It was hot. The kind of grueling, unrelenting hot that made everyone in the tenements aware of just how claustrophobic their living quarters were and fertilized the deep-seated hostility they all carried around because of it. Even out on his balcony Joc could hear the man across the hall cursing lividly at his broken AC unit. And in the plaza a dozen floors below, friction built between a couple, their argument growing ever more animated. Joc shook his head and, after lighting a cigarette, turned his attention out across the river.
On the opposite shore, the problems that plagued the West End seemed to be non-existent. It was just as hot, Joc was sure, but the people who walked the wide streets or lounged lazily behind their double-paned, insulated windows didn’t seem to swell with the same sourness as the people in his tenement. As he watched them, Joc wondered what it might be like to not worry about the AC cutting out, or how it would feel to walk down a street wide enough that he didn’t rub elbows with someone every three feet.
The door to Joc’s tenement slammed shut. He reached reflexively for the switch-blade in his pocket, But when Tam’s small face appeared inside the kitchen, Joc eased off. “Hey little man,” he called. “Why don’t you come out here?”
There wasn’t a response, but after a short time Joc’s little brother was leaning on the balcony rail beside him, his face turned slightly away. “You’re home late,” said Joc.
“Got detention,” said Tam.
“That so?” said Joc. “Because I got a call this morning from a teacher who seemed convinced you didn’t even make it to school.”
The younger boy froze.
“Look at me,” said Joc, turning toward him. When Tam didn’t move, his brother turned the boy’s chin until they were face to face. “Ahh,” said Joc, inspecting the violet ring the boy was wearing around his eye. “Squabblin’ again. Who with?”
“Boys from Bowerystone,” said Tam. “They were talking shit.”
Joc gave the boy’s bruises an abrupt slap. Tam grabbed his face, wincing. “What was that for?”
“Talking shit?” asked Joc.
“It was about you,” Tam said. “About your crew.”
“Man, piss on the crew!” Joc spat back. “And piss on me too, your arms are thin as twigs and twice as brittle. You’re lucky you didn’t get snapped in half. I ever show you what happened to me last time I messed with them Bowerystone boys?”
Tam shook his head.
Joc peeled off the thin tank top he’d been wearing and pointed to a jagged, four inches of raised flesh that ran up his right side. “Courtesy of Gil Brennan,” he said, pointing to the scar. “He was talking shit too.”
Tam rolled his eyes. “I remember that. It wasn’t even that ba–”
“And what about this?” Joc propped his leg up on the railing and rolled up the cuff of his shorts until a bald spot the size of a softball was exposed on his upper thigh. “Fredo Tomlin and the crew from Harper Square,” he said. “Frying pan. Got lucky on that one, the neighbors called in the screams.”
“Well how am I supposed to learn how to fight if you never let me?” Tam said, turning away from his brother’s leg.
Joc raised an eyebrow. “Who said you were supposed to learn how to fight?”
Confusion erupted across the younger boy’s face. “Who didn’t? I’m your brother, half the people in the West End expect me to have put someone in the hospital by now.”
“Well I’m not one of them,” Joc said. “And far as I’m concerned, this better be the only black eye you come home with. No more cutting class either.”
“But what about the block? How can we run it together if I never–”
“We won’t,” Joc’s said, his tone stiffening.
Tam stared at him, his face turned pale and slack. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” said the older brother. “You’re not going to run this block, and you’re not going to be in my crew.”
Tam struggled to swallow his disappointment, to hide the wound that had just been so cleanly struck. “But we–” He paused, taking a breath to steady himself. “We’re family.”
“You’re right,” said Joc, clenching his fist. “That’s why you’re going to stay in school and off the street. You’re too smart for peddlin’ dope and earning scars, Tamerlane. You belong over there, in one of those big office buildings where the AC runs all day.” Joc nodded to the river’s far side.
“That’s bullshit,” Tam shouted. “I don’t want that. I want to stay here.”
“Well, I don’t care what you want!” Joc shouted back.
Tam’s eyes narrowed, his hands becoming two tightly packed balls of anger. And as he spat the words, the boy’s face boiled red with all the heat of the oppressive sun that beat down overhead. “Well, fuck you then!”
The words hit Joc like a sucker punch. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. All he could do was watch as his brother stormed back inside their tenement and slammed shut the door to his room. It wasn’t until the remains of his cigarette began to heat his knuckles that Joc realized he hadn’t so much as moved for half a minute.
Tracing the serrated scar that ran along his stomach, Joc’s head began to swim. Would Tam ever know? Would he ever care what those scars had gotten him? Or worse, would he squander all of it? Lighting another cigarette, the older brother turned his gaze back across the river.