Pandemic Files

The Commandments (I)

“I’ve been in this game for years, it made me an animal.

It’s rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual.”

Notorious B.I.G., “Ten Crack Commandments”

I.

Little’s most vivid childhood memory is of his Pops sitting out back talking to a white man in a black suit.

Little couldn’t have been more than four at the time, he was sure of it. They only stayed at that place in Liberty City ’til he was five (moved a couple of months after Pops’ funeral), yet he remembers it like he was a grown ass man when it went down. He can see his father’s face still, all these years later; the way Pops kept shaking his head and looking off into the distance like a stage actor on Broadway, broad nostrils flared, cigarette trembling at the corner of his mouth.

The meeting between Pops and the white man in the black suit was peculiar to Little, though he didn’t know why at the time. Pops had never really been into white people. Not like he hated them, more like he never really seemed to understand them, or their privilege. Pops struggled coming up, like most black people whose lives in Miami stretched back generations. When that struggle been in a family as long as it’s been in Pops’, it becomes part of their DNA. Their identity.

Regardless of his feelings about white people though, Pops was talking to this white man that evening. Little watched the whole thing through the back window of that old Liberty City apartment, peeking his small face over the ratty brown couch facing that old TV perched on some milk cartons in the corner, the one with the faded colors on the screen. Little watched Pops while Pops stood near the white man’s black Lincoln just talking, his eyes lit up with something like excitement, though his expression seemed pained. Every time Pops stopped talking, the white man in the black suit would flash a black wallet with something shiny and metal attached—Little saw the gleam of it from the neighboring street light—and Pops would get right to talking again.

Little wouldn’t see La Sombra that evening. Or that year. Not even before the end of that decade, actually. The afternoon La Sombra showed up in their kitchen—a couple days after the white man in the black suit came by— Little was nowhere near the house. Little didn’t even hear the details of how it all went down until long after they’d moved away from Liberty City, when he was damn near in middle school. It was his cousin, Slim, that told him about it, while they were chilling eating hot sausages outside The Store off 168th. This was back when Miami was really starting to grow, an explosion of development and migration radiating out from the Downtown center. South of where Little and his family lived was mostly farmland but, like most things from Old Miami, it wouldn’t last.

Little didn’t want to believe Slim at first. Didn’t want to believe that his Pops had been just sitting there at the small plastic dining table set up in the kitchen, in front of a bowl of cereal, chewing and reading his newspaper—slowly, mouthing the words to himself the way Pops always did—when La Sombra appeared inside the front door and took a seat right next to him.

According to Slim, wasn’t no words exchanged. From the outside of the apartment there was just silence in the flat dark shadows cast by the trees near the curb, uprooting the street’s concrete and wreaking havoc on car tires throughout the hood. Some people stood outside hanging clothes on thin gray lines strewn across poles behind the nearby apartments, like spiderwebs. Others strolled up and down the block taking in the sun, while some just sat smoking cigarettes on the steps leading up to their complex. Yet nobody saw nothing.

Slim said one man told his mom—Little’s aunt—that he thought he saw two quick flashes of light come from the window, but he couldn’t be sure. La Sombra seeped out of the place afterwards, unseen, unheard.

Later that evening, Little stood in the doorway while his mom walked into the house, dropped the bag of produce she’d been holding on the concrete floor and started screaming. And in that moment he saw something. Not a lot, but enough. His mother tried not to let him see, ran and grabbed him up and dragged him back to the car and drove straight to her sister’s thinking she’d saved him from seeing anything.

But Little saw.

He mostly remembers the blood, how thick it was, and lumpy. They couldn’t hide that. Globs of it stained the dining table and the seat that Pops had always sat on. Little knew that Pops’ blood being all over the table and chair and floor was the real reason they moved away. Not the eviction notice three months later, not their old Towncar breaking down for good, not the stuff his mom started shooting into her arms in subsequent years and not his baby sister who popped up seven months after Pops passed.

It was that blood, soaked into the linoleum. Hard to go on about your life with shit like that right in your face. Not impossible. But hard.

Regardless, Little was always good at math, specifically logic equations. So he could recognize a basic addition problem when it presented itself in real time. Never a man to follow somebody else’s path, Little spent many years carefully cultivating his own personal list of rules.

Not talking to white men in black suits was the first of them.

Part II

Standard
Pandemic Files

The Commandments (II)

II.

Little dropped the nickname “Little” on March 10th, 1997.

Little remembers the exact date because it was the day after Biggie died, a Monday, so there was still this sort of nervous tension around school between classes in the hallways at South Pines Middle; the perpetual whispered questions floating through the air like apparitions:

First ‘Pac, now Biggie?

This shit ever goin’ end?

Who’s next?

Bopping through the hallways with his headphones draped around his neck, Little paid no attention to the real-world actions of his musical idols. All Little had space in his head for those days was plotting his own come up.

Little’s mom had inadvertently schooled him on this point, teaching him without really meaning to (the way a lot of lessons from parents are received). Pops had been the proud breadwinner when he was alive. Moms did people’s hair every once in a while, but it was Pops who paid the rent, until La Sombra’s unfortunate visit. Since then, they’d moved into a project apartment further south, near Eureka off US-1, the one with the giant Cadillac dealership billboard overlooking the complex. By the time Little dropped his nickname, nearly every dime that came through that apartment was going straight into his mom’s arm.

So Little took to stashing whatever extra cash he could siphon in a plastic bag he kept between the floor and the aging piss-stained mattress he called his bed, tossed off in a corner of the living room next to another aging piss-stained mattress his little sister called her bed. His mom would eventually find the stash one day, but by then Little had found other sources of income and gotten smart enough to only keep a small amount of scratch at home.

Little was always a realist, even as a young’n. He knew that a few dollars here and there wouldn’t get him much more than some snacks and a comic book or two. His options were limited, but he was hopeful. He’d already started to show his dad’s genetic characteristics, namely the tall, lanky frame. The summer before eighth grade hit Little with the first of three growth spurts that would ultimately leave him standing six feet four inches. On the day he dropped his nickname though, he was a respectable five-nine. The height difference between him and most of his classmates was just noticeable enough to catch the attention of Mr. Twine, the school’s Civics teacher and part-time boy’s basketball coach. Twine recruited Little with a simple “See me after school.” Couple of months later, you couldn’t find the kid anywhere without a basketball in his hands. And it was a basketball Little was holding the day Junior Lawrence ran up on him.

Just after sixth period, standing there by the wall behind the school next to the basketball courts listening to a Mobb Deep mixtape his cousin Slim had let him borrow, on the Walkman Slim had also let him borrow. Little was bobbing his head and bouncing the basketball back and forth between his legs when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Pulled his headphones down, turned around and a fist immediately smashed into his jaw.

No warning. No build up. Just Junior sucker punching him in the face. And him going down, hard.

Junior’s cousin Freddy stood behind Junior, whooping and hollering while Junior laid into Little, kicking and punching and growling, like a rabid dog. Little received the kicks and punches twisted in the fetal position on the ground, wondering the entire time what he’d done to deserve this. When the punishment stopped, Little peeked out from behind his bruised arms. Junior picked up Little’s basketball and Walkman, holding them up to Little’s face.

My shit, nigga,” Junior said, then turned and walked away.

Little doesn’t know which part of the interaction set him off. It could’ve been the combination of getting his ass whooped and his shit stolen. Or it could’ve been the nonchalant attitude with which Junior and Freddy swaggered away, like Little wouldn’t dare move from his position, bloodied on the ground. Or maybe it was the fact that all Little could think about right then was his Pops. How he’d just been sitting there when La Sombra walked in. Waiting patiently as the flashes went off in the windows, never raising a single protest.

A patch of bushes lining the wall behind the middle school housed a number of rocks, used to section off mulch. Before Little could think twice about it, he stood and picked up one of the rocks, feeling the weight in his hands. The thing was easily the size of a softball, and rough, with deep grooves and sharp edges. Little tossed the rock from his left hand to his right, glancing over at Junior and Freddy who stood with their backs turned to him. Junior bounced Little’s basketball. Freddy fiddled with Little’s Walkman. Little walked over, cocked his arm back, and slammed the rock into the back of Junior’s head. Junior went down like his bones had suddenly liquefied, hitting the paved concrete with a dull thud. Before Freddy could raise his hands, Little brought the rock back around and clocked the boy in the temple. Freddy dropped the Walkman as he fell, busting up Slim’s mixtape.

Later that day, Junior would be treated for a fractured skull and severe concussion. Freddy would be treated for worse, and would spend the rest of his life speaking with a bit of a lisp. Little was kicked off the basketball team and suspended for two weeks. Freddy’s mother threatened to sue the school but ultimately couldn’t afford the lawyer. Junior’s mom would’ve probably done the same under other circumstances, but she also had the same issue as Little’s mom with blowing money up her arm. She didn’t even know her son was in the hospital until they discharged him.

The principal threatened Little with expulsion, and would’ve gotten his way if Coach Twine hadn’t spoken up. Twine would back off later that year though, after Little decked a seventh grader in the face, cracking the kids’ jaw and knocking out three of his teeth. The kid had tried to steal twenty bucks from Little’s pocket. The principal actually smiled when he signed the expulsion papers.

None of that ever mattered to Little though. What mattered was the story of that day—the day he knocked out Junior and his cousin with a rock—spread and stuck, cementing his rep. From that day on, Little was no longer “Little,” but “Dat Nigga Jeff.”

And no sir, nobody would ever even try to sneak up on him again.

Dat Nigga Jeff was always ready.

Part I

Part III

Standard
Pandemic Files

The Commandments (III)

III.

Jeff met Carlos through Slim about a month after he got kicked out of school. By that point, Jeff’s mom was mouthing off daily about him not pulling his own weight, how he didn’t have no excuse to not be bringing in something now that he wasn’t in school. Standing in the kitchen screaming with the corners of her mouth and eyes chalky, pupils wide and crazed, Jeff’s mom could create quite a racket. Jeff listened and nodded and said okay, then went over to Slim’s and told him he needed a job. A couple of weeks later Jeff was running with one of Carlos’s crews, corner of 174th and 98th.

The work couldn’t even be called work in those early days, to be real. Every once in a while some fiend would try to get one over on them, spying their stash or trying to pass counterfeit bills and whatnot. For the most part it was simple cash transactions, and a whole lot of sitting around listening to bass rattle out the back of whoever’s car they had that day.

Jeff worked the corner good though, and moved up quickly, from lookout to stash-holder to corner boy within a year. He was chilling at that corner with Briggs the day he first actually saw La Sombra. Briggs was one of Carlos’s other recruits, and Jeff remembers the heat of that day, how that and Briggs nonstop bitching killed his high before it ever even really got going. Standing on the corner, coming down off the blunt he’d smoked in Briggs’ blue Chevy Blazer parked at the curb, Jeff listened with his back against the passenger door. Briggs stood leaning against the side of the Quik Stop, just jawing.

“This nigga swear I ain’t got no sense, son,” Briggs said. “Shit like this wouldn’t never go down in the boroughs, on God. Niggas up there know me, son, know how I operate.”

“I think you might be making this bigger than it is,” Jeff said.

Briggs threw him a stink-eye, scratching at the peach fuzz growing on his chin. Briggs was a Queens transplant, moved to Miami in the ninth grade and spent the next two years telling everybody within ear shot how much better shit was where he came from—better parties, better women, better weed.

“Don’t matter no way,” he said. “I told him what it is, told him what I’ma do if he don’t come correct. He try me, I’m off the block starting now. Breaking out and doing my own thang, keep playing with me.”

“You told Carlos that?” Jeff said.

“Yeah,” Briggs said defiantly. “Straight up. Fuck I care?”

Jeff whistled, shaking his head. “You crazy, nigga,” he said.

“Crazy how?”

“Talking to Carlos like that, bruh.”

“Fuck Carlos,” Briggs said.

“I don’t know, man,” Jeff said. “You seen what he did to buddy at the docks last month.”

“That nigga was pussy,” Briggs said, waving Jeff off. “And he stole from the nigga, different story.”

Jeff waggled his eyebrows, sucking his teeth. “Slim told me,” he said, snapping his fingers. “You remember Duke?”

Briggs nodded, reaching in his pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes.

Duke stepped to Carlos,” Jeff said. “You seen what happened to that nigga.” Jeff held up two fingers. “Two nights, took out the nigga’s whole clique.”

“Duke wasn’t shit,” Briggs said, a slight wavering in his tone. “Nigga was on his way out anyways.”

“Still,” Jeff said. “Everybody thought Carlos was small time before that shit. Duke had a legit crew. Carlos’s just dat nigga, bruh.”

“The fuck good Duke’s crew did him?” Briggs said, sucking his teeth and shaking a cigarette out of the pack. “Probably one of his own niggas turned on him, why he fell. You can’t trust nobody, son. Niggas will smile in yo’ face and rob you in yo’ sleep.”

“So you tryna be out here by yo’ self?” Jeff asked.

“I don’t need no crew,” Briggs said, lighting the cigarette. “Just need common sense and connections, and I got both.” Briggs exhaled smoke and pointed up the street. “This nigga Carlos think ‘cause he did time in Cuba, got all these bullshit stories ’bout what he been through, what he seen, what he done, what he—fuck all that, I’m supposed to be scared ’cause the nigga did time?” Briggs slapped his palm against his chest, hard. “Crosshaven Juvenile Detention Center, son. Two years. In the boroughs, my nigga. Tell that motherfucker to run up on me. New York niggas know war, son. Savor that shit.”

Jeff stared at Briggs, shaking his head. “Nigga you crazy as hell,” he said. “You ain’t say all that shit to Carlos.”

Briggs hit the cigarette, a cloud of smoke enveloping his head. “Most of it.”

“What’d he say?”

“Who?” Briggs said.

Jeff leveled his eyes at Briggs, reached over and punched him in the arm. “Fucking Carlos, nigga. Who the hell we talking about?”

“Fuck you think he said?” Briggs said, scoffing. “You know how Carlos be, nigga just snapped. Talking ’bout—’bout how I ain’t never know how to stay in line, how he ain’t protecting me no more, all that bullshit. Cuban ass think I need his fucking—”

“Protection?” Jeff said, frowning. “Fuck you need protection from?”

Jeff waved a hand. “Said that nigga I jacked up a couple weeks ago was connected.”

Jeff cursed under his breath. “Told you that was a bad idea.”

“So what?” Briggs said, holding his arms out and turning in a circle. The chrome grip of his pistol poked out from the back of his waist. “I’m standing right here, niggas.”

Briggs faced Jeff again, grinning, just as the black car pulled up. The car seemed to appear out of nowhere, just popping up in the intersection on the opposite side of the block. Jeff saw it happening in real time but still couldn’t bring himself to move. Briggs stood with his back to the curb, obliviously grinning at Jeff in the broad daylight.

The black car stopped and idled for just a moment, long enough for Jeff to focus on a few details: the dull gold rims, the windows tinted so dark they looked like tar, the way the sun didn’t reflect off the trunk. As Jeff noticed these things, the passenger door slowly opened. The sky around them dimmed as it did, so much that Jeff could see nothing inside the front passenger seat but pure black, like a cloudy night sky over a desert far from civilization.

Jeff stood there staring at the mysterious idling car, trying to make out anything inside. Then, as suddenly as the car itself had appeared, a chrome-plated pistol materialized just outside the passenger door, floating in the air with nothing but that pure, unending darkness holding the grip. The pistol seemed enormous from Jeff’s vantage, the size of a cannon, like no other gun he’d seen before. Jeff’s nine millimeter—tucked at the back of his waist—seemed like a slingshot in comparison.

Jeff was suddenly reminded of his father again, of how La Sombra had just appeared in their doorway and sat at their kitchen table. At that moment he forgave his father for giving in so easily.

Staring at that phantom car, Jeff had never been so scared in his life.

The barrel of the gun flashed once, bright as a supernova, and Briggs right eyeball and much of his broad forehead exploded outwards, a stream of blood and grey matter splattering on the ground at Jeff’s feet. Some of it got on Jeff’s shoes, but he didn’t really notice that until later that afternoon, right before he tossed the shoes in a dumpster and walked home barefoot. In the moment, Jeff was too busy watching the black car’s passenger door close, the car slipping away quietly. Seconds later, it was as if it had never even been there to begin with. The corners of Briggs mouth twitched into a smile, his legs buckling. He fell first to his knees, then flat on his ruined face, his cigarette dropping from his fingers. A halo of blood slowly spread around his head, his left leg twitching incessantly.

The next morning, Jeff woke up early, before sunrise, startled. He lay on a ratty mattress in Slim’s living room, having abandoned his mother to a rehab clinic and his sister to his aunt’s. It took him a moment to see the three figures standing over him, shrouded in shadows. Panicking, he reached for the gun under his pillow.

“I would not do that, Jeff,” one of the figures said. His voice was familiar, raspy, his accent thick. At the same time, Carlos’s tanned face and broad nose came into view. Jeff felt a weird sense of relief, then annoyance. As Carlos’s face came into focus, so did the other two figures behind him: two giant men Jeff had never seen before, both wearing sunglasses in the pitch black living room.

“Goddammit, Carlos,” Jeff hissed, his heart racing. He let go of the pistol. “How the fuck did you get in here?”

As the question left his mouth, Jeff’s eyes adjusted and he saw Slim standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and staring back at him gravely.

Jeff looked at Carlos. “What do you want?”

“I want to make some things clear,” Carlos said. “About today.”

“I didn’t see nothin’,” Jeff said quickly.

“I know, cabrón,” Carlos said, reaching down and patting Jeff’s cheek. “I did not see either, but I hear.” He wiped the corners of his mouth, looking off in the distance. “I tell you about Briggs. Because Briggs, he like to…eh.” Carlos flapped his hand like a duck. “He like to talk. He like to talk and tell his plans to others. This—this—is the problem with Briggs. He does not understand the business. You talk and talk, you tell others your plans, you ruin these plans, for you and the people who are also a part of those plans.”

Jeff stayed quiet. Carlos sighed.

“That is not why I am here, Jeff,” he said. “I am here to tell you it was not me who did this to Briggs.” He eyed Jeff slyly. “But the one who did do this to Briggs, he will not know how to find Briggs if Briggs is not talking so much, eh?” Carlos grinned maniacally at Jeff and Jeff slowly nodded. Carlos patted Jeff’s cheek again then stood. “Learn a lesson from Briggs.”

Carlos left the apartment and the two giant men followed him out. Slim locked the door behind them, gave Jeff a look then walked back to his room and closed the door.

Jeff tried to go back to sleep, but like most things it was a futile effort.

Part II

Part IV

Standard