The front door closed. As chatty sounds of happy reunion echoed down the hall and into the kitchen, Jamal let out a sigh of relief. It was definitely Mrs. Philips. Anytime she came to visit she always brought baked goodies and made enough noise for several women. He figured that meant the next knock on Edwina’s door would definitely be NYPD.
“Come say Hi to Milli,” Edwina called out from the kitchen. “She made us some of her world-famous sugar-free brownies.”
Quick to take advantage of this stroke of luck, Jamal pulled out the cell phone and put it to his ear as he stepped into the kitchen. “Hey Mrs. Philips,” he said as he gave both women a brisk hug and spoke into the phone. “Okay Leila… I’m on my way, love ya;” he said then closed the phone grabbed a brownie. “Sorry Auntie, gotta go — Leila needs help with her computer; she says hi and she sends her love.”
As usual, Mrs. Philips streamed praise and adorations at how Jamal had grown into a handsome young gentleman. Edwina proudly agreed as she gave him an extra long hug and whispered with a serious tone “Auntie loves you, Jay Jay. Be careful out there.”
Jamal glanced in her eyes just long enough to wonder if she had already figured out he wasn’t on his way to Leila’s place. With a reassuring nod and a peck on the cheek he turned and headed for the front door. Edwina caught up to him in the hall as he started down the steps. “Here are the rest of your fish cakes.” She handed him a brown paper lunch bag and quickly locked all the deadbolts. Halfway up the block, curiosity prompted Jamal to check inside. The fish patties wrapped in foil were still warm, a typical Aunt Edwina move — but the $200 dollars she slipped in between the napkins wasn’t.
Jamal wasted no time making his way back to the nearest subway station. Cops seemed to be everywhere he looked as he made his way back to the loading area. Much to his relief he took a seat on the train and it left without incident. He sat in silence as he watched the darkness zoom by outside, thinking about Aunt Edwina. Since the cops had already come by the house he knew his parents were probably freaked out wondering where he was. His suspicions were confirmed as soon as he turned his phone back on to see seven messages waiting for him. He sent a text message to his parents assuring them that he was okay and that he would explain everything when he got home. There was no telling how they would react once he walked in the door.
The next move was to call Andre. Before he had a chance to say hello Jamal mumbled that he was on his way over.
“Ain’t at home,” Andre replied, “TCB”.
“Word?” Jamal chuckled, reflecting on the old acronym — TCB was their code for Takin’ Care of Booty back in 10th grade, confirmed when a female voice chimed in on the other end asking what that meant. Andre laughed and covered the phone as he said something, stirring up an argument with a female voice. “Jay, lemme hit you back. My girl is trippin’.” As the argument grew louder the line went dead.
Some things don’t change, Jamal thought as he tucked the phone into his backpack and pulled out his iPod. He selected one of his brother’s old playlists and put it on random. His thoughts drifted back into the 90s as he watched the faces come and go. Eventually an elderly Black man with a low nappy nicotine-stained gray afro took a seat nearby. As a random Pete Rock & CL Smooth remix flowed into his thoughts, something about the old man’s messed-up haircut took Jamal back to another time…
On any given afternoon at Grandpa’s barbershop only one or two seats would be filled once Jamal and Justin arrived after school. While Justin swept up hair and ran simple errands to the corner bodega for the customers, Jamal usually watched cartoons in the back, doing his best to stay out of the way till one of their parents arrived from work to take them home. After the shop closed for the evening, their grandfather would sit typing away on a noisy gadget and scribbling into a large book, eventually putting both away in his safe. One afternoon Jamal walked into the backroom and noticed the device was still sitting out on the desk. After a few minutes of toying with the adding machine he figured out it was and that printed the answers out on a long roll of paper. Soon his grandfather noticed printing sounds coming from the back. Grandpa stepped through the curtain to see Jamal going at it on the machine, happily swaying side to side like a Ray Charles wannabe.
“Lawdha’mercy boy, what you doin’?” Grandpa shouted, “Get away from there!”
Jamal ducked into the bathroom, knowing he was in trouble for playing with Grandpa’s things. As his grandfather studied the desk and stream of paper that trailed to the floor, he discovered that Jamal had figured out how to use the adding machine and completed several pages of problems in his math workbook — easily a week’s worth of homework for a 1st grader. Jamal’s father was ready to spank him until Grandpa pointed out how remarkable it was for a six-year old to do what he did. “Someday he’ll be doing the books for somebody’s business,” Grandpa chuckled…
Grandpa’ s prophetic words echoed in Jamal’s thoughts just as his cell phone vibrated. He paused the music, saw that it was Andre and answered.
“Sup, duke. On my way to the crib now.”
“Cool… backside,” Jamal replied.
Andre did a double-take at his phone. ‘Backside’ was another one of their high school codes — it meant “meet me out back”. He knew if that phrase came from Jamal the proverbial s*** was about to hit the fan and he need a place to duck. Back in the day, Jamal was usually the way to refuge, almost never a refugee.
Andre kicked a trail of dirty clothes out from the middle of the floor as the two walked in. His room was completely different from what Jamal remembered, a testament to how long it had been since the he had come by the apartment. Jamal cleared some clothes out of the desk chair, took a seat and booted up the PC. By the time it had finished loading, the nightly news had come on. Andre fell on his bed laughing when he saw the surveillance video footage, surprised that he and Jamal had made top story.
“Ain’t nothin’ funny about that,” Jamal said. The threat of the situation became clear once he explained everything to Andre.
The scenario played Andre’s mind as he saw Jamal in the middle of the street, lit up by the oncoming headlights. He was still running toward the mouth of the alley when he heard the last of the gunshots. If Donny’s crew wasn’t certain of who was standing out in the middle of the street, they would know for sure once they saw Jamal’s face on the news, a realization that took the humor out of the situation.
“Are you sure it was them?”
“No mistakin’ that whip,” Jamal replied. “Brand new pearl Lex GX? With those rims? Out HERE? And I know they saw me.”
Jamal explained that he had no choice but to go to the police, if not for any other reason just to get them to stop the news from playing that video clip. Before going to the authorities, he was determined to stop by campus and talk with Steiner. Aside from sharing his internship idea with Steiner, he also wanted to have every possible non-African American character witness he could possibly have on standby. He trusted Steiner and wanted to make sure that Steiner continued to trust him. Steiner was Jamal’s Ace-in-the-hole to straighten out the comedy of misunderstandings involving Leslie Smith and her law firm.
When Jamal elaborated on the idea of sponsoring his own internship by starting his own business consulting company and bringing Andre into it the game, Andre kept a flood of skeptical jokes to himself. To him, young black men from their neighborhood just didn’t own businesses unless they were selling CDs, t-shirts, bootlegs, drugs/guns, and cutting hair. Legit white-collar hustles were reserved for white boys, Asians and light-skinned Latinos. Jamal’s idea seemed to border on fantasy, possibly just random talk because he was nervous about being caught in the middle between Donny’s Crew, going to the police, and which could turn out worse.
When Jamal noticed that Andre had dozed off sometime during the conversation, he stretched out on the floor. He prayed for sleep although it was the furthest thing from his mind. Just a few days earlier his life was hectic and relatively normal; it was almost impossible to conceive how turning down a booty call from Leslie Smith somehow led to him having to duck a low level drug dealer on the come up and becoming a person of interest with the police. As he listened to the echoes of nightlife on the street outside, he closed his eyes and thought about getting his life back on track.
The next morning at the Business Administration building, the elevator doors opened on the second floor in time for Jamal and Andre to see Mr. Steiner walking toward his office sipping on a cup of coffee. Steiner looked up from the cup, noticed Jamal through the sparsely crowded hall and stopped just outside his door. Jamal noticed a man behind him had also stopped. There’s nothing about the man’s face, leather blazer or his shoes that said ‘Business major’, Jamal thought. The man followed Steiner’s line of sight and looked their way as he reached for something inside his jacket. Hyped up and paranoid, Andre’s attention was already fixed on the man before Jamal had said anything as they stepped out of the elevator, weaving between other students as headed towards the stairs. When the man started to approach, they sprinted down the steps and out of the ground floor exit.
“That n**** got a gun!” Andre shouted at the sky, a phrase that never failed to send people into a scattering panic. The sight of two young black men sprinting at full tilt spreads disruptive fear, even on a college campus. Onlookers began to duck, dodge and step up to a squirrelly jog moving away from whatever direction Jamal and Andre seemed to be heading. Suddenly there were two men pursuing them. It had been so long since Jamal had done any jogging he felt as though he was about to cough up his heart. “Campus cops!” he managed to spew out, convinced that the men were part of the Dominican set that supplied Donny and the rest of the clockers in their area.
Andre nodded with a winded grunt as he scrambled to keep pace. The only thing that kept him from collapsing was adrenaline. He knew thugs like this on his block, dudes in their early thirties that looked a little thicker than the typical ballers, mostly due to passing their time in prison by working out then slacking off once they were paroled. Suddenly a third man darted out from between two buildings. Jamal saw a familiar side door and without a second thought ran through it. As their eyes adjusted to the indoor light, Jamal and Andre found themselves running down an aisle, surrounded by startled gasps and shouts as they took an unexpected detour through the middle of a lecture hall packed with students. The hall erupted into hysterics as the men entered and someone spotted that one of them had a gun.
“Dammit how much farther?” Andre hissed as they ducked into a Physical Science storage room.
“Next to the caf–‘” Jamal replied as he plowed over a cart, sending pre-dissected bullfrogs flying in every direction. The two scrambled out a side exit then casually closed the door. Before they could blend in with passing students, two of their pursuers came running out of another exit and spotted them.
Reminiscent of their younger days, Jamal and Andre headed into the cafeteria, crowded space to hide out. The breakfast crowd was still in high turnover, full of students moving in and out. “They’re looking for me, not you,” Jamal said as he pulled a book out of his backpack and handed it over. “Let’s split up. Cool out somewhere ’til you see me leave. I’ll hit you up later.”
Andre took the book as he reluctantly agreed then found an empty spot at a crowded table and sat down. Jamal spotted a girl from his World History class and eased into the serving line next to her.
“Hey Jamal,” she smiled with a flirtatious blink. “How you been?”
Jamal shifted into smooth-mode and slipped his arm over her shoulder, trying to remember her name. “I’ve been good. Holdin’ it down with school and work, busy, y’know?”
He glanced over shoulder in time to see one of the men walk right by Andre who has pretending to be engrossed in a book. Even on a culturally-diverse campus, the dining area had plenty of young black males with Caesar haircuts that could all pass for either of them from a distance. Another one of the pursuers walked in, casually scanning the room as he strolled along the edge of the outer tables.
As the service line inched forward, the girl rattled on about her classes until she paused, checked herself then sniffed around. “You been in a lab?”
Without warning a familiar voice screamed “Jamal!”
From out of the corner of his eye Jamal spotted a burly figure racing toward him. He ducked and reared up just in time to send the man careening over his back into other students that were waiting in line to pay for their meals; a mighty chorus of crashing plates and profanity followed. The football player in Jamal kicked in as he looked up to see that the other two men were aware of his position, There was only one open exit on the far side of the dining area — and he saw no choice but to make a run for it.
With a running back’s stride, Jamal made a break for the door. As the two thugs charged in from both sides like linemen, Jamal mushed one in the face as he jumped up on a row of tables; bacon, eggs, biscuits and pancakes spiraled like Frisbees, splattering stunned students with each stride. the dining area exploded in chaos as students screamed and scattered in every direction. Andre was suddenly taken down by two campus police; before Jamal could think of a way to possibly help his friend he found himself sailing upside down. With a horrendous crash he landed on his back, sliding to a halt on the breakfast of half a dozen upset students. Just then the man in the leather blazer walked up, breathing hard with corned-beef hash dripping down the front of his shirt. “Mr. Washington,” he said as he presented a badge, “Detective Rourke, NYPD — 108th Precinct, Homicide. We’ve got some talking to do, son.”
…And that was one of those odd moments that changed Jamal’s life forever.