“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”
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.