The money in Calvin’s shoebox smelled like his summer job. The rich, lingering funk came courtesy of the Southwest Waterfront, along the pier of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he’d spent the last nine weeks working for his uncle. As a runner, Calvin was tasked with transporting his uncle’s crabs to and from the steamer located on the opposite end of the pier. When he loaded his dolly, three or four bushels at a time, they’d still be snapping and crawling over each other. When he returned to his uncle’s seafood stand, they were lifeless, bagged and boxed, seasoned for consumption. There were times when Calvin swore he could hear them screaming over the shriek of the steamer, and he had to remind himself that every bushel brought him that much closer to affording his uncle’s old Buick, the one with the wide tires and low-hanging muffler.
His uncle’s customers were good people and it showed in their tips; on the busiest days, when some were forced to park as far as three blocks away, under the 14th Street Bridge where the city’s homeless are known to gather, Calvin was rewarded handsomely to provide curbside service. Mostly, though, the money trickled in slow and steady: $2 here, $5 there. After nine weeks of being frugal with his earnings, depositing every tip he received in the shoebox hidden under his bed, Calvin had managed to put away almost enough to buy his uncle’s old car. But when he counted it this early evening, the amount was $300 short of what it had been yesterday.
Calvin closed the lid on the shoebox and placed it back under his bed. He wished he could go to his uncle and say that his older brother, Damon, made a generous withdrawal without his permission. Uncle Otis would straighten Damon out, give him a warning, and Damon would listen, too. But ratting would make him look weak in the eyes of both; it was, as Calvin saw it, a tacit admission of helplessness, and given the choice between retrieving his money and retaining his pride, he was surely conditioned to choose the latter.
Still, something had to be done. He needed that $300. Or, more precisely, he needed that raggedy Buick. He was scheduled to take a driver’s ed course when he returned to school for his junior year, and really, what good is a license without a vehicle? He thought of some of the girls at his school, extremely beautiful, more beautiful than the grown women who policed the classrooms. He imagined them riding shotgun, carefully applying lip gloss in his rearview mirror. There was one girl, Savannah, who carried herself so gracefully that Uncle Otis once mistook her for faculty at the parent-teacher conference.
Calvin went to the living room where Damon lay sleep on the couch. Damon must have sensed that Calvin was standing over him, looking down at him in disappointment, because his eyes snapped open and he warned Calvin to back off.
Calvin stood his ground, insisting that his brother give back the money that was missing from his shoebox. When Damon denied his accusations, Calvin started yelling at him, and soon there was a shouting match in full cry. Before long, they were tussling on the floor like toddlers, shouting insults at each other.
“Punk-ass bitch-made coward-ass punk!”
Damon, being three years older and 30 pounds heavier, quickly overpowered Calvin. He pinned Calvin to the floor, pressing his forearm to his little brother’s throat. Calvin tried to wriggle his way into a more promising angle, but Damon refused to budge until their uncle came in the living room and pulled him up from the floor.
Calvin popped back to his feet and pretended to lunge at Damon, knowing that his uncle was there to keep them separated. “You lucky,” he said, though deep down he knew better than to believe it. He was panting and his scalp was dewy from perspiration. His neck was raw from chafing against the band of his brother’s wristwatch.
Uncle Otis turned to Damon and gestured for him to leave.
Damon threw his arms up like an athlete whining to the referee. “I ain’t do nothing,” he said, glaring at Calvin.
The old man scowled like he had a bad taste in his mouth. “I don't care who started it,” he said, swiping his hands down his thighs to smooth the invisible wrinkles in the white linen pants that he always wore to the old-folks club. “I done told y’all about fighting in this house.”
Damon stormed out the front door, leaving Calvin alone with his uncle. But for the puzzled expression on his uncle’s face, the way his eyes squinched to the point where only the black of his pupils were showed, he looked remarkably like Calvin’s mother. He had the same pattern of little brown freckles on the bridge of his nose, and the same grade of dark bronze hair, though his mother used to manage hers into a tight bun, and his uncle’s was styled into a conservative Afro. He examined the welts on Calvin’s neck and shook his head. “What was that about?”
“Don't look like nothing to me.”
“You know how Damon is,” Calvin said. He looked down at the floor, hoping that the interrogation was over. He noticed a pair of license plates lying on the floor, Washington tags sealed in plastic. He stooped and picked them up, turning them over in his hands, assuming they had been dropped by his uncle in the melee.
Uncle Otis pulled a wad of neatly folded bills from his pocket and held it out to him. “Here,” he insisted. “Your change.”
Calvin counted $120. It smelled of seafood and saltwater. “Where’s the rest?”
“The rest? And here I was thinking that you had more sense than your brother.”
When Calvin turned his attention back to the license plates, his uncle explained to him: “The DMV ain’t cheap. I got it registered in my name. The insurance is cheaper that way. And don’t worry about paying me nothing for it. You’re going to need that money for parts and repairs.”
Calvin nodded along. It took him a little longer than he thought it probably should to figure out that his uncle was giving him the Buick free of charge. Calvin reached for a hug and his uncle, being notoriously averse to physical affection, waved him off, so he settled for a handshake instead.
After thanking his uncle profusely, Calvin went outside to the backyard where the Buick was margined by tufts of grass and chickweeds. Calvin believed that every car had a face, and this one, with its broad grill and square headlights, was stoic, pensive, dignified—but heartbroken, too, ashamed of its inertia, blushing with rust. Using a dull blade on the Swiss Army Knife that he always carried on his keychain, he unscrewed the bolts anchoring the old plates and mounted the new ones. The sun was now barely visible through Pennsylvania Avenue’s tree canopy, but Calvin continued to fawn over his new-old car, and spent the remaining hour of the sunlit evening wiping down its interior, fantasizing about which of the girls from his school would be his first passenger.
Harold Stallworth’s reporting has been published by Washington City Paper, WAMU 88.5’s Bandwidth, and Passion of the Weiss, among other places. His fiction can be found or is forthcoming in District Lit, Seven Scribes, DC Fiction, and The Bookends Review. His short story “64 Squares” was featured in Politics and Prose’s third annual District Lines fiction anthology about Washington, D.C.