I have a master’s degree in fine arts. I also have $100k in student loans and transgressions on my record that at times require explanation. As far as society’s concerned, it’s these two odd extremes that define me. There’s no real context or content, but often these are the two notes that get bureaucratic gears to moving. There I am. June Papers. Twenty-eight years old. MFA with a felony. The classic young, Black, and gifted American misfit. It’s too personal and whiny for the journal, so I ball an experimental page and shoot at the empty subway seats across from me.
I firmly believe that once you tolerate anything for a day or two, you can do it again and take from it what you will. I remind myself. I try to write into the future when all this in-between-leaseness will be a funny memory, but I sink instead into my present weariness like quicksand. I remember waking up two days ago and breaking the legs off my desk. I see the street cats playing king of the hill in the vacant lot next to our soaked belongings. I remember the girl with the heart tattoo in our fridge and the sound of the empty potato salad bowl.
At some point in my life the journey became the main character rather than the people or the bright ideas. More than the journey perhaps, it was my willingness to go. To dare. To create. To experience. Train life feels way more tolerable today. I see now why there are so many scribes on New City public transportation. Once you let the fear go or face it, the train’s not bad. It’s easy enough to find, there’s usually a warm place to sit, you don’t have to buy a coffee, and there’s always entertainment. Scribes know a thing or two, man. Only problem for me is I can’t bring myself to rest properly. There are too many stimulants, and I can’t not pay attention, which makes me even more tired. Often you need art to take you places and inspire you. Other times, such as today, you need art to keep awake. I try to write it out. I’ve sat through enough workshops to know none of it’s worthy of revisions. It keeps me awake. That’s it. Maybe at some point these words will become literature, but right now it’s smelling salt. Surf to the last stop, step off, and walk to the library. I hit the second-floor study desks and lay my head. Sleep here and there.
Rise out of hunger, count my monies, and train it back to good old Murkt Street for a hero. A “hero,” for folks outside of New City, is a beautiful sandwich. Walking up to Maffia’s bodega with hunger is like entering the warmth of the sun.
I no see you. Maffia slices the honey turkey from behind her fake glass fortress. Maffia’s the Mother Teresa of heroes.
I level with her. I been broke.
She writes $3.00 on the wax paper and nests it in a paper towel.
Okay. Tank you, she says. I see you later?
Yes, ma’am, I say. Thank you.
She smiles. One of my favorite paintings in the old apartment was a small portrait of Maffia. Take my hero up front, and Maffia’s son rings me up from behind his fort of candy, cigarettes, and scratch tickets.
Hand over my last twenty-dollar bill. The Jankees are playing on his small black-and-white television. Gives me time to pick up two small bags of chips. That’s a business strategy somewhere. Probably the airport. Give people more time to wait, and they’ll keep spending. I’m now down another fifty cents. For no good reason I imagine a single mother with three kids and get tempted to pocket some candy off principle. I don’t, thankfully, but it segues into another bright idea of cashing the money order I set aside for Nana. Batter walks and Papi opens the register. Fiiiive. He lays down a five-dollar bill, thumbs through eleven singles, recounts, taps the stack, and plucks two quarters from the register.
You don’t have nothing better than this?
He shrugs no. Bess I can do, Papa.
We have a brief stare-off, and I buy five Lucky Seven scratch tickets. Emotions are funny. I walk and scratch and win nothing as I pass an old neighbor smoking on her stoop. A bus turns down Murkt Street. A dog runs up and down neighbors’ steps. See a little girl teasing dog as I toss the unlucky tickets in trash bin. Dog darts for the street as bus is barreling. Little girl chases dog. Inches short of her young life, the little girl’s sixth sense kicks in and she freezes solid. Bus driver’s oblivious. Mom beats little girl and dog.
Hollywood materializes out of nowhere. Yeer! Shorty almost caught the pancake, he says.
Mom snatches her up the stairs.
Hygiene becomes an issue. There’s a layer of free living that starts to build after three days on the lam that’s undeniably wild horse-ish. I’m walking to the library and detour to the gymnasium. I show the security guard my alumni card and he’s unaffected. There has to be a shower in here, tell myself, passing the new vending machines. I dip downstairs toward the locker rooms. After the office and long benches there’s a white tile room full of showerheads. Turn a lever and water flows. Thank you, God. One shoe off immediately, I pray for warmth. Drop my bag, undress, and prepare for the whatever. Strong and warm water turns hot. I hop in and get to scrubbing. Nice-smelling soap in the dispensers. Say what you want about oppressive student loans and a master’s in fine arts, this peppermint-aloe body wash is amazing. I dry off with my day-one T-shirt and feel like a new man.
Weekends prove easier to navigate than weekdays. I stay up writing in twenty-four-hour cafés mostly. I nap and nod off wherever it becomes inevitable. I write to stay alert. With so many friends in the city, it’s easy to find a couch or a floor to crash on. The more you’re willing to party, the easier it is to find a place to land. No one cares who stays where on Saturday. Sleepovers are encouraged. The only real problem is, it’s taxing and tiring. Cheap thrills get expensive quick, and being in someone else’s home is like being in their car. You kind of have to go where they want to go too. A couch is a nice comfort, and partying almost guarantees one sort or the other, but you don’t want to suddenly have to make plans for whatever reason in the streets of New City on a Saturday night with all the creepers crawling.
Y’all out? I ask Blue as I tag a new notebook.
Bout to be. He checks the cover. You still rolling?
Yessir. Fist pump. We step out into the brisk city night.
Hollywood got a ride or he rolling with us? Blue starts the ignition. Take out phone, text, and see a colorful flash in my peripheral. There he go. A pigeon picks at a spilled dollar slice and surveys his domain. Blue snaps a photo. Row steps out with Hollywood.
Ay, I told Row we’d drop her off if it’s cool.
Of course. Blue unlocks the doors. We meet again.
Row and Hollywood jump in. Hey! Hey!
Watch what you say around these two, Hollywood warns Row. I’m not saying who, but somebody up front is working with the feds. They’ll serve you up. It’s a game we play where everyone except you is a fed or a rat.
Plot thickens. I implicate Blue.
Yeah, aight. He wheels us through another New City night to Row’s brownstone.
Thanks for the ride. She smiles.
No problem, Blue says.
Watch out for them crackheads, Row warns us. Oh! She ducks back down. Do you all like movies? I have a box full from my job that I’m trying to get rid of.
What? Hollywood. Who doesn’t like movies?
Blue snipes a park, parallels, and we follow Row upstairs.
Welcome. She keys her door.
Hollywood shivers with joy upon entering. It smells heavenly in here.
My first thoughts are fresh linens and cardamom.
Row laughs. I think it’s the candles.
She tidies up as we play the couch.
I wonder where she work at?
She’s a producer she said. I’m proud of her coffee table literature.
Hollywood handles a big moving box. We might as well take the whole thing, he re-grips. You work at Blockduster?
She laughs. I’m a producer. People send us stuff all the time. She rearranges magazines I’ve disheveled. Do you all want something to drink?
I’ll take a water, Blue says.
We end up watching the first half of a romantic comedy, feet up on the coffee table with blankies and buttered popcorn.
This is not how I imagined the night would end. Blue laughs, somewhat confused. What just happened?
Hollywood points an argyle toe at the heroine. She wants to commit, but she knows he’s not ready. Rubs his eye.
Are you crying?
Please. He laughs. I’m trying to stay up.
Must be the candles. I smile.
Blue has to make an uptown move, and Hollywood and I crash at Row’s. Hollywood finagles the guest room, and within minutes it’s just me sitting in the dark of the living room tired and excited to melt. I’ll never underestimate or neglect comfort again. I’m drifting into a warm fantasyland, and my soul snatches me up out of it and forces me to write. The last thing I want to do is relive and transcribe what happened today, but I do. I finish with some cleverness about tomorrow being neither here nor guaranteed and forcing myself to write.
Wash my hands and give face and pits a decent scrub. Being lammy makes you think you’re worse off than you are. I have a good face. I could smile more. At least twice a day I should work at being happy, I decide. I should shut the bully in his attic and at least twice a day I should let my inner five-year-old rock out till it’s night night. Brush my teeth and head back to the living room.
First thing to pop up on this television is exactly what we’re watching. Power on the remote, and electric-blue light paints the apartment. It’s the guy with the brown beard who interviews all the actors.
At what age did you become homeless? he asks.
The studio audience is locked in.
I was seventeen when we moved from the city, actor replies. Twenty when I stepped out for myself.
I sit up and reach for my phone. I stop myself and relax.
“Homeless” is too strong a word. People get offended when you say it. Even though it’s what you are. He works his craft. Homeless? Noooo. Not you! They don’t want to believe it. So I lied or talked around it.
Interviewer rubs brown beard. Until you become the highest-paid actor. Ever.
Hands up touchdown. Until then.
The symmetry is almost lost on me I’m so relaxed and comfortable. My phone vibrates. Text request from the school secretary, Maggy, asking me to sub Monday. I thought I powered my phone off. Text back, I’ll be there. Hollywood steps out the guest bedroom.
You still up? He opens the fridge and takes a carton of orange juice to the face. What’s the matter? You need a bedtime story?
This dude made a hundred million dollars last year, I tell him.
Must be nice. Hollywood yawns. Aight, bro. He starts back. Link me in the morning before you kick off.
I wish you could smell this apartment. I’m going to find a way to embed the pages with scent because it changes everything. On cue Row steps out.
You want one pillow or two? she asks.
One’s fine. I thank her.
She disappears around the corner and returns with pillows and a blanket. There’s food in the fridge. Help yourself to all of it, please. Cups might be in the dishwasher.
I got you. Thanks, Row.
Of course. Night night. She smiles and walks off.
I fold a pillow in half and lie out on the floor. The studio audience applauds. Actor shakes hands with brown-bearded interviewer. It’s a small, subtle moment, but I appreciate it. It makes more sense now why I had to stay up.
From Wings of Red by James W. Jennings. Excerpted with permission from Soft Skull Press. Copyright © 2023 by James W. Jennings.
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