For class, Royal had to watch Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger’s 1969 award-winning and once controversial film about, among other things, friendship. Royal had popcorn and his English Mastiff, Mussolini, salivating at his feet. It was afternoon and perfect. Mother at work. Black clouds rolling in. A good Florida storm coming. He was a college man with only possibilities ahead.
Just before he pressed play the doorbell rang. Mussolini barked and ran to see what was going on. Royal tried to ignore it, the intrusion. Then it rang again, three rings, aggressive. Damn, he said, his heartbeat rising with the concern and fear. Then the same rapid-fire ringing came again. Motherfucker, he said.
He didn’t open the door. He peered through the window next to it. Outside stood a boy, tall and skinny, wearing blue gym shorts, a red T-shirt, white sneakers. He was sweating. He was black.
Can I help you? Royal asked.
My brother fell, the boy said.
Royal looked through the narrow window, saw no brother.
Just over there, the boy said and pointed, off his bike, he’s bleeding.
Royal saw no bikes, and Royal knew about scams. He knew something about how the world worked.
I can’t help you, he said.
Band-aids, the boy pleaded, something.
I have nothing, Royal said, and he stared at the boy until the boy turned around and left.
Royal bent down and pet and stroked and ruffled Mussolini’s big head. Goooood boy, he said. We weren’t born yesterday, now were we?
It rained. It stormed.
Royal watched and enjoyed his film.
When his mother came home he told her the story. The boy had stayed with Royal. Something about the boy, something in Royal’s heart, not calm.
Don’t worry, his mother said. I wouldn’t even have went to the door. You did good. Like I’ve told you a million times, you can’t be too careful these days. You want Chinese tonight?
At the stop sign, on his way to pick up the Chinese, he saw Marcus Kraft, his neighbor and the only black man on the cul-de-sac, waving him down.
Royal opened his window. The sun was shining in that soft, clean way it tends to shine after a storm and before the darkness.
Mary’s at the hospital, Marcus said by way of hello. Took two boys. One cut his hand up real good.
Really? Royal said.
On that old tree’s stump. Fell off his bike.
Royal looked in the general direction.
Storm washed the blood away, Marcus said. Boy said he tried every house, said no one was around.
Weird, Royal said.
I find that hard to believe, but you know how people are these days.
Royal nodded, and then he looked at the road ahead of him, flexed his fingers on the gearshift like a squid’s tentacles wrapping themselves around face.
Keep your nose clean, Marcus said.
Okay, Royal said.
And say hi to your mom.
The next week Royal was settling in for The Last Detail, Hal Ashby’s 1973 award-winning film about, among other things, justice. Royal had made himself a sandwich and taken a cold beer from the refrigerator. The doorbell rang. Mussolini barked and ran without a moment’s hesitation.
Then it rang again, again, and again.
Royal didn’t get up this time. Royal didn’t even move. He stayed perfectly still on his couch with his food and his remote control. He told himself he was asleep; he told himself no one was home. All he wanted to do was watch his film in peace. He just wanted to be left alone.
Photo by Cristiano Betta