The seats of Mo’s new-body Chevy Impala were worn and soft, broken in by someone who wasn’t me. It sat higher than most cars because of the new wheels with chrome rims he put on since the last time I saw him. I pulled the seatbelt and heard him snort.
“Buckle up for safety, nigga.”
I managed a short chuckle. He was mocking me. As my seatbelt clicked, the car bolted away from the curb. When I looked up, he was glaring at me accusatorially. The last time I saw Moses had been over two years ago, just after my high school graduation.
I called him Moses or Mo, but when we were kids, he was Malik. Named after a man who gave Mo his nose but almost none of his time. Our crew had started playing basketball together on Akron’s North Courts before any of us was even allowed to walk to the corner store without a chaperone. Then, at age twelve, I had moved one hundred miles southwest to Dublin, Ohio, when my dad got a job in nearby Columbus. Dublin was suburban and mostly white, the opposite of the churning brick neighborhoods of my childhood in Akron. When I moved, I left Mo and our crew behind.
Now, almost eight years after my family left Akron, I was back in town to visit my cousin. I had since graduated from high school, enrolled at a small Ohio college that I left after barely two years, and moved to Columbus. I was a nineteen-year-old writer who hadn’t written anything yet, back in my hometown and sitting in Mo’s car, with his toothpick and his piercing look aimed at me.
“What you lookin’ at, man?” I managed to say, and he turned back to the road. He smiled, tilting his head back, and reached for the radio. I hadn’t heard it at first, but he was playing Nas’s newest album, I Am . . . . His fingers punched at the buttons of the CD player until he returned to the first song, “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II.” When the beat hit, we both threw our heads back, and I smiled for the first time since I got in. It was the summer of 1999, and Nas was still an icon, still the mantle holder, still an undisputed lyricist if you cared about this rap shit at all. At the one-minute mark, Nas began spitting one of his most memorable passages:
Had eight partners growin’ up, Eight turned to seven, seven turned to Six niggas, got two in heaven Six of us holdin’ it, now it’s five rollin’ thick The sixth one’s parole flipped, five niggas Went to four quick
We finished the song without speaking to each other directly. But maybe this was speaking directly. We had both raised our voices on the same verses, served rap hands to the windshield of the Impala. We shared the stage, performing as if there were a paying crowd. Ghosts of hype-men. The song faded out and Mo took the opportunity to turn the music back down to a sane level. The streetlights cut across our chests and moved up our bodies as he turned onto Cole Road. I felt safe in the city again.
When my father moved us to Dublin, I learned that safety is about context. I had never felt unsafe before leaving Akron, despite all the violence we waded through as kids. Back then, we knew where to go and how, mostly, to avoid the wrong people. We believed getting jumped or having the police roll up on you was the result of your own bad decisions. “Don’t do no dumb shit,” older folks would tell us. In the new city, though, my family had a bigger yard, a quieter block, and neighbors who waved kindly at the police from their driveways.
When Mo spoke again, Nas was fading further into the background. “I’ve never been to New York. Probably never will.”
“Me neither,” I lied. I didn’t want to rub my worldliness in Mo’s face. “I hear we ain’t missin’ shit though.”
“Nah. We stay missing out on shit,” he shot back. We were easy to define now, a couple of men on a night drive: two fish swimming in the direction of the current. He continued, “We ain’t got nothing like ‘Akron State of Mind,’ part one or two. Ain’t nobody outside of our city rapping along to shit about our city. We don’t put shit out in the world like that.”
I realized he was insulting me too, as I was among the shit Akron had put out into the world, the shit he was deeming inadequate. But I knew, or I thought I knew, when Mo was hurting and not necessarily trying to hurt other folks. I didn’t know how to comfort him or if that’s even what he needed.
I spoke up. “We got the Last Poets. People dig them.”
He looked at me sharply, the toothpick hanging from his mouth.
dig them,” I said.
My Akron friends saw my family’s escape to the suburbs as a form of betrayal.
Mo held his look on me before turning back to the road and laughing. The laugh was real and charming in the way I knew Mo could be. But it was soon swallowed by the vastness of the car and Nas’s low voice and the weird silence that existed outside our windows.
“We also got that James kid ballin,’” I rebounded. “Supposed to be the best high schooler folks have seen, and he just a freshman. He definitely going to the league.”
“You mean the nigga that play for St. Vincent Mary’s? Dude came up in Akron and went to private school when he got some shine. He ain’t Akron no more.” His jaw tightened, and I knew there was no point in trying to challenge him.
I was sure Mo would have said that I wasn’t Akron no more, either. After we moved away, my family used to come back to visit every weekend. Then every other weekend. Then once a month. Then just for holidays and funerals. My Akron friends saw my family’s escape to the suburbs as a form of betrayal. Whenever I saw them, I tried to compensate by talking shit about my new town, downplaying my good grades, mocking the school, the neighborhoods, the other students. I told Mo and anyone who would listen how much I hated living in Dublin, the isolation, the naive way people talked about the world outside the suburbs. Hated the nicknames my white classmates gave me and how they would target me if I embarrassed them in basketball practice.
But my old friends stayed skeptical. As a kid, I had heard more than a couple of times that I talked white, so folks thought I’d be comfortable living in a mostly white neighborhood. They didn’t believe me when I told them that I had gotten into more fights my first three months at the new school than I did total in the old hood.
By now, though, high school was behind us. Mo was twenty and I was almost twenty, and we both knew it wasn’t my fault that my family had moved out of Akron to “improve our situation.” But we also knew that something had changed in me in the eight years since. I had become more accepting of my life in the suburbs, more accustomed to always being outnumbered. It wasn’t my choice to leave, but it was my choice that I had never moved back.
“Where we going anyway, the party up in Firestone?” I asked.
“You know where the parties at now?” He didn’t even bother to look at me.
“I know where at least one is at.”
He didn’t speak for a long time, maybe a stoplight or two. Something was working behind his eyes, keeping him tight and impenetrable. I half expected him to bite through the toothpick in his mouth.
“I don’t feel like hitting no party, man,” Mo said finally.
“OK, so what are we doing then?”
“I was supposed to go swoop Nate too, but I honestly don’t feel like doing that either.”
“You going to let him know we ain’t comin’?”
Mo turned the toothpick over in his mouth once, letting one end stab his bottom lip while he took his time to answer. “Nah. You can, though.”
“I don’t know Nate like that.”
“He be aight then. Don’t feel like saying . . . whatever to the dude anyway.”
Mo was hard to nail down on a normal day, and tonight he seemed even more distrustful than usual. When he was evasive like this, I could often trace it back to something that had wounded him: when his uncle disappeared from his family’s house with most of their stuff, or when they pulled his sister off life support after she was hit by a car running a red light near their house. I was freshly aware of how little control I had over how the night would unfold. Mo might need me to hold him upright. Or I might need to find a way out of the car.
When we stopped at the corner of Forester and Fifth, I tried not to be alarmed. Forester Street was familiar to us, even if my peoples didn’t mess around here. This was where the Forester Crips operated when we were younger. As far as gangs go, the FCs were mostly run-of-the-mill. There were deadlier crews around the city. L2s were brutal, sometimes putting folks on display in broad daylight. The Fulks were low on body count but would absolutely burn down your store or strip your car if you disrespected them in any way. You might hear about the FCs disappearing somebody or about one of their crew being questioned, but mostly they lived off the gang’s older reputation, shit they did before most of us were born and there were fewer gangs to compete with. Still, it was typically best to just steer clear of Forester. My brain was loud, but I vowed not to be the first to speak.
Mo’s voice cracked as he broke the silence. “Living in the suburbs as bad as you make it sound?”
“Sometimes. The good parts aren’t really what’s out there. It’s about what I don’t miss.”
“Yeah.” Mo nodded.
“I think my dad is always worried about us embarrassing him in front of white folks,” I continued. “I used to have to go to a lot of dinners with his co-workers, and that shit was the worst.”
“Ain’t no Black people out there?”
“Nah, there’s a few. I have a crew. None of us from there though.”
“Where they come from?”
“Two of my boys are brothers, they came from Toledo. Another from Cincinnati. He sound like he from ’Bama or Mississippi though. And one homie is from the Philippines.”
“He’s Black too?”
“Nah, nigga, he’s Filipino,” I yelled back, and we both erupted into laughter.
“Bet, bet,” Mo said, regaining himself. “Philippines,” he mused aloud. “Might as well be Mars.”
The silence was back, and I couldn’t think of any new distraction. Outside my window, I saw nothing, just absence. The street that had intimidated me moments ago now seemed sad and alone in its emptiness. Mo was shuffling his feet.
“You going to make me ask?”
“What are we doing here, man?”
He swallowed hard and then answered. “They came to get me at my aunt’s house.”
“Who is they?”
“Over some bullshit?”
Mo laughed softly. “Yeah, my bullshit.”
I had been sitting up in my seat, the belt tight across my chest. At his words, I contracted into the cushion. “Moses, what did you do, man?”
Mo shook his head, slowly at first, then rapidly. He turned his body toward the driver’s side window, but the streetlights had betrayed him; I could already see the slick on his cheeks. When he turned back, his eyes were red, and he was breathing heavily through his nose. He held the toothpick between his fingers and poked it into his cheek.
It occurred to me that I was witnessing someone who was possibly the most scared they had ever been in their life.
I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of him asking me for advice. I was the boy who left. The boy with “potential” who was doing so little with it. I attended dinners with wealthy families. I had lied about never being to New York to shrink myself. I could not be less equipped to answer him.
“I’m trying to think if I was in your shoes—”
“You’d never be in my shoes, Will,” he cut me off.
“Then what the fuck you ask me for.” I was way too sharp. But I was angry. Angry that I had no answers for him, that he wouldn’t tell me what he did, that I was too scared to keep asking. People did shit against the law all the time in this city, and as long as it didn’t happen right in front of the cops, they never seemed to care. If they came looking for you, there couldn’t be too many reasons why. Either you messed with some white folks, or you did something else they couldn’t ignore.
“If you’re asking me, then you’re thinking about running.”
I exhaled the last bit of breath from my body. “Where?”
“I probably shouldn’t tell you.”
“Yeah, but I think you want to.”
“South. I got folks in South Carolina.”
“You ever been?”
“Once, family reunion when we were in high school.” He paused. “Think I should do it?”
“I think if you run, you’ll never feel . . . at rest? But I would probably do anything to avoid going to jail too.”
“I swear, you really not helping right now.”
Just like that, my patience evaporated again. “Mo, you want me to make you feel better, tell you no matter what everything is going to be OK? Or you want me to be honest with you?”
There was no immediate answer. I wanted to get out of the car, to get more space to breathe. I wished we were having this conversation in a living room or even a diner. I felt trapped with only an armrest between us.
“I think I want to feel better,” he finally managed. He started sobbing, not bothering to fight back the tears this time. His head was thrown back against the seat, one fist resting against the Impala’s ceiling. It occurred to me that I was witnessing someone who was possibly the most scared they had ever been in their life. I reached my hand toward his right arm. He seemed to be in his own world of torment, and I thought maybe he wouldn’t notice. But as I touched his arm, he brought his hand down over mine. Squeezed it like a lifeline.
Mo and I were tight once, and it was possible that if I lived here, he would not be on the verge of leaving.
“If I turn myself in . . . ,” he began. “I dunno, I might never come up out there.”
“Have you talked to a lawyer?” It was the only helpful thing I could think of.
“Yeah.” His voice was a whisper. “Said I should turn myself in. Could probably get me about eight years or some shit. I don’t know, I don’t fucking know, man.”
I could make eight years sound small in my head for brief moments, when it was someone else’s life. But eight years in prison still sounded impossible when I imagined doing it myself.
“Oh, god.” He was suddenly loud again. “I’m up on FC at night holding hands with a nigga in my car. They might kill me before I even get to prison.”
If he was trying to get me to pull away, it didn’t work. Mostly because he hadn’t pulled away either.
“Mo. Mo, I’m so sorry man.”
He laughed while wiping his face with his free hand. “What, sorry you got away from this bullshit?”
He laughed harder, and this time he did pull his hand off mine. I took the cue and withdrew. He wiped his face one more time and put the car in gear. We sped away from the curb and into the night again.
I had nothing to say, nothing to offer. Mo and I were tight once, and it was possible that if I lived here, he would not be on the verge of leaving, one way or another. But it was just as possible that I wouldn’t be alive to help him. So many people we knew from childhood hadn’t made it this far.
When I looked up at the street signs, I realized he was taking me back to my cousin’s house. He noticed me eyeing the signs and responded.
“Yeah, I’m gonna drop you off, man. I gotta work through some shit.”
“You know what you’re going to do?”
“No, but I’ll figure it out tonight.” The radio was on, but it wasn’t really. When we arrived at the house, he stopped the car and waited for me to get out, but I made no motion to.
“Anything else I can do, Mo?”
“Nah, man.” He was cold and mechanical now, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the gear shift, ready to put the car in drive.
“You already tell folks peace? I can ride with you while you do that.”
“You were the last one on that list, man.”
He had cleaned me out, and I knew my stalling couldn’t be dressed up any other way. I put my hand on the door.
“Mo, if I wasn’t in town this weekend, would you have called me tonight?”
He took a moment but didn’t break eye contact.
“Sure, man. I would’ve called.”
It was a lie, but I got it. He had moved beyond himself and was now taking care of me. He knew that I wouldn’t rest easy with that answer, but I was a box he was checking. I nodded and opened the door, then stopped myself and raised my forearm. He let go of the gear shift and raised his forearm to meet mine, a final smile on his face. I got out and stood there as the car began to move off into the night. So very far away from me.
William Evans is an author and co-founder of the pop culture website BlackNerdProblems.com. He was awarded the Blackburn Fellowship at Randolph College, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing. His latest collection is Black Nerd Problems: Essays.
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