I’d known Tamerlane Rodriguez for literally half of my life. I had first met him ten years ago, when we were both ten years old. His birthday was the day before mine, in fact we had an age difference of about five and a half hours. What had always stood out about the young man and still did were his oversized chocolatey brown eyes. They were like a galaxy in themselves. The Chocolate Milky Way. In the sunlight there wasn’t anything else like that river of liquid chocolate that I could’ve gazed into the whole damn day.
“Did you find it yet?” Tamerlane asked me, seemingly annoyed, “You know, you’ve done this to me my whole life.”
“Sorry!” I muttered out in embarrassment at being caught looking into his eyes, “But it’s only been half your life, only half Tamerlane.”
All he did was grin at me. I had indeed done that to him from the very day we’d met in the neighborhood park. It was nothing but a crummy little run-down playground tucked away behind a large apartment building mostly filled with people just trying to put food on the table for their families. I was new to that neighborhood and had no friends within walking distance so I’d gone to the park on a cloudy afternoon and the only other kid my age there was a little part Arab and part Spanish boy playing in the sand. I walked up to him and he looked at me almost fearfully. I extended my hand out to him in hopes that he wouldn’t see me as the enemy but it didn’t seem to be helping anything.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“It’s Tamerlane,” he muttered in a shy, almost pained voice.
“My name is Caroline, do you want to be my friend?”
I approached him and kneeled down in the sand next to him as he dug up a toy car and handed it to me. He didn’t say much at first but once he warmed up to me he was a sweet boy. He was very polite, soft-spoken and intelligent. His father was a coal miner that had immigrated from Venezuela some fifteen years ago and his mother’s family had originally been from Saudi Arabia. The two of them had come to America in the hopes of a better life but had only come face to face with poverty. Amidst the financial destitution though, I had made myself a lifelong friend. The only one that had seen me through everything and stayed with me throughout the whole thing. He understood my own struggles with poverty because he lived them too and I empathized with his shyness around strangers because I had been trampled on too.
Tamerlane was really the closest thing I’d ever had to a brother. Despite the fact that the color of our skin was different, we shared the same soul, thought the same things and chased the same dreams. I had always been rather jealous of his beautiful, almost golden-like, skin because it seemed like he had a perfect perennial tan while I turned into a lobster the moment I stepped out into the sunlight. When you put a bronze god and seafood side by side, it’s obvious which one comes out on top. In ten years I’d never told him how beautiful I thought he really was but I knew that he knew. And I always made sure that he felt beautiful around me, because he was really the only one I could be completely myself around without fear of repercussion.
“Do you want to go to the restaurant?” Tamerlane asked me, “I’ve got some spare change.”
“Keep your money for yourself,” I replied, “you need it just as much as I do. Buy yourself some hair gel or something.”
“Who needs hair gel when I can just walk into a store and put it on right there?”
“Get a haircut in that case!”
I affectionately nudged his shoulder with my elbow as we walked down the street towards the downtown core where all the restaurants were lined up next to one another. All of them had specials of the day up in their front windows in hopes to attract hungry people there instead of somewhere else. As we passed by a vacant business space with dark, almost mirror-like windows Tamerlane stopped to look at himself in the glass and rearrange his hair. If his skin and his eyes weren’t beautiful enough, he had a full head of thick black hair that was overgrown and curly but most importantly, messy. His hairstyle depended largely on which direction the wind was blowing at any given moment and no matter what he tried to do with it, he had flyaway hair sticking out of everywhere.
“You’re worst than my mom with your hair obsession!” I commented as I walked passed him.
“Well if you’d like to try to get this under control, knock yourself out!” he responded in a cheeky tone of voice.
“Okay, well sit down on the bench here and I’ll fix that up for you.”
“Just because your mom is a hairdresser it doesn’t mean that you have any skills.”
“Hey! If you don’t want me to slap you sit down and keep your mouth shut!”
Tamerlane affectionately bumped into me and I responded by hitting his shoulder blade right where I had tattooed him the night before.
“Ouch!” he muttered out, mostly in shock at my gesture, “Do you not have sympathy for people whose skin was recently massacred by their best friend?!”
“Oh Tammy, you begged me to tattoo you!” I playfully reminded him.
“I don’t beg, I command.” ”Nah, that was definitely begging!” ”Have you forgotten that I am named after Tamerlane the Conqueror of Asia?” ”He was a terrorist and you’re just a nerdy adult that still behaves like a child!”
The two of us playfully pushed each other around until we arrived at the bench a few steps away. Tamerlane sat down and I tried to no avail to at least flatten his hair and get it a little more under control. The more I tried the messier it seemed to get. Eventually I just gave up and flopped down on the bench next to him. I attempted to poke his shoulder but he slapped my hand before I could. The previous night I had tattooed Tammy in Arabic in my basement with makeshift equipment including a sewing needle. It had taken me multiple hours to complete a small tattoo about three inches in length and Tamerlane had whined the whole time.
He had inherited the nickname Tammy and me George back when we were about twelve or thirteen years old. It had all started with our mutual love of George Jones and Tammy Wynette when Tamerlane’s neighbor babysat us. Sure, we were old enough to stay at home by ourselves, but our parents all worked incredibly long hours and we’d practically be left alone entire days to raise ourselves. Tamerlane’s father worked in a mine some four thousand miles away and was gone for weeks at a time while his mother was a waitress and didn’t come home until the early hours of the morning. My mother worked part-time at the corner store and then did hair and nails in the basement of our duplex apartment. She too worked long hours and I rarely got to see her. My father had died in an accident at the sawmill when I was just six years old and unfortunately I didn’t remember much about him.
Tamerlane’s neighbor was a sweet old lady well into her nineties that lived right next door to him on the third floor of the large apartment complex behind the playground we’d met in when we were children. All the old lady named Opal had was an eight-track player and a couple of classic country tapes that she listened to around the clock. Both Tamerlane and I had taken quite a liking to Something To Brag About as it was an accurate description of the blue collar lifestyle just trying to make it by but having plenty of love to share. He became Tammy when he literally stopped getting haircuts for a while and when I stopped having hair altogether. I didn’t like one of the haircuts my mother had given me so I had Tamerlane help me shave everything off. And so I became George, and those nicknames had stayed with us our whole lives because they reminded us of a much more stress-free and hassle-free time when our biggest problem was making sure our hair looked just right.
“Let me see if the swelling has gone down,” I said as I pulled up Tamerlane’s shirt to look at his shoulder blade.
“It wasn’t all that bad this morning,” he responded as I poked around underneath his shirt, “at least most of the redness is gone.”
“Ah, it ain’t that bad at all. I didn’t botch it too badly.”
“On the bright side you were cheaper than a professional tattoo artist.”
“And I can be a cheap hairdresser too!”
“But I like my hair!”
That, he certainly did. I had never liked mine very much, and I thought that was maybe part of the reason why I liked his so much. My entire life up until I became a teenager, my mother had done crazy things to my hair and I had often been embarrassed about it. For a while I cut my own hair myself which ended up being twice as bad as the hairdresser antics my mom made me go through on a regular basis. Then I gave a pair of scissors to Tamerlane who attempted to straighten out what I had done but then layers became stylish so I had one less hair dilemma. Most days I wore my hair short and periodically cut it once it got down to my shoulders. I was a sandy blonde with dark blue eyes, an almost identical duplicate of my mother. I liked my mother even though we didn’t really know each other. I wasn’t home very often, and in most of her free time was spent with her boyfriend Bailey, who was rather controlling and uptight in my opinion.
“So have you decided what you wanted to eat?” Tamerlane asked me as I poked around his skin around his tattoo, “I’m really not up to going to the soup kitchen and eating their cardboard bread today.”
“I know it’s disgusting Tammy but you should save up your money instead of spending it on me and restaurant food,” I replied as I pulled his shirt down.
“There will be more money.”
“I know but it’s only Tuesday and we need to make it through the whole week on a hundred bucks.”
“Stop worrying so much! There are plenty of ways to acquire money! This is Tamerlane the Conqueror wanting to feed you!”
How could I say no to those big brown eyes? I finally accepted and let him pick where he wanted to go. We ate at Barker’s, a chain restaurant across the midwest where you could have almost a whole meal for under two dollars but you definitely got what you paid for. I had some chicken nuggets and some root beer while Tamerlane had the cheapest, smallest cheeseburger I had ever seen. It wasn’t much, but it was a meal.
“For such a powerful military commander your meals are rather skimpy,” I joked as we both sat at a table by the window.
“I have my moments,” Tamerlane chuckled, “I’m at war against the world that tried to break me but I broke free.”
“It’s in moments like these that you captivate me the most.”
“Remember my name darling!”
I remembered one particular event in which I had experienced precisely the greatness of Tamerlane the Conqueror. Tamerlane was what we called a crossovert; literally a crossover between an introvert and an extrovert. A crossovert was a person who was generally shy, quiet and reserved around unfamiliar people and outgoing, talkative and confident around close friends. But that one particular time when we must’ve been eleven years old or so, Tamerlane the Conqueror had definitely overpowered Tamerlane the shy little boy from the park. We were going back to the apartment building after buying a few dollars worth of candy when a group of older children caught up with us and started pushing us around and tried to take our sweets. At one point they blocked our way and demanded the candy in exchange for letting us go through. I was afraid of them and I knew that my best friend was too, but something bigger than fear swept over him.
“I am Tamerlane the Conqueror,” he spoke boldly, “and you will not intimidate me or my best friend!”
He then marched forward right at the other boys and pushed one when he attempted to grab a bag of candy. Tamerlane pushed the other boy into a puddle of water on the side of the road and everybody else laughed at him. The boy started crying and the group left us alone. Growing up poor and being trampled on and looked down upon by those of higher socio-economic classes, Tamerlane had since gotten much bolder. Neither one of us went looking for trouble but we didn’t turn around and run when we were faced with something.
“What are you thinking about?” Tamerlane asked me with a grin as I was obviously deep in thought and not very talkative.
“The Conqueror,” I replied with a smile, “when he was eleven years old. Oh, and by the way, I have a hat for you in my backpack.”
He hadn’t been able to do anything with his hair which seemed to only get unrulier by the minute but it didn’t bother him. I opened up my faded green haversack and yanked out an overly creased black and white baseball cap. I tried giving it more of a shape before placing it over Tamerlane’s head and pressing hard on it so his hair would flatten out under it. Hair was still sticking out from under it all over the place but it had partially tamed the mess. The baseball cap gave Tammy a sweet boyish college kid appearance. He had managed to finish high school about a year ago, but I had never graduated. I had never even completed my freshman year! I had been much more interested in working part-time and then hanging out than actually wasting my time with school considering that it brought me nothing to help me survive for one more day. I never managed to keep a straight job for very long and I still didn’t have anything solid but at least I managed to have food to eat and have a bed to sleep in at night.
“I got fired from the club this morning,” Tamerlane admitted after a moment of silence.
“And now you’re buying me lunch,” I replied with food in my mouth, “so what are you gonna do now?”
“I don’t have much of a clue honestly.”
“This just validates what I told you earlier to keep your money! Now you have no job, you’re already behind on the rent and you don’t want your folks to kick you out, and you want a college education. None of those things come free.”
“Money really isn’t the only thing there is to life George, I believe in the principle of giving until it feels good. Don’t you?”
“It’s unfortunate Tamerlane, but it’s the givers who have to set limits because the takers rarely do.”
Tamerlane pursed his lips and slightly looked down. His dark hair partially covered the chunks of chocolate he had for eyes. I knew that he was stressed out because he was usually very talkative and upbeat around me but he didn’t want to worry me so he lessened his own problems to treat me to some cheap and nasty restaurant junk food.
“Do you think that taking until it feels good works the same way too?” he asked me after a brief moment of silence.
“I see nothing that would prove to me otherwise,” I responded after my own short moment of silent contemplation, “nothing that I have ever seen, read, heard, or experienced proved that money and material wealth brings happiness and satisfaction.”
“It would definitely bring more peace of mind though.”
“Of course! Financial security is important, but that’s not really the point here. What’s important is that you have $100 left in your name and you’re out here spending it on me. Let me help you out okay?”
“You already tattooed me for free Carrie, you paid for the kit and everything that came with it out of your own pocket, that’s more than enough considering that it’s on my skin forever.”
Just a little under a year prior I had gotten myself a DIY tattoo kit because it was only about $30 compared to getting a tattoo professionally done. I had used up most of what came with it except for some girly ink colors and miscellaneous junk that had come with it. I had no more needles for the machine itself, hence I had to brutalize my Tamerlane with sewing needles that I had sterilized using the flame of a candle. I had tattooed myself so much that I’d used most of everything in the first two months of getting the kit. My leg artwork wasn’t great but I liked it. For Tamerlane it had been his first tattoo, and considering the experience, probably his last. The only thing I could really say though was that it was much easier to tattoo another person than to tattoo yourself. Most importantly, it hurt a heck of a lot less!
“I did a no show last night,” Tamerlane admitted, “and this morning when I did show, I was out of a job.”
“See, this is precisely what I was telling you about you begging me to tattoo you,” I shot back with a smirk, “you wanted the tat so much that you skipped work!”
“That’s not what happened and you know it!” ”You don’t need to try to explain yourself to me Tammy, I know what kind of guy you are!” ”Oh, is that right now? I bet you weren’t expecting
me to stand up to that gang of bastards when we were kids!”
We both cracked up laughing at that point. Nope, I hadn’t expected that of such a soft-spoken little boy like him.
“Tamerlane was the Sword of Islam,” he went on but I cut him off before he could finish.
“And you’re not Muslim!” I playfully shouted as I attempted to smack his shoulder, “So it comes down to, yes, I know the kind of guy you are!”
His face turned red at my comebacks as I managed to tease him into submission.
“Alright, I give up,” he admitted as he chuckled, “you know the kind of man I am.”
“But this doesn’t solve your job problem,” I went on in a more serious tone of voice.
“Please do me a favor and stop worrying about me!”
“You’re a brother to me for God’s sake! How can I not care about you and and want to look out for you?!”
“I’m Tamerlane the Conqueror, you can rest easy George.”
“Alright, you got me, I’ll leave you alone! But please let me help you look for a job okay?”
“Sure, let’s get to it.”
If you didn’t have a fancy resume filled with experience with you, you didn’t have many opportunities. Sure, Tamerlane had a high school diploma filled with good grades and plenty of job experience since he got his first job when he was thirteen, but he didn’t have any specialized training or a university degree to qualify for the high-expertise jobs that were in demand in a city in which the commercial and industrial sectors were booming dramatically. Nobody wanted to hire Tammy part-time and pay him under the table for a few days of work to pay for his next meal and Tamerlane wasn’t the kind of person to go around gaining money by means of deceit. The best he could’ve gotten was a few replacement shifts at a corner store on the other side of town for $7.50 an hour. The income would’ve been steady for the time it lasted, Tamerlane would’ve been guaranteed his paycheck, but he needed money to put on the table today, not next month. Even after a whole afternoon, the only thing we had both accomplished was walk right through our shoes for another time. Tamerlane’s shoes came from the Salvation Army and were starting to fall apart. My boots had been stolen from Walmart ten years ago. My whole life I had only wanted a pair of shoes that were new.
The same year that I had met Tamerlane, his neighbor had bought us both a few pieces of new clothes for the summertime. I had gotten a pair of shorts and Tammy had gotten a new pair of shoes. I had worn out the shorts in just a couple of months, but what I had really wanted was a new pair of shoes. I didn’t want a so-called new pair of shoes from Value Village or even a pair that had never been worn from the Salvation Army. I wanted them to be new from the store. So on one autumn day Tamerlane and I had wandered into the mall in the downtown core and eventually made our way into the Walmart in there. I hadn’t gone in to steal or anything of that sort, but when I saw a pair of shoes that I liked I told my best friend that I wanted to try them on just for fun while he looked at toys and other stuff. While nobody was looking, I put my old shoes into the shoebox and put it back on the shelf and walked out of there with a pair of brand new shoes.
“But stealing is against the Bible!” Tamerlane protested when he noticed the shoes after we had started walking back home.
He had lectured me for well over an hour but he had never threatened to tell anybody about what I had done. He had been faithful to me right to the very end. I’d been wearing those shoes ever since. I had them on my feet nearly 24/7 and my feet had barely grown in ten years. The shoes were mostly tape and rope and stitches and other thingamajigs than actual shoes nowadays but to me they were still my new shoes. They had been faithful to me too in ten years but I knew that all good things were going to have to come to an end because I was literally barefoot underneath those old running shoes. If I walked too fast I was afraid they were going to disintegrate right there on the sidewalk. Ten years ago cameras inside department stores weren’t incredibly popular, or at least juvenile thieves weren’t prosecuted as much, but I wasn’t sure I was up to attempting another shoe robbery of the sort considering that the consequences would be more expensive than the actual shoes.
“I should buy you a new pair of shoes,” Tamerlane commented like he could almost read my mind.
“There is no way in hell that I am letting you do that!” I protested, “I’ll just get myself a $20 pair from the discount store with the rest of my paycheck once my rent is paid up.”
I was unemployed too. The owner of John’s Pizzeria had suffered a massive stroke and was unable to manage the business anymore so he’d let me go just under a month ago. That job had been the longest that I’d ever been able to keep in my lifetime. I hadn’t exactly bothered to look for another one because I had done some babysitting for old friends here and there and mostly spent my free time hanging out with Tamerlane or tattooing myself or my friends. The days had gone by amazingly fast and my money had drained much faster than I could have ever anticipated. The good days of not worrying about a thing were long over and had been for a very long time yet I kept on prolonging them. At least I tried to prolong them, I knew that I was going nothing but screwing myself in the end.
“I don’t know what kind of excuse I’m going to give my father for not being able to pay the rent,” Tamerlane muttered as we approached his apartment building, “he always counted on me. He was always proud of me for stepping up to the plate and now to tell him that I was fired, that’s not gonna go so well.”
“If you ever need a place to stay,” I tried to reassure him, “you know you can always stay with me.”
“Your stepfather doesn’t think that the color of my skin makes me a bronze god.”
“Number one, he is not my stepfather, secondly, I live there, he doesn’t. But more importantly, if he doesn’t like this deal, then he should just stay in his own apartment. You know that my mom loves you and she won’t throw you out.”
“I know that your mom wouldn’t throw me out, but I don’t want to cause trouble for you because I know how hard it is for you to cope with life.”
“You make it so much easier.”
Tamerlane grabbed me and squeezed me tightly against him in the lobby of his apartment building. We had hugged each other often in ten years but he had rarely hugged me like that. Only someone needing to be comforted and reassured gave hugs like that. I squeezed him equally tightly because deep down inside I needed the same things he did. My anger and my bitterness towards the unfairness of life often completely blocked out my much softer emotions such as the basic need to be held and knowing that I wasn’t out there waging war against humanity all by myself. I removed Tamerlane’s hat and put it on myself backwards before running my fingers through his hair and making it fly in every direction. The late afternoon sun made his dark features glow and once again I got lost in the Chocolatey Way called Tamerlane Rodriguez’s eyes. After a few moments he let go of me and slightly leaned forward to smooch me on the cheek. He had never kissed me before and I was somewhat taken aback at the gesture but it definitely left me with a feeling of sweetness rather than one of bitterness inside.
My best friend and brother signalled me to follow him inside the building where we walked up multiple flights of stairs before he unlocked the door to apartment 29. It was nothing but a cheap old wooden door and the apartment had a broken window that was boarded up in the living room. The place looked sort of like mine; not too much furniture, and especially not nice new fashionable furniture, dim lights, an old TV in the corner, and books and magazines and newspapers all over the kitchen table. Tamerlane’s mother was sitting on an old chair in front of the TV with terrible reception but his father wasn’t in even though it was supposed to be his day to come back home from work camp. Tammy let out an overly loud sigh after his mother greeted him in Arabic. She hadn’t been home for very long because she was still wearing her work clothes. As soon as she noticed me she warmly greeted me and invited me to sit down in the living room. I politely thanked her but stayed in the doorway because I’d have to head home soon enough as there wasn’t enough room for me to stay in Tamerlane’s apartment.
“Where’s dad?” Tamerlane asked when he noticed his father wasn’t around.
“He’s staying at camp because we need the money to pay the rent,” his mother admitted in an indifferent tone of voice, “we got a letter from the landlord saying that if we weren’t paid up by the end of this week we’d be evicted at the end of the month.”
Tamerlane’s head fell as another exasperated sigh came out of his mouth.
“What’s wrong son?” Mrs. Rodriguez asked in a concerned tone of voice as Tamerlane was generally always upbeat and enthusiastic.
“I lost my job today mom,” he finally spite out with a grunt, “so I guess I’ll just pack my bags and go right now so y’all will have one person less to worry about.”
“Here’s ninety bucks mom, this is all I’ve got left, I really need some air.”
Mrs. Rodriguez was still speaking to Tamerlane in Arabic when we both barged through the door and walked back outside. It had gotten considerably darker in just a few minutes and much cooler too but I had on an engine red hoodie and Tamerlane had on a grey sweater that had once been black. It was sort of a mutual understanding at that point that we we’d be walking over to my place just a few streets down. We both remained unusually silent during the short trek to the building that was both my house and my mother’s redneck home hair salon. When we walked in my mother was cutting somebody’s hair and briefly said hi to us before going back to talking to her client. Tamerlane and I went straight to my tiny little room that was about the size of a walk-in closet. Against the right side of the wall there was my little single bed that I’d had basically my entire life, then I had a regular dresser on the other wall and a small table next to it. There was a small one-door closet and a tiny window near the top of the wall. Underneath my bed I had most of my things and most of my clothes served as a carpet.
“I’ll get you some new sheets for the bed,” I muttered as I looked at my little bed in disgust.
I probably hadn’t changed the sheets in well over a month. That didn’t bother me very much but I didn’t want my friend to have to sleep in my filth. That definitely would not have been polite of me to do something like that.
“Sleep in your own bed Carrie,” Tamerlane spoke in a gentle voice, “I’ll do the floor.”
“I doubt you’ll have much room down there,” I protested, “but I’ll manage to squeeze myself in between my furniture.”
Tamerlane and I argued back and forth about who was going to sleep in the bed for a few minutes until he finally decided to grab me, shove me onto my bed and pin me down by getting on top of me.
“Sleep. In. Your. Own. Bed.” Tamerlane whispered to me with a huge playful smile on his face.
An equally big grin appeared on my face and to retaliate I grabbed him by the hair and pulled him down over me.
“Then you’re sleeping in it with me,” I taunted him.
“Fine,” he replied, “there’s room enough for two people.”
As he said that he squeezed himself between the wall and me and put his arm around me so I wouldn’t fall off the bed on the other side. I had maybe less than an inch of bare mattress between me and the cold hard floor so I held on to his solid and steady forearm not to land in exactly the place he had tried so hard to keep me away from. I started giggling uncontrollably at the thought so I tried turning around to mask the sound of my laughter but being in Tamerlane’s face like that only made me crack up even more.
“What in the world is so funny?” Tamerlane was struggling to keep his voice from cracking up into a giggle too.
“I don’t know,” I muttered in between my snorts, “I’m just… happy.”
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen you be happy?!”
”Something like that.”
”Oh! Oh I have to go to the bathroom!”
I was laughing so hard that I was about to wet myself, and my bed, and Tamerlane too, so I barged out of my room and into the bathroom that was just next door. I flicked on the light and immediately saw my red face in the mirror, but I wasn’t red from laughing. I had an awful sunburn that made me look like a lobster again. I did my business and then examined myself more closely. My whole neck was bright red too. I touched it and it was scorching hot but it didn’t particularly hurt, not yet, it was still a little too early for that. But I was too happy to even think about the pain of turning into seafood. I don’t know how long I looked at myself in the mirror but it was long enough for my best friend to come knocking on the door and ask me if I was okay. I let him in and noticed that my mother had either gone out or gone to bed because all the lights in the place were off and there were no signs of life at all. Having the house all to yourself never hurt nobody.
“Oh darn!” Tamerlane exclaimed when he saw me, “Burnt seafood!”
“Yeah, I burned my dinner,” I said in a much more serious tone of voice, “and this is gonna hurt.”
“Put some ointment right away to avoid you the pain in the morning.”
“I don’t think I have any anymore, I used it all up last time.”
“In the future it may be cheaper to just buy sunscreen.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
I somewhat felt like playfully slugging him in the shoulder where I had tattooed him but I knew that he wasn’t his usual self so I decided to hug him in the doorway instead. The light that usually radiated from deep inside of him had faded and for some reason I felt the childlike happiness that I hadn’t felt in a long time just because I had my best friend close to me even though I didn’t have a dime to my name and I was completely destitute. Tamerlane had always prided himself in his self-reliance and he had never been in quite a hopeless situation like that before. He let out a loud sigh when I put my arms around him before squeezing me tightly against him. After a moment of emotional intensity on both our parts, we let each other go. I took the opportunity to look into those chocolate eyes. Tamerlane stuck his tongue out at me when he noticed what I was doing, which was pretty much immediately.
“Let’s go out to the drug store and get you some ointment for that lobster tan, or more like lobster burn, of yours,” he said softly, “there’s one open all night not too far from here.”
“You don’t even a dollar in your name,” I protested as I grabbed his hand and tried to make him stay.
“I do have enough to buy you some cream.”
“Please stop thinking that you constantly need to take care of me. I’m not that little girl scared of the dark anymore like when we were ten.”
Even back when we were younger we’d love to stay up late, but I didn’t like going too far after the dark settled in because I was a believer that monsters lurked out there, and as I got older I only came to believe it more. When Tamerlane and I hung out at the park or somewhere in town after dark, he always held my hand to come home. Unlike him, I’d never really had either one of my parents to guide me in life and he had come to take the job upon himself to take me under his wing and take care of me. Even though I had come to being independent over the years, that mentality had never left his mind. He was always going to be my older brother in some way after all. I couldn’t hold it against him, I could only be grateful to have been blessed enough to have him in my life.
“Come on Caroline!” Tamerlane nagged me when I didn’t let go of his hand.
“Okay, well wait a minute,” I replied, “maybe there’s money hidden around here somewhere.”
My mother and her boyfriend had their hiding places for money around the house. We’d had our place broken into a couple of times and the thieves usually went for wallets, jewelry boxes, and the like, but they rarely looked in empty cans of Maxwell House sitting in plain sight on the kitchen table. And sure enough there was a can of coffee on the counter so I opened it right up but as I did, all the kitchen lights turned on to expose me with two $50 bills in my hand. I was taken aback when I saw my mother and Bailey come up from the basement. I had previously thought that Tamerlane and I had been alone in the house, and they had thought that they had been alone too because we were all equally shocked to see each other. Bailey hated Tamerlane simply because of the color of his skin and I knew that there was going to be hell to pay being caught redhanded in his stash of money for alcohol and other stuff necessary for his bitter and volatile existence.
Bailey immediately burst into a complete meltdown and attempted to attack me but Tamerlane tackled him to the ground long before he could lay a finger on me. I ran to my room and grabbed my backpack along with a blanket and ran outside as fast as I could. I ran all the way to the end of the street and stood by the stop sign until Tammy arrived less than five minutes later. He grabbed me by the hand and walked me to the nearest pharmacy open all night. Underneath the streetlights I could see that he’d been punched in the face pretty badly and there was blood on his shirt but he didn’t complain about it, he didn’t even speak about it. I felt unbelievably guilty because I was the only reason he ever got himself in trouble. If he had to get belligerent with somebody, it was because of me. If he ever had to go against his beliefs and values, it was because of me. If he’d ever have to lay down his life, it was going to be because of me.
We both remained completely silent on our short walk to the pharmacy. It was rather chilly at night but we’d be alright. Once we got to the pharmacy I bought some tissues and bandages while Tamerlane went to the bathroom to clean himself up. I then barged into the men’s bathroom and saw that he’d been given a bloody nose by my mother’s boyfriend and he still had blood on his neck. He had a scratch over his eyebrow but that seemed to be the full extent of his visible injuries. He held his right hand in his left one as if he was in pain but I had no trouble believing that the Conqueror had beaten up Bailey to a pulp and came out on top like a true warrior. Tamerlane let me clean him up without protest and without speaking but the emotions were building up inside of me and I felt like I needed to apologize to him for all that I had done but I didn’t know where to begin. I was just as blank inside as I had been before.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered, not knowing what else to say.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he reassured me with a gentle smile.
“This happened to you because of me. And that’s just what happened today. I have a lot to be sorry for.”
“No, that’s not true. This happened to me because you didn’t want me to take care of you. It’s better me than you. I’m Tamerlane the Conqueror after all.”
I leaned forward and I kissed his forehead before pressing my face up against his. I could feel my lobster burn crying out for pain relief but I didn’t pull away until the warrior pushed me away gently. The only reason he did was to mock my sunburn with the kind of humor that only he could use to make a crappy day turn into a much better one.
“You didn’t buy some lotion,” Tamerlane reminded me, “and you’re precisely the reason why we wanted to come here in the first place.”
A smile was the only thing I could give him. We both walked out of the bathroom when another man walked in. He was surprised to see a woman in the men’s bathroom but I apologized and then walked out giggling. Tamerlane went straight to find me some relief lotion and paid for it with the remnants of his own money and then covered my face and my neck with it while we were still in the store. I sighed loudly at him still behaving like he needed to save me from the rest of the world. Maybe he did after all.
“I wouldn’t be a good brother to you if I didn’t do this,” he reminded me, “and maybe one day I won’t be around to do it, so enjoy it.”
“Come on Tamerlane,” I spoke softly, “you’re the great ruler of the world.”
“Now you tell me that I’m a hero after telling me that Tamerlane was a terrorist for half of my life!”
“Hey! Don’t give me a reason to slap your tattoo!”
“Don’t forget who you’re dealing with here!”
“But seriously! Yeah, Tamerlane committed insane atrocities but you can’t deny that he was a great and powerful man for accomplishing everything that he did and building such an empire. You’ll never see a war without a little blood and a warrior without a little tarnish on his medals. The name does mean iron after all.”
Tamerlane leaned forward to smooch me on the cheek but then recoiled when he got too close to me and smelled the stench of the ointment he’d just put on me. We both giggled before we walked back outside into the night. It looked like we’d both be spending the night under a bridge or something similar because I wasn’t about to go back home to the mess that had just taken place there and Tamerlane was too prideful to return home empty-handed. Across the street from the pharmacy there was a motel and as we walked outside a man was dragging his two screaming kids into the lobby of the motel room while his wife trailed behind him with what looked like a very important briefcase in one hand and a handbag in the other. I already had a headache for the poor guy and the other people trying to sleep in there.
“One day I want to have a house full of kids,” Tamerlane quietly commented as we watched for a brief moment from across the street.
“Have fun,” I muttered out, “having kids will ruin your life.”
“Come on George! Kids make your life awesome! It’s an excuse to not act like an adult!”
“That’s not what my mother told me.” “You are not your mother.” ”But I’m also not you.”
With those words I knew I had cornered him. But then one of his usual goofy smiles appeared on his face and I knew I was about to be teased.
“Well, when you do have children you will have to name the firstborn Tamerlane regardless of if it’s a boy or a girl,” he spoke slowly trying not to crack up laughing, “or maybe Tammy for a girl.”
I began laughing too but then a strong gust of wind blew through the street and brought me back to reality with a cold chill. I was officially homeless. Only temporarily, yes, but that still didn’t change the fact that I was homeless to begin with.
“Take this money,” I instructed Tamerlane as I took out the cash, “and give it to your mom and go home.”
“No,” he replied dryly, and I knew not to make any further comments on the subject matter.
He gently grabbed me by the arm and we started walking towards the waterfront. There were a lot of abandoned buildings there that we’d be able to stay in. There was no way I was going to a shelter for women or for homeless people. George and Tammy were staying together, end of story.
“What did your mother tell you before you left?” I asked after a long moment of silence with nothing but the sound of traffic in the distance.
“She told me that she loved me,” Tamerlane replied softly.
I knew too well not to tell him that we should go back to his place. Instead of opening my mouth I kept it shut and walked faithfully beside him. I trusted that he had a plan. Between the two of us he had always been the one who was prepared. Once we got to the waterfront we attempted to shack up for the night in an old abandoned building but the stench of mold burned in your lungs with each breath you took. It didn’t take long before we both got out of there but the smell stayed with me for a while. I imagined having to live in buildings that smelled like that for the rest of my days. I couldn’t fathom that. I didn’t want to. Something had to give. But what was there to be given when there was nothing to be taken? After about twenty minutes of looking around for someplace half-decent to camp for the night without any luck we decided to walk up the hill right behind the houses on the waterfront where there was a large but beaten up wood fence that could shield us from the wind in the parking lot of a Target store that had long since closed its doors.
There was honestly nothing to be said so I placed my blanket on the ground and Tamerlane and I laid down in it with our heads resting on the makeshift pillow that was a backpack. Tamerlane put his arm around me and held me against him so we could both stay warm. We pulled the remainder of the blanket over us since it was rather chilly at night on the pavement of an abandoned lot. All I could hear was Tammy’s shallow breathing, cars in the distance and the waves splashing up on the shore beyond the fence. There were streetlights in the distance but it was mostly the moonlight and the stars that provided most of the light in the parking lot. The sky was clear and the millions of stars up there formed beautiful patterns to gaze into eternity. I wondered if there were any realms beyond what the eyes could see. There was so much beauty, how could there not be?
“Be careful so you don’t get burned by that moonlight!” Tamerlane joked.
“You can’t get moonburned for your information!” I retorted giggling, “It’s not called a sunburn for nothing!”
The two of us cracked up laughing like only we could. Despite everything, there was still laugher in our souls and joy in our hearts. I was definitely worried about what the future would hold, if there was a future to be seen at all. It was unwritten, but I had dropped the pen to write it. I tried not to think too much since I knew too well that the art of over thinking something was nothing more than creating problems that wouldn’t otherwise exist. So I dared to stare at the stars and the endless galaxy stretched out before me. Eventually lethargy won the fight my body had put up against it once the adrenaline had completely drained out of my system. And so I dozed off underneath an infinite blanket of stars in the safety of my best friend’s arms and only a slight breeze blowing over the fence. And no getting burned by the light of the moon.
The sky had just begun to turn a light blue when I awoke again merely four hours later. I was sore and cold but my sleep had been peaceful and undisturbed by the elements around me. Tamerlane was already awake but he hadn’t left my side. Once he saw that I was awake he removed the humid blanket from over us and got up to stretch. I did the same but not before begging my body to let me rest just a little bit more, but to no avail. I was getting up and getting ready to face the day ahead no matter what. For a fraction of a second I wanted to break down and cry. In my sleep I had no such troubles as being homeless and destitute but in my waking hours, I couldn’t quite stop my current situation from looming over my head. Not when it was right in front of my face. Not when my face still burned and itched. And especially not when the flame of hope inside my soul had stopped burning completely.
“Good morning George,” Tammy greeted me, “did you sleep well?”
“Morning!” I sighed, “I could sleep more. I never realized how hard asphalt really was.”
“Sleeping on it is definitely different than falling on it.”
“You got that right!”
Once I got on my feet I leaned against the fence next to Tamerlane for a few moments before getting on the tip of my toes to peer over it. I was taken aback by what I saw over it. Despite being in a rather impoverished neighborhood on the east side of the waterfront, right over the fence stood a large three-storey house worth a very minimum of half a million dollars. I had never really paid too much attention to the waterfront before since I never hung out there, but that particular morning seeing the house slapped me in the face more than it should have. I climbed onto the fence and sat on it to examine the house more closely. Only a couple of lights were on in the front but the sky was becoming lighter by the minute so it became easier to see the overly perfect features of the back of the house, the pool on the second- storey deck and the biggest BBQ grill I had ever seen in the backyard next to some stone decorations that were probably worth more than my actual existence.
“It’s the first time that I actually notice this,” I commented in a blank tone of voice.
“I always knew it was there,” Tamerlane replied in a similar tone of voice, “but I had neglected to realize how big it really was until now.”
“I don’t understand how some people can have all the money in the world and others don’t have money at all. How some people eat too much and become obese while others don’t have anything to eat and die of hunger.”
“Believe me when I tell you that I wish I had all the answers to those questions, but I hold on to the belief that one day everything will be balanced.”
“Not in this life that’s for sure, the big guys always win. No matter what you do to rise up against them, they always get the last word.”
“God gets the last word, I believe that. If you wrong others your judgment will be awaiting.”
I bit my bottom lip, somewhat in anger at unfairness in general, and somewhat at not being able to comprehend life itself. How had it come to such a point? Why wasn’t it different? Why didn’t anyone do something about it? Why didn’t I do anything about it?
“Do you really believe there is a God?” I asked Tamerlane in a rather coarse tone of voice.
“Yes,” he replied softly, “there has to be. I cannot suffer my whole life and then just die and there’s nothing waiting for me on the other side. I have to believe that some form of justice will be served at some point.”
“‘Cause there’s no justice here.”
“You can’t have justice without mercy or mercy without justice. There needs to be a delicate balance of both, there needs to be fairness, and equilibrium. No, I don’t believe anyone should ever be condemned, but people also shouldn’t get away with things.”
“I think that if people helped each other instead of destroying each other there would be much more peace and harmony going on around here.”
“I agree with you, but the best you can do is live at peace with yourself.”
I bit my lip again. There was no such thing as peace inside this troubled soul of mine. There was no peace in seeing one of the lights in the house come on and someone about to leave for a big important job in a big building touching the sky when I’d have to fight to live another day without knowing if I was ever going to see tomorrow. Suddenly I became rather distressed as a wave of anger flooded over me. I could not remain idle.
“There’s something I’ve gotta do,” I muttered in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
I swallowed hard, there was more I wanted to say but I was afraid that my voice would crack and that Tamerlane would have to come rescue me again. I had gotten him into this mess and I was going to get him out of it. And so I let myself slide off the fence and land on the little ledge on the other side.
“What in the world are you doing?!” Tamerlane almost shouted at me.
“I’m going to create some justice for myself in this life,” I muttered, trying to sound confident when in reality I was shaking with fear inside.
“Please don’t tell me that you’re going to try to rob these people or something of the like!” Tamerlane shouted angrily as he too jumped off the fence and came down the ledge behind me, “They haven’t done anything to you! They aren’t the ones who made our lives this way!”
Logic and reason went down the drain as adrenaline began pumping through my veins. Someone had just left the house in a Mercedes-Benz so I figured that if I came in and made just a little noise the other tenants, if any, would think that it was the guy that just left who came to pick up something he’d forgotten. But even if they pulled a gun on me or called the police, I only wanted a taste of the power that had been taken from me long before I was even born. I wanted to be the one on top, I didn’t want to be the one suffering anymore.
“Lord help me,” Tamerlane sighed as he caught up to me, “my best friend doesn’t know what she’s doing!”
I turned around and slapped him in the shoulder. He didn’t cringe too much, his tattoo had probably began to heal up nicely since I had done it, but he still attempted to grab my hand and pull me back.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop me now,” I told him harshly, “just wait outside.”
“What are you even going to do?” he asked me in a gentle voice.
What was I going to do? I hadn’t even thought about that because it didn’t matter to me. I walked across the small yard and climbed up onto the deck on the second floor where there was a nice sliding door that wasn’t even locked! Security was really nothing more than a state of mind. No locks or alarms or weapons could really keep the danger away. That was something I had learned the hard way. Once inside the house everything was dark but I could still see. There was barely any furniture or decorations in the hallways. The place seemed depressingly bleak, more like a box than a mansion. I tiptoed down the stairwell to the first floor where the kitchen was. Food is really what I wanted more than money. I looked outside through the large dinning room windows and opened one up for Tamerlane to come into the house. He approached but didn’t enter. He wasn’t going to tell anyone that I had broken into a house but he wasn’t going to participate either.
In front of me there was a huge stainless steel fridge. I imagined it being filled with kingsize cakes and other delicious things so I opened it up and attacked the first block of cheese I saw once I opened the door. A few moments later I heard some footsteps behind me. I figured it was Tamerlane who had come to pig out in some free food too. Since I had found the food I had become a little less filled with rage. I figured that I’d just take some food and maybe a statue and leave without doing much harm. In prison I wouldn’t have to worry about not having food or shelter, but the one thing that meant the most to me in life was far away from those barbwire fences. It was a young man with huge brown eyes and the sweetest smile in the whole world. I grabbed a second block of cheese and turned around to hand it to Tamerlane but who I saw was a young woman in a nightgown walking my way. As soon as she saw me she began screaming.
I was taken aback just as much as she was and ended up dropping the large block of cheese on my foot and shouted in anger. The woman immediately ran into the other hallway and I took the opportunity to take a couple of things from the fridge and ran for the open window but Tamerlane had come in through it and was running in my direction but everything happened so fast that I didn’t get the chance to fully realize what was going on around me before my best friend tackled me to the ground and I heard a gunshot. The fruits and the cheese and the jar of peanut butter went flying on the other side of the large kitchen and rolled on the floor, hitting the edge of a counter and coming back rolling towards me. The side of my head hit the floor hard and Tamerlane’s upper body landed over me while his legs landed next to me. Next to me I saw a bullet hole in the island counter and around me I saw a pool of blood.
But it wasn’t my blood, I hadn’t been shot. I wasn’t injured, I had merely banged my head. It was my best friend and brother who’d taken the bullet for me. The bullet had entered the side of his neck and came out on the side of his mouth, leaving a gaping wound in his jaw. He put his hands over the side of his face but he couldn’t stop the bleeding. I kneeled down next to him and tried to help him but there was little I could do to help him. The woman dropped the gun once she saw the damage she had done to Tamerlane’s face and called 911. Although I heard her yelling and crying over the phone I couldn’t make out what she was saying. The gun blast had deafened me and the adrenaline pumping through my veins blocked out any logic and reasoning once again. The only thing I could really bring myself to do was hold my best friend in my arms one last time without knowing if anyone was really going to help him or not. He’d always been a warrior, but even warriors need rescuing sometimes.
“I need Tamerlane the Conqueror right now!” I managed to choke out as the air came flooding back into my lungs and setting my airways on fire in the process.
I let out a loud and exasperated sigh and started to cry when Tammy squeezed my arm with one hand. The warm dark red blood dripped all over me, his hair, and the floor. The woman had since gotten off the phone and brought a blanket for Tamerlane who had lost a considerable amount of blood and was about to go into shock.
“Please remember me,” he chocked up in a barely audible voice as he was coughing up blood.
“I couldn’t forget you even if I tried!” I shouted out as my tears fell on his face.
“Do something good in memory of me,” he tried to speak louder, “and help people instead of condemning them.”
“I will,” I spoke as softly as I could to reassure him, “I promise you that I will.”
Finally the paramedics barged in through the door and gave Tamerlane first aid before strapping him up to a stretcher and bringing him outside to the waiting ambulance. The no name woman took me by the hand and brought me out to watch him being hauled away. She held me tightly in her arms, probably trying to calm herself down more than to comfort me, and repeatedly muttering out in barely audible mumbles that everything was going to be okay. The paramedics closed the back door of the ambulance and did their best to fix up Tamerlane on the spot before a doctor could work on him but it only took a few seconds before one paramedic looked at the other with a frown on his face and shaking his head. He was gone. Forever. The conqueror had lost the fight. But he’d gone out a hero. He’d given his life protecting the person he loved the most. Tamerlane Rodriguez had been my Superman all the way up until he took his last breath.
I collapsed into the arms of the woman as my legs gave out. Even she couldn’t hold me, and after a few moments we both wound up on the ground as the sun was rising in the distance and a swarm of police cars arrived. It was all over. I raised up both my arms in surrender when a police officer approached me, but he didn’t cuff me. Instead he put a blanket around me, took me in his arms and walked me to his car. He sat me down in it and asked me to tell him what had happened. I told him everything. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out of it so what was the use of lying? I had gotten my best friend killed. I could’ve lied to the police all I wanted but I’d never be able to lie to myself. I knew what I’d done. I couldn’t fathom not looking into those big chocolatey brown eyes again. The hardest part was knowing that he’d loved me enough to die for me. What ate away at me inside was knowing that he shouldn’t’ve had to do that.
Down at the police station I wasn’t charged with murder. I wasn’t even charged with break and enter or robbery, or anything, as a matter of fact. The woman and her husband asked to drop all charges and to get me some help instead of some jail time but I’d have to be processed in a court of law anyway. Part of me wanted to go to prison and to rot in there for the rest of my life, I quite frankly deserved it, but in the back of my mind I could almost hear Tamerlane’s voice telling me that nobody deserved to suffer. I literally heard his sweet voice boldly telling me that he was Tamerlane the Conqueror and he’d never let the world trample on me. From that moment on I knew I’d be looking up at the stars at night and wondering if he was somewhere up there reminding me that even though I couldn’t always see him, he’d always be present. From that moment on he’d have the best seat in the house.
“I could easily put you away for most of you life,” the judge spoke at my hearing, “but my job isn’t to condemn you. My job is fundamentally to attempt to separate the right from the wrong. What you did was terrible, but it would be unfair of me to take away something that you don’t even have. Instead I’m going to show you mercy and compassion and choose to give you a second chance, a chance for you to do something good with your life, like your friend would’ve wanted.”
I didn’t speak. I had my head bowed down low as the judge handed me down my sentence.
“You are sentenced to one year probation and community service,” he said, “your probation officer will make living arrangements for you and set you up with an organization for positive reintegration into society as well as counselling to help you cope with trauma you’ve endured in your life.”
The food bank was where I was sent for a year. I tackled it head on. I didn’t pass up any chance I got to help someone because I knew too well what it was like to be in their shoes; lonely, hungry, looked down upon, hopeless. I was so good at my job that I got a promotion to manager even though I didn’t get paid. When my time was almost over I got a chance to help other troubled souls as they were given community service at the food bank too. One young woman named Celina even volunteered at the food bank when her brother was given community service there just to keep him company and be a shoulder to cry on for him. I never told them how much it actually reminded me of who Tamerlane used to be to me but I tried to make it obvious with each breath I took. All I did, I did in memory of him. Most days I in fact felt too small to change a life. I wasn’t a warrior, never had been, never would be, even if I had that word tattooed on my wrist in Arabic.
“Caroline,” one of my coworkers barged into the back office one afternoon as I was doing some paperwork, “you will not believe this!”
“What’s going on?” I asked in a monotone voice, not particularly interested in what was going on in front since I didn’t work that position anymore.
“There are some people here, who have some six- figure income at the end of the year and they say that they don’t have enough to eat. They won’t leave until they talk to the manager.”
“Alright, I’m coming.”
I smacked the pen down on the desk and dragged my feet down the little hallway up until I arrived at the counter in the front. Sure enough, there was a man and a woman with three kids standing there, sticking out like sore thumbs because they were particularly well dressed compared to everyone else who usually walked through those doors to get a free bag of food upon approval. Two of my coworkers had their arms crossed and frowns on their faces as they all waited for me to send them away. There wasn’t much I’d be able to do that they hadn’t already done, but I figured that I should at least listen to their side of the story first.
“Are you the manager?” the man asked me in a foreign accent.
“Yes,” I replied in a bleak tone of voice as I walked over to where they were standing.
A little dark-haired boy with big brown eyes took cover behind his mother’s leg once I got too close. He seemed particularly shy, even afraid maybe. I couldn’t help but think back to the very first time I had met little Tamerlane Rodriguez in the park. He had once been a little shy kid who didn’t even look at me, but had grown up to be a bold young man who was very affectionate around his loved ones but still somewhat reserved around strangers. A young man who believed in justice and making things right, who had since become an angel in heaven.
“What’s your name?” I asked the boy as I kneeled down close to him.
At first he didn’t speak. He looked fearfully at me for a few moments until I extended my hand towards him in hopes that it would motivate him to come out of his shell.