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If I Grow Upby Todd Strasser
In my last book, Boot Camp, I wrote about a secret prison system for teenagers in the United States. Teens do not have to be found guilty of a crime to be sent to one of these facilities, also known as boot camps. All they have to be is under the age of eighteen and have parents or guardians who want to send them away.
There is yet another system of detention in our country that holds not thousands, but millions, of innocent people against their wills. Unlike boot camps, which are often located in remote parts of the landscape, these social and economic gulags are hidden in plain sight, often in inner cities, but also anywhere that young people are denied the basic social, economic, and educational opportunities necessary to succeed.
Like many Americans, I believe that the United States provides its citizens with some of the greatest educational, social, and financial opportunities on Earth. But those opportunities are not shared equally. Today significant numbers of American citizens—mostly minorities, and many living in impoverished inner-city areas—are doomed to fail before they have the chance to embrace the possibilities for a happy and rewarding life that so many of the rest of us enjoy.
For those of us who live in suburbs, small towns, and in the better parts of urban areas, the impoverished inner cities are portrayed by the media as a cauldron of moral decay and crime that now and then produces a talented athlete or music star. We forget that millions of inner-city denizens are just like us—well-meaning human beings who yearn for the simple and basic privileges our country promises: a decent education, a job with a chance for advancement, and a safe place to raise children.
When those privileges are denied, or are unattainable, young men and women seek other avenues to satisfy their needs and fulfill their dreams. This, many believe, accounts for the steady increase in gang membership that has occurred over the past three decades. It is important to note that gang membership knows no ethnic or racial bounds. In addition to Hispanic, African-American, and Asian gangs, it is currently estimated that close to 30 percent of gang membership in smaller cities and rural communities is Caucasian.
Still, the majority of gang members in this country are minority city dwellers. As Malcolm W. Klein states in his book The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control, “Street gangs are an amalgam of racism, of urban underclass poverty, of minority and youth culture, of fatalism in the face of rampant deprivation, of political insensitivity, and the gross ignorance of inner-city . . . America on the part of most of us who do not have to survive there.” (My italics.)
Since the dawn of the human race, we have banded together to improve our chances of survival. It seems to be basic to our nature. Given this, perhaps we can understand why, when faced with hopelessness, racism, and inescapable poverty, young inner-city men are likely to join gangs.
Perhaps the saddest, most sinister, and devastating aspect of gangs is that, in the absence of positive influences, opportunities, and role models, they recruit basically good, constructive, and naturally well-meaning young men (and to a lesser degree, young women) and turn them bad.
This is the story of one of those young men.
TWELVE YEARS OLD
The divisions between black and white, and rich and poor, begin at birth and are reinforced every day of a child’s life.
“Some ask us why we act the way we act
Without lookin’ how long they kept us back.”
—from “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)”
by Public Enemy
A Shorty Falls
The shouting and screaming outside started at dinnertime. We were sitting on the living room couch, eating macaroni and cheese, and watching Judge Joe Brown on the TV. Between the banging of the heat pipes and the noise outside, it was one big racket.
“DeShawn, turn up the sound,” Gramma said. I put my tray on the couch and turned up the volume. The TV was old, and no one knew where the clicker was anymore. It was just me and Gramma that night. My big sister, Nia, was out with her boyfriend, LaRue.
Outside the yelling got louder and the police sirens started. Gramma flinched and put down her fork. She shook her gray head wearily, and the skin around her eyes wrinkled. “Noise around here is gonna make me lose my mind.”
I glanced toward the thick green curtains that covered the window. Ever since gangbangers cocktailed the apartment down the hall, Gramma had kept the curtains closed all the time.
“Don’t go near that window,” she warned. “They could start shootin’.”
The curtains already had two bullet holes the size of bottle caps. There were bullet holes in the walls, too. Gramma had put a picture over one of them, and another was blocked by our little Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and candy canes. We would have been safer living on a high floor, but the elevators were always broken and it was hard for Gramma to climb the stairs after cleaning houses all day. In the projects, the older you got, the closer to the ground you wanted to live.
The sirens and shouting grew louder. I gave Gramma a pleading look.
“No,” she said firmly.
“But the police are here,” I argued. “Won’t be any more shooting.”
“I said no,” Gramma repeated, but her words sounded weary and defeated, and I knew I could wear her down.
“Come on, please?” I pestered. Outside the sirens had now stopped, but there was still lots of shouting. “Just let me look.”
“Oh, okay.” Gramma gave in just like I knew she would. “But be quick.”
I hurried over and peeked through the curtains. The window was streaked with dirt, and cold winter air seeped in around the edges. Outside a crowd of people had gathered in the dark. All I could see were the tops of heads and shoulders. “Must be something big going on,” I said. “Let me go see. Please?”
“No! You ain’t allowed out after dark.”
“I’ll stay right by the front, I promise.”
“Nothing bad’s gonna happen with all those people out there.”
“Come on, Gramma, I’ll only be a few minutes. I swear.”
She let out a disheartened sigh. “You ain’t gonna stop botherin’ me till I say yes, are you? Come back quick, hear? And don’t go nowhere else.”
I grabbed my coat, went out into the graffiti-covered hall, down the pee-smelly stairs, across the bare lobby, and through the dented metal doors to the outside. Cold, dark air filled my lungs. The crowd was still growing. Fearful of being trampled, I went behind the mob where it wasn’t packed so tightly. There I found Lightbulb, walking in a circle with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers in his ears. He wore a black wool cap pulled down over his head, and a ratty, old-man-size coat that dragged on the ground.
“S’up Bulb?” I asked.
Lightbulb opened his eyes but shook his head and kept his fingers in his ears. He’d gotten his nickname because of his light skin and the shape of his head. Sometimes he wasn’t right in the head, either.
“Come on, don’t get all janky on me,” I said.
“A shorty fell.” Lightbulb winced as if just talking about it caused him pain. “Long way down. He’s dead for sure.”
By the age of twelve, seeing dead folks was nothing new. The gangbanger who lay glassy-eyed in a pool of blood in the lobby. The lady who was stabbed and crawled down four flights of stairs, leaving a long, brownish red trail before she bled out. The crusty old wino who froze to death on a bench. But I’d never seen a dead kid before.
The crowd was packed tight. No way someone my size could fight through all those legs and hips to see. Besides, the police were lining the area with yellow crime-scene tape. The ambulance men were in there, crouching down. I figured the best place to see would be from the monkey bars in the middle of the yard.
The bars were cold in my bare hands as I climbed. Around me rose the broad, flat buildings of the Frederick Douglass Project. Lights glowed in some windows and red and green Christmas lights were strung across a few balconies, but many more windows were boarded up and dark.
I was watching the police clear a semicircle of space near the side of my building when behind us on Abernathy Avenue, a car door slammed. A black Mercedes with dark windows stood at the curb, shiny chrome rims still spinning like they were going a hundred miles an hour. A man got out and the crowd began to part as he walked toward the building. He was shorter than some, but stocky and powerfully built. There was only one person who commanded that kind of respect: Marcus Elliot, the leader of the Douglass Disciples.
He wore black slacks and a black leather jacket over a white turtleneck sweater, with a big gold chain hanging in front. An earring glimmered. His brown hair was short and neatly trimmed, and he had a square face and small, deep-set eyes that were almost always in a suspicious squint. The crowd quieted and parted, and even the police stepped aside. Marcus stopped and looked over the shoulders of the ambulance men. He stood there for a long time.
The monkey bars rattled as Lightbulb climbed up. His pants were torn at the knees, and the sleeves of his big coat hung down past his hands. Sitting beside me, he started rocking back and forth. Near us, one of the ambulance men came though the crowd with something long and black.
“What’s that?” Lightbulb whispered.
“Body bag,” I whispered back. “Go find out who fell.”
Lightbulb shook his head.
“For a Snickers bar,” I said.
“It’s upstairs. Give it to you tomorrow.”
Lightbulb climbed down and disappeared. Mean-while the ambulance men lifted the body bag onto a stretcher and rolled it through the crowd. The bag was mostly flat, except for a bump in the middle. Marcus walked behind them. His face was hard and flat. Jaws clenched, lips tight. Not a handsome face, but one that said he wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
Lightbulb climbed back up. “It was Darnell.”
Darnell was Marcus’s little nephew. I twisted back toward Abernathy Avenue. They’d opened the rear ambulance door to slide in the stretcher. The light from inside reflected on the men’s faces. You might have expected that Marcus would be looking down at his nephew. But he wasn’t. He was staring back at the project with a look as cold and angry as I’d ever seen.
Darnell’s momma was Laqueta, who was Marcus’s sister and my best friend Terrell’s first cousin. I didn’t know who Darnell’s father was, only that Laqueta’s new boyfriend was Jamar, the Disciples’ second in command, and that they lived up on the fifteenth floor. Everyone said Laqueta was the prettiest girl in the projects, with her big round eyes and straight white teeth and constant smile. At least, until the Gentry Gangstas threw Darnell off the roof.
The next morning, Gramma made me put on a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat before I could take my bike outside. Despite the cold, I liked riding around because the ground was hard and you could go almost anywhere in the project. Not like in the spring when the yard was soft and muddy.
Outside, something lay on the ground about thirty feet from the yellow-taped crime-scene spot where Darnell had fallen, far enough away that it might have been missed by the crowd in the dark the night before. It was a window guard, bent in the middle, as if someone had kicked it out of a window frame.
“This where that little boy fell?” a voice behind me asked. I turned. It was a girl with big, pretty eyes, wearing a clean pink jacket with a hood lined with white fur pulled tightly around her face like an Eskimo.
“Over there.” I pointed toward the yellow tape.
“It’s so sad.”
“They say the Gentry Gangstas did it,” I said, repeating what I’d heard.
The girl scowled. “Who’s that?”
It was hard to believe she didn’t know. “The rival gang,” I said. “From over in the Gentry Project. I heard Jamar, the baby momma’s boyfriend, told the police he saw two men run away wearing green bandanas. That’s a Gangsta color.”
We were in the shadow of the building where it was cold enough to see our breath come out white. A dozen yards away, in the bright sunlight, was a bench. I walked my bike toward it, and the girl and I told each other our names and ages. Hers was Precious, and like me, she was twelve. The wooden seat on the bench was broken, so I hopped up on the top. Precious stood in front of me with her hands in her pockets. The sun was strong and took some of the icy sting out of the air.
“Where’d you get that nice jacket?” I asked.
“My daddy gave it to me for Christmas.” She had a bright smile that reminded me of Laqueta.
“Oh, yeah?” I hardly knew anyone who had a father at home. Much less one who gave gifts. “Only Christmas isn’t till next week.”
“I got it early ’cause it’s cold and I don’t have anything else warm.”
My best friend, Terrell Blake, came out with his bike. He was wearing baggy pants and an extra-large gray hoodie that hung down to his knees. He rode with one hand, the other jammed down into the hoodie’s pocket.
“How come they let you out?” I asked, knowing he was supposed to be inside grieving for Darnell with his family.
“It’s too sad and stuffy up there,” he said, straddling his bike. “Makes my asthma act up.” Terrell was taller than me, with skin a little lighter and a thinner nose. One of his front teeth was chipped from a rock fight we’d had a few months before. Recently he’d started to let his hair grow, and it was almost long enough to braid. He eyed my new friend.
“This is Precious,” I said. “She lives in Number Three.”
Number Three was the building across the yard from ours. Until that year, my friends and I had stayed close to our own building, warned by our families not to venture too far because we might get caught in the cross fire of gangs shooting. But now we were older and more daring.
We were talking to Precious when Marcus’s Mercedes pulled up to the curb on Abernathy Avenue. It was rare to see gangbangers that early in the day. Glancing around warily, the leader of the Disciples started toward us. Marcus’s expression was intense and serious all the time. You never saw him joking or clowning. As he got close, I could see the small tattoo of a tear at the corner of his right eye. For people on the outside, the tear was supposed to mean someone close to you had been killed. But in the projects, we knew differently—that tear really meant you had killed someone.
Terrell straightened up. “Uh, hi, Cousin Marcus.” His voice quavered.
Marcus barely acknowledged the greeting. “Watch my car,” he said. He’d started toward our building when I blocked his path with my bike.
Marcus stopped and scowled at me.
“There’s something you should see. Over here,” I said, and led Marcus to the window guard. Terrell got on his bike and trailed behind until Marcus swung around. “I tell you to come?” he asked sharply.
Head bowed, Terrell rode back to the bench. In the cold shadow of the building, Marcus picked up the window guard and stared up at the highest floors where Laqueta lived with Jamar and Darnell. Then he looked at me. “DeShawn, right? Raven’s son?”
“Anyone else know about this?”
I shook my head. “No, sir.”
Marcus slowly squeezed the window guard until it doubled over. The skin of his dark hands tightened and his knuckles bulged. The metal creaked until it formed a V, like the V in the furrows of skin between his eyes as he fixed them on me. “Know what happens to kids who snitch to the police?”
“I can trust you?”
I nodded. “What about Darnell?”
“I’ll take care of that,” Marcus said. “Meanwhile this is our secret, understand?”
If I Grow Up
“Who was that?” Precious asked when I returned to the bench where she was talking to Terrell.
Her eyes widened when we told her. “You Disciples?”
“Not yet,” Terrell answered.
Even in the sun, the cold gradually seeped through your clothes. Precious shivered and hugged herself. “You want to come to my place and watch TV?”
It was tempting. Neither Terrell nor I had ever been invited into a girl’s home before.
“Maybe another time,” I said. Terrell scowled at me, and I nodded toward Marcus’s car. The corners of my friend’s mouth turned down.
Precious’s pretty lips pursed. “See you later.” She started across the yard toward her building.
Terrell and I rode around the yard, always keeping Marcus’s car in sight. I asked him how Laqueta was, and he said she’d cried all night.
“Jamar stay with her?” I asked.
Terrell shook his head. He got off his bike and started sliding around on a frozen puddle, leaving white scratches in the dirty, brownish ice. “If I grow up, I’m gonna have a ride like Marcus’s,” he said through chattering teeth. He must’ve been freezing, wearing only that hoodie. “And chains and bling like you wouldn’t believe. You know Rance got a solid gold chain that weighs five pounds?”
“How do you know that?” I asked. Rance Jones was the leader of the Gentry Gangstas. I’d never seen him, and I was pretty sure Terrell hadn’t either.
“I heard from someone,” Terrell said. “And he got a twenty-five-karat diamond pinkie ring. Them Gangstas use kids nine, ten years old.”
“Maybe you should join them Gangstas,” I joked.
Terrell gave me a sour look. “Marcus is my first cousin. He should let me join the Disciples.”
“And get jumped in?” I asked. To prove you’d be loyal to the gang, you had to let yourself be beaten up and burned with cigarettes.
Terrell shrugged. “Everybody else been through it.”
On Abernathy Avenue, a police cruiser stopped behind Marcus’s car. The window went down, and Officer Patterson wagged a thick, brown finger at us. He was the only person I’d ever heard of who’d grown up in Frederick Douglass and become a cop. I slipped off the bench and went to see what he wanted.
“How you doing, DeShawn?” he asked. He had a round face and a thick, bushy mustache. Growing up, he’d known my mother, and he always said hello when he saw me.
“Okay.” I leaned in the open window. The car smelled like coffee. A shotgun and a computer were mounted next to the driver’s seat. Officer Patterson nodded at the Mercedes. “Marcus was that little boy’s uncle, right?”
“Give him my condolences, okay?”
“Tell him I’m sorry about his nephew.”
Officer Patterson took a sip of coffee from a paper cup and brushed his mustache with the back of his hand.
“Gonna join the Disciples someday?”
“No, sir. Gonna stay in school and out of trouble.”
“Good boy.” Officer Patterson reached over and patted me on the shoulder. Then he drove off. I went back to the bench.
“What do you talk to him for?” Terrell asked.
“He knew my momma.”
We huddled on the bench, shivering. The three identical buildings in the Frederick Douglass Project loomed up like dirty tombstones. Half the windows were boarded over with wood. The grounds around the buildings were either cracked concrete walks covered with broken glass, or hard-packed, bare, brown dirt with a few trees and some dead brown weeds.
Benches lined the walks, but they were mostly broken. Same with the playground. There were no swings on the swing set, just rusty chains hanging down from the top. The seesaw was gone. What little sand was left in the sandbox was the color of dark smoke. Only the rusty monkey bars remained. As shorties, we used to play on them for hours and then go home with burnt red palms.
We waited until Marcus came back, then, shivering cold, we hurried inside. The lobby was lit by one long, flickering bulb. The mailboxes in the wall had all been busted open by drug fiends looking for welfare checks. The walls were covered with colorful, loopy graffiti and the black slashes of Disciples’ tags. Here and there someone had hung a small Christmas wreath or a bunch of holly outside a door.
The elevator was broken as usual, so we carried our bikes up the stairs. Some floors smelled of cooking. Others smelled of weed. On some floors you heard loud TV. On others, rap and hip-hop. And always in the winter, the banging of the heat pipes day and night, like a prison gang eternally busting rocks.
Taped on the wall of each landing was a blue sheet of paper saying that Darnell’s funeral would be at one p.m. on Saturday at the First Baptist Church.
Leaving my bike in my apartment, I helped Terrell carry his upstairs. The door to the Blakes’ apartment was open, and inside it was hot and crowded with grown-ups. Even though it was the dead of winter, the windows were partway open and women sat fanning themselves. The few men—there were always way fewer men than women—dabbed their foreheads with handkerchiefs.
On a table in the middle of the living room were plates of food and vases of flowers. It was getting toward the end of the month and, for a lot of people, food was running low. That was especially true around Christmas when there were presents to buy. The sight and smell of those heaping plates made my stomach growl.
Terrell’s cousin Laqueta—Darnell’s mother—was sitting in the middle of the couch, wearing an old, yellow housedress and clutching a tissue. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying. Terrell’s mother, Mrs. Blake, sat on one side of her, and his aunt Rosa sat on the other. Other than Marcus, I’d never heard that Laqueta had any other family.
When Mrs. Blake saw her son, she opened her arms wide. Terrell hesitated and glanced around as if embarrassed to be treated like a little boy. But then he stepped forward and let her hug him. “Terrell,” she said in a sad voice. “You’re the only good man that’s left.”
She was looking over Terrell’s shoulder at Jamar when she said that. Laqueta’s boyfriend sat with his elbows on his knees and his head hanging, a tear tattoo beside each eye. He was tall and rangy, with hair split into cornrows. In his left ear was a big diamond stud, and his hands were covered with gold rings and tattoos. He raised his head and blinked hard, as if trying to squeeze out tears that weren’t there. “If only I hadn’t left him alone,” he said woefully.
People heard him, but no one said anything.
During the day, the cops and housing police came around, but as soon as it got dark, they were gone. Sometimes gangbangers shot at cops at night or dropped broken TVs on patrol cars or threw bottles out the windows at them. If Gramma had her way, I’d be a house boy—allowed outside only to walk to and from school.
That night Gramma watched Sanford and Son and laughed so hard she had to take the tissue out of her sleeve and dab her eyes.
“How can you laugh like that?” I asked. “You’ve seen this episode a hundred times.”
“Something got to make me laugh,” Gramma said, still jiggling. “After what happened to that little boy.”
Pop! Pop! Pop! Outside they started shooting. It sounded more like cap guns than the big bangs you heard on the TV. Next thing I knew, Gramma was down on the floor next to me and I smelled her perfume. She raised her head alertly. “Where’s Nia?” she asked, even though we both knew she was with her boyfriend, LaRue.
Pop! Pop! Crash! More shots, and somewhere nearby a window shattered. Bang. A door slammed downstairs, and we heard rapid steps coming up. A key jiggled in the lock and Nia rushed in. My sister was fourteen and had long, straight brown hair and, almost always, a smile. She was breathing hard, and her face was flushed from running. But her eyes gleamed with excitement.
Gramma propped herself up on her elbows. “Get down!” she commanded.
Still gasping for breath, Nia dropped to one knee.
“You’re gonna get yourself killed someday,” Gramma muttered, even as she relaxed knowing that Nia was safe.
“Those boys shoot all the time,” Nia scoffed.
“You forget how your momma died?” Gramma snapped. “How many times I have to tell you not to run when they shoot? You could run right into the cross fire. You hear shootin’, you drop to the ground and stay there.”
“And get my clothes all dirty?” My sister shook her head.
The shooting stopped. The TV was still on, and Redd Foxx’s gravelly voice and the laugh track lured Gramma back to the couch. Nia flopped down and put her arms around Gramma’s neck and hugged her.
“DeShawn,” my sister said. “Turn the channel to BET.”
“Hey!” Gramma started to protest.
“Oh, come on,” Nia said with a laugh. “You seen Sanford and Son so many times, you know it by heart.”
I grinned at Gramma. “Told you.”
“You two are too smart for your own good,” she grumbled.
Pop! Pop! Pop! The shooting started again, but now it sounded far away. Gramma stiffened but then looked at Nia and me and relaxed. We were safe. At least for tonight.
Gramma’s apartment had one bedroom with one bed, which she and Nia shared. I slept on the living room couch. On most mornings, Gramma left to clean houses before we woke up. After breakfast Nia and I washed the dishes and put them in the rack to dry. On TV, people had kitchens with dishwashers and bathrooms with showers, but all we had were sinks and a bathtub. Sometimes I’d go into the bathroom and find Gramma on her knees, washing clothes in the tub. There’d once been washing machines in the basement of our building, but they’d been broken so often, the city took them out.
Outside, Terrell and Lightbulb were waiting for me in the yard. In the spot where Darnell fell, someone had stuck a small wooden cross in the dirt, with candles and bunches of flowers around it. The yellow crime-scene tape lay twisted and trampled on the ground. The three of us stared at the cross without speaking. Then Lightbulb said, “You got that Snickers bar?”
I gave it to him, and he tore it open while we walked to school. Terrell turned the bill of his cap to the right and stuck in his gold earring. Ahead of us, Nia and her boyfriend, LaRue, waited on the sidewalk. They were in eighth grade. LaRue was slim with light chocolate skin and almond-shaped eyes, as if he had some Asian blood. His thick black hair was long with lots of loose dreadlocks. The bill of his cap was turned to the right and a black bandanna poked out of his back pocket.
“Terrell,” he called. “Com’ere.”
My best friend practically bounded over. He didn’t have those cool, slow moves yet like the older guys. He and LaRue went behind some parked cars. When they came back, Terrell was arranging the front of his hoodie.
“What’d he give you?” I asked when we started walking again.
Terrell told Lightbulb to get lost. Our friend hunched his shoulders like his feelings were hurt, then went off. Terrell opened the pocket of his hoodie just enough for me to see the gray handle of a box cutter inside.
“Are you whack?” I hissed.
“I’m just gonna take it inside and give it back to him,” Terrell said.
“They find it, you’ll get expelled,” I said. “And what do you think LaRue’s gonna do with it in school?”
Terrell shrugged as if he didn’t care. “All I know is he said he’d put in a good word for me to Marcus.” He took out his asthma inhaler. He seemed to need it whenever he got nervous or excited.
Lightbulb joined us again and we continued to school. Washington Carver was on the border between Frederick Douglass and the Gentry Street Project. To the school’s builders, that must’ve made sense, because kids from both projects could go to it. But the location also put the school in the middle of the war zone between the Disciples and the Gangstas.
Like a jail, our school had metal bars on all the doors and windows and a tall metal fence that circled the grounds. The sixth graders went in a different entrance than the seventh and eighth graders, whose bags were scanned and bodies were sometimes searched. The sixth graders were rarely searched.
At the sixth-grade entrance stood Ms. Rodriguez, the assistant principal, as ancient as the history in our history books. Her short hair was completely white, and she was all wrinkled skin and gristle. Her job in the morning was to make sure only kids who went to Washington Carver entered, and not any troublemakers from someplace else.
While we waited to go in, Terrell began wheezing again. He took out his inhaler and breathed in deeply. Then it was our turn. At the doorway, Ms. Rodriguez narrowed her eyes at my friend, whose hands were both jammed into the pockets of his hoodie.
“What have you got there, Terrell?” she asked.
Terrell began trembling, and even though I’d done nothing wrong, I felt nervous and scared too.
My friend sputtered anxiously. “I—”
“Don’t give me explanations,” Ms. Rodriguez snapped. “Just show me what’s in that pocket.”
Still trembling, Terrell slowly drew his hand from his pocket.
In it was his inhaler.
Ms. Rodriguez’s expression softened. “You okay, honey?”
Terrell nodded and she waved us in.
Inside school my friend grinned devilishly. “Thought I was gonna get busted, right?”
“So did you,” I said.
He shook his head. “Nah, I was just foolin’ around.” He went down the hall toward the cafeteria.
“Where’s he going?” Lightbulb asked.
“Nowhere good,” I said.
It seemed like everything in Washington Carver was held together with tape. The cracks in the grimy windows, the pages in the tattered old textbooks, the pull-down maps in the front of the room—all held in place with yellowed, peeling tape.
The only things new at school were the teachers. Every year at least half the faces were different. Take Mr. Brand, for example. He had light brown hair, greenish eyes, and copper skin. He spoke proper, not ghetto, and wore button-down shirts, and slacks with cuffs. He was average height but rail thin, because, he said, he ran marathons.
“Settle down, everyone,” he said at the beginning of class. “Open your textbooks to page two hundred and eighty-five. Who can tell me why the pyramids were built?”
There were more than forty kids in the class and not enough desks, so some of us had to share. The chubby Douglass kid we called Bublz raised his hand. “Hey, Mr. Brand, is the reason you like ancient history so much because the Egyptians ran marathons like you do?”
“The Greeks ran marathons, not the Egyptians,” Mr. Brand replied patiently.
“My book ain’t got a page two hundred eighty-five,” complained a girl named Ikea.
“Then share with someone else,” said Mr. Brand.
“Hey!” said a big, tough Gentry boy named Antwan. “I didn’t know them Egyptians were brothers!”
“What’d you think, dummy?” said Bublz. “They come from Africa.”
“No, they don’t,” said Antwan. “They come from Egypt. That’s why they’re called Egyptians, stupid.”
“You’re stupid,” Bublz shot back. “Where you think Egypt is?”
“In Egypt, retard,” said Antwan. “And Africa’s in Africa.”
Bublz shook his head wearily. “If you were any dumber, they’d have to give you a brain transplant.”
Bublz and Antwan were engaged in the daily ritual of clowning. At the beginning of the year, Mr. Brand would tell kids to quiet down, but they would ignore him and continue sassing each other, seeing how far they could push our teacher before he blew. It took a couple of weeks, but Mr. Brand finally exploded, ranting and yelling at the class, which was exactly what they wanted.
After a while, though, Mr. Brand figured out that if he let the class mess around for a time, they might get bored and eventually let him teach. Some days it worked, some days it didn’t. A week like this, before a big vacation like Christmas, was usually a lost cause.
In a moment of quiet, Mr. Brand saw a chance to step in. “Who can tell Antwan the difference between Egypt and Africa?”
A couple of hands went up, including mine.
“DeShawn?” Mr. Brand called.
“Africa’s a continent,” I said. “Egypt’s a country in Africa.”
“Where in Africa?” asked Mr. Brand.
“Like, North Africa.”
“Well, look at the brains on DeShawn,” Antwan said snidely.
“That’s enough, Antwan,” Mr. Brand said.
Antwan ignored him. “Maybe I’ll kick your Douglass butt,” he threatened.
Instead of answering, I gave him the steely look I imagined Marcus would use. Only I wondered if Marcus’s heart ever beat as nervously as mine was.
“What’s that?” Antwan taunted. “You tryin’ to look tough? You about as tough as my baby sister.”
“I said, that’s enough,” demanded Mr. Brand. But it didn’t matter. The class was waiting for my response.
“I’ll see you after school,” I muttered.
Everyone oohed and aahhed.
Antwan narrowed his eyes and nodded, as if he accepted the challenge. Meanwhile Terrell motioned to me with a fist under his desk. As best friends, we had sworn to watch each other’s backs.
When class ended, Mr. Brand asked me to wait until the others left. When they had, he gave me a searching look. “Are you really going to fight him?”
“If I have to.” The truth was, most of the talk was just bluster, to be forgotten as soon as the bell rang.
Mr. Brand shook his head as if it made no sense. “Tell me something, DeShawn. Why do they even bother coming to class?”
“Nothing better to do,” I said.
“What about you?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. Gramma said I was a good boy, because I did what I was told. But most of the time I only did that because it was easier than not doing it. Even at twelve I had a pretty good notion that school wasn’t the way to succeed. We’d all heard stories about the rich and famous rappers and athletes who’d come from the projects. But you never heard of anyone from the projects who got famous for going to school.
Mr. Brand tapped the eraser of a pencil against his desk. “Have you ever heard of Hewlett Academy?”
“It’s a magnet high school over in Beech Hill,” he said. “You’ll get a better education there.”
“Why can’t I get it here?” I asked.
Mr. Brand’s eyes darted toward the closed door. He lowered his voice. “Just between you and me, DeShawn. This is a dumping ground for teachers who can’t get jobs anywhere else. It’s hard to get a good education from bad teachers.”
“But Beech Hill’s far,” I said a little nervously.
“You could take a bus.” He could probably tell that I wasn’t thrilled by the idea. “Don’t want to leave your friends, right? Don’t want to leave the comfort and familiarity of the hood.”
“DeShawn, what do you think’s going to happen if you stay here?”
“Go to Munson, I guess.” That was the local high school.
“You know that more than half the kids who enter there don’t finish?”
“Doesn’t mean I won’t,” I said.
Mr. Brand’s shoulders sagged as if pulled down by the weight of something he knew that I didn’t. “DeShawn, listen to me. It’s one thing to go to school here with all your friends. But it’s different when your crew’s dropped out and you’re the only one left. It’s harder when you’re still walking to school each day while your peeps drive around in hot whips. You can understand that, right?”
I nodded again. The second bell rang. It was lunchtime and I started inching toward the door.
“Hold on. I’ll write you a pass.” Mr. Brand pulled a pad out of his desk and started to write. “I want you to think about Hewlett, okay?” he said, tearing a sheet off the pad. “You’re still two years away, but you could start to prepare for the entrance exam. There’s a special Saturday program I could help you get into.”
“I’ll think about it.” I reached for the pass, but Mr. Brand held it out of range.
“You’re pretty good at telling people what they want to hear, aren’t you?” He knew he had me. I couldn’t go out into the hall without that pass. I looked into his green eyes.
“You wondering why I even bother?” Mr. Brand asked. “Most of these kids don’t want my help, DeShawn. They’re perfectly happy to waste their days clowning around without a thought about the future. But maybe you’re different. You’re one of the few in this class who reads at grade level. Maybe you’re the one who’ll really do something with his life. But to do that, you’ll need a better education than you’ll get here. So you’ll think about Hewlett, right?”
I nodded. He placed the pass in my hand, and I headed for the door.
Just before the end of school, they announced a delayed dismissal and all sixth graders were sent to the gym. This happened about once a month, usually because there was going to be a gang fight and the school found out and called the police.
“You think that’s why LaRue brought that box cutter?” Terrell asked as we walked down the hall to the gym.
“Shhh!” I pressed my finger to my lips. You never knew who might be listening.
In the gym, kids were standing around in groups or sitting in circles on the floor. Lightbulb sat down with a book and a thick pair of old-man eyeglasses with big brown frames.
“Since when do you need glasses?” I asked.
“They make me look smart,” he said.
“You look dumber than Urkel in those things,” Terrell said. “Ain’t nothing gonna make you look smart.”
“Says you,” said Lightbulb. Some of the teachers said Lightbulb was a genius.
“What’s 145 times 216?” I asked.
Lightbulb closed his eyes and moved his lips. “31,320.”
“That right?” Terrell looked at me.
“How would I know?” I said.
Lightbulb read for a while, then took off the glasses and pressed his fingers into the corners of his eyes. “It’s hard to see through these things. My head hurts.”
“Where’d you get those glasses?” I asked.
“You can’t just wear any old glasses,” I said. “You have to go to a doctor and get them made special.”
“For real?” Lightbulb said. He may have been a genius in school, but in some ways he really was the dumbest kid we knew.
“Hey, DeShawn.” Terrell nudged me with his elbow. “Someone’s checking you out.”
A group of giggling girls sat in a circle across the way. One was taller than the others, with long brown hair and sparkling eyes. We’d been exchanging looks for a few weeks.
“She’s pretty,” said Lightbulb.
Terrell nudged me again. “Go talk to her.”
The truth was, I did want to go. I felt drawn to that tall pretty girl the way Lightbulb was drawn to candy.
“He’s going,” Lightbulb cheered when I started across the gym.
“Go, DeShawn. Go!” Terrell chanted.
The girls around the tall one grew jumpy with excitement and began whispering in her ear. Her eyes widened, and then a faint scowl appeared on her face and she turned and shook her head sharply. Suddenly it seemed as if she was annoyed with their chatter, because she got up and came toward me. We met in the middle of the crowded gym.
“Go on, get closer,” one of her friends called, and the others cackled.
The tall girl turned to them. “Shush! Shut your mouths.” She spoke with authority, and the other girls got quiet. I liked that.
“I’m DeShawn,” I said.
“I know,” she said, tilting her head toward the other girls. “They told me. I’m Tanisha.”
She nodded. Her eyes were glowing.
“Where’re you from?” I asked. My heart was fluttering in my chest, but I knew I had to play it cool.
“Over on the east side of town. We moved over the summer.”
“How come?” I asked.
She lowered her head and stared at the floor. The reasons for moving to the projects were never good.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s none of my business.”
She raised her head. “How long’ve you been around here?”
“All my life. My gramma moved here about thirty years ago.”
“Your momma go to this school?”
“Bet she had Ms. Rodriguez,” Tanisha said. “She’s so old, everybody must’ve had her.”
I laughed. Ms. Rodriguez had been a teacher before she became assistant principal. Tanisha was funny. I liked that, too. “Where do you live now?”
“Gentry,” she said.
And just like that we went from hot to cold. From hope to no hope. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a Disciple. I was from Frederick Douglass, and if I was seen by Gentry Gangstas on their turf, they would automatically consider me a spy and up to no good. They might not kill me for that, but I was sure to catch a beating.
Sensing that something was wrong, Tanisha frowned.
“Well, nice to meet you,” I said, and turned away.
On Christmas morning, Gramma gave me a tight-fitting, fuzzy blue sweater I knew I’d never wear. I gave her and Nia little bottles of perfume that a man on the street had sold me. Nia gave me a DVD of the Transformers movie. We ate a Christmas lunch. In the afternoon, I went out and found Lightbulb.
“Where’re we going?” he asked as we climbed the piss-smelly stairwell.
“Upstairs,” I said.
He stopped. “You crazy? No one but Disciples are allowed up there.”
“Shh. . . . Quiet. I need a lookout.”
“Who’s gonna look out for me?” Lightbulb asked.
“I got a Snickers bar.”
The top two floors were Disciples territory. Not that they paid rent. They’d broken through the doors and put on their own locks. They used the apartments as places to live and safe houses for anyone who needed to hide. On the fifteenth floor the stairwell and hallway were covered with loopy tags—TAP and Casper and Baby—and also, everywhere, like religious symbols to ward off evil spirits, was the six-pointed-star symbol of the Disciples.
Pressed against a wall was an old chest of drawers. It didn’t make sense for it to be there, and I pushed it aside.
“What’re you doing?” Lightbulb asked in a quavering voice.
“Shh . . . ” Behind the chest was a hole through the cinder-block wall big enough for someone to crawl through. I bent down and peeked into an empty room with a bare mattress lying on the floor. Giving the Snickers bar to Lightbulb, I said, “You hear anyone come up the stairs, you holler into this hole, then go down the other stairs as fast as you can.”
Lightbulb was already tearing open the wrapper. He took a bite and nodded. I crawled through the hole. In the room on the other side, the floor was covered with empty bottles, cigarette butts, magazines, and food wrappers. The bare mattress was stained a dozen different shades of yellow and brown. I crossed the room and stopped at the door to listen. It sounded quiet on the other side, and I slowly opened the door and went down the hall.
About a million cockroaches scattered when I entered the kitchen. It smelled like garbage, and the sink and counters were covered with dirty dishes, empty take-out containers, fried-chicken buckets, and pizza boxes. I opened the cabinet under the sink, and about a million more cockroaches fled. At the back of the cabinet was another hole leading to the next apartment. I’d heard that the holes were so gangbangers could escape if the police raided. In some rooms there were even holes in the floors so they could drop down to another floor and escape that way.
I crawled into the next apartment. This one had a strong chemical smell. In the middle of the living room was a Ping-Pong table with cutting boards, white breathing masks, a couple of small postal scales, and razor blades smudged with yellowish white powder. Hundreds of small Ziploc bags and plastic vials were scattered about.
Piled on the kitchen counter were dozens of empty baking-soda boxes, as well as half a dozen old cooking pots caked with soot—the tools for making crack.
Two apartments later I got to the one where Jamar and Laqueta lived. Terrell said that ever since Darnell died, Laqueta was staying with them on the sixth floor so I knew it would be empty. Unlike the other apartments, this one was clean and had curtains on the windows, nice furniture, and a big TV in the living room. An unfamiliar smell hung in the air, and it took a moment for me to realize it was the pine scent of the Christmas tree in the corner.
I went down the hall to a bedroom with a small bed with brown and green Simba sheets and pillows. Some stuffed animals and toy trucks were on the floor. The window was open, and the blue curtain was half in and half out, so I knew there was no window guard. Carefully pulling the curtain back, I stuck my head outside.
Down in the yard, people were the size of Tic Tacs, and on the street, cars looked like Matchbox toys. Behind Frederick Douglass was a big rail yard with dozens of tracks and all kinds of trains, and I heard the sharp squeak of metal wheels on rails. Between Frederick Douglass and the yard was a double row of tall chain-link fence with coils of razor wire on top.
I looked at the window frame. In the holes that would have held the window guard were broken, rusty brown screws with shiny silver insides, as if they had just recently snapped. To my mind, it would have taken a hard kick to break those screws.
A lock clacked somewhere in the apartment, and I quickly spun around and ducked down behind a chest of drawers. Through the open doorway, I heard footsteps and the rustle of clothes. My heart started beating hard and my breaths became short and shallow. I knew if I got caught, I might be the next kid to fall fifteen floors.
“You got hollow tips?” a voice asked.
“Dollar each,” answered a voice that sounded like Jamar’s.
“A dollar each? That’s robbery!”
“Take it or leave it,” said Jamar.
“Ain’t no other place else to get ’em,” the other voice said angrily. “You got me right where you want me, don’t you? Risking my life to come over here, and you darn well know I can’t go back empty-handed.”
If Jamar answered, I couldn’t hear him. Then the other man said, “I’ll take a hundred. And I won’t be sorry if one of ’em winds up in the back of your skull.”
“Merry Christmas,” said Jamar.
A door slammed, but I heard footsteps in the apartment and knew Jamar was still there. I stayed behind the dresser, my heart racing and body tensed. Darn Lightbulb. He was supposed to warn me. Now I was trapped.
Jamar moved around in the other room, whistling and humming to himself. Then the door creaked and closed. I heard the lock click. It sounded like he’d left.
I took a deep breath and felt light-headed with relief. Still I waited a few more minutes before quietly leaving the bedroom and going out into the apartment. On the living room table was an open black and gold box about the size of a small loaf of bread. Inside were bronze and gray bullets.
I crawled through the holes in the apartment walls and back out into the hall. Lightbulb was gone. He probably heard Jamar and the other guy coming up the stairs, got scared, and ran. If any other kid had done that, I would have been mad. But it was hard to be mad at Lightbulb.
The First Baptist Church was in a storefront on Belmar Street, at the edge of the area called the Flats. It had once been a pet store, but there’d been a fire and now it was a church with rows of pews and an altar. On damp days the rancid smell of old smoke still hung in the corners.
On the day of Darnell’s funeral, the Disciples stood on the sidewalk outside the church, wearing sharp, neatly buttoned gray suits with black shirts and ties. Instead of baseball caps, they wore gray fedoras. Their suits looked new and expensive, and I felt ashamed of the ill-fitting secondhand jacket and slacks Gramma had bought for me at Goodwill. Nia, wearing her frilly, pink Sunday dress, hat, and white gloves, went to LaRue and gave him a kiss, but as I passed the Disciples, I kept my eyes down. The sleeves of my jacket barely reached my wrists, and the bottoms of my gray pants flapped above my ankles. Not knowing how to tie a tie, I’d made up a knot.
At the entrance to the church, a hand came out to stop me. I looked up into the small, hard eyes of Marcus. “Turn around,” he ordered.
I did as I was told and felt him press behind me as he reached over, untied, and retied my tie. The corner of something hard jutted into my back, and I knew at once why all the Disciples had kept their jackets buttoned.
Marcus’s hands were quick and sure as he tightened the tie around my neck until I thought I’d choke. Then he placed his strong hands on my shoulders and pointed me inside.
They’d put Darnell in a small, light blue coffin surrounded by bunches of red and yellow flowers. The coffin was open, and people were going up to look. In the front row Laqueta sat with Mrs. Blake and Terrell, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. She turned her head and looked to the back of the church, and I realized she was looking at Jamar. Maybe she wanted him to sit with her. But Jamar stood with the other Disciples and didn’t move.
Terrell’s mom whispered into his ear, and he scanned the crowd until his eyes caught mine. He jerked his head, and I knew he wanted me to go with him to look in the coffin. Like I said before, I’d seen dead people, but never a shorty and when Terrell and I went up to the front I didn’t want to look at first. But they’d dressed Darnell in a light blue suit with a white shirt and silver tie and his eyes were closed, so he looked like he was asleep.
“My little cousin,” Terrell whispered with watery eyes. I put my hand on his shoulder, and after a moment we went back to our seats.
Minister Franklin had barely begun his sermon when the first shot was fired. Hardly anyone looked up. Maybe we were all so used to hearing gunfire that at first it didn’t mean anything. But louder shots quickly followed. Pop! Pop! Pop! Glass began to shatter and some plaster in the wall exploded. Women started screaming. Minister Franklin ducked down behind the pulpit, and Gramma pushed Nia and me down to the floor between the pews.
The tiles felt cold and gritty. All around us people were on the floor, their eyes squeezed shut and their good clothes getting dirty. Pop! Pop! Pop! We could hear the sharp zings and cracks as bullets whizzed overhead, hitting walls and pews. Cold air started floating in through the broken windows.
Then car tires screeched. Footsteps slapped as some of the men ran outside. I slithered along the floor and stuck my head out into the aisle. All that remained of the windows at the front of the church were jagged shards. Outside on the sidewalk, framed by the doorway, Marcus stood tall, his arm straight out, firing a big black gun with slow deliberateness. Pop! Pop! Pop!
Then his arm went down to his side, and faint wisps of smoke drifted from the gun’s barrel. He looked so powerful in his dark suit. Like some TV hero who wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. A few other Disciples who’d crouched behind cars and lampposts joined him.
Inside the church people began getting up. Minister Franklin poked his head out from behind the pulpit.
“Damn Gangstas,” Nia grumbled angrily as she smoothed out her pink dress and brushed the dirt off.
“How do you know?” I asked.
My sister looked at me like I was stupid. “It’s Marcus’s nephew in that casket. Besides, who else would shoot up a funeral?”
Marcus came down the aisle, his face squeezed tight with anger. He said something to Minister Franklin and then went outside again.
The minister continued the service. Only now Marcus and the Disciples stood on the sidewalk in case the Gentry Gangstas came back. Cold air filled the church. We pulled our coats on and shivered while Minister Franklin told us how Darnell was with the angels.
THIRTEEN YEARS OLD
Public schools in the United States are becoming more racially segregated, and the trend is likely to accelerate because of a recent Supreme Court decision forbidding most voluntary local efforts to integrate educational institutions.
“Cuz see The schools ain’t teachin' us nothin'
they ain’t teachin' us nothin'
But how to be slaves and hard workers
For white people to build up they [stuff*].”
—from “They Schools”
by Dead Prez
*lyrics edited for language
Out of the Hood
The projects stayed the same, but I changed. I wouldn’t be caught dead in the pants and shirts Gramma got from the Goodwill store. Now I wore baggy jeans, big hoodies, and chains like the other guys.
I woke early and quietly dressed. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and already the apartment felt hot. In the kitchen the cockroaches scattered from the counters when I turned on the light. After wiping a bowl clean in case roaches had crawled on it during the night, I filled it with Corn Flakes and looked in the refrigerator for milk, but there was none. It was the end of the month. We were out of bread, and there weren’t enough powdered eggs left in the box for a meal. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d eat Corn Flakes with water.
I was heading for the front door when Gramma shuffled out of the bedroom.
“Where you goin’?” she said.
“No, you ain’t. Been too much shootin’ around here lately. Now get away from that door.” She crossed her arms and waited. But why did I have to listen to her? Who was she anyway? Just some gray-haired woman in a ratty old nightie.
I put my hand on the doorknob.
“You’ll be sorry,” Gramma warned.
I started to turn the knob, but something was holding me back—all those years of being a good boy, always doing what I was told. “I won’t go far. I’ll be okay, Gramma, really.”
“You don’t know what you’ll be, child,” Gramma said, the veneer of sternness giving way unexpectedly to something sad and defeated. “But I do.”
“Just because I’m going out doesn’t mean I’ll join the Disciples,” I said, pulling the door open.
“Just because you’re goin’ out don’t guarantee you’ll come back,” Gramma muttered.
I hung my head, unable to look her in the eye, but felt a call from outside that I couldn’t resist.
The sun was bright and a few people were going to church. The men were in shirtsleeves, and some of the women carried umbrellas to shade themselves. Lightbulb was sitting on the back of the bench nearest our building, writing in a book. A little nappy-haired girl of about eight was playing with a doll in front of the bench. She was wearing a stained, green jumper and had a lollipop in her mouth.
“Hi, Lollipop,” I said.
Lightbulb’s sister looked up at me and grinned, some gaps where her baby teeth had fallen out. The lollipop bulged in her cheek.
“You watching her?” I asked Lightbulb.
He nodded. “Till my momma gets back from the store.”
I looked over his shoulder. “What’s that?”
“Sudokus.” He tore a page from the book and gave it to me. The page said easy, but it wasn’t. I worked at it for a while, then got bored and quit. Meanwhile Lightbulb worked on a puzzle in the super hard part of the book. In no time he’d finished it and turned to the puzzle on the next page. Someone who didn’t know him might have thought he was faking, but he wasn’t.
The sun rose higher and the day grew hotter. Women came out with babies in strollers and sat in whatever shade they could find. Some older guys squatted near a wall, playing hip-hop on a boom box while they smoked and shot dice. Lightbulb’s mom returned and took Lollipop.
Terrell came out wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt, his pants so low it was hard to understand why they didn’t slide down to his ankles. He slid his earring into his ear and turned the bill of his cap to the right.
“S’up?” he asked.
“Cooking’s more like it,” Lightbulb said. By now he’d finished all the super hard puzzles and was wearing the book, opened in the middle, on his head to keep the sun off.
A car horn honked. A police cruiser had stopped at the curb, and inside, Officer Patterson wagged his finger at me. But I didn’t move.
“Ain’t gonna talk to your friend?” Terrell asked.
Those days were over. Officer Patterson and I exchanged a long look, then he drove back into traffic.
Terrell bounced from foot to foot, jittery like a dope fiend who can’t find a fix. Only Terrell was no addict. “I got to get out of here,” he said. “Sometimes I just can’t take this place one more minute. Look at it. Everything’s broken and dead. It’s like the last place on Earth.”
I knew what he meant. Except for the weeds, the ground was bare and dusty. Broken glass glittered in the sun, and here and there lay a discarded Pampers. Just a few years ago we’d happily run around and played our games here. It never occurred to us that there was anything wrong. But now it was like we’d grown a new set of eyes.
“Want to take a walk?” I asked.
Terrell shook his head. “Too hot. Wish there was some place air-conditioned to go.”
“The bus,” Lightbulb said.
Terrell grinned. Neither he nor I would have thought of that. “Let’s bounce.”
“Where?” Lightbulb asked nervously.
“Don’t matter,” Terrell said. “We’ll stay on till it comes back.”
We’d spent enough time sitting on the bench watching traffic to know that sooner or later the buses always came back.
“I better not,” Lightbulb said.
“You a momma’s boy?” Terrell taunted him.
“No!” Lightbulb insisted.
Lightbulb looked at me. “You gonna do it, DeShawn?”
I nodded, not letting on that I was probably as nervous as he was. We waited at the bus stop where Gramma stood in the morning when she went to clean houses. When the bus came, Terrell led us through the middle doors, where people usually got off. The three of us squeezed into a seat, and the air-conditioning poured over us like a cool, welcoming breeze.
“Uh-oh.” Lightbulb gulped. The driver was frowning in the rearview mirror.
“He won’t do nothing,” said Terrell. He was right. The bus pulled into traffic, and before long we were in a different world, where the buildings were twice as high as at Douglass and the sidewalks were filled with people jammed so close that it looked like they were brushing shoulders.
Everything looked shiny and new. The stores had sparkling windows without bars, and doors you could simply walk through without being buzzed in. It seemed impossible that all this existed just a dozen blocks from where we lived.
“Man, that’s a lot of white people!” Lightbulb blurted.
A fat man in a seat near us chuckled, and Lightbulb lowered his voice to a whisper. “I never knew there was so many.”
“There’s way more white people than black,” Terrell whispered back. “Look at TV.”
“There’s plenty of blacks on TV,” Lightbulb said.
“Where?” Terrell said. “On BET? Comedy shows? Rap videos? You ever seen a crowd on TV? Like at a baseball game? The Olympics or something? It’s all white. The only time you see a crowd of blacks, it’s got to be a riot.”
Terrell had a point, but I understood what Lightbulb meant too. Except for TV and the movies, I’d never seen so many white people. And not a single empty store or vacant lot or boarded-up window was in sight.
People got on and off the bus. Some noticed the three black kids squeezed into one seat, but most didn’t. The three of us kept staring out with round, wide eyes. All those tall, clean buildings. All those people hurrying like they had important places to go. It wasn’t that I wanted to be part of that world; it seemed strange and foreign. I felt as if they’d spot me right away as someone who didn’t belong, who didn’t know the right way to act or what to say. They’d shoo me away or maybe even call the police.
But how could that world exist so close to ours?
Soon to Shoot
“Where’s that toast and olives, DeShawn?” Nia called from the living room.
“Coming up,” I called back from the kitchen as I toasted bread in a skillet on the stove.
Tanisha smiled at me and her eyes twinkled. The kitchen was the only place in the apartment where we could get a little privacy. I opened the refrigerator and pulled out the butter, jelly, and olives. It was just past the first of the month, and Gramma’s check and food stamps had arrived, so there was plenty of food.
“She eats all day,” Tanisha whispered.
“You would too,” I whispered back, then headed to the living room where my sister was propped against some pillows on the couch with her hair tied into a dozen little pigtails and her face glistening with a sheen of perspiration. The TV was on loud so she could hear it over the whir of the window fan. Under a big white T-shirt her stomach was swollen to the size of a basketball.
“You’re a good brother,” she said, shifting uncomfortably and taking the plate from me. She lifted a piece of toast to her lips, then winced.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Nothing. One of ’em just kicked.”
“Can I feel?”
My sister gave an irritated groan and nodded. She was getting tired of me asking to feel her stomach, but I was fascinated by how tight and firm the skin of her belly had become as it stretched to encase the new lives growing inside her.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Nia said when my hand had overstayed its welcome.
“But they didn’t kick yet.”
“I said, enough.”
I went back to the kitchen. Tanisha had pulled her hair into a ponytail and lifted it to cool the back of her neck. She wore long, glittering earrings, a white T-shirt, and shorts that showed off her long legs. She gently dabbed her forehead with a folded paper towel, trying not to smudge her makeup.
“I better go,” she said.
“Just a little longer.” I took her in my arms we kissed. Over the past year, my worries about her being from Gentry had been outweighed by the attraction I felt toward her. Other girls wore sexier clothes and more makeup. They brushed against me in the school halls and gave me inviting looks. But there was something proud and dignified about Tanisha that they didn’t have.
She started to wiggle out of my arms. “Lemme go, DeShawn,” she breathed hotly in my ear. “If I don’t get home soon, my momma’s gonna start asking questions.” While my family knew about Tanisha, she had not told her family about me. If it weren’t for those stupid gangs, there wouldn’t have been a problem.
As we left the building, Tanisha slid her hand into mine. I didn’t like holding hands in public, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, either. The afternoon sun had dipped behind Number Three, casting a long shadow across the yard, which was crowded with people escaping from hot, cramped apartments.
“Hey, lover boy!” Terrell and his new crew were hanging around the bench. I pulled my hand from Tanisha’s, but it was too late. The guys were grinning. There was the fat kid named Bublz and a kid a year younger than us named Darius, who was small, but wiry and stronger than he looked. They wore their hats backward and three small fake diamonds in the shape of a triangle in their right earlobes. Since Marcus wouldn’t let his cousin become a Disciple, Terrell decided to start a junior gang of his own. They sold bootleg CDs and DVDs. As long as they didn’t sell drugs or interfere with other Disciple business, Marcus didn’t seem to care.
“Going out back?” Terrell yelled with a grin. “Out back” wasn’t any place in particular. It was what the older guys said when they were taking a girl somewhere private. Terrell had only said it to impress the other guys, but he shouldn’t have been using me to impress them. And he knew it.
He slid off the bench and came toward Tanisha and me with a swagger in his step. Jerking his head to the side like some kind of hard hitta, he said, “Let’s talk.” The tough pose annoyed me, but since he was my friend, I gave Tanisha a look that said to wait. Terrell and I walked out of earshot and stopped beside the spot near our building where eight months before, Darnell had fallen to his death. All that was left of the shrine was a piece of wood from the cross and the stub of a red candle.
Terrell pulled a toothpick out of his pocket and slid it between his lips, like Mr. Tough Street Thug. “What’re you doing with that Gentry girl?”
I’d had enough of his act. “You know her name. Don’t pull this crap with me.”
Terrell shook his head. “This ain’t no crap. Gentry’s the enemy.”
“Maybe the Disciples’s enemy, but not ours. Besides, she’s no Gangsta and I’m no Disciple.”
Terrell shifted the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and narrowed his eyes at me. The pose was starting to get on my nerves.
“How come you won’t get with Soon To Shoot?” he asked.
I glanced at his “crew” around the bench, crossing their arms and lowering their gazes, practicing defiant, menacing looks. “You sure you don’t want to call yourselves Soon To Shave?”
Terrell’s lower lip jutted out angrily. “The only reason you ain’t with us is because of her.”
“The only reason I ain’t with you is because I don’t want to be with you.”
“House boy,” Terrell taunted. It was about as bad an insult as you could fling. Already frustrated by not getting to be alone with Tanisha, I felt my fists clench.
Terrell lifted his fists. “Okay, come on, let’s see what you got.” But as he spoke, his eyes darted back at his crew, and I knew it was just more show. I dropped my fists and started back toward Tanisha. Terrell followed.
“You’re messing everything up for me,” he said in a hushed voice he didn’t want the others to hear. “If you got with us, Marcus might think serious about bringing us into the Disciples.”
“How about you get with me and think serious about coming back to Washington Carver?” I asked. School was set to begin in a few days, and Terrell had said he wasn’t going back.
Terrell jerked his head at Tanisha, who was talking on her cell phone, her face bright and animated. “Only reason you go is ’cause of her.”
I spun around and aimed a finger at his face. “For the last time, you leave her out of this. You get with the gangbangers, and all you’re gonna do is wind up in jail.”
“Marcus and Jamar ain’t in jail,” Terrell said. “They’re wearing fresh clothes and driving hot rides. They got more bank and bling than you’ll ever get from going to school. All they teach in school is how to work for the white man.”
“Stop talking trash.” I turned and headed again toward Tanisha.
“Am I?” Terrell asked, following me. “Look at what they teach us. The history of white people. Books by white people. Stay in school and all you’ll ever be is a pawn for white people.”
“Not me,” I said.
Oh, yeah?” Terrell said. “Then what else you gonna be?”
I didn’t answer. The truth was, I didn’t know.
“Come on, DeShawn,” Terrell said behind me. “You know you gotta get with us sooner or later. Around here there ain’t nothing else you can do.”
Sardines and a Loaf
It turned even hotter the next day. Terrell and I were up in his apartment playing Thrill Kill on his Xbox with the window fan blowing on us like a gale. The anger we’d felt the day before had passed, but I wasn’t sure our friendship was the same as it had been. Inside we were still a couple of kids playing games, but outside he was an aspiring gangbanger and I wasn’t. We were both careful not to mention Tanisha. Terrell paused the game and went over to his desk and took a handful of peanuts in the shell out of a plastic bag.
“Have some,” he offered.
“Where’d you get ’em?” I cracked open a shell.
“Cousins in Georgia. They got their own farm.”
“Ever been there?”
Terrell shook his head. “What do I want to go to some farm for?”
From outside, above the whir of the fan, came yelling and laughter. I went to the window. Someone had opened a fire hydrant on Abernathy, and bare-chested boys, and girls in T-shirts, were playing in the spray.
“Want to get wet?” I asked.
“And play with shorties?” Terrell asked derisively, his hands working the controller feverishly, his forehead glistening with sweat.
“Who cares?” I said. “Long as we cool off.”
Terrell didn’t answer. He was busy mowing down bad guys. “I’m gonna get that new PlayStation soon as it comes out.”
“Oh, yeah? What bank are you gonna rob?” I asked.
Terrell glanced at the closed door to his room, then pulled a thick wad of bills out of his pocket and fanned them. Mostly fives and tens, and more money than I’d ever seen in one place.
“Where’d you get that?” I whispered.
“Smash ’n’ grabs,” he answered.
I gave him an uncertain look. Smashing car windows at red lights and grabbing chains off drivers’ necks, or pocketbooks from seats, was a serious hustle. But it was hard to imagine how else he could have come up with that much gwap.
There was a knock on the door, and Terrell quickly slid the money back into his pocket. “Who’s there?”
The door opened and Laqueta looked in. Her skin was all ashy, her hair nappy, and she was wearing a long, yellow T-shirt with stains on the front. It was hard to believe that she’d once been the prettiest girl in the projects. But that was before Darnell fell.
“Go get me a bottle of Cisco,” she said.
“Get lost,” Terrell shot back, hunched over his game controller.
“Get me that bottle, or I’ll tell your momma how much money you got,” Laqueta threatened.
Terrell grit his teeth. Women were not allowed to boss gangbangers—even pretend gangbangers—around.
“Come on,” I said. “I want to get out of here anyway.”
Passing the stairwell on the fourth floor, we came across a bent old man gripping a walker with bony hands. His hair was white, his yellow eyes were bloodshot, and his skin hung from his face like baggy clothes.
“I need some food.” When he spoke, you saw more pink gum than teeth. Tied to the front of the walker was a basket with a few wrinkled dollar bills and some change inside.
“Give me the money,” Terrell said. “I’ll get you something.”
“Not you. Him.” The old man pointed a shaky finger at me. “You Shanice’s grandson, right? They say you a good boy. I ain’t eat in two days. Get me some sardines and a loaf.”
“Okay.” I reached into the basket and took the money. “What apartment you in?”
“Don’t matter,” he said. “I’ll wait for you here.”
“You can’t stand here and wait,” I said. “Tell me what apartment you’re in, and I’ll bring it to you.”
The old man turned to Terrell. “Go away.”
Terrell gave him a contemptuous look, then headed down the stairwell to the next floor. With his shaky, wrinkled hand, the old man grabbed my shirtsleeve and tugged me close so he could whisper into my ear. His breath smelled god-awful. “Four-G. But don’t go tellin’ that other boy. He’ll break in, steal everything I have.”
It was hard to imagine the old man had anything worth stealing, but I agreed just the same.
The closest food store was Wally’s. The front was boarded up and covered with colorful graffiti and tags. You wouldn’t have thought it was even a place of business unless you knew it was there. Inside, the light was dim and a ceiling fan whirred. The sweet scent of ripe fruit hung in the air. Wally was a big, fat walrus of a man who sat all day by the cash register. People said he kept a sawed-off shotgun under the counter.
“Don’t be coming in here to steal,” he warned when we entered. He had a green dish towel draped around his fat neck, and his shirt was dark with sweat stains.
“You got sardines and a loaf?” I asked.
“Sardines over there.” Wally pointed a fat finger. “Bread over here. Be quick.”
We’d hardly taken a step when Wally held out his hand at Terrell. “You buyin’ something?”
My friend shook his head.
“Then wait outside,” Wally said.
Terrell gave Wally his best narrow-eyed, menacing, hard-hitta look, then left. I got the food and joined him out under the glaring yellow sun. Terrell muttered, “I’m gonna come back with my boys and bust that place up.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You see how he dissed me? Like I was gonna rob the place.”
“He treated you like a gangbanger,” I said. “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
We walked a block to the liquor store. The door was always locked. Terrell pushed the buzzer, and we looked up at the security camera so the owner could see our faces. The door buzzed open. Inside was a narrow aisle with walls of thick, scuffed Plexiglas rising to the ceiling. Everything—the cash registers, counters, and shelves of bottles—was behind the Plexiglas.
“What do you boys want?” A woman with red lips and a big head of dyed, reddish orange hair asked through some holes in the thick plastic.
“My cousin Laqueta wants some Cisco,” Terrell said.
Recognition softened the woman’s expression. “The momma of that little boy who went off the roof last Christmas?”
Terrell nodded and slid some money through a slot. The woman opened a small door in the Plexiglas and pushed through a dark red bottle with a strawberry-colored label.
“Police ask where you got this bottle, what you gonna say?”
“Someone gave it to me,” Terrell answered.
“Who?” the woman asked.
“I dunno, some old man,” Terrell answered.
The woman made a face. “Now, why would some old man do that?”
“My momma gave it to us,” I volunteered. “To bring to his momma.”
The woman nodded. “That’s right. That’s what you say.”
Back at Douglass, Terrell took the wine to Laqueta, and I took the food to the old man in 4-G. He asked me if I wanted to come in, but I said no. I knew he was lonely. With the elevator broken, he probably hadn’t been downstairs in days or maybe even weeks. I felt bad for him.
When I got to my apartment, LaRue was sitting in the living room with Nia. He was wearing Disciples black.
“Let’s bounce,” he said.
“Where?” I glanced at Nia, who returned a tight, concerned look.
“Upstairs,” LaRue said.
On the fifteenth floor, LaRue stopped outside a door across the hall from the apartments I’d snuck into the previous winter. I could hear a TV inside. LaRue knocked three times, then paused and knocked twice.
Locks clinked, and Marcus opened the door. His broad, flat forehead glistened with sweat, and his T-shirt had dark, wet spots. A white towel hung over his shoulders. Behind him were weights and a bench, and the room was pungent with the scent of sweat. The leader of the Disciples gestured for me to come in and told LaRue he could go. Then he bolted the door shut. I’d lost my nervousness while climbing the stairs, but now it came back. My heart was beating rapidly and my breaths came short and fast. What did Marcus want with me?
“Thirsty?” he asked.
I wasn’t, but I was afraid to offend him, so I nodded.
“Check the fridge.” He pointed toward the kitchen. “And get me a beer.”
The kitchen was clean and neat, the counter lined with bottles of vitamins and nutrition powders. The refrigerator was filled with malt liquor, wine, six-packs of soda, and energy drinks. I got a beer for Marcus and a Coke for myself. Back in the living room, Marcus was doing curls with the biggest dumbbell I’d ever seen. The skin around his eyes creased, and his jaw clenched. The veins in his forehead and right arm swelled as he lifted the weight over and over, the biceps bulging and relaxing again and again until he let the dumbbell fall to the floor with a thud.
He sat there breathing hard for a few moments, opening and closing the hand that had just held the weight, as if trying to get the blood to flow again. Then he cracked the beer, took a gulp, and nodded at the weight. “Give it a try.”
I grabbed the handle with both hands where he had used one, and managed to lift it an inch off the ground before it pulled me back down. I tried again, pulling with all my might, my arms and body trembling under the strain, and got the dumbbell up to my knees.
“Okay,” Marcus said.
Thump! The dumbbell hit the floor harder than I’d wanted, and I felt embarrassed. I sat down, clutching the cold soda in my hands, my trembling arms so drained I wasn’t sure I could even pop the top off the can.
“When’s those babies due?” Marcus asked.
“Two months, I think.”
“Nia gonna go live with LaRue, or he gonna move in with you?”
The question caught me off guard. I’d heard no talk of either of those possibilities. But it made sense that something like that might happen.
Marcus took another gulp. “How old are you?”
“Ever tell anyone about that window guard?”
I shook my head.
“Think that had anything to do with Darnell?”
I realized he’d probably never bothered to investigate the window frame in Darnell’s room the way I had. Then again, I had only a feeling about who might have kicked out that window guard but no actual proof. “Maybe.”
Marcus studied me silently. “You got a lot of sense for your age, DeShawn. More than most cats twice your age. Your momma was that way.”
I looked up, surprised. “You knew her?”
Marcus nodded. “She used to babysit me and my brother and sister sometimes.”
“You have a brother?”
“How—,” I began, and then caught myself. Even at the age of thirteen, I knew he’d probably been shot, OD’d, or maybe died from AIDS.
For a moment Marcus’s eyes were soft and sad, and I wondered how many people had ever seen that look from him. Then he got up and took a white envelope from a pair of black pants hanging over the back of a chair. He held the envelope open to me. Inside were bills. I thought I saw a hundred and a fifty. Marcus closed the envelope and sealed it with his tongue.
“Know what bail is, DeShawn?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Say I get arrested,” Marcus said. “My trial may not get scheduled for six months. The police can keep me in jail till then unless I post bail.” He handed me the envelope. “This is bail money. If I get arrested, I’ll send word about what to do with it.”
“You’re gonna be arrested?” I asked.
Marcus chuckled. “Sooner or later. If I ain’t killed first. You put that in a safe place. Don’t tell anyone. Not even your gramma.”
“It can’t come from anyone in the Disciples, or the police’ll know it’s tainted. Gotta come from someone on the outside. Someone I can trust.”
I looked down at the envelope, then thought of something and held it back toward him. “What if you tell someone? Word gets out I have this money, they’ll kill me if I don’t give it to them. Probably kill my sister and Gramma, too.”
Marcus didn’t take the envelope. “You keep it.”
“Can’t you find someone else?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly. “It’s got to be you.”
“’Cause you’re the only one that don’t want it.”
“Where’d you get that scrawny mutt, Bulb?” Bublz asked out in the yard. We were hanging around the bench. Felt like we’d spent the whole summer there. Bublz was eating Cracker Jacks. He was always eating something.
“Found him,” Lightbulb said. The little brown dog tugged at the clothesline leash, mouth open, tongue hanging out. Its ribs showed through the short fur, and its paws looked too big for the rest of him.
“How do you know he don’t belong to someone else?” I asked.
“Anyone says he’s theirs, I’ll give him back,” said Lightbulb. “But so far no one’s said nothing.”
Bublz shoved a handful of Cracker Jacks into his mouth. “He’s gonna choke himself if he keeps pulling like that. What’s his name?”
“Snoop Dog,” Bublz smirked. “He’s too dumb to know he’s choking himself.”
Lightbulb looked down at his new pet with concern. “He ain’t dumb, is he, DeShawn?”
“Nah, just young. He’ll learn.” I gazed around the yard. “Anyone seen Terrell?”
“You want to go up to his place?” Lightbulb asked. “He can meet Snoop.”
“What floor’s he on?” Bublz asked.
“Sixth,” I said.
Bublz shook his head. “Too far to climb.”
Lightbulb and I started toward the building. Snoop squirmed against the leash, sniffing everything. He found an empty Twix wrapper and started to eat it.
“No, Snoop! You don’t want that garbage.” Lightbulb worked the candy wrapper out of his mouth. The little dog immediately started sniffing around again.
“When’s the last time you fed him?” I asked.
“Ain’t fed him yet,” Lightbulb answered.
“How long have you had him?”
“No wonder he’s so hungry.”
“Got nothing to feed him,” Lightbulb said.
“After we see Terrell, we’ll get him something to eat,” I said.
Upstairs we knocked on Terrell’s door. It had been at least two days since I’d seen him. We could hear the TV on loud.
“Who’s there?” Terrell yelled.
“DeShawn and Lightbulb,” I answered.
The door opened and Terrell stood there bare chested, wearing pajama bottoms. His eyes looked bleary and bloodshot. “S’up?”
“You been sick?” I asked.
“Who’s that?” Mrs. Blake came slapping out of the kitchen.
“Can Terrell come out?” Lightbulb asked.
“No, he can’t,” Mrs. Blake said. “He’s grounded. Can’t see no friends, neither. So say good-bye and git.”
Lightbulb glanced at Terrell and dropped his voice. “You being punished?” But he didn’t drop his voice enough.
“Darn right he is,” said Mrs. Blake. “One week in the house for stealin’ money outta my purse. And being real sneaky about it too. Five dollars here, ten dollars there, hopin’ I wouldn’t notice.”
Terrell’s face colored, and he closed the door. So that was where his big wad of gwap had come from.
Back outside, Lightbulb and I walked down Abernathy. The air was cooler and drier than the day before. Like fall was coming. King Chicken was near Washington Carver Middle School, on the border between Douglass and Gentry. There was a parking lot in the front. In the back, a dented, red Dumpster stood against a wall, and the asphalt around it was littered with paper cups and plates, straws, and other garbage. It smelled like rancid milk and rot, but Snoop started yelping and pawing at the ground, tugging as hard as he could.
“Whoa, Snoop!” Lightbulb gasped. I found a milk crate to stand on and managed to reach into the Dumpster, grab some white paper bags, and toss them onto the ground. Snoop tore into them and started jawing on a piece of chicken.
“Guess you were right,” Lightbulb said.
The loud squeal of tires made us jump. A black Range Rover with dark windows and big, glittering rims screeched around the side of the building and skidded to a stop. Lightbulb and I ducked behind the Dumpster. Snoop stayed out in the open, chewing on a chicken leg. We could hear the bones cracking between his teeth.
Three men got out of the Range Rover wearing green and yellow beads around their necks and green bandanas in their pockets—Gentry Gangstas. I put my hand on Lightbulb’s shoulder and slowly drew him farther back into the shadows behind the Dumpster to make sure we wouldn’t be seen.
One of the Gangstas was medium height, with broad shoulders, and wore a baseball cap backward. Reaching into the car, he yanked out a skinny, old, crusty-looking man with a scruffy gray beard and dirty, torn ghetto clothes. He looked like an old hype or wino, and he was trembling, his yellow eyes wide with fear.
The broad-shouldered Gangsta pushed the old guy down on his knees before the other two men. One was narrowly built with dark skin, sharp chiseled features, and long pointed sideburns. He stood with his arms crossed and an impassive expression on his face. Like a judge. The other was just plain big, like a football player, with a shaved head under a black do-rag. He grabbed the old guy by the collar and shook him like a floppy doll.
“This is your last chance, Rodney,” the big guy threatened. “Tell him!”
“I don’t know nothing!” The scruffy guy trembled and sounded like he was going to cry. “I swear!”
The Gangsta with the broad shoulders pulled out a big black gun and stuck it against Rodney’s neck. My hand was still on Lightbulb’s shoulder, and I felt him shudder. He started to breathe hard and fast. I squeezed his shoulder reassuringly.
“We don’t want to kill you,” the broad-shouldered one said.
“But I swear,” Rodney stammered. “I didn’t see nothing. I didn’t hear nothing. I don’t know nothing. I swear it, Mr. Rance.”
I caught my breath. Rance was the leader of the Gentry Gangstas. And that meant the big Gangsta was Big D, the second in command. Rodney’s eyes filled with tears, and he intertwined his fingers and pleaded for mercy. Rance stood over him, his arms still crossed, his face blank.
A dozen feet from them, Snoop began to gag. Rance and the other gangbangers glanced at the dog and then back to Rodney.
“This is your last chance, Rodney,” Rance said in a slow, deep voice.
“But I don’t know nothing!” the old guy wailed. “I swear!”
Crack! The broad-shouldered gangbanger smashed the butt of the gun hard against Rodney’s nose. The old guy clutched his face with his hands, and bright red blood began to seep out between his gnarled fingers. Lightbulb tensed even more. He was breathing so hard, I was afraid he might pass out.
Snoop kept retching and shaking his head as if something was caught in his throat. The gangbangers looked at him again; then Rance kneeled until he was eye level with Rodney and spoke in that calm voice. “You really think this is worth dying for?”
My whole body tensed as I wondered if they’d kill him before our eyes. Again Snoop coughed and gagged like he was choking. At the interruption, Rance turned his head sharply with an annoyed expression. As if taking a cue, the broad-shouldered Gangsta aimed his gun at the little dog.
“Don’t!” Lightbulb screamed. Before I could stop him, he jumped out from behind the Dumpster and ran to his dog.
Startled, Big D quickly pulled his gun, and both he and the broad-shouldered gangbanger aimed at my friend as he knelt beside the choking dog. Afraid that they might shoot both Lightbulb and Snoop, I stepped from behind the Dumpster.
“What the hell!” Rance grumbled.
Now the Gangstas aimed their guns at me. My heart was racing, and I felt my lungs expanding and contracting as if I’d just sprinted a quarter mile. This was the first time anyone had ever aimed a gun at me. The merest movement of a finger could send pieces of lead ripping through my flesh.
Slowly raising my hands to shoulder height, my eyes met Rance’s.
“Anyone else back there?” he asked, almost amused.
I tried to sound calm. “No, sir. Please don’t aim those guns at us. We ain’t done nothing.”
But the guns stayed on Lightbulb and me, as if the gangbangers knew from experience that this was what Rance expected.
“What’re you kids doing back here?” Rance asked.
“J-just getting my dog some food,” Lightbulb sputtered, hugging Snoop and trembling from head to toe. “Please don’t hurt us, please.”
Rance’s gaze returned to me. He had black tear tattoos beside both eyes. Snoop retched loudly and coughed up some chewed chicken and bones. The little dog began whimpering.
“Get lost,” Rance said. Lightbulb picked up Snoop, and we ran all the way home.
It was the evening before school was supposed to start. Terrell’s punishment for stealing was over, and he and I were in his room playing Grand Theft Auto on his Xbox.
“Terrell!” Mrs. Blake suddenly screamed. We raced into the living room. Laqueta was flat on her back on the floor. Her eyes had rolled up into her head and only the whites showed. Terrell’s momma was straddling her, slapping her face, and crying, “Come on, baby, wake up! Wake up!” When she saw us she yelled, “Call 911!”
Terrell ran into the kitchen. Mrs. Blake kept slapping Laqueta. White foam trickled from the corner of her mouth. When Terrell came back, his momma said, “Go downstairs and wait for the ambulance. Soon as it gets here, bring the men up.”
Terrell and I went down to the yard. It felt like a long time passed before we could hear the sirens. After a while, a boxy, red and white ambulance pulled up to the curb with its lights flashing. The two men inside took their time getting out. One was white, the other black. They looked around warily, as if this project was the last place in the world they wanted to be.
“Come on!” Terrell anxiously pointed back at the building. “My cousin’s out cold. We don’t know if she’s OD’d and passed out or what.”
“She drink? Take drugs?” asked the black ambulance man.
“Both,” said Terrell.
“Better get the stretcher,” the white one said. They went around and opened the back doors, still taking their sweet time. The black ambulance man started to wheel the stretcher toward the building while his partner stayed behind with the truck.
“Maybe you both better come,” I said. “Could take two to carry her down.”
“Or maybe you got friends in there waiting to jump us,” said the white one. “Or we’ll get back here, and the ambulance’ll be ransacked for drugs and needles. So I’ll stay here and keep an eye on the truck.”
There was no use arguing. Terrell and I followed the black ambulance man wheeling the stretcher toward the building. He kept looking around as if he expected at any second to get jumped. We went into the lobby, and he pushed the stretcher toward the elevators.
“The elevator’s broke,” Terrell said, and pointed at the stairwell. “We gotta walk up.”
The ambulance man hesitated. “How far?”
The man shook his head. “You’ll have to bring her down.”
“You crazy?” Terrell began to bluster, but I grabbed his arm to stop him and asked, “How?”
“Make a sling with a blanket,” he said. “Four of you can do it if each one holds a corner. Won’t take long.”
Halfway up the stairs, Terrell started gasping and had to stop and use his inhaler. By the time we got to the apartment, LaRue and Marcus were there. They’d moved Laqueta to the couch, but she was still limp. More foamy spit dripped from the corner of her mouth. Mrs. Blake carefully dabbed it with a towel.
“Where are the ambulance men?” Marcus asked.
“Wouldn’t climb up the stairs,” I said, and told him about the sling.
Marcus cursed and told Mrs. Blake to find a blanket. When we moved Laqueta, her arms and legs flopped every which way, and her head rolled loosely. Marcus, LaRue, Terrell, and I each picked up a corner. With the four of us lifting her, we went out into the hall and started down the stairs. Marcus and LaRue went first because they were taller and stronger. Even then Terrell and I struggled to hold up our end. Mrs. Blake yelled at us each time we let Laqueta bump against a step.
Pop! Pop! Pop! We were on the fourth floor when the shooting started outside and the sounds of shouting drifted up the stairs.
Marcus momentarily lowered the blanket with Laqueta to the floor, then lifted again. “We gotta get her down. Come on.”
The lobby was full of people who’d run inside to get away from the shooting. Most stayed clear of the doors and were huddled near the stairs. We eased Laqueta down on the lobby floor, and once again Mrs. Blake slapped her face, trying to wake her. Snoop trotted by, sniffing here and there. I found Lightbulb hiding under the stairs with his eyes squeezed tight and his fingers in his ears.
I shook his shoulder. “You see an ambulance man?”
Lightbulb opened his eyes. “He left when the shooting started.”
Jamar came in from outside with a skinny Disciple named Tyrone, who was grimacing and clutching his arm. Blood darkened his shirt and dripped to the floor. Marcus spoke to them, then he, LaRue, and Jamar went back out through the lobby doors, reaching toward their belts to pull guns.
“Come on,” Terrell whispered. He wanted to follow them. I don’t know why I went. It was stupid, but in the excitement, I wanted to see. Outside the night air smelled of burned gunpowder. Terrell and I pressed against the building. The bricks still felt warm from being in the sun all day. In the dark the yard looked empty, but slowly I began to see shapes. A woman cradled a baby behind a tree near an overturned baby stroller. Two old men lay on the ground near a bench, covering their heads with their arms.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Terrell and I ducked down. The shots were coming from around the corner of the building. Terrell crept to the edge and peeked, then waved for me to join him. I scampered up. Out in the yard, Marcus ducked behind a bench. LaRue crouched behind a metal garbage can.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
They both fired and then moved forward as if driving the invaders back toward Abernathy Avenue. Jamar followed, reaching each spot only after Marcus or LaRue left it.
Pop! Pop! Pop! More shots, then car doors slammed and car tires screeched. There was silence for a moment. Then the normal sounds of a summer evening—car horns, the rumble of bus engines, music, even voices—began to return.
Out in the yard, Jamar rose to his feet. But where were Marcus and LaRue?
People began to come out like rabbits leaving their holes after the fox goes away—slowly and carefully, stopping and listening before taking another step.
There was still no sign of Marcus or LaRue. Suddenly I felt scared. Marcus wasn’t just the leader of the Disciples. He was the father none of us had. He gave us jobs, issued orders, settled disputes, and kept people in line. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how people depended on him and needed to know he was there.
Two figures came around the corner. Even in the dark I could see that their clothes were disheveled and their arms hung loosely at their sides. As Marcus passed, he glared at Jamar and spit on the ground. Jamar began to say something, then clammed up and hung his head. We all knew he’d been a coward. Terrell and I followed Marcus back into the building. By now most of the people had left the lobby. A few women were still bent over Laqueta. Someone had rolled up a shawl under her head, and someone else was fanning her with a newspaper while Mrs. Blake dabbed a wet cloth against her forehead.
“DeShawn!” My sister’s anxious voice called from the stairwell. “Anyone seen DeShawn?”
“In the lobby,” I yelled back.
Nia came to the top of the stairs with her hands on her big belly and consternation on her face. “Gramma wants you upstairs right now!”
I could feel people’s eyes on me, and wished she didn’t sound so bossy. Nia came down the stairs, grabbed me by the arm, and squeezed hard. Suddenly I knew it wasn’t just Gramma who wanted me out of harm’s way.
Meanwhile Marcus lifted Laqueta in his arms. Her head rolled back. “We’ll take my car.”
Someone held the door open, and he went through sideways careful not to let his sister bang into the door frame. LaRue, Mrs. Blake, and Terrell followed. Marcus was a gang leader and drug dealer, almost surely a murderer, and as brutal and hard as anyone I’d ever met. But he was the only hero we knew.
A few days later I walked home from school with a black cloud over my head. It was Friday and Tanisha wanted us to go to the movies with friends that night, but I had no money and no way to get any. I couldn’t decide which was worse: telling Tanisha we couldn’t go, or going and letting her pay.
“Hey,” someone said.
I looked up. Marcus’s black Mercedes was rolling slowly along the curb beside me. He steered with one hand and leaned his elbow out the open window. “What’s wrong?”
“Who said anything’s wrong?” I said.
“Looks like you got the weight of the world on your shoulders,” he said, pulling the car to the curb. “I been drivin’ alongside you for almost a whole block, and you ain’t looked up once. You got a problem, maybe I can help.”
That reminded me of something. “Laqueta okay?”
“Yeah, she’s back home now.” He gazed at me with steady eyes. “You gonna tell me what’s botherin’ you?”
“I can take care of it,” I said.
If a muscle in Marcus’s face moved, I didn’t see it. “Come over here. What grade you in?”
“How you doin’?”
“Okay. I may even go to Hewlett Academy over in Beech Hill.” That very day, Mr. Brand had given me a red folder filled with a dozen pages of words he wanted me to learn for the magnet school entrance exam.
“You gotta take some kind of a test to get in?” Marcus asked.
“Yeah. Vocabulary, math, a lot of stuff.”
“And suppose you get in,” he said. “Then what?”
“I don’t know. Get a better education, I guess.”
Marcus rubbed his chin across his forearm. “So how come you’re mopin’ along like your dog just got run over?”
Suddenly I knew I was going to tell him. It was the kind of thing you wanted to talk about with a guy who had experience. “My girl wants to go on a date tonight, and I’m a little short.”
“That’s messed up,” he said, nodding slowly. “How bad do you want to go?”
“I don’t care,” I said. “But my girl wants to go so bad, she says she’ll even pay.”
“No way.” Marcus shook his head, and I knew he understood. His arm disappeared from the open window. When it reappeared, a bill was folded between his fingers. “Fifty do you?”
I hesitated. “What you want in return?”
That night Tanisha and I went to the movies with her friends. It was the first time we’d been alone in the dark—the first time I’d been alone in the dark with any girl—and when the movie was over, my life had changed. I was on my way to becoming a man.
Afterward I walked home. Subwoofers boomed from the slow-moving rides cruising the streets, and styled-up folks waited in lines to get into clubs. It was Friday night, and everyone was trying to get what they’d waited for all week.
In the yard at Douglass, people were having a homecoming party for a guy named Derek who’d just gotten out of the army. Dance music blared from a sound system rigged to a car battery. Jamar was talking to a girl with a big chest and short brown hair pasted tightly to her skull. In the shadows near one of the trees, LaRue was slow dancing with a skanky-looking girl in high heels with bleached-blond pigtails and a short, low-cut dress. I pretended not to see him and hoped nobody told Nia.
I was about to go in when I noticed someone on the bench, bent over with his head on his arms. “Terrell?”
My best friend lifted his head. Even in the dark I could see that one of his eyes was swollen shut and dried blood caked his nose and lips.
“What the hell?” I said.
He made a fist. On the back of his hand were three ugly, reddish cigarette burns. Then he pulled a string of black-and-white beads from under his shirt and gave me the sign of the Disciples. A crooked smile worked its way onto his swollen lips. He was in.
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