• “Witness”

    An O. Henry Prize-Winning Story by Jamel Brinkley

    My sister threw upon the door so that it banged against the little console table she kept by the entrance. “Silas,” she said breathlessly, before even removing her coat, “I have to tell you something.” Which was enough to make me feel trapped, as though the words out of her mouth were expanding and filling up the space in her tiny apartment. I told her to calm down and apologized, and then I began making excuses for myself. I had assumed she would be angry at me because of the previous night, so I was primed for what she might say when she got home from work.

    “Don’t be so defensive,” Bernice said. “I’m not talking about that.” She tapped my legs so I would move them and then plopped down next to me on the love seat. The chill from outside clung to her body. I saved my reformatted CV, set my laptop on the floor, and listened.

    The man who sang out of tune had been waiting for her again. He had started standing near the card shop on Amsterdam Avenue during her lunch hour two weeks earlier, and she had quickly noticed his repeated presence. As she passed him that afternoon, he faced her directly and gave her a meaningful look, which was more than he had ever done before. “But all he did after that was keep belting it out in that terrible voice,” she told me. “A sentimental song, you know? The sweetness of making love in the morning.” Even though he was thin and light skinned and wore those big, clunky headphones—“ Not my type at all,” she said—Bernice did find him somewhat handsome. But since he didn’t say anything, she just went inside the shop. She liked to go in there during her break because her job could be tough. She worked as a guidance counselor for high school kids, soaking up their troubles all day long, and the cards, however hackneyed or sentimental, gave her a daily boost she enjoyed. When she emerged a bit later, feeling affirmed, the man approached her. With the headphones clamped around his temples, his gloved fists tight around the straps of his backpack, he said he was sorry for bothering her, that he hoped she didn’t mind but he had seen her walk by the other day and thought, well, she was beautiful. “Meanwhile,” she told me, “with the kind of night I had, I’m sure I’ve never looked worse a day in my life.” She didn’t shake the hand he offered, but smiled at how flustered he was. His name, which he said was Dove, pleased her, and the way he scrunched his lips together and shifted them from side to side had what she described to me as a clarifying effect.

    Bernice laughed now and said, “So, long story short, I said yes.”

    “What do you mean you said yes?”

    “I gave him my actual name and my actual number,” she said. “He’s a DJ, and he has a gig this weekend. Maybe I’ll go see him do his thing.”

    I couldn’t tell if she was being serious.

    “You think I’m crazy.”

    “I don’t,” I said reflexively, but only somewhat honestly. I knew that she found our mother’s warnings to avoid men on the street excessive. She’d told me once that doing so would be like forbidding the use of a shower because water could get hot and scald. Bernice didn’t want to be seen as weak, and she always trusted her own instincts. I didn’t have much faith in them, though. In my mind she could be reckless.

    The previous night, she had texted and called me in a panic, but I wasn’t available for her. I was out with a woman when my phone lit up, so for a long time I ignored Bernice’s texts, her calls, and her voice mails, too. The truth was, I found my sister exhausting, the way she could crowd you out of your life with the enormity of her own. The entanglement I was trying to have with that woman, I told myself, was too urgent to be interrupted. I didn’t find out what had happened until the morning, when I finally listened to her messages and read her texts. By then she was already on her way to work.

    Unable to reach me last night, she requested a car to drive her to the emergency room. She sat in the dingy waiting area for a long time before she was able to meet with a doctor, and she told him what she told me on the first voice mail: “I don’t know what it is, but I just feel off. I can’t think straight, and my body, it doesn’t feel right.” She had texted me again afterward, saying that her blood pressure was elevated, but in the doctor’s opinion her issues overall seemed minor, most likely stress related. All she needed to do was relax.

    “So,” I said now, “you’re feeling okay?” As the heat hissed steadily into the room, I looked down at the love seat, where I’d been sleeping for weeks while enduring a job search. Perhaps foolishly, I was hell-bent on being in New York, but it seemed like every other Americanist in the country was, too. Bernice had offered to let me stay with her until I got my bearings and found something.

    “I already told you. The doctor says I’m fine.”

    “So you’re fine.”

    “I guess so.”

    “That’s good,” I said. “I’m glad. I mean it.”

    “But they shooed me away, Silas,” Bernice said, her voice growing large. “You should have seen it. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even get a chance to explain.” When she saw the smirk on my face, she glared. “What’s so funny?”

    “You’re doing really well with the whole relaxing thing,” I said. “Terrific job. Truly top-notch.”

    She nudged my shoulder with hers. “Well, I’ll be doing plenty of relaxing with my new friend Dove, if he plays his cards right.”

    “That’s awful,” I said. “That’s just too much. You’re always saying too much.”

    “Doesn’t matter how much you talk if people don’t listen,” she said.

    I picked at the edge of my borrowed pillow. The love seat faced the door to the apartment and next to it, above the table, hung a framed photograph taken by our late father, of our mother and us when she was a young woman. In it, Bernice is three, cranky from an ear infection, and I am a frowning infant in her lap. Sitting beside us on a stiff-looking blue sofa, wearing a pale summer dress, our mother smiles with her teeth. “Well, let me ask you this,” I said suddenly now, in a brassy imitation of her. “Was that doctor you saw a white doctor?”

    “Oh god,” my sister said, “of course he was.” She began shaking her head and we both laughed. “I should have remembered what she always says. What was it again?”

    “You remember.”

    “But when it comes to those white doctors,” Bernice cried, now imitating our mother, too, “always, always, exaggerate the pain.”


    Bernie did go to see Dove DJ, and he must have been adept at it, because that weekend sparked a whirlwind romance. Despite the inconvenience of my presence, Dove was a frequent visitor, often after his gigs. Things hadn’t worked out with the woman I was interested in, so I was usually there, curled on the love seat, and he would wake me up when he came in, a bit clumsy, unsure in his lankiness as he made his way through the dark apartment. Crates of Dove’s records began accumulating around me. When I asked Bernice if she would consider slowing things down, she said, “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, exactly the way I want to do it.” Then she smiled and added, “Exactly how I always have.” For her, the choice to begin anything significant was a powerful exertion, one the universe couldn’t ignore, proof of the force of her will. She felt that if you really wanted to and if you knew how, you could control your life.

    Within two months, Bernice and Dove had willed an engagement into existence. The speed of this made our mother furious. When I spoke to her on the phone, she told me Bernice was being a fool, and she refused to come to New York for their marriage at the city clerk’s office. I was their only witness. We went through the government’s metal detectors and sat together in the crowded waiting room. Finally we were called in for the quick ceremony. Bernice wore a tea-length dress, simple but elegant, the white of it stark against her skin. Dove had on baggy slacks, dark shoes, and a large cream-colored guayabera. With his clothes as loose as they were, he looked ridiculous, and he was as giddy as a child, with all the happiness the occasion called for but none of the solemnity. He seemed possessed of no seriousness, completely unlike the sort of person you should commit your life to. When he extended his arms so he could hold my sister’s hands, I waited for him to bungle something. He didn’t appear to be reliable at all.

    Bernice improvised the presence of our mother by bringing the framed photograph from the apartment. Despite our inclusion in it, the image belongs absolutely to our mother. All three of us are brown, but her skin is particularly dark, full of tiny glints, as though enriched by a day walking in the sun. Her eyes are tired, but happily so, the way people appear sated and spent in the wake of a long, demanding meal. She looks so beautiful and strong that you would be tempted to think her children, in that moment, are beautiful and strong, too. This, our mother’s sovereignty, is the source of the photograph’s power, and the reason why it’s my sister’s favorite.

    Dove, who had been living with his father, didn’t make much money, and the newlyweds’ combined income wouldn’t have gotten them a better place than the one Bernice already had—rent was still reasonable in that part of Crown Heights. So her apartment soon became their apartment. For two people it was very small. For three it was nearly hopeless. When we ate together, they sat on the love seat and I was relegated to the floor. There were always conflicts about the bathroom. The arrangement began to wear on us more and more. I complained that at night I could hear them, to use Dove’s phrase, making love. He complained about the photo of us and our mother, so he took it down and replaced it with one of him and Bernice. She complained that he had done this and switched them back, declaring that no one she lived with was grateful for her. After that she kept more company with the books she began bringing home from the library.

    The person who lived upstairs was a friendly man who worked as a high school basketball coach. Bernice liked him, though he had a habit of watching games with the volume on his TV turned all the way up. He also walked through his apartment with astonishing frequency, and his steps were very heavy. His stomping constantly threatened the photo of our mother on the wall, shaking it askew. Usually it was Bernice who ran over to straighten it and make sure it didn’t slip completely from its nail. But in the three months since the marriage, she’d become more irritated and depressed than I’d ever seen her, and she seemed more interested now in causes than in their effects. So late one night, as the upstairs neighbor stomped and his TV roared, all she did was raise her head from the arm of the love seat, where she had been reading, and sneer at the ceiling.

    “This is getting ridiculous,” Bernice said. “What time is it now?”

    I took the photo down and laid it on the console table, next to a thin, empty vase. I explained that it was exactly six minutes later than the last time she had asked. I pointed at the fully functioning, prominently displayed clock. It was 4:18 a.m.

    “Tell that motherfucker I can’t stand him anymore,” she said. “Tell him next time I see him, he should just gumboot-dance directly on my chest.”

    Was she talking about the coach or Dove? Neither man had a connection to South Africa, as far as I knew, but my sister’s mind had become increasingly global in range. The books surrounding her on the love seat and the floor included library copies of fiction and poetry in translation, various travel writings and studies of cultural practices, histories of colonialism and insurrection throughout the African diaspora. She collected as much information as she could, as furiously as she could, about the lives and trials, real and imagined, of black people everywhere. Willy-nilly, she regurgitated facts and ideas at me. It was an undisciplined affront to my years of graduate training, especially annoying since she refused to explain exactly what she was doing. But it was clear that whatever else it was, this new habit was a way to resist being crushed by the altered circumstances of her life.

    When she wasn’t absorbed in a book, or overtaken by a depressive sleep—in one way or another conjuring dream routes across the planet—Bernice was forced to deal with local matters. She was running out of sick days at work, and her performance there seemed to be declining fast. She mentioned that parents of the students she counseled had started to complain that she was giving out strange advice. Much of it was about her philosophy of love, which at this point, she told me, was “also a philosophy of hate.” At the apartment, she seemed sad and anxious when Dove was out late DJing, but she also fell into despair and rage when he was at home. Not once did I say I told you so. It seemed she had come to understand, on her own, that we always overestimate how much we can control our lives.

    Dove finally got home that night a little before five. He unlocked the door and shuffled in ass first, bent over two milk crates of LPs. He was one of those DJs who boasted about playing vinyl, but the undignified way he entered the apartment punctured his self-righteousness, as did the sheepishness that came over his features when he turned around and saw the complications on my sister’s face.

    “Oh, you’re still up?” he said now, to both of us. He looked frightened as he pulled his sagging jeans to his waist.

    “Silas sleeps here,” my sister said. “And where am I? Here. Silas can’t sleep here if I’m here.”

    “Why do you sound angry?”

    “I’m not angry, I’m sick.”

    Dove rolled his eyes at me, but I gave no sign that I agreed with him. “Well,” he said, “why aren’t you in bed, then?”

    Bernice collapsed onto her side and faced the back of the love seat. Her hair was slicked into a sad curly bun, and her head rested on an open book, a history of compulsory sterilization in Kenya.

    Dove began to take a step forward but then retracted it. He often moved this way, as if the floor were booby-trapped. He jerked his head toward the front door and said to me, “Come on, professor, let’s go get some grub. I’m paying.”

    Bernice moaned without turning. “There’s food here,” she said. “What is it about having a little bit of money in your pocket that immediately makes you want to spend it? Are you a child?”

    He glanced at me. “I’m a man,” he replied. “The man of this house.”

    “Man. Child. What’s the difference?”

    Dove didn’t argue. He approached my sister with trepidation, moved some of the books aside, and crouched by the love seat, but he seemed unsure of what to say. Except for Bernice’s whistling breaths, everything was quiet. Even the coach and his television were idle. Dove cleared his throat and told my sister he would bring her back something good. “Some soup to help you feel better.”

    “Soup again?” she replied. “You think soup fixes everything. At the farthest reaches of your imagination, out there in the wilderness, explorers would discover a bowl of soup.”

    “Oh, come on, sweet girl.”

    “You stink of liquor,” she said. “Liquor and sweat and desperation. Please, I’m begging you, just go away.”

    Ejected from the apartment, Dove sprinted down the stairs. I followed him outside. The sun would be up soon on another warm spring morning. There was a twenty-four hour diner he remembered. It was pretty far from the apartment, but he insisted that we walk.

    “Back in the day,” he explained, grinning, “me and my boys would eat at this place after partying all damn night. Man, we were just kids then. I miss those dudes. They’re the jokers who gave me the name Dove,” he said, and laughed good-naturedly. “Because I’m so light.”

    “Oh, is that why?” I asked, but he didn’t hear the sarcasm.

    He shook his head, full of nostalgia. He seemed to find solace in calling forth and repeating the past. “That’s when music was good, you know?” Then he began to pontificate on what he called the golden age of hip-hop. He even lectured about producers and the art of sampling. “Old-school is where it’s at, man. Why do you think I spin records?”

    “I haven’t really thought about it,” I told him.

    “With digital files, the music gets compressed. Details get lost. The depth, the textures: gone. It’s actually sad. Nothing’s the way it used to be.”

    I asked what happened to his friends.

    “They got married. Had kids. Or they moved. They moved on.” He changed the topic, asking about my job search. I had several new applications out and was now hoping to piece together enough adjunct positions to make a decent living.

    “And find a place of your own?” he asked.

    “Bernice says I can stay as long as I need to,” I told him.

    He just hummed in response. Then he asked if the sort of thing I was trying to do wasn’t a ridiculous hustle in New York. I said it was. I asked if trying to pay the bills as a DJ in New York wasn’t a hustle, too. He nodded. After that we didn’t talk. Our interest in each other had been exhausted, and neither of us wanted to talk about Bernice. Dove started singing to himself in his horrible voice.

    Maybe he also sensed she was moving on, around and abroad, or further and further back into accounts of the past, escaping with her books to places and times that seemed closed to anyone but herself. From the way she looked as she conducted her arcane scholarship, it seemed easeful to pass the days like that. At least until her husband or brother came home, breaking her loneliness and her peace.

    When Dove and I arrived at the diner we were met by construction barriers, a perimeter of chain-link fencing backed with lengths of green screen. The building that had housed the diner was gone, replaced by the gleaming bones of a condominium. A sign showed an image of what it would be eventually, a sky-piercing complex sheathed in glass. Applications for buyers were already being accepted. Dove stared at the sign, headphones snug at his temples, his lips scrunched together. I tried to glimpse what my sister had ever seen in him. Could he have been anyone, any person whose gestures and manner she might have chosen to recognize and accept, or was there something more substantial about him? The way his untucked shirt and jeans hung from his body made him look even more puerile than usual. Maybe it was something related to this, Dove’s frivolity, that made her think he would be easy, that she could fit him wherever she pleased. He turned to me, jolted by some notion, and said he knew of another place not too far away, an “old-school” doughnut spot that had great coffee. Was the new plan to bring my sister a doughnut? The idea of it made me angry. I told him I was tired from the walk, that I needed to go home and try to sleep. Dove seemed relieved.

    “What you need to do,” he teased, “is hurry up and find your ass a job.” Then he bumped my fist hard with his and we went our separate ways.

    Everything I saw on the way back to the apartment became the object of my anger. The cracks in the sidewalks, the dust on the parked cars, the slowness of the occasional pedestrian—it all seemed jammed full of stupidity. The city struck me as an impossible place to live. What was I even doing here? I walked on, pausing whenever I passed an open bodega. I told myself I was thinking of what I could buy for my sister, something that would please or help her. But I didn’t have much money and, honestly, I was just giving myself excuses to delay. I didn’t want to be with Dove, but I didn’t want to be in the apartment either. Bernice was just another kind of burden.


    When I came into the apartment, Bernice yelled from the bedroom, “Oh Jesus, what kind of soup is it this time?” A month had passed since my walk with Dove, and though it was a sunny afternoon outside, the apartment’s main window, which faced an air shaft, made it seem like evening. From the bedroom came sweetly fragrant wisps of musk that added to the gloom. The bedroom was filled with even more smoke. Sticks of incense had been lit, well over a dozen, and scented candles burned. In the middle of this cloying cloud, the bed was strewn with books and other objects, and Bernice’s head and torso were elevated on a pile of pillows. She squinted at me in the doorway and I squinted back at her, disturbed by the scene.

    “It’s just me,” I said.

    “It’s just me,” she replied, mocking me, and then stabbed her cloud with a sharp cough of laughter. She watched with a pleased grimace as the wound sealed itself. “Was baby brother out trying to make a lady friend again?” she asked.

    “I’m broke and I live on my sister’s couch,” I said. “Once that becomes obvious, no one wants to be my friend.”

    “Ghosts,” she said. “Ghosting you.” Then she studied me again, still just outside the room. “It smells so good in here now, but you can’t stand it, can you? I know you can’t. That’s all right. Don’t want you in here anyway. Just stay there and let me look at you. I can see your true nature now . . . I want to see his, too. Where is he?”

    “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m assuming he’ll be back later.”

    “That’s good,” she said, and then she seemed to shrug. “It’s messed up, too.”

    In addition to her books and the incense, she had recently started collecting a significant number of translucent crystals, which glimmered within the smoke. I asked her now what they were.

    “Quartz,” she said. “They’re healing stones. I ordered them online.”

    “What do they do?” I asked.

    “They’re healing stones, Silas. What do you think?” Bernice had complained of headaches two weeks ago, and had gone back to the doctor, but was told again that she was fine, and that she needed to work harder to relax. She had taken a leave of absence from work.

    “Maybe you really are sick,” I said. I wanted her to know I was starting to believe it.

    “No shit, detective. Shall I confess to you my pain? Shall I confess my other crimes?” She groaned and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

    I peered in, trying to see her clearly, unsure of what to say. Everything I could think of felt wrong. “Go to the doctor again,” I said. “Please. I’ll go with you this time.”


    “Tell me why you don’t want to.”

    She laughed dryly. “Silas, I’ve tried. They just keep sending me home. Why would I go where people don’t know how to treat me? That’s just more helplessness.”

    “We can try to get you a black doctor,” I said. But in truth, I had little sense then that this could make a difference. I hardly went to the doctor myself.

    “Okay, sure thing, Mom,” she said, amusing herself. “Listen, do you know what I read yesterday—no, what am I saying, I just read it—do you know?”


    “Get this. When slavery was abolished, there were all these little children just walking around, confused, completely separated from their kin. How’s that for a picture of freedom. Can you imagine? How scared they were? The danger they were in? Well, do you know what happened next? Other black folks, strangers, took them in. Families. Adults who were on their own. Sometimes people who were hardly adults themselves. Saw these wandering children and adopted them, just like that.”

    “Well, it was more complicated than you’re saying,” I began, even though African American history wasn’t my area of expertise. “If you study any of the oral accounts—”

    “Strangers did this, Silas! Not so long ago . . . And it happened here!”

    She said here as if shocked to find something of use anywhere on the planet. Then she watched for my response, which was to do absolutely nothing. I remained on the edge of her cloud while the coach stomped around above us. Then there was a sound like the spitting of a lit candle. Bernice’s body went rigid on the mattress and started jerking. I couldn’t move—I didn’t know what to do. Her back arched as she continued convulsing, and the spitting sound, I realized, came from her mouth as she labored to breathe. She wouldn’t stop her rigid shaking. I approached the bed finally, and saw that her eyes were rolled back into her head. It was the sight of the reddened saliva at her lips and the stain growing in the crotch of her shorts that jolted me into action. I took out my phone, called 911, and was told what to do. I began by removing the books and crystals from the bed, and I stayed with her until the paramedics arrived.


    Bernice went through triage, a long wait, an examination, another long wait, and then, after being admitted, a CT scan. By the time Dove showed up at the hospital, hours later, every emotion and reserve of energy seemed to have been boiled out of her. He zipped past her wheezing roommate and stopped short. “It’s gonna be okay,” he cried out uselessly. “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be okay!”

    Bernice’s head rolled slowly on the pillow until she faced him. She gave a wasted smile and tapped her ear. His eyes widened. Up flew his hands to remove his headphones. We could all hear his loud music scratching the air.

    “Hey, Mr. DJ,” my sister said quietly. She pointed at her monitor and added, “Can you find a song with a pulse that matches mine? Find it for me, play it for me.”

    I watched Dove from the seat near the foot of the bed. His eyes, full of affection, communicated that he thought she was being sincere. He tiptoed up to her, took hold of one of her hands, and said, “Oh, sweet girl . . .” Then he repeated it with a hint of unruly pleasure. Maybe he was falling in love with her all over again. If so, and if her condition allowed her a choice, she seemed to be indulging him. He held both of her hands in his and, moving his lips wordlessly, looked as though he was renewing his vows.

    “The results of the CT scan are negative,” I said.

    Dove nodded. “Good, that’s good.”

    “When I asked about getting a black doctor they didn’t take me seriously,” I added.

    My sister turned to me. She must have heard the hollowness of my words. I heard it, too, as I had earlier as the hospital staff spoke to me, the same conspicuous tone of lip service. Bernice wouldn’t take her eyes off of me, and Dove wouldn’t take his eyes off of her.

    “I just read that racist patients have no problems, absolutely none, when they demand white doctors,” I said, holding my phone out toward them. “There was this Nazi out in Michigan, he got every black nurse in a ward reassigned so their filthy jigaboo fingers wouldn’t touch his newborn alabaster child.”

    Neither of them paid attention to what I was saying. They were still holding hands, whispering to each other.

    “What took you so long?” I asked Dove angrily. “I called you. I texted, too.” The irony of my words wasn’t lost on me, so they came out with added bitterness.

    “I was on the train,” he said bluntly, as if that explained everything. Then he let go of Bernice’s hands and took off his backpack. “I went and got you something, baby.” He reached in and gave her something small and white: a flat, folded paper bag.

    My sister rustled the bag. “A card?” she asked.

    “Two cards!” Dove said, beaming.

    She examined them. One was a get-well greeting with a cartoon dog on it, the other an anniversary greeting with an illustration, the heads of two red roses. “But it’s not our anniversary,” she murmured.

    “I know that,” he said defensively. “I picked it for what it says, inside. It’s how I feel.”

    Bernice read it aloud: “ ‘The years may pass and pass, but our love shall never grow old. Knowing you’re mine makes me feel so alive. Each day with you shines like gold.’”

    After she was done reciting that canned poetry, she smiled weakly. Dove took the paper bag from her linens, smoothed its wrinkles and folds, and then pointed at it. “Check this out, though. Look where I got them from.” Bernice recognized the logo, from the card shop she liked to visit, outside of which they had spoken for the first time.

    “So what do you think?” he asked.

    She scowled and closed her eyes. “It hurts.”


    “My head,” she said. “The medicine they gave me. It’s not working. They didn’t give me enough.”

    Dove rushed to press the call button. He was frantic when a nurse didn’t come right away. I said I could ask at the nurses’ station, but when I stood he blocked my path, insisting he would do it. I really did want to go—to do something for my sister, and to escape that room—but apparently it had to be him. He ran out into the hallway to let someone know my sister needed more for her pain.


    After that, Dove would come to her hospital room, hold her hand, and sing. She was quiet around him, but when I was alone with her, she would talk, intent on expressing herself despite the trouble she was starting to have with her speech. I listened. I came to understand that this was the way she remembered our childhood, the way she always wanted it to be between us. I went as far into this fabrication as I could, until it, as well as the notion that she wasn’t angry at me for not believing her, started to feel real. When she became too tired to talk, I would read to her from her library books.

    Meanwhile our mother arrived in the city to lend Bernice strength. Whenever she was at the hospital, Dove made sure he wasn’t there. He knew she didn’t approve of their marriage. She would sit in the chair by the foot of the bed, which seemed to calm my sister, but she would rise whenever a doctor or nurse came in, challenging every word they had to say. When the doctor told us one day that Bernice would be able to go home soon, our mother asked how on earth he could think such a thing. When he said the tests were clear, she said, “Well, how many more tests you got?” When he said Bernice’s pain was under control, she asked him how he could possibly know.

    Despite our mother’s protestations, Bernice was discharged. A few days later she suffered a massive stroke. Back at the hospital, she passed away. Our mother and I were there in the room. I had imagined that my sister’s last breath would be a tremendous thing, but it wasn’t; it was no different than any other. The moment that breath was released, however, her face straightened, settled, went smooth. Our mother felt that Bernice had transformed. “She’s my little baby again,” she said. “She looks just like she did as a baby.”

    Her voice was soft when she said this, but afterward it became hard and enormous, like a slab of iron, and she hurled it at every doctor and nurse she saw. She was my sister’s guardian, fiercely so, calling them murderers and demanding that they admit they had killed Bernice. She even made it difficult for the body to be attended to.

    Dove arrived at the hospital during a respite in our mother’s tirade, but the sight of him, ugly with crying, roused her again, and to an even greater degree. She started screaming her accusations at him. He was shocked, stricken; he had probably expected the three of us, in grief, to have a family embrace. I told him to go away, to go downstairs and wait in the cafeteria. He took a moment to compose himself and then complied, but his leaving had no effect on our mother’s rage. It got so bad I had to restrain her. I held her in my arms and told her she had to calm down. She turned her head so that our noses almost touched, her eyes suddenly lucid, and wider than I’d ever seen them. “You did this, too,” she said, “you’re one of them, you’re a murderer.” She kept saying it, with unblinking composure, until it became a kind of chant. After a long time, her voice shrank into a murmur. Then all she did was breathe in and out, heavily, and allow herself to go limp in my arms.


    Our mother stayed with me in the Crown Heights apartment as we conducted the costly business of settling Bernice’s affairs. She slept in the bedroom—Dove had gone back to his father’s place in Harlem—and as usual I slept on the love seat.

    Dove didn’t come to the funeral. Some of Bernice’s old coworkers came, as did many of the students she advised. The coach was there, too. I was surprised to see that many people there for her, but their presence, which confirmed she wasn’t as isolated as I thought, made me feel worse. When it was my turn to take the lectern and speak about my sister, I couldn’t. This wasn’t because I hadn’t prepared a speech for her. As I sat there in the front pew, words flowed easily into my mind, just as I had expected. It wasn’t a problem of being unable to think of what to say. But the words that came were the bloated kind one used to satisfy the unknowable and therefore impossible expectations of others, words that shined a light so dazzling it washed out every distinctive feature. Our mother, sitting to my left, turned to me. Her expression pleaded with me at first, and then demanded I rise, but I was unable to get up from my seat.

    When we got home, she put on her eye mask and earplugs and went directly to bed. So she was spared the mess and noise of my sorrow. That night, as the coach lurched around upstairs, I lay awake sobbing. I kept thinking how unbearable the drama of her loss was, and how unbearable my role in it felt, too. An MRI might have saved Bernice’s life. I couldn’t believe it was so difficult to take care of someone else.

    I grabbed my laptop and opened it. As the blue screen glowed in the darkness of the apartment, a memory came to mind, of Bernice and me as children. We were in our parents’ bedroom, wearing our mother’s clothes, our small feet in her big shoes, our limbs hidden in the sleeves of her blouses, her head scarves draped loosely around our necks. We stood side by side in front of their mirror, looking at ourselves, our mouths reddened and winged from sucking on cherry ice pops. And then she began to narrate tall tales about us, about who we were and what we had done and the business we would conduct brilliantly in the future. I wondered about that. Had it actually happened, or was I just imagining another story she had told me in the hospital? It didn’t matter. I hit a key on the laptop to awaken the screen again. I opened a blank document and typed, “My sister Bernice is dead.” I wrote it as a simple matter of fact, as a way to begin accepting it, but then I kept typing. The document became something like a eulogy, but a very honest and private one. No flash, no oratory. It was just for me.


    Not too long ago, after our mother had left the city and I had finally managed to find work, I reached out to Dove. Almost all of his records were still in the apartment, crates in every room, so he must have stopped working gigs. With Bernice’s books returned to the library and her quartz lined neatly on the console table, it was Dove’s stuff alone that gave the apartment its oppressive character. He said he would rent a van and come to the apartment to get his records. We decided on the arrangements and it felt like a larger, unspoken agreement had been made between us.

    The sound of his singing got louder as he came up the stairs and approached the door. He knocked, and when I opened it he stood there haggard and stooped, and his headphones hung like an anchor from his neck. An unflattering beard grew like patches of moss along his pallid cheeks and jaw. I got two beers from the refrigerator and, for no reason he or I could have articulated, we clinked our bottles together. We sat on the love seat and he glanced at the quartz. Then he looked up at the framed photograph of Bernice, our mother, and me, back on its nail.

    “I always hated that damn picture,” he said. “Bernice is so ugly in it, just a sad-ass, ugly-ass kid. Me and her took plenty of pictures together, nice ones I framed, but she never put none of them up. Never posted any online. Nothing.” He tilted his head back and took a noisy sip from his beer. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna stay here.”

    “No,” I said, “I couldn’t do that. But I have to for now.”

    He pointed the bottle up at the ceiling. “How’s the coach?”



    “Gone,” I said. “Why didn’t you come to her service?”

    Dove turned toward the air shaft. “I just couldn’t, okay?” He took a long drink of beer. “Hey, I have to tell you something, professor—no disrespect, all right?” he said. “I’m just telling you in case you run into us on the street or something. I started seeing someone new. I know it’s real soon, but it’s not like I was looking. I swear to god I wasn’t. Truth be told, she came after me. And she’s great, she really is. A girl you can’t say no to. She’s the kind of girl who puts your pictures on the wall.” He took his phone from his pocket as if to show me something, but then thought better of it. “She likes who I am, is what I’m saying. She’s not ashamed of me, you know.”

    Any sympathy I felt for him was draining away quickly.

    “Man,” he said, staring up at the wall again, “I really fucking hate that photo.”

    “It was her favorite,” I said.

    “It makes sense, I guess, the way you two turned out. Must have been hard growing up with a mother like that. I mean, look at her. You know, I still have nightmares about that shit she said to me, at the hospital.” He shook his head. His eyes were wet.

    I could have explained to Dove that our mother had been screaming her charges of murder to nearly everyone she saw that day, that in her rage and grief he was just another person she could blame. But I didn’t tell him. Nor did I tell him how she had leveled her accusations at me. I didn’t want to give him the comfort of thinking he and I were the same.

    I killed Bernice? Me? I loved her,” he was saying now. “All I ever did was love her.”

    “But how does it feel,” I asked, “to know she never loved you back?”

    Dove’s jaw tightened. “She married me.”

    I nodded. “But she was already sick then—you understand that, right? What happened to her was already happening. A sick woman married you, but she didn’t love you.” I was holding my beer so tightly I could have shattered the glass. I set it down on the floor. “She told me she never did,” I said, which wasn’t true, but punishing him was easier than punishing myself. And for the moment, at least, it felt good. “And here you are,” I added, “thinking a girl putting your picture in a frame means anything at all.”

    Dove stood and sniffed, drank the rest of his beer, and set the bottle down on the floor. He stepped away from me and went over to where crates of his records, grimed with dust, were stacked against a wall.

    It was clear at once, from how he moved, that my words had broken him, in a way that might never be repaired. He crouched on the balls of his feet and slowly began to flip through his records. I watched as he moved silently around the little apartment. Before he hauled out the crates, his fingers touched every single sleeve of his vinyl, making a methodical inventory. He had to be certain that nothing else he claimed or cared for had been taken away.


    “Witness” copyright © 2020 by Jamel Brinkley.

    From THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners, edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, series edited by Jenny Minton Quigley, to be published by Anchor Books on September 14, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Vintage Anchor Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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