When sitting in the passenger seat of a car with a known drug-dealer during a high-speed chase, one should always wear a seat belt. Always.
Thankfully, I came to the realization of this maxim seconds before the tire burst as I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car with a known drug dealer during a high-speed chase.
My best friend and I had gone out of town to a nightclub during the summer of our sophomore year in college. He spotted an old high school flame and left with her, but only after I negotiated a ride home with a mutual friend, Smurf, who also happened to be at the club.
I don’t remember much about the ride home. I remember telling him that we were about to go through a well-known speed trap. I recall the sirens. I think I remember Smurf saying that he was “dirty.” I remember being remarkably calm when the wheel literally popped off the axle as Smurf tried some race car-like maneuver. In retelling the story, Smurf always laughs when he gets to the part where I said, calmly: “Oh, great, now we’re going to die.”
But I do recollect being dragged out of the car. I remember the cold smoothness of the highway’s yellow line as I lay facedown in the middle of the highway surrounded by flashing lights. I recall that the handcuffs were so tight that I could feel my pulse. I haven’t forgotten how an officer kicked me, bruising my ribs, when I asked for the cuffs to be loosened a little bit. I clearly recall the gun to my head when he said: “I oughta just shoot yo’ ass! How about that?”
But most of all, I remember the look of disappointment on the face of my mother at the bail hearing the next day. I remember Smurf sitting in front of the magistrate, telling the court that he accepts all responsibility for anything they found in the car.
“He’s a good dude with a good future,” he said. “It was all mine.”
I remember how my mother exhaled when I was freed on my own recognizance.
I am alive.
I wear my seat belt.
For the men in my family, death is not a difficult thing to achieve.
My uncle Junior’s liver disintegrated into nothing when he was still a relatively young man. My cousin Fred, while still in his 30s, fell asleep on the way home from a double shift as he was headed to pick up his son and crashed into a tree. My first cousin, Tyran, whose mother named me, is incarcerated in a maximum security penitentiary on charges of distribution of methamphetamines. Since turning 16, he has spent more days as an inmate than as a free man. My uncle Rob is unashamed to explain, in detail, the euphoric feeling he felt when he first smoked crack cocaine. Squeak, who taught me my rudimentary carpentry skills, was beaten to death with a two-by-four by a co-worker during an argument at work.
If I were prone to believe in prophecy or curses, I would have laid down a long time ago. For the men in my family, dying early is the default. I have grown comfortable with it. To be a black boy is to feel death’s hot breath on your neck. To see the reaper’s lurking shadow and hear the phantom’s footsteps. However, for a black boy, death is not a scary thing.
It is inevitable.
I ran like a motherfucker.
“Honey, you’re in the wrong place,” she said. “It’s at the high school cafeteria—”
Before she could finish her sentence, I burst through the doors of the church’s gymnasium where I had previously taken the PSAT. I bounded down the steps and ran faster than I have ever run in my life. I had 15 minutes to run approximately two miles.
I muttered, “Jesus, please...”
Then I ran like a motherfucker.
I zipped past the manicured lawns and picket fences in the bucolic neighborhood. I ran past the convenience store my mother would have likely stopped at if she could have afforded a car or could see well enough to drive.
I ran past Burry’s bookstore where Trey Cox mindlessly once bought two copies of Albert Camus’ The Stranger and tossed one to me, unaware that I couldn’t have afforded it myself. He likely had no idea that, instead of buying the required reading for AP English, my sisters and I usually ran a scam where I would check out a book, return it after the two-week limit, and have my sister immediately check out the book again.
The place where I learned the process of applying for a two-week extension for my mother’s electric bill was a blur. I detoured through a path near the church I would be attending if I was not sinfully “breaking the Sabbath” by taking the SAT on a Saturday. I passed the “trap houses” on Howard Street that were so named before the phrase came into the cultural lexicon. I ran past the paper factory where my grandfather and grandmother worked—where I’d probably work, live and die if I did not escape this godforsaken, crack-infested town.
Four minutes. I don’t think I’m going to make it, but I’m still running like a motherfucker.
Again. “Jesus, please.”
Down my block. Past the early-bird dope boys trying to get a worm, I think I can beat this car across the street and then just before it smashes into me...It just stops.
“Boy, who are you running from?” the woman asks through the car window as I run away. “Don’t you hear me?”
I tell her I’m late for something at school and she tells me to get in the car and she’ll drive me. As we zoom past the elementary school where my mother said she’d rather homeschool us than allow her children to attend, the stranger tells me that she’s a good friend of my mom. She pulls into the parking lot of the Hartsville High School cafeteria, and I am out of the car running before it even stops.
Through the cloud of dust I leave in my wake, she yells: “Tell Dorothy that Gloria said hi!”
I had never seen that woman before. I have never seen her again. My mom still insists she has no idea who she was but I think I figured out who she was.
God is a black woman.
Her name is Gloria.
My best friend, Gregory Prince, died from sickle cell anemia when we were 11.
Therefore, on my first day of “real” school (which is different from home school because, for the first time, I realized my lifelong dream of having a classroom desk and a cubbyhole) I didn’t have a best friend. Or a friend at all.
Until I raced A.C. Cato.
Everyone at Carolina Elementary knew A.C. was the fastest dude in our class— maybe in the entire school. Not only was he as fast as lightning, but he was also officially designated as the class clown. As the new kid in class, of course, I became the target of his and everyone else’s jokes. Aside from the desk and cubbyhole, my first week of school was a living hell.
Until I raced A.C. Cato.
At the beginning of every physical education class, our teacher drew a line in the dirt. The class would line up in a single file line on her mark, run to the baseball backstop, touch it and run back to the line. For most of the kids in class, this was just a warmup jog. But in the world of 11-year-old boys, being the fastest kid in class was a tangible commodity and the P.E. warmup was actually an Olympic race for us.
The second the P.E. teacher blew her whistle, there were only two people in the entire universe: Me and A.C. Cato.
Maybe he was out of shape because it was the first week of school. He would later insist that he tripped. Regardless of the circumstances, I dusted A.C. Cato. After that day, my lifelong friendship with A.C. was a nonstop series of competitions. I was the better checkers player. He was better at baseball. And football. And basketball. He was also funnier.
The next year, I skipped a grade, which put me in junior high school. By the time we were supposed to be in high school, A.C. had moved to another town and school district. But we still saw each other often and he always made me laugh. After we both graduated high school, I left my hometown but A.C. stayed. Whenever I came home for the summer or during breaks, we would still hang out and laugh until our sides hurt.
During my junior year of college, A.C. was killed in a shootout at a local nightclub.
After that first day of P.E., I never beat A.C. in a race again. And if you ask anyone from Mrs. Sellers fifth grade homeroom that year, they will probably tell you that the Cato kid was the fastest and funniest person in our class. No one knows that I outran A.C. Cato.
I was not my grandmother’s favorite.
She told me I talked too much. She said I asked too many questions. All 10 of her other grandkids were good, quiet, respectful kids. But I talked a million miles a minute. I didn’t know how to sit still and be quiet. I was the rabble-rousing, fidgety grandkid who annoyed her incessantly with millions of questions.
To be fair, my grandmother was not a pleasant, kindly old woman. She worked in a factory alongside men for 30 years. She ran our entire neighborhood. She was a widow. She was stern, prickly, and she didn’t play around. She went to church faithfully and sang on the mother’s board, but that was probably because, for a few hours a week, she didn’t have to abide with me sitting under her asking a million questions.
Grandma also had a weird set of rules, one of which my entire family still adheres to. I don’t know why, but Grandma considered the phrase “shut up,” to be a curse word. In her house, no one told anyone to be quiet or stop talking. Considering her grandson was a self-powered incessant chatterbox, I know there were days when she regretted that rule. She often told people: “If Mikey stops talking, he might die.” But, for Grandma, the worst part of all was this: That woman was the center of my motherfucking universe.
Goddamn, I loved my grandma. Everyone who knew me knew this. She knew it, too. She begrudgingly saved me a seat beside her at family meals. I walked to church with her. When her kidneys failed, I wasn’t even old enough to drive nor did I have a car. Still, I went with her to every dialysis appointment. They wouldn’t let me sit in the room with her, but I just wanted to be near her. And the entire time I would talk. And talk.
I later figured out that my fondness for her was not just because she let me talk (there was no way to stop me from talking). It was because she actually listened and talked back to me, which I now know was probably exhausting as hell. However, the only time I would stop talking was to listen to what she had to say.
Because I was so annoyingly obsessed with her, I could probably write a biography of her life. I know everything about how she met her husband, my grandfather, who died before I was born. How they built our family home in 1952. I know the story of the white landowner who told my great-grandfather to take his kids out of school and make them work his land. She told me how her father immediately packed up their shit and left. I know she believed she could outwork any man. I remember how she prayed for me.
As a child, one of my weirdest interests was my fascination with other people’s dreams. It got to a point that, without default, grandma would tell me her dreams without me even asking. She often told me that she had a recurring dream that she would die in a fire or that there would be a fire when she died. One Thanksgiving, she told me (and other members of the family) that she dreamed that I was older and I was talking to a huge crowd (she said a “multitude”) and they were all listening intently.
“That’s how much you talk,” she said, laughing. “I can hear you talking in my sleep.”
Goddamn, I love that woman.
When I was a senior in high school, Grandma fell ill and had to be transported to a hospital about an hour away from where we lived. After she was hospitalized for about two weeks, I was sitting with her one day while everyone else was at church. The entire family was coming over to visit later, but I had to leave because I was in a play later that night playing the role of “the black dude.”
As I sat there with her watching the black and white television, Grandma stirred her self into consciousness and said: “I still hear you talking in my sleep, Mikey.”
“I wasn’t even talking, Grandma,” I replied.
“You’re always talking about something, boy,” she said. Then, strangely, she whispered, without any context: “If you keep talking, you won’t ever die.”
Both of us were still laughing as everyone filtered into the room. I had to go, but I know she was happy because she was surrounded by her favorite grandchildren.
I went home quickly, changed clothes, and a neighbor gave me a ride to the theater. I told her I would call her if I needed a ride home, but by the time the play ended, my aunt was already outside the theater waiting for me. Through tears, she told me that my grandmother had died a few hours earlier. I asked her how she made it back to our hometown from the hospital so quickly, and she informed me that she left the hospital early after receiving an emergency call from our neighbor.
Our house was on fire.
I don’t believe in prophecy or predestination, and I am not fast enough to outrun my fate. The reason I am alive is not that I am stronger, faster, smarter. Maybe it is because of seat belts. Perhaps it is because of the prayers. It might be sheer luck. This might simply be Gloria’s will.
I bet grandma can still hear me talking, even though she’s asleep. It turns out, she was right.
I did not die.