The summer’s violence has deeply upset Pharoah and he develops a stutter that often keeps him from speaking, giving the impression that he has become physically incapable of communicating. LaJoe finds her son’s stutter particularly sad because Pharoah has always been so articulate, to the point of sounding, as his friends liked to tease him, “like a white person.” Pharoah feels embarrassed about his newfound verbal difficulties and begins to shy away from people. His fear becomes increasingly apparent, as any loud noise makes him tremble, and he pleads with LaJoe to make the shooting stop, as though his mother could influence the gangs’ actions.
While violence affects both Lafeyette and Pharaoh’s behaviors, the two boys express it in different ways. Lafeyette’s reaction to violence is mainly emotional, as Lafeyette becomes less willing to express his emotions. Pharoah’s response is emotional and physical, making it seem as though his body is bent on keeping him from expressing his thoughts—even if Pharoah might have originally wanted to. In both cases, communication is impaired, and the brothers are forced to rely primarily on themselves to cope with the chaotic world around them.
Pharoah becomes obsessed with the idea of returning to the train tracks, which he had found so peaceful. Pharoah finally convinces Lafeyette and James to go with him, and the three boys are walking in the street toward the tracks when they are attacked by a group of adolescent gang members who try to beat them. The three boys succeed in running back home but remain shocked by what has just happened. The next day, they hear a rumor that someone has lost their legs after being run over by a train at the tracks, and the boys accept this brutal rumor as truth, deciding to never return to the railroad tracks.
One of Pharoah’s typical strategies to cope with violence is to try to escape it, which he does here by wanting to return to the train tracks. However, as in this moment, he is never able to escape it for long, as violence can erupt even in the most seemingly innocuous moments, such as the boy’s expedition. The boys’ ready acceptance of the rumor about the train tracks suggests that they are used to such violence and, instead of tempting fate, choose security over childlike fun and curiosity.
While he has not developed a stammer like his brother, since Bird Leg’s death, Lafeyette has become more introverted, refusing to show his emotions and concerns. He is occasionally harsh with Pharoah, but LaJoe knows that this reveals his fear and his desire to protect his younger brother. Once, he braves gunfire to save an acquaintance whom he sees stuck in the middle of a shooting. Too shocked to react and run away, the acquaintance repeats to himself over and over that he wants to die, but Lafeyette refuses to leave him alone in the middle of the shooting.
Pharoah’s reactions to violence result in part from his feeling of being helplessly subjected to it. By contrast, Lafeyette’s reactions are rooted in his need to be active and protect the people around him. His outbursts of violence show how overwhelming his role is, which requires constant bravery and the ignorance of one’s own fear. He is forced to behave like a protective adult when he is just a young child.
One day, Lafeyette witnesses a firebombing after teenagers throw Molotov cocktails into the apartment next door. His trauma is so entrenched that he refuses to talk about this event until two years later, when he barely mentions a few words about it. Talking about the event, he argues, would not only upset him emotionally, but can also bring trouble to himself and to his family, as other people could interpret his words as an affront to gangs.
Lafeyette’s refusal to communicate does not indicate apathy or rebelliousness but, rather, reveals hidden pain and vulnerability. His pragmatic considerations about the dangers of speaking up also highlight how isolated members of the Horner community have become, as simply talking to relieve one’s emotions can spur more violence.
Despite being haunted by Bird Leg’s death and encouraged by his mother to articulate his emotions, Lafeyette concludes that talking about his grief will not help, since everything always goes wrong in the neighborhood, and he will never be able to change anything. His expression becomes stoic, empty, and unforgiving, revealing what Kotlowitz sees as both loneliness and fear. He tells his mother that, instead of having friends, he has only “associates,” since he does not trust people enough to call them friends.
Lafeyette loses trust not only in his own power to change things, but also in the very concept of change or justice. Instead, he becomes resigned to pain and injustice. Such cynicism at a young age sacrifices an important part of the human experience—like the possibility of forming true friendships and of having hope in the future—in favor of mere survival in the present.