Behind his apartment complex, Levell ran naked into the woods, towards the reservoir, where they found a young woman’s mangled body. Leaves and branches slapped and scratched his skin. Soap slithered over his pregnant belly. Shampoo burned his eyes.
Minutes earlier, while taking a shower, getting ready to visit his mother, orange light beams started bursting from his front door. Its twilit edges shook at the thumping of Popo’s banging.
A month prior…
“I’d be wit Hakeem. I don’t go to jail,” he told his mother. Through the thick glass, Levell watched her broad shoulders shift.
“What about staying with ya auntie?” his mother asked.
Levell sucked his teeth.
“She fart when she cough.”
To his Aunt Keziah, Jesus was the providing father that didn’t know how to love. The devil raised her as his own. She had to wrestle him to the ground and shoot him to stay down. Like a singer harmonizing multiple octaves at the same time, his aunt had a way of preaching scripture as if spoken from her father’s tongue.
Keziah had no kids. Her husband Willy died of heart disease years ago. Huffing a Checkers Baconzilla burger, French fries, and a large Coke was her vacation. Willy loved Checkers. Florida’s weather made her pores weep. She carried a Japanese folding fan in her purse, using it with the same frequency that people stare at their phones. Keziah was a big woman. Her doctor told her that she was headed for diabetes, but loosing weight was as unfamiliar as looking in the mirror.
“You end up dead if you don’t get away,” Levell’s mother said to him.
She pressed her elbows against the table, making it crack. Leaning forward, she gave into resting her forehead against the glass. Like layers of past moments similar to hers, the window that framed her cage, smell like vaporized grit clouding shower stalls. She pulled away from it’s cold rigid surface.
“I ain’t doing none of that,” Levell said.
His mother’s lungs flattened. She closed her mouth to breath.
“You still drawing?” she asked her son?
On his visits, Levell would bring still life sketches that he made for her: fruit, plants, wasps, lizards, and butterflies. His shading was that of a vine climbing a tree for food. It’s movement was gradual and smooth. Greys misled their detail. Like the sudden disappearance of day to night, pure blacks and whites induced the viewer’s eyes to revisit their subversive and contrasting diversity.
“You are my master piece,” she’d tell him.
She didn’t see his drawings of heroin addicts taped around his room. Realistic renderings of syringes, blood stained eyes, and foaming mouths hung over his bedding that was on the floor.
“What’s D doing?” his mother asked.
“I don’t know?” Levell said.
“You know…. You see me, right?”
Levell looks at her.
“How you think I got here?”
Jacob scooped me from the crib and took me to a restaurant that was trying to out Hooter, Hooters. The hoochie shorts on waitresses were G-strings. Their stockings made their long legs glossy. We were surrounded by flat screen TV’s playing football games and sports talk shows.
“The team or the cause?” an old white man yelled at another from across the bar.
He was talking about the football players kneeling for the national anthem. 45 said they should be fired. Others made professional football analogous to slavery.
“The bet,” the other white man said.
Watching them chuckle made my eyes tremble.
“Yo I’m scared of white people,” I told Jacob.
“I guess I’m used to it,” he said.
His eyes followed a passing waitress the way a dog’s nose gets locked into the smell food waved in front of its face.
“Yo you remember Levell?” Jacob said over a dark brown pint of beer and a basket of hot wings.
“No, who is that?”
Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had just dropped. “Gin & Juice” was the gospel.
“Hey Tabias. Tabias, ” Levell would say, calling me from the back of our sixth grade math class. “Hey nigga, I be smoking that indooooe,” he’d say, sucking air through his fingers, making a hissing sound.
“Tabias. Hey Tabias,” he’d whisper over and over again. “I gotta tell you something about your girl?”
“She be on deeze nuts.”
“Yo. Shut.Up,” I’d say, substituting it for calling him a buffoon.
“Ah Tabias. She said she don’t mess wit punk niggas.”
He laughed to himself with an open fist to his mouth. Through his hand’s tunnel, his teeth showed. Levell would taunt me up to the second that the school bell rung.
Sometimes drawing in class kept him so silent that, without looking at his seat, I’d assume that he was absent. He’d draw chronic leafs, hoopties, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins shot dead in a Korean store. The only thing colored was their brown heads. Red spread from them.
“You can have it,” he’d utter, handing his drawing to whoever stood there long enough to watch him finish it. Outside of heckling and giving his art away, it was rare to see him have a conversation with anyone other than a teacher pulling him to the side. He always had a grin on his face that didn’t drop til somebody spoke to him.
“Hah?” he’d say.
With a torso that exposed his ribs, his limbs were twigs with a coconut for a head. He had a fade that was long at the top, but uncombed. His hair was a Christmas tree of ornamental paper, lint, and leaves.
He wore Nautica pullovers, Tommy Hill shirts, Karl Kani jeans, Air Jordans. But his shirts would be wrinkled and stretched from tucking his ashy knees underneath them. He’d drag his feet down the hallways with his shoes untied and pulled open.
You could see his ankles every time he took a step. Kids would stand on his shoelaces, making him trip. His backpack would be dangling off one shoulder half open with books and drawings falling out.
His older brother, Hakeem, bought him his clothes. Hakeem sold crack. Their mother freebased. Their father got stabbed to death in jail.
When Levell’s gold chain got stolen from his locker, Hakeem popped up before the first bell rung. He was built like a running back, bald, and short. His arms filled his alligator striped shirt. A vein slithered up his neck. He had the same gold chain as Levell’s. Hakeem’s was thicker. Crowding the main hallway, kids smiled to cower away from Hakeem. Empty space encircled him. With his back turned to me along with Jacob and the other black and Latino students posting near by, he asked Levell,
“Who took it? Just point.”
The shape of Hakeem’s voice was a bullet that ricocheted off the wall and whistled it’s way toward us, stopping in mid-flight, pointing at us with a threatening twist. Our hearts were fists banging against the trap doors of our chests. I didn’t know who did it, but who ever it was, I knew I was standing close to him.
“What you scared of?” Levell’s brother asked him.
Hakeem’s light brown eyes stabbed us. He turned to the daylight filled exit and started strolling towards it with his hands in his pockets.
“Hey,” Hakeem said over his bulging shoulder, pointing at Levell without turning around, “…when I come back.”
Levell’s chain found its way back into his locker the following morning.
“I know who put it back. They got scared. I heard Hakeem be packing. That nigga crazy. He got shot in the ass. And it ain’t like the movies. You get shot you’d be crying like a bitch,” Jacob said.
For days, Jacob had jokes. He wasn’t loosing a game of dozens to nobody. You could hear him laughing at his own jokes from a classroom away. An afro shaped like a mountainous globe stood on his head. Pimples clustered on his cheeks. He wasn’t fat, but big bonded, able to move quick enough to be one of the last survivors of a dodge ball game.
Back at the restaurant…
“Hakeem got shot and killed,” Jacob said.
“He owed people money. I guess he didn’t pay’em.”
“Wait, what happened to their mother?
“She locked up.”
“She was a fuckin’ crackhead.
When Levell’s mother got caught, the cops found crack sprinkled over a cup of melted ice cream behind her car seat.
“What about Levell?”
“Yo, I used to live in the same apartment complex as this nigga. It was ghetto as fuck. My daughter’s babysitter was found behind our building, dead. Somebody raped and killed her. They fuckin’ tortured her. I was having nightmares,” Jacob said.
“Man, I’m so glad to be out of there. We got a house now, but bro, when you living in the hood, niggas be in ya shit. Watching you, tryina’ know your business, tryina see what you got, wanna rob you. Shits fucked up. But… so, Levell….”
Levell was living with his brother’s best friend D, who was selling crack out of his apartment. People were coming in and out like a Stop N’ Shop.
“Fuckin’ crack heads falling down the steps like tumbleweeds. You could hear’em at all hours of the night, early. I was carrying my daughter, stepping over zombies.”
When 5-0 raided D’s spot, people were outside watching it like a Cops episode. The sun was below the horizon, leaking orange into Orlando’s flat sky. Jacob was behind the apartment complex smoking a splif. He got swollen from working out at a gym where he met his baby’s momma. Acne still plagued his face. He was bald now, which accentuated his smile and amplified his laugh that made you feel like you were bouncing on a bed of balloons.
“When the cops knocked on the door, Levell was in the shower,” Jacob said.
“…this the Orlando police department. We have a warrant for your arrest,” a cops voice said.
D wasn’t home, but they were gunning to take whoever was in there. The harder they knocked, the more Sun streaks flashed through the door’s cracks. Its hinges shook loose.
“Yo I see this nigga climb out the bathroom window, butt ass naked, covered in soap. He looked like a running mummy with a beer belly… wearing Donald Duck slippers.”
Two cops ran behind the complex. Their glocks pointed at the woods. Soon as they walked into the forests, the crackling of branches sped up like the percussion of a drum fill.
“They shot him…,” Jacob said.
To let it swirl around the drain of our collective disbelief, we took a sip of a beer.
“Four times,” Jacob said, soon as our class hit table.
“Four times?” I said.
Levell ran into a bear with her two cubs climbing out of a tree.
“Shit,” he said.
Turning around to flee like he was evading a hurling fireball, he put his hands up.
“And he was running towards them,” Jacob said.
At the Florida Hospital, Levell’s Aunt Keziah was with him everyday, putting God to work.
“Listen muthafucka, you kill this boy and I’ma come see you,” she said, kneeling by his bed on both knees.
Praying was slaying. Levell getting shot gave her something to do. She lost a hundred pounds eating salad, smothered in blue cheese dressing and a mound of bacon bits and croutons. Her clothes were getting to big. She only ate Checkers on her wedding anniversary.
With the last bit of her social security check, she paid off the big flat screen TV that she had on layaway. She brought Levell home. Sitting in his Donald Duck slippers, he started drawing the walking dead that he’d pause on his aunt’s new TV.