Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
We come up out the station and the heat pimp slaps her cheeks red. She look confused, like she don’t believe how hot it is in Brooklyn. When she left the city, it was cool, around eighty degrees or so. But here, the big bank clock at the junction is flashing ninety-six degrees. She must not know how the mayor got a big-ass AC in the sky that pumps out cool air all over Manhattan to keep the tourists and the big Willie white people comfortable.
All these brown bodies just absorb the heat and store it up for the winter. It’s the only way tropical people can survive in New York when it starts to get cold.
Some politician in a blue stripe suit is handing out flyers with his picture on it. A lot of people are grabbing up the brother flyers so they can fan themselves while they stand at the bus stop. I don’t take one cause I ain’t even old enough to vote and if I was I still wouldn’t take one cause Gooma say, “Politicians do the devil’s work: Lie, cheat and steal.” All the politicians I ever seen trooping through the hood look shady. Cause you never see ‘em till they need a nigga vote. That’s when they come rolling around in they convertible Cadillacs screaming thru a bullhorn and tossing out chicken wings.
She walking down the street and I’m behind her, about three shadows away. Not following her—we just happen to be going the same way cause she live in the top floor apartment of this house two doors down from my girl Nina crib. Her body not bad for a white girl. I mean, she got a nice size booty. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s just an illusion cause they got jeans these days to make the flattest asses look big.
She usually wear faded corduroys (as hot as it is) and dingy tank tops with just enough nipple poking through the cotton to make the dudes outside the bodega grab they joints. I never could get into white girls. Not like I got much experience with girls period, but they just never really razzed my berries. I don’t knock a dude if he into that cause Gooma say, “Love is blind.” But I know there ain’t no love when cats get with white girls.
Mostly it’s for the sex cause niggas know white girls do things that black chicks suck they teeth at. Some dudes get with them cause they feel more like a man or something. That’s why in Manhattan you got brothers bouncing down the street with they chest sticking out, sporting a white girl like a new pair of sneakers. Around here, Puerto Rican is the closest you can come to getting a white girl. Her skin can be white as milk as long as she Puerto Rican.
Certain lines brothers just don’t cross. Like pimping down the Ave with a Jenny. Not round here anyway, cause the West Indian grandmas would be cutting they eyes. And one of the corner niggas might fling a piece of chewed-up mango skin at them. Or some reckless kid might toss a bottle off the roof, making the glass crash right in front of where they walking. She might get a gash in her foot as a warning: Watch your step, bitch.
She stop at Mr. Kim’s fruit stand and I stop too. Not cause I’m following her, but cause I’m wanna bring Nina some cherries. There’s crates of fruit outside that look like they been used as handballs, all bruised and half splattered. The grocery part on the inside got buckets of blue crab and cow feet and stacks of green bananas. I pick through the cherries, looking for the ones with the beak marks from where the birds done pecked cause Gooma say those the sweetest. I peek inside to see what she buying: some soymilk and two bottles of Red Stripe beer. She pay for it with a ten.
Sometimes she bring back empty beer bottles for the refund. Use the change to buy a loosie that she smokes on the way to the train station. If I ain’t know better, I would think she was poor like the rest of us. Too poor to live with people who look like her.
That’s what she want us to think so nobody bother her. But I know ol’ girl got money. I know her parents got a fat house in Westchester with two golden retrievers running themselves dizzy in the backyard. I know her daddy writes a check every month to cover her expenses while she goes through this phase of being an artist or whatever them white kids be into when they call themselves rebelling.
I’m still running my fingers through the sticky cherries when she walks by me. I twist the plastic bag around my fingers and go inside to pay.
When I get to Nina’s house, I see the white chick sitting outside on the stoop, yapping on her cell and smoking. Looking real comfortable in her surroundings. Too comfortable. She chilling on the steps like she grew up here. Like she earned a nickname. Like her skin the color of coconut shells.
I ring Nina’s bell four times. No answer. She might be at the courts looking for me. I was out there early, before the sun was high posting in the sky, popping off three-pointers and dribbling so swift the pigeons was getting dizzy. I’ll go back when it cool off a little. Been so hot lately, a brother sneakers be sticking to the pavement. Gooma be like: “Be careful out there, mingling with the devil’s breath.” She always worry I’m gonna faint or something. My mother usually come out her mouth with the ill shit, talking bout: “Boy, you need to stay out the sun with your black ass…”
I figure I’ll sit on Nina’s stoop for a minute. But just a minute, cause her Pops should be rolling home from work in a few and the last thing he need to see is some random dude on his stoop with his joint on swoll waiting for his daughter.
I pick through her bag of cherries and pull out a couple of dark ones. When I bite into one, the juice is sweet and squirts on my shirt. I look around to see if I lost cool points but nobody but the white girl saw it, which don’t count even though she laughing at me anyway. I spit the pit out in her direction and wipe the juice from my lip with my thumb. The spots on my shirt look like freckles of dried blood.
I can tell, just by looking at her, that her mother worries about her a lot. She pale as a cloud and skinny like them dumb lettuce-eating models that be in every magazine and every commercial and every nigga’s dream. I see the way these corner cats be x-raying her when she walk by. Try’na see through her. Cause she look breakable. Like a wishbone. They wanna take her someplace dark where they can whisper a wish, then bend back her bones until she pop.
Everyday I bet her mother bite her nails and watch the news. Then read the paper, looking for her daughter’s name squished up in between a headline. All her father prolly care about is the money he saving. His daughter’s rent is two Gs less than the loft in the West Vill that she moved out of after she broke up with Chad or Kyle. (I’m still waiting to meet that white boy named Tyrone). He prolly already got a stash of savings. So if he worry it’s all the way to the bank. But he don’t worry bout worrying cause he think his family is untouchable like some painting in a museum.
Little do he know, even things considered priceless get stolen or destroyed no matter how thick the glass case, no matter the maze of velvet rope people have to go through to get a glimpse. But she be bopping through my hood on some ol’ prehistoric shit. Like time didn’t start until she got here.
Now, here come that fool Beeto, letting his three rotties shit all over the sidewalk. They trot slow like they got weights on they legs. Beeto nods as he pimps by. I nod back. The dogs sniffing the ground for old piss. They get in front of white girl’s stoop and the dogs go wild, barking and jumping up on the gate. Beeto don’t even try to shut them up. He just stand there laughing until she take her ass inside.
Some nights I see her tipping through my neighborhood like a thief. She either brave or crazy or some combination of the two like most cops and firemen who think they can catch bullets with they teeth or put out fires with they spit.
The sisters don’t trust her. When she walk by, they eyes roll in they heads like lemons in a slot machine. They know that innocent shit is just a mask she wears like Halloween or something. But she trick or treating in the wrong hood. Ain’t no treats round these parts.
After about fifteen minutes on the stoop, I got a bag of pits, but still no sign of Nina coming around the corner with that smile of hers. I figure I better hit it, cause her father ain’t gone be smiling. He work at a bank which has gotta be a frustrating job to have to work around mad loot all day and leave with a few bucks in your pocket. I mean, it’s not like her dad sweep the floors or nothing. He got a legit nine to five, be sporting the fresh suit and ties and shiny shoes, but he still must be bringing home chump change. Why else would that nigga have his family living in a house around the corner from the projects?
Nina said her dad said it was a temporary move. A way for him to stack some cheddar so they can come up on some real real estate. I can respect that cause Gooma say, “Sometimes you gotta take one step backward to go two steps forward.”
Right now, I can’t afford to make no backwards moves. If I take one more step back, I’m gonna end up falling in a black hole or something. And that’s all the projects is anyway—a black hole. I still remember from that trip to the planetarium, way back in the fourth grade that a black hole is like a vacuum that has sucked up all the light. And we be steady moving through this space with no air for a nigga to catch his breath and nothing but darkness for blocks.
That white girl must think she the North Star in our little black hole. Must think we point to her for direction.
This morning I’m up early as usual to get to the courts while there’s a breeze nice enough to make the sweat tingle on my skin, but not windy enough to throw my jumper off. I stop at the bodega first for a pint of milk cause the milk in the refrigerator was warm. Project frigerators be testy. Sometimes ours get so cold, the milk be half frozen. Today, the leftover spaghetti was hot enough to eat and my mother’s half-empty soda bottle was sweaty.
There she go, headphones on, coming through with her fancy plastic bags full of shit black folk don’t eat. Like tofu or eggplant. She too good to buy groceries from the C-Town. The one with the sticky floors and dented cans and flies and cashiers with attitudes.
Afternoon sun is too much. The rays be slicing up a brother eyes like a ninja. Squinting throws my shots off and I ain’t try’na be the Hollywood nigger who plays with shades on. So I make it a quick run. After I murder a few dudes who dared to take me solo, I stop at the Guyanese fruit stand on the corner to buy three 3 for a $1.00 bananas, when I run into her, again. I prolly run into cats left and right, over and over, but never notice cause brown skin blends in with the bricks. But chick is just obvious. She at the counter buying green apples. I’m right behind her, so close I can smell the salt in her skin. On her way out, an apple fall out the plastic bag and thump against the ground. It roll into the Timbs of some dude posted up on the fire hydrant. He scoop it up quick and place it in her hand. His knuckle brush the softness of her pink palm. She nod thank you, but know not to smile. Cause smiles can quickly turn into fractured jaws and chunks of teeth scraping against the pavement like chalk.
The apple is bruised, purple and brown like dude’s skin who handed it to her. I’m on her heels, so when she turns around, she bump into me a little. I step back and stand, scoping her like a vulture. She eyes me back, pushes her finger in the mushy dark spot and takes a bite. As she walk away, I adjust my joint, a little surprised.
“Now see, if that bitch had never bit the apple, we’d all be naked and living in peace right now…”
I turn around and see Supreme Everlasting leaning up against the wall, grinning with a toothpick dangling from his mouth.
We bump fists. “Peace, God, ” I say.
“Whattup, Sun? I see you getting ya potassium on. Treating ya body like the temple that it is.”
I nod. Break into one of the bananas. Peel back a few strips and poke it at Supreme, see if he want some.
“Nah. I’m good. But yo, you heard ol’ girl having a party?” he points his toothpick in the direction the white girl walked.
“So. Ain’t gone be nothing but a bunch of Matts and Jennys,” I say through the mush of my banana. A brother is hungry.
“Sun, she invited Woody and Steak.” Supreme spit out his toothpick and wrestle one of the bananas from under my arm. That’s how a brother is. Don’t accept when I offer. Don’t ask, just take what he feel is his. We cool like that though, so I don’t trip.
Woody and Steak? Figures. Woody might as well be white, skateboarding all over the place. His head is shaved on the sides with a little nappy afro in the middle like some Mr. T shit. He got a skull tattoo on his arm and wear his wallet on a chain cause cats used to gank him big time back in the day.
Steak been eyeing the white girl since she moved in. He too lame for the sisters: talk all proper, read books with spaceships on the covers, and don’t eat meat. Cats found that out and started calling him Steak cause dude is so skinny, he could use one.
“She ain’t invite me!” I joke.
“What, you wanna see the inside of her cave too?” Supreme don’t catch my humor.
“Nah. I was just kidding,” I say, starting to walk now, before Supreme has a chance to get scientific on me.
“A’ight sun. Just checking… never know these days. Stay righteous, Man.” Supreme say and stuff his cheek with banana.
“Always… ” I throw my fist in the sky.
Reggae music playing and the living room is cloudy with weed smoke. Four long-legged white boys slouched on the couch, passing and coughing. The couch is bright yellow, with smiley faces on the fabric. Woody squatting on his skateboard, rolling back and forth, waiting to take the joint. Steak is posted up by the table in the kitchen, smashing the deviled eggs. I might as well be an eyeball on the wall, sipping a warm can a soda, try’na figure out how the hell I got here.
My girl Nina got invited since she live two doors down. But I told her she wasn’t coming up in here round no gang of white boys without her man. She in the bedroom with Becca, that’s the white girl name, looking at her pet snake.
Ain’t too much popping off. Steak rips a fart and the guys on the couch start laughing. Becca and Nina come back in the living room, the snake wrapped around Becca’s neck. Its skin is mostly brownish-green but when it moves I notice a patch that’s reddish-pink and raw looking like a sore with the scab picked off.
“Yo, what happened?” I point at the spot.
“He got burned on the radiator. I guess he couldn’t tell that he was burning himself,” she giggle and shrug. Walk into the kitchen and pluck open a can of beer. The white dudes looking up, smiling.
Nina got on a pair of tight jeans and a pink tank top. Her booty is poking through the denim, perfectly round like a globe. Them white boys prolly don’t know jack bout geography, but can see Africa all over my girl ass. I grab Nina and pull her close. Whisper, “You ready to go?”
“You not having fun, huh?” She put her hands on my chest and look up at me.
“I didn’t come here to have—”
The front door bangs open. In come Rowdy dragging his Timbs. “Where da party at?!” He looking like he just finish turning himself in circles and now he waiting for the room to stop spinning. He snatch the joint from one of the dudes on the couch. Sucks it deep. Eyes closed.
I look at Becca whose eyes is crossed between Rowdy and her door, wide open. The snake winds around her waist like a belt. Rowdy eyes open. He frown.
“The fuck y’all got to eat up in this piece?” He squint at the table of food, his eyes jumping from plate to plate. His eyes grab me and hold on. A few seconds to focus… “Man?! What you doing here?” He ask me almost surprised, almost embarrassed.
I am surprised to see him and kinda embarrassed to be caught at the white girl house but at least I gotta excuse. I point to Nina who look nervous which makes me nervous, but I say, “My girl…” Try’na act nonchalant. The real question is: “The fuck you doing here?” I ask, like I’m hard or got heart or some shit.
He push himself past me into the kitchen and start crushing the chips. He hold the bag to his mouth waiting for the avalanche of salty crumbs. Steak is stuck on stupid, staring at Rowdy. Rowdy mushes the back of Steak head and Steak come stumbling out the kitchen. Something like laughter comes from the direction of the couch where the white boys are posted up. Then the chips bag fall from Rowdy hand. It’s hard to tell whether he dropped it on purpose or if it just fell. Rowdy’s body seem to shrink into a pair of fists. He scan the room. Steak about faces toward the bathroom. Nina hand is on the front doorknob. All the dudes pull their legs up under them in sync. They knees make knobby right angles. They ready to stand and run, but they high so they sit and wait for adrenaline to catch up.
Becca gulps her beer, which gives her the nerve to say, “Hey, want one?” She wave the can in front of Rowdy’s face like a distraction.
Rowdy breaks out of his trance. “Pabst?!” Rowdy ask like he insulted or something. “You ain’t got no Henny up in here?” Rowdy start picking up the empty bottles of vodka from the top of her fridge. He look through the glass of the bottle like a peephole. Then he just drop the bottle. The glass is too thick to shatter but it clank against the kitchen floor tiles and all of us jump. Woody see-saws off his skateboard which flies down the hall and thunks against the bathroom door.
I hear Steak say, “Be out in a minute, dude!”
Rowdy whispering a chant, “Empty… Empty… Empty…” He say then drop another worthless bottle each time with more momentum than the last. Becca is biting the pink lipstick off her lips and the snake is winding its way down toward the bottles. Maybe he think they toys.
Dudes on the couch watching shit go down like TV.
“Fuck, man! You ain’t got no brown liquor?” Rowdy stares at the last empty bottle like he studying each dust particle coated on the outside of it.
Becca seem too scared to answer. I say, “Yo, Rowdy let’s hit up the liquor store right quick. Get some Henny and shit.” I offer, knowing I ain’t got no money and no ID that say I’m old enough.
Rowdy think for a second, twirling the bottle between his fingers. “You know what, Man? That would be a good idea ‘cept this bitch don’t got no manners.”
Becca place her beer can on the counter and pull her stringy hair behind her ear. Her face is red and I would say she look like she bout to cry, but most white girls look like they bout to cry. She stutter, “Umm, I—I— didn’t even know you…”
“Exactly!” Rowdy point the bottle at her. “This bitch ain’t even invite a nigga. And she got the nerve to be living up in the hood with her white friends and her white-ass beer and her whiteliquor and her white… what the fu—?” Just then Rowdy seem to notice the snake inching toward Becca’s right flip flop.
I never seen Rowdy scared cause he in the business of scaring people not the other way around, but I swear I see some molecule of fear seize him. Then all I see is his arm rising with that damn bottle like he possessed or something and shit is movie slow motion and soundless. Becca’s mouth is all scream but no scream and the dudes stand up quick fast and Woody scoots back in the corner behind the couch and me and Nina can’t even move.
Then, cue sound: thwackkkk!! Then shatter. Then shouting. And something that sound like a wail. They way T-Bone mother sounded after they shot him. Then: Thud. Thunk. Clunk. Clomp. Clomp. And with every stomp, Rowdy breathe, “Mother… Fuckin… Snake… Yo…”
Sound overwhelm my senses for a minute and everything is a blur of chaos. Then my eyes get right. The kitchen floor look like an art show. Blood. And chunks of snake. And white-green bits of glass. And Becca crouched up against the fridge pulling glass out her ankle singing, “Nooooo….. Noooooo….”
Already the police at the door with they banging. Cause NYPD know the distress call of a white girl a mile away. Nina open the door to a blue woosh of hands. In seconds, me and Rowdy humping the wall with our legs kicked apart and the hands making they music up against our bodies. Then the paramedics push through the door with they med packs and I hear the snapping of gloves.
Becca still at it, “Nooooo….. Nooooo…” and I see she pointing at Rowdy with her bloody hand.
“The hell you boys do to her?” the hands ask, clicking the cuffs on us.
“I ain’t do nothin’ officer… I ain’t do nothin’…” I say to the wall.
Rowdy screaming, “I ain’t touch that bitch, yo! I ain’t fucking touch her!” But the blood, the smell of weed, and the pointing white girl ain’t on our side. Plus we don’t look like we belong here. Timbs. Pants off our asses. Rowdy’s teeth all blinging. My black black skin. What we doing up in this poor white girl house?
Dudes just standing there like they in the army. At attention. Cops don’t even see Woody dumb ass in the corner hiding under his shadow. Nina hands clamped on her mouth, holding in her cries. And out come Steak with his hands up talking bout, “I was taking a dump officer” in his best white boy accent.
And all I can think about is what Gooma gone have to pawn to get me out on bail. And how this gone look on my record when the scouts come. And the stupid shit my mother gone say. And what Nina gone tell her parents. And what Gooma gone tell God. And then, I think about Supreme. And what he say about Eve and that damn apple. And I remember what Gooma told me about Eve and Adam and… there was a snake. A sneaky little snake that tricked Eve.
Stupid white girl. That snake had it coming.
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher and Cave Canem Fellow who received her MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College. She was a 2015 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in The Brooklyn Review, Bronx Biannual, and Kweli. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in No, Dear, The African American Review, Muzzle, Vinyl, Poetry and others. Her work has also been featured in several anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Her first poetry collection, how to get over, is available from Red Hen Press.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.