He found their missing planter up the street, near the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall. Someone had dragged it to the curb, scraping off the tiny gold flakes that, in better times, had risen to form a pattern around the pot’s neck. Now its neck was no more, and soil spilled from a crack in its middle, and it was missing one of its impossibly small handles, which had not been designed for any useful purpose but seemed to Kwame like a major loss anyway.
They’d kept it at the front of the house since moving to the neighborhood. As a marker in the driveway to help his stepson park straight. The boy had bad habits, as a driver and otherwise, and although Kwame had tried once to seize his car keys, his wife, Tavonne, had made him return them.
Before it was taken, the planter had been her prize find, marked down 40% at the Edison Home Depot. Kwame had not wanted to get out of the car while she and his mother shopped, but they were pretending as they sometimes did to care about his opinion, and he had not been given a choice. To spite them, he’d refused to say anything positive about the pot, or the brightly colored flowers that went in it, or anything else in their cart that they thought the house needed. But now, examining the mess of broken ceramic, even he had to admit that he’d liked it.
A few of the neighbors would have seen it in the gutter and known it to be his. The friendly thing would have been to ring his bell or leave a note in his mailbox—to somehow mention it—but their neighbors were not friendly people.
“The neighbors, the neighbors,” his mother said, when he returned to their yard. She looked at him as she often did, as if he did not fully comprehend the situation. “Listen, the damn thing didn’t take up itself, one of the neighbors took it,” she said. “Yes, me know it.” She sounded excited. She hated trouble, she expected trouble, she was relieved when trouble finally arrived. “And when them walk off, them see how it heavy and bloop,” she continued, making a dropping motion with her hands.
They’d hired a security company to wire sensors along the windows. “Remember how that was my idea?” he said.
“That’s inside, this is outside,” she said. “What one thing has to do with the other?”
His mother, who was in her 80s and dressed, always, as if she had somewhere to be, like an old-fashioned Black starlet, like a Supreme, rang the buzzer and called Tavonne down from the top floor. His wife called his stepson up from the basement apartment, which should have been the rental unit, although his stepson did not pay rent. The boy, Robert, whistled for the dog, a beagle that barked at Kwame and Kwame alone, as if he were an intruder in his own home, and the dog came with a chew toy in his mouth and hope in his eyes.
The four of them lined up, like onlookers at a parade, to watch Kwame walk from their house to the planter, from the planter to their house, searching the pavement for what he described through clenched teeth as more clues.
It was hot for September, but he kept his suit jacket on. The tongue of his tie was thrown over a shoulder, giving him the appearance of a choking man.
He was a certified public accountant for a township in central New Jersey, and he turned onto his street each evening with a sigh. This evening, as he pulled into the driveway, he’d noticed the absence of something, although he could not put his finger on what, which both agitated and perplexed him. He had spent much of his childhood standing with his head cocked, waiting for the joke to be revealed. He stood before the house the same way, until his mother reminded him about the planter, pointing to the dirty ring that marked the spot where it had stood.
Kwame insisted on carrying the broken pot back although his wife worried about his suit jacket, which was new, and his mother accused him of having lifted the thing incorrectly, bending at the waist instead of the knees.
He tried to fit the parts together at the side of the driveway, as if it were a puzzle to be solved. Tavonne, his wife of not quite a year, was still hopeful about their life together and chose her words carefully. “Well, I don’t think there’s any saving that,” she said. “Maybe we should just leave it for the garbagemen?” But his mother, who saw the whole of him, kissed her teeth and cried out, “Just leave the bloody thing, man. Leave it, nuh.”
“Who would do that?” Kwame said. “Who would steal a stupid flower pot?”
The gold metallic from the pot had flecked off onto his forehead and cheeks. Robert acted as if this were the funniest thing in the world.
“Don’t it look like he got on makeup? You got something on your face, I’m just saying. Here, let me get it.” Kwame smacked Robert’s hand away. The boy laughed again and threw an arm around his mother, who smiled. A thin smile, a smile that did not want to take sides, but a smile nonetheless.
Robert’s window looked out onto the driveway, and the boy was home all day. He should have seen or heard something, but he had seen or heard nothing.
“You think it’s cause we’re Black?” Robert said. He had produced a brush from thin air and was attending, obsessively, to his wave pattern. “There any other Black families on this street?”
“If you left the basement, you would know. If you put down the video games for two seconds, you’d see who lives here.” Kwame made this sound as damning as possible although their best interactions, the times when he thought they might be friends—the only arrangement that seemed possible because the boy had a whole father in Brooklyn—had come from playing those games together.
“The Jehovah Witnesses—you know they out here more than anybody, right? You ever think they might be doing some illegal shit? Think about it, they’re basically a religious gang.” Robert spoke as if he wanted to be taken seriously, but this was often a ruse. “Yooooo.” His eyes grew wide. “How we know that’s all they took? What else y’all keep out here? Did anybody check?”
“Stop it,” Kwame said. “Everything’s a joke with him.” He already knew, though, that he would spend the rest of his home-owning years wondering what could be missing.
“Nah,” the boy said. “Nah, someone’s messing with us. Someone around here. It’s the dog-shit sign all over again.”
Kwame had stuck a handwritten curb-your-dog note on the tree outside their house, the tree his mother loved. The note had been bland, almost pleading; he had been conscious, more than once, to use the word “please.” Only someone had drawn a penis on his “please” and written that he should go fuck himself. He had taken the sign down before his wife or mother could see it, but his stepson had seen and told them.
Tavonne hugged herself. “It was a crime of convenience. They saw something pretty and tried to run off with it when nobody was looking.” She spoke with an authority that came from watching Dateline, from sitting through day-long marathons of Law and Order. “It’s a quiet neighborhood, they’ve got their little community garden or whatever, but folks’ll always do whatever they think they can get away with.”
“They’re lucky I didn’t see them,” Kwame said. “I would’ve—”
“You would’ve what?” Robert laughed. He was taller than Kwame though he rarely stood at his full height.
“You haven’t seen me mad, not really,” Kwame said. Tavonne smiled, his mother smiled, his stepson smiled meanly.
“Well, at least nothing nah burn, thank you, Jesus.” His mother fanned herself as if she could feel flames approaching. When they’d lived in the Bronx, they’d heard about New Jersey mostly when there were fires, the burning buildings flickering across the evening news. “So much fire in ah one place?” she had said accusingly, as if Kwame had set them himself.
“Proportionally, it’s about the same as anywhere else,” he’d told her. “Proportionally.”
In truth, he suspected their “new” home was highly flammable. It had been built in 1850; the realtor pulled out the old-timey black and white photos of the property at closing. He had saved the pictures for last, along with a cheap bottle of wine and a congratulatory note from the seller, Tim, that contained a $25 gift card and Tim’s regrets that he had not included more.
The sky crackled above them—such heat could only mean a storm, flash flooding. Water leaking into the basement as it had the month before. Kwame’s mother leaned over the pot’s remains. “But nobody never trouble us before,” she told it. Then, addressing Kwame: “You sure you want live here?”
“We’re not doing that again. Everybody agreed when we chose this place.”
“Me? No, sir, I never choose this.” She kissed her teeth and waved him away. “Maybe Papi hear something. I will see.” Kwame nodded although he was not certain who this man, this Papi, might be. His mother, who could be so charming to strangers, had forged a few strategic alliances. This was something he and Tavonne should have done, had meant to do. But they never seemed to find the time and were gratified to see that his mother had taken care of things. Truthfully, he had known all along that she would.
“Okay? Finished,” she said, and he could see that his mother had already recalibrated and was distancing herself from the pot. Whatever worry had been visible in her face was gone now, and she hummed almost pleasantly, her hands behind her back. His stepson wore a look of mockery, of open hostility, and his wife had the vacant gaze that meant that she was not thinking of the pot, she had never really been thinking of the pot, but was consumed by some other matter entirely.
The boy left first. Whistling to the dog, he moved through his own separate entrance, the kind a paying tenant would have appreciated but his stepson took for granted because his stepson took everything for granted. A light went on in Robert’s apartment. He did not part the blinds.
Only Kwame stayed behind, pretending to concern himself with the brick staircase. The mortar needed to be repaired. They had not been able to finagle that, or any other concessions, during the close. Their realtor had turned up his hands like a cartoon character: It was a seller’s market, no room to be picky—no room to be difficult, was the language he’d used. Because Kwame was tired of looking and because he did not believe, as Tavonne did, that another realtor would treat them better; because he thought the house was a steal, given the bonus apartment and its potential for income, he retreated. They wouldn’t fight. They wouldn’t hold out. They would add the staircase to their to-do list.
But now he saw the house as Tavonne had seen it. In the wrong light, it retained some of its 19th century gloominess. Phantoms, ghosts, Tavonne believed in such things. It hadn’t helped that when they peered at the realtor’s grainy photo long enough, they could make out a child’s pale, stricken face in one of the windows. Tavonne had muttered: “I wonder what kind of white people lived here back then?” and he knew that she was thinking of the door beneath the stairs in the basement, which led to a blocked-off crawl space.
“For all we know, this could’ve been a stop on the Underground Railroad,” Kwame said. “That crawl space could have been a hiding spot.”
“Really?” she said.
“Maybe. I don’t know.” He could see that in his new life as a husband he would be tasked with the impossible, and it would start with this, managing the ghosts of white people whose character he could not account for.
Sensing this, Robert had been especially terrible. He joked about the bones they would find if they dug deep enough.
“He’s a little shit, isn’t he?” Tim-the-seller had said at the open house. It was the first time he had spoken solely to Kwame; he had waited until the others were out of hearing. When Kwame fixed his mouth to protest, Tim quickly added, “Oh, I don’t mean anything by it. I have a boy his age. Lives with my ex. He’s a little shit, too.” He rolled his eyes to show that he meant it as a joke, he meant everything as a joke, he was a big joking man.
Kwame grinned. “Man, I don’t remember being so fucking snotty at that age. My parents would have beat my ass.” He looked around to ensure that no one had heard him although he was grateful to say it, felt pleased to.
Never had Tim mentioned petty theft in his exhaustive descriptions of the neighborhood. They should ask him about it, Kwame said. They should call. Tavonne made a sound with her tongue and took his cellphone hostage in her lap. “Can’t it wait until you see him? Once you get him started, he’ll never let you go, and if you’re up all night I will be, too,” she said.
Tim had taken their money and run to South Jersey, but he still appeared on their street every now and then, to visit an aunt, a cousin. They no longer saw his wife, who had been the ruthless one in price negotiations. If not for her, Tim said, he might have given them the house for free. Certainly he would have given in on the stairs. “But you know how wives can be,” he said, elbowing Kwame in the side although Kwame didn’t know. Not yet; he’d have to see.
At various points, Tim had carved his name and the year in wet pavement along the driveway, so the world would know that “Tim Smith was here!” and assume he always would be. Kwame and Tavonne could repave—they would repave—but that was lower on the list.
In the beginning, staying in touch had made sense because there were questions about the house they had not thought to ask before the close, and when Tim had punched his number into Kwame’s phone and told him to call any time, you could tell he meant it. But he was a long-talker, a conversation dragger, and so the answers to their questions were never attained easily. Kwame talked to him anyway, but Tavonne could not bear it. Three times she had hung up on Tim, claiming a bad connection. And neither she nor Kwame’s mother believed they should have him over although Tim had been angling for such an invitation.
Mostly he was curious about what they had done with the place. He had undertaken some of the painting and renovations himself, with friends and six-packs of beer after work. “Oh, you can tell there was some alcohol involved,” Tavonne said. They had not used painter’s tape. They had left splotches of dried tile glue behind. Still, Tim offered to give Kwame names of contractors, local plumbers he swore by. It helped to have someone with an inside knowledge of such things, Kwame said. It helped to have a Tim.
Except, months after the close, they’d discovered that the light fixtures in the master bathroom leaked when it rained hard. The crying fixtures had done it. The crying fixtures had zapped any obligation Tavonne might have felt to be civil.
“He knew about that. Had to,” she said.
“Yes,” Kwame’s mother decided. “Him did know.” She folded her hands and addressed the clock on the wall, which ticked off the seconds loudly. “You see me? I don’t trust nobody.”
“You ought to tell him what it’s going to cost us to fix that mess,” Tavonne said. “As if we didn’t have enough to do already.”
“Nah, he’s not gone do that,” Robert said, casting a long sideways glance at Kwame. “That’s his friend.”
“They said in the home appraisal the roof might need patching,” Kwame said. They were lined up in the kitchen against him. He brandished a salt shaker and waved it at them. “It’s an old house, and old houses always need more work than you think. That’s a known fact. We’d look crazy crying to him about it,” he said.
Alone, though, he wondered if perhaps Tim was becoming a kind of friend. All he had now were kinds of friends, bits of purpose-driven friendship that only when strung together might make up a whole. In his marriage, his social life had been revised in such a way as to emphasize what Tavonne described as couple friends. If Tim was his friend, he was Kwame’s friend and Kwame’s friend alone.
The next day, Kwame came home in the evening and, with a sense of dread, checked the front and backyards. His mother was out there, reclined in a lawn chair, her hands laced together across her chest. She wore some beaded sparkly thing he seemed to recall from his youth. A blanket she’d covered herself with had fallen to the side. He attempted to drape it across her properly—the right thing, the loving thing—but she smacked him away, irritated even in her sleep, so he left it.
The woman across the street had come onto her porch and seemed startled to see him there assessing the state of his property. They’d never spoken, but he had rescued her garbage cans when the wind sent them clattering down his side of the street, running like a fool behind them. She had a lawn jockey, a rooster weathervane, garden gnomes. He pictured himself grabbing some of the larger rocks from the gravel pit in his driveway and pelting the rooster with them, then the gnome. Throwing yet more rocks at the stupid metal garbage cans she still refused to tie down. Instead, he pulled his hands from his pockets and waved and hated himself for waving.
He did not sleep that night or the next.
Having heard some commotion, he ran in the darkness to the bay window, but it was just a neighbor directing a friend into a parking space on the street. Parking was a source of contention in the area. Their two-car driveway perhaps a source of envy.
A week later Tim appeared, his own car nowhere to be seen. He was sitting on the stairs when Kwame came home from work, as if they had arranged to meet at just that time. Kwame knew that he alone had seen him, for such a scene would have enraged Tavonne or his mother and amused the boy enough to sit right beside him, hoping to cause trouble. Kwame would be kind because Tim had always been kind back, but he would hurry him along to keep the peace.
Yet before Kwame had fully extricated himself from the car he was already complaining to the man about his day, and by the time he had beeped the car and folded in the side mirror, he had relayed the full story about the pot. He hadn’t told anyone outside the family about the pot.
“Oh, boy,” said Tim. “That stinks. Nothing like that ever happened to us here.” His hands dangled between his legs. “But, then again, I never used to keep much out here. Not even a mat at the door, like you guys. We liked it better that way.”
He eyed the property, and Kwame could tell they were no longer seeing the same place. “Kept the driveway clear. Kept that little alcove clear, too. But you guys have what, a bunch of plants and stuff in there?” Tim said. He would have only known that if he’d stood on his toes and peaked through the glass paneling high on the front door. As if hearing his thoughts, Tim said, “I stopped by one day. Rang the buzzer and everything. My wife was waiting on some mail, and I thought it might have been delivered here, but no one answered. You must not have been home.”
Kwame could see the top of Tim’s head. He was paunchy and fully gray but he still had his hair. He’d made that joke the first time they’d met, although Kwame’s mother had assured him his good fortune wouldn’t last long. “It ah take off soon, see it there.” She pointed, and there was, indeed, the beginnings of a mutiny, a thinning at his temples. Tim had smiled at her because he smiled at everything Kwame’s mother said, smiled in a visibly confused way, stepping back as if he might gain a better understanding of her with some physical distance.
“Yeah, well,” Kwame said, “I’m hoping it’s an isolated thing, you know? I don’t want to have to worry about people around here.”
“Wait,” Tim said. “You don’t think there’s something funny about the people around here that I didn’t tell you about? I wouldn’t do that.” He reddened. “Some people will do or say anything to sell a house, but not me. I got the windows washed before you moved in. You saw that, right?”
Kwame verified how, on their move-in day, the windows had been cleaned, the shelves had been lined, the floors had been swept.
“I’m not some douchebag,” Tim said. “I wanted the house to go to good people. I’ve got a cousin in Newark who’s pissed that I didn’t sell to him. He helped me do some of the renovations and thought I owed him. But he’s not a good person. Not like you.”
A resentful relative within driving distance. A “not good person,” whatever that meant. Kwame’s brain registered the facts.
“I’m parked around the corner,” Tim said. “Do you want to maybe circle the neighborhood? And look for—”
Kwame did not want him to say unsavory types, types who didn’t seem to belong. “No, the whole thing gives me a headache anyway.”
“You’re one of the good guys,” Tim said again. “But it’s the good ones like us who catch all the shit.”
“Nothing but hassle,” Kwame said. “Hassle and headaches. Between this and work—”
Tim popped his collar, pretended to smoke a cigarette. “We get no respect. You remember where that’s from, right?”
Kwame said he remembered.
“Of course you do,” Tim said. “I knew you would.”
You had to place the cameras just right, angled and out of view, or else they could be compromised and then what was the point? Robert was uncharacteristically serious, perched at the top of a ladder, bursting with knowledge and confidence hastily acquired from YouTube tutorials. He had selected and ordered the security cameras himself, having talked Tavonne out of hiring a guy. “Why waste money on a stranger when you could just give it to me,” Robert had said.
He’d stuck a camera high above the basement door and pointed it at the driveway. There was another at the side entrance and backdoor, a doorbell camera at the front. This Robert had finished at some ungodly hour of the morning and now he was showing his work to Kwame, who had insisted on inspecting things. Saturday was Kwame’s day to sleep in, but still he drifted down the stairs before the sun had fully risen, in his socks and slippers, his bare hairy legs.
“Well, everything’s wireless now,” Kwame said. “It’s not like you had to spend a whole lot of time running cables.”
“But it’s still work, though,” Robert added quickly. To convince Kwame, he flexed and massaged his hands as if he had a muscle cramp. “Yo, if we see something good, I’m a post it. Add a little music. Maybe it’ll go viral.” He smiled in a way that reminded Kwame of Tavonne’s favorite pictures of him as a child, teeth straight and white like a toothpaste commercial. Kwame had not expected to see it, this smile or the light behind it; so rarely was it aimed in his direction, free of defiance or mockery. Moved, suddenly, he looked for something kind to say. He thought of what the porch had looked like in 1850 and how whoever had built the house could not have anticipated that a Black family would call it home. And then he did not just want to be nice, he wanted to be encouraging. He wanted solidarity.
“You did a good job out here,” he said. “You’ve got a good head on you. You know that, right?” Kwame could see the boy’s shoulders tense, a sign that he should stop speaking, but he didn’t. “Just think what would happen if you stopped messing around and went back to Temple. If you’d just finish up your credits, you could find a real job and finally get your own place.”
“I really don’t have to stay here, if that’s what you mean. Pops has two bedrooms.”
“This is your home as long as you’re doing the right thing,” Kwame said. “But you’re not doing much of anything right now, are you?”
By the end of the day, Tavonne had heard a version of the exchange that painted Kwame unfavorably; the story took on the tone of something serious, something worse. “You tell him this is his home,” she said, from her half of the bed. “You tell him he can stay here as long as he wants.”
“I did,” Kwame said. He felt a pain deep in the middle of his skull, where no Advil could reach it. “He took it wrong. I was just trying to say he has a lot of potential.”
Tavonne studied his profile. “I guess you meant well,” she said, sounding unconvinced. “But every kid is different, and you don’t have the currency with him yet to be so critical.” She wedged a wall of pillows between them.
Tavonne went on about her son and what he needed, but Kwame stopped listening. He thought then how he had known, had always known, that it was Robert who had defaced his curb-your-animal sign, and it was Robert who, when no one was looking, encouraged his dog to shit in exactly the spot that would annoy Kwame the most. Possibly Robert had been responsible, too, for the three faint scratches that had shown up on his bumper. His wife and mother had dismissed them, but if he stared at them long enough, he could form a pattern that suggested the marks were keyed by design.
In the absence of supporting evidence, he had no choice but to keep these things to himself. Certainly he would not have told Tavonne his newest theory that Robert had broken the pot, for reasons still unknown to him.
All he had was a hunch and a continuous video stream of the house there in the palm of his hand. When he checked the video, he expected to see the boy smirking or giving a finger to the screen, knowing Kwame would be the one to see it.
But after hours of sifting through the flotsam of life in the neighborhood, the only thing that materialized was Tim. Tim straightening their garbage cans and pulling leaves from the drain in the driveway with his bare hands. Tim flecking away gunk that had settled in the gaps of the mortar on the stairs. Tim making small talk with passersby. Tim stooping to pick up candy wrappers the wind had blown over. Tim whistling as he did a little two-step, a little cha-cha-cha to whatever music played in his head. He was a man at home, even if the home no longer belonged to him. Kwame’s cheek began to twitch whenever Tim’s graying head popped into the screen.
He thought about it that Saturday and the next, when he checked the mail and looked up just long enough to see Tim waving from up the street. His lips were pursed mid-whistle. Kwame couldn’t hear it, but he could tell it had died by the time Tim drew closer to the house.
“Hey, buddy, what you got here?” Tim grabbed the bars of the fence and shook it as if he somehow doubted its permanence. Tavonne had wanted white picket, but Kwame had been insistent: wrought iron, tall with pointed tops that discouraged leaning. It separated the street from the property. It separated him from Tim.
“This couldn’t have been cheap,” Tim said.
“We were willing to pay for the peace of mind.”
“I don’t know, I’d feel trapped, like I was in a cage or something.” Tim checked the base of the metal poles and shook them again. “To each his own, I guess? We never saw the need for it.” He was eager to inspect the fencing from the inside, to see how it looked in the back, but Kwame did not move to unlatch the gate.