Too Close to Home
I tell my body to sink into our leather couch because people are outside firing their guns into the cold black sky as if they have lost their natural black minds. I keep sinking deeper and deeper because I am afraid a New Year’s Eve bullet will pierce through our living room window and strike me in the side or the front or the back of the head. I have these same thoughts every New Year’s Eve. I always wonder if I’ll ever turn into my Aunt Diane and start hiding in closets. The only difference is that I would have to start hiding at about 11:30 p.m. and come out thirty minutes past midnight.
“Can you try to chill?” my husband asks me. I try. I try to pretend I am no longer afraid. I try to chill. I lift my body up from the couch even though the shots continue outside. I think about the time my husband suggested we go to the basement “just to be safe.” I can’t relax. Bullets are on my mind.
That night, I dream Vernadette from high school dies. In the dream I keep telling everybody that I can’t stand to go to another funeral. “I am tired of burying my friends,” I tell them. I wake up and think about Vernadette. I think about all of my dead friends: Jaron, Johnny, Jakiya, Ralph, Shannon, Emmanuel, Rashaad, Eugene, Jerry, Calvin, Gregory, and Taunon. Everyone on this list is black. Seven of them were murdered.
I scroll through Facebook and see a story about three men who have been killed in a shooting on the west side of Cleveland. I do not click on the link to read the full story. I do not want to know the details. I feel numb, exhausted even. I keep scrolling staring blankly at all the holiday gear. I am exhausted by all of the red and gold and glitter, the sparkling champagne glasses, the little black dresses paired with patent leather stilettos, and the shiny silver suits. Here I am dreaming and thinking about bullets and death while everyone else celebrates the New Year. It’s the first morning of 2019.
Outside, my husband talks on the phone. I pray he is talking to his father about the boys who came into our backyard and stole our bikes—twice in the last week. I want his father to know about the boys who stole from us because I know he would probably hurt them. I want them to get hurt and I don’t want them to get hurt. I think about the song “Cudi Montage” and Kanye West’s part when he raps, “Everybody want world peace / ‘Til your niece get shot in the dome-piece.” I think about revenge. I think about karma. I think about violence against the black body. I think about protection. I think about safety. I think about the absence of protection and safety when it comes to the black body. I think about all my dead friends—the ones who die in dreams and the ones who die in real life.
When my husband comes inside, he tells me he was talking to his mother. “Baby might be dead,” he says. “What do you mean by might?” I ask him. “Three people died last night at a party and Baby might be one of them. They ain’t lettin’ nobody see the bodies yet,” he says. I think about the Facebook story. Damn. Baby is my husband Donald’s cousin. I met Baby back in 2012 when we took a group of boys to go see the movie Red Tails. We made a whole day out of it. We rode the train to Tower City and snuck food into the theater. I’ll never forget when Baby’s stepfather Quan started doing pull-ups at the train stop and then pumped up Baby to try. Baby tried. He succeeded. He did at least five. I was so impressed. He was only twelve years old.
Donald and I do what we can to move on with our day. We eat breakfast: fried eggs and hash browns. I barely drink my coffee. We make small talk. The house carries a heavy silence. “This is crazy,” we keep repeating. I know we mean “life” instead of “this.” If Baby is dead, he’ll be the third name we’ll have to add to our list of friends who have died in the past six months—all of them under forty.
“Quan, Michael, my Aunt Diane, and my mother called last night,” Donald says. It’s always bad when family calls in the wee hours of the morning. “I hope it ain’t him,” I say. Donald scrolls through his caller ID. “Yep, they all called,” he says, looking at the names and numbers. The phone rings. It’s Michael, Quan’s younger brother. Michael is wondering if Donald has talked to Quan because no one can reach him. I pray this isn’t the call to confirm Baby’s death. It’s not. Michael gives Donald details about what went down. “Damn,” Donald repeats. When he gets off the phone he fills me in. I hear words like “party,” “argument,” “guns,” “three,” and “shots.” These are some of the same words used to describe what happened when my seven high school friends were murdered. I feel sick to my stomach.
I shower. I get dressed. I think about all the black men and boys I know. I count how many of them carry guns to protect themselves. I stop at ten. I don’t want to get to twenty. I know I can. Easily. Paranoia settles in. What if the boys who stole from us come back again? What if they come back with guns? What if they come inside? What if Donald gets a gun? Do I want a gun in our house? What if Baby is dead? Lord. I head back downstairs. Donald sits on the couch. I study him. Black skin. Bald head. Black hoodie. Black Adidas pants. He is so fine. He is so alive. I almost cry.
I sit next to him. The phone rings again. It’s Quan. They talk briefly. “Damn,” Donald says. He hangs up the phone with a grave, “alright.” It is the call. Baby is dead.
“They got us fucked up,” Donald says, almost in tears. I rub his back. He begins to cry. We sit on the couch in silence. I think about Baby’s mother Brandy—another black woman who will have to bury her son. Baby was nineteen years old.
My mind flashes to the soon-to-be funeral. I start counting all of the funerals I’ve ever attended. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. I stop counting. This is too much. I let out another “Damn.” Brandy. I can’t imagine. She is probably losing it right now. I think back to the time I saw Trayvon Martin’s mother speak at the Cleveland Public Library. She moved so slowly. She moved quietly. She wore purple. She was royalty. I think back to the time I saw Tamir Rice’s mother at SPACES Gallery. She was quiet. She felt like the most important person in the room. There was orange everywhere. An artist by the name Michael Rakowitz conceived the exhibition, A Color Removed, as a response to the murder of Tamir Rice. Rakowitz asked people from the community to collect orange items to ask viewers to think about what it feels like to live in a world where the right to safety is not visually present. All of the orange symbolizes safety. What color will represent Baby?
My husband is hurting. I can feel it. “I’m sorry, babe,” I say to him. He is speechless. The house carries a heavier silence. I have terrible thoughts. The people I love start dying left and right. I think about my brother who I haven’t talked to in weeks. He would flip out if he knew some boys came to our backyard and stole our bikes. My brother takes pride in how much he has protected me over the years.
When I was in the sixth grade a boy punched me in the stomach. I can’t remember his name. Was it Hakeem? Anyway, my brother found out and beat Hakeem up something terrible. Hakeem told his brother. My brother beat him up, too. The beatings were so bad Hakeem’s family threatened to sue us. They never followed through.
I’ll never forget Hakeem’s face when he showed up to school after my brother beat him up. I was sitting in the front row and Hakeem was in charge of passing back papers. When he reached my desk, I studied his face like a map. The bruising around his left eye looked like a child had composed a circular finger painting made of deep red, black, purple, and blue. It was almost shut closed. The skin around both eyes was swollen. I felt so bad. I still feel bad. He could barely extend his arm when he tried to hand me the papers for my row. I could barely look at him. I did not want him to get hurt like this. The area around his mouth swelled. Someone told me my brother had knocked out some of Hakeem’s teeth. I could not tell if this was true; Hakeem never smiled, or even opened his mouth. He stared at me like he wanted revenge, like he wanted to take the papers and slice my face open with each one.
My brother stayed fighting boys who tried to hurt me, so I know if I tell him about the stolen bikes he’d be ready to hurt anybody and everybody. I do not call him. I rub my husband’s back. My thoughts spin. I see colors. It feels like a storm. Donald and I get up from the couch and begin our day. He heads to his office and I go to the dining room table. I unlock my Kindle and begin reading Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir.
I am thirsty to tell my truth. I begin making a list of all the things I want to write about. Family. Young people. Cleveland. Violence. Death. I think about Baby. I can’t get him out of my mind. I can’t stop thinking about all of the black men and boys who die too young. I am tempted to pull out Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, but I don’t. I don’t think I can stand to read his opening poem, “summer, somewhere” where he imagines afterlife for black men. I am almost in tears. What kind of New Year’s Day is this?
In the days that follow, I order mace and look online for a pocketknife and bat. The paranoia stalks me. Around the house, whenever Donald isn’t home, I command our dog to follow me everywhere I go. “Come on, Vizhen,” I plead. Sometimes he looks at me like I’ve gone crazy. Most of the time he follows me. I know he knows what’s up. When I’m in the kitchen cooking, I make a plan to throw the hot catfish grease on any intruder. When I’m getting out of my car, I think about anything I can grab and use as a weapon. Our shovel. My laptop. Anything.
One night, Donald and I talk about guns. We contemplate on whether or not we should get one. I am torn. A part of me wants to feel protected and I believe a gun will help, but other parts of me feel like a gun in the house will make words like “dangerous,” “accident,” and “death” grow closer to us. “What are you afraid of?” Donald asks me. “Because if they know we have guns, they’ll go and get guns,” I say. “What if I tell you these lil’ niggas already got guns,” he says. I sink. I am speechless. I don’t know how to feel.
Donald names all of the people he can call to get a gun from. He lists at least seven people. I tell him to wait. “Don’t do anything right now,” I request. I realize I feel more afraid of having a gun in the house than I do of not having a gun in the house. “What if an accident happens?” I ask. “Like what?” Donald asks. “I know how to shoot a gun. And I’m good at it,” he responds. If Donald can shoot, which I’m sure he can, what does that mean for the next bike thief who tries to come into our backyard for the third time—another dead black boy?
We move from the kitchen into our dining room. “Do you have to make Baby’s obituary?” I ask Donald. “Naw, but I’ll probably have to make shirts,” he says. I think about what that will do to Donald. “I’ll help you,” I tell him. I think about how many times he’s had to make obituaries, RIP T-shirts and hoodies. I count my mother’s obituary. I count Wing’s T-shirt. I count Auntie Nita’s obituary. I stop counting. It’s all too much.
A few days later, Donald calls his cousin. I overhear him talking. “I’m over here naked,” he says. And then I hear, “Okay, I can come by at 9:30.” He hangs up. He comes to tell me he is going to get a gun. I put two and two together. “I’m over here naked” is another way of saying, “I don’t have a gun.” I sink.
The thought of a gun in our house scares me. The thought of a gun, period, scares me. What does this mean? Is Donald going to shoot or kill somebody the next time they break into our stuff?
We eat dinner: salmon, rice, and asparagus. I can’t think straight. I keep picturing the new steel gun. It weighs me down. I pick at my food. My appetite is gone. I tell Donald I don’t want him to get the gun from his cousin. We talk about what would make me feel better about getting a gun. I tell him I want him to go take a class first and at least buy the gun from a store because we don’t know where his cousin’s gun has been. The night goes on. Time ticks past 10 p.m. Donald never leaves.
It’s the eve of Baby’s funeral: Thursday, January 10, 2019. Baby’s family and friends all want to wear T-shirts of him to the funeral, so we plan a T-shirt-making party. His colors: black and gold—power and extravagance. Michael and Quan arrive. Michael is quiet while Quan brings the noise. He greets me with his usual, “Teach me how to Dougie!” His voice bullies the silence that has occupied our home. “Teach me how to Dougie,” I shout back. Quan walks towards me and carefully sits his bottle of Tito’s on the floor and then drops a Citi Trends bag next to it. A big Timberland box slides out the bag. I can see a pair of black jeans. Quan takes one black Timberland boot out of the box and holds it up. “I’ma kill em wit these!” he shouts, holding the boot up like it’s a treasure.
Then he takes out a distressed black jean vest. “Ooh wee!” he yells. “And then when I put my baby’s picture on the back… I’ma really kill em!” Quan is too pumped. I smile at him. “That’s dope,” I say. “But wait! Watch this!” he shouts, pulling the last item out of the bag. It’s the pair of black jeans, but they aren’t your typical pair of black jeans. They have ridges, zippers, and small holes on them. “I’ma look so good for my baby tomorrow,” he says, his voice a level lower. He bends over to put the pair of jeans back in the bag. His foot hits the bottle of Tito’s and some of the liquor spills onto the floor. We clean it up and head to the garage for the party.
I turn on music as soon as we get outside. Pandora—Drake’s station. I switch my account setting to “Allow explicit content.” We need honest language tonight. We have our music, beer, liquor, wine, and each other. A piece of the silence from our house follows us into the garage. I know it’s Baby and all of our dead loved ones. I turn the music up. Michael sits at a desk with his head down. Quan stares at a black hoodie with Baby and Brandy, Baby’s mother, sitting back-to-back pictured on it. Donald and Tay start prepping the shirts. They set up the printer by cleaning the nozzles and then they complete a print test to make sure the ink levels are correct. They want all of the colors to be perfect.
There are three designs floating around. One is the image of Baby and Brandy sitting back-to-back. The second is a collage of pictures of Baby with family and friends. The third is a black-and-white selfie of Baby throwing up a hand sign that means “gang, gang.” “No New Friends” by Drake bumps through the speaker. Quan dances in front of the camera Tay has set up. We have to document this night. The camera reinforces our existence.
I sip my wine. It is sweet. I help Donald and Tay by folding the shirts and placing them into small, individual bags. We all crack jokes. Quan keeps dancing. Tay works hard to make the shirts perfect. “Can you check this?” she asks me. I walk over to the printer and make sure the shirt is centered on the platen. “It’s good,” I respond. “Cool,” she says, pressing start on the printer. The black T-shirt goes into the printer, the printer prints the collage of Baby, and when it comes back out we all stare it. No one says a word. It is beautiful. Quan breaks the silence.
He tells us how good Baby looked in the casket. “He got on all black,” Quan says. “My baby really looks asleep. He looks good.” Michael gets up and tells us he is going to make a run to the store. “Can you grab some more brews?” Donald asks. “Yup,” Michael replies. He leaves out. We keep making shirt after shirt. Quan dances to every song. When Drake’s “In My Feelings” song comes on Tay says, “Come on Quan, let’s do the challenge.” “I don’t know it,” he says. Even though Quan says he doesn’t know it, he starts doing the moves.
It’s a little past midnight when Michael comes back. He walks in with his wife, Teresa, and his younger brother, Martel. Martel lives in Florida. He is home for the funeral. Quan is shocked to see his little brother. “Oh, shit! Marty!” he yells over the music. They hug and dap each other up. My glass of wine is almost empty. Martel and I start talking about a new restaurant. “You get to try all these different meats. It’s so good,” he tells me. I listen, but I want to change the subject. I want to talk about Baby. I want us to get honest about why we’re really in the garage. I want to talk about death and violence and what we can do about it. I want to hear a story about Baby.
It doesn’t happen. We talk. We drink. We crack jokes. We listen to music. We never talk about Baby’s death.
We finish printing the shirts at 1 a.m. One by one the men dap each other up. Teresa and I hug. The party is over. Everyone leaves. Donald and I are hungry so we go to B&M Bar-B-Que. We share a catfish dinner. We don’t say a word about Baby. We call the party dope.
It’s Friday morning and I can’t attend Baby’s funeral. I have to work. “Be strong,” I say to Donald before I leave. He gives me a half-smile. “I will.” At work, I scroll through Instagram. I search for Brandy’s page. I find it. There is a post about Baby’s funeral. He is pictured in a black suit. There is black and gold confetti on the floor. It looks as if it’s a picture from his prom or some other kind of dance. I could be wrong. Baby is squatting down. He isn’t looking at the camera, but I can see the smile on his face. I see the left dimple on his cheek. He was handsome. The funeral arrangements are listed in gold letters underneath the picture:
Funeral service @ affinity baptist
church Friday. Wake 11:30 a.m.,
service 12:00 p.m.! After party to be
There are ninety-seven likes and nine comments.
I can’t read the comments. It’s all too much. I think about guns. I think about dead black boys. I think about dead black men. I think about black mothers who bury these boys and men. I think about my favorite lines from “summer, somewhere:” “please, don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better.” I carry the last five words with me. I think about the boys who stole from us. I want them alive.
Donald calls around 4 p.m. “How was the funeral?” I ask. “That shit was sad as fuck,” he says. I ask him about Brandy and Quan. He says they were “fucked up.” We go silent. Damn. “I’m not going to the party,” Donald says. He sounds beat. “What time does it start?” I ask. “Now,” he replies. He tells me how all the kids were out in the parking lot blasting the same song after the funeral. “They kept yelling, ‘I want all shooters at my funeral,’” he says. “That shit was crazy.” I try to recall the song, but I’m not familiar.
That night, Donald shows me his camera. I want to see pictures from the funeral. Every shot is filled with black and gold. Everybody is wearing a hoodie or T-shirt with a picture of Baby on it. Brandy’s is black with gold airbrushed letters and numbers. I put the camera down. Donald starts talking about the song the kids were playing in the parking lot. “You gotta hear it,” he says. He turns on the Bluetooth speaker. I find the song in my Apple music by simply typing in the word “funeral.” The actual name of the song is “Funeral” by Shy Glizzy, featuring Jeezy. I pull up the lyrics.
As soon as the song starts I want to cry. It sounds like the beginning of a good old gospel song. I close my eyes. Glizzy raps: “It’s gonna be 10,000 bitches at my funeral / Niggas gone have them pistols at my funeral.”
I don’t know what to think. I can’t believe what I’m hearing: a speaker is fantasizing about how plush his funeral will be. I am torn. The song sounds amazing. It’s real. It’s raw. I think about young people and what the message will do to them. Will they start glorifying death? Will they start fantasizing about their own death? Have they already started? Do they want to die?
“Crazy, ain’t it?” Donald asks at the end of the song. “Everybody was bumpin’ that shit and singin’ it loud as hell,” he tells me. I go online to see photos from the funeral. I know they exist. I type #newmoneyforever in the Instagram search bar. There are one hundred and seventy-seven posts. In the first picture, a young woman stands over Baby’s closed casket. She is wearing a black hoodie with a big airbrushed drawing of Baby on the back. The casket is black, with an image covering the entire top of it. I can’t completely make it out, but I see a stack of money and the beginning letters of Baby’s full name: Delvaunte Johnson.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.