on through Chelsea and Greenwich Village, and wandered into Gramercy. After making his way through SoHo and Chinatown to Canal Street, he faced the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. Only the images from the morning were left on his phone. He quickly deleted the blurry one, which left the precision of the young woman’s glare, her disappointed mouth, the bolts of bright heat along her face. Her eyes were even worse than those of the woman who had accused him, and there were eyes that were worse still. The white granite of the bridge’s arch and colonnade looked ugly to him in the late afternoon sun. He decided to take the subway into Brooklyn instead of walking across.
By the time Lincoln got home, Tanisha was already there. She had waited for him at Port Authority, had called him, but after deleting the last of his images he had shut his phone off. He hadn’t seen her since the winter holiday. Her hair was different, dyed brown and twisted; she was even more like her mother. He couldn’t look at her. She hugged him, pressing herself against him, and asked what was wrong. He told her the story of what happened in front of Goldfinch. He told her what he could. He told her a lie.
Jamel Brinkley was a 2014 Kimbilio Fellow at the Center for African American Fiction and is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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