Isaac RememberedAn Isaac and Rolley story
Isaac remembered. He remembered the first time he saw the boy, Rolley, all shot up and sweating despite the tunnel chill, shaking from the pain the old doctor couldn’t keep under control. He lay on a cot, crying out, eyes shut to everything around him, not noticing anything but his own hurt. The body was there, but the boy wasn’t, his soul chained and beaten down.
Isaac remembered the story Vincent told him – a child full of promise who lost his teacher and his way. He remembered Vincent’s tale of finding the junkie again – of being awake one night walking his and Cathy’s cranky baby and hearing the faint tapping for help. Rolley shouldn’t have recalled which pipe went all the way to the Tunnels, but he did. His gift for sound did him that much good at least. Isaac also remembered telling Vincent a sad truth in return – Rolley was using hard, with no end in sight, and only went Below so he could heal without getting the police involved, then go back to shooting up again.
Vincent seemed like a good man; Isaac sensed it, even that first time with Cathy on the East Side. Isaac wanted to think of them as just another interracial couple. It was easy to see they loved each other. When that kind of love happened, you blessed it, even when you knew what kind of trouble it would bring, but it was hard not to stare, even now – her, with her air of money and fire, and him…well, just, him.
It had been too long since he’d seen Cathy last. It was just after their chase through the ugliest New York had to offer, when Father asked her to bring Isaac down. At the time she seemed surprised that life could have led them, an unlikely pair of friends to begin with, to this place. This time, she had been the one who asked him to the Tunnels, but the look in Cathy’s eyes had no surprise left in it. It was world-weary. It was loss already being mourned. Isaac had seen that in women before, even if their brothers, sons, boyfriends – maybe addicts, maybe gang bangers – were still right in front of them. They hoped until they couldn’t, but they knew when they were losing. They started their grieving early, because it was all they could do.
Cathy called, trusting Isaac could help the sad-looking addict, but more important to her at this point, could he help her man through it all? Cathy saw what Vincent and his father, who still recalled the boy they loved inside the ghost, couldn’t. She wanted to tell them the truth, but it would have broken her heart and theirs if she was right, so it was up to Isaac.
There wasn’t much hope.
Isaac remembered that first time, sitting across from the stern old White man and his “son” – the one Cathy loved, the one who talked like a professor, but looked like he walked out of a Saturday afternoon monster movie.
Isaac remembered the secret…and the promise: To give help when needed, and to accept help when offered. It was all the gruff, old doctor had asked for. That was easy. That was the rule of survival where he lived, just a few miles from where Cathy grew up, but might as well be a different country. It was the same as he had told her.
Friends do for each other.
That first time in the Tunnels, Cathy’s strange looking guy had still been bandaged up from his run-in with the Silks. It was pretty clear the old dude was mad as hell she’d asked for help finding his son, but he got over it pretty quick. If Vincent’s “Father” had been running the underground city as long as they said he had, he would know how to move on, forget the losses, count up his gains. The Lower East Side was a foreign land for them, and Isaac could be another friend, another “Helper”, Father called it, if he wished to be.
Despite everything they didn’t have in common, these people cared about what mattered. It was an honor to be trusted by this man with their home and secrets, and an honor to help with one of their own. A lost sheep…
Isaac remembered when the kid was knit-up enough to come to the studio, escorted, of course. They weren’t taking any chances that he’d rabbit back to his old ways. Isaac didn’t have the heart to tell them that no matter how many jailers, no matter how many bars on the windows, nothing could keep an addict from his junk if that was all he lived for.
Their only chance was to find the hollow parts of him and fill them up with something else.
Rolley hadn’t run…yet…if the short words from his guards, Henry and Lee, were to be trusted. That told Isaac one of two things – either the boy had nowhere else to go, or he had hit his bottom and really wanted help. Either way, Isaac could work with those. He had to give it to the kid – he was hurting, but he was still with them.
Rolley was over the beginning. Vincent and Father had got him through that part, but they couldn’t be with him 24/7. They had other responsibilities. It was time for someone else to take over.
The boy held himself around, trembling. He was cold, even in the midday heat, and green as a Black man got. His nose was running; he kept wiping it on his sleeve. Every step was probably agony: the aching joints, the shivers, the sweating. It was the flu on acid and brown was the cure.
He needed the drug, didn’t just want it, didn’t just crave it. His body, his mind, his soul needed it, even when he knew it was killing him.
Isaac never told Cathy. Not really something you brought up in regular conversation.
I got out of the Vietnam as high as a kite and as low as a half-dead dog, so hopped up I didn’t even recognize my family when I walked off the plane. I flushed my life down the toilet, but I was lucky. I had some good friends in high and low places who saw who I was, who believed when I couldn’t, and helped me get clean and cleaned up my record. It wasn’t easy, but with a lot of help, I restarted my life.
He hadn’t told her, but that girl had a wisdom, a sense about people. When this kid came back to them, needing help they didn’t know how to give, she knew who to call.
Friends do for each other.
Friends give back.
“I’m Isaac.” He offered his name along with his hand to the boy. At first the junkie’s mismatched eyes just looked at it, his arms still holding himself. Maybe he wasn’t used to being welcomed anywhere. Maybe he had tried to get help before, but to the people grabbing a paycheck, or to those good liberal folks, long past broken and burnt-out, he was just another wasted skin wanting a bed they didn’t have, just another junkie.
But those people down past the sewers and the subways had infected Isaac with their hope.
He would try to reach this boy. He would try to help.
Finally, after an age, the boy’s trembling hand let go of his arm and grabbed onto Isaac’s, still wary though.
“Rolley,” was all he answered with, like his name meant so little to him, there was nothing else to say.
“Rolley, this is going to be your home for as long you need it.” Judging by the boy’s expression, he didn’t know what to make of Isaac’s open offer. This boy had been on the street for a long time, and the first rule you learned, you experienced, if you survived it – nothing was free.
The boy with undisguised distrust took in the space, the stained walls, the cracked linoleum, the mended mats, the duct-taped punching bags, the ring.
He had no idea what he was getting into, but that was a good thing.
It was a beginning.
It took Rolley almost four hours before he tried to try to escape out a window, a promising sign that he lasted that long.
The junkie, sweating and shaking from his effort to leave, lay back on the mattress in the nearly empty bedroom. Even to Isaac’s tough old eyes, it was a depressing space, furnished with just a bed pushed up against a dirty white wall, but it was all they could trust Rolley with – nothing to throw, nothing to hide drugs in. He had vomited a couple times in the only other thing in the room – a big, plastic bowl.
Henry, a stocky, bald-headed White man, stood guard at the now-closed window and Lee, a big, biracial kid just barely out of his teens, covered the door. They both had committed to staying in the puke-smelling and boiling-hot room for however long they were needed. Isaac had to hand it to them; those Tunnel people took their work seriously.
“I gotta get outta here, man.” The boy pleaded from the bed on the floor. “I can’t do this cold turkey shit.” He grabbed onto Isaac’s pants, pleading, “I gotta have some!”
Isaac remembered this, wanting just to go back, wishing people didn’t care. The boy would regret Vincent had found him again. For a while, he might hate him for it. When Isaac took on this kid, he had told Vincent so.
If what Cathy says about you is true, you’re real good at rescuing people, but you can’t do it this time. I think you’ve done him as much good as you can. We can remind him what the drugs were doing to him, but he has to do the hard work, and no one can do it for him. He has to rescue himself.
Isaac shook his head as he pulled away from Rolley’s shaky grip. “What you gonna use to get it? You don’t have no money. Father says you got Hep so you can’t sell ya blood. Beggin’? Who would give you change, lookin’ the way you do? Stealin’? You’ve shown how good you are at that. You got no home; you’ve been shot. You better be close to the bottom, son, cause you’re running out of options.”
Isaac squatted down near Rolley’s grey-colored face. “Rolley, you are at the end of this part,” he tried to reassure the hurting boy in the bed. “This goes, and if you do it right, you don’t ever have to feel this way again. It’s mostly in your head now. Those people down there saw you through those bad, early days. You go back, and everything they did was for nothing.”
Rolley slapped the words away, curling onto his side, bitter as stale coffee. “Man, they don’t care about me. They sent me here. They don’t want me.”
One thing you could count on – addicts were pathetic, self-absorbed, balls of misery when they couldn’t get their drug of choice.
“No, you right,” he said, and stood again.
Rolley’s eyes snapped wide in surprise. He believed in the Tunnels, in Vincent, in his love, and Isaac was going to take him away. He had to.
“They don’t want you.” Isaac shrugged. “Not the way you are.” The junkie had expected an argument, for Isaac to say he was welcome home, any time. That kind of open invitation was the last tether line you broke before you hit bottom. Isaac had told Vincent that, too.
I don’t know what Rolley feels for you, or this place, but I do know this – he doesn’t respect you. The junkie can’t, cause addiction doesn’t respect anyone or anything. And if he stays here and fails – and you can’t fool yourself, without a program, without a plan, he will fail – you are gonna lose all your hope for him, all respect, and that’ll kill him faster than the drugs.
Junkies clung to home. They could be far down, but there was always a place that would take them in.
Not this time.
Where Isaac was from you fought dirty…and you fought to win.
He was silent for a moment, letting his words pierce the boy’s drug-thickened skin before he went on. “Those people got problems and cares of their own. They got their children to think of. They can’t have an addict comin’ and goin’. They don’t have a place for that.”
Isaac bent low again to look the barely living boy in the face when he said his next words. “But for a strong man, a strong Black man who has fought the streets, fought his demons and won? There is always a place for him.”
Isaac could see the anger pounding its way up through the sick boy’s body, slowly, grabbing his fears and worries along the way. “You don’t know me! You all’s so stupid. I ain’t ever gonna be that!” Rolley screamed.
He finished quiet, close to crying. “You don’t understand. I just want to give up.”
“You want to give up?” Isaac parroted. “Is that all? So you wanna just take for the rest of your life. All you want is to get high, huh?” Isaac met Rolley’s anger with his own. It lived deep, fused to memories and guilt, disappointments he could never forget.
A Black man in New York walked a fine line. People were scared of Isaac, for his size, for his skin, for who he was, so he learned lie low Most Black men used the disguise – call it manners, call it fitting in, call it hiding – but it was how to survive in a world that judged the outside of things. He put on a smile usually, even when there was nothing to smile about, and kept his anger roped up, and tied tight.
But this was his gym, his home, and for some he untied the knots.
“So your best bet is to overdose somewhere out of the way, or get shot like your brother?” Isaac’s red, drumming rage drove forward. “Well, come on then!” He grabbed Rolley’s arm and easily pulled the weakened body out of the bed, blankets falling as they crossed the room.
“Come on!” Isaac ordered again, although the boy really had no choice as Isaac hauled them both up the grit-covered stairs, Rolley’s guards following. By the time they reached the roof of the building, you would have thought they had climbed Everest not the three flights it actually took. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, the boy was in poor shape.
Isaac remembered pulling them to the edge that overlooked FDR Drive. Even at this late hour it was still busy, the cars drove to and from, the people inside traveling from one part of their lives to another.
Isaac let go of Rolley’s arm and motioned for the other men to stay back.
“This is it boy,” he said matter-of-factly, pointing over the edge. “If you want to give up, you best drop into those cars, cause you’re killing yourself.” The fact of it ended high, like preacher’s scolding, but the future came out low and certain. “The way you’re goin’, though, you probably gonna take some people with you, so best to get it over with, right now.”
Rolley wrenched his arm out of Isaac’s grasp. “Don’t you think I know that!” Rolley screamed into the polluted night.
Rolley walked on his own across the tar-papered roof to edge where a small, stone wall enclosed it. He stood, his feet touching the lip as he gazed at the white and red lights of the cars zooming past. Those good folks driving by didn’t know what hung in the balance. They didn’t know this was either the beginning of a life, or just a mile marker near the end.
Isaac inched closer, watching the boy for movement, trying to determine what would reach him. His past chose the question for him.
“So,” Isaac kept at him, “you tell me. You ready to get clean, or you ready to die?”
Rolley didn’t answer. It was an unfair question for a heroin addict, and the only question to ask. There was no path of least resistance. To live was to take pain that went beyond anything your body could cope with. And once the withdrawal was over there was a rougher, dirtier battle to fight. Getting clean was a daily chore, sometimes hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute. If Cathy was right, Rolley had probably been using for half his life. The boy’s whole existence would be occupied by recovery, maybe for the rest of his days, and he wasn’t used to the type of bravery it took to choose.
Isaac pulled up the sleeve of his black sweatshirt until it bunched into his cut grey over-shirt. Studding the inside of his arms were small, dark scars illuminated by the lights of the expressway.
“You can barely see them anymore, but they’re still there.”
Rolley looked up to Isaac’s face, then back to the older man’s arm.
Isaac laughed hollowly, and responded to the boy’s surprise. “You think I wear long sleeves in the summertime for my health?”
Rolley seemed stunned. Clearly, he had no idea, and Isaac could see his shock turn to frustration. His regular arguments, his excuses, weren’t going to fly.
For a few moments there were only the sounds of traffic between them.
Isaac tried again.
“They told me what happened,” Isaac said to the night, as much as to the boy next to him. “Vincent and Cathy told me about what your brother did to your teacher.”
Rolley, harder than stone now, didn’t even acknowledge the words, but Isaac wasn’t finished.
“But they don’t get it, though, do they? You didn’t just lose your teacher that day. You lost your brother too.”
Isaac used his peripheral vision to study the boy, who, after long moments, barely nodded.
Isaac continued. “He was your brother. He was teaching you how to be a man. No father, right?”
Rolley shook his head, and Isaac sighed.
“You lost everything that day, and the one who was supposed to care the most was the one who took it all. You couldn’t go back to the Tunnels after what happened, and you couldn’t be who your brother was, because that ain’t your nature. You chose what seemed like the only option. You just gave up.”
It was an old story.
“I wanted to give up too, after Vietnam. I lost everything – my family, my sanity, my health. The pain was so much. They wouldn’t give me anything for it, said I was over the initial injuries. I took my first hit, because it was all I could get my hands on. I didn’t want to let it go, even when I knew it was killing me, but I had people who wouldn’t let me end that way. All I had to do was decide not to die by not using.”
Isaac had said his peace. It was up to the junkie to decide his own future.
Quietly, compassionately, Isaac asked, “So, do you want to die?”
Isaac saw the tears begin, reflecting the sharp lights of the parkway.
“No.” Rolley whispered finally, still looking down at the cars. “I don’t wanna die, but livin’ is just as scary. I’ve never stayed clean before. I don’t know how to get away from the dyin’.”
Isaac put his arm around the boy, held him close, and pulled him back from the ledge.
Two steps forward, one and three-quarters steps back at the beginning, and only if you were lucky.
Isaac knew Rolley needed ritual to replace the one he was trying to leave behind, the regimented day to take the place of the spoon and the rig, the pull and the slam. Isaac gave him one: wake up, clean your room, breakfast, training, lunch, N.A. meeting, clean the studio, dinner, more training, sometimes another meeting, bed – enough to keep a mind busy, a body under control.
But the boy rebelled. He thought, in fact, he was certain, it wouldn’t be enough.
Added to it, the boy was helpless. Rolley didn’t know how to cook, or make his bed, do laundry; hell, he didn’t know how to shave properly. He’d been living on the street for almost his whole life. They were starting from the bottom.
“It hurt’s!” The boy screamed from the canvas where Isaac sent him with his last hook. He looked frail and ridiculous in his oversize boxing gloves, sprawled on the floor of the ring.
It wasn’t a fair fight. The boy could barely hold up his arms. He moved slower than old lady, and screamed like a little girl every time Isaac connected. The drugs had done a number on the boy’s nerves, and every punch was lightening rippling through his body.
“Yup!” Isaac agreed, jumping on his toes, circling around the wheezing addict. “Oh, you gonna feel it. I can’t take away the pain. Your body’s too used to masking it with the drugs. Now it’s back, but the pain’s all yours. You’ll never be numb, but you own your pain. The drugs are theirs, but this is all you.”
Rolley took a half-hearted swipe at Isaac’s legs as he got to his feet again.
Isaac laughed at the attempt. “I’ll gets you da money boss.” He mocked. Rolley swatted a second time, glancing off the older man’s arm. “Oh, yes ‘em, boss!” Rolley stood taller in his anger, hitting harder this time. It didn’t hurt; there was no real power in it, but it was a start.
They punched at each other for a while longer, dancing more than fighting, letting Rolley’s manic energy scatter around the ring before Isaac put his hands up end to it. Rolley followed Isaac through the ropes to the decades-old water fountain set in the corner. The coldest, best water in New York, Cathy had called it after one of their sessions.
As Rolley took his turn slurping up the arc of water, Isaac tried to explain his taunting before. “The Man owns all of it,” he pointed out the window into the wide world. “He could stop the drugs if he wanted to. But it isn’t his kids dyin’ on the street, overdosing, or getting shot. It isn’t his grandma huddling inside her home, waiting for her grandson to come steal all she owns for a couple more hits.”
Isaac took his turn at the fountain, wiping the excess water on his sweaty sleeve. “And even if it was, the Man’s addicted to money, just as bad as you’re addicted to his smack. He gets his money and keeps you his slave.”
Isaac pointed at Rolley, “That’s who you’re fighting, Rolley. Not just the drugs. You fighting their con game.” And for a moment, Isaac saw anger in the boy’s eyes, the one bright with it, the crippled one hardened by it.
Anger couldn’t fill up every empty place, but maybe along with the ritual, it could keep him on the road until he decided it was his road.
Rolley wasn’t wrong about living being a scary thing, but anger could beat fear. At least, Isaac hoped so.
Two steps forward, one-and-a-half steps back.
Isaac remembered the gallons of coffee, the stale pastries, and the uncomfortable chairs of the endless N.A. meetings where Rolley just sat, never making a sound, not ready to be there, but with nowhere else to go. He didn’t share his pain. He wasn’t much of a talker, and that wasn’t good. If you couldn’t talk about the craving and guilt, the failures and regrets, they still had too much a hold on you.
Isaac knew what the boy was probably thinking. This was too basic. Heroin was graduate school, and the twelve steps were the rules for kindergarten. N.A. lived and breathed simple answers for complex problems.
Recovery is a journey ……….not a destination.
Every recovery from addiction began with one sober hour.
The secret to long-term recovery: Don’t use, don’t die.
Rolley came to the meetings, but he wasn’t there. He looked down on them. It wasn’t nothing Isaac hadn’t done in the beginning. At every recitation of the Serenity Prayer, every discussion of the steps, every sharing, Isaac winced at the hokiness of it, even though he knew it worked.
But late in the third week, when Isaac was beginning to feel the hurt of missed sessions with clients, when he was starting to worry about how to pay the rent, when he was beginning to lose faith that this boy could be saved, Rolley, somehow, surprisingly, without a real clue as to why, finally got past the look of the dingy church hall, the over-copied literature, past the talk of steps and a Higher Power, and saw the program for what it was…
…his last, best hope at living.
The man running the meeting asked, and for the first time, without nagging or pressure, Rolley gave.
“My name is Rolley,” he said with a low voice that sounded afraid, cracking from want, but maybe, for the first time, not for the want of heroin, “and I’m an addict.”
Two steps forward, one step back.
Isaac remembered that first Winterfest, when Rolley couldn’t make it past the candle lighting.
With Henry’s help, they escaped quietly, got back to the cold city for some coffee, dinner, and debriefing.
“It’s all right, Rolley.” Isaac tried to soothe the disappointed boy, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Rolley had let himself down, and fighting problems in people’s heads was harder than fighting in the flesh any day of the week.
“No, it ain’t.” The boy answered. “I can’t be with them.”
“Tell me why.” The boy needed to get to the bottom of this. He needed to say the words.
“I can’t stand their looks.”
Issac got it. Eyes on a person could be a hard thing, but Rolley’s leavin’ probably had less to do with looks, and more to do with a man named Eli’s dig.
So, Rolley, you’re back. Maybe you can finally play for us.
It should have been hopeful, but it sounded like just the opposite. Vincent had called the old man on it. Grabbed his shoulder just inside the hall and said the crack wasn’t in the spirit of Winterfest, but the damage was done. Rolley couldn’t stay, and Isaac couldn’t blame him.
“It’s like they’re judging me.”
Isaac could have fought him on it, but he had years of family get-togethers and reunions with bitter, blaming people to remind him of the feeling.
“I know they don’t want to,” Rolley continued. “I know most of ‘em care, but it’s like they’re waiting for me to screw up, or something.” He circled inside his mug with his spoon.
“They are not judging you, at least Vincent and Father aren’t, Henry and Lee. You got friends there that understand. But even if they were judgin’, are you usin’?” Isaac asked, perched over his mug, as close as he could get to the boy sitting across the booth.
Rolley shook his head, confirming what Isaac knew. Against all hope, the boy hadn’t shot up in over six months.
But Rolley kept shaking his head against Isaac’s words, another argument sure to come.
“But I’m wasting my life. I’m wasting your life.”
Guilt still held the boy, tooth and claw. He was looking for reasons to fail, closer to going back to shooting up than he’d been since getting clean.
“Son, you aren’t wasting your life. You’ve had a long road to travel, and you are still in the middle of it, but you are walking it!”
Isaac sighed at the blank stare his words were met with. Addicts got good at not listening to anything but their own pain, and Rolley had a lifetime to hone his skills.
“Boy, you are at the age that you choose who you are gonna be for the rest of your days. This is it! Now, do you really think God would put you on this earth for no reason, to waste your life? With the gifts he gave you?”
Rolley didn’t move, words bouncing off. Rolley couldn’t focus on his music and the regrets it brought. Isaac should have realized he had to try a different way.
“Are you focused on recovery every day, every minute?”
Rolley nodded, as he had done a thousand times to the same question at the meetings.
“Then you are doing exactly what you need to be doin’. You can’t be happy yet, because you ain’t ready. You gotta work your steps. You aren’t free yet.”
Rolley huddled over his soup and coffee even more, looking as though he would never be free, certain of it.
“But, Rolley, there will be a day when you smile, and it won’t be from using. It will be because you aren’t using. It will be from doing something good, from helping someone, and I promise you that on that day, you will feel free, maybe for a few minutes at a time, maybe for the rest of your life, but you will be free, and those days are worth everything. You will be able to look anyone in the eye that day.”
Rolley still hunched over his coffee, never glancing up, but his shoulders eased. Isaac knew his words had hit home.
“Come on,” Isaac said, signaling it was time to leave by pulling money out. “The meeting at Open Door is just starting.”
Rolley looked up and out the window to a slushy Houston Street. He sighed, as if he had made a decision.
“Good, let’s go.” Rolley muttered as he used both hands to pull at the end of the table to escape the booth. “Reverend Burns always brings the best donuts.”
Isaac laughed and slapped the boy’s back.
Maybe, if their luck held, two steps forward might become just that.
Isaac remembered when Rolley told him he was going back to the Tunnels.
“I need to get out of your hair, what hair you got left.” Rolley laughed, trying to break through the surprise and disbelief his words had brought to their breakfast. “Lee said they can use me down there, another man, a strong Black man, and because of you, they got one.” He placed his hand over Isaac’s. “I’ll never forget what you did for me.”
Through that day and into the next, Rolley explained why he was leaving, trying to convince Isaac that he could do it, that he wouldn’t fall.
He needed a new way, he said, away from the city, its disappointments and temptations, but Isaac worried. Without constant sponsorship, without a pair of eyes on him, what trouble would the boy get himself into? What could they offer him down there? It was true, Isaac needed to get back to business, to focus more on the gym, maybe even get a social life, but he couldn’t, wouldn’t, if Rolley would fail.
“I promise, I’ll visit, and I’ll keep coming to meetings, and I know this seems out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.” He grabbed both of Isaac’s hands. “You’ve been…like a father to me. You’ve raised me better than my family ever did. You’ve helped me get back my future. Now I gotta figure where it leads.”
It wasn’t out of the blue, not really.
Rolley had been working his steps. He had surrendered, given in, and made amends, although at first it was more like, I give up, I don’t know, and they ain’t ever gonna accept me. It took a lot of faith, but by their next Winterfest, Rolley had faced his fears, gone back to the Tunnels, and asked for forgiveness from Father and Vincent, Eli and the others. He even found some of Miss Kendrick’s kin and told them what he could about what happened to her. He had done the hard work of telling his story, apologizing where he could. He brought them sadness, but also an ending.
Thanks to the literacy program at the library, Rolley discovered his brains. He had started with the book Isaac gave him, The Autobiography of Malcom X, about a tough man who changed his fate, but who didn’t hide that he didn’t know all the answers. From there he moved on to Wright, Whitman, Hughes, Angelou, anything poetic, anything that sounded like music.
He was finding his way, and useful was what he wanted to be. He was helping in any way he could around the gym and then in the Tunnels – cooking, cleaning, painting, odd jobs. He had learned the skills, learned to see what needed to be done, and was doing it.
He was finding his tastes, in books, in food, in work. Isaac had even caught him switching the radio to the classical music he liked while scrubbing the mats. He was becoming an adult, and most importantly, learning who that adult was, but life in New York could be as tricky as street con. The card you wanted was all tucked up someone’s sleeve when you needed it most.
Rolley tried to get work outside the gym, but an uneducated Black man with a record was a tough sell. Isaac’s former Captain had moved heaven and earth to keep his record clean, to get him Honorably Discharged, a golden ticket to employment and trust. He truly understood that blessing now.
Rolley lost hope with each rejection, each call for work that went unreturned. He didn’t want to lie, and because of it, no one would give him a chance. His saw the city’s dead ends, in schooling and jobs, and recognized crime as the fallout. With no opportunity, a person makes his own, or dies from the disappointment. Rolley hated the dealers and the drugs, but most of all, he hated the lack of will from the powers-that-be and people they were selling out.
Isaac remembered the night they were watching the news over their TV dinners. The entire broadcast was just Black kids stealing, or dying, or shooting. How entertaining.
Isaac was about to turn it off in disgust, when Rolley spoke up.
“I think it’s hard for us.”
Isaac stood and turned to Rolley, but the boy was looking far away while he spoke.
“We’re the oldest people of the world, right. I think that’s why we have such a hard time here. This is the New World, and we’re old. We can’t trust it, and it doesn’t trust us. We see decay that’s already there in their new towers, in their urban planning. We see their lies when they tell us all we have to do is work hard. How can we if we don’t get a chance? I don’t think they want us here.”
Isaac turned, surprised at first, then proud at his friend’s thoughts, and that he would share them. “You know, that is the most interesting thing you’ve ever said to me? I think you’re right, son, some of them out there don’t want us, maybe because we tell them the truth, but that’s too bad for them, cause we ain’t going anywhere.” Isaac laughed, turning off the TV and sitting back down in the worn armchair.
He lowered his eyes to the pattern on the arm rest and started stroking the fabric. “But I think you forgot something. We see the old, but there’s beauty there. You ever see an old woman’s hands?” Isaac ran his fingers along the twisting ridges of his tendons, recalling his grandmother who died before seeing him living right. “How her veins and knuckles branch out like tree’s limbs? How they tell you all she’s done and all she been through?”
“Yeah,” Rolley said, and eased a bit.
Isaac looked out the window of the century-old, but sturdy building and continued. “You ever see those tall blue flowers or those little yellow ones that grow wild in vacant lots? There are flowers growing out of old, broken sidewalks all around this city. A person can’t see them driving by in car, or high up in those new towers; you have to look. There’s good in old things, old ways, but you have to learn to see. For the ones who want to learn, we can teach them.”
Rolley hadn’t questioned Isaac’s words. He just went quiet, pondering.
Rolley had gone back to the Tunnels a number of times in that year, visiting, watching. He had accepted invitations, to help with projects, to Winterfest, made it through most of it. He even went to some of the kid’s concerts. Rolley never played himself, and nobody pushed him, thank the Lord. It was at one of the concerts he had stumbled on a new talent and a way to be useful to them down there.
One of the little boy’s violins had lost a peg. Instruments were expensive and precious, and above all, shared. They didn’t have any extra to spare. Seeing the adults’ distress, Rolley improvised a peg, and had the fiddle tuned and ready within a few minutes.
Soon Rolley learned to fix all the instruments, so everyone who wanted had a chance to play.
Music couldn’t save me, but that doesn’t mean it can’t save some of them others.
He was needed in this small way, relied on to do this minor, but important, job. He was finding the beauty in those old instruments. While focused on his recovery it was all he would trust himself with, but he seemed liked it.
Isaac worried it was too soon, but he sent his note through Eli, just as he was told, hoping that letting go was the right thing to do.
Isaac had to have faith. He remembered that part of getting clean, not realizing that it was big part of sponsorship.
He had to believe in Rolley.
The day came. Rolley’s one bag was packed, and Vincent was waiting for them just inside the Tunnel entrance Isaac had first seen him, where Cathy had taken the lion man’s arm and left the city that had taken so much from him, behind.
Rolley dropped his bag, and Vincent opened his arms. Isaac watched the reunion and finally realized what this place was and why Rolley was going back. It was a home where Rolley could dream of a future that wasn’t tainted by dime bags and needles littering the ground, where gangs of kids meant an entirely different thing than they did on Avenue D. It was a place where a recovering addict like Rolley and a man with a demon’s face and an angel’s nature could build a life.
It was hope in spite of everything.
Rolley walked into the big man’s arms crying, but proud, ready to be of use.
Vincent looked to Isaac in silent thanks, saying without words that he would look after the boy for the time it would take for him to get used to their life again, until he was ready to be on his own.
Vincent wrapped his arms around the sobbing man as he spoke with his soft voice, through his own tears.
“Welcome home, Rolley.”
Isaac never forgot that first concert.
The children came and got him at the entrance he usually used. They had grabbed his hand nearly pulling his bones out of his sockets they were so excited. They took him on the subway, quite a sight, he thought, for the older ladies sharing their car, their bags tucked underneath them, their purses clutched close, a Black man surrounded by crazy kids – White, Black, Brown and Yellow – jumping, talking, and giggling throughout the ride.
Despite Isaac’s infrequent visits, no one would let him feel like an outsider. When they arrived at the hall, Father greeted him as a returning friend and led him to the middle of the room, where he was surrounded by thankful, happy people. They hugged him, offered him food, gave him one of only a hand-full of programs, and steered him to a chair up front. He wasn’t used to this. He was in the habit of blending in, staying at the outskirts, not being the center of attention. He hadn’t felt this much love anywhere, and he had never been treated like such a hero.
It was a little uncomfortable and a bit wonderful at the same time.
To them, he was a “Helper”, the one who had taken care of Rolley, and they would always be grateful.
Isaac would never forget the hush as Rolley walked into the hall that day – in a clean, blue, button-down shirt, natty slacks, and black sweater, his hair in handsome short dreads, and a cropped beard hiding his baby face making him look more like a man. He was a man now. He had a job, a place. He was giving back.
Rolley nodded to Isaac, bowed to the room, then walked into the audience to take a little blonde boy’s hand from his mom and lead him up to the piano bench at the front of the hall. This was the boy who had been the baby in his daddy’s arms the night Rolley had been shot. Nearly four years had come and gone since Vincent had heard Rolley’s cry for help, and since Cathy had set him in Isaac’s path.
Rolley placed a big pillow on the bench and lifted the boy onto it so he could reach the keys of the biggest piano Isaac had ever seen. The blonde boy looked nervous, but Rolley whispered into his ear and pointed to where his parents sat so they could smile some encouragement his way. The tiny boy watched them for a moment, then turned to the piano, pulled himself up, and pushed his hair out of eyes. He placed his hands on the keys, blew his hair off his face one more time, causing everyone to chuckle, and determinedly banged out “Twinkle, Twinkle”, his whole body rising up and down with the notes as his teacher, smiling, looked on.
It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t amazing. It was just a little boy trying very hard to live up to his teacher’s hopes, and it was clear from Rolley’s face, he did.
As the night went on, students walked up and down the aisle, to either sit or stand with their instruments and perform their music proudly. At the end Father got up and congratulated Rolley as the kids handed him flowers, and then begged him to play.
Rolley looked troubled, torn, but Father hitched up on him, and with a confident look that said they had talked about this, probably about this very thing, motioned him on. Rolley sat down with no sheet music in front of him, just himself at the piano, still, for a moment. As Rolley’s fingers began their slow dance over the keys, deep, low notes filled the hall. Isaac had heard the piece before, although he didn’t know the name. It was full of longing, like a sleepless night, and it was as if the whole of Rolley’s young life had been wrapped up in the repeating rhythm and sad melody. It hurt Isaac to his core that this was the music Rolley would choose to celebrate this happy day. But as the last notes died away in an almost silent room, before it echoed and thundered with applause, Isaac realized it would be all right. Rolley’s face told him everything he needed to know. It was wet with tears, but he was smiling.
He had learned the hardest lesson.
The past was there; there was no changing it. It was the pain that was all yours. You remembered it, you respected it, but you didn’t have to live there. That part of your life could end, just like a piece of music.
Rolley had found his freedom.
For the rest of his days, Isaac remembered that concert – the welcome, the fellowship, the laughing children – but most of all, Isaac remembered Rolley’s performance of what Cathy told him was The Moonlight Sonata, as the most beautiful thing he was ever honored to hear.