Dark

( 7 )

Overview

Thai Williams is walking a thin line between two worlds. On one side he has his job as a filing clerk for the Washington, D.C., Department of Public Works, his girlfriend Sierra, and his plans for going to college. But on the other, darker side there are his friends Snowflake and Ray Ray, men who run the neighborhood streets dodging the dangers of the criminal life and its after-effects. But that thin line disappears when Thai walks in on Sierra with another man, whom he eventually kills in a haze of jealousy and...
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Dark

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Overview

Thai Williams is walking a thin line between two worlds. On one side he has his job as a filing clerk for the Washington, D.C., Department of Public Works, his girlfriend Sierra, and his plans for going to college. But on the other, darker side there are his friends Snowflake and Ray Ray, men who run the neighborhood streets dodging the dangers of the criminal life and its after-effects. But that thin line disappears when Thai walks in on Sierra with another man, whom he eventually kills in a haze of jealousy and confusion. From there Thai finds himself on the run and away from the five-block stretch where he’s lived for all his life. He finds his way to Charlotte, where Enrique, his closest friend of all, has moved in search of a better life. In the course of the week that follows, Thai encounters a series of men and women who show him aspects of life he never dreamed of in his narrow ghetto existence. All of them are looking for answers, but it is Thai who must find his own path out of the dark and into the clear light of moral responsibility and repentance for his actions.

In his first novel, Kenji has written a haunting portrait of his own urban generation, shadowed (and often erased) by violence, but determined to make their own mark on the world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Dark is the hard to face journey towards redemption, illuminated by characters whose mistakes could easily have been made by any one of us. An impressive debut the new images of the urban experience will be carved out by Kenji Jasper.”--Ernesto Quinones, author of Bodega Dreams

“Kenji Jasper has tapped into the voice of his generation with this amazing new book. He understands the fears and aspirations of the young African/American male and is not afraid to expose the darker side of his hero’s personality in an attempt to make people sit up and think. Kenji Jasper has written a work of fiction that feels so real, it scares me.”
—E. Lynn Harris

“Kenji Jasper is a raw, driven talent ready to claim his space on your bookshelf. A fast-paced novel of a lost boy’s journey from juvenalia to manhood, from oblivious to consciousness, Dark is a lethal 40 oz. of sex, violence and suspense.”
—Mat Johnson, author of Drop

“With Dark Kenji Jasper lays waste to the genteel façade of the Washington, D.C., where dignitaries skirt around the lives of those actually born in the city. From the first page Jasper guns the engine, whipping the reader from pole to pole.”
—Victor LaValle, author of Slapboxing with Jesus

Library Journal
This undistinguished, morally troubling first novel features Thai Williams, a 19-year-old African American from the mostly mean streets of Washington, DC, who narrates a murder he commits and his subsequent event-filled week hiding out in Charlotte, NC. As an attempt at urban realism, it must inevitably be compared with Richard Wright's Native Son but it falls short in almost every way. Weak in characterization, clich d in language, littered with brand names (with unsolicited and unreimbursed product placements?), and often embodying an adolescent male's sexual fantasies, the novel verges on (and, frankly, sometimes crosses over into) a realm of stereotype that might have been found in a pre-Civil Rights Movement white racist novel. What is worse, the book seems to condone murder as a vehicle for self-realization and self-understanding. The author definitely missed a great opportunity to explore the rich and complicated culture of black Washington, DC. Instead, without apparent irony, Dark aspires to being the novelistic equivalent of an MTV gangsta rap video with all the insight and profundity one might expect from that. Not recommended. Roger A. Berger, Everett Community Coll., Everett, WA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Thai Williams is a 19-year-old graduate of the DC public schools, and an entry-level government employee. He has vague aspirations to attend the University of the District of Columbia, but he never makes any concrete moves toward that goal. He divides his time among his job; his wild, streetwise friends; and his girlfriend, Sierra. His world crumbles when he finds her making love to another young man named Nick. He wants to beat up the interloper in a public place as revenge, but his friends put a loaded gun in his hand, and he ends up killing his rival instead. Thai flees to Charlotte, NC, to hide out with E, a friend who has recently relocated there. While he waits for interest in Nick's murder to subside, E introduces him to a whole new lifestyle that is more affluent, much less violent, and full of opportunities to advance socially and economically. The author of this page-turner is a 25-year-old native of Washington, DC, and he peppers the dialogue with contemporary slang and speech patterns. The story of this young black man makes an interesting contrast to Richard Wright's Native Son (HarperCollins, 1998).-Joyce Fay Fletcher, Rippon Middle School, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Minus the hip-hop window-dressing and sprinklings of rap names, Jasper's debut is only a desultory rendering of a young man's journey to maturity. Nineteen-year-old Thai Williams—the brightest among his friends—passes his days in school, on his job, and hanging with his friends in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Then one day he walks in on his girlfriend grinding it out with a stranger named Nick, whom he later catches up with at a party. While he's chasing Nick, a gun ends up in Thai's hands, goes off, and a bullet lodges in Nick's skull. Believing himself a felon on the run, Thai lights out for Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lays low with Enrique ("E"). From the old neighborhood, E has made an enviable new start: he has a job with his mother in real estate, a sweet periwinkle Jeep, and a "rich girl" who respects herself. After some time with E, Thai ends up partying with white people—they're unexpectedly friendly—befriending a troubled girl named Alicia, and making occasional love with neighboring flight attendant Robin. Alicia, recently through an abortion, is still tangled up with a mean boyfriend who unsurprisingly clobbers Thai a couple of times in warning. Robin, meanwhile, encourages Thai to be his own man. E's mother, whose business is thriving, even offers him a job and the chance to enter college. What's not to like? Yet Thai comes to understand that in his previous environment, his irresponsible friends in effect conditioned him to murder Nick. So he goes to church, gets right with God and his father, learns some truths about his past, and heads back home to clean things up in D.C. before going on to whatever next stage in his life mayfollow. Thai's voice establishes all the depth of character there is here, the supporting cast existing mainly to prompt him toward his next insight. Still, this 25-year-old author shows a talent that could blossom in another, more challenging, book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767907071
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/12/2001
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Kenji Jasper is a twenty-five-year-old writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Vibe, Essence, The Source, and other publications. A native of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Morehouse College, he now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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Read an Excerpt

prologue
Pop:
It’s Monday morning. I’m about to leave and I’m down here trying to figure out how this is going to end. And when you’re at the point that I’ve reached you see that being a man isn’t easy. Now I see what you meant when you used to talk about hindsight being 20/20. If I had known that I was going to walk in on Sierra and Nick I wouldn’t have even gone over to her house that day. If I had known that I was going to pull that trigger I never would’ve gone to that party. And if I had known that taking a week’s vacation was going to change my life forever I definitely would’ve gone sooner.
See, Pop, I’ve spent my whole life living on our block thinking that there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I didn’t think that there were other cities, or different kinds of people or fine older women who came to your door in the middle of the night looking to get some. I didn’t know that there were crazy fools running around who would do anything for love, maybe even kill, and I especially didn’t know the truth about my mama, the truth you had kept from me for my whole life.
I’ve learned so much in this past week. I’ve learned what it feels like to be possessed by revenge and to make love on a living room carpet. I’ve learned that there are people who go to sleep with ghosts over their beds at night and they drink them away whenever they get the chance. There are people who kill for nothing and live for nothing but themselves. They say it’s a small world but after this past week I’m not ready to believe it.
But see, now that I know all these things I don’t know what to do with them. I got a bunch of choices to make that nobody can help me with. Even Snowflake, E, and Ray Ray can’t get me out of having to find my way in life. Neither can you. I don’t know if I’m going to mail this. But I just want you to know that I’ve learned everything you taught me.
Love,
Thai

Of the four of us, I was the smart one. I did the best in school, I got a few awards, and I even got to introduce Mayor Barry when he came to visit my junior high school. E was the lucky one. Everything always went his way no matter what the odds were. Ray Ray was the crazy one. He would do anything just for the rush. He’d smash somebody in the mouth at a party a half a city away from home just to see the look on the man’s face when he took that first hit. But Snowflake was the bad one. He did what he wanted. And when you were around him, you did what he wanted too. If you didn’t he caused problems. Even though he was our main boy, we didn’t want any problems from him.
We all lived in Shaw. And Shaw was a place where you didn’t come to play around. The threat of bullets and beatdowns always hung in the air like the smell of burning tar. If you walked by the right building at the right time you might hear the Williamses arguing about their son Damien’s crack habit or Mr. Harris on the third floor yelling at the newspaper about how the Redskins wouldn’t make it to another Super Bowl in his lifetime. Or there was always Frank, who spent his days over on the playground impressing the little kids by showing them the bullet scar on his calf and the chrome-plated 9mm that gave him the scar when he dropped it on the ground while running from someone he owed money to.
But Shaw was a little different than a lot of the other neighborhoods in Northwest. We went hard but we weren’t anything like the cats down in Southeast or the ones in Northeast off of Montana Avenue. We were right between downtown and U Street, trapped between the suit-and-tie DC you saw in the movies and the place people burned down after they killed Martin Luther King long before I was born. To me that made us special, something more than just another name they called out at the go-go clubs on Saturday nights.
If anybody asked us, that was where we said we were from. Shaw was what we represented, just like the dudes over in the Capper projects or anybody who lived in Le Droit Park. For us life started and stopped in those three or four blocks that surrounded the neighborhood playground, even though downtown DC was just a few blocks away. If anybody had something to say about our neighborhood it came to warnings, blows, or bullets. That worked both ways. But what happened wasn’t about us or the neighborhood. It was about me.
Freddy was dead. A kid named Aaron had shot two bullets into his face outside of the Marlow Heights movie theater two days before on the hottest Tuesday of the summer. It was Thursday and the funeral was the next morning. But that night Freddy’s little brother Daron and all his cousins threw a “rest in peace” party in their basement in Congress Heights on the other side of the city. They threw a party while their mama was upstairs crying her eyes out and mumbling to herself about what to do now that her first boy was gone. She had even told a neighbor she was thinking about walking down to the precinct with Freddy’s old .38 to shoot Aaron while he was still in the holding cell. I heard all of that in the car on the way to the party.
I didn’t know Freddy or Aaron or Daron or his mama or the name of the girl who opened up the front door for us. But Freddy was Snowflake’s cousin and Snowflake was my boy and we were both from Shaw, so I rolled wherever he needed me to be.
I, Thai Williams, the smart one, however, had plenty on my mind. Three hours before I’d chased a light-skinned pretty boy named Nick through and out of Wheaton Plaza before he turned around and opened fire on Snowflake and me with a .22. Two days before he had fucked my girl in her living room fifteen minutes before the time I was supposed to show up. I came early. He didn’t cum at all.
We found out that he worked at the Gap in Wheaton and decided to pay him a visit with three more of Shaw’s finest to express our disappointment with him. Snowflake had wanted me to kill him from the start. But I wasn’t a killer. I convinced him to settle for an ass-whipping in a public place.
I just wanted him to know that I wasn’t the one to mess with. He had fucked my girl on the same floor in the same room where my baby was conceived, before it died. I put all of that on Nick’s head when I walked into the Gap with three other people behind me.
When he saw me he broke for the back door. Snowflake and I chased him out the back and through the parking lot until he pulled that .22 and let off five shots in our direction. He shattered a few car windows but missed us completely and then disappeared. That’s what had happened several hours before I walked into Freddy’s “rest in peace” party.
But despite everything I’ve just told you I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me. I wasn’t the kind of dude you saw getting stuffed into police cars on the evening news, and neither was E. Sure Ray Ray and Snowflake were knuckleheads, but when the time came to do their dirt they always kept us out of it. E and I did our homework and got our diplomas and talked about going to college. Ray Ray and Snowflake listened and told us to do what we had to do to get it done. But the summer after graduation something unexpected happened. E left.
His mama, who was Indian, popped up after fourteen years and asked him to move to Charlotte with her and help her with her real estate business. The crazier thing was that E said yes. He left and I had to fend for myself. So after working my eight-hour days at the Department of Public Works I spent my nights with the crazy one and the bad one and that night they had brought me to the party to forget about Wheaton Plaza.
I could see the force the girl was using to grind her plump derrière against me as I danced behind her. But I didn’t feel it. I was miles away from the dark cramped basement where my dark body was moving to the beat of the Backyard Band tape that played through the blown speakers. I thought about what had happened earlier in the day and earlier in the week. What had I done to make Sierra want to disrespect me like that? I had called every other day and I took her out when I could and when she was pregnant I made her my life, only to have her put a knife through my heart, twist it, and set it on fire. Now a coldness ran through me, as if my veins were filled with ice water. So while I danced with that girl with the big booty, pretending like nothing was wrong, I knew that something was about to happen.
In the dim basement light I could see Snowflake and Ray Ray and Ray’s cousin Cuckoo on the other side of the room drinking the punch that was more Absolut than anything else. The song changed and I walked over to them and planted my roots in their line of wallflowers.
“You all right?” Cuckoo asked me.
We called him Cuckoo because he was crazy, crazier than Ray Ray. From what I had heard he was a killer. He pulled triggers for whoever could afford it, even for some of the Koreans way out in Maryland. He was Ray’s cousin, and his inspiration for being crazy. Whenever he came through the neighborhood it either meant a lot of laughs or a lot of drama.
“Yeah, I’m straight,” I said back to him.
“Don’t worry. We gonna get dat nigga. He from around this way too. He ain’t got no time.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t really want Nick to die and I really didn’t want to kill him. But I was stuck on Sierra, and I wondered why she had made me do all of this. I wanted revenge to replace something else. But all of that aside, Cuckoo was right. Nick was living on borrowed time. I hoped that he’d called into the Gap to say he’d quit because a day wouldn’t go by when somebody could have been waiting for him.
Nick had had on an Anacostia b-ball jersey when he did a Michael Johnson out of Sierra’s house. So I knew what school he went to. Unless he was getting a new name and a new face, the fact of the matter was that he had shot at Snowflake and Snow always said that if somebody shot at him he’d shoot right back.
“Damn, this nigga Freddy knew everybody. All these people came for him and he dead,” I said to Cuckoo. I was about to light a cigarette but I’d left my lighter in the car.
“He was the man up at Anacostia. He used to start on the hoops squad at erry game,” he replied.
The word “Anacostia” echoed in my head. I saw Nick’s jersey on Sierra’s floor right next to their naked bodies. Then like the Flash he threw it on, pulled his shorts, and ran out. And as if on cue, right after that very image, was when it started.
“Wassup nigga!” a voice yelled over the music on the other side of the room. I couldn’t see who the voice belonged to in the dark but I heard him slapping five with someone else. He was too loud. I turned to Cuckoo.
“You know dat nigga?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said, “but he rollin’ up in here like he’s the man or somethin’ when Freddy’s supposed to be the man tonight.”
“You right,” I said. Cuckoo turned to Snowflake and mumbled something. Snowflake nodded to him and took a puff from the blunt Ray Ray had rolled in the car. Then the go-go tape cut off and the basement lights came up. “Hey, somebody tell that nigga Nick he left his lights on!” Daron yelled.
First people giggled and then there were a few shouts to turn the music back on. But for the four of us time stood still. The basement lights went back out. But before they did we had seen him and he couldn’t have been more than five feet in front us.
He was talking to the girl who I had just finished dancing with and he had on the same shirt and slacks from the mall. The rest of the wallflowers turned to me with a knowing look. But I didn’t know what they were looking for me to do. I was busy dwelling on the fact that he had been stupid enough to show up at a party after he’d let off shots at four dudes he didn’t know in the middle of one of the biggest malls in the DC metropolitan area. Our city was too small for that.
We could have been anybody. That was the underlying rule in DC. The enemy was everywhere except for on your own block, but you even had to watch your back there. The enemy could turn up sitting behind you in the movies or he could be bagging your groceries or sitting across from you at your main boy’s dinner table. But he was always at the parties, especially that one party where you least expected him to show up.
In the low light I watched Nick’s profile shift and turn. Watching his bald peanut head made me cut back to the same footage of him on top of Sierra on the living room floor with Jodeci playing in the background. I didn’t remember the song but I knew it was Jodeci. He did that Michael Johnson through the back and off of the porch and I didn’t chase after him. That was where my movie memory had stopped. I ran that same snippet over and over again as I watched him shift and bob his head to the music.
I watched until I couldn’t watch anymore. I wanted to move and something moved me. Something took my body and pushed it past two or three people and that something led my right fist to crack across his jaw and make it rattle. But he was ready and he tagged me back and we traded blows until I was on top of him, punching into the blackness of the carpet, connecting only once or twice.
A foot kicked me in the back and I knew that Nick hadn’t come alone. But that was the only foot I felt, which meant that my boys were doing their job. Nick pushed me off of him and scrambled away. As I began my pursuit through the parting crowd someone on my team placed something heavy in my left fist. I carried that something heavy with me when the crawl turned into a chase out the back and through the yard.
I tripped over a wood bench and fell into the sparse grass while he went over the fence. I got to my feet and kicked the back gate open and barely missed his left hook. He had been waiting for me on the other side. I tagged him with a hard jab of my own and he hit the pavement flat on his back. I looked and there was a gleaming chrome .380 in my grip.
He had seen the gun before I had. I saw the recognition on his face that I could take his life. He lay there like a deer staring into headlights wondering if this was it or if he’d live to be a light-skinned pretty boy for one more day.
I wanted to say something but I didn’t have the words. I didn’t feel anything except for the fresh blood running down my lip. He’d gotten me good. He’d really gotten me good. He’d fucked my girl (who after the fact had more or less told me she never wanted to see me again). He’d outrun me on two occasions. He’d shot at me and most recently punched me in the mouth in the middle of a house party. But I wasn’t stuck on those things. I was stuck on him being inside of Sierra, him being in the place where my baby was born, and while I was stuck on that I pulled the trigger and blew a hole in his head, a lake of crimson forming on the pavement beneath his lifeless skull.
It took me more than a few seconds to realize this wasn’t something I was watching on TV. I had seen it before in real life but I was never a participant. Even though the gun was hot I still felt the ice water rushing through my veins and arteries.
Murder wasn’t what I had meant to do when I kicked that fence open. It definitely wasn’t what I had to do. But I had done it and I had to deal. Multiple hands pulled me into the back of Snowflake’s station wagon. They took the gun away and I stared at Nick’s corpse as it grew further and further away from me down the alley. I tried to close my eyes but I was too scared to stop looking. Those multiple hands pulled me into the back of the wagon, and after nineteen years and three months they’d finally brought me into the dark.
dining
“i hope you’re not afraid of the dark,” she said to me as I stood in the doorway of her apartment and watched her light the candles. I don’t remember what I said in reply, but whatever it was made her laugh. I wasn’t pressed to make her laugh. I was even less pressed about being there: in the doorway of a white girl’s apartment in a town I didn’t know.
She wasn’t the black white but the whiter-than-white white. She was the white that was so white that I found myself thinking about the Partridge Family or 90210 and Party of Five on Wednesday nights. Plus she had this fake-naive look plastered across her white face that let me know that if I was down to switch teams, she’d at least be willing to polish my bat. I was fine with the team I was on. And while I could talk all day about the intensity of her whiteness the reality was that she was human, breathing, and she had a pulse. She had offered me a home-cooked meal after I’d driven seven hours on I-85 with nothing to eat except for what I could find in gas stations. I had wanted to get to Charlotte before the dark hit.
She glided to each corner of the studio like a ghost. Her lighter bounced off of the clusters of scented candles and set the room ablaze. I stayed put in the doorway and contemplated whether or not I should just walk down the one flight of stairs to the emptiness of my new place or whether I should stay and get my grub on. I didn’t want the neighbors to think I had jungle fever. But I wanted to eat. She had food. I stayed where I was.
It was strange to just stand when I’d spent the last two days in perpetual motion. I’d been packing bags, screening calls, and making excuses so that I could make the trip. The worry was that the trip might make me into a fugitive.
“So what are you doing in Charlotte?” she asked me as I closed the door and made my way towards the fluorescent-yellow beanbag chair next to the window. It was a nice window, a big wide bay one overlooking Tryon Street. I sat and lost myself in the eerie way the candlelight illuminated the art on the opposite wall, reflecting on how I had ended up at her place.
“Just down here to see my friend,” I replied. “He moved down here a year ago and I decided to spend my vacation hangin’ out wit’ him. His mom owns the buildin’.”
“Oh, that Indian lady. I never remember her name.”
“Neither do I,” I said in hopes of moving away from the topic.
The white girl had seen me emptying out the trunk of my Maxima when she was coming in from the neighborhood gym and had decided to be friendly. Her idea of being friendly was to spend most of our conversation telling me about how she was trying to quit her bartending job at a strip club for something less immoral. I gave her the nods and the yesses she needed to feel like I really cared and the next thing I knew I was following her up the steps to her apartment on the third floor. Still dressed in her amply filled sports bra and tights, she clattered a few pots on the stove and asked me if I liked chicken parmigiana. I nodded even though I’d never had it before. Like most white girls she didn’t have much of a booty. So there was that much less to entertain me while she cooked. I closed my eyes and without wanting to went back into the nightmare.
Three days, a .380, and one shot had brought me to Charlotte at the end of the summer when I should’ve been trying to start college at UDC in the spring. I had put college off since graduation. If I didn’t start soon it was only a matter of time before I let it go completely.
“So do you have a girlfriend?” she asked as we took seats at the neatly set table.
“Nah, but I ain’t lookin’ for one either,” I replied.
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“ ’Cuz they don’t seem to bring me nothing but trouble.”
“Or do you just let them get you in trouble?” She gave me a joker-faced grin but my eyes buried themselves back in my empty plate.
After the deed was done on the night in question, Snowflake’s wagon had taken twenty twists and turns through the unfamiliar streets of Southeast. Then Snow pulled us into Anacostia Park, took the .380 from Cuckoo, got out, and tossed it into the river like a pebble. Then he got back in the car and we headed towards the freeway that led us home.
I was scared, but I wasn’t trembling the way I had been at first. I didn’t know what to tell Pop or how many people in that party might snitch or how I was going to get out of town without losing the best job I’d had in my nineteen years. Every voice in the car had an opinion, but I turned deaf to every single one because none of their opinions made any sense. But by the time I put my key in the front door I knew I would tell Pop that I was going down to visit E for a few days because I had to use my vacation time and the summer was almost over. I would call the job and say I needed to take my vacation without notice for a family emergency. Since I’d done more in my department in a year than some had done in three, my supervisor would cut me some slack. Then I would call E and tell him that I needed a place to lay low. He always came through, and this would be no exception. I couldn’t tell him the meat of the matter over the phone. The cops could have already had it tapped. Some loudmouthed cat from the party might have already been giving the cops a description. They could have been already dragging the river for the gun.
“I just broke up with my boyfriend,” she said as she poured herself another glass of wine, “and I’m not looking for another one either. It seems like love makes everything way more complicated.”
“I couldn’t tell you nothin’ ’bout that. I ain’t never been in love.”
Shock washed over the fake-naive look on her face and her jaw drooped.
“You’ve never been in love?” she asked, sounding like a dumb blonde with hair dyed a deep brunette.
“Nope, and I don’t think I’m missin’ anything. From what I know, love make you do stupid shit and I’ve done enough stupid shit already.”
E called me back the next morning and told me he’d sent a FedEx with a set of keys and the address to one of the apartment buildings his mother owned. It was on the porch the next morning. E always knew how to hook it up.
But getting that envelope was the only time I stepped out of the house for those two days. I spent most of the time up in my room. I tried to sleep for as long as I could but kept seeing the blood oozing onto the sidewalk and that final look on Nick’s face, a last appeal for mercy that went unheeded. I smoked the last of a dime bag Snow had given me a week before, but it never got me off the ground. I imagined SWAT teams gathering just outside the front gate. I pictured Nick’s brother or cousin or maybe even his high school counselor loading up the artillery and coming after all of us. I imagined a drive-by where we all got killed. They would even find Cuckoo out in Maryland. I knew fate had both feet on the gas and would pop the curb to drive straight into my living room. I didn’t even think I’d live long enough to see that envelope on the porch. But when it came I knew it was time for me to go.
“So is this your first apartment?” she asked me.
“Yeah, first time I ever left home. But it’s just me and my pops at home, and he works all the time. So I been on my own before.”
“So you don’t get lonely?”
“I don’t know,” I said, thinking about it. “For me that was always the way it was. It was always just me and maybe my boys. So I guess I ain’t ever had enough people around me to make me know what lonely feels like.”
“You regret that?”
“That’s just the way it was. I don’t really regret nothin’. Well, almost nothin’.”
Then dinner was served and as I sat at the white girl’s dinner table two hours after I had gotten into town, I still didn’t have it all together and I felt like it showed. My clothes stuck to me from the humidity and I had been chain-smoking Newports for more than thirty-six hours. I just needed to lay low. But I hadn’t expected that anyone else would be there, that others would be trying to lay low with me.
The white white girl was named Qualie Madison. She hated her name. She’d learned to cook chicken parmigiana from her mother when she was fifteen and she wanted to be an accountant when she finished school. She was twenty and she had moved in a month before me to the day and she said that she liked it, even though her parents said that all the black people in the building made them uncomfortable.
“So what are you going to be doing down here?” she asked cheerfully while pouring me another glass of wine. I had never actually had wine before, not good wine at least. I took gulps instead of civilized sips. My idea of drinking was getting faded off of malt liquor at a party or in front of somebody’s building and then throwing up on the sidewalk across the street from my house at the end of the night. Now in Charlotte I was having wine with dinner. Up until then I thought that was the kind of thing that only happened in those three-floor townhouses up on 16th Street where all the paid people lived. I definitely was not at home.
“Just chillin’ with my man. But . . . so . . . are you from here?” I asked to show her that I was actually interested in the conversation. I spoke with my eyes still focused on my nearly cleaned plate. She giggled and shook her head. Her buzz was obvious.
“No, I’m from Chattanooga, but my folks and me moved up here when I was in high school.”
“What’s the difference between here and Chattanooga?” I asked.
From what I knew, everything in the South was the same. It was all supposed to be dirt roads and tobacco fields.
“Charlotte’s going somewhere. Chattanooga isn’t,” she replied matter-of-factly.
There was this tension around her eyes that told me she was somewhere west of the truth. She was telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. That bothered me even though I was doing the same thing.
Charlotte was the furthest I had ever been outside of DC. The city seemed artificial, like it had been grown in a lab. It didn’t have a voice or a tradition. But at least it was quiet.
From the highway all I could see was suburban turf. There were stretches of houses and trees and shopping areas and grocery stores. But then it looked like they had just dropped six or seven blocks of large buildings and tall skyscrapers in the middle of it so that they could call it a city. That didn’t fit. When I drove through what they called downtown a little after seven, it had been deserted. There wasn’t a single person on the street. To me that wasn’t how real cities were. It definitely wasn’t like that at home.
E’s mama’s apartment building was on Tryon Street. Tryon stretched from the middle of downtown all the way out into the suburbs by UNC Charlotte. It was one of a few remaining buildings that sat on the thin line of structures between the mostly suburban and supposedly urban parts of Charlotte. I had never seen buildings as tall as downtown Charlotte’s before. But that still didn’t make Charlotte a real city.
But to be honest, I wasn’t concerned about Charlotte and it’s pseudo-city status. I didn’t think I could find anywhere on the planet that was better than home. I had everything I needed on my block and in my city.
Qualie said that when she graduated from high school it was like she finally had a chance to see the world. For us graduation just meant that you stopped going to school and you started working. That was it and that was why it surprised all of us when E decided to break the mold.
Her hair was cut a little shorter than a bob, like a black girl’s, and her eyes were a creamy green like jade. I was sure plenty of men had wanted her. She looked like a girl I might have seen on the movie of the week playing somebody’s too-stupid-for-her-own-good mistress. I hadn’t been that close to that kind of girl before, and the words flying out of her mouth meant almost nothing to me most of the time we talked. But I wanted to know more about her world, the one I never wanted to live in.
“I know you’re barely moved in and all. You can stay up here tonight if you like. I have a sofa bed. . . .”
“Nah, that’s all right,” I said. “My apartment’s got furniture in it, so all I gotta do is lay down.”
“You sure?” she asked. “I don’t have to go to work tomorrow.”
“Nah, I’m all right,” I said. “So what school you say you went to?”
“UNC Charlotte. It’s really nice. I wish I could go full-time, but I gotta pay the bills, you know. Maybe if I get a scholarship or somethin’ I will, but I’m just getting started, so I want to take my time.”
“Don’t work too hard,” I said. I had cleaned my plate, and every few minutes I peeked over at the stove to see if there was any more left. From what I could see the pan looked empty. I frowned.
“I just keep working at it, because I don’t want to be bartending in strip clubs for the rest of my life.”
“My pop’s a bartender. There’s worse jobs you can have.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not even a good bartender. I mess up drinks all the time.”
I had had five glasses of wine and my head felt like a cinder block. I started looking at the door, but I didn’t want to move. The drive and the stress and all the cigarettes had taken their toll. Her couch started to sound like a good move.
“My pop never messed up a drink,” I said. “He likes drinking too much.”
“Is he an alcoholic?” she asked.
“Nah, nothin’ like that. But he can drink a lot, though. He likes mixing things together to see what he can come up with. He always tries to come up with somethin’ special.”
“Can you make anything special?” she asked. It wasn’t what she said but the way she said it. She had leaned her body towards me as the words parted her lips, as if my answer would take our dinner to some new level. That was when I knew it was time for me to leave.
“Thanks for the dinner, but I’m ’bout to be out,” I said as I struggled to get up. My legs felt like they might fold under me, but they held.
“You sure you don’t want to . . .”
“Nah, I’m ’bout to get some sleep,” I said. She practically had to jog to catch me as I got to the door.
“Well, maybe we can get together again sometime.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but I’ll probably see you around.” I closed the door behind me and in her face at the same time.
My head felt twenty pounds lighter in the hallway. I had killed a man and I didn’t know what to think about it. She had cooked me dinner hoping to get something else, and I don’t think she knew what to think about it. I’d never had dinner with anyone white before. To me all white people were like her, ghosts that lit candles in their apartments and felt uncomfortable in my neighborhood. I wasn’t looking forward to dining with them again.
The apartment was the same as it was two hours before. In the dark I found my way over to my duffel bag and took out the Beretta. It was heavy in my hand. I tucked it behind the pillow on the futon. I didn’t feel safe, but I was too tired to care.
Ray Ray had given the gun to me in my room right before I was about to leave. It was his favorite gun, and 9mms weren’t cheap to come across. It was brand-new and had never been fired, and he wanted me to have it.
“If you get into some shit I want you to do it how we do it,” he said as I tucked the piece into my bag.
“Hopefully there won’t be nothin’ to get into,” I said. “I been in enough already.”
I slapped his hand and locked it with mine, and in ten minutes I was on my way towards 95 South.
But holding it was all it took. Whenever I even touched the steel I was back in that Congress Heights alley trying to recall how it had happened so fast. Part of me had a permanent residence there. After all, it had been Nick’s fault. Hadn’t it? He had pushed me further than I’d ever gone. He’d fucked my girl and he’d shot at Snowflake and he was the kind of pretty mothafucka that got on my nerves just for existing. That was the how when and why and enough to switch all my morals off. But now my morals were back in place and I was on the run. The run was going to kill me slowly.
When I stretched out on the futon my eyelids were propped open by an unknown force. I was up for another hour before the darkness in front of my eyes started to blur. I heard the voices in the darkness of that basement and I felt my finger tighten on that trigger followed by the kick from the pistol as it fired once. “It only takes one shot,” Pop used to tell me. He was right.

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2008

    Best I read all summer

    Anger, Regret, Pain. Deep book, makes you want to read all of his work.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2005

    The best book that I've read in along time!

    I just love this book, it tells all about a young man who is trying to do better for hisself but later get caought into some trouble and rely on his boys to have his back. It explains some of the true hardships of growing up in the ghetto and about someone who doesn't want to let go altough he knows that there's nothing good for him where he's at now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2003

    A book of Enormous Potential

    When I purchased this book I really didn't know what to expect from it. I just wanted to read. And when I finished it, I wanted to praise the author. I was able to put myself into the main character, Thai. It's a story about finding redemption and having deep regrets about one's actions and the consequences. You are able to sympathaize with Thai personally, and try to understand what he's coming from (enviornment).

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2002

    GREAT BOOK!!!!

    This is one of those books you can't stop reading until the last page. Jasper really paints a realistic picture of a man's maturation and his discovery of a whole world outside of his neighborhood.....I highly recommend it to anyone!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2002

    Phenomenal

    I picked this book up on my way home from work. I read it while on the 45 minute train ride to my apt., and almost missed my stop. I read the book while cooking and eating dinner, couldn't put it down. This is definitely one of the best books I've read. Kenji has done a phenomenal job of making the reader experience the main character's life. I'd recommend this book to any and everybody!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2001

    Say What?

    I thought this book was good and all but it ended so quickly without much detail. I thought it was kind of crazy how he went about things in the book. I found myself putting the book down for a period of time but the beginning is great!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2001

    Kenji Jasper does an outstanding job for his first novel!!

    This is a fast paced novel that I truly enjoyed. Kenji did a wonderful job of sharing what happens very often when we react in the heat of the moment. He clearly painted a picture of Thai growing into manhood, through lifes tough experiences.

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