What happened to talking
His suit pants rustled as he sped down the stairs, eyes glued to his BlackBerry. The wind tousled his hair and licked at his shiny black shoes, bringing flecks of dust from the construction work. As he came to the edge of the train platform, he noisily cleared his throat before pocketing the phone. He looked up and down the track, even though he knew the train only came from one direction. At least, he thought he knew that. He had hastily googled the schedule and a map to make sure he didn't look stupid on arriving at the platform. It was already painfully obvious that he was a stranger to the light rail.
A man lumbered next to him. Wearing a ripped white tee with filty black jeans, he eyed the man's suit with mild interest.
"It takes like ten minutes between trains here, right? And the other way takes longer, right?" he shouted over the din of the construction site.
The man in the suit was a bit taken aback and briefly considered completely ignoring the other, as if he were just a plant that had dropped a leaf. To his own surprise, he said, "No, I think it comes the same on both sides."
The man in the T shirt looked confused. "But there are two different trains going that way." He pointed towards the man in the suit, towards the sunset.
The man in the suit nodded. "But it does that on the other side, too." He had just googled this. He was prepared.
The man in the T shirt dropped his hand, looked at the other side of the platform, then broke a smile in understanding. "Oh right, 'cause it has two trains on that side, too." The man in the suit nodded and smiled.
The train came. They both got on. They never spoke to each other again.
Darius was slammed into the chain link fence, the wire rattling like thunderclaps in the winter afternoon. His backpack let out a slow exhale as Trey’s meaty fists dug into his chest, pushing him harder into the fence. He could hear the seams of his shirt slowly ripping.
“Don’t play me, D,” growled Trey. “I know you the one who took it.”
Darius tried his best to wrench Trey’s hands from his shirt collar. He really liked this shirt, the only Ralph Lauren in his closet. “Hell nah Trey on God it wasn’t me. On God!”
Trey lifted him up higher, then threw Darius onto the ground. The others stood around and snickered, all coming up with different ways of calling Darius a lil b****. Darius crawled up onto his hands and knees and tried standing. He saw Trey move at him and stumbled backward.
“Tha’s cap, D. Don’t play me.” He folded his arms and accentuated his veined forearms, sinewy muscles rippling across it. “If you don’t got my money by tomorrow imma whup you so bad yo mama won’t even wanna look at yo ugly ass.”
He turned and left before Darius could protest again. The five high school seniors raucously jumped into Trey’s all black Camaro with tinted windows. He ostentatiously revved the engine and jerked the car into drive, speeding away. Darius forlornly watched them as they roared down the road, occasionally veering into oncoming traffic and honking angrily at everyone passing by.
Where the hell was he gonna get two hundred dollars? Why would he even steal that much weed? Darius had never even lit up before--the smell on others at his school always made him nauseous. He cinched up the straps on his backpack and felt his lower lip quiver, eyes starting to sting. Trey’s boys were all huge and several years older than him. His lanky frame and reserved personality made him an easy target for problems like this. Before it had just been getting picked on at school every now and then, but now... Now people had the courage to up the stakes.
His feet dragged as he walked to the bus stop and slowly sat on the bench. He stared at the empty Taco Bell bags and occasional used condom in the gutter by the bench as he progressively felt more and more helpless. There was another man at the stop, standing inside the booth. Darius wasn’t sure how long he’d been there, but he may have seen the whole incident. His cheeks started to burn when the man walked over. He put a hand on Darius’ shoulder.
“Ay you good?” He had a seedy nasal voice. Even though he was standing, he was only a head taller than Darius on the bench. “Them boys ain’t playin, huh?”
“No.” Darius couldn’t help but sigh.
” ‘Choo do?” His thumb stroked Darius’ shoulder. The tenderness was enough to make him break down into tears.
“I ain’t do nuttin. Trey straight up trippin. It’s just ‘cause I read and ain’t got no friends. He don’ pick on no one else.”
“Boy you in it now.” The man sat down by Darius as his hand started rummaging in his pocket. He was wearing a massive overcoat with several bulging pockets on the inside that Darius was just now noticing. He felt himself slowly sliding away from the man.
The man produced two bags of what Darius had never dreamed of seeing. Two bags of salvation.
“You give that to ’em and then you run, you hear?”
Darius kept staring at the bags. The man must have heard the whole conversation; how else would he know to give Darius this? “Is you a... a dealer? You jus’ gon give it to me fo’ free?”
The man laughed. It was like a blunt saw whining as it sliced through a dying tree. “I like that shirt. Is it real?”
Darius hesitantly fingered the etched in horse on his chest, then nodded.
“You give me that, we’ll call it even. Jus’ don’ let them boys get ya tomorrow, aight?”
* * *
“The f*** is this?!” Trey screamed.
Darius shoved both bags into his hands and hastily said, “It’s worth $200” and tried to hurry away, but Trey’s boys yanked him by the backpack and threw him against the same fence. Trey dropped the bags and kicked them into the crosswalk.
“You playin me again, D? Huh? You think I’m stupid?”
Darius gaped, his mouth opening and closing but words refusing to come out. He finally said, “I gotchu whatchu wanted, didn’ I?”
Trey slapped him. “I know that ain’ real. You tryna play me fo’ a fool. You pissin me off, D!” He lifted Darius up again, once again slammed him against the fence, and once again shoved his finger into Darius’ face, the most threatening gesture he could muster. Out of the corner of his eye, Darius saw one of the boys retrieve the bags from the crosswalk and surreptitiously stuff them into his jacket.
“Now you owe me double. And none of that fake s*** neither--real or the raw cash. You ain’ tryna die, right?”
Darius shook his head.
“Then bring the real thing.”
Darius was numb as he sat up straight on the bus stop bench. All of the sounds around him were muffled. His vision was hazy. He had heard a crack when Trey had slapped him. The taste of blood had slowly seeped into his mouth, threatening to spill out onto his lips like a blaring red stoplight.
An enormous black Ford Taurus with two busted windows covered by duct tape pulled up to the bus stop. The trunk was a brilliant gold, a jarring contrast to the rest of the car. The man from the day before was smiling at him through the windshield, revealing a full set of top and bottom gold teeth that were chipped and poorly taken care of. Darius was surprised he hadn’t noticed it the day before. Maybe the man hadn’t smiled. He stuck his head and arm out the window and gestured at Darius to come closer.
“They take it?” the man asked.
“Why you give me fake stuff bruh? He knew it was fake in a second. Now you got me owin’ double!” A small amount of bile bubbled in the back of Darius’ throat.
The man’s smile slowly faded away. “That wasn’ no fake. Yo boy trippin. He still take it though?”
Darius nodded. The man’s smile returned. He guffawed. “He tryna play you boy! He makin you his b****!”
Darius gulped. He didn’t want to be that.
The man unlocked his car doors. “Where you live? Imma take you home.”
Darius slowly came around and sat in the passenger seat. The car was unusually clean and smelled of mothballs. The leather seats were peeling but the intact patches shone with impressive upkeep. The man slowly drove down the lane.
“Open the glove box,” he said, tapping on it.
Darius pried open the hatch and saw six bags of weed spill out. He let out a little shriek. The man laughed again.
” ‘Choo screamin fo, shoo! Ain’ nuttin to be scared of. Imma give you fo’ of these. If he got any sense, that boy ain’ gonna throw ’em away.”
Darius held one bag in his sweaty hand as he looked at the man. “Why you doin’ this? ’Choo want?”
The man pulled the car up to Darius’ apartment building and stopped. He parked and nodded at Darius’ backpack. “Ain’ yo school the one givin out iPads to errbody?”
Darius gripped the bag harder, pulling it to himself like a child holding a stuffed animal. He nodded.
“You give me that, we gon call it even.”
“I need it fo school.”
“Tell em you lost it. They gon give you ’nother.”
Darius looked out the window. He saw his mother coming out of the apartment building with the trash. She didn’t see him in the car.
“That yo girl?”
Darius frowned and looked at the man. “Hell nah das nasty. Das my mama.”
“Hide that from her. She gon whup you if she see.”
Darius mechanically put the bags into his backpack. He slid the iPad out of the back sleeve and held onto it.
“Boy you better gimme that. Don’ you try stealin from me... I ain like them boys who jus’ let you go wit a slap.”
Darius wanted to protest, to say he hadn’t stolen anything, that he wanted to be left alone, that he didn’t know the man had been watching when Trey slapped him. Instead he just handed over the iPad sullenly and got out of the car. He heard the man cackle again as the iPad announced that it was powering on.
* * *
Darius’ ribs howled with pain as Trey and the boys kicked at him. They cussed him out, calling him vile names, blabbered on about how they were sick of him trying to trick them with fake weed. He covered his head with his arms and prayed for it to stop. He felt blood slowly drip down his face, clot in his wrinkles.
Suddenly the boys stopped kicking. Darius kept his face hidden in his arms, still crumpled in a ball on the muddy pavement.
“You need sumthin?” Trey growled. Darius didn’t know who he was talking to. He heard a rustle of clothing and a click. The boys suddenly shuffled backward, one even stumbling to the ground.
“Yo yo yo be coo be coo we leavin we leavin,” said Trey in one breath as he jogged backward. Darius opened his eyes to see the boys with their hands up, sprinting to their car. Darius looked up and saw the man standing over him, his laden overcoat swinging slowly in the breeze, a nine millimeter in his right hand. Darius sprang to his feet and also started running away.
“Yo chill boy, I pulled this out to help you,” the man yelled. He tucked it back into his coat and held up his hands, wiggling his fingers. Darius slowed to a stop, then walked back toward him.
The man dusted off Darius’ shoulder and handed him a napkin. “Them boys don’ play, huh?”
Darius shook his head. His ears were still ringing, his vision getting worse as his right eye swelled shut. He had no idea how he was going to explain this to his mother. The man wrapped his arm around Darius and slowly walked him to his car. Bloody spots on Darius’ head matted his hair, and the clotting blood stuck to the leather headrest. “Sorry bout the blood,” he mumbled.
“Boy you ain’ gotta apologize to me. Thank the lawd them boys didn send yo ass to St. Luke’s.”
“Thank you,” Darius said again. His head hung low as he said it. “You saved my life.”
“I ain do it fo free now,” the man said.
“I ain got nuttin to give you,” Darius said.
They parked in front of Darius’ apartment building again. The man turned in his seat to face Darius.
“You do got sumthin. Sumthin I’d like.”
Darius’ heart started racing. His mouth dried, his tongue a roughly hewn chunk of sandpaper. “I ain doin’ nuttin to you,” he said finally.
The man giggled again and slapped a hand on Darius’ shoulder. “It ain you boy. It’s yo mama.”
Darius leaned away from the man, trying to escape his hand. “My mama?”
“She packin snacks in all the right places.” The man licked his lips after he said it.
Darius started feeling for the door handle. “Das my mama you talkin bout, you better shut up or--”
“Or what?” The man reached into his coat and left his hand inside; Darius could imagine what his fingers were clasped around.
“Here’s what I want, fo’ savin yo life. Gimme yo house key, and when I pay yo mama a visit tonight, you ain gonna do nuttin. You hear me?”
Darius swallowed hard. The man swam in a thick, wavy haze of tears in front of him. He held out his hand. Darius looked down at it.
“Gimme that key boy.”
Darius licked his lips. He swallowed again, blinked hard, and looked back at the man. “You touch my mama and Imma kill you.”
The man laughed so hard he started coughing. He dried his tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand. “At least you standin up fo yo self now boy. Das fine. Ya know what? ‘Cause you got some fight in you now, Imma make a deal wit you. You figure out what my name is before tomorrow mornin, and I won’ ever bother yo mama. Deal?” He held out his hand.
Darius looked at the man’s hand. “Yo name? How I’m gon’ find out yo name?”
The man smiled. His gold teeth glimmered as the flickering street lights came on. “Das yo job, not mine.”
Darius looked back at the man’s hand. It had been too good to be true--no one would ever help him for the sake of just helping him. He shook the man’s hand.
* * *
Darius spent hours scouring social media and the internet for the man. He looked through Facebook pages, public Snapchat posts, random YouTube videos, Soundcloud DMs. He stared longingly at his phone, wishing he had friends to be able to talk to and ask for help. Every time he heard his mother walking around the apartment, he cringed at the image of the man sneaking up on her in the middle of the night, a devilish grin on his face, the gold teeth on display as his mother screamed and pushed him away. It would take him ten minutes to recover from that and re-focus on his search. But by midnight he had realized the search was futile. The man had made a deal that Darius was certain to lose. He cradled his head in his hands, feeling tears well up again for the umpteenth time that week.
His mother knocked on his door and slowly opened it. He quickly wiped his tears and looked up at her.
“Why you ain sleepin? Issa school night,” she said, hands on her hips.
“I can’t. I ain sleepy.”
“Read a book or sumthin.” He heard her step out to the meager bookshelf in their living room, rummaging through the few paperbacks that they had. Darius had already read all of them several times. All of the novels, at least. His mother kept on rifling through the books, though. He got up and craned his neck around the corner.
“Mama it’s fine, Imma try to sleep now,” he said. She was sitting on the ground with a black-and-white book opened in her lap. He saw a faint smile on her lips.
“D, look--dis my yearbook from Colton High. I ain seen these folk in years,” she laughed. “Even though dey all stuck in the hood, jus’ like us.”
Darius’ eyes widened. He quickly sat by his mother and snatched the book out of her hands. She yelled at him and threatened to whup him for being disrespectful but he didn’t hear any of it. His eyes quickly scanned all of the images in the student pages until he finally found the one face he’d been looking for. The man’s face was a little narrower, and he didn’t have the gold teeth, but there was no mistaking the beady eyes or the impish smile. Darius dragged his finger across the page and read aloud, “Ronald Bilikens.”
His mother stopped mid-tirade and cocked her head. “What on earth is the matter wit ’choo? Ronald Bilikens?” She took the book from him and looked at the picture. “Chile I remember this fool. He asked me to prom--like I’d ever go wit his sorry short self.”
Darius wrote the name down on a slip of paper and slid it safely into his jeans pocket. When he woke up the next morning, he peered out onto the street. The black Taurus with its gaudy golden hood was idling by the curb. He crept into the living room, heard his mother’s snores, and slowly went through the door and out to the stoop. The man was in the car, grinning at Darius as he walked down the path to the curb. He started to roll down the window but Darius slapped the slip of paper onto the glass before it was all the way down. The man’s smile vanished, replaced by an angry snarl. Darius could see his hand ball up, his fingers clench the steering wheel. Darius started backing away just in time, as the man abruptly threw the car into drive and floored the gas. The screeching tires blasted through the quiet morning air, before dissipating and leaving Darius alone with on the curb, the paper still clutched in his fingers.
On the five o’clock news that day, there was a headline report about a black Ford Taurus that had crashed into a streetlight before careening over a bridge into a ditch below. The man inside was dead and so badly injured that his face was unrecognizable. Dental records were useless as the man had none of his real teeth. Police ruled his death completely accidental, and they sent the black Taurus with its ghastly golden trunk to the junkyard later that night.
Why your “COEXIST” bumper sticker applies to TikTok and Dostoyevsky, too
At the risk of alienating myself from the majority of those who use this website, I still find it necessary to pipe up against the sweeping derision that is often leveled against modern media. What triggered me is this prompt's allegation that all consumers of modern media are automatically "mindless, unsophisticated zombies" and that these media are lacking in creativity because, unlike writing, they do not encourage correct grammar and exotic vocabulary. To me, that mentality is dangerous, unproductive, unfair, and flagrantly supercilious. And I think the best way to explain my reasoning is to talk about my phone.
My phone is veritably filthy in its inconsistencies, in its assorted roles. What do I not do with my phone--I text my friends, FaceTime my family, read classic literature that I'm sure I'm not fully appreciating, access sensitive documents, play server-based video games, and, yes, watch TikTok. Before you report me as a sexual predator, I assure you that I have zero interest--in fact, I have mostly disgust--for the stereotypical TikToker, i.e., the teenagers who have somehow expanded the social structure of high school to a global audience and amassed a following that even makes the grown-ups notice. But the sides of TikTok that I do have an interest in--the sprawling world of silly comedy skits, jaw-dropping musical talent, darkly humorous insights on existence--consume tons of my time, to the point that I am losing time for other things. Things that, to some, may be seen as more worthwhile than a piece of shit like TikTok.
And again, my phone seems to be a great illustration of this, too, as it congratulates me for reaching a reading goal but never for reaching a TikTok-ing goal. Hell, it passively shames me for it by dryly reporting my time on it every week. And I do feel those pangs of guilt, on occasion. I mean come on--do I really want to waste my precious time on earth with my still functioning brain by watching fifteen second videos that will be passed up, scrolled by, given a giggle then quickly forgotten? Shouldn't I be in the trenches with something that is more worthwhile, that has stood the test of time and won the adoration of people much smarter than me for years? Why bother learning how to do a stupid dance when I could be honing the venerable craft of writing? And those moments inevitably end with me coming back here, to see if I can write something to redeem myself.
What always brings me back around is the admission of the simple fact that I am in no position to judge whether one form of creativity is superior to another. The pretentiousness that often consumes those of the "fine" arts does little to advance their cause. By indiscriminately dismissing entire art forms as intrinsically inferior and campy, these arts further alienate themselves from the world. And is that the purpose of art? To construct an exclusive circle, forlorn in a meager world supported by nothing more than reverence for tradition and collective disdain for deviants? Does it really need to be this way?
And again, my phone has the answer. Of course not. My iBooks app sits right next to Snapchat, and it hasn't exploded... yet. Just because one art form doesn't follow the highbrow rules that we stereotypically associate with "true creativity" doesn't mean that it is any less of an art, nor any less creative. Absence of adherence to grammar and punctuation shouldn't automatically discredit what the text is trying to say. To me, that kind of outright dismissal reveals an inability to appreciate complexity, as opposed to a thirst for it. And let's not forget the flip side, that there's garbage everywhere. I will happily concede--in fact, I already have conceded--that much of modern media, be it TikTok or Snapchat or Youtube or whatever, is overrun by straight up trash. But have you seen some of the paperbacks that make the best sellers list? Just because someone uses a five syllable word and a colorful cast of characters doesn't mean that that book is guaranteed to be any more worthwhile than watching a YouTube creator's short film about a love story between a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste.
The whole planet is consumed by a desperate need to split the world and pick a side: good vs. bad, Avengers vs. Thanos, Democrats vs. Republicans, my team vs. your team, fine art vs... vs. whatever we call everything else. I don't feel obligated to join the craze. Yes, writing matters. Yes, good writing is still out there and is still appreciated. But why does that have to mean that good TikToks don't matter, or don't deserve appreciation?
I yield my time.
Musings on How Life is Beautiful...But Only on the Inside
Growing up, I always told myself my first memory was of the womb. A warm, muddled red light and muffled voices. I told myself that enough times to actually believe it, even now. Well, I believe it and I don't believe it. How could I believe something that absurd? A warm red light? It's not like my mother's belly was made of vascularized tissue paper. But that's still where things start for me, an uneasy origin story, that then chugs out a haphazard line of random images and phrases with no definite roadmap. Snuggling in a sleeping bag. Hearing my teacher's Southern drawl echo "If you cuss again, I'm gonna wash your mouth out with soap" across the playground (don't worry, she wasn't talking to me--although if she heard how I speak now, she'd probably feel the need to use buckets of PineSol). A ragtag bunch of Cheetoh puffs in a plastic box. Someone's hand in mine.
And then I'm plopped into my accelerated growth, my development as a young adult into a full adult, into someone who, like Scout Finch, finally thinks they've got enough stored up to look back on. And when I do look back, this tangled mass of colors and sounds is all that I seem to have brought with me. We always start our stories with "I remember one time when I was ten--ten or eleven, something like that." When does that happen? When do we lose the certainty of time, the immediacy of the moment? Can you even imagine how, one day, the entirety of your present experience--its urgency, its enormity, its weight--would just be garbled nonsense, background noise to a few shimmering moments that will ultimately make the cut? Even two years ago seem distant. I can't revisit those days the way I can revisit yesterday. Well, strike that. I can't revisit all of those days the way I can revisit yesterday. The most frustrating part is that I can't always dictate which days I can keep pristine, and which would just fade under the lights in the museum's glass cases. Time doesn't operate by a bartering system; it rations itself, our will be damned. So maybe it's not that we're perceiving Time fallibly--maybe we're just perceiving what Time is willing to show us.
The howling winds and tortured trees abruptly paused, as if the first flake were a gentle reprimand from heaven's doorman. The air seized and wrapped itself in an overcoat, muting all sound save their soft crunches underfoot, an ethereal soundtrack as they came to a lightpost and exchanged fogging breaths.