“What’s your name,” I asked as our hands slapped, gripped and broke apart. “Vells,” he said grinning, his red eyes twinkled. He was high, had been high for hours. He and the superintendent’s nephew Marcel smoked in the stairwell when their homes were too loud or too full. I’d come home, step over liquor bottles as the boys’ mumbled apologies and squeezed against the wall to let me pass. If was more than two Vells was the leader, they moved when he moved.
He always held out the joint to me, smoke curling around his wrist like a chain and I always smiled no, “Writing tonight.” I said it even when I wasn’t writing. I said it to cut a line between us. I didn’t want him or his friends knocking on my door but under that fear was the need for the numbness he offered. After each pass, it took more effort to be scared of them. They were boys ruining themselves and I was paid to teach the literature of their destruction. After passing them by I’d come into my apartment and look at my books; All God’s Children, Go Tell It On the Mountain and Manchild in the Promised Land and hear them laughing in the stairwell. They were characters in stories they would never read and I gave them a voice they’d never hear. The silence between us wore me down.
One night I came home tired, too tired to care and as I stepped over the mumbling boys and empty bottles, he again held the joint out to me. I took it and sucked a deep cloud into my lungs. “Cool,” I asked as I gave it back. “Yeah,” he said wide-eyed. I walked up to my door, went in and closed it hard as if to shut out their faces. They were too many to care about and the only way to guide them out was to dismantle my expensive privacy.
On the TV were DVD discs of old black and white Black Panthers news reels. I put them in, lay on the couch and watched Huey Newton speaking from jail. “The police are not in our community to help us. The police are in our community to keep property safe not to keep us safe.” His words were like an open flame. He radiated energy as if he was a willing magnet for the invisible emotion that surrounded him. I rubbed my face with the heel of my hand. “What a coward I am. What a coward.”
I went back into the stairwell. Vells was hunched over a Dutch, stuffing it with moist weed. Marcel leaned on the wall. “Yo, got left over,” I asked. They looked up. “We got you Rasta.” Vells scooted over. “This is some good shit,” he muttered. I watched him twist the ends of the Dutch and noted the panic in his eyes. He had the same intense focus I’d seen in other terrified people, focus kept fear in place as if by pressing down hard on each moment one could keep life from shocking you.
The questions came, “I see police rounding brothers up, every summer it’s like a ritual. Either of you been caught,” my hands were held out like empty cups. They looked up, Vells and Marcel talking at the same time, stories overlapping. “Yeah, they catch us out there, don’t even ask why just spread against the wall, I got busted a couple times out there but I’m not legal age yet so that shit wont’ go on my record when I’m adult.” I had the Dutch in my hand, pulled on it and thought, yeah but if this is what you know how will you to stop unless you stop now. Instead of saying anything, I blew smoke.
“Yo, yo, yo in the jails the toilets be over-flowing,” Marcel snickered, “Its nasty, niggers are packed in but if you fake a condition they got to take you to the hospital and after the 72 hours are up they got to let you go.”
Vells was quiet, I prodded, “The reason I’m asking is I work at a newspaper. Everyone’s always talking about young black men but I want you to tell your stories, your way.” His eyes were wet. “Vells.” He looked up. “Vells what you doing after you turn legal age? You got plans,” I asked. His chin tilted up, “I’m just hittin’ the weed now but next year I’m going to be an electrician and they make you take drug tests so don’t worry about me this is my last year, word nigga, I got places to go.” He passed the Dutch to Marcel, “Me to nigga, this just a seasonal thing.”
I leaned in, “Would you be willing to write about your arrests?”
“Oh fuck yeah,” they said. “We got episodes, you don’t even know.” I got up and Marcel asked “You want me to bring it to you.” My nobility was wearing off. I didn’t want them knocking on my door. “No, put it on the mail-box downstairs.” They nodded but the smoke from the Dutch clouded their faces.
I reached into my back-pocket and pulled out a photo of a slave, hands bound, covered by a net as his eyes begged for rescue. It was the photo on my desk as I wrote my dissertation, the first book that set me free. After the work, slavery’s reach into the present became visible and the need to act more imminent. “Vells here,” he took it and looked and looked. “I think we suffer but often don’t know why,” I pointed at the net. “What were caught in is not visible like it was back then but it’s real.” He looked up. “It’s like an invisible net,” I said and motioned like I was trying to pull it away. “Of negative words holding us down.”
“Is that why fish kick in the nets,” he said. “They can’t breathe out here either.” I was enjoying my own words so much I almost didn’t hear him. “You feel like you can’t breathe,” I asked but he was already rolling a new Dutch. “I’ll get you that story,” he husked. “It’s good. It’s good.”
A week later, I saw them outside and asked about the stories. They mumbled, bobbed their heads like balloons. “Okay, get it to me when you can.” After a few weeks I stopped asking for their stories. It was easy to slip back into my private world where I could be a witness but nothing more. I stood in front of my shelves imagining my books side by side and secretly thankful for the hopeless pain on the streets below.
Marcel disappeared for a while. A few days ago I saw him in the stairwell again, heavy smoke curling out of his mouth like a fog. “I thought you and Vells were going to stop to be electricians.” He ducked his head, smirked and mumbled. Later that night I saw Vells leaning into a car window, passing money back and forth. Days later, I saw him on the corner near the subway station. He was turning and turning as if panicked. We nodded briefly and he went back, whipping his head side to side as if death was around the corner. I knew what was up. He was in the Game.
The last time I saw him was in the corner bodega, he sat on the cooler. He was high, eyes wet and red. Our hands slapped, gripped and broke apart. He began to speak, opened his mouth but no sound came out, as if there was no air to make words with, as if he couldn’t breathe.