Leila dropped the phone in Jamal’s open palm as she did her best to hide a swelling tantrum. Unless he was about to get fired or their office burned down, she felt there was only one reason Leslie Smith would be calling. The last thing she wanted to do was disrespect the parents by cursing Jamal out. Had they been out on the street her Shock and Awe campaign would be well into its Third Act.
Jamal stared at the cell in disbelief as it continued to ring. Not answering it only made things worse. By the time he stopped staring at the phone Leila had already said goodnight to Mr. Washington and walked out.
“Leila,” Jamal sprang from the couch and followed. “Hold up!”
Mrs. Washington noticed Jamal jog past the kitchen. “What’s wrong? Isn’t Leila staying for dinner?”
“Everything’s fine, baby,” Mr. Washington replied as he began to channel surf. Figuring that was a female on the phone, he was going to ask Jamal about it — but not that night. It was Friday night. Whatever the problem was could wait, especially since his wife now suspected there was a problem. Anytime Jamal did anything that Betty considered rude and mannish Mr. Washington caught a little of the blame. This often sparked a debate that soured any chances of quality bedroom time. From his Lazy-boy, Mr. Washington could see Betty in the kitchen as she bent over to get a roast out of the oven. He could almost hear Luther Vandross, Peabo and Teddy playing in the background as he admired her shape. I ain’t havin’ no problems tonight, he thought to himself.
Outside, Jamal called out for Leila several times as he half-jogged along the sidewalk, searching for a sign of which way she went. She had vanished, almost as if she had been airlifted away. As he strolled toward the corner he spotted someone talking to several wanna-be clockers, none of which looked old enough for 7th grade math. It was Donny, the latest of a long line of brothas that took over the after-hours action on their block after Black Mike went away. A high school kid on the wrong kind of come up, he saw Jamal and returned a cocky stare as he cruised away in a Pearl Lexus GX. The cell finally stopped ringing, an odd reminder that he was alone on the street. As he opened the front door he was surprised to see his father walking out to meet him.
“Lemme talk with ya for a bit,” Mr. Washington said.
Jamal rolled his eyes when his father wasn’t looking, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. “Yes sir?”
Mr. Washington asked about the mysterious phone call and wasn’t ready for the answer he received. As he listened on, the idea of Jamal pulling older women secretly made him a little proud, almost envious, but there was no way he could share that. Compared to his own freewheeling youth, Jamal was family man ahead of his time. He was proud that he had the kind of son that could resist such temptations, girlfriend or no girlfriend. “When there’s another woman, all women get crazy. You’ve got to set this straight – and now.”
“Whatever,” Jamal mumbled, “She can think what she wants. I’m tired of everything.”
“Don’t be stupid boy,” Mr. Washington said as he pulled out his wallet and handed him $40 dollars. “Go catch up to her, explain everything and maybe take her out to dinner.”
“Forty dollars? Take her out to eat where, McDonald’s?”
Mr. Washington handed him another twenty and his unlimited Metrocard. Jamal stared at the money then back at his father, searching for a reason why he was being so generous. “I don’t even know where she went.”
“And that’s why you have to go find her,” Mr. Washington said with increasing impatience. “I’ll tell Betty to put your dinner in the fridge. Now go.”
Hearing that tone in his voice, Jamal knew better than to ask any further questions. He threw up a peace sign and headed off to check out Leila’s favorite spots.
Mr. Washington returned to the den to find his dinner waiting on a tray next to his chair. Betty walked in with her tray and sat down. Together they blessed the food then he hastily began to cut up his roast, the only bright spot of his day.
“Thomas,” Betty said softly, “who called Jamal?”
Thomas quickly shoveled food in his mouth and replied with a polite grunt between bites. He scrambled to find another topic to bring up once he finished chewing.
“I mean, who was the girl that called?”
Thomas bit his tongue with a cough to clear his throat. Betty quietly mixed the butter into her mashed potatoes then gave him a deliberate glance. He returned a deadpan double take.
“Just ’cause I don’t speak on something right away doesn’t mean I don’t see it,” she said as she always did when Thomas was busted in a lie of omission. His lips twitched as they always did when he was caught, prompting her to continue. “Jamal answers his phone faster than a fire alarm. He didn’t. Leila barely said bye before she was out the door. The way he ran out after her — and you hustled out after him — said it all.”
As Betty went into a rant about how good a girl Leila was and that Jamal was messing up and how Thomas needed to set the boy straight, he dropped his knife and fork on the plate with a sigh. So much for a hot time tonight, he thought.
As Jamal made his way through the neighborhood his mind began to wander. He was just a phone call away from catching up to Leslie. Regardless of the spot he met her at, deep down he knew the night would end with her watching him from her bed as he pulled up his pants and let himself out. Even though she had 24-hour access to the company’s private car service, she’d probably call a cab to drive him home, too. Bedroom passports aside, this was a fringe benefit of the kind of corporate power he always dreamed about.
“Jay Booyaka!” a voice shouted from up the street. Jamal stopped; only a few friends from way back ever called him that. He looked around and spotted a familiar face — Andre, an old friend from high school.
Back in 9th grade, Jamal, Andre and the rest of their crew played basketball on the same team. After Justin’s death, Jamal withdrew from the team along with many other activities. Andre understood. Unlike the others in their clique, he was the only friend that still occasionally made an attempt to invite him in things. His old crew still kept pace with the streets and other things that would keep them there in Queensbridge Houses. Aside from the fact that “the Houses” was the largest projects in the United States, Justin’s death was a statistical wake-up call, the kind that happened on a daily basis. The tragic loss taught Jamal what the streets had in store for anyone in its playground — and he wanted no part of it.
“Aye yo Dre!” Jamal shouted with a smile and borderline fake enthusiasm. Although he was genuinely glad to see Andre, he didn’t care much for the others either way. He was too far from home to come up with a suitable excuse such as ‘school’ or ‘work’ to walk away and not look like he was brushing them off. Part of the unspoken code of their neighborhood was that reputation carried more weight than a driver’s license and stuck like a tattoo. Against his desire to keep walking on his search for Leila, Jamal jogged over the fellas to keep in cool status. It was always better to hang for a bit then leave than to risk getting labeled for thinking he was ‘too good to hang out’.
As Jamal exchanged greetings and shoulder daps with everyone, the smell of a recently smoked blunt made his nose itch. The pack was on their way to a freestyle contest at David’s, a popular underground spot known for hosting Hip Hop shows. Even through the distant glaze in their eyes they seemed super excited — the Bravehearts and Nas were rumored to be making a cameo on the set. When asked if he wanted to come along, Jamal thought about it. Knowing Leila, she was probably with her friends, all big-time Nas fans. If they were going anywhere to cheer her up, a Nas show would be it. “Let’s do it,” Jamal replied and they continued to walk together. He sent Leila a text letting her know where he was going, hoping that she’d respond quick so he could either get with her or go home. With the way his day had gone, if his luck got any worse he wanted to be home when it happened.
Blocks away from David’s, thunderous music echoed up into the night. As they got closer, traffic crawled along the street; tricked out cars, motorcycles, SUVs and every imaginable style of rented stretch limousine filled the night with revving engines and a musical gumbo of Hip Hop music. Excitement in the air was contagious; even Jamal began to get that old feeling of anticipation as he and his friends made their way along the crowded sidewalks. He began to reflect on all the parties Justin deejayed at, particularly the ones at David’s where Justin used to sneak him in as part of the equipment entourage. On those nights, being the deejay’s brother was like being related to royalty. Deep down, he missed that feeling almost as much as he missed his brother.
The masses were at a shoulder-to-shoulder standstill by the time they got within half a block of David’s. Jamal made his way over to lean against the gate of a closed bodega; the others unconsciously did the same. Any other time they would have brainstormed who knew someone on the inside, a scheme to get past the lines or figured out what to do next. After taking that long walk to get there, this time they didn’t bother. There was nothing else was going on in the area. Except for Jamal, the others were also still high; the action outside David’s seemed more promising than the show inside. As the others commented on the honeys and cars that passed by, Jamal continued redialing Leila’s phone. Just as an old Mobb Deep song blasted from a nearby Jeep with a deafening wall of bass, suddenly Leila’s phone picked up and didn’t go to voicemail. Jamal quickly ducked into a loading alley to escape the music. “Hold up — lemme get where I can hear – please don’t hang up!”
As Jamal got halfway down the alley and could almost hear, the call ended. He was suddenly distracted by a distant, roaring hysteria. When he turned to see what was going on, several gunshots cracked the music that rumbled into the night sky.