Behind his apartment complex, towards the reservoir, where they found that dead black girl, Levell ran into rigid limbs and soft edges that cut red lines across his naked brown body. All he knew about these woods was that syringes littered the ground. White soap foams, like spiked plates sticking out of a dinosaur’s spine, slithered down his torso. Running shampoo gave him red eyes. He was taking a shower, getting ready to visit his mother when he heard banging on the front door. From around its corners, light beams pulsed with every bang. -Bang bang bang. Faded shadows swarmed across his face. His blood drew red rosebuds. Levell was about to get captured.
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 fell back into his chair, sucked his teeth.
“She fart when she cough.”
She used to get on his momma about raising him right. At her house, he couldn’t do nothing, but sit on the sofa and stare at the peppermint candy on the coffee table. 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. It was cold and judgmental, always looking for a fight, a sure way to save those that needed saving, which was everybody.
She missed her husband, Willy. 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. The fan had cherry blossoms blowing in front of an orange burst of fireworks. Keziah was a big woman. Her doctor told her that she was headed for diabetes. Loosing weight was as unfamiliar as looking in the mirror. Willy wasn’t around no more.
“Come on now, let’s go. What are you doing?” he’d say.
He caught her putting on make up right when they were about to walk out the door. She was leaning over a counter full of lipstick, foundation, face cream, hair spray, clips, pens, and braided extensions. She wore a gold belt around her petite waist. Willy had to shop at the big&tall to find clothes. Keziah didn’t get on him about his size, but if he wanted to get some, he needed to slim down. Then she’d surprise him, but they never had kids. Infertility ran through the men in his family.
On Sundays, Willy was her chauffeur, helping her run errands, grocery shopping, paying bills. She wore black sunglasses and a hot pink and yellow silk scurf tied over her head. She told him where to go and to his indignation, how to drive, and where to park.
“Alright I’m coming,” she’d say, applying eyeliner in the mirror.
“Are you serious? K, let’s go.”
“You want me looking any kind of way?”
“I’ll be in the car. Come on now.”
“And don’t honk that horn. I said I’m coming.”
Willy went out and climbed into the core of the beast. He started the engine and turned on the A/C. Sitting in the car, he was ready to go, but to go at any moment was too sudden. Not knowing when, was a relief from the inevitable. Mid-afternoon shadows moved, masking his face. Orange sunlight slid across his chest.
“Willy, I told you about that fucking horn,” Keziah said.
The honking didn’t stop. Keziah fumbled her keys to lock the front door.
“Dear father help me, I’m about to stab this man.”
She turned around huffing, walking towards the car she hunched over, peering through the window. He was still honking at her. He must of thought this was funny. Keziah opened the passenger car door. Willy’s head was collapsed against the steering wheel.
“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 thick plastic that separated her from Levell smelled like vaporized grit that clouded shower stalls. She pulled away from the window’s repelling odor.
“I ain’t doing none of that,” Levell said.
His mother’s lungs flattened. She closed her mouth, blowing air through her nose.
“You still drawing?” she asked her son.
On his visits, Levell would bring her sketches of 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 revealed 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. They fought over the grey’s devotion.
“You are my master piece,” his mother would 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 that hung over his bed and plastered the walls.
“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 where the waitresses wore G-strings for a uniform. 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?” a man yelled at another from across the bar.
“The bet,” the other man said.
Football players were kneeling for the national anthem. 45 said they should be fired. Others made professional football analogous to slavery. Betting on that secured a return.
Watching them chuckle made my eyes tremble.
“Yo I’m scared of Americans,” 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 of 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 Aiyden. Aiyden, ” 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.
“Aiyden. Hey Aiyden,” 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 Aiyden. She said she don’t mess wit punk niggas.”
He laughed to himself with a half closed 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. Levell wore Nautica pullovers, Tommy Hill shirts, Karl Kani jeans, Air Jordans. But his shirt would be wrinkled and stretched from tucking his ashy knees underneath it. 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. In jail their father got stabbed to death.
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 thumped 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 gripped 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 class period.
“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 crying like a bitch,” Jacob said.
At the restaurant Jacob said that Hakeem was shot and killed. He owed somebody money.
“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 that building.”
She was raped, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Her body was charred. From a far, her contorted corpse looked like a strange black rock .
“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….”
He was living with his brother’s friend D, who was selling crack out of his apartment. He turned his apartment into a 24 hour crack outlet.
“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 po-po raided D’s spot, people were outside watching the show like a Cops episode. Jacob was behind the apartment complex smoking a splif.
“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 cop said.
They were looking for D, but he wasn’t home, just Levell, smoking trees, drawing zombies and getting ready to go visit his mother. The harder they knocked, the door’s hinges rattled to growl.
“Yo I see this nigga climb out the bathroom window, butt ass naked, covered with soap. He looked like a fat mummy running around in Donald Duck slippers.”
Two cops ran behind the complex. Their glocks pointed towards the vibrating bushes. Soon as they walked into the woods, the crackling of branches sped up like the percussion of a drum fill.
“They shot him. Shot 20 times,” Jacob said.
“They shot him 20 times?”
“No, they shot at him 20 times. He got hit four times.”
To let it swirl around the drain of our collective disbelief, we took a sip of beer.
“Four times,” Jacob said, soon as our class hit table.
Levell ran into a mother bear with her two cubs climbing out of a tree. Turning around, he put his hands up.
“And he was running towards the cops when they shot him. That’s what they say. He was fuckin’ naked, what was he going to do to him? He didn’t have a gun,” Jacob said.
At the Florida Hospital, Levell’s Aunt Keziah was with him everyday, putting God to work, kneeling by Levell’s bed on both knees. Praying was slaying. Taking care of her nephew left no time to herself. She lost a hundred pounds eating salad, smothered in blue cheese dressing, a mound of bacon bits, and croutons. Her clothes were getting too big. She had to get a new pocketbook since the peppermint candy melted at the bottom of her purse. She only ate Checkers on her wedding anniversary.
With the last bit of her social security check, she paid off that big flat screen television 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. Watching Levell, Keziah couldn’t stop thinking about Brother Garrison from church. Maybe she’d finally say yes.