His foot hit [a cup of ginger ale] as the officer with his dumb, muscly arm crushing Quan’s rib cage carried Quan through the kitchen like Quan was some kind of doll baby.
The sudden freezing air as Quan was whisked outside in his thin Iron Man pajamas with no shoes or jacket...and the subsequent strange warmth running down Quan’s legs when he saw Just. How. Many.
But then his lungs started to burn. Images of Dasia and Gabe popped into his head. He remembered telling Gabe he’d teach him how to play Uno when he got back from Daddy’s house this time. Little dude was four now and ready to learn.
Quan’s head swam.
Dasia would be waiting for Quan to polish her toenails purple. That was the prize he’d promised her if she aced her spelling test. And she did.
The minute that van drove away with him in it, I felt...doomed.
It’s why I stopped talking to you. Everybody else too, but especially you. I woulda never admitted this (honestly don’t know why I’m admitting it now...) but I kinda looked up to you. Yeah, you were only a year older and you were dorky as hell, but you had your shit together in a way I wanted mine to be.
I knew if I could just be like you, my dad would be proud of me.
Even at twelve, it didn’t escape Quan’s notice that the men in his mama’s life—Daddy included—used money to get her to do what they wanted her to do. It bothered him no end. But he wasn’t sure what he could do about it.
Which became a running theme: not knowing what he could do about anything.
So he stayed focused.
“And best believe your father is gonna hear about this. Might even send him the evidence of your indiscretion.” Quan could hear the paper crinkle as she surely held it up in the air. “Cheating. I can’t even believe you—”
And that was all he heard. Because in that moment everything crystallized for Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr.
It didn’t matter what he did.
Staying focused didn’t give Quan any control at all.
Dude had all these obstacles he couldn’t seem to get past no matter how hard he tried, and it was almost as though falling into the life of crime everybody expected from him was (sorta) unavoidable? I know it probably sounds crazy to an upstanding young gentleman such as yourself, but for real: based on the systems in place—the “institutions of oppression,” as my former mentor, Martel, would say—homie’s situation and how he ended up kinda seemed like destiny.
So he told Mama—who for the first time wasn’t healing from a COAN encounter—that he was going out.
And he headed to his former favorite playground place.
Stepping over the latest evidence of unsavory activity inside his rocket ship (at least there wouldn’t be any babies or diseases?), Quan climbed up to the observation deck. Largely to hide himself from anyone who might take issue with/make fun of an almost-thirteen-year-old hanging out in the grounded space vessel.
But once he got up there, Quan relaxed so much, he fell asleep.
He locked eyes with the cop, and the Bad (Dad) Night washed over him, and his chest
the way it had when kid-snatcher cop had Quan’s scrawny eleven-year-old torso wrapped in that death grip.
Wasn’t the best time for it either. Swole Cop took Quan’s inability to answer questions—
We got a problem here, son?
You hear me talkin’ to you?
So you’re a tough guy then?
Not gonna answer my questions?
—as an act of defiance.
Quan found air the moment Swole Cop’s ham-ish hand locked around Quan’s (still scrawny) upper arm in a death grip.
Dwight had been calling him for years.
Was that who he was for real?
There was no denying the impulse to take what wasn’t his. Was the D in his DNA for delinquent? The Jr. shorthand of “Junior” for just repeating?
Maybe Daddy had been wrong. Ms. Mays too.
There was no way out.
No way up.
Maybe a way through...but he had no idea what to.
Could he really be anyone different than who he was?
Who even was he?
Trey couldn’t have known it (or maybe he could’ve?), but in that moment, Quan didn’t actually want to be alone.
He needed a friend.
Someone who cared.
Because from the moment Mama and Quan had stepped out of the fluorescent-lit law-and-order lair into the crisp Georgia evening, it was crystal clear to Quan that she no longer did.
“It’s this ceremony where a young Jewish dude becomes ‘accountable for his actions.’” He used air quotes. “So he goes from ‘boy’ to ‘man,’ essentially. Lawyer homie is sitting there all geeked, telling me about it, and I’m thinking to myself: So your son is a grown man by Jewish standards, yet still gets treated like a kid. Meanwhile ain’t no ceremonies for kids like us, but if we get in trouble we get treated like adults.”
“You mad about it?”
This gives Quan pause. It’s a question no one’s ever asked him, case managers included. He meets Martel’s gaze. “Yeah,” he says. “I am.”
“Why? You did the crime, didn’t you?”
Now Quan gulps. Last thing he wants to do is start sounding like some of the dudes in lockup who constantly complained about how “unfair” the system is. “Always take responsibility for your actions, Junior,” Daddy used to say. “I know the potential consequences of what I do, and I choose to do it anyway, so if it comes down on me, I don’t get to complain.”
Quan’s gaze drops. Lands on a word carved into one of the bench’s wooden slats in little-kid lettering:
F U K C
What are kids like Quan supposed to do?
He swipes at his dampening eyes and shifts them back to the black hole where his galactic getaway vehicle used to be.
Dwight is dead.
And Quan is here. Stuck. Grounded.
No getting out.
No flying away.
No lifting off.
Because Dwight’s death wasn’t an accident.
Doesn’t matter now. I chose my path. Though, real talk—and I promise this isn’t me making an excuse—I don’t really see where there was a different path for a dude like me. Just like there probably wasn’t a different one for a dude like you. Is what it is, right?
I guess I didn’t realize just how big of a difference it could make to have somebody really believe in you. I been thinking a lot about Trey and Mar and Brad and them. We were all looking for the same things, man—support, protection, family, that type of shit. And we found SOME of it in one another, but we couldn’t really give each other no type of encouragement to do nothing GOOD because nobody was really giving US any. Matter fact, we typically got the opposite. People telling us how “bad” we were. Constantly looking at us like they expected only the worst.
How the hell’s a person supposed to give something they ain’t never had?
But then they’d start searching for the gun that did match. Which could lead to trouble for everyone, Martel especially. Quan knew what contraband the guy had in his house. Which surely could lead to searches of Martel’s other properties.
Quan couldn’t let that happen. Especially not after everything Martel and the guys had done for him. He wouldn’t’ve been able to live with himself.
He kept pushin’. Come on, kid. We know you did it. Might as well just say so...shit like that.
When he said You know if we get one of your little buddies in here, we can get ‘em talkin’. You should just save ‘em the trouble, that’s when I broke. Just said
Fine, man. I did it. You happy now?
She came in and we talked for a while and she asked me a bunch of questions the other dude never asked. And I’m pretty sure she actually believes everything I told her. Which was even a little bit uncomfortable despite the fact that I was telling the truth.
I just didn’t realize what a difference it would make to be in conversation with someone who genuinely wants to keep me OUT of prison altogether. Shit made me realize that in all my years dealing with the system, I ain’t never had an attorney who wanted to see me totally free.
But he was telling me how growing up, he was this real good kid, until some stuff happened to his family.
So he went looking for a new family. Like a lot of us do. Same story with another dude we call Stacks. He’s constantly talking about “this guy” he knows (aka himself) and how “he was workin’ to become a musician,” but “he was young and ain’t have no guidance”; how “he just wanted a family so he went and found one,” but then “he got in trouble doing family shit.”
And that’s what it comes down to. We find the families we were desperate for and learn different ways of going about things. Ways that sometimes land us in places/positions we don’t really wanna be in.
“Gabe misses you,” his mama says, and she might as well have dropped a bucket of ice water on his head.
He’d get up and walk away if not for the fact that it’s his mama.
And beneath all his fury,
he still wants her to love him.
This is a real-ass Catch-22. I read that shit a couple weeks ago. (HELLA trippy book.) The only way to stay OUT of what I really have no choice but to go back to is to stay IN here. But the longer I’m IN here, the more debt I’ll rack up for when I do get OUT.
Kind of a no-win, ain’t it?
Story of my damn life.
What if it wasn’t me? What if it was a kid
LIKE you? One with your exact history?
Quan had to think then. But not for long. Because that answer was obvious too. “I’d still invest.”
“Time. Energy. Resources...” The next word shocked him as it popped off his tongue; it bounced around the room in an echo-ish way the others hadn’t: “Belief.”
“Yeah. Everyone should have somebody who believes in ‘em. Like no matter what they’ve done. Somebody who won’t give up on them.”
“No strings attached.”
He did get the point then. HE was willing to do for someone else what was being done for him. At no cost and with no strings. It was the right thing to do.
The two BIG boys—if you can even call them that—chillin’ at the top of the climbing wall are wildly oblivious to the glares aimed at them from the actual children below.
“You miss [the rocket ship]?”
At first, Quan doesn’t respond. Because he really has to think about it. His eyes roam the always-clean park space. Touch on his mom [...] his sister [...] his brother [...] his best friend right beside him.
Only thing missing is his dad. But they write to each other weekly, and Quan’s been out to visit the old man a few times, so even that’s okay.
He smiles. “You know what, man? I don’t.”
“Nah,” Quan says. “No need to go to outer space.”
“Everything I need is right here.”