I vividly remember reading the letter for the first time. As soon as I finished, my girlfriend Amanda came down the stairs of our townhouse fussing about something. It must have really mattered to her because she was visibly angry, her face was red, her tone was aggressive, and her voice was loud. I glanced at her long enough to notice her irritation, but I did not hear a word that she was saying. I wasn’t purposely ignoring her. I would have engaged in the commotion but I was not done digesting the contents of the letter. It perplexed me, but Amanda was too angry to notice the confusion on my face. She had been yelling non-stop for six minutes, I know because I had a habit of checking my phone every few moments like somebody waiting for something.
The letter was hopeful and scary, it was joyful and sad, and it was terrific and oddly tragic. It made me feel heroic but guilty in the same instant. It was straight forward and right to the point, it included a list of instructions that were simple but hard to follow. I eventually asked Amanda what the fuck she was yelling about, but that question aggravated her further. I don’t know why I asked because I knew whatever the present inconvenience was it wasn’t the source of her anger. Her frustrations ran deep and they were rooted in every truth of her life up to that point.
Like everybody around me she grew up in chaos. She never knew her father and her mother had a new boyfriend every month. She was raised in a large four bedroom, three story brick house in what used to be an affluent neighborhood until the local factory shut down and all the white people left. At least once a year her mom would let a new guy move in and they were all assholes; a couple of drug addicts, an abusive guy, a schizophrenic, a drug dealer etc... She would witness her mom get hit a lot and she had heard her mother called bitch, whore, liar, cheater and cunt so much that she did not think much of her mom after a while.
Several of the men tried to rape Amanda. They would sneak into her bedroom while her mom was passed out drunk. She learned how to become a light sleeper, so none of them could completely catch her off guard again, like the first guy who stuck his fingers in her vagina before he got scratched in the face and kicked in the groin. As soon as she would hear her bedroom door creep open, she would jump to her feet and yell “get out motherfucker, I will call the cops on your ass”. But one of the men treated her like his own daughter. He bought her things like shoes and clothes, costume jewelry and the latest electronics. He took her and her mother to Hawaii for a week around Christmas when she was twelve and that was the only time she had ever been out of Ohio. Amanda felt safe with him and so when he came into her room late one night, she was not as alarmed. He sat on the bed next to her and woke her up with a kiss on the check. He convinced Amanda that it was OK for them to touch and kiss because he loved her, like he loved her mother. He slid the hair off her face, and gently kissed her on her bottom lip and then on her neck. He knew how to touch her pubescent body and she liked the way his fingers felt rubbing slightly against her figure, it made her feel good, like a real women. She kissed him back before laying flat against her twin sized mattress so that he could climb on top of her, but when he put his penis in her vagina, it hurt so bad that it shocked her back into the reality of the situation. She asked him to stop, but he didn’t. She did not scream because she felt like it was her fault for enjoying the kiss and accepting all of the gifts that he gave her, she wept silently instead and she continued to cry until the next morning. She tried to tell her mom what had happened, but she was not willing to believe her. The man stayed in the home for months and repeated the incident a few more times, until he went to prison for trafficking heroine.
My upbringing was not as traumatic, but chaotic in its own way. I knew who my father was; he was the founding Pastor of one of the largest churches in our city. My mother was not his wife, and my little sister and I was his secret. He wasn’t exactly an absent father or a deadbeat, but we never really connected as father and son. Growing up, he was more or less just a presence in our house when he came over. He would stop by every Monday at 8:00pm like clockwork. He handed my mother a small envelope full of cash, and my mom would offer him a glass of water or dinner if she had cooked that night. He never refused and would always stay and sip on his water or eat his food. They would talk in the kitchen for hours while my sister and I would play with action figures and Barbie dolls in the living room pretending not to listen to their conversation. Every now and then he would try to engage us in conversation, but even as a six year old I recognized that the rapport between us was clumsy and awkward. I sometimes wondered to myself if I got Amanda pregnant on purpose just to have a child to build a relationship with my child that was better than the one that I had with my father.
In an effort to spite our upbringings, Amanda and I endeavored to build a family like the Huxtables to amend the sins of our fathers, but she was no Clair and I am no Cliff. She was fucked up and I was fucked up too because I thought I could fix her crazy ass. She longed for ordinary, and I thought I could give it to her, but I couldn’t because I was extraordinarily stupid. My intentions were good but they were extremely misguided by the ignorance of my youth. As a couple we were old enough to sign a lease but too young to posses the wisdom to make decisions that was in our best interest. Our juvenile judgment lead us to rent a two bedroom townhouse in a neighborhood even more dangerous than the ones we grew up in and although the space was rather large, neither one us knew how the share it. We could not shrink our egos enough to comfortably fit within the perimeters of our home. We were cramped and we were angry, all of the time.
After Amanda was done yelling at me, after I responded and got kicked out of the apartment for the seventeenth time, I put on my fall jacket and folded the letter and tucked it as deep as I could in the interior left pocket of the jacket, in the same space as my Black & Mild and white lighter, right above my ribs, opposite my heart. The timing was convenient, so much so, Amanda probably thought I got kicked out purposely, shit, I probably did. I was scheduled to pick up my best friend Malik from the bus station that afternoon and I did not want to fight with her ass the whole day.
I drove to the Greyhound satiation and waited in the lobby for an hour where I watched an episode of the talk show Maury, I remember that the episode had a title that was odd even for a show of that kind, “A Donkey Kick Made Me Sterile, I am Not Your Baby’s Dad.” A few minutes after the show had ended a hoard of bodies flooded the lobby of the worn down bus station. I looked through the collage of faces, hoping to find Malik’s. As soon as I did, I knew that all the talk of him changing his life, getting out of the streets, getting a G.E.D and being faithful to his baby’s mother was a bunch of bullshit. He likely believed every word he wrote as he was writing them behind the doors of his jail cell, but if that was the case, the chemicals in the free air put the mischievous twinkle right back into his dark brown eyes. The look on his face made it painfully obvious that he was ready for the same shit he had been up to from the time we met as boys with no front teeth and riding bikes with training wheels still attached.
Malik did whatever the fuck he wanted to do with no regard to how anyone felt about what he was doing, or the consequences it would have on him or anyone else. His attitude, that “I don’t give a fuck” demeanor led him to multiple stents in juvenile detention, a short period in a group home, very few real friends, and most recently a year in prison, but some part of me admired that attitude. I consciously adopted it by the time I was thirteen, and as a result I started to find myself in the back of police cars, unable to keep a job and with a baby by the age of eighteen. However, there was an obvious and distinct difference between Malik and I. For better or worse his attitude was genuine and unrelenting. Me, I could not “give a fuck” only long enough to do something stupid or selfish, but invariably I would second guess my decision, my truer nature would kick in at some point and I felt the need to make things right. It seemed to be a fatal combination of personality traits, two spirits not meant to share the same body, two entities not quite right for a yin yang. Yet, they were ever present, not as an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other, just one being settled in my conscious.
Malik finally spotted me in the crowd. A smile adorned his face, the stress of his short life was a little more apparent from the lines under his eyes, he had a dark but a very even complexion, and though smooth, his skin always seemed callus, like an extra layer of protection from the elements of the universe and the world around him. Despite his tough exterior, he was extremely animated, and he greeted me with a hug. Although we had always been about the same height and weight, Malik seemed to be a little sturdier than I; like if he was pushed he wouldn’t budge, like an oak tree firmly planted wherever he stood. I was different, not completely uprooted, but definitely movable when provoked.
We engaged in small talk as we were leaving the bus station, all he had with him was a plastic bag that contained a white tank top and some sneakers. He was wearing the state issued black slippers with white socks on his feet, a baggy pair of jeans and a brown t-shirt that was two-sizes too big for him. I asked him how was prison and he all but ignored the question. He asked me about living with Amanda and I facetiously responded “Probably no different than the prison you just came from.” I was joking yet I was alarmed by the extent to which that statement was true for me. Malik found the comment especially funny he laughed hysterically at my expense, long enough for me to feel slightly offended. He proceeded to give me a back hand compliment, stating that he admired what I was trying to do, but continued to tell me that I was “dumb as hell.” I responded with the obligatory “fuck you” and we laughed all the way to my 1995 Pontiac Bonneville with its tan paint that was chipping in the front, parked on the street adjacent to the bus station.
I thought about telling him about the letter, but a part of me was embarrassed by it, so I asked him where he wanted to go instead. He directed me to a house that was located around the corner from the street that we grew up on. He told me to “Stay in the car and lookout for a minute”. He didn’t specify what I was looking out for, but I knew. He returned about ten minutes later and we drove around the corner to his grandmother’s house. This was the house that he spent most of his life in, along with three generations of aunts, uncles, cousins, a sister and a brother, but these days the house was always empty. Uncles lost their lives to addictions, aunts found boyfriends, cousins left with their mothers, his brother moved with his father and his sister made it to college. The grandparents were often out of town, on the road, enjoying their freedom. But, as far as I could tell, this was still the only place Malik considered home, and presumably this is where he would be spending the night. We walked up to the porch and Malik did not even bother knocking on the door, he just took a seat on one of the steel fold up chairs and I followed suit. He pulled out a twin pack of swisher sweets and two baggies from his pocket, one containing about three grams of weed and the other containing two fairly large crack rocks. He rolled some of the weed up into the swisher, we smoked and reminisced about all the fights that we would get into with the dudes from the next block up, all the bikes we stole from kids around the corner, the girl we all shared our first kiss with, the first time he had sex with her, all the games we played as kids, and we counted all the friends we had lost to gun shots.
After the swisher was gone I reached into my jacket pocket for my Black & Mild, I felt the letter tightly folded, and I thought about pulling the letter out and letting Malik read it, but I thought if somebody else read it, it would make it real, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be real yet. It was more comfortable an idea rather than a reality. I left it there, pulled out the Black & Mild and lit it. Malik looked at me crazy because we had a custom of taking the tobacco out of the Black & Mild saving it in the cellophane that the Mini Cigar came in, taking out the little piece of paper glued to the tip of the of the cigar and then putting all the tobacco back into the now empty shell, we called the process “freaking the Black.” We had this belief that somehow that little piece of paper that was glued to the Black & Mild made the cigars more cancerous, and only white people smoked Black & Milds without “freaking” them. I stopped doing that about the same time Malik went to prison. I grew to find that idea to be ridiculous and figured it was not worth the trouble to smoke a damn Black & Mild, plus I really was never good at freaking them anyway.
I asked Malik if he was going to put his stuff in the house or at least put some shoes on, but he never did, he assisted that we go get Gary from work, but he wanted to see his mom first. His mother lived in the “Brook” which was what we called the Meadowbrook projects on the east side of the city. It was a 20 minute drive that I probably would not have made on any other day; I had less than a quarter tank of gas, no job and no money to refill the tank. I knew if I came home with no gas in the car, it would be just another thing for Amanda to get angry about. But, it was Malik’s first day out of jail and I felt obligated to take him to see his mother. When we arrived to the Brook, I parked in the space right in front of his mother’s apartment, probably where she would have parked if she had a car. We both got out the car, Malik knocked and and knocked again but he didn’t get an answer. We proceeded to walk to the green area in the middle of the complex that was supposed to be a miniature park, but it was just a big dirt patch with a splintered wooden play castle for kids and an equally tattered picnic table. There sat Malik’s mom smoking a cigarette with an extremely skinny white lady with long oily blonde hair, a tie dye tank top and dingy white shorts sitting across from her. I thought the white lady was under dressed considering that it was dark October day with a cold breeze blowing the leaves off the trees, but she seemed unfazed by the autumn air. Malik did not have a jacket on, but the wind did not seem to bother him either. Malik’s mother and the white lady were not talking, it was almost as though that she did not know the white lady was sitting in front of her, she was staring in space smoking cigarette in her hand with an ash on it that was a half inch long. She did not see us either, I stopped walking at the castle, but Malik marched closer as he called out “mom, mom, Momma!!” The rise in his voice startled her and caused her to jump enough for the ash to fall off of the cigarette and into her lap, she wiped the ash off of her dingy jeans. She turned in his direction but she barely reacted to his presence. She stared at him for a second with a confused look in her eyes, it seemed that her brain didn’t process who he was right away, but she finally awoke out of her stupor with a sudden enthusiasm and asked him where the hell he had been. Malik seemed annoyed by the question.
He responded, “I have been in jail mom.”
To which she replied “Again?! “Boy you need to stop.”
Malik did not respond to her comment, instead he asked her a few questions regarding her everyday activities and the company that she kept. He was clearly worried that her heroine addiction was finally getting the best of her and it was painfully obvious that it was. Halfway through the conversation the skinny white lady got up and left without saying a word. Malik took the seat where she was sitting. He stared at his mother, unaffected by her appearance. Her hair was starting to grey, it was pulled back into a stingy pony tail held in place by a dirty rubber band, she was covered by an old hooded sweatshirt that was a faded black and as baggy as Malik’s jeans. Her pants were too short, they exposed her ashy ankles and a dirty pair of white sneakers that were falling apart at the seams. I took a seat on the castle steps and smoked the rest of my Black & Mild. I did not hear Malik and his mother conversing anymore, he was just sitting across from her as they both puffed on cigarettes in their comfortable silence.
After Malik finished the cigarette he violently flicked the cigarette butt into the dry earth beneath his feet and told her “I gotta go mom.” She replied by asking him if he had any money. He pulled out a single five dollar bill from his pocket and said “This is all I got mom, buy you something to eat and quit shooting the shit”. Her eye’s watered, but no tears dropped down her high cheek bones. She extended her hands to receive the money but did not say another word. Malik stood and stared at her for a moment waiting for her to say something else but she never did, he finally surrendered to the silence and said “Bye mom” before turning to walk away. He put his hands in his pockets while simultaneously bringing his shoulders up to his neck.
We walked back to the car in silence and when we finally got in; I hesitantly asked him what was next. He said that he wanted to go see Gary and ask him why he didn’t write him back when he was in prison. I called Gary to see where he was, he answered his phone and told me he was on the bus and that we should meet him at his mother’s house in ten minutes.
I knew Gary wouldn’t be home for at least thirty minutes if he was telling me ten. It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the bus stop closest to his mother’s house, there we sat as we smoked another swisher filled with weed and talked about the women we wanted to have sex with in the neighborhood. About Twelve minutes later, the bus, the number four heading northbound, pulled up behind my car and Gary got off of it with an anxious look out his face that made it clear that he was ready to unwind after a long day at work. I honked my horn in case he didn’t notice the Bonneville with the foggy windows in front of him. When he spotted us he walked to the car and opened the back door, waiving some smoke out of his face before he got in. He immediately greeted Malik and of course he was happy to see him. Although Gary was not as animated as Malik, they were both loud enough to be heard from a mile away. I drove the two blocks it took to get to Gary’s mother’s house. I remember the two blocks feeling like two miles because I was exceptionally high. My tolerance for weed was low because I never really smoked it unless I was with Malik.
We got out of the car and walked through the tiny yard, into the small house and traveled through the furniture-less living room to get to Gary’s lavish bedroom. The walls of the room were covered by Nike and Air Jordan shoe boxes; his closet was filled with four-hundred dollar jeans and two hundred dollar shirts and he had a couple of gold linked chains that adorned his dresser along with a gold Rolex watch and a bottle of Ralph Lauren cologne. One of the hood’s biggest mysteries was why Gary did not own a car but me and Malik knew it was because he couldn’t drive. Gary was a hustler and extremely street smart, but he lacked conventional knowledge. He did not have a bank account because he did not know how to open one or manage it, he did not have an apartment because he couldn’t handle the stress of paying bills, he spoke terrible English and he could barely read. Despite his flaws I envied him for his ability to buy stuff and one could not help but to admire his work ethic.
Gary started working at Burger King at sixteen so that he can buy the shoes that he wanted, but the need for money became serious when his mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and she had to quit her job. Gary’s dad left the home a few years prior and suddenly Gary was the primary bread winner for the household. The Burger King check wasn’t enough for the shoes and the bills, even when he dropped out of high-school to work full time at the restaurant. He began selling weed through the drive thru, he successfully gambled on dice games and sporting events and he even got another full-time job working at small factory that made parts for air conditioners. Gary had plenty of money to pay rent and utilities for their tiny house, and more than enough for his shoes and clothes.
Gary’s flashy style and mild temper caused him to get robbed at gun point a lot so he eventually bought a gun himself even though anyone who really knew him certainly knew he would never use it to actually shot anybody. He put the gun in his waistline after he got dressed and ready for the evening. Gary gave Malik a pair of Timberland boots to wear for the night and we sat in his room a bit longer while Malik rolled yet another swisher and we discussed our plans for the night. We eventually agreed on going to one of the local bars we knew we could get into despite the fact that Gary was the only one old enough to drink legally. I felt inadequately dressed especially since Gary put on a seven hundred dollar outfit, but I did not want to go home and change because I knew it was a good chance that Amanda would be there and she would have something to say about me going to bar especially considering how high as I already was. More than that, I knew I did not have anything much better to put on, even my best pair of sneakers was riddled with creases and ragged shoe laces. I knew Gary would have let me wear some of his clothes if I asked, but I was too proud to do so.
Driving to the bar, I remember being as happy as I had ever been for months before that moment in time on that cold and dark October night. I had completely forgotten about the letter in my pocket as I laughed and bullshitted with people who were closer to me than my blood brothers, but I knew that that moment would soon fade as soon as Malik asked Gary, “So why didn’t you write me back or send me any money when I was locked up?”
Gary responded, “What?”
Malik said “You heard me! Why didn’t you hold a nigga down when I was locked up?”
Annoyed Gary responded “Get out of here bruh, shit don’t stop because you get locked up. Niggas got to eat, I got mouths to feed.”
Agitated Malik remarked “Eat? Nigga you eating! Look at that muthafuckin watch on your wrist! Fuck you nigga, you just a stingy heartless muthafucka!
“Fuck me?” Gary asked. “Fuck me nigga??” I was the only one putting your broke ass on when you was out here, I gave you everything you needed to come up! You just ain’t a hustler nigga. I am out here! I am out here getting money nigga, get you some!
Malik answered “Fuck you! Who the fuck you talking too! Nigga you soft, you ain’t safe in these streets when I am not around”.
Gary responded “Fuck you nigga, I will beat your ass!”
Malik replied “What nigga?!? I will take that gun from you and beat your ass with it.”
Gary pulled the gun from his waist pointed it at Malik and said “Do it then nigga”.
That shit infuriated me, frustrated I yelled “Chill the fuck out! What the fuck are you doing Gary? Put that muthafuckin gun up.”
Gary replied “Fuck that, this nigga always talking shit!”
Suddenly a flash of light illuminated the car from the outside and a siren rang loud in our ears. Gary and Malik ceased conversation and Gary put the gun back into his waistline. Almost immediately Malik directed me.
“Do not pull over!”
I never once contemplated running from the cops and so I tried to assure Malik that everything was going to be alright.
I stated “It’s cool, just be cool.”
“Just be cool Bruh.”
I pulled over to the side of the rode and sat nervously waiting for the officer to get out of his car. I wasn’t sure if it was apparent that I was high, but I did want to raise any suspicion because I knew that if the interaction did not go without incident we could all go to jail or get shot in the streets at no consequence to the police officer. In an instant I realized that the car still smelled like weed.
I rolled down the window, not fully, but low enough to indicate to the chubby white man that was approaching my car that I was willing to cooperate.
Once he got to my vehicle he demanded my license, registration and proof of insurance and then asked, “Do you know why I pulled you over young man?
I replied, "No sir I do not."
He continued to tell me that the light that illuminated my license plate was out and in Ohio that light must work so that the incense plate is clearly displayed. I informed him that I wasn’t aware of that law nor was I aware that the light was out.
Then he asked the dreaded question. “Have you guys been smoking marijuana?
Instinctively I replied, “No sir, I let my brother borrow my car a while ago and he may have smoked in here”.
I was not sure if he bought the story, but he proceeded by asking us all for our IDs. We reluctantly surrendered them to the officer and he took them back to his vehicle. Malik yelled "Fuck!", as he punched the back of the passenger seat.
Gary yelled, “Chill bruh!”
Malik responded “Fuck that bruh, I am not going back to jail, I just out that muthafucka!” Malik was hysterical, “I am about to toss this crack.”
It was almost as though they were not just arguing a minute ago, but Malik and Gary have been like that since we seven years old. They would get in fist fights in the middle of the street every other week and be best friends again the very next day.
Gary repeated,”Chill nigga! You just got out so you don’t got no warrant, don’t bring no attention bruh, I got this strap!”
Malik, replied “We are going to jail!”
Malik kept hitting the back of the passenger seat, and he rocked back and forth anxiously contemplating his options.
I tried to console him “Calm down bruh, its cool”
He did not respond, instead he got out of the car and ran. I tried to get him to stop, I yelled, “Get back in the car bruh!” But he didn’t listen, he had quickly hoped the guard rail along side of the road and through the wooded hills below.
The officer in the passenger side of the police cruiser immediately got out of the car and chased him on the hill. The other cop instantly jumped out of the driver’s seat, drew his gun and ran towards my car while calling back up on his radio.
“Get the fuck out of the car!” is the command he yelled at me and Gary as his partner was in hot pursuit Malik through the woods. Before we could move, the officer yelled again, “Get the fuck out the car with your hands in the motherfucking air!”
Gary and I got out of the vehicle and we were commanded to put our hands flat on the roof. He put his gun back into the holster on the side of his hip and immediately started to pat Gary down for weapons. He found the gun on Gary’s waistline and demanded him to the ground. Gary complied with no resistance as the chubby white man put handcuffs on his wrist, but not before pointing to me and commanding “Don’t you fucking move.”
I sat as still as I could, slightly slanted forward, feet shoulder’s width apart with my hands firmly planted on top of the Bonneville. The cop searched me aggressively starting at my ankles, feeling his way up to my groin before searching my jacket. He felt the folded up piece of paper in my left pocket, he took it out, unfolded it and read the letter.
I panicked “What the hell are you doing man?”
He replied “Shut up!”
I took my hands off the car and turned towards him “Come on man, get out of my business, do what you gotta do”
He ignored me and kept reading the letter, a puzzled look invaded his face. He handed me the letter and said “Put your hands back on the car and don’t you fucking move”.
Confused I replied, “What?”
He repeated “Put your hands on the car and don’t move”.
Tears filled my eyes as I put my hands back on the car as the officer picked Gary up off of the ground and walked him to cruiser. My tears bathed the pavement as I watched him from the corner of my eye stuff Gary into the back up of the police car. Gary’s expression never did change from the time the officer pointed his gun at us. With the stone look on his face Gary’s glance met mine and my silent cry turned into a sob. My face turned to the ground and I stared at the black street until I heard the officer told me to take my hands off the car.
He handed me my driver’s license and said to me “Go home young man.”
With a cracked and confused voice I asked “What?”
He said “Get in your car and go home.”
At that point I knew that he had considered the contents of the letter. Suddenly it was clear to me that my life would never be the same because of what that letter said. I followed his instructions and I drove home feeling heroic and guilty in the same instant, hopeful and scared at the same time, sad and joyful at the tragedy and triumph that just occurred. It was clear that I had to follow the instruction that the letter provided.
When I got home to Amanda, I told her what had happened and I told her about the letter. I told her what I thought and meant for her and I and for the future of our son. By this time I had embraced what the letter said and an excitement had raided my voice. I had finally cracked a smile and waited for her to respond after a moment of silence, she finally did and her only response was “Fuck you.”