Shoelaces and Showdowns
One early June morning, at the start of an average school day, I waited patiently by the kitchen door for Iszel to join me so we could head to the bus. Henry chose this moment to walk up to me with a disapproving grimace. I eyed him warily. As the other kids in the house were in their teens, Henry challenged them less and less. Instead, he channeled his need for absolute control into his interactions with me and Iszel. I knew, as soon as I saw his face, that he was about to come out with something arbitrary and disapproving, and he didn’t disappoint.
His glance flicked to my Pumas with New Yorker laces. It was the style then, the intricate threading of laces leaving a short end of untied lace that we often tucked into the shoe itself. I had spent 15 minutes in my room getting my laces just right for my day at school, but his gaze gave me an idea of today’s problem.
He positioned himself between me and the door and crossed his arms. “You hafta tie your shoes before I’m letting, ya leave this house,” he told me sternly.
I sighed, thinking about how we were only a week away from the end of the school year and had been wearing the same style for months. Not to mention that Derek, Randy, Ron, and Jiggs had just left the house with the exact same shoelace style. But I dutifully bent to pull out my excess laces and tied a bow on each shoe. I pulled the bottom of my pants up to show them resting on the top of the tongues of my shoes. It wasn’t worth the hassle for me. I knew I’d just be rethreading them back to their proper place once I was on the bus.
Just as Henry began to move aside to let me pass, Iszel showed up, bookbag slung over one shoulder, Jacque not far behind him. Henry slid back in front of the exit.
“I just made your brother lace his sneakers the proper way,” he said, locking his eyes on Iszel. “You hafta as well.”
“C’mon man, it’s the style,” Iszel pleaded. Henry was unmoved, standing in front of the door, arms crossed.
“But everyone else just left the house with those same shoelaces,” Iszel protested, saying what I had only thought.
“You retie your shoelaces or you aren’t leaving this house,” Henry insisted, a hard edge to his voice. He was drawing battle lines. Iszel had that look on his face. That obstinate, stubborn look that I knew immediately did not bode well for the rest of the morning.
“Nah, I ain’t doing it,” he said.
“Then you’re not leaving the house and you’re not getting on that bus,” Henry said. “And if you miss the bus, there’s no way I’m letting you miss school so you will hafta walk.”
“Don’t put me in a position to skip school, please don’t,” Iszel responded calmly. “Because I’m not walking to school. But I’m not tying my sneaks either.”
On the outside, the two of them couldn’t be more different. Henry was a wrinkled, white, angry figure looming in the doorway, Iszel was a small, skinny, Black kid. But the intensity of their glares was evenly matched. Iszel crossed his arms in mimicry of Henry and settled into his position.
Jacque finally intervened.
‘C’mon Zel, just do it,” he said.
Iszel shook his head. “Nope.”
Jacque grabbed him by the back of his neck and pushed him down towards his shoes.
“Just retie your damn laces,” he said urgently. It made the irony of his untied laces even more glaring, though Henry of course ignored them and his cursing. Iszel or I would have been penalized for saying anything similar.
Grudgingly, Iszel retied his laces. We were really cutting it close for the bus’s arrival. When Iszel finished, Henry moved aside from the door. I burst out into the cool, crisp air, relieved to be out of the radius of Henry’s oppressive energy.
I started towards the cornfield, our shortcut to the bus stop, but Iszel wasn’t following. Instead, he slowly walked backwards, looking at Henry, who stood watching from the doorway. Deliberately, keeping his eyes trained on Henry, Iszel reached down and untied his shoelaces.
Henry’s face reddened in fury. Before he could do anything, Jacque called out “Zel let’s go! We’re gonna miss the bus.” We darted towards the cornfield, and raced to the bus stop together, agilely dodging the new growth corn stalks as we went. We just caught the bus as it pulled up. Iszel and I sat next to each other on one of the green vinyl seats. We both replaced our shoes into the appropriate New Yorker style.
I was relieved to be heading to school, but I couldn’t help but replay that thunderous look on Henry’s face. I knew there was still a reckoning coming.
When we returned from school that day, Henry was sitting on the porch, waiting for us. He stood as we drew nearer, work boots spread and planted in front of the steps, arms crossed.
“Iszel, you need to hurry up and eat your snack, do your chores, and head straight to your room.”
“What for?” Iszel asked, resentment in his voice.
“You know what for,” Henry replied disapprovingly.
Iszel brushed past him on his way inside. Henry watched us but didn’t follow. Butterscotch Krimpets were laid out for us on the kitchen table, the snack Henry had allotted us before dinner. We stood and ate quietly. I watched Iszel warily, wondering what he would do. Some of the older boys were already outside in the barn, playing a game of basketball. Would he try to join them or listen to Henry?
Both Iszel and I always did our chores immediately following snack time; we agreed it was best to get them out of the way. It was Iszel’s turn to set the table; I had sweeping. We continued in silence, each completing our assigned task. Henry, who had been in the kitchen stirring a pot of oyster stew, kept throwing glances our way. It was evident he was waiting for Iszel to try something. When Iszel had laid the last spoon down, he beelined for the porch. Henry immediately followed him to the door. He still held the wooden spoon, which was dripping cheap oyster goo all over the wooden floor. One of us boys would surely be responsible for cleaning that nastiness up later. He jabbed the spoon end towards Iszel, droplets flying.
“Uh uh. Back inside. You’re only making matters worse for yourself.”
I watched from behind, catching glimpses of Iszel through Henry’s bulk. He continued down the steps to the driveway.
“Why? Because I untied my laces? Henry, that’s stupid. It’s the STYLE.” I think he was earnestly trying for reasonable, but he came out sounding defiant.
“Two weeks, Iszel.” Henry said, still waving the spoon around. “That’s two weeks in your room for disobeying me. You wanna go for two more?”
I groaned. Iszel would be in solitary confinement for a month if he continued to press his position. The little spark of hatred I had for Henry flared.
“That’s not happening,” Iszel said, bending over to tie his laces.
“Oh no, It’s too late for that now.”
Iszel straightened up. “That’s not why I tied my laces.” He laughed and began to edge away.
“Don’t make me come and get you,” Henry threatened. He tossed the spoon onto the counter behind him. It clattered, spraying more stew. I jumped out of the way.
“You’re not getting me,” Iszel retorted, completely confident. Then he made a break for it, darting away with impressive speed.
As soon as Iszel ran, Henry followed at top speed. I immediately followed for a better view. I was surprised at Henry’s pace. He was 60 something, but he was giving Iszel a run for his money. Iszel weaved amongst the trees and around the house, once looping around the van. Henry kept pace, though he couldn’t gain on him. I wondered, idly, as they ran all over the lawn, what he could do to Iszel if he caught him.
“Come on Iszel, you got this!” I shouted. The older kids had stopped their game of basketball and had drifted outside to watch the stand-off, cheering him on as well. Our shared contempt for Henry was spilling over.
Iszel continued his zig zagging up the grade that led to the three-story barn. He slowed for a moment to make certain Henry was following and then sped up again, darting inside. As soon as Henry blew through the sliding barn door, I jogged up to peer in after them. Derek and Ron crowded next to me. We had an idea of what Iszel was up to, and this performance was too good to miss. It was as I expected.
Instead of running onto the basketball court that comprised the third floor, Iszel had opted to take the stairs down to the right that led down to what used to be the second floor but was now just the joists with large gaps between them. They were uneven, some of them had fallen over, and in our many games of hide and seek in the barn, we had all learned their pattern by heart.
We followed in time to see Iszel chopping his steps across the joists flawlessly, past the bale shoot with its ten-foot drop. Henry, only a few joists in, hesitated a moment. Iszel stood on the other end of the floor, beckoning.
“C’mon old man, whatchu’ got? I’m right here, nowhere to go.”
Then Iszel looked down as if he might drop through. Henry snarled and tried to run across the joists to stop him, but his left foot landed badly and slipped backward. His leg fell through the slats taking half his body with him. His right leg was caught on the slat in front, bashing his knee into his head. The tender space between his legs slammed down on the narrow beam of wood. Henry emitted a strangled, animalistic cry of anguish.
I instinctively reached a protective hand over for my own tender parts.
“Oooooh...” I breathed, half in sympathy and half in delight. Derek and Ron joined in a similar chorus.
Iszel studied him impassively. “Yeah, you stuck, ain’t you?”
Henry managed to extricate his right leg, wiggled his way through the gap, hanging from the joist, then dropped the remaining four feet to land on the ground. He laid himself in a fetal position still groaning in pain.
Iszel calmly stepped his way back across the joists and brushed past us.
He waved his hands dismissively. “I’m done here.”
We followed him out and watched as he jogged across the field and disappeared behind one of the trees, hiding from what would surely be an irate Henry once he could stand up.
After a few minutes of recovery, Henry stormed out of the basement entrance of the barn, his face livid. If thoughts could kill, Iszel would surely have combusted into a pile of ash. Henry stomped up the porch steps, yanked open the door and slammed it behind him. Moments later he repeated the reverse, with keys and a file folder in hand. He went straight to the car, slammed that door, and drove off with a squeal of tires and a spray of gravel driveway.
Jacque, who had caught the tail end of the drama, watched with Ron, Derek, and me in silence until the van disappeared.
“There he go again. He stay goin’ to the State Police with a runaway file,” Ron muttered disapprovingly.
“Henry always be trippin’ when he don’t get his way,” Derek agreed, nodding. “He’s mad because he crushed them family jewels.”
Ron shrugged, grimacing. The two of them headed back to the barn, punching shoulders, and laughing about Henry losing the chase.
Jacque, on the other hand, was marching across the field to where Iszel was hiding. He returned moments later pushing Iszel by the neck. As they drew closer, I could hear Jacque berating him.
“I said you are going to get in that house, and go to your room!” he exclaimed, exasperated.
“Listen man, you don’t understand,” Iszel protested.
“Yo, man! You showed him those wheels!” I said, laughing.
Jacque stopped for a moment to glare at me.
I innocently raised my hands to physically ask, What’d I do?
His expression was only slightly less furious than Henry’s, but I could tell his anger came from a place of fear, love, and frustration.
Jacque emphasized his next words, so they were each their own sentence. “Get. In. The. House. And. Go. To. Your. Room.”
“One minute,” Iszel said, wriggling out of Jacque’s grasp and coming over to me. Jacque shook his head in exasperation.
“Yo man, did you see me?!” he asked, excited. He darted side to side playfully. “I was like Muhammad Ali, float like a butterfly, baby.” He did a few more quick moves, shimmied his shoulders and threw a few quick jabs around me.
“Yeah, I saw,” I said, and couldn’t help smiling. “Caused that man to crush those family jewels. But you know you just floated your way into 30 days solitary.”
Jacque threw his arms out, low, and wide, hands spread, as he glared at Iszel. It was a bad sign for my little brother. The lower and broader Jacque’s arms, the more dire the situation and his mood.
“Iszel,” he said, putting all his authority into the name.
“Yeah, yeah,” Iszel muttered. He took slow, dragging steps to the house, taking as long as he could to walk the 100 feet to the porch, while still being considered moving. Halfway there, Jacque lost his patience, stalked over to him, and grabbed the back of his neck again to push him the rest of the way.
“Maaaaaaan,” Iszel objected. Jacque did not relent.
“Alright, alright, I’m going,” Iszel grumbled. “See y'all in 30.”
The day was too warm to spend inside, so the rest of us restarted the game of basketball in the barn. I walked past the steps that led down to the second-floor joists. The image flashed into my mind of Henry, one leg hanging through the gap, the other knee squashed in his face. I chuckled. At least Iszel would have that memory to keep him company while serving his month-long penance.
Less than an hour later we heard tires crunching over the drive, and stopped our game to pop out of the barn to see who was coming. It was a police cruiser, blue lights flashing. Iszel was sitting on his bedroom windowsill, one leg dangling out of the window watching it roll up.
He saw me and beckoned me over.
“Yo, some of my photos are missing!” he complained loudly to me. “Why the hell did that honky have to take so many of my pictures?”
I ignored him, turning my attention to the two white cops exiting the car. They were dressed in full cop uniform, grey short sleeved shirts, ties, badges and hats, black belts each carrying guns in holsters. I wasn’t nervous, but I held my arms loose at my sides, my hands clearly visible. Every other kid except Iszel did the same. He simply lounged. He rested his elbow on his leg and propped his chin on his fist knowingly watching everything play out.
The cops both walked to the edge of the drive and stopped about six feet from us. None of us moved to be closer.
“Hello,” said one of the cops, the burlier of the two.
“Hello Sir,” I replied with a nod.
As the others responded, mostly just with nods, I saw the van hurriedly pulling up the driveway.
“My partner and I are here about a missing person’s report,” the cop continued. “We’ve been informed Iszel Glover has run away.”
“There’s no runaway here,” Jacque said. “That’s Iszel right there.” He pointed up to the window where Iszel managed to make precariously balancing on a window ledge look casual.
“Here I am,” called Iszel cheerfully, waving, swinging his dangling leg.
The cop raised his eyebrows, then pulled out a photo, studied it, then looked up three stories again to scrutinize Iszel.
“That’s my photo!” Iszel said. “Can I have my pictures back?”
The cop ignored this comment. Instead, he turned to Henry, who had just exited his car.
“Sir, is that Iszel Glover in the window over there?”
Henry looked at Iszel, fuming.
“Yes,” he barked in a clipped tone.
“Ok, well…” the cop trailed off, and looked at his partner, who shrugged. “I guess that’s that. Sorry to trouble you all.”
The man nodded in our general direction and slowly the two of them walked back to the car, climbed inside, and drove away. Henry waited until they were gone until he turned back to Iszel.
“You!” He shouted, venomously, jabbing his finger towards Iszel. “Get back inside that window! You know that’s 30 days in your room! 30 days, you hear me?!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Iszel said, unfazed, sliding back into his room. I thought I heard him mutter “Yo, you owe me some pictures,” but I couldn’t be sure.
Henry slunk away into the house, grumbling. Henry’s sentence of solitary was completely expected but depressing, nonetheless. It was going to be a long and lonely 30 days.