Harlem Sweat

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Harlem Sweat

By Blossom Kelley

 DONATE to African Voices

I dreamt about it last night as if it were a dream. As if it had all happened to somebody else…

It was a typical summer day in Harlem. Ella, a sixteen-year-old girl was leaning over a pot of steaming rice in a tiny kitchen stirring absentmindedly. Children screaming in Arabic and French were playing in the courtyard beneath Ella’s second floor window. Her four-year-old nephewShawn had the TV in the living room blasted to the highest level allowed, broadcasting a commercial for the new Legos that would soon be arriving in stores.

Limited edition! Buy now before it’s too late! 

Her older neighbor Gregory was loudly cackling into his cellphone outside her door.

Maaaan, listen. Ain’t shit got to do wit’ me. Iont like ‘em either Stacy, shieet. Harlem ain’t the same baby, it ain’t the same! Let’s kick these ma’ fuckers out!”

Stacked upon Gregory’s disdain for his new white neighbors, Ella could hear the salsa music blasting from the car parked outside her window.

Te vas a arrepentir
muy caro tendrás que pagar
todo mi sufrimiento
Llorarás y llorarás!

You’ll be sorry

You’ll pay dearly

(For) all of my suffering (that you caused),

(You’ll be) crying and crying!

It was all creating a cacophony that was impossible to escape from. Between the noise and the steam, Ella felt as if she was trapped in a bubble. A hot humid bubble. She could feel the sweat rolling from her hairline to the tip of her nose. She felt the sweat rolling down her back, making her dress stick to her skin. Her discomfort, no matter how extreme, was not strong enough to stop her chores. The monotony of stirring the rice in the cast iron pot was a soothing ritual to her. She loved the idea of playing house and being able to provide her mother with a warm meal after a long day at work. As Ella began to daydream about her mother’s gratitude, a pounding knock on the front door startled her, momentarily taking her out of her daze, but she made no effort to move towards the door. In fact, it was a couple of seconds before she slowly turned and stepped to the left, making sure to unlock all three locks on the door slowly, trying to stop the trembling in her hands. 

Ella was afraid that Gregory was at her door. Gregory called himself “Mista’ Harlem” and had taken to banging on Ella’s door once a day, trying to “luminate ha’ mind” about the “schemes of tha’ mayor to take ova’ Harlem!”  Basically, he was in love with Ella’s chubby tan face and curly black hair, and loved the way she would stare at him angrily from her doorframe, always two steps away from calling the cops.

Gregory, don’t fuck with me today. I will beat your old ass up this time, I swear to God.

“Hurry up yo, I gotta pee!” yelled the person on the other side of the door. Ella recognized the gravely smoker’s voice and rolled her eyes. She turned the doorknob and pulled open the door, allowing her sister Anna to rush past her into the tiny sweltering kitchen. Anna was twenty-five, slim and unnaturally beautiful. Their mother had always referred to Anna and Ella as “the day n’ night of it” because of their opposing natures. Anna’s smooth brown skin glowed vibrantly against her neon pink halter top and tiny denim shorts.

“I thought you had to pee,” said Ella.

“I had to say that bitch, or else you wouldn’t ‘ve let me in.” Even with a smirk, Anna looked beautiful.

“Fucker,” Ella said back, as she allowed a smile to grow on her face in spite of herself.

After their little exchange, Anna began to make little noises and murmurs — harsh sighs and fluttering lips — trying to get Ella to ask her what was wrong. Ella hated the thought of giving Anna any unnecessary attention, bracing herself for Anna’s next question. “Can I get three dollars?”

“For what?”

Anna ignored her, and let the subject drop.

Ella haphazardly put the pot-top on top of the rice before she rested her hands on the sticky granite counter, trying to still them once again. Ella’s hands were cold and clammy despite the muggy heat of the summer afternoon. She looked from her hands to the hands of her sister and noticed that they were black and cracked with dirt and grime. Ella felt her throat closing as she studied her sister’s roughly elegant frame. Silence suffocated the sisters in the tiny kitchen, but neither spoke first.

“You want somethin’ to drink and?” said Ella, trying not to look into the face of her former hero.

“Nah, but I’m thinkin’ of stayin’ for dinner, I ain’t eat in a minute.” Her mouth was twisted into a smug expression.

Ella was surprised by Anna’s break from the norm. Perhaps she had finally grown tired of begging for change. When Ella quickly stole a glance at Anna, she noticed how skinny she had become. She wondered when Anna’s eyes first began to sink into her skull and when her chestnut colored hair first began to fall out.

“What’s that on your neck?” Ella pointed to the red and white flesh wound a couple of inches below Anna’s ear. She noticed that it was starting to turn green around the edges.


“Anna, seriously? That shit right there.”

Anna raised her crusted black hand to her neck. “Oh,” she replied. “You don’t wanna know about that.”

Her grin made Ella unnaturally angry.

“You’re right. I don’t.”

Anna cut her almond shaped eyes at Ella while she folded her arms across her chest. Ella removed the pot-top and tried to continue stirring the rice, but instead put the lid on it and let it simmer, unable to get back into the rhythm she once held.

As a child Anna danced ballet and flamenco, and her brown body was still lean and strong despite her addictions that caused her rheumatoid arthritis to flare up. Her skinny arms were fighting hard to remain defiantly clasped around her chest. Ella stopped analyzing her sister and turned her head towards the rice pot, but could feel the little green monster crawling into her brain. She envied her sister’s natural grace, the way her stiff arms only seemed to add to her disturbingly tormented beauty. “So, you gon’ let me stay, or what?” Ella had been dreading this question. She ran her moist hands across the kitchen counter before she spoke to Anna.

“Ma says you can’t come here any more.”

Anna’s staring caused Ella to shift uncomfortably.

“She’s still mad about last time.”

With those words, Anna was frozen still, a peculiar look beginning to form on her face. She could feel herself coming down, and she was afraid of how she might respond to her sister The Perfect Daughter.

“So you’re tellin’ me I can’t stay to see my fuckin’ kid?” The bile in her voice rose as she stepped closer to Ella.

Ella tried not to breath in too deep. Her sister smelled of cigarettes and unwashed skin. That coupled with the smell of cheap liquor on her breath was making Ella gag. She noticed in that moment that Anna hadn’t changed her clothes since the last time she had been to the house. Ella tried to remain calm, but she couldn’t hide the tremors of adrenaline that began to course through her. “Look, those aren’t my goddamned rules, okay?”

Anna glared at Ella.

“C’mon Anna you know I ain’t say shit. Mommy just found out on her own.” Ella said, trying to calm the impending storm.

“You can’t keep me from my kid man.”

“I’m not trying to –”

“you can’t keep me from my fuckin’ son” Anna said to the wall above Ella’s head. Tears of intoxication began to flow freely from her eyes. Ella hated seeing Anna cry. Even as her life was being snorted up her nose, her dewy brown eyes made her look like a Disney princess.

A Disney princess with a fondness for snow.

“Nobody told you to steal from her, dumbass.”

Anna’s lower lip began to tremble. As Ella looked at her, she thought about the last time Anna made that face; when their mother had confronted her about stealing $20 from her purse. Anna had quivered and cried. She had batted her long pretty lashes and begged for her mother’s mercy; but their mother had already reached her limit. Even though Ella had hated Anna for putting her in the middle of the situation, she knew that Annacould not control her charm, her childlike innocence that had made life so dangerous for her. At first, her childlike charms were what made Ella love and admire her big sister. At the start of the summer when they first started to party together, Ella had felt amazing. She was in love with her sister’s lifestyle, and felt honored that her older sister would let her into that world; the “cool” world of Anna’s wild and carefree reality.

Ella turned her body away from her sister and back to the pot of rice.

She smiled to herself when she thought of the first drink she had with her sister, when she thought of all the late nights spent in the park across the street with their friends and Styrofoam cups filled to the brim with neon liquid.

Although it had been fun at first, what once was so endearing about Anna had quickly started to become a whining drunk nuisance. As autumn began to come closer and closer, Ella saw no point of continuing the party in the park. She wanted to try and change, do better in school so she could make it out of the hot humid bubble that had Anna trapped. Ella tried to have sympathy for her sister, for the child masked as an adult, but failed. Ella wanted to slap her sister, shake her, bang her head against the kitchen walls until she saw brains and blood; she wanted to shout at her that the party was over. The party is fucking over, Anna, she shouted in her head; but she knew that Anna couldn’t let go of the world of Styrofoam cups.

Watching her sister spiral out of reality felt worse to Anna than watching their father die of cancer. In both circumstances she was helpless. A mere child who was watching the world dissolve around her as she stood idle, unable to stop it from destroying the people she loved. Ella had thought many times of repairing the bond she had with her sister. She thought of reaching out and hugging Anna, of forgiving her for burdening Ella with the son that Anna couldn’t care for and the mother whose grief was starting to cloud her reality. Ella wanted to be there for her sister, she wanted to be there for family, but the summer heat had exhausted all of her pleasantries.

As Ella grabbed the spoon to start re-stirring the rice, Anna stormed out of the kitchen. Without thinking, Ella threw down the wooden spoon and followed Anna into the foyer. She reached out to grab Anna, but she slipped out of her grasp, tripping over the bulky blue furniture as she ran into the living room. The midday sun shone harshly through the floor to ceiling window when Ella saw Anna snatch Shawn from his pile of toys on the floor. Ella’s adult demeanor threatened to come apart.

“Anna, I swear to God put him down!”


“Anna I swear, oh my God, I swear to God put him down!”

“Fuck you, he’s mine, I’m not putting him nowhere!”

“I swear to fucking God, Anna!”

“Leave me alone Ella, stop yelling at me, just leave me alone!” Anna’s frantic expression was unnerving Ella, unraveling her until she felt as if she was standing in the living room naked.

Anna! I said put him the fuck down, now!Shawn looked from the mother who was holding him to the mommy whose face was red with rage and fear. Shawn put his hands over his ears shocked, as confusion began to show in his brown almond shaped eyes.

Ella felt herself lunge towards Anna, trying frantically to pull Shawn into her grasp. Anna yanked Shawn away from Ella as if he was a football in one swift dancer’s movement, flinging Ella to the other side of the living room by the front door.

“Shawn, what you cryin’ for?” Anna said, as she tried her hardest to console him like a mother would. Her bony arms were having a hard time supporting his weight, and as Ella watched her with Shawn, she could feel her last grip on self-control vanish; her emotions poured out of her mouth like vomit.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?”

“Oh, so you’re better than me now? You aint better than me Ella, You aint shit!”

“It’s not about me, dumbass! He’s a baby! He hasn’t seen you in days, you come by high as shit and expect him to be happy to see you?

Anna’s eyes began to glaze with tears again.

“Where the fuck have you been Anna, you don’t even know how to be a mother to your fucking son?”

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

“I’m serious man, get the fuck out!”

Ella’s heart was pounding as she stared at Anna. Her head was spinning and she was seeing everything in a red glow. The tremors of adrenaline had returned, and she could feel them rising from the soles of her feet into her thighs, causing her legs to tremble. Her fists were aching to crack her sister’s jaw, but she knew it wouldn’t be a fair fight. Ella was two times the size of Anna, and she would never be able to live with herself if she knocked down a high 98 pound drunk with crippling arthritis. So once again, she restrained herself.

The two sisters had fought many times before. Anna knew what she was facing as she looked into Ella’s red and blotchy face. The pain was shooting up her arms as she held Shawn and she wanted so badly to put him down, she wanted a drink she wanted to get out of this house. She knew it wasn’t her home anymore. Plus, her boyfriend was waiting downstairs. So instead of staying, she abruptly dropped Shawn on the floor, leaving Ella with a very meaningful “stupid bitch.” As she walked to the door, she bumped Ella hard on the shoulder, never once looking back. When the door slammed, Ella realized that the entire time she was in the living room she had been holding her breath. She shook her head trying to regain composure when she looked over at Shawn who was lying face down on the floor, sobbing.

“Stop it. Stop crying,” she said to him, trying to lift him off the floor to his feet. Shawn resisted Ella’s pull and was in the throes of his temper tantrum when he flung his head back hard, head-butting Ella’s chin. As Ella tasted blood, she abruptly flipped Shawn over with a force that shocked her, and saw in his almond eyes and brown face the confused and angry look that he shared with his mother. All Ella could see was Anna’s face, and she knew she couldn’t restrain herself any longer. She slapped Shawn on his cheek so hard it made her hand sting. “I said stop crying!” she yelled, which only made him wail harder as he flopped out of her grasp again.

Ella stood up and looked at the scene before her. Shawn was yelling amongst his beloved plastic wrestlers, kicking and screaming so hard his brown face turned burgundy. She looked at the pile of bills on the couch, the clothes that needed to be folded and the homework she still hadn’t completed. She sighed quietly to herself as she wiped the sweat from her forehead with her arm. I wonder if White people go through this shit too, Ella thought to herself before she turned on her heels to check on the rice, leaving the mess in the living room for later.

© 2018 African Voices Magazine, Summer/Fall 2018, Harlem Sweat by Blossom Kelley.

Blossom Kelley is a writer of fiction, poetry and essays. Her work is primarily in English, although she also writes in Spanish, Italian and French. A Pace University graduate, her work concentrates on themes such as sexuality, race, gender, cultural history, language and social theory. Harlem Sweat is her first story to be professionally published.

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