He couldn’t remember when it started to go wrong, like really really wrong, but it must have been somewhere between living on East 13th street and moving back upstate. The only reason black men move upstate is to go to prison, but he had gone on his own volition. In New York, he had got into some trouble with the Jamaicans on Avenue C, the crew that ate brownstew chicken at the tables in the back of Kingston Patties. Marlo knew them from the park, but they had been pissed when they heard he was trying to sell on their block, although it was a good 10 blocks away. They were Jamaican, he was Jamaican, He should have known better. Jimmy had said to him, You fucked up now, son.
His gold front tooth glinted and his dreadlocks swung out—that was the last thing Marlo remembered seeing—the dreadlocks flying all around Jimmy’s face as he moved in slow motion and clocked Marlo upside his head with a metal piece of pipe. Marlo woke up, his eye so swollen his face felt off center. He looked in the mirror, packed his bags and headed for the bus. Watching the ice on the river change shape along the shore, like a snake shedding skin, he knew it was over.
He had come up from the City with LSD, in demand at Kappa Sigma Phi. There was a kid there who bought from him. Sean. One time Marlo walked in on Sean on top of a girl in his room. “You wanna hit this?” He had said without looking up when Marlo opened the door unannounced. The light from the door had fallen across the girls face in the dark room he saw she still had her clothes on, her hair stuck to the side of her face, unconscious. Marlo had shaken his head and backed out, squeezing his eyes closed. Sean had come out a few minutes later. Dumb bitch passed out. He laughed, handing Marlo a paperbag of bills.
Those were the good years, when weed was expensive and the market was simple upstate. Before the gangs came in and claimed territory in the small upstate towns, it had been a free market, and Marlo had been doing well. He would get up early in the City and drive up on Friday mornings to pick up the parcels of homegrown, drop the hallucinogens to Sean, and be back to the City by 6:00pm. His car then was a Ford Fiesta and he drove the speed limit. Marlo had to push the driver seat back so there was no room in the seat behind in order to get comfortable, and then fold his long legs below the wheel. He packed a thermos of chamomile tea for the ride and chain-smoked Newports, listening to tapes of Toots and the Maytals while he drove.
In the City he sold to NYU students. Part of the deal of selling to them was that they wanted to party with you. They drove their parents’ SUVs with tinted windows listening to Eminem and smoking blunts. They called him Jamaica Joe, and the girls got drunk and hung their arms around his neck.
Do you love me, really love me, Jeremy? Cus I love you. They would slur. He sat there, laughing, and tried to disentangle himself from their fleshy pale bodies, picking their arms off of him and setting them down like fragile packages. When they started asking for harder stuff, that was when Marlo started going to Harlem. That was when he met Lonnie and his business changed. Lonnie told him: The kids want heroin. Turn them on, make your money, and go to Jamaica, son.
Growing up Marlo wanted to be a lawyer. His father laughed at him, and beat Marlo for being stupid and playing with the girls in the yard. His father worked on the sugarcane plantation during the day and drank rum on the corner at night. When he came home Marlo and his sisters would lay down and pretend to be asleep, even if it was still daylight.
Something about the woman with the baby had made Marlo angry.
There are some things I want to know, at 11, is that too early for you? Yes, I know where it is, by the bridge. Yes. Okay. See you then.
She had called him, wanted to meet him in person in his room at the rooming house. He had said okay, but then, when he got off the phone, he looked around his room. He kept it very clean. He always thought of his grandmother when he was cleaning. There were some bottles from last night on the windowsill. He needed to clear his head. He put on the kid’s jacket that had been left behind, it was a Barbour, and a little small for him. He stepped out into the parking lot of the rooming house to smoke a cigarette. The last brown leaves rattled down from long grey branches. Spring was a winter away, a long time to wait.
After the kid died, Officer Nelson asked Marlo what time he had noticed the kid was dead, Marlo lied.
Round 1pm. I go out to get a coffee with Jimmy earlier — he will vouch for me, it was like 11 or sumthin. Then we come back. I hear the phone going off in the kid’s pocket when I come back. I thought he was just asleep on the floor, But the phone kept ringin and ringin. So I look in his face and it was blue, I guess then I know he was dead.
The front desk clerk, Clarissa was a middle-aged woman with a face like a half eaten apple left out in the sun. She had vouched for Marlo.
He came out around 8:30am. Then he and his friend came back at 1 around. I didn’t see him leave. I know the time cus I have my lunch and watch Days of our Lives, then. Sally and Bo were getting married on that day on the show. We got tapes if you wanna see them.
Officer Nelson knew Marlo from around town. He knew he was not in with the gang scene, more of a loner, and that he sold to college kids, mostly. Lumpy the snitch, had told Officer Nelson that Marlo sold goods, but wasn’t any good at it. He is a piece of shit, but not dangerous, that is the word.
Once, when Officer Nelson was black out drunk himself, he had bought Marlo a beer in Kuma’s nightclub, Marlo remembered him. When Officer Nelson came to his room with the other cops when the kid died, he looked at Marlo without recognizing him, his pale eyes in his dark skin, blank.
Third OD here this week. You have his wallet? Shit. I am going to his house to tell the family, now. You go down to the station with Officer Smith.
Officer Smith handed Officer Nelson the wallet. $98, a Discover card, A NY State driver’s license, a few dog-eared business cards, a picture of a little boy with curly hair. When the EMTs tried to go out the front door, sheet pulled up over the kid’s face, Clarissa tried to stop them. Boss doesn’t like you to go out the front with them.
Clarissa had turned the Jamaicans away that time they came looking for Marlo from the City. She told them he had died, which Marlo found strangely liberating. Clarissa did not know it, but by saying that he was dead, she had saved his life. Marlo understood to meet his clients outside and bring them in the back door. The clerk didn’t want to be bothered while she watched soaps on the small TV behind the desk. He sometimes stopped to talk to her. She watched Fox and talked a lot about Trump, and about immigrants. When Marlo pointed out he was an immigrant from Jamaica, she said he was okay. She called him Marl. She brought him a 6 pack of red stripe on his birthday. He had talked to her the morning that the kid died, but she must have told the cops something else.
He felt a sudden wave of hatred for her as he followed the officer out the back entrance. She had her back to him, watching television.
A few days later, Officer Nelson came to the rooming house again.
Marlo, man, your testimony doesn’t match up to Jimmy’s phone records. We got you calling him at 8:30, and then he came at 9:00. You need to come down to the station now.
The woman at the desk now shook her head at him as he walked out the front door this time, smiling at her as Officer Nelson in uniform, followed him. But at the station, Marlo felt confused. It had only been a few days since the last time he was in the station, but was foggy now. His recollection of the morning that the kid had died on the floor in his room changed every time he tried to remember. Officer Nelson read Marlo aloud the transcript of what Jimmy said.
Marlo called me, early. He was freaking out. This guy is dead in my room bro. He sleepin on the floor, but he blue. I need your help man. Can you come?
Jimmy said he went straight away to the rooming house, and went in the back way as usual. The kid was laying on his side on the floor, skull cap pulled down, tattoos on his blue fingers.
Marlo was scared. He wanted me to help him get the kid out of the room, but I know if you move a dead body, the cops can tell. I told him that. So we went for a ride to try to think of what to do. I told him that they know everything when people die now. They can tell even what time. So no point to lie. We had some eggs at the diner, and then we came back here around 1:00. We called 911, then.
Marlo nodded slowly, remembering.
The next day, the girl with the baby had called, and came to see him in the afternoon. She looked like the kid, same mouth and dark eyes, and she walked into his room quickly, looking around as if she had dropped something. Marlo told her he knew her brother a long time, they had eaten mushrooms for the first time together, run around when they were kids. When he had lived in NYC, her brother had lived there for awhile, too, and they had hung out from time to time. They were not really friends, but he told the girl they were.
The girl left her coat on and stood rocking her small blonde baby she had in the carrier. Then she turned to him.
Why didn’t you call the police earlier? She had asked him.
He felt like hitting her. It was not in his nature to hit women.
He thought about the black comedian’s joke about being in a grocery store, buying a can of soda. Yes, I want a bag. And a receipt motherfucker. Black men don’t leave a place carrying their merchandise like white folks do — we don’t bring our own bag.