Taylor Lena McTootle is a Boston-based educator, writer, and Creative Non-Fiction MFA candidate at Emerson College. Her work can be found in The Independent Magazine, The Periplus Collective Call & Response Anthology, and Boston Hassle. Follow Taylor on Instagram and Twitter.
She watched it from her living room, with the volume on low and incense burning by the door. She dipped one long finger into the towel-wrapped can of grease in her lap and let blue light drip into her eyes as she worked the thin plait along her head, from temple to just behind the ear. And when she finished the last cross of hairs and curled the end around her finger, she still had her whole head to go. But she had time, the fight hadn’t started yet. The stadium lights blinked through, hard and ready, becoming thin indigo on the walls, on her skin, on the curtains behind her. She wiped her hands on the towel and lifted the remote to raise the volume a bit. The static crowd crackled, and she was glad she hadn’t taken up the invitation to go in person.
They were almost giddy about the whole thing as they sat at her kitchen table days earlier. It was a rare visit– the boys, together at their childhood home, and on a Saturday morning, no less. That should have been the first tell. “I would’ve made breakfast if I had known you all were coming.” She pushed two pieces of wheat bread down in the toaster and perched at the table to get a better look at the two. Khalid’s eyes twinkled, giving something away, and she looked at him steadily, then at Shane, who paused before unfolding a white envelope and sliding it toward her across the woodgrain. He smiled an afterthought, and Charlotte looked down at the slip of paper—a ticket. It read: Chariot Arena Boxing Match in large black letters. And then, Thursday evening, March 25th, 1992.
“Your seat is up close.” Khalid’s gold cap embellished his voice. He rested the bulk of his forearms on the frail wooden table, and Charlotte feared it might break under the weight. He was the oldest of the two, her firstborn, from a love gone too quickly awry.
Nearly 20 years ago, within the first month of moving to the city with her cousin Crystal, Charlotte met a man. His mother managed the store where Charlotte got paid to stand at a cash register and spray pretty perfumes on pale, wrinkled wrists. The son would bring his mother lunch on Wednesdays. He took classes just down the street. A beautiful boy, bright beige with two-toned eyes, as mischievous as Khalid would one day be. He took to Charlotte with a quickness and made no attempt to hide his liking. It turned the mother’s kindness sour. She still got her Wednesday lunches, but the son’s company, for a short time, belonged to Charlotte. He’d grin, cheek to cheek, and call her beautiful. In the vertigo of a new city, his affections steadied her, but it wouldn’t last. When she told him she was pregnant—-they’d met only a handful of times outside of the store—his smile faded, the city began to spin again, and the beautiful boy’s mother returned to her stinging sweetness. Charlotte quit and worked at a bar with her cousin until her belly began to show.
In the center of the bent, fluttering ticket bill, spaced-out letters spelled “Khalid Malone vs. Shane Greene.” She looked up at the boys and back at the paper, wishing it would up and flutter away.
“Why?” her voice hoarse with concern.
Khalid’s smile faded, and he lowered his eyes, glancing sideways at Shane, who paused. There was no real answer to give, none his mother needed to worry herself with outright. He gave her the thin veil of satisfactory words instead. He was well practiced in this, “It’s sports, Ma. Siblings play each other all the time.” But so was Charlotte at deciphering. She let the voice of her youngest deflate and fall to the floor as something in the house seared and hummed its high pitch. She searched Shane’s face, deep brown, strong lines, honest eyes, and gapped teeth. It was funny how of the two boys, she fretted for him the least.
He was born two and a half years after Khalid. Shane’s father was a much different man. A songbird, a wayward star. He was shot in another lover’s house days before Charlotte discovered she was pregnant. There were no delusions of romance or monogamy between them. They were true friends and had been since their teenage years back in the same county, different towns, about a ten-minute drive apart. They’d reconnected in the city at a party she and Crystal threw at their shared apartment. Charlotte was coming out from laying Khalid down when she ran into her old friend. He was coming out of the washroom, recognized her, and smiled big. They hugged like home. Finding pieces of it here in this cold place was something special. Their lovemaking was like that, too—youthful, safe, nostalgic.
Charlotte understood that he was never meant to stay, but she hadn’t guessed he would go that way. She grieved viciously for him, for home, for the time she’d never get back. And when Shane arrived all plump and healthy, she saw it as a resurrection.
Charlotte struggled with the boys for as long as she could. She held on until she couldn't. Working three jobs, getting fired from one to pick up another. Food stamps helped, and so did Crystal, but there was a point, Khalid was about 15, and Shane, 13, when Charlotte knew. She couldn’t take the hungry look in their eyes. Didn’t want her boys to see their mother that way. Khalid had already started to turn, saying words more stinging than sweet. He left first, of his own volition. His grandmother’s baby, his father’s clone. To them, she knew Khalid was nothing short of a gilded angel. He would soar there easily, too easily. She fretted for him the most.
Shane floundered after he left. He had half brothers, children of his father, who let him sleep on their couch. Charlotte knew the situation, how they were raised over there, how, inevitably, it would turn bad for Shane. And it did. But it was beyond her control to care for her boys the way another mother might have been able, beyond her to sway them with anything other than the gentleness of a Sunday morning breakfast and distant, prayerful love.
She didn’t intervene when she knew Shane was selling, perhaps said a word when she knew he was using. She was present at his trial, visited, and put money on his books. All years 16 and 17. But it ended up being for the best. He came out clean, better. Resurrected.
It comforted her, too, that the boys stayed so close through it all. She’d hang up the receiver after a call with Khalid feeling uneasy, “Maureen’s pregnant…”, “Mawmaw’s helping us get a house”... “I won the fight, did you watch?” and Charlotte would say dreamy, encouraging words, but something, always, in his soft, embellished voice sounded off. She couldn’t shake the feeling. She’d end the call with, “you seen your brother?” and when he’d tell her that they’d sparred the day before or that Shane was bringing some tapes over later, Charlotte could finally stop holding her breath.
Boxing was the boys’ shared love, so none of this business on the tv should have been a surprise to her, but it all made Charlotte feel just as uneasy. So she sat, gut turned, but trying to ignore it, as her hands worked indigo hue and grease into wooly hair. She sat, toes curled, dutifully waiting for the end to near, for the blood to streak, for her boys to rest.
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