In 1995, while at the University of the West Indies, I was required to produce three original pieces for a prose fiction course. The following, "Fade to Black", was one of those pieces. It was subsequently picked up by one of my classmates for "Topsoil", a magazine for young Trinidadian writers. The story was carried in the second issue of an all too short-lived independant publication. Note that I have no Stateside gangland experience other than what I see in the movies and on TV. But I do believe though that a fair understanding of the human condition and a degree of empathy can provide a light into someone's soul, hence this piece.
The story is reproduced here as it was published in "Topsoil".
FADE TO BLACK
By Keith Francis
You are walking down the dark side of a dimly lit street, cautiously. It's easy to move here; most of the streetlights don't work. You know that you are not safe here though. Removing the red bandannas from you wrists and head do not make you feel safer. You are not afraid. You've never really known fear. You just don't feel safe.
This is not your place, not your turf. You don't belong here, but your grandmother is here. The crudely wrapped box in your left hand is for her. You've never missed her birthday yet and you won't miss one now.
The corner of your eye catches a flash of blue and red in the distance. You crouch under the steps of the apartments on your right and wait for it to pass. You know that whether your bandannas are blue or red or yellow or green the men in the car see only your dark skin, and they don't think too highly of it. You've spent a night inside for loitering before, served time for possession, but they won't be stopping you tonight. They're probably looking for you or someone fitting your description anyway - young, mean looking and black. You heard that description on the police radio from the back seat of a cruiser once, and the white cop had laughed. You remember thinking that the brother who was driving was a sell-out - He'd laughed too, as if "black" was some big joke. They'll pull down anyone tonight, but not you. Your grandmother is waiting.
The lights pass, slowly, and you wait a minor eternity before you step into the street again. Your stomach gradually settles as you move away from the garbage that was mellowing next to the stoop - it's one of those things that you still aren't accustomed to and probably will never get used to. You move away from that contributor to the street's reek and you cautiously walk again.
You couldn't come here with your ride nor any of your brothers'; the Crips would make you the moment you crossed into their turf. You couldn't steal a car and come either because your grandmother wouldn't let you into her house; you know that you can't hide anything from her and your conscience gets super powers when she's around. She would accept the gift though - you paid for it with your own money. She didn't have to know that the Paki who ran the store said something stupid and made you shoot him in the face for it. You couldn't leave all that cash in the open register either - the cops would take it. And whoever got tagged for killing the Paki would get tagged for burglary too. You couldn't leave the money for the pigs if that was going to happen. You left the five bucks in the Paki’s hand though. It had felt good saying keep the change, but then he had to go and say something stupid about "niggers never having money that's theirs". At least you paid for your grandmother's gift - she would still accept it.
You reach the corner and peer around it. The street is much brighter, not much gloom to hide yourself in. But you're almost there. Nothing much can go wrong now.
But you are wrong.
You take two steps beyond the corner and he steps out of a doorway not too far in front of you. The blue bandanna on his head is fresh and clean and crisp, brand new. He has fresh white bandages on his left hand with spots of crimson in the palm - the mark of his blood pact with the gang is yet to heal. You know that he is a brand new Crip, probably no more than half your age, no more than eight, and he has something to prove. You can see that he doesn't know you; it's in his eyes, as he looks you up and down. Then recognition dawns, not of you but of the brand on your forearm that you and the members of your chapter of the Bloods wear with pride. Too bad he has to die so young, you think, and reach behind you, under your shirt for your piece. You grab air, remembering now that you were headed for your grandmother's, and that she despises guns. The Crip smiles, draws his own weapon, and fires.
He doesn't know how to shoot, you think. The piece they gave him is too strong for him. You see the recoil and the gun hit him in his face, probably breaking his jaw. But your mind's attention is taken by a fire raging across your insides. You sink to the your knees and clutch your stomach. You can feel the blood trickling through your fingers. Being shot has never felt like this.
You can see the boy telling you something, his own blood flowing from his mouth, but all you can hear is a roaring noise and what you think is your heartbeat. You fall over to your left and land on something, crushing it. Some awareness tells you that it is your grandmother's gift and you wonder why it didn't break when it fell from your hands. The smell of the rose water is strong above the stink of the gutter - she would have liked it, but it's gone now, running into the street.
Your arms and legs have gone numb and the fire in your gut still burns, but you shiver - you feel strangely cold. And you could swear that the street was brighter than this. And for the first time in your life you are afraid. You're not ready to die. You know that at your age though if it didn't happen now, it was only a matter of time. Now, it is only a matter of time.
You try to get up but realise that your body isn't responding. You notice too that the fire has gone out. You just feel horribly cold, inside and out. Involuntarily, you lay down your head and sigh. The smell of your grandmother's perfume fills your senses. She would have liked it. You wonder what she would think of you lying in the gutter like this. You remember her being the only one who cared - your daddy had died of twenty-two bullets before you even knew him and your momma was too strung out on crack to give a damn. You remember her burning your first bandanna on the old stove and telling you it was for your own good... You remember her old Barbadian accent in her shouts behind you in the street whenever she drove you home late at night... You remember her dragging you to the little white Episcopal Church every Sunday... You remember her whipping your black behind with anything she could get her hands on and screaming to Jesus to drive Satan's demons out of you... You remember watching her cry when the cops came to get you that first time... You remember her bailing you out, every time being "the last goddamn time"... You remember her, hugging her and telling her "happy birthday Grandma" last year... You remember how much you love her...
You're tired now, but you can muster up the energy to smile. She doesn't have to worry about you anymore. You know that she'll do a better job with your daughter than she did with you.
The scent grabs you again. You feel yourself letting go. Nothing matters anymore, nothing at all.
You feel high and your spirit soars as your world fades to black.
Keith Francis is an enigmatic evening student at U.W.I. St. Augustine.