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?
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.