Clifton could hear them shouting his name from the house, but he had stumbled deep within the thick and dry grass of the upstate forest, a place where the land was abrasive and difficult to maneuver. Still young and fairly short, he could not see much beyond the arching canopy of the foliage and was overwhelmed, like from vertigo: the paper-thin grass doubled over itself, its green and wheat-brown pigments losing their individual clarity, and the wind rustled the pages of the leaves and hummed a low melancholy tone that seemed to resonate with his skull and spine like an orchestra in his mind; a dulling and dissonant crescendo mounted and it buried the boy’s consciousness beneath it. He shook and he stumbled and nearly fell to the ground.
“Yo, Clif, we gotta go!”
He heard the desperate screech of wheels grinding through gravel, making their way out towards the highway, and his heart sank. Though it was possible that the owners of the house had returned, Clifton knew intuitively and feared the fact that his accomplices, unwilling or unable to wait for him any longer, had fled in a panic, leaving him to fend for himself in the middle of a fresh crime scene on the outskirts of town, miles from his own neighborhood which he knew so well, with neither a car, nor much money, nor any friends on whom he could rely. Technically, he had crossed into the next town over from his own. They called it Ulysses.
He crouched and tread lightly now toward the house, aware only of the hushed breeze through the grass; it was thick right up to the edge of the yard and he did not immediately burst from its cover, but first scanned the property. Having confirmed that he was alone, he stood up and stepped from the forest; simultaneously, he withdrew a pack of Newports from within his jeans and stuck one between his lips. His hands shook as he lit it and brusquely took the smoke into his body. His head tingled like it had in the grass; the orchestra played its tone in his ears again for a moment before a dog, barking excitedly from within the house, appeared at a window by the front door. Its ashy-brown fur was short and the lips upon his thick, flat head curled into a smile, through which his tongue drooped down and shook in the air. Clifton watched it and smiled back at it; it kept staring, kept panting.
He crossed to the front door. The property was lovely, inside the house and outside in the yard, and the woods beyond. The upstate New York forest is, by and large, a quiet and uneventful place, with white-tailed deer and little dull-colored songbirds and wild turkeys in autumn trotting along its brown and damp ground and its grayish-blue skies, but the foliage is imposing and proud; the trees flash vibrant colors upon their leaves and their branches speak to and touch one another as they bend and sway in the wind. Such lush and vocal oak, maple, and pine trees surrounded the perimeter of the house, so tall and massive that they shaded the whole plot of land from the sunshine, save for at sunset, when the Sun fell slowly into the western horizon; then, it would hurl its last long spears of light through the windows of the house, illuminating the cloud of dust which flowed unceasingly through its halls upon the air, from one room to another and back again like an ocean current.
Clifton was aware of the possibility that the victims of this invasion might return home at any time to discover what had happened while they were out, but he was none too anxious to leave just yet. In meeting him, one might be surprised to discover that the boy was only fifteen years old, for he had seen more in life than many grown men and it showed on his face, in his tired eyes. He was born in the poor and dangerous Long Island Baptist Houses of East New York to two parents infected by the bug of crack cocaine; his mother, Eliza, had been addicted to the drug for about a year when Clifton was conceived and his father, Otis (also known as Big O), was a mid-level dealer of both coke and heroin – even occasionally methamphetamines and straight up speed. There was no love in Eliza and Otis’s relationship. She was but one of several women who whored themselves out to him when they were too poor to afford a dime bag, for Otis was known to take a monetary loss in exchange for a sexual favor – something often frowned upon as unprofessional in the drug business. It was completely by accident that Otis, neglecting to wear a condom while he had his way with the joyless girl of fifteen, planted the seed inside her that would spur the creation of Clifton.
Though but a child herself, Eliza’s son’s birth propelled her into a sudden state of readiness and clarity; her son’s terrible condition at birth shook her to the core and gave her the motivation to fight back against her addiction and against the violence and hopelessness of her hometown. She and her crack baby went through withdrawal in the hospital together. When she and her son were both strong enough to return home (for Eliza still lived with her parents, grown and working folks better adjusted to life than her), she recommitted herself to her academic studies and she got a job as a cashier at McDonald’s. By the time she was seventeen, she had been promoted to assistant manager, with a growing savings account and her sights set on a college degree. She earned her Associate’s Degree at a school in Brooklyn and, when Clifton was twelve years old, she moved the two of them to the undersized but respected city of Ithaca, New York – in hopes of pursuing a Bachelor’s degree; unfortunately, the Great Recession hit Eliza’s family hard, and she was forced to withdraw from school after less than a year. Now, she worked as a secretary for a local nonprofit organization devoted to fighting homelessness while she and Clifton still lived in public housing. There were far less murders in Ithaca than in New York City, thankfully, but otherwise, the ghetto was just the same.
Big Otis, meanwhile, was never very invested in the life of his only son; he continued to sell crack and heroin and made few attempts to build a connection with Clifton or Eliza. Clifton assumed that his father was still running Brooklyn corners with a pistol on his hip – he may even have moved up in the game – but he could just as easily be dead or in prison. Nowadays, Clifton tried not to think too much about his father.
The boy had, without question, been through a lot in his short time on Earth, and this hard and bitter experience beyond his years had forged within him a fiercely tough mentality. He was flexible to the sporadically changing world around him – relaxed and capable in social situations and quick on his feet. Though he smoked cigarettes regularly and marijuana excessively, he was a talented sprinter – accelerating quickly in bursts like a cheetah, pushing himself forward with the power of his long, sinewy legs. They reminded Eliza of Otis’s legs; it was one of the few things she ever told her son about his father. Clifton lived with adversity everyday; the pain of his father’s neglect amplified the daily struggle of his life as a poor black boy in America. He was neither shaken nor even very much excited at all by the situation he now found himself in, though he was admittedly perturbed by the lack of loyalty his partners had shown. Clifton valued loyalty, having known so little of it growing up.
JT had told him to search the sheds and the woods and the tall grass; he had begun giving orders the second they all stepped out of the car; Clifton wanted to go with him into the house, but JT insisted that he search the forest. The kid who lived in this house went to the same school as Clifton and his friends and he apparently grew several cannabis plants each year for personal use and petty distribution; the boy Dave had heard that they were stashed in one of the sheds in the backyard, or perhaps further back in the woods. So, Clifton obediently waded into the bush, and, for a moment, he did not realize that neither JT, nor Dave, nor the other boy (whose name he could not remember; he was a friend of JT’s) had come with him – that he was alone. Even upon realizing his solitude, he diligently trudged on into the wild, but he found no illegal plants among the looming ferns and bushes and the paper-thin grass.
He stepped now through the front door. The vestibule fed directly into adjacent rooms, so that he saw much of the first floor before him. The walls were unpainted but adeptly adorned with paintings of rural fauna and landscapes, and various strategically-placed plants complemented the rustic log-cabin aesthetic. The dog came rushing to greet him, enthusiastically thrusting its cranium into the boy’s legs and groin. Clifton suddenly thought of his home in the southern district of the city. His neighborhood – Southside Terraces – was called Southside by locals; teenagers and young adults sprayed “SS” or “SS 187” on the walls of the buildings. Some painted masterful pieces on those walls; unsung artists thriving in anonymity. A local celebrity had come out of the South Side projects – a young man trying to make it in the world as a rap artist. The graffiti artists wrote S like the Nazis did in their diabolical SS – not specifically as a threat to Jewish people, but as a threat to all people; for the Nazis, despite their terrible capacity for evil, were feared and respected and they will never be forgotten.
Dave had chosen the location for the caper, but JT was the first cause of events which would pluck Clifton from his home and eventually land him alone inside an anonymous house in Ulysses. The young man JT was an imposing one, standing a lean but sturdy 6’4; when he grew out his frizzy hair, it rose from his skull towards the sky like a black bonfire and he loomed even higher. He usually wore combat boots to school and out in the world, and he fancied a black hoodie with the print of a skull and roses across the chest. His eyes receded behind his prominent cheekbones, but they burned bold and intense through the darkness of his sockets like a binary star whirling around itself as it is propelled with incredible speed through the void by the intransigent forces of nature, bending the fabric of spacetime itself with its incredible force of gravity. Being a twenty-year-old senior in high school, JT was the oldest among those who had gathered together that day, so he easily assumed the role of group leader without any sort of election or deliberation, but rather by an unspoken, even unrecognized agreement – by a sheer display of assertiveness and passion.
Clifton remembered that morning, when he sat quietly in the backseat of Dave’s car and watched smoke stinking of burnt plastic ooze in thick tendrils from JT’s lips and nostrils in the driver’s seat. As the smoke left him, his eyes twitched and opened wide and he jostled his jaw about its joints. After the initial fit of the blast was passed, JT foisted the pipe on Dave, absentmindedly spilling ash all over his black skull and rose hoodie in the process. Clifton did not smoke crack; he turned his eyes away from JT and Dave and the other boy and out the window towards the busy urban street. He wore a triple-extra large black T-shirt with a print of Tupac Shakur across the front; he sat backwards in a chair – his arms and legs wrapped around its back, and he looked to the sky with his hands clasped in prayer and half of a grin on his face; beside the late rapper, in quotes, were his lyrics: “Only God can judge me”. A diamond-studded cross hung from the silver chain around his neck.
"Clif, listen: all we gonna do is get the weed, alright? If Dave’s right, then we ain’t gotta fuck with the house at all; we can just creep up through the back woods. They won’t even know we was there.” JT spoke very calmly and assuredly, as if whispering to his son who had come into his room at night after being frightened by a bad dream.
JT had never met his father and his mother had died when he was quite young, so he and his older sister lived with their mother’s parents in a single-story house a few blocks from the South Side projects. The house was sparsely decorated; most of the white walls were totally bare, but there was a little print of Jesus tacked to the wall above the toilet. JT’s room and his sister’s were much more personalized than the rest, though their impoverishment was still evident in such subtle details as the fact that they slept on mattresses which lay on their floors; JT’s was crammed into the corner of his bedroom, unmade and unkempt like the rest of the room. Posters and prints of his favorite rappers and movie characters hung on the walls of his room, and, on his dresser, there was an ashtray and a bong in the shape of a human skull; the tube through which one inhaled smoke jutted from the apex of the glass dome. JT would sometimes take Clifton into his backyard – about thirty square feet of grass surrounded by a wood fence, with a picnic table in the center – to smoke that skull-shaped bong.
Clifton remembered fondly one time in particular, when they had smoked weed in his backyard during school hours – as they were prone to do – and then had stared into the ground silently, neither one of them moving much at all. They sat in such a daze that way until a little black beetle flew into their field of vision and landed upon a blade of grass before them. JT excitedly rapped against Clifton’s arm and pointed at the insect and yelled as if enchanted: “Look at that little thing, man!” JT was technically a felon, and a repeat offender at that, but he could be a charming young man; he approached life with devilish joy, respecting and admiring nature and all God’s creatures – though not necessarily loving them. Even where there was no love, JT was fiery and intense so that Clifton was irresistibly drawn to him as to an idol. JT was one moment a jaunty, young man with a good heart and a strong mind – Clifton liked to think that this was the real JT, as if the other side was some ploy or game. But the true nature of his darkness was more akin to possession: thoroughly unpredictable and therefore quite dangerous. This psychopathic streak was off-putting to some, but, as Clifton recognized, JT, whether he be stable or maniacal, was always exciting.
When JT had gathered with the three other youths earlier that day, the Sun had been at its peak in the sky and hot, and they had sat on a rotting log by a creek in the middle of a gorge which ran through town, throwing stones and sweating under the rays for some time before becoming restless, as they and all their peers often do. Their hometown was founded at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake – the longest of a series of glacial lakes in Upstate New York known as the Finger Lakes, so called because of their resemblance to man’s metacarpal digits; some say that the lakes formed during the first days of Creation, when God planted his hand upon the Earth’s surface like a celebrity laying his prints in fresh cement. Being at the bottom end of a lake, Ithaca rests in the pit of an enormous valley cut through by natural and manmade gorges and waterways. A popular pun among locals goes, “Ithaca is gorges”; another is, “Ithaca, New York: ten square miles surrounded by reality…”
Despite its natural beauty, the city has little claim to fame besides the two private universities which rise in massive rectangular and columnar towers along either flanking hillside. Academia flourishes on the elevated horizons like sunflowers obscuring weeds along the ground; in the clean and direct sunlight of those hilly peaks, young men and women absorb and digest new ideas and they grow in the light and the rain. But in the valley below the shining ivory, the local children – the homies born and raised in the 607 – are left to stagnate and drown in runoff while overshadowed and ultimately ignored by the students in the towers; along the battlements, scholars cast their gaze absentmindedly over the shrouded pit and lament the sad state of American society and culture. The local children are like so many rats scurrying about in the recesses below tables of a bourgeois dinner party, desperately moving from chair to chair in search of leftover crumbs from those above upon which to gorge themselves.
In the heart of downtown Ithaca, less than a mile north of the South Side projects, there is an intangible levee, a philosophical barrier which has been gradually erected to keep out the human filth of the world – it takes the form of patrolling policemen and security cameras and high price tags on designer goods. This barrier surrounds and protects a space of several city blocks where there is a pedestrian mall known by locals as the Commons. The long walkway is lined with many quaint pre-World War II apartment buildings whose ground floors are occupied by restaurants, music and art stores, a movie theater, pavilions for all kinds of performances, and more head shops than seems reasonable – certainly more than are necessary. During the day, the Commons is a meeting place for locals and college students, a place to shop and eat and relax and perhaps listen to live music with friends and family; one can even walk a trail through the area that is a to-scale rendition of our solar system, with stops at each planetary body, developed by and donated to brilliant products of the college and university on either peak along the valley.
The Commons during the day is a posh and quiet place, but each night, the levees that no one can actually see break and the Commons is suddenly flooded by the town delinquents and the homeless and the homies who, drinking and smoking with impunity, flush the town’s horrified citizens from the streets. Their clothes and speech are littered with dirt and smut, and they huddle together for warmth; in their huddles, some of the homeless devise plots to burglarize and hustle and swindle, while others speak solemnly to each other of days past and stare into the night sky, wondering where they have gone wrong and how they might emerge from their abysmal depths. The local children call the homeless who come out at night the “Commons Rats”; they theorize that they crawl out of the sewers when the Sun sets.
Having left the gorge, which is incidentally not far from the Commons, the group piled into Dave’s pitiful old hatchback and sat there on the side of the road, staring into the distance or into nothingness in silent breaks between conversations. The group had decided that they would contact one of the town’s numerous drug dealers so that they might purchase some cannabis buds. As was customary within their social circle, anyone who had money would spot anyone who did not, for the truly important thing was that everyone should enjoy the sweet tingle of the THC buzz constantly and together. Those without money were always then expected to return the favor at a later date; their oft-quoted slogan – “Donate to the cause that keeps us high all day” – was a favorite in ciphers; a request, a pledge, and a mantra. But, on this day, as the others mulled through their cell phone contact lists, comparing dealers and trying to determine which one could give them the best deal, JT sat thinking and growing indignant; he decided that he refused to pay or to let others pay for such a thing as marijuana.
“It’s just a plant,” he said. “Why I gotta pay for something I can grow myself? Why the fuck is that shit even illegal?
The boy whose name Clifton did not know cocked his brow and looked JT in the eyes, his gaze never quivering. “Ain’t you got no money?” he asked.
“Yeah I got money, nigga,” JT, thus provoked, grew even more acrimonious. “Fuck you think? You think I’m making excuses? You think I’m tryna play down the fact that I’m broke?”
“I don’t know what the fuck you doing, man…”
“I get my money.”
“Whatever you say, bruh…”
“Listen, it ain’t about the money, nigga! It’s the principle of the thing here.”
“This nigga said, ‘the principle’,” the other boy chuckled cynically. JT ignored him and turned to Dave with a newfound enthusiasm.
“Listen,” he said, “who you know that grow weed?”
This story continues here.
Phillip DeVries was born in Brooklyn, New York, and currently resides in New Orleans, where he works construction with Habitat for Humanity, writes fiction, and plays his electric guitar. He loves the pride of New York City, the vibe in Philadelphia, Austin’s music, and New Orleans’s gritty soul, but he spent his formative years in the little city of Ithaca, New York, and he would like to dedicate this story to the place he calls home; its many eccentricities have been a continuing source of inspiration to him throughout his life. He pays his respects to Phil Gunn, Chris Dennis, Justin Johnson, and all the Ithaca boys who have died. May they rest in peace.