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       The Barcelona Review

Author Bio



Crash Martin, christened Percival by his parents, left school in a hurry when he thought the truth had come out. The Martin family lived in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan, in a three-bedroom apartment, with rent control grandfathered in through his father’s father, both named Reginald, upon the elder’s death in 1999. While Reginald Jr. had been born in that apartment, Mathilda Poplar-Martin, Crash’s mother, hailed from Portland, Maine, and still owned her family cabin on Monhegan Island, population seventy-three.
       “There are twenty-seven artists, forty-five fishermen, and me,” she’d say of her island home away from home, “when I’m there.” Crash had an older sister named Albertha, a fraternal twin brother called Brother, and a cousin named Bob. Bob’s parents had died in an automobile accident on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Claudia, Bob’s mother, had been talking to Mathilda on her cell phone while Bob’s father, John, drove the family from Santa Barbara down to LA. Mathilda didn’t care much for her brother’s wife or for him, for that matter, but she felt that it was providence that she was talking to them when they died and so told Reginald Jr. that Bob had to come live with their family.
       Of the six residents living in the fourth-floor apartment on Gay Street, only seventeen-year-old Albertha had her own bedroom —for obvious reasons. The unlikely twins were both fifteen, and Bob was eleven, though he insisted that he was twelve. The three boys slept restively at night in their bedroom, which was also the smallest proper room in the apartment. Crash and Brother had mattresses set upon box springs in opposite corners, while Bob slept on a shelf Reginald Jr. had installed to make room for a study desk that only Crash used.
       The study desk was Crash’s province, because Brother was dyslexic, which Crash understood as not liking to read, and Bob had ADD, meaning that he could not concentrate on any one thing for very long. But even though Crash had the desk to himself, he didn’t use it often, because his brother and cousin made loud noises at odd moments that would shock and distract him.
       So Crash used his sister’s desk, even when she was in the room, because Albertha didn’t seem to mind his presence, and the noises she made were both consistent and benign. Albertha talked on the phone to her friends most waking hours.
       “. . . and then Billy said that Principal Rivers knew that Mr. Eagles had been arrested for bein’ drunk, and he said that Principal Rivers didn’t get him fired because Eagles knew that Rivers had had sex with Mrs. Longerman’s wife, Betty, before Betty realized that she was a lesbian . . .”
       Albertha had long riffs of interpersonal explanations that went on and on and on. For Crash it was kind of like white noise playing in the background. While he wrote and read, Albertha explained the only things that were important to her and maybe her friends— what A did or didn’t do with B, either against C or behind C’s back.
       The only thing that confused Crash was why his sister never stopped to listen to her friends, most of whom were girls. He decided that her friends were, like him, doing their schoolwork and found it soothing to hear his sister’s soft chatter while delving calculus or unveiling the disturbing mysteries of biology.
       Schoolwork came easily to Crash. His brother, Brother, cousin Bob, and Albertha all went to public schools, but Crash had a scholarship to Horatio Preparatory School, grades six to twelve. There were only 218 students at Horatio, and the education, everyone said, was one of the best in the nation.
       What made Crash such a good student was that he could solve math problems by closing his eyes and allowing the equation to enter a place in his mind where it somehow solved itself, and also that he could read and retain a thousand pages in an evening’s time. The years he attended public school, the teachers and counselors saw his odd quirks in learning to be symptoms of a mental disorder. When Mr. Martindale ordered Crash to write out the calculation to solve a long division problem, the youngster butted him in the nose out of sheer frustration.
       “He’s definitely suffering from a mild case of autism,” the school’s psychologist-counselor, Hannah Freest, told Mathilda Poplar-Martin at a special emergency meeting to discuss Percival’s violent assault. “But my son is happy,” Mathilda said. “He’s not suffering at all.”
       “He struck Mr. Martindale.”
       “A math teacher,” the mother pointed out, “who does not accept that my son can do math problems in his head.”
       “Skirting processes,” Hannah Freest argued, “which are part and parcel of the standardized education required by the state.”
       The phrase standardized education struck Mathilda. She realized in an unexpected instant that school for Percival was a factory, where he was a defective product soon to be discarded for more manageable material.
       “Leave my son where he is for the rest of the semester,” she said, “and I will have him in a private institution by January.”
       Horatio Prep tested Percival, called Crash for the rest of the semester by adoring fellow students. The private school accepted him, agreeing to waive tuition. That solved the problem of the young man’s education for four blissful years. But by the time he reached the tenth grade, Percival had become bored with what the teachers had to show him.
       Math and language gave him no problem. He understood the facts his teachers presented but was never, to his satisfaction, shown what lay behind the curtain of this so-called knowledge. Why did things happen? And what was responsible for why things were the way they were? On top of his own ennui, Crash could see that his classmates were often frustrated by the processes of acquiring knowledge and were rarely given what he thought of as truth. So he began to help his friends by giving them answers to the rote questions that a formal education asked over and over, like some monstrous dictator-parrot.
       He taught his friends how to cheat on tests in ways that no one would suspect. He wrote papers and installed viral programs on their class computers, programs that would seek out the answers they needed.
       One night he was lying in bed, only half-asleep, amid the clamor of Bob’s nightmare cries over the deaths of his parents and Brother’s rustling susurrations arising from the throes of yet another wet dream. At times like these Crash could drift, examining his mind without complete awareness. A thought would come into his mostly sleeping consciousness; birds’ wings or World War II Russian tanks, blood pulsing through vessels or words that rhyme. This was a state of complete ease, unencumbered by the limitations of time. Much later in life he would claim, “I do my best thinking when I’m asleep.”
       On this particular night, Crash suddenly realized that some student would betray him to the administration one day. This revelation forced him to recognize that in the eyes of the school he had been not helping but cheating. This meant that sooner or later he would be expelled from the one place where people believed in him.
       Crash might have dismissed this dark epiphany as a bad dream if it were not for the note Alissya Progress brought to his first-period life-drawing class.
       The model that day was Felix Neederman, a freshman from CCNY, who posed wearing nothing but briefs. He was reclining on a large wooden crate, propped up on one elbow, with what Crash’s father would have called a shit-eating grin on his lips. Felix was pale-skinned and muscular, blue-eyed, with dirty-blond hair.
       Crash sat on the high wooden stool at his easel with a stick of charred willow wood in his hand. He gazed at the burnt twig, which was quite a bit darker than his taupe-brown skin. The brown newsprint drawing pad hanging from the easel was closer to Crash’s hue. His father, Reginald Jr., was a deep brown color. Brother was a slightly darker brown than Crash, and Bob was that odd olive hue most people called white. Mother Mathilda had pale skin that she slathered with tan makeup every morning before facing the world. The only reason Crash knew his mother’s true color was that they both liked to swim in the ocean, and her makeup, as she said, “could not survive the brine.”
       Thinking about skin and color, Crash had yet to make a mark on the pristine sheet of newsprint. While he pondered the colors ranging from charcoal to pale he noticed Alissya walking by. He arranged the easel so that he could see the paper and Felix Neederman at the same time. He knew from previous classes that this binocular experience would end up with him tracing what he saw in the air upon the sheet of paper.
       “Mr. Martin,” Ernst Schillio said.
       “Yes,” Crash murmured, seemingly addressing his burnt willow stick.
       “Miss Warren wants to see you.”
       Looking up, the tenth grader saw his teacher and Alissya staring back at him. He knew in an instant what was happening.
       Crash placed the twig on the tray beneath the hanging pad of newsprint, hopped off the battered oak stool, and walked toward the exit. He was aware of the eyes of his fellow students watching as he made his way toward the classroom door. At public school the other kids would ooh at a student being called to the office. But at Horatio they only watched.
       Percival was certain that his dream state the night before had predicted what was happening. Someone had turned him in, and now the principal was going to expel him for cheating.
       By the time Crash made it to and through the doorway to the hall, his decision had been made. If he turned right, the principal’s office was two doors away. Going left three doorways would bring him to Antoine Short’s office. Antoine was what they called at Horatio the Student Advocate. If asked, Antoine would be required to go with Crash to the principal’s office to protect him as much as possible from disciplinary actions demanded by school rules.
       But Crash wasn’t interested in the left or the right. Straight ahead were the double front doors of the school that opened onto Horatio Street and escape.

* * *

Bob, Albertha, and Brother were all at or on their way to school by the time Crash left Horatio. Reginald Jr. had been at work at Tourmaline Distributions since before the kids were awake, and Mathilda would be gone by ten to visit her ex-boyfriend Matthew Sinn in the hospice where he was dying from lung cancer.
       Upstairs, in his parents’ bedroom, on the high shelf in the big closet, Crash found his backpack among the others that Reginald Jr. and the boys used when they camped in the wilderness of Monhegan Island on summer vacations in late August.
       Crash took jars of crunchy peanut butter and grape jelly along with a hard-crusted loaf of sourdough bread from the kitchen cabinet, a heavy afghan sweater from Brother’s bottom drawer, and his father’s Swiss Army knife. He dressed in canvas pants, a long- sleeved, heavy blue-and-white-checkered cotton shirt, and a light windbreaker. Clad in his makeshift camping wear and carrying the pack on his back, Crash set out for the E train. He took the subway to the Q37 bus, from which he transferred to the Q55. At noon, give or take a few minutes, he arrived at Forest Park in Queens and followed a rarely used path to Pine Grove, a place where his father took the boys camping now and then.
       “What if they catch us?” Crash remembered his twin asking at the outset of one such outing.
       “It’s not illegal to camp in the park if it isn’t posted,” their father replied with a nonchalant shrug. “But if the park rangers or the police find us, they’ll probably check our IDs and send us home.”
       Crash knew that the eastern white pines of the grove gave great cover and so was not worried about being found. His backpack contained a camouflage pup tent, a thin down sleeping bag, a butane hotplate with enough fuel for a week’s worth of cooking, a pot and pan, a quart bottle of water, a battery-powered lantern, and six dried packets of onion and mushroom soup mix that came with a five-year guarantee of freshness. There were various other contents of the pack: three teabags, a tin cup, and a hunting knife designed, as his father said, for industry or defense.
       Crash put up the tent and sat next to it eating a PB&J on sourdough. As evening came on, he began to wonder what would be happening between his home and the school. The principal’s office would have called his parents, saying that they had to come in for a special disciplinary meeting. On the other hand, his parents would have called the administration office wondering what the school had done with their son. Sooner or later they would figure out that Crash had suspected why the principal called him to her office and, instead of facing the music, had run.
       Down in a clearing below a scrim of pines, Crash saw three deer illuminated by an early moon. He’d turned his lantern on low to read Demian, by Herman Hesse, a book that had been assigned in Mrs. Schrodinger’s World Literature class. Crash liked the book because it saw the world the way he did: not only good and evil but also light and dark mixing to make things so hard to understand. He liked the main character, Emil Sinclair, a lot. He was a misunderstood kid who couldn’t solve the simple problems of life.
       “Hey there, little brother.” The voice was both rough and soft.
       Crash peered in the direction from which the voice had come, but at first all he could see was darkness. He knew this was because of the blinding effect of the moon and electric light. He wasn’t afraid, because Brother called him “little brother” due to a half-inch deficit in height; Crash had been born seven minutes before Brother, and his jealous twin always tried to make Crash seem the junior.
       As Crash’s vision acclimated, there appeared before him a tall and lanky young black man wearing black trousers and maybe a red T-shirt. The dark-skinned lad smiled brightly and said, “What you doin’ out here readin’ a book in the woods, man?”
       “Reading,” Crash said, though he knew this was not a satisfactory answer to the question.
       “What’s your name?” the young man asked. He took a step forward and hunkered down in an easy movement, right forearm on the knee, the knuckles of his left hand grazing the grass.
       “My parents named me Percival, Percy, but everyone calls me Crash.”
       “Why Crash?”
       “What’s your name?” Crash asked.
       “Otis.” He said the word as if it were somehow a defeat. “Otis Zeal.”
       “That’s a cool name,” Crash said. It was the right thing to say. Otis grinned again and asked, “Why you out heah?”
       “They were going to expel me from school for helping about a dozen kids cheat on their homework and their tests.”
       “A dozen is twelve, right?”
       “So how much them other kids pay you to help ’em cheat?”
       “Nuthin’? You mean you helped them and didn’t even get paid?”
       “It was kind of like an experiment.”
       “Like a scientist, like on TV?”
       “Uh-huh. You see, I thought that maybe my friends weren’t learning because the teachers made the answers so much of a mystery. If they saw the question and then the answer, maybe that would help them know what they were learning about.”
       “You sound kinda crazy, Percy Crash.”
        “Why are you out here, Otis?”
       “I always come out to here when I get in trouble too. My uncle used to take me here when I was kid like you, and now if I think somebody’s after me, I come here to hide.”
       “What are you hiding from?” Crash asked.
       Otis embarked upon a meandering tale that made only a little sense to the sophomore from Horatio Prep. The story started with a girl named Brenda Redman. She was real cute, with a fat butt, and she could dance. Otis was a good dancer, and so every time he and Brenda met at a party at somebody’s house in the Bronx, they danced to just about every other cut the DJ played. The problem was this guy named Lawrence. Lawrence liked Brenda, and she liked him some too, but he couldn’t dance like Otis, and Brenda needed to be dancing when she was at a party and the music was playing—especially if there was wine involved. It was the wine, Otis believed, that made Lawrence angry. Brenda wasn’t his steady girl or anything, but even still, Lawrence pushed Otis, and that made Otis mad.
       “You don’t wanna get me mad, little brother,” Otis said, in the middle of his story. “When I get mad there’s no tellin’ what I might do.”
       Anyway, Otis got mad and stabbed Lawrence, who was a much bigger man, in the shoulder with a little paring knife. Otis always carried an edge—that’s what he said.
       “Did you kill him?” Crash asked Otis.
       “I ’on’t think I did. You know, sometimes people die when you don’t hurt ’em much, but I don’t think he woulda died. It don’t matter though, because his cousin belongs to a gang, and they’ll be lookin’ for me for a long time.”
       There was a lull in the conversation for a while after that. Both young man and boy looked around, appreciating the relative silence of the city park. Then Otis began to shiver. The tremors started in his chest and radiated out toward the limbs. Crash crawled into the little pup tent and pulled out Brother’s afghan sweater.
       “Here,” Crash said, “put this on.”
       Otis reached out and pulled the woolen garment over his head. He nodded, grinned, and then shuddered once before plopping down into a half lotus.
       “That makes the difference,” Otis declared.
       Crash thought the words sounded like something a parent or some other elder had often said.
       “You want a PB&J?”
       “Wha’s that?”
They talked about school because it was something they had in common. Otis had been kicked out so many times that they finally stopped expecting him to come back. Mostly these suspensions were because of his bad temper. Whenever Otis got angry he had to do something hard. He’d throw a glass against the wall, hit somebody, or something else like that. One time he pushed a girl named Theodora down some marble stairs.
       “I was already sorry before she stopped tumblin’,” he said. “But I didn’t say it, because I had no right to expect forgiveness. I always keep thinkin’ that maybe I could find a place where you nevah have to get mad, and then I’d be cool. My daddy told me before he died that that place was called Dead.”
       When it was Crash’s turn to talk, he said that he felt like an outcast in school. Horatio Prep was better than public school, but still everybody thought that he was tricking them with the way he learned things.
       “It’s like when I read a book,” Crash explained. “I turn the pages so fast that nobody believes I’m really readin’, or when people just say a math problem and I know the answer.”
        “You didn’t turn the pages fast when I saw you reading your book,” Otis pointed out.
       “That’s because, um, after I read a book a few times I go slower and slower, because my mind is making up all this other stuff about how the people really felt and what they looked like.”
       “Like it was a TV show, but you have to see it ovah and ovah until you understand how what happened happened?”
       “Yeah.” Crash felt that no one had ever put into words the feelings he got while he was learning.
       “Why don’t you read me a couple a’ pages?” Otis said.
       Crash read nearly a dozen pages out loud, marveling at how good it sounded. He didn’t trip and stumble over the words as he did when he read out loud in English class.
       Otis started yawning after a while, and Crash stopped reading. “Guess we should get some sleep,” Otis suggested.
       Then Otis stood up on his knees and took three stump-like steps, bringing him very close to Crash. He leaned forward slowly and kissed Crash on the mouth. It was a wet kiss, not anything the sophomore had experienced before.
       Otis leaned back and asked, “Is there room in yo’ tent for me?”
       The youths gazed into each other’s eyes for a long moment before Crash said, “Uh-uh. It’s too small.”
       Taking a long time before he spoke again, Otis finally said, “OK. I’ll just curl up in this sweater next to it.”
       In his half-asleep state it came to Crash that Otis kissing him was the opposite of Otis getting mad. It made him happy that he was able to calm the angry young man down. He was smiling in the tent when somebody grabbed him by his shoulders and dragged him out.
       “Who are you?” a man’s voice shouted.
       The sun was up and shining and hurting Crash’s eyes.
       “What are you doing here?” another angry voice wanted to know.
       Crash held out his arms to show that he wasn’t resisting them, but the man still lifted him from the ground and pulled him so close that Crash could smell bacon on his breath.
       “Who are you?” Bacon Breath demanded.
       “Percival Martin.” He felt defeated because he used a name he no longer answered to.
       “Where’s some ID?”
       “In my, in my, in my . . .”
       “In your what?”
       “In my backpack.”
       “Where is it?”
       “Next to the tent.”
       Crash glanced at the side of the tent where Otis had been sleeping, but both the sometimes angry young man and the backpack were gone.
       When Crash realized that Otis was gone with all his belongings —money and food, cookware and butane hotplate —he was giddy with the knowledge that he had helped his friend.
       “You’re going to jail, Percival Martin,” one tall, treelike park man intoned.
They were all sitting around the dining table that night —the entire Martin clan plus Bob. It wasn’t unusual for the family to gather over a meal, but this time there were no plates of food before them.
       “What did you do?” Reginald Jr. asked.
       Albertha was sitting next to her father. Crash imagined that his sister could hardly wait to get to her room, where she could tell everyone about her crazy autistic brother.
       “I figured out how to help all the kids I knew get good grades on their papers and tests.”
       The police had called Reginald and Mathilda. They’d come down to the Queens police station and taken their son home.
       “But why did you run away?” Mathilda asked.
       Brother was peering at Crash with a crestfallen look on his face. This expression presented itself like a simple equation to Crash. It said that Brother realized that he would never be as much fun as him.
       “I dreamed that . . . No, no, no. I saw that one of the kids would tell on me sooner or later. And then when I went to Mr. Schillio’s class and he told me to go to the principal’s office, I knew I was in trouble.”
       “The school didn’t say anything about you cheating,” Mathilda said.
        Bob was studying his cousin.
       “They didn’t?”
       “No,” Reginald Jr. replied. “They called to tell us that you were going to be valedictorian of the second years.”
       “You have to stop cheating,” the father continued. “Tell your friends that you can’t do it anymore.”
       “Are you OK?” Mathilda asked.
       Crash turned toward his mother but had no words to say.
       “That goes for all of you,” Reginald said to the other kids. “We never mention cheating

*      *       *

Years passed, but nothing happened that was as powerful or insightful or fulfilling as the day when Crash ran away. He’d kissed fourteen girls and a few boys, but nothing made an impression on him like Otis did amidst the pine trees and darkness, witnessed by lost deer and a few fireflies.
       It was on this true adventure Crash had learned that the mathematics of life were ever so much more complex than counting up things in his head.
       Albertha married her first boyfriend, Clyde Friarstone. She talked for both herself and her husband while Clyde smiled shyly at her side. Bob became a renowned artist and sometime opioid abuser. He still lied about his age.
       Brother worked construction for six years, then he enlisted and did three tours of duty in Afghanistan. During his period of service he avoided the members of his family, most of whom were against the wars. But a few weeks after his last tour, Brother showed up at Crash’s upper-Harlem apartment. Crash served his twin a glass of cabernet.
       “When do you graduate, little brother?” Brother asked.
       “Next year.”
       “You gonna work for the government?”
       “I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll be a physics teacher at some small college upstate.”
       Crash thought that Brother didn’t like this answer, but instead of saying so he asked, “You ever talk to Mom?”
       “No,” Crash said in a hushed tone. “She sends cards every once in a while but . . .”
       “I throw ’em away,” Brother said. “She was a bitch leavin’ Dad. No explanation, just a note saying that it was over and she was gone.”
       “Why’d you join the army?” It was a question he’d always wanted to ask.
        “To serve my country. To save people who got stuck under the Taliban.”
       “Did it feel like you broke outta prison and at least just for a little while you were free?”
       Brother winced and said, “I got shrapnel in my chest. The doctors say that it’s better to leave it.”
       They drank more and talked about old times in the bedroom with cousin Bob.
Crash didn’t tell Brother that Mathilda had sent him her e-mail address or that he’d contacted her a few times. But something about Brother’s visit made him decide to take the subway out to Queens. Her apartment was less than a mile from Forest Park.
       He knocked on the sixth-floor apartment door and waited, nervous for the first time since he believed he was about to get expelled. The door came open. A willowy man stood there. He looked familiar, very much so.
       “Matthew Sinn?” Crash asked.
       “Hi, Percy. How are you?”
       “I thought you were dead.”
       “I would be if it wasn’t for your mother.”
       “It was really because of you, baby,” Mathilda said to Crash at dinner. She’d made chicken and dumplings with almandine French beans and peach cobbler.
       “You were so brave.”
       “What are you talking about?”
       “Your whole life you were different. Nobody understood you. Your teachers were angry because you didn’t need them. And then you ran away to the woods with a backpack and a book. You were only fifteen, and emotionally so much younger than that, but you took your life in your hands . . .”
       “The day after you came back, she took my hands in hers,” Sinn said. “She held on tight and told me I wasn’t going anywhere. Before that everyone came to see me just to say goodbye, but Mattie held on tight. After three months I was in remission. In three years my cure moved in with me.”
       “Why didn’t you tell anybody?” Crash asked his mom.
       “I would have told them all,” she said, “but no one replied to my cards except you. Reginald phoned me once, but before I could explain he called me vile names and hung up. I would have liked to remain his wife and just . . . be close with Matthew. But Reggie hated me for breaking the cord of our discord.”
       The last five words were often used by Mathilda’s English professor father.
       “But you just said you were gone,” Crash argued.
       “I said that I needed space.”
       That night Crash got on the Internet and entered an algorithm created to search for the name Otis Zeal. In a way, Crash thought, Otis was the one person who understood him like he intuitively understood long division.
       The next morning Crash called his father. Minnie Saltworthy, Reginald Jr.’s live-in girlfriend, answered, “Martin residence.”
       “Hi, Minnie,” Crash said.
       “Hi, Percy. You want to talk to your father?”
       “Hello, son,” Reginald Jr. said. He’d retired from his sales job and now stayed home most of the time. He and Minnie, only fifteen years his junior, took vacations four times a year. They went on voyages and train treks, visited Mexico, and even went on a camp- ing tour in the Italian Alps.
       “Hi, Dad.”
       “You calling just to say hello?”
       “I wanted to say that I love you, Dad; that I miss the days when we were kids living in that apartment and going to school.”
       “You can come home anytime you want.”
That night Brother died of a heart attack. Skipping the funeral, Crash went the next day to the grave site. Brother was interred beneath a temporary plaster marker, upon which was written his birth name—Constant Stevens Martin. Crash wondered why he never knew Brother’s real name. He wondered whether Brother had known it.
       Soon after Brother’s death, Crash dropped out of Columbia and started an online business that generated outlines for school papers and explained ways to take and take advantage of school tests. He made lots of money and often chatted, digitally, with his ever-changing cast of clients.
       And then one night, while writing an e-mail to hornyowl297, he received a message from the Otis Zeal algorithm. He’d already read dozens of little reports of Otis being arrested, tried, and sometimes convicted. The not-so-young delinquent popped up all over the boroughs. He’d married Brenda Redman, but five months later she’d filed for, and been granted, a restraining order against him. Their divorce came soon after that.
       But that evening, while trying to explain to the postgraduate hornyowl297 that all math existed before human understanding, he received the notice of Otis’s death.

* * *

At a small graveyard called simply Final Rest, on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, the funeral and burial of Otis Zeal was held. The ceremony was scheduled for 7:15 a.m. Crash arrived at 6:27. The small chapel was empty, and so he took a seat at the back, in the third-to-last row. There he remembered the night he met Otis. There was the hello, the confession, and the kiss. It was a moment that happened outside of his head but was as important as the eternal resolution of pi.
       “Who you, sugah?” a woman asked.
       Crash looked up to see a dark-skinned woman wearing a black dress suit with a pale pink blouse underneath. There was a deep purple iris pinned to her lapel and a smile that Crash believed would never be far from her lips.
       “Not Percy Crash?”
       “Uh-huh. That’s what Otis called me.”
       “I’m Zenobia Zeal,” the woman said, taking Crash by the sleeve of his blue blazer. “You come up with me to the first row. I know that’s what my son woulda wanted.”
       She dragged the shy professional cheater to the front of the first row of pews. The coffin had come while Crash was remembering.
       “You know who I am?” the young man asked.
       “Otis nevah stopped talkin’ ’bout you. He said that you gave him all this stuff and read to him from a book called Demon and that he told you just about everything and you didn’t laugh once.”
       “Really?” Crash asked. He’d thought that the older boy had probably forgotten him.
        “I’ll prove it.” Saying this, Zenobia Zeal pulled Crash from the front row to the side of the open coffin.
       Otis looked very much the way he had when Crash last saw him. Only now he sported a thick mustache. He wore blue jeans and a pullover afghan sweater.
       “That there sweater was the onliest wrap he never lost,” the ever-smiling mother said. “He told everybody that you was his best friend and that sometimes he’d come to see you on Horatio Street where you went to school. Nobody believed him though. We all thought he stole that sweater. But now here you are, his oldest friend, come to say goodbye to him.”
       Tears glittered in the older woman’s eyes.
       “How did my friend die?” Crash asked.
       “Over what?”
       “You never knew with Otis. He was just so sensitive. He always thought that people was laughin’ at him or takin’ advantage. He always said that you were the only one to treat him like a human being. Why is that?”
       Crash stared into the dark woman’s inquiring eyes and wondered about the question. He realized that she wanted him to share something intimate about her son, something uplifting.
       “There’s something different about my brain,” Crash said, for the first time ever.
       “Oh.” A flash of concern moved across Zenobia’s face.
       “Not a disease or a condition,” Crash interjected. “It’s just that I think differently, and, in a way, Otis did too.”
       Zenobia nodded sagely.
       “And so when we talked,” Crash went on, “it felt like we understood each other. All the people in the world didn’t understand us, but there we were, like brothers really. I knew him better than I did my own brother.”
       Zenobia took Crash’s hand in hers, making him think about his mother and the life she saved and about Otis and his heartfelt kiss.

© Walter Mosley

This electronic version of “Otis” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and the author. It appears in the author's short-story collection The Awkward Black Man  published by W&N, 18th March 2021.  Book ordering available through and

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