Mo Noire—Tales With an Edge

The stairwell was dark and smelly; in fact, it was scary and smelled like piss and dirty bodies, and maybe even straight up ass. All the things that went on there, crack heads smoking and tricking for drugs or money to buy them, dope fiends shooting up and using the dope fiend yoke on anybody they could to acquire the next fix, and then the people pissing and leaving bags of garbage in the stairwell combined to produced a darkness that the newest and brightest light bulbs couldn’t penetrate even if they weren’t broken minutes after they were put in.
Still, Baby Boy, who everyone called BB, had to use the stairs; the elevator was broke gain. He paused at the door, took a deep breath, filling his lungs with as much oxygen as they’d hold, and hoped it’d be enough to get him down the nine flights of stairs. Although he desperately wanted to turn around and ran back to his apartment, 9-F, he couldn’t. Slowly, he pushed the door back as softly as he could so that it’d open as wide as it could but also slowly, and charged into the darkness with reckless abandonment.
By the time the door had started back to closing, BB was passing the seventh floor. At the fifth he thought he heard someone down below, but didn’t slow his pace; he couldn’t if he was to have any chance of making it. At three, he knew it’d be close so he jumped the stairs from the middle of third floor to the second floor landing just barely clearing them. Next, he raced down the first half of the last flight and jumped once more. As his fingers grasped the metal doorknob of the lobby-he pulled and heard the door on the ninth floor close.
BB smiled and breathed in the air in the lobby. Breathing hard, he stood in front of the building for a moment, catching his breath and checking things out. He had to be careful. As bad as things were in 9-F, they could be worst outside and without the warnings his mother’s drug addiction usually gave him. His light brown eyes swiveled over the courtyard; Jose and his crew were serving crack to customers as if it wasn’t a crime, Jo-Mo and his partner, Dewey, were lifting weights in the middle of the courtyard, showing off bulging biceps while another crew sold $10 bags of heroin on the other side. A group of young girls worked at getting attention, and short, tight clothes with plenty of skin on display was doing the job pretty well too.
So far, BB hadn’t seen anything that was dangerous and now that his breathing was back to normal he considered his route, straight through the courtyard or slip around the side of the building and leave the projects from the back. The problem with going the back way was that he had no idea what he’d run into back there. He imagined that what went on in the dark, smelly staircase couldn’t match what he’d find in the parking lot with its five or six deserted cars, no lights and people who preferred the dark. Although it’d be quicker, he couldn’t chance it. The last time he’d gone through the parking lot another crew had been creeping on Jo-Mo, and he’d been caught in the middle of a gunfight produced real blood real quick and motionless bodies forever.
Still, he couldn’t just stand in front of the building. He had to move. That was all there was to it. He had responsibilities. Just as he stepped off the one step someone shouted, “Goddamn, Jo-Mo, there go yo’ li’l homey, Baby-boy.”
BB didn’t slow down, but that didn’t stop Jo-Mo. “Li’l man, come here and holler at your people,” Jo-Mo called out.
“Nah, man, I gotta go,” BB called over his shoulder, as he picked up his pace laughter erupted from the court.
The laughter was followed by, “Jo-Mo, I told you that li’l muthafucker ain’t tryin’ to fuck with us.”
Baby-Boy kept moving.
Dewey looked from BB to Jo-Mo and mumbled, “Mo, you can’t trust that li’l muthafucker and that’s why–”
“Shut the fuck up, Dewey,” Jo-Mo said loud enough for BB and everyone else to hear and just as suddenly as the laughter had come it stopped. Jo-Mo dropped the fifty-pound dumbbells to the ground and in a few strides overtook BB.
Stepping around in front of him, Jo-Mo’s 6’4″, 230-pound frame towered over BB as he asked, “Where you off to at–” a look at his watch “–eleven-forty-seven?” Jo-Mo asked.
Baby Boy smirked and went to step around him, but Jo-Mo slid over and blocked the boy’s path. “Hold up, boy.”
Baby Boy’s smirk turned into a full pledge frown as he stared up at Jo-Mo. “I gotta go to the store and get some milk for my li’l sister and you—”
“It’s almost midnight and yo’ li’l ass oughta be in the—”
“Jo-Mo, you know I gotta take care of Trina ’cause ain’t nobody else gonna,” said BB, lifting his eleven-year-old shoulders as high as he could. Jo-Mo shook his head. “Where yo’ mama?”
BB pushed past and said, over his shoulder, “I dunno, but if you see her you can tell me where she is.”
Once he’d succeed in keeping his laughter in check, Jo-Mo replied, “You sho’ got a smart mouth for such a li’l muthafucker.”
“Jo-Mo, you know you ain’t ‘pose to curse around no kids and especially at them,” BB said with a straight face as he turned and faced Jo-Mo.
This time Jo-Mo was unsuccessful. He laughed, loud and from deep in his stomach. It took him a minute to get control of it and BB smiled as he often did during their exchanges. He had a bond with Jo-Mo that ran beyond the fact that they both came from the projects and while one was raising himself and his little sister because of his mother’s crack addiction, the other had done almost the same thing twenty years earlier but instead of crack it had been heroin and there had been a little brother as well as a sister. In a strange way, Jo-Mo saw himself in Baby-Boy.
As he watched Baby-Boy hurry off, Jo-Mo wondered if the boy would make it, and he didn’t mean to the store and back; the projects was a place of shattered dreams and constant nightmares that spared few with its chalk outlines of dead bodies, drugs, gangs and systematic oppression. Although Jo-Mo no longer lived in the projects, he’d been formed there and was a product of every trap laid within them, he’d learn to be brutal, to get his the hard way and didn’t need a ski mask because he didn’t leave witnesses or at least he never had before.

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