Rollo lived at the corner of Madison Street and Broadway. He was taller and stronger than my father. Rollo would lie down on a bench in his front yard and lift dumbbells every morning. His breathing was heavy, his forehead glistened with sweat. He had large arm muscles and a big chest. His hair was trimmed close on the sides, but the top was left longer and fuller and shaped into a kind of round, thick, plush carpet on top, sort of curly, like lazily coiled springs or “curly willow”, his grandma would say.
I woke up early every morning to watch Rollo leave for school. When he walked out the front door, I’d run down the stairs and outside so fast, grape jelly would drip onto my hands from the Wonder bread toast I hadn’t yet eaten. I’d race to the swinging gate and yell, “Hi Rollo!”
Rollo, in tattered dungarees and black T-shirt, would smile, take a drag of his Newport and show me a cigarette trick. The cigarette would vanish. I would blush, a dopey smile on my face. At school, I would think of Rollo, his clear green eyes clouded by smoke coming out of his mouth and out of his nose, and I would get chills.
Rollo smoked Newports stolen from his brother Elroy’s shirt pocket. Elroy slept during the day after arriving home from his night job. Their dad was a corrections officer. He forced Rollo to smoke the butt of a Camel to teach him not to smoke. Rollo gagged and coughed, but every day after school he paraded triumphantly along with his ‘Brothers’ down Broadway with a Newport hanging from his lower lip.
Priscilla and I watched Rollo and his friends play Flickers and C-low dice. The girls on Madison Street would play Potsie. Bored, I would recruit other girls on the block who had no one to play with. Kayla would sit alone on her stoop or grip a pink chalk in her hand and draw a hopscotch board hoping someone would notice and join her. Mia sat on her stoop and read Wonder Woman comics. I would ask them to walk down Madison Street to Broadway. When we reached the corner I would line us up shoulder to shoulder. We’d fling arms over each other’s shoulders until we became a row of one. Swaying side by side, singing “In The Still Of The Nite” we made our way down the street, just like Rollo.
Rollo would play bongos to the rhythms of Latin jazz in the summer evenings when the streets grew quiet and the shadows moved in. When conversations slowed down and the sounds of banging pots, pans and dinner plates were no longer heard cascading from open windows, when the sweet smell of ham bones, okra, and mustard greens faded, foods that would never travel the distance to my dinner table, Rollo settled into his legless sofa chair in the row house basement at 926 Madison Street. First the bongo, then the loud, energetic melodies of Charlie Parker’s sax and Sonny Rollin’s tenor would circle Rollo’s house. I could hear the music half way down the street. Some nights, I would crouch near a window to watch Rollo play, eyes closed, head swaying side-to-side, up and down to the heavy beat.
Rollo disappeared one day in late July. There were no fresh cigarette butts on the ground by his fence. No rhythms in the night.
Rollo’s grandma, in her dress with flowers down to her knees and black slippers, sweeps the stoop every morning. She carries the broom to the ground inside the iron gate and outside onto the cement pavement. From my stoop next door, I see no cigarette butts, no chewing gum wrappers, no garbage or dirt. I watch Grandma. She sometimes mumbles and I hear her say, “This earthly house.” I can’t hear anything else. She watches me and one morning she looks at me and says, “Run the race that is set before us.” I listen and want to tell her that Dr. Sileo says that I have asthma and can’t run. Grandma scares me. Does she want me to find Rollo and bring him home? I don’t know where he is. He should be outside playing C-low dice with Moises. But I see Moises by himself hanging out at the Broadway corner store smoking cigarettes. He never walks down Madison Street without Rollo.
Last winter, I saw Moises knock on Rollo’s door. Rollo was not home. A bunch of boys surrounded Moises and kneed him in the chest. Moises coughed and fell on the snow. I never again saw Moises on Madison Street alone.
One morning lots of ladies come to the house. They carry paper bags that look like the ones I get at Scaturros when my Mom sends me to buy a loaf of Italian bread. I smell food cooking and hear babies crying and see the one boy who stands by the iron fence. He doesn’t talk to me when I talk to him and he won’t come over to sit on my stoop with me. He tells me, “My mom says I can’t go outside the gate.” I stand by the iron fence and tell him, “I go to school at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Next year I will be in the fifth grade. Where do you go to school?” He looks at me, turns his head and runs into the house. I see Rollo’s dad peeking through the window curtains.
Days later, I heard Mia’s grandma talking to her neighbor about a kid sitting on somebody’s stoop. He was having a smoke, drumming on a trash can cover, when a gang of boys jumped over the wrought iron fence, and hit him once, twice or three times with a lead pipe then ran the other way toward Madison Street.
Morning after morning, I sat patiently on my stoop waiting for Rollo to come home. Late at night I was there too, listening for the rhythms.
Flo Gelo was born in Brooklyn, where she lived until her early teens. She’s published numerous articles in professional literature about illness, death and dying. This story is one in a series about her life on Madison Street.