by Dawyn Henriquez ’19
“I needed this,” Don sighed, placing the pipe on the coffee table. The burnt-out bowl stared up at me from the mahogany— trees on trees. It smiled at me, an eccentric smoke signal coming from its glass lips. “Set me aflame,” it said. “Set me on fire so that I can reveal to you your past, present, and future,” it exclaimed. “Take that nondescript flame and pierce your dreams with my pungent sword,” it yelled.
“Yo, take one last hit Brain, you staring at that shit like it’s a badass shorty or somethin’,” Don said laughing.
“You don’t gotta tell me twice,” I chuckled and grabbed the bowl by its slender body and followed its demands.
“Y’all ever wish to make it out the hood and shit?” Lil Charlie asked from where he was laying on the floor with a shirt over his face.
“No shit, I’m sure we all do,” Don said.
“But nah, for real though. Like, have y’all ever thought about what we could do with the world? Like, if we applied ourselves up in school and shit.” He was sitting up then, looking at us with actual hope in his eyes.
Of course, Lil Charlie wasn’t spouting any thoughts that hadn’t ever crossed my mind. They didn’t call me Brain for no reason. The only issue was that, back then, we didn’t live in suburbia, or anywhere near what white people would call civilized. We lived in the slums, a couple of streets away from where brownstones cost over a million. The schools we were allowed to attend weren’t trained to get us out of the system, they were specifically geared to earmark us as outcasts in America’s chapters. We were pariahs and treated as such, if not worse, and Lil Charlie and I were just freshmen in high school.
“Be careful wishing for the world when you’ve never felt like you’ve fit into it,” I said.
“I know that, man. We been buried underneath the rubble of history on some bullshit since they laid down the groundwork for this shit. But we can rise up, we can beat them at their own game and sneak our way into the book if we play it right.” He always got like this when we smoked. He was the most optimistic kid I had ever met; honestly he had to be.
Back at home, Lil Charlie’s parents were addicted to that rock and valued it more than anything else. When he was six they tried selling him for a couple bucks, so they could re-up and stay high for a while. It didn’t work. The slingers on our corners just wanted their cash, and no drugged up homeless folk were going to convince them otherwise.
Oh, right, that’s another thing, Charles “Charlie” Williams was homeless, for the most part. He split his time between his parents’ under Tillman Bridge and my house.
“Word, that’s true, but I ain’t gonna become no Uncle Tom and sell my ass to no white man at an office,” Don stated with as much eloquence as he could muster. “If that’s the price of being one of them uppity folk with legit cash uptown, I rather stick to this game right here,” he finished as he nodded towards the outside where the corners reigned, and where the neighborhood slingers were stationed.
The room went silent for awhile after that. I listened to the wind pounding on the window, my paranoia making me believe that even nature was out to get us. The sun was fading fast, following the descent of reason in the room as rain began to fall.
“Damn bro, that’s some depressing shit,” Lil Charlie said, breaking the silence.
“Nah, that’s just the real my man. That’s just the real…” Don trailed off. I think he started talking about Reagan’s bullshit War on Drugs and how it was affecting his business, but all I can remember is the look on Charlie’s face.
His eyes were a bit sunken, defeat painted by a high mind. He was the youngest out of the three of us and, coincidentally, the most sensitive, so when he was sad there was no hiding it. He always had a constant pain about him, masked behind his wall of optimism, but in that moment his face was rich in melancholy, numbed indifference crowning his lips with death’s lilies. It seemed to me then that he was understanding, realizing, the heartache of being born where we born, coming to terms with the million unnatural shocks that our black bodies were heir to. Our world was one where cold winters turned into summer when hot bullets grazed the air we breathed, not one where hope can typically thrive.
“…but yeah y’all, that’s why the war on drugs is deadass a war on black people,” Don finished. “Y’all tryna hit the roof to chill real quick, though?”
“Yeah, for sure, c’mon Charlie.” And with that we left the apartment through the fire escape without any other words exchanged.
Don was seventeen then and had his own place from slinging. His God-fearing mother didn’t want anything to do with his drug money, or him for that matter, if he didn’t stop. Needless to say, he never did, he was too deep then, too connected, the game was in his blood and no amount of social dialysis could syphon it out of him.
On the roof, the blackened sky stretched ahead of us farther than any of us could see. High as I was I felt like I was at sea with the raindrops that pelted us, the drizzle becoming a small storm inside my head. Before that school year was over I dealt that rock for the first time. Don would die the winter that followed. And Lil Charlie, well, Charlie Williams, would be gone by the grace of God. But, in that moment, with cloud filled lungs, rain filled sky, and water gilded ground, we were drowning in air, coughing up silence.