Kwame Opoku-Duku reads "Stay Up"

Audio Feature

Kwame Opoku-Duku reads "Stay Up"

Audio Feature

Tito was always the crazy one, like, thuggin-out-the-womb-type crazy, like nigga I don’t give a fuck, I’ll do the time, and I fucked your bitch, beat-a-nigga-in-public-type crazy. By the time he had a dirty mustache, he was notorious throughout Slater Village, and we walked the earth like young gods in the sun. We were the New School, and we didn’t give a fuck about our elders. And nobody said shit. Everybody was cool with just saying, “Don’t fuck with him, that nigga’s crazy.” Really, besides me, his mom, and the teachers, nobody even called him Tito. Everybody called him Loco, and the homeboys called him Loc. Dude would just roll up on chicks and whisper some nasty shit to them right in front of their fathers. Like cold-blooded, nasty shit. And those bitch ass niggas didn’t do shit about it. And the girls fell for that shit, too, hook, line, and sinker. He was my best friend, and whether the rest of us admitted it or not, we all saw him as an inspiration.

We used to fuck with a lot of white girls back then, and it wasn’t even a big deal like you think it would be, cause it was like they were just a part of the team. They were even down with the sisters. It was just like everybody was fucking with everybody. But Tito had mad bitches. He was on some Iceberg Moreno shit. Didn’t matter what that nigga did, he just couldn’t shake em. And this one white girl, Alice was, like, his number one fan. She used to walk an hour from Bramble Hill to the Slater Village Houses to fuck him while his mom was out, and sometimes she’d even bring a friend for me. And they never acted funny when they came to the projects. They were cool, just happy to be on the team, like I said. And when they started wearing hoop earrings and waxing their eyebrows and drawing them back on, and when they started saying pero in the middle of their sentences (like, I wanna smoke, pero Angel’s weed always gives me a headache), not even the sisters hated. They passed, and for whatever reason, people felt like they had earned it.

It was the beginning of the summer. We were fourteen. Tito and I were smoking weed on the roof, and he told me Alice was pregnant. I asked him what he was going to do, and he laughed and said he didn’t know, but that he was thinking about robbing Todd The Fuck-Up, who lived upstairs and sold pills and dirt weed. I asked him if it would be for abortion money, and he said he didn’t know. He could’ve got her to have an abortion if he wanted her to. He could’ve made Alice do anything. He wanted to have a kid with her. Eventually it got around that Alice la puta was pregnant, and her name was dragged up and down project halls while Tito, el pobrecito, became a martyr. Only the homeboys called him Loc now. Everybody else called him Tito.

And then I got caught with a white girl.

The crazy thing was that I didn’t even get caught. Baby girl had come and gone like two hours before my mom got home, but it was like she Sherlock Holmesed that shit. I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and she ran up on me like, “Who did you have up in here?” And I was in fucking shock. I swept, vacuumed, opened the windows—like, there was no trace of her anywhere. I just couldn’t process that shit, you know? I hesitated, and she went in on me. “Oh, so you did have someone in here. Who was it?” I was stuttering, looking around the courtroom for my lawyer, and then she really went in. “It was Erin, wasn’t it?” I had never heard my mom speak this girl’s name in my life. I tried to protest, but all I could manage to get out was “Mom,” and she wasn’t trying to hear that weak shit. She put up one finger and walked away, talking some shit like, “You ain’t gonna end up like Tito. I ain’t gonna let you end up like Tito.” She went upstairs and slammed her door. Half an hour later she came down and said, “Pack your bags. You’re spending the rest of the summer in Louisiana.” Then she dropped the mic right in my face.

I grew up thinking that there couldn’t have been a bigger fucking dummy in history than my mom. Turned out she was sharp as fuck, and I felt like my soul got stabbed, and I burned because I kept telling myself all those years that she let those deadbeat niggas step on her because she was stupid. It turned out she was just as weak as I was. And a whore. And I was happy to go.

II.

Uncle Horace was ex-military and the only man left in the family down South. Every other one of those cats bounced. Uncle Horace also didn’t have any kids, which was probably the real reason he was still around. He was married to some chick who ended up leaving him for his best friend during the first Iraq War, while he was stationed in Kuwait, and in my experience there was nothing more that Uncle Horace hated than to see another nigga shine. First thing he said to me when I got off the plane was, “I oughtta beat the hell outta you, boy, for giving your momma so much trouble.” I was already on some Yeah, whatever, nigga-type shit, but I ate that. There’s flexing and there’s trying to flex, and we both knew I could smell the bitch in him.

West Orleans was all right, though. My cousins had weed, and being around family was good for the soul. We played spades and dominoes, and for real, I could listen to those Louisiana niggas talk all day. Uncle Horace was always trippin, though. Always talking shit. And then one day my cousin rolled by in his truck to pick me up while Uncle was out. We went on a blunt ride with a couple more of the cousins. When they dropped me off, about a half hour later, that motherfucker was waiting outside for me. He looked desperate, and I wondered if he was like this with his wife, if she had been cheating on him before he left to go overseas. I got out of the truck, and he took his belt off, asking why I left without telling him, and I didn’t say anything. Dude already had his belt off. He came at me, and I punched him in the nose, and you should’ve seen the look on his face, like he just found out God didn’t exist. He just sat there holding his face, staring at me. Then I reached back and punched him in the temple and was about to go in, but my cousins dragged me off him, and I looked over, and my other cousin was getting video of it on his phone. Uncle Horace told my mom that he couldn’t have a thug living in his house, that he might end up killing me, that I had the Devil in me. But we both knew the truth: that he just couldn’t fuck with me. When I got back to Wormtown, the beating that Tito and Jimmy put on Todd The Fuck-Up had already become legendary, and Tito became Loco again. When I saw him, he said he was using the cash they made to buy coke, and that his kid was going to have any pair of Jordans he wanted.

III.

When I was sixteen, I started punching holes in the wall, and Mom finally kicked me out for good. I moved into Tito’s trap house on Oak Street. There were two dogs there: one pit bull and one boxer-pit bull mix, and they barked non-stop until Tito or Jimmy would reach back like they were getting ready to kick the dogs in the head. One day I was home alone, and the dogs just wouldn’t stop barking, and I thought my head would explode if they didn’t shut the fuck up, and I went downstairs and yelled at them to be quiet but they kept barking, and I reached back like I was going to kick the boxer mix but it didn’t even flinch. I went outside and smoked a cigarette, and when I came back in, I kicked the boxer mix in the head.

There were guns everywhere, and Tito asked me if I wanted one. I said I did, and he told me that all I had to do was go on this pick-up ride with him and Jimmy and shoot at the house when he came running outside. We drove to the north side of Westview, and we parked outside some big house in a white neighborhood. Tito went in, and my heart started racing. A few minutes later, he came running out of the house with a duffle bag, and when one of those dudes came running out after him, me and Jimmy started shooting at the house, and the dude fell all over himself and started crawling back like a fucking worm, and we kept shooting and laughing, and we shot out one of his windows, and Tito got into the car, and we didn’t stop laughing until we hit our first stoplight.

Sometimes Alice would come by. Most of the time she was by herself, but sometimes she brought the kid when her parents were out. Grammy and Grampy had full custody, and they wouldn’t let Tito see him. When she brought the kid by, she could only stay for a little while, maybe twenty or thirty minutes. Sometimes she talked about moving in, sometimes they talked about taking the kid and driving somewhere, but they never said where they would go, and she and the kid always went back to Bramble Hill, and I didn’t blame her. She didn’t wax her eyebrows anymore, and she was taking an SAT prep course at WCC, and the kid didn’t wear Jordans or have the half Moreno afro that they said he would, and when she came over, she held the kid like she might go out and throw him in the dumpster at any moment. But I don’t really want to judge her on that. I’m not exactly a fan of kids. My pops wasn’t either. He used to call me “the crumb snatcher” before he left, and it is what it is. I heard my mom talking low on the phone once. I couldn’t hear exactly what was going on, but it sounded like my dad had another family the same time as ours and that I had a brother the same age as me. It didn’t really bother me, and I wasn’t really surprised, but I could hear my mom all alone, fighting back her sobs, and I thought that if I ever saw my father again, I’d kill him and do the time gladly.

IV.

Alice’s parents sent her away to college. She could’ve stayed if she wanted. There are, like, ten colleges in Westview, but she went to some small liberal arts college way out in the Berkshires. We drove from Wormtown to visit her and go to a party. She asked us to bring weed and Xanex, and Tito brought the last of the strawberry haze, which he’d been saving for her. We popped Xanies during the drive, but Tito wouldn’t talk. I guess it didn’t matter how many Xanies you popped if you thought your girl was getting it from a new dude. And even though I didn’t talk much to Alice beyond the hey sis type stuff, even I knew it was only a matter of time. We got to her campus, and she signed Tito in, and her friend signed me in, and we had a good time, and there were no new dudes sniffing around Alice, and the dudes who were at the party were all goofy as fuck anyway, and we sold weed to all those goofy motherfuckers, and we marked up the price twenty-five percent. I slept on the couch in the lounge, and Tito slept in her room, and he fucked her while her roommate was there, and the whole floor could hear it. When we drove home the next morning, Tito said that Alice had changed. I said, “Yeah, she’s white again, and she’s not in Slater Village.” I was really hungover, and I felt bad for saying it like that, but Tito nodded and said, “You’re right.”

When we got back to Wormtown, Tito started fucking one of his groupies, some girl named Yesi, from Slater Village. She was an even bigger fan than Alice was, but in a hysterical way that made me feel old. She had fucking braces. And everything she did seemed to piss Tito off, but especially when she spoke Spanish. The first time I saw Tito hit her, he was in the middle of counting a stack, and she kept asking him questions, and me and Tito’s cousin Monica could see that his top was about to blow, and she kept on going. Tito stood up and told her to shut the fuck up. She started crying and going on in Spanish, and she called Alice a puta, and she grabbed the stack that Tito was counting and threw it across the room. Tito grabbed her by the throat and choked her, and he punched her face, and for an instant, I floated out of my body and watched it happening from above. I saw myself yell, “Tito!” and I saw his cousin jump on him. When I came back to Earth, Yesi was in a heap on the floor sobbing, and nobody said anything.

|

We told the truth as loud as we could, until the world came crashing down around us.

V.

I moved in with a woman who was ten years older than me, during a time when I would’ve moved in with any woman who would have me. I had been staying in a girl’s dorm room before that, and I went through the girl’s things while she was at class, looking for any piece of evidence that she was fucking other men, and one day I found a list of male names, and my name was on it, five spots from the last name. When I confronted her and asked her to explain it, she told me I had two minutes to get my shit and leave before she called the campus police. As I packed, I told her I was sorry, that I just wanted her to tell me anything. I didn’t care if it was the truth or a lie.

The older woman’s name was Donna, and she lived in Slater Village when I was growing up, and she bought weed down at Oak Street from us, and I called her as soon as I left the girl’s dorm. I was supposed to be staying on her couch, but the first night I was there, we were watching TV, and she put her hand on mine and said she didn’t mind if I stayed in her room, and she took a shower and went to bed. I spent half the night building up the courage to go knock on her bedroom door. When I did, it was a timid knock, and she didn’t respond, so I knocked a little louder, and she said to come in, and we escaped the winter in each other’s arms, and we told each other all the lies we wanted to hear. Our favorite lie was that we were going to pick up and move to San Francisco to become hippies, but we told each other all kinds of lies. I told her that I wanted to go back to school and become a lawyer, and she told me she liked that I was sensitive, and we would both pretend I was sleeping when she took calls from ex-lovers in the middle of the night.

We both drank too much, but she was one of those people who asked if there was any alcohol in her drink because she “couldn’t taste it,” whereas every sip I took was bitter, and I kept drinking anyway, just to make myself more miserable. When winter ended, we became horrible to each other. We hurled shame and hatred at one another like stones until a neighbor would bang on the paper-thin walls that separated our lives. We stopped telling each other lies. We told the truth as loud as we could, until the world came crashing down around us. Sometimes our bodies would find each other in the middle of the night, and we would manage some sense of consolation that sustained us for another day or two, until the truth came out again. I felt like I was surrounded on all sides, and I’m sure she felt the same, and when I woke up one morning on the couch to her throwing all my shit out the front door, I felt for the first time in a long time that feeling for her that I had lost, and I wanted to kiss her on the cheek and anoint her with oils. She told me to get the fuck out, and I put my clothes on and said that I would gladly go.

I moved back into the house on Oak Street and started trapping again. I didn’t mind getting calls late, or any of that other bullshit that went along with it. I just embodied the hustle, and I saved every dollar I made for four months, and when it felt right, I bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. I texted Donna that I was moving, and she invited me over, and we drank a bottle of white rum with pineapple juice, and we had sex in her bedroom, which seemed completely foreign to me now. I didn’t have a condom, but she said she was on the pill, and we were sloppy and uncoordinated, and I pulled out, and she told me I didn’t have to stay. I went back to the house and told Tito I was going to Cali and that I didn’t know how long I’d be gone. He said that it was dope, but that I should’ve told him what was up. I said I just needed a vacation, and that he could come out whenever he wanted, and we both knew I was lying.

VI.

I stayed at a hostel on Broadway and Kearney for the maximum three weeks allowed. I did a lot of drugs with my European roommates in the ballroom, and we ate the complimentary breakfast and dinner together, and I spent the rest of my time alone. I moved to a hostel on Ellis and Larkin after that, where I got more peace. It was right near a transgender brothel, and I’d smoke cigarettes outside the hostel and watch accountants and hipsters and down-low brothers ring the doorbell and wait outside, fidgeting like they had to pee until they got buzzed in. I’d see them take laps and laps and laps around the block before they rang that bell, and every second they waited to get buzzed in, it seemed like all the light in heaven was shining down on their sin, and they squirmed like the cowards they were. I always walked up Larkin to get back to the hostel, hoping one of the girls was outside, and I always kept my head up proudly when I walked by them. I’d take my fill with my eyes and think about them later when I masturbated.

I knew after a month I was going to run out of money, but I’d never had a job, and I didn’t really know how to go about getting one, so I rationed my money to stretch it as far as it could go. Instead of going to the movies or buying shit, I’d leave the hostel early and spend the day walking. After a while, the folks on the street began to recognize me, and sometimes they thought I was homeless, and sometimes they thought I was a rent boy. Sometimes dudes offered me food, and sometimes their eyes searched mine with such an abject desperation, that I felt sick and wanted to put them out of their misery and stomp their heads into the pavement. With the last of my money, I rented an SRO hotel room. It was a family-owned place, and the woman looked at me and said I was so young, and she asked me if I was sure if I wanted to stay there because it was not nice, and I said it was all I could afford, and as we walked down the hall, she said that I should come see her if I saw any mice or holes in the walls. The floor of the room had cigarette burns, and there was a trail of dried paint from the bed to the floor. I told her I would take it. She asked me if I had shower shoes because I would be sharing the bathroom with many drug addicts, that the city paid for them to live there. I told her no, and she brought me to the back of the reception office and gave me a pair of her husband’s. I thanked her and gave her the last of my money, and then I went into the room, locked the door, and cried. That night, I took some shirtless selfies and posted them in the m4m casual encounters section of craigslist, under the heading “young man in need of help,” and replies started to come in about a half hour later. The first guy was a lawyer in Glen Park. He wanted me to “break into” his unlocked apartment, find him “sleeping,” and force him to blow me. I told him I needed porn on in the background, and to leave a bottle of wine open in the living room. After I came, I punched him in the face and stole his wallet. I did it another five or six times after that, and I don’t regret it.

Tito called me one night after I finished with one of them. He told me that Todd The Fuck-Up had gone to New Jersey to re-up and was supposed to be spending the night there. While he was gone, his girl had a threesome with some dude and another girl in Todd’s apartment. For whatever reason, The Fuck-Up came home early and caught them in the act. Ended up shooting them all execution style and driving back down to New Jersey. Of course, the other girl ended up surviving, pointing the finger, and now Todd The Fuck-Up was looking at life in prison, and for some reason—nervousness, I guess—my response was to laugh. Tito laughed, too, and said, “That motherfucker really earned his name, huh?” And I said, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

VII.

When I got back up, I started selling trees to the kids who worked at the hostel. I moved into a studio on 7th and Market, and I picked up from this white dude whose brother worked on a weed farm in Mendocino. Sometimes the hostel kids invited me to parties, and at this one party, I met a girl named Mari. She wore an oversized bomber jacket over high-waisted cutoff shorts, and she had a high-top fade that she wore like a crown, and impossibly large earrings that hung like ornaments from her, and I swear, none of you could understand how dope this girl was until you saw her up close. She made all those hipster girls at the party ashamed to be white, and her laugh made me want to take a bullet for her. And I’ll leave it there because I know I’m already on some sucker shit.

I never tried to holler at her. I didn’t need no PhD to know Mari didn’t fuck with dope boys. She talked about shit like Social Death and Performativity, and when she finished her sermons, I was ready to fight those other niggas to be the first to lie prostrate and kiss her feet. Nah, I never tried to holler, I just told her I liked her earrings and that I could deliver weed to her if she needed, and I feel like she knew I wasn’t capable of hurting her, and that’s why we became friends. I told her everything. Shit that I didn’t even remember, shit that would’ve made me feel dumb if the way she looked at me didn’t make me drunk and heady. I told her that until Alice got pregnant, I thought me and Tito would make it to the NBA, that I could dunk at thirteen, even though I couldn’t shoot, and she laughed and said something like “It’s in deep, huh?” And I nodded and said “Yeah.”

We met up one evening and went to Dolores Park. At the stoplight before the park, the red hand was up, but there were no cars coming, so I went to cross the street. She took my hand and said, “No, let’s wait,” and we stood there looking at each other, and I could smell liquor on her breath, and it smelled so fucking sweet, and I knew that if I kept looking at her, I’d have to run away and crawl under a rock somewhere, and I looked down. She asked me what the matter was,  and I told her she was so beautiful it hurt, and she said that I had the soul of a poet, and I said, “Yeah, right,” and she told me I could do anything I wanted in this world, that I was a good person, and I told her she didn’t have to say that, and she took my face in her hands, and I fought it hard, but the tears rolled down my face, and she tried to hold me, but I said it was okay, and I kissed the inside of her hand. That night, I had a dream I killed Tito with a hammer. We were in a club, and he came at me all rabid, and I knew that if I didn’t kill him, he’d kill me. I smashed his head into a bloody pulp and then I woke up in a cold sweat. It was self-defense. I looked at my phone to see what time it was. Tito had sent me a series of texts:

R u up bro?

I fucked up bro

Yo my dude I caught a case over some bullshit

I took some bad molly dude I blacked out and 

fucked up that donut shop on main south

Im so fucked up over this shit

I cant keep doin this shit bro

I didn’t respond until the morning. I told him to stay up.

It never really happened with Mari. She started dating some Back to Africa dude, and it was just as well. And I’m glad I never told her I loved her because if I had the chance, I would’ve killed her with my love, and then I would’ve killed myself.

VIII.

My mom got married for the fourth time, to a Southern Baptist UPS guy from Louisiana, who made her wear an LSU pin on her dress, even though he never went to college. She texted me a week before the wedding and said that she had fallen in love and was getting married, and I never texted her back, but for some reason, the dude became fixated on getting my mom and me back on good terms, so they invited me to Thanksgiving that year. I said that I had to work. Then the dude called me and said he really wanted to meet me, and I gave in. He wasn’t that bad, really. Nothing like the rest of them. Maybe a little too eager or whatever, but the dude had a job, and he got my mom out of Slater Village. He had a two bedroom ranch on the outskirts of the city, and except for all that church and praying shit, he was all right to talk to. I got there Thanksgiving Eve, and that first night, I barely slept. I lay awake, wondering what kind of magnificent lies my mom must’ve told homeboy while he was courting her. I wondered what kind of lies they told each other. I wondered if she really believed in God or if she just gave in to the hype.

We ate the next day. Homeboy asked me if I would say grace before dinner, and I said no, and he asked me about my life in California, and I lied and told him I started community college, and that I had a girlfriend. I went to bed early that night, and the next day I went to Black Friday at the mall. I saw Tito and his son there. They were about twenty feet in front of me, and I couldn’t tell for sure it was them right away, even though I knew it was, until Tito pointed at a store and I saw his profile. The kid must’ve been seven or eight now. I ducked behind a kiosk, and when I collected myself, I turned around and walked away. I tried not to run. There was a group of kids in the parking lot, and one of them was dribbling a basketball in front of a car, watching himself in the car’s reflection. I slowed down as I passed him, and we looked at each other. He scrutinized me and when he saw what he was looking for, he nodded. Respect. Up until then, I would see little boys like him practicing for that scholarship, for that pro contract they would never sign, and I would use it as an excuse to text Mari. But I left her alone. I let her live. Now I see shit like that and I keep it to myself. ■

Tito was always the crazy one, like, thuggin-out-the-womb-type crazy, like nigga I don’t give a fuck, I’ll do the time, and I fucked your bitch, beat-a-nigga-in-public-type crazy. By the time he had a dirty mustache, he was notorious throughout Slater Village, and we walked the earth like young gods in the sun. We were the New School, and we didn’t give a fuck about our elders. And nobody said shit. Everybody was cool with just saying, “Don’t fuck with him, that nigga’s crazy.” Really, besides me, his mom, and the teachers, nobody even called him Tito. Everybody called him Loco, and the homeboys called him Loc. Dude would just roll up on chicks and whisper some nasty shit to them right in front of their fathers. Like cold-blooded, nasty shit. And those bitch ass niggas didn’t do shit about it. And the girls fell for that shit, too, hook, line, and sinker. He was my best friend, and whether the rest of us admitted it or not, we all saw him as an inspiration.

We used to fuck with a lot of white girls back then, and it wasn’t even a big deal like you think it would be, cause it was like they were just a part of the team. They were even down with the sisters. It was just like everybody was fucking with everybody. But Tito had mad bitches. He was on some Iceberg Moreno shit. Didn’t matter what that nigga did, he just couldn’t shake em. And this one white girl, Alice was, like, his number one fan. She used to walk an hour from Bramble Hill to the Slater Village Houses to fuck him while his mom was out, and sometimes she’d even bring a friend for me. And they never acted funny when they came to the projects. They were cool, just happy to be on the team, like I said. And when they started wearing hoop earrings and waxing their eyebrows and drawing them back on, and when they started saying pero in the middle of their sentences (like, I wanna smoke, pero Angel’s weed always gives me a headache), not even the sisters hated. They passed, and for whatever reason, people felt like they had earned it.

It was the beginning of the summer. We were fourteen. Tito and I were smoking weed on the roof, and he told me Alice was pregnant. I asked him what he was going to do, and he laughed and said he didn’t know, but that he was thinking about robbing Todd The Fuck-Up, who lived upstairs and sold pills and dirt weed. I asked him if it would be for abortion money, and he said he didn’t know. He could’ve got her to have an abortion if he wanted her to. He could’ve made Alice do anything. He wanted to have a kid with her. Eventually it got around that Alice la puta was pregnant, and her name was dragged up and down project halls while Tito, el pobrecito, became a martyr. Only the homeboys called him Loc now. Everybody else called him Tito.

And then I got caught with a white girl.

The crazy thing was that I didn’t even get caught. Baby girl had come and gone like two hours before my mom got home, but it was like she Sherlock Holmesed that shit. I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and she ran up on me like, “Who did you have up in here?” And I was in fucking shock. I swept, vacuumed, opened the windows—like, there was no trace of her anywhere. I just couldn’t process that shit, you know? I hesitated, and she went in on me. “Oh, so you did have someone in here. Who was it?” I was stuttering, looking around the courtroom for my lawyer, and then she really went in. “It was Erin, wasn’t it?” I had never heard my mom speak this girl’s name in my life. I tried to protest, but all I could manage to get out was “Mom,” and she wasn’t trying to hear that weak shit. She put up one finger and walked away, talking some shit like, “You ain’t gonna end up like Tito. I ain’t gonna let you end up like Tito.” She went upstairs and slammed her door. Half an hour later she came down and said, “Pack your bags. You’re spending the rest of the summer in Louisiana.” Then she dropped the mic right in my face.

I grew up thinking that there couldn’t have been a bigger fucking dummy in history than my mom. Turned out she was sharp as fuck, and I felt like my soul got stabbed, and I burned because I kept telling myself all those years that she let those deadbeat niggas step on her because she was stupid. It turned out she was just as weak as I was. And a whore. And I was happy to go.

II.

Uncle Horace was ex-military and the only man left in the family down South. Every other one of those cats bounced. Uncle Horace also didn’t have any kids, which was probably the real reason he was still around. He was married to some chick who ended up leaving him for his best friend during the first Iraq War, while he was stationed in Kuwait, and in my experience there was nothing more that Uncle Horace hated than to see another nigga shine. First thing he said to me when I got off the plane was, “I oughtta beat the hell outta you, boy, for giving your momma so much trouble.” I was already on some Yeah, whatever, nigga-type shit, but I ate that. There’s flexing and there’s trying to flex, and we both knew I could smell the bitch in him.

West Orleans was all right, though. My cousins had weed, and being around family was good for the soul. We played spades and dominoes, and for real, I could listen to those Louisiana niggas talk all day. Uncle Horace was always trippin, though. Always talking shit. And then one day my cousin rolled by in his truck to pick me up while Uncle was out. We went on a blunt ride with a couple more of the cousins. When they dropped me off, about a half hour later, that motherfucker was waiting outside for me. He looked desperate, and I wondered if he was like this with his wife, if she had been cheating on him before he left to go overseas. I got out of the truck, and he took his belt off, asking why I left without telling him, and I didn’t say anything. Dude already had his belt off. He came at me, and I punched him in the nose, and you should’ve seen the look on his face, like he just found out God didn’t exist. He just sat there holding his face, staring at me. Then I reached back and punched him in the temple and was about to go in, but my cousins dragged me off him, and I looked over, and my other cousin was getting video of it on his phone. Uncle Horace told my mom that he couldn’t have a thug living in his house, that he might end up killing me, that I had the Devil in me. But we both knew the truth: that he just couldn’t fuck with me. When I got back to Wormtown, the beating that Tito and Jimmy put on Todd The Fuck-Up had already become legendary, and Tito became Loco again. When I saw him, he said he was using the cash they made to buy coke, and that his kid was going to have any pair of Jordans he wanted.

III.

When I was sixteen, I started punching holes in the wall, and Mom finally kicked me out for good. I moved into Tito’s trap house on Oak Street. There were two dogs there: one pit bull and one boxer-pit bull mix, and they barked non-stop until Tito or Jimmy would reach back like they were getting ready to kick the dogs in the head. One day I was home alone, and the dogs just wouldn’t stop barking, and I thought my head would explode if they didn’t shut the fuck up, and I went downstairs and yelled at them to be quiet but they kept barking, and I reached back like I was going to kick the boxer mix but it didn’t even flinch. I went outside and smoked a cigarette, and when I came back in, I kicked the boxer mix in the head.

There were guns everywhere, and Tito asked me if I wanted one. I said I did, and he told me that all I had to do was go on this pick-up ride with him and Jimmy and shoot at the house when he came running outside. We drove to the north side of Westview, and we parked outside some big house in a white neighborhood. Tito went in, and my heart started racing. A few minutes later, he came running out of the house with a duffle bag, and when one of those dudes came running out after him, me and Jimmy started shooting at the house, and the dude fell all over himself and started crawling back like a fucking worm, and we kept shooting and laughing, and we shot out one of his windows, and Tito got into the car, and we didn’t stop laughing until we hit our first stoplight.

Sometimes Alice would come by. Most of the time she was by herself, but sometimes she brought the kid when her parents were out. Grammy and Grampy had full custody, and they wouldn’t let Tito see him. When she brought the kid by, she could only stay for a little while, maybe twenty or thirty minutes. Sometimes she talked about moving in, sometimes they talked about taking the kid and driving somewhere, but they never said where they would go, and she and the kid always went back to Bramble Hill, and I didn’t blame her. She didn’t wax her eyebrows anymore, and she was taking an SAT prep course at WCC, and the kid didn’t wear Jordans or have the half Moreno afro that they said he would, and when she came over, she held the kid like she might go out and throw him in the dumpster at any moment. But I don’t really want to judge her on that. I’m not exactly a fan of kids. My pops wasn’t either. He used to call me “the crumb snatcher” before he left, and it is what it is. I heard my mom talking low on the phone once. I couldn’t hear exactly what was going on, but it sounded like my dad had another family the same time as ours and that I had a brother the same age as me. It didn’t really bother me, and I wasn’t really surprised, but I could hear my mom all alone, fighting back her sobs, and I thought that if I ever saw my father again, I’d kill him and do the time gladly.

IV.

Alice’s parents sent her away to college. She could’ve stayed if she wanted. There are, like, ten colleges in Westview, but she went to some small liberal arts college way out in the Berkshires. We drove from Wormtown to visit her and go to a party. She asked us to bring weed and Xanex, and Tito brought the last of the strawberry haze, which he’d been saving for her. We popped Xanies during the drive, but Tito wouldn’t talk. I guess it didn’t matter how many Xanies you popped if you thought your girl was getting it from a new dude. And even though I didn’t talk much to Alice beyond the hey sis type stuff, even I knew it was only a matter of time. We got to her campus, and she signed Tito in, and her friend signed me in, and we had a good time, and there were no new dudes sniffing around Alice, and the dudes who were at the party were all goofy as fuck anyway, and we sold weed to all those goofy motherfuckers, and we marked up the price twenty-five percent. I slept on the couch in the lounge, and Tito slept in her room, and he fucked her while her roommate was there, and the whole floor could hear it. When we drove home the next morning, Tito said that Alice had changed. I said, “Yeah, she’s white again, and she’s not in Slater Village.” I was really hungover, and I felt bad for saying it like that, but Tito nodded and said, “You’re right.”

When we got back to Wormtown, Tito started fucking one of his groupies, some girl named Yesi, from Slater Village. She was an even bigger fan than Alice was, but in a hysterical way that made me feel old. She had fucking braces. And everything she did seemed to piss Tito off, but especially when she spoke Spanish. The first time I saw Tito hit her, he was in the middle of counting a stack, and she kept asking him questions, and me and Tito’s cousin Monica could see that his top was about to blow, and she kept on going. Tito stood up and told her to shut the fuck up. She started crying and going on in Spanish, and she called Alice a puta, and she grabbed the stack that Tito was counting and threw it across the room. Tito grabbed her by the throat and choked her, and he punched her face, and for an instant, I floated out of my body and watched it happening from above. I saw myself yell, “Tito!” and I saw his cousin jump on him. When I came back to Earth, Yesi was in a heap on the floor sobbing, and nobody said anything.

V.

I moved in with a woman who was ten years older than me, during a time when I would’ve moved in with any woman who would have me. I had been staying in a girl’s dorm room before that, and I went through the girl’s things while she was at class, looking for any piece of evidence that she was fucking other men, and one day I found a list of male names, and my name was on it, five spots from the last name. When I confronted her and asked her to explain it, she told me I had two minutes to get my shit and leave before she called the campus police. As I packed, I told her I was sorry, that I just wanted her to tell me anything. I didn’t care if it was the truth or a lie.

The older woman’s name was Donna, and she lived in Slater Village when I was growing up, and she bought weed down at Oak Street from us, and I called her as soon as I left the girl’s dorm. I was supposed to be staying on her couch, but the first night I was there, we were watching TV, and she put her hand on mine and said she didn’t mind if I stayed in her room, and she took a shower and went to bed. I spent half the night building up the courage to go knock on her bedroom door. When I did, it was a timid knock, and she didn’t respond, so I knocked a little louder, and she said to come in, and we escaped the winter in each other’s arms, and we told each other all the lies we wanted to hear. Our favorite lie was that we were going to pick up and move to San Francisco to become hippies, but we told each other all kinds of lies. I told her that I wanted to go back to school and become a lawyer, and she told me she liked that I was sensitive, and we would both pretend I was sleeping when she took calls from ex-lovers in the middle of the night.

We both drank too much, but she was one of those people who asked if there was any alcohol in her drink because she “couldn’t taste it,” whereas every sip I took was bitter, and I kept drinking anyway, just to make myself more miserable. When winter ended, we became horrible to each other. We hurled shame and hatred at one another like stones until a neighbor would bang on the paper-thin walls that separated our lives. We stopped telling each other lies. We told the truth as loud as we could, until the world came crashing down around us. Sometimes our bodies would find each other in the middle of the night, and we would manage some sense of consolation that sustained us for another day or two, until the truth came out again. I felt like I was surrounded on all sides, and I’m sure she felt the same, and when I woke up one morning on the couch to her throwing all my shit out the front door, I felt for the first time in a long time that feeling for her that I had lost, and I wanted to kiss her on the cheek and anoint her with oils. She told me to get the fuck out, and I put my clothes on and said that I would gladly go.

I moved back into the house on Oak Street and started trapping again. I didn’t mind getting calls late, or any of that other bullshit that went along with it. I just embodied the hustle, and I saved every dollar I made for four months, and when it felt right, I bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. I texted Donna that I was moving, and she invited me over, and we drank a bottle of white rum with pineapple juice, and we had sex in her bedroom, which seemed completely foreign to me now. I didn’t have a condom, but she said she was on the pill, and we were sloppy and uncoordinated, and I pulled out, and she told me I didn’t have to stay. I went back to the house and told Tito I was going to Cali and that I didn’t know how long I’d be gone. He said that it was dope, but that I should’ve told him what was up. I said I just needed a vacation, and that he could come out whenever he wanted, and we both knew I was lying.

VI.

I stayed at a hostel on Broadway and Kearney for the maximum three weeks allowed. I did a lot of drugs with my European roommates in the ballroom, and we ate the complimentary breakfast and dinner together, and I spent the rest of my time alone. I moved to a hostel on Ellis and Larkin after that, where I got more peace. It was right near a transgender brothel, and I’d smoke cigarettes outside the hostel and watch accountants and hipsters and down-low brothers ring the doorbell and wait outside, fidgeting like they had to pee until they got buzzed in. I’d see them take laps and laps and laps around the block before they rang that bell, and every second they waited to get buzzed in, it seemed like all the light in heaven was shining down on their sin, and they squirmed like the cowards they were. I always walked up Larkin to get back to the hostel, hoping one of the girls was outside, and I always kept my head up proudly when I walked by them. I’d take my fill with my eyes and think about them later when I masturbated.

I knew after a month I was going to run out of money, but I’d never had a job, and I didn’t really know how to go about getting one, so I rationed my money to stretch it as far as it could go. Instead of going to the movies or buying shit, I’d leave the hostel early and spend the day walking. After a while, the folks on the street began to recognize me, and sometimes they thought I was homeless, and sometimes they thought I was a rent boy. Sometimes dudes offered me food, and sometimes their eyes searched mine with such an abject desperation, that I felt sick and wanted to put them out of their misery and stomp their heads into the pavement. With the last of my money, I rented an SRO hotel room. It was a family-owned place, and the woman looked at me and said I was so young, and she asked me if I was sure if I wanted to stay there because it was not nice, and I said it was all I could afford, and as we walked down the hall, she said that I should come see her if I saw any mice or holes in the walls. The floor of the room had cigarette burns, and there was a trail of dried paint from the bed to the floor. I told her I would take it. She asked me if I had shower shoes because I would be sharing the bathroom with many drug addicts, that the city paid for them to live there. I told her no, and she brought me to the back of the reception office and gave me a pair of her husband’s. I thanked her and gave her the last of my money, and then I went into the room, locked the door, and cried. That night, I took some shirtless selfies and posted them in the m4m casual encounters section of craigslist, under the heading “young man in need of help,” and replies started to come in about a half hour later. The first guy was a lawyer in Glen Park. He wanted me to “break into” his unlocked apartment, find him “sleeping,” and force him to blow me. I told him I needed porn on in the background, and to leave a bottle of wine open in the living room. After I came, I punched him in the face and stole his wallet. I did it another five or six times after that, and I don’t regret it.

Tito called me one night after I finished with one of them. He told me that Todd The Fuck-Up had gone to New Jersey to re-up and was supposed to be spending the night there. While he was gone, his girl had a threesome with some dude and another girl in Todd’s apartment. For whatever reason, The Fuck-Up came home early and caught them in the act. Ended up shooting them all execution style and driving back down to New Jersey. Of course, the other girl ended up surviving, pointing the finger, and now Todd The Fuck-Up was looking at life in prison, and for some reason—nervousness, I guess—my response was to laugh. Tito laughed, too, and said, “That motherfucker really earned his name, huh?” And I said, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

VII.

When I got back up, I started selling trees to the kids who worked at the hostel. I moved into a studio on 7th and Market, and I picked up from this white dude whose brother worked on a weed farm in Mendocino. Sometimes the hostel kids invited me to parties, and at this one party, I met a girl named Mari. She wore an oversized bomber jacket over high-waisted cutoff shorts, and she had a high-top fade that she wore like a crown, and impossibly large earrings that hung like ornaments from her, and I swear, none of you could understand how dope this girl was until you saw her up close. She made all those hipster girls at the party ashamed to be white, and her laugh made me want to take a bullet for her. And I’ll leave it there because I know I’m already on some sucker shit.

I never tried to holler at her. I didn’t need no PhD to know Mari didn’t fuck with dope boys. She talked about shit like Social Death and Performativity, and when she finished her sermons, I was ready to fight those other niggas to be the first to lie prostrate and kiss her feet. Nah, I never tried to holler, I just told her I liked her earrings and that I could deliver weed to her if she needed, and I feel like she knew I wasn’t capable of hurting her, and that’s why we became friends. I told her everything. Shit that I didn’t even remember, shit that would’ve made me feel dumb if the way she looked at me didn’t make me drunk and heady. I told her that until Alice got pregnant, I thought me and Tito would make it to the NBA, that I could dunk at thirteen, even though I couldn’t shoot, and she laughed and said something like “It’s in deep, huh?” And I nodded and said “Yeah.”

We met up one evening and went to Dolores Park. At the stoplight before the park, the red hand was up, but there were no cars coming, so I went to cross the street. She took my hand and said, “No, let’s wait,” and we stood there looking at each other, and I could smell liquor on her breath, and it smelled so fucking sweet, and I knew that if I kept looking at her, I’d have to run away and crawl under a rock somewhere, and I looked down. She asked me what the matter was,  and I told her she was so beautiful it hurt, and she said that I had the soul of a poet, and I said, “Yeah, right,” and she told me I could do anything I wanted in this world, that I was a good person, and I told her she didn’t have to say that, and she took my face in her hands, and I fought it hard, but the tears rolled down my face, and she tried to hold me, but I said it was okay, and I kissed the inside of her hand. That night, I had a dream I killed Tito with a hammer. We were in a club, and he came at me all rabid, and I knew that if I didn’t kill him, he’d kill me. I smashed his head into a bloody pulp and then I woke up in a cold sweat. It was self-defense. I looked at my phone to see what time it was. Tito had sent me a series of texts:

R u up bro?

I fucked up bro

Yo my dude I caught a case over some bullshit

I took some bad molly dude I blacked out and 

fucked up that donut shop on main south

Im so fucked up over this shit

I cant keep doin this shit bro

I didn’t respond until the morning. I told him to stay up.

It never really happened with Mari. She started dating some Back to Africa dude, and it was just as well. And I’m glad I never told her I loved her because if I had the chance, I would’ve killed her with my love, and then I would’ve killed myself.

VIII.

My mom got married for the fourth time, to a Southern Baptist UPS guy from Louisiana, who made her wear an LSU pin on her dress, even though he never went to college. She texted me a week before the wedding and said that she had fallen in love and was getting married, and I never texted her back, but for some reason, the dude became fixated on getting my mom and me back on good terms, so they invited me to Thanksgiving that year. I said that I had to work. Then the dude called me and said he really wanted to meet me, and I gave in. He wasn’t that bad, really. Nothing like the rest of them. Maybe a little too eager or whatever, but the dude had a job, and he got my mom out of Slater Village. He had a two bedroom ranch on the outskirts of the city, and except for all that church and praying shit, he was all right to talk to. I got there Thanksgiving Eve, and that first night, I barely slept. I lay awake, wondering what kind of magnificent lies my mom must’ve told homeboy while he was courting her. I wondered what kind of lies they told each other. I wondered if she really believed in God or if she just gave in to the hype.

We ate the next day. Homeboy asked me if I would say grace before dinner, and I said no, and he asked me about my life in California, and I lied and told him I started community college, and that I had a girlfriend. I went to bed early that night, and the next day I went to Black Friday at the mall. I saw Tito and his son there. They were about twenty feet in front of me, and I couldn’t tell for sure it was them right away, even though I knew it was, until Tito pointed at a store and I saw his profile. The kid must’ve been seven or eight now. I ducked behind a kiosk, and when I collected myself, I turned around and walked away. I tried not to run. There was a group of kids in the parking lot, and one of them was dribbling a basketball in front of a car, watching himself in the car’s reflection. I slowed down as I passed him, and we looked at each other. He scrutinized me and when he saw what he was looking for, he nodded. Respect. Up until then, I would see little boys like him practicing for that scholarship, for that pro contract they would never sign, and I would use it as an excuse to text Mari. But I left her alone. I let her live. Now I see shit like that and I keep it to myself. ■

Kwame Opoku-Duku, alongside Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. His fiction and poetry are featured or forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Gigantic Sequins, Hobart, Perigee, and Profane, among other publications. He lives in Harlem and tweets @kwamethethird.