Sammy Jones came home early one day from working at the factory downtown. The day was hot and his sweat collected on his shirt until all his clothing had turned a darker shade and he panted with every step down the block. After walking all the way back to the center of Harlem, Mr. Jones had no interest in carrying a conversation with any one of his boisterous neighbors, let alone spend any of his spare moments outside on this day in July of 1919, which all of Harlem had declared before the clock struck noon to be the shittiest day of all time.
The outdoor heat had struck one hundred for the first time in years, and the humidity only added aching heads and sopping wet bodies to the painful heat waves. The breeze seemed to roll in and roll out, always appearing for about five minutes and then going away, only to return some while later, which meant that every house in the neighborhood had its windows wide open, letting the aggressive sounds of the city fuel the headaches brought on by bad humidity. And yet, in spite of all this, there had been no reported deaths from heatstroke. The heat was, in fact, so sadistic in its torture of Harlem’s residents that it refused to put the sick and elderly out of their misery. It had resolved to leave them to endure the pain that their fellow man had to endure at the white, hot rays of the sun.
“Hey, Mr. Jones!”
Sammy Jones bent his heat-beaten neck around to see Obit Robin panting to keep up with him from down the block.
“Afternoon Mr. Jones,” said Obit as soon as he caught up to him.
“Uh, Mr. Jones, I was wondering.”
“Well, it’s just that, sir, it’s been two weeks since I looked after little Sammy Jr., and you still didn’t pay me the fifty cents you promised.”
“Don’t worry yourself. I’ll give it to you once I have it.”
At this point, Obit’s patience was wearing thin as he tried to get his payment without seeming rude. He very much had a right to be rude, though. He had dropped out of high school two months prior to get a job at the deli so he could help provide for his mother and five sisters. The last thing he needed was Mr. Jones flaking him.
“Well, y’know, it is pay day down at the factory, so… maybe you would by any chance might have it on you now?”
Suddenly, Mr. Jones stopped dead and his tracks and spun around slowly. Not expecting this, Obit slammed directly into his chest and fell backward onto the searing hot pavement, which opened the scar on his elbow and let his blood leak out onto the concrete stove. A tiny, almost unnoticeable bit of red steam arose from the small puddle of Obit Robin’s leak.
“Sorry about that,” said Mr. Jones in his usual flat tone, “Let me help you with that.”
He extended his charred, dried-out hand to the Robin boy, and as he lifted him up, he wondered why Obit did not scream in pain. The truth was that Obit Robin wanted to cry out for the Lord to give him strength, but knew better. Pity would get him nowhere from the surly Mr. Jones.
“I’ll have your pay once I have money I can give away,” said Mr. Jones, “Right now, I want to go home to see my son.”
“Okay then,” said Obit, “See ya tomorrow.”
But as Mr. Jones continued his walk home, the ever-persistent Obit Robin stuck behind him like a salivating dog. He followed Mr. Jones down the piping hot boulevard. He followed Mr. Jones all the way back to the boarding house where the Jones family had lived for the last ten years, which was called the Armpit, and stayed right behind him until Mr. Jones entered and slammed the door in his face. Then, Obit Robin turned back around and decided to go home and try again tomorrow.
After walking up the two flights of stairs to his apartment, Sammy Jones threw the door open and marched inside silently, as he had done every single day in the ten years he had been living in there. As always, his wife was sorting through the closet in the unnamed room by the kitchen, searching for whatever it was she could find that day. Mr. Jones walked by her without saying anything and over to the open window where the makeshift cradle sat. Inside, little Sammy Jr. lay awake and sweating as much as an eight-month-old baby could produce, too exhausted and dehydrated to cry, too boiled to sleep. The baby could do nothing but lie in the mess of towels and old shirts that formed his cradle and worry about whatever a baby could possibly worry about; possibly if birds fly to heaven on a daily basis, and get to stay on land forever when they die.
“He should be sleeping,” said Mr. Jones, “Why isn’t Sammy Jr. sleeping?”
Mr. Jones walked back into the unnamed room by the kitchen where his wife was searching through the closet. Mr. Jones stepped up behind her and felt the steam rising off her skin and as the feverish cloud struck his face he stumbled and fell against the wall. His wife continued with her sorting.
“Sleep holds no value for him,” she spoke. “His time is better spent awake.”
The next day, Obit Robin waited outside the door of the Armpit and all of the boarders would pass him by just like the many times before he had tried such a feat. He ducked inside at one point to use the bathroom, a dingy place that everyone was sure was full of roaches that no one ever managed to catch a glimpse of, and came back outside to discover that Mr. Jones had left while he was gone.
Having nothing better to do, Obit Robin waited outside, standing so as to not burn his rear on the blistering hot stoop of the Armpit. And he waited for hours. With no job and no school, Obit slowly began to realize the true cost of his path in life: not poverty, not sorrow, but continual and grating boredom. He felt bored with no clear goal in his life and he felt bored in the face of his eventual future of going nowhere. He felt bored at Dodgers games and coin tosses, and seeing the few friends that he had, and trying to flirt awkwardly with much younger girls from around the neighborhood and make enemies of all of their fathers. And as Obit realized that he was and would be forever going nowhere, he plopped his ass down to the steaming hot ground and listened to the sound of his blood boiling within his body from the heat. If he was going to grow into a nowhere man, he reasoned, at least it was better than growing into a cranky old bastard like his one-time boss, Sammy Jones. It was something better than never growing up at all.
Then the baby started crying. Two floors up echoing out of the open window was the shrill sound of little Sammy Jones Jr. screeching out of his dry throat. It was the worst kind of baby cry: high-pitched, constantly moving up and down in volume, carrying on far beyond what a baby should be able to sustain. So Obit Robin decided to make it his business.
It took the Robin boy three tries to find the apartment where the Jones family lived, and, of course, it was the last door he tried on the second floor, after opening to a room full of toddlers playing indoor kickball with a rolled-up ball of towels, and a one-room apartment where an obese man who somehow was not perspiring in the slightest had seen him enter, shouted “You ain’t not gonna eat me yet!” and threw a goldfish bowl at Robin which crashed on the door as he slammed it shut.
Obit Robin quietly entered the Jones’s apartment, at which point the baby started crying again. Obit Robin waited at the door and realized that no one else was in the apartment. Obit thought this was a good thing; if he were to suffer his way through another scorcher of a day, at least it would be without a surly old man giving him a cold shoulder. Obit Robin slowly made his way around the apartment. It was much larger than he had expected it to be. Much of it was unpainted, and in place of paint the Joneses had hung up clothes and blankets and towels for decoration. All these clothes, for whatever reason, were dripping wet with some orange-tinted fluid. It gave the apartment a smell like yams. Robin thought he heard a sound, like a short screech from behind one of the wetter towels. He resolved that this was nothing real.
The baby was in his usual place, and the crying had again stopped. Obit Robin walked over to the window and looked down to see little Sammy Jr. in his makeshift cradle. Obit Robin looked down over the edge of the cradle. The baby was quiet, wide awake, and lounging in a pool of salty water. The water filled up the cradle and Sammy Jr. floated around, chuckling a high-pitched chuckle. Obit Robin let out a sigh.
“I don’t suppose you could pay me, Sammy Jr., for looking out for you.”
The baby shook his head.
Just then, the sound came up again, and Robin flinched. The short screech echoed in the apartment, and the baby started crying again.
“Oh, don’t worry Sammy Jr. I got it.”
Obit Robin looked around, trying to figure out just where this eerie sound was coming from. The first time he heard it, it came from behind a towel, but now it seemed to come from above. The screech came again, this time from another room. Obit Robin tip-toed out of the baby’s room and around three different doorless archways, and came to the unnamed room with the closet in it. The room had nothing else in it, so whatever Sammy Jr.’s mother had gathered the day before had either been stored back in or taken someplace else. The door to the closet hung wide open, but the room was windowless and what little light there was failed to illuminate the inside of the closet. Inside was nothing but damp darkness.
Obit listened for the sound again, but whatever it was it had left the apartment. He turned around to walk back out. Before getting to the door, he stopped, and turned around back in the direction he had been facing. He had not heard the sound again, but some strange little impulse in the Robin boy’s head told him that if he wanted to be completely sure, he should close the door to the closet. He did exactly that. He waited for about a minute and the screech did not return. Whatever it was, whether it was related to the closet in any way, was all in the past.
Obit Robin walked back through the door-less archways into Sammy Jr.’s room, feeling unusually chilly as he went.
“Nice to be getting a break from the heat,” he said to himself. Then he slapped himself for talking to no one.
By the time Obit Robin returned to Sammy Jr.’s room, the chill had gone into a full stinging coldness. Obit’s hands became numb, but it was such a relief from the heat he didn’t care. And then, Obit Robin leaned over to check on Sammy Jr. one more time. The pool of salty water had frozen into a block of ice, and just sticking out of the top were the hands and face of little Sammy Jr. To this, Obit Robin let out a shriek, and he saw his own breath as he shrieked. After shrieking some more, Obit Robin started panicking.
He looked around the room and saw that the towels that lined the walls had grown stiff and were starting to chip away. The orange fluid was now collecting on the floor and steaming up. Obit looked once more to the baby and saw his tiny eyes darting about. The baby opened its mouth as if to cry. Instead, the baby made a dried, hacking sound that made Obit want to vomit. At this point, he didn’t know what to do, and was just about to run out of the room crying for help when he found that his body was getting too stiff to move. His legs were limp and stuck in their positions and his arms could just flail wildly around. In a last ditch effort, Obit punched the block of ice that concealed the baby and it burned with an intense cold of northern winter. And then Obit Robin was stuck in one place, unable to do anything about it. From behind the wall, Obit heard the obese goldfish-throwing man yell out, “They’s savin’ me for later, they am.”
An hour later, Sammy Jr.’s mother entered the apartment and saw what had become of her home. Sammy Jr. was still frozen and Obit stuck in a spastic pose with his mouth open. The walls were covered with frost and the windows had shut themselves. Sammy Jr.’s mother folded her arms over her chest. She raised an eyebrow at Obit Robin and put on an impossibly hard scowl.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself, Robin boy?”
Obit definitely did have something to say, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was at the moment. Moreover, he couldn’t physically say anything with his mouth open and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth as if it were a lamppost in the Canadian February. But he did make a sound. He coughed a dried, hacking noise seven times and Sammy Jr.’s mother kept scowling.
“I can’t hear you, you stupid boy,” she said in a harsh, mocking tone.
Obit was becoming distraught now. He tried to form an apology or even a plea of some sort, but his frozen tongue wouldn’t allow it. Over in his block of ice, Sammy Jr. started to make a rubber-sounding gurgling noise. The closest way of describing this sound was that it was like a fish had learned to sing, but poorly. And Obit Robin made the same sound along with the baby, and the two of them glugged and gargled together, with one on melody and the other on harmony. The Mother’s scowl softened into a glare and her eyebrows went even.
“There we have it.”
She exited the room and went into the unnamed room with the shut closet. She opened it. In less than a second everything melted into a hazy orange steam that made Obit Robin cough and made Sammy Jr. chortle. The Mother re-entered.
“So, now what do you have to say for yourself, stupid little bird boy?”
Obit coughed up something that landed on the floor and said in a whining tone,
“Miss, I just wanna go see my sisters and my mom.”
The Mother shook her head callously.
“Not yet, boy. You go into the closet, and you come back out when you’ve learned to act your age.”
Obit hesitated, but the Mother’s awful steely-eyed glare made him feel like shitting himself, and he strolled glumly into the unnamed room.
“And don’t you be stupid and close the door!”
Obit Robin entered the closet and didn’t act stupid and didn’t close the door and didn’t come out until he learned to act his age, whenever that was.
Jonathan Shapiro, Age 18, Grade 12, Saint Ann’s School, Silver Key