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MO The Pallbearer An Anti-Gang Book Written by

Ralph Burgess

Urban Publishing and Media Group

This book is dedicated to everyone who has decided to make intelligent decisions even when doing so makes them unpopular. Dare to be different. I dare you. Dare to look peer pressure in the eyes and come out smelling like roses. Dare to maintain the level of integrity that your loved ones instilled in you or that you have instilled in yourself. Dare to say years later, ‘I’m glad I did the right thing’. ‘I’m glad I’m not in prison.’ ‘I’m glad I read this book’. Dare to find the real meaning of perseverance, understanding that excuses serve only as stumbling blocks and that someone in this world has had it worse than you all their lives and never considered making excuses. Understanding that it takes a village to raise a child, what is your role in the village? Think not that your child is the only one who deserves to be blessed, encouraged or inspired by the wonderful wisdom and acts that you have to offer. Remember, the one child who’s neglected can be the very same child that takes another child’s life. This book is also dedicated to everyone who has made mistakes in their lives, no matter how bad it may have been. It is never too late to make amends. Talk is cheap. It’s all about results. You know the person that lies inside you as well as your hidden talents. Take your punishment and wipe the slate clean. We live in a forgiving society that loves to witness stories of overcoming obstacles and watching the scorned become heroes. This is your life, your book, only you can write the ending. I’m in your corner. I’d like to thank God for the gift of writing. Everything that I have and will receive is only as a result of his love and mercy. I would like to thank my three beautiful children Turrell, Breanne and Justin. You three have inspired far beyond words can explain. I love you all and look forward to watching you grow into adulthood. Thanks to wifey, Bettina. The lady I have chosen to grow old with. We have reached our fifteenth anniversary. That was quick. Thanks for your friendship and companionship. Here’s to the next fifteen years. I love you baby! Mo The Pallbearer is Copyrighted and Trademarked by Urban Publishing and Media Group ISBN#0-9770005-3-2.

I guess what they say is true about “The more things change the more they stay the same." Once again, I was a pallbearer putting to rest a friend that I grew up with and cared for so deeply. I was struggling with the fact that the killings in Brick City may never cease and that living long enough to merely graduate would be considered a milestone. The mournful hymns of the St. Mark’s Baptist Church Choir filled the air and heavy hearts filled the seats as friends and family members cried over the loss of one of their own. The deceased who lay in the coffin, was a high school junior by the name of Terrance Maynard, my man. Terrance and I played Pop Warner football together and 1

had been friends ever since kindergarten. He had moves that put me to shame, but I wasn’t the only one willing to admit that. Before being cut from the team for cutting classes, he had rushed for more than two hundred yards in each of the first three games of the football season at Marcus Garvey High School. Six months earlier, Terrance’s older brother was killed during a drive-by shooting on Stafford Place. On any given day, I could have caught a bullet with either one of them, but I guess fate had other plans for me. Both of them were members of the Supremes, a gang from Newark’s Southward. Some had confused me as a member as well. Yeah, I chilled with them a lot, but that was the extent of it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like what I thought were “cool” points I was receiving for being 2

mistaken for one of them. Not all chicks liked the fact that I excelled in math and English. Some found it corny, especially the girls who were looking for thugs to get with. I wasn’t in denial. I wasn’t a thug, but I could front with the best of them. I could spit any of 50’s rhymes verbatim, and I could shoot a convincing grim-face to anyone who challenged me to a stare-down. The other pallbearers and I sat in the second row, behind most of Terrance’s family members. In front of me sat Asia Patterson, Terrance’s girlfriend. I had the biggest crush on her ever since the fifth grade, but she was never beat for the honor roll type, either. A sympathetic glare is all I had to offer her as I too ached from Terrance’s death. Some of the pained grievers seemed to be looking for answers, while others were looking for someone to blame. Who was to blame after all? Terrance, for being a gang member in the first 3

place? The rival gang member who shot him? Maybe it was the boy’s father whose gun was carelessly put away in plain sight of his son – making it the tool that ultimately took away Terrance's last breath. More tearful cries filled the air as the choir brought to an end Precious Lord Take My Hand. Seconds later, the usher motioned for the other pallbearers and me to grab hold of Terrance’s casket. I was right on cue. It seemed as if I was becoming a pro at this. After all, that was the fourth time I was a pallbearer in a year. Hakim and Lukemon, both Supremes, were pallbearers again as well. A few minutes later, we slid Terrance’s casket into the back of the hearse as it whisked him from the church. 4

“I’m gonna get those punks, son, know what I mean?” Hakim said to a numb Lukemon who was staring blankly at the streets of Newark as the limo sped down Springfield Avenue. Hakim is a year older than I am. He used to box at the PAL before he started dissin’ the trainers. He kept a baldhead and a smile that melted many female hearts. He could have been Tyrese’s twin. You know – the singer. “You deaf?” Hakim barked at Lukemon, angry at his non-response. “Chill Hak. He’s just thinking to himself. That's all,” I said. “I’m thinking too. I’m thinking about how I’m gonna get them Screwface dudes back.” “You think the Screwface Clique had 5

something to do with this?” I asked. “No doubt! Just last week one of them stepped to Terrance downtown at the arcade. Accused him of talkin’ slick to his chick or something like that. That’s when Terrance chipped him up with a nasty right hook. Ever since then people been tellin’ us to watch our backs. Then this happened,” Hakim said as tears began streaming down his face. “Yeah, it was Screwface all right. There's no doubt about that,” Lukemon uttered, breaking his silence. Lukemon was a follower. He would have run through a wall for Hakim. He always had a complex for being a little on the heavy side. If you cracked a fat joke at someone, you’d better make sure he understood it wasn’t meant for him. He kept his hair in neat cornrows. The 6

three of us had been friends ever since I was six years old and we all attended Avon Avenue Elementary School together. “So I guess we know we got work to do. Right?” Hakim declared as I quickly looked away. “Except you Mo.” “Oh yeah. I forgot. You ain’t gangsta like that. That’s okay though. You still my man,” Lukemon said. “Yo, Mo. You need to know that things about to get real nasty between us and those Screwface punks. Maybe you need to think about leavin’ us alone for a while. You know? Or maybe for good for that matter. I’m just sayin’ for your own good. You know I don’t mind you chillin’ with us. We been peeps since what, first grade? It’s just that we ‘bout to get real ugly and I know you don’t roll like that,” Hakim said with an unfamiliar 7

sincerity in his voice. “I feel you. I feel you,” I echoed. “I’m just sayin’. Think about it. That’s all,” Hakim reiterated. “Man, ain’t nothin’ wrong with him chillin’ with us like he does now. Everybody knows he’s not a Supreme,” Lukemon interjected. “That’s everybody as in everybody in our hood. Mo’s been seen with us a lot. He’s bound to have somebody think he’s a Supreme and that wouldn’t be right. Know what I mean? This ain’t his beef. All I’m sayin’ is think about it Mo, that’s all.” “That’s what’s up then. I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. Right at that moment I felt an 8

invisible lock releasing me from the hips of Lukemon and Hakim. The divide wasn’t official, yet, but imminent. All of us knew that day was coming soon, but this was the first time we had ever put it out there like that. There was silence amongst us in the limousine as we rode the last ten blocks to the cemetery. It seemed like the silence was in recognition of the change that was about to take place between us. A minute later we arrived at the cemetery. As soon as the driver turned off the car's ignition, it started to rain heavily during the unseasonably warm December day. I figured that was Terrance’s way of hurrying things along. After all, he hated funerals. Later that night, I sat in my room eating a couple slices of pizza mom had ordered for dinner. Dad had just arrived home from his second shift job at the City Sanitation Department. He was 9

recently promoted to supervisor and that has cut into the time we used to spend together. He tapped three times on my door as he commonly did before entering. I already knew he wanted to talk about the funeral. I always detested these conversations because of the lectures I knew came with them. “You okay, Mo?” he asked taking a seat on my bed. “Sure.” “Do you have any idea just how much I worry about you?” “Sure I do. You tell me all the time,” I said rolling my eyes. “Sounds like you’re getting tired of it.” 10

“Well, I am, a little. Now you’re probably gonna hit me with that if a lot of these boys had male figures in their lives they would not have ended up in a casket and how grateful I should feel to have you in my life. I am grateful for you dad, but Terrance’s father has been with him ever since he was born, too. He works just as hard as you and loves his children just as much as you love me, but Terrance is gone anyway. Sometimes things are just gonna happen and it may not have anything to do with the lack of a father figure or something like that. Sometimes it just happens, dad.” “Just happens? Four times in one year! Can you look me in the face and tell me that all four funerals that you were a pallbearer in this year wasn’t gang related?” Dad said with his voice rising with every word. “Don’t even answer that question. I already know the 11

deal. I’m just glad I was able to walk in the house and tell my son I love him.” “I love you too, dad.” “Would you still love me if I were to kick your butt in a game of Madden 08?” “I’d love you even more for taking a butt kickin’ like a man.” “Set it up while I go get a slice,” he foolishly challenged. I did just that before he and I played four games in a row. Dad’s a scrub when it comes to PlayStation and he knows it too, but that’s our bond time, a time that I'm sure would be missed one day. The next day in school there were 12

rumors flying about the Supremes getting even with the Screwfaces. People were saying it might go down at the Essex County High School Basketball Tournament downtown. Rumors are always flying, so I paid it no mind. Besides, I was concentrating on Tia Smith. I have been infatuated with her ever since school started. She was a transfer from Central High School who seemed to be attracted to intellect, which I thought might give me a chance to display my genius. The only problem was that she was a senior and I was a junior. Lucky for me, I had game, and a whole lotta nerve. “Hey, Tia. You're looking as exquisite as ever girl,� I said to her as her friends giggled at me in a ridiculing way. 13

I followed her to her locker trying to feel her out. “Hey, that’s a nice Baby Phat coat you rockin'. I see your work. That’s from the new line, huh? I saw Kimora Simmons on TV recently talking about that coat. She said it was inspired by Diana Ross’ character in Mahogany. She played a………………….” “Fashion designer, I know,” she said interrupting me to my delight. “I saw the movie a million times, though. I think it’s cute that you knew about it too,” she said smiling. “Don’t you have a class to head to?” asked an annoying Kara Stevens of Tia’s Secret Service-like entourage. (Kara was big on me a few summers earlier in camp and has held a grudge ever since she found out I was big on Tia). 14

“See you later Maurice,” Tia said as she headed to geometry. “I see your work playa!” Hakim yelled from down the hall before catching up with me. “Yo, feel like going downtown to the arcade after school?" he asked. “I don’t know. I gotta think about it.” “What? You scared? You think something might go down?” “I am concerned about going down there. That ain’t exactly your territory, you know.” “Son, if it’s anywhere in Newark, New Jersey, it’s my territory. You don’t know?” “You know what I mean by that. 15

You won’t see any Screwfaces in the White Castle on Elizabeth Avenue and you know why. Because it ain’t their territory. Don’t look at me like I’m crazy. I didn’t make any of these rules. Y'all did.” “You’re right. You're right. Besides, I was just saying the other day that you should stop chillin’ with us for a while anyway. It’s just that we’ve been boys for so long. You know? I guess this is what they call an adjustment period, not rollin’ with my boy like I used to and all,” Hakim said with a sentimental jab to my chest. “Guess so,” I responded. “You bouncin’ in the middle of the day? You just got off suspension. ” “Let me find out I got a father figure over here,” Hakim said playfully. “Chill, I’m just saying. I just don’t 16

want to see you go through the drama of another suspension. That's all.” “It is what it is. Tell Lukemon to meet me downtown after school.” “Whatever,” I said making my way to gym. Although I was concerned about Hakim's getting suspended again, I was even more concerned about his running into trouble downtown with members of the Screwfaces. If I had expressed that I was concerned about his safety, I would have been considered a punk. At the end of the day I ran into Lukemon at my locker. Lukemon isn’t as good a student as he can be, but he cares enough to finish out the day. I remember he used to hide the fact that he made the honor roll in middle school. He was afraid of losing cool points with his clique, as dumb as that sounds. What 17

sounds even dumber is that I have nearly fallen into the same mindset. “Your boy said to meet him down at the arcade,” I informed him. “Oh yeah,” Lukemon said disinterestedly. “You goin’?” I asked. “Guess so.” “It’s not like you have to go, you know.” “I never said I didn’t want to go.” “I know, but you’re acting like you don’t want to.” “Oh, you reading minds now? Tell me. What is my mind saying now?” 18

Lukemon asked playfully as he lifted his middle finger. “I’m just kiddin’ Dr. Phil. Hit me up later,” Lukemon said as he headed toward an exit. Later that evening, my cell phone rang as I was in my room finishing my homework. “Hello,” I answered. “Yo, Mo. It’s me.” “Lukemon?” “Yeah.” “Did you hear about what happened with Hakim?” “No, I didn’t, but I bet whatever 19

happened, happened at the arcade. Right?” “Exactly. He did it, Mo. He did just what he said he was going to do. He got them back. He got them back for Terrance.” “What are you saying Luke? He didn’t kill anybody. Did he?” “Sure did.” “You’re lying. Please, say you’re lying!” “I’m not, Mo! On my life. I swear I’m not! The police arrested him a little while ago.” “I know he was talking revenge. But murder?”


“It ain’t murder, Mo. It’s payback. You know – for what they did to Terrance,” Lukemon tried to justify. “What they did to Terrance was wrong man, dead wrong, but that don’t make Hakim any more justified. It’s another one of us killing one of us. Don’t you see? Terrance was somebody’s son--just like the guy Hakim killed. I’m just saying--You don’t know who Terrance could have become. He could have left a mark in the world. Know what I mean? He could have been anything he wanted to be if he had gotten his act together.” “What do you mean by ‘if he had gotten his act together’?” “You know exactly well what I mean, Luke.”


“Maybe I do or maybe I just wanna hear you say it?” “He should have gotten out of gang bangin’! Satisfied?” “Oh, so you’re saying he should have left the Supremes, his family?” “If he had, he would have been at football practice instead of at the arcade when he was killed and he’d still be alive cracking jokes on everybody like he used to. Now, he’s gone Luke, another one, gone. This is wearin’ on me, yo. Every few months I’m burying a friend. Someone who I grew up with, learned to read with or played Pop Warner with. I don’t know how this is affecting you, but I can’t take it no more. This is down right depressin’, yo. Terrance was special to us, just like the guy Hakim killed was to his friends and family. Now, both 22

of their lives are over. It’s just that one of them is dead and one’s not. I remember watching a documentary the other day. It was about emergency room doctors here in Newark. They were talking about the aftermath of gang shootings. They spoke about how deep red the blood would become after clots start to form and how they began to smell death and see it in the eyes of the kids as they lay on the bed. Then, they’d drape the white sheet over their head and number them-making them another statistic, not a breathing human being, but a number! Ever since then, I make sure I never go to bed with a white sheet atop my face, you know? That’s my way of keeping that spirit of death away from me.” “Would you listen at Martin Luther King, Jr.?" Lukemon mocked. “Is this the same Mo who liked chillin’ with the 23

Supremes every chance he gets? Ol' boy put up a gangsta front then head for the hills when the beef come, huh?” “Yeah, it’s the same Mo. I did like to front like I was gangsta. It appealed to me for a minute. I can’t lie, but what’s real is real. I’m not a killer. You’re not either. It’s getting dangerous and the one foot I had in the game is officially out.” “Aw, you scared the Screwfaces might come after you?” “Look at you, man! You think this is a joke. Don't you? This is a no-win situation. If you kill them before they kill you, you’re in jail forever. Then, if they kill you first, you’re dead. The only way you can come out on top is just by walking away,” I pleaded with Lukemon. “Look at you. You're shook! What do 24

you want me to say? Okay Mo. You're right? I’m leaving my bandana home? I’m out for good? You’re buggin’ son! I might as well put on a skirt if I’m gonna listen to you. I know you ain’t gangsta, but don’t spit that soft talk to me. I don’t get it Mo. You act like this beef with the Screwfaces is just about Terrance’s death. Seems like you forgot we lost four members to them this year.” “No, we didn’t. The Supremes did. I’m not a Supreme. Besides, the Screwfaces lost three of their members to the Supremes,” I quickly reminded him. “Okay then. That means we owe them one. That’s we, as in the Supremes, not you. I know I’ll never be the math student you are, but I know perfectly well that four minus three equals one. As in, we owe them one. We’re gettin’ even! Ain’t nobody punkin’ me!” 25

Lukemon declared. “See, that’s the problem Luke! Everybody’s worried about what other people are thinking of them. Hakim was worried about what others thought of him, too. You can’t be worried about people calling you a punk. Sometimes you just have to do what’s right and what’s right is walking away.” “I’ll tell you what. You tell Hakim that when you go see him in the county. You tell him that standing up for Terrance and eatin’ a life sentence was a total waste of time.” “I’ve been trying to tell him all along. Both of y’all. I guess I just wasn’t talking loud enough or maybe I was too busy frontin’ myself. Think about it Luke. Y’all are killing each other over minor beefs and turf, property that y’all 26

don’t even own. Y’all not even taxpayers, man! All I know is that I can’t be around this anymore. Something’s bound to go down while I’m around. Most other times I would have been with Terrance when he got shot. That’s exactly what Hak was talking about the other day when he suggested maybe I shouldn’t chill with y’all no more. From this point on, I’m no longer frontin’ like I’m gangsta. I’m just gonna be me – Maurice Baker, future architect. Yeah. I know. That sounds crazy. Right? But there’s something inside of me that’s telling me that I could make it happen. See, I wanna live, man! I wanna see what I can make of myself. We only get one life and I’m not trying to use all of it up on death as a teenager or jail.” “I feel you man. I ain’t mad at you. And for what it’s worth, I think you can make it happen, too. You’re special Mo. 27

Everybody knows that. By the way, that was some speech. It’s way better than your fifth grade class president speech. I bet that,” he said squeezing a chuckle from me. “I can't believe you lost the election to a new student. You were at Avon Avenue School ever since kindergarten and lost to a student who was only there for a month.” “That was rigged, Luke, and you know it! Shawna Reynolds brought in a cupcake for all the students in the fifth grade on election day. Now, tell me that’s not criminal.” The both of us laughed in unison before an eerie silence took over as Hakim’s dim future began to sink in, that, and the boy’s life he had taken. “You know I’m still your boy and all, but I can’t chill with you no more. Not like I used to.” A few more seconds of silence passed before Lukemon 28

responded. “No problem, man. You’re still my boy,” Lukemon said. “I just wanna be able to grow up with each other and talk about all the lessons we learned along the way. Though, I can’t do that if you’re not around. This could be one of those lessons right now, a lesson on walking away,” I said. “Maybe it could be. Maybe it could be,” he repeated to my surprise. It was pretty clear that conversation all but ended my relationship with Lukemon, a relationship that had started at age five. I came to the conclusion that change, in this case, was a must. I hung up the phone feeling a lot more hopeful of Lukemon's getting out 29

of the Supremes. I felt like he was really listening to me. I never felt that way before. I heard a tone of care in his voice and weariness too – as if he was tired, maybe tired of all the murders the two rival gangs had committed over the last year. Then again, maybe it was all in my head – just a deeply imbedded wish within that I was hoping would come true. The following morning, the story of the shooting that Hakim was a part of was on the front page of The Star Ledger newspaper that sat on the kitchen table. The only thing I could think of was getting out of the house before dad read the article. The headline read ‘Thirtieth Gang-Related Murder Sends Mayor Combs Searching for Answers.’ I knew a million questions would have followed. “Hold up mom. I need you to drop 30

me off,” I said as I snatched my coat from the front closet and rushed out the door. I got to the car relieved that dad didn’t have a chance to question me. “What’s the rush?” Mom asked. “It’s only a quarter to eight.” “I know. I just wanted you to drop me off early. I wanted to clean out my locker.” “Boy, you are a terrible liar.” “Huh?” “I saw the article Maurice. That boy Hakim who was responsible for the shooting yesterday looks very familiar. Has he ever been over at the house?” She asked as I pretended not to hear. “You hear me boy!” 31

“Yes. He has, mom.” “I knew I recognized him, but I didn’t want to alarm your father. You’re gonna have to be more selective about who you’re hanging out with.” “I know mom.” “I don’t think you do if you’re befriending cold-blooded killers.” “Cold-blooded killers?” “That’s right. Cold-blooded killers,” she sternly repeated. “I could tell you how much of a nice person he is and all, but I’m sure you really don’t wanna hear that right now. I’m sure the only thing that matters to you is that he killed somebody. It both32

ers me that he killed somebody, too. I hate to see brothers killing other brothers or anyone else for the matter. I know Hakim. He was a follower who followed too long. Truth is, just about everybody is a follower. It’s just that some people wake up and smell the coffee while others keep following the leader all the way to jail or to the morgue. Then there are others with one foot in the game and one foot out. They're the ones who just want to be perceived as cool without actually doing the thuggish chores. That was me, mom,” I confessed as a look of shock covered her face. “That’s right – your little boy. All it would have taken was a little less self assurance about who I was and what I wanted to be that would have gotten me to pull the trigger like Hakim did. Then, other parents who didn’t know me from Adam would have been referring to me 33

as a cold-blooded killer. Of course, they would have been wrong in that case, right? I mean, you didn’t raise no coldblooded killer – right? In such a case it would have been a bright well-mannered kid, with a great set of parents who was led astray by the wrong crowd. Think about it, mom. Would Hakim’s mom be wrong for feeling the same way?” I asked as a somber look covered her face. “No, she wouldn’t, son. She sure wouldn’t,” she said as she pulled curbside at Marcus Garvey High School and kissed me farewell. “I guess I sounded pretty pathetic prejudging like that, huh?” she asked. “You didn’t sound unlike any other concerned mom who thought her handsome sixteen-year-old was God’s gift to the earth. Besides, I am.” I said, causing a proud smile to cover the face of the 34

beautiful forty-year-old who was the apple of my father’s eye. “You’re gonna make some lucky young lady proud one day,” mom said with certainty. “I know. I've been trying to tell Tia that for the longest. But she’s weakening though. I can feel it.” “Bye, baby.” “Bye, mom.” The school hall was buzzing about the arcade shooting and members of the Supremes all sported sick proud smiles. I heard chants of “That’s for T-Bop!” as they walked down the hall. (T-Bop was Terrance’s nickname). All I could think of was Hakim's sitting in a cell wishing he had never pulled the trigger. I stared 35

at the faces of guys who claimed to be Hakim’s so-called “family,” knowing full well that in a matter of months – probably sooner – his delusional act of valor would go unnoticed as he finished out his sentence. And just to think, he did it all for them, for their approval and for their acceptance. Some of them would probably have brushes with the law that scares them straight after realizing they’re not built for prison life. Hakim will never have that chance. Whether he’s built for it or not, he has a new home for at least the next twenty-five to thirty years. I grabbed my books from my locker and headed to my first period Spanish class. All I could think of all day was Hakim in jail. I sat by myself at lunch. Members of the Supremes sat at a table next to mine – plotting. Dre Briggs, a seventeen-year-old sophomore was leading a low-toned discussion as I listened in. 36

“That’s three down and one to go, but Lukemon is gonna take care of that one in about an hour or so. I gave him my father’s burner,” he said to the delight of the others sitting at the table as my heart dropped into my stomach. “Since the arcade is too hot right now, he’s gonna squat on them at McDonald’s downtown. That’s one of their chill spots after school,” he added. I quickly rose from the table and rushed to the bathroom to clear my head. I couldn’t believe that after all I had to say to Lukemon, he was still going to go through with it. I felt helpless. I didn’t know who to turn to. I thought about calling my father and telling him, but he was sure to call the police. I thought of calling the police myself, but I couldn’t go through with it. I didn’t want Lukemon to get arrested. That would have been a felony. "What if he decided 37

not to go through with it, and I got him arrested for the gun?" I thought to myself. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. I thought of bolting from school and jumping on the bus headed downtown. In fact, I did exactly that just before the end of the day after playing sick. When I got downtown, I realized that this would be one of many times I’d be trying to get him to change his life and that nothing was a better teacher than experience. I decided to let the chips fall where they may and let experience be Lukemon’s teacher. I got off the bus on Broad Street and then immediately boarded the Number 39 Bus back home. That’s when I spotted Lukemon coming out of the donut shop. The bus passed him just as he threw on his hood and lowered his chin to his chest. 38

You couldn’t even see his cornrows. There were a few Screwfaces standing outside of McDonald’s and Lukemon was only two blocks away as his right hand moved around nervously in his hoodie pocket. The bus pulled out of sight. I quickly put on the headphones of my MP3 player with hopes of having the music drown out the possible bangs of a gun. I figured that if I didn’t hear the bangs, then maybe there was still a chance of having things turn out well. I couldn’t get my mind off Lukemon. It looked like his life was about to be turned upside down and one way or the other, his freedom was going to be taken, by death or imprisonment unless someone interceded. After taking a short nap on the bus, I realized I had passed my stop. I got off the bus on Chancellor Avenue in 39

Irvington, the next town over. (Irvington’s a miniature Newark and it’s just as gully). That part of Irvington was known by many as Screwface territory. I started my eight-block trek with a fast pace, hoping I wouldn’t be mistaken for a Supreme. I never felt like that before. I guess that’s because I was never by myself in that part of the hood. A few guys outside a corner bodega shot me peculiar looks as I made sure not to slow my pace. There were a few other guys huddled outside of a barbershop who also took notice to my presence as I avoided them by crossing the street. I had to make sure that I wasn’t walking scared. Everybody knows that in the hood, if you look or act like a victim, you’re sure to become one. “Ain’t that one of them Screwfaces?” a guy shouted from the 40

group I had just passed. I then picked my pace up just a little as I heard a chorus of pattering feet behind me. I saw that there were a few guys at the corner ahead of me. I thought about running as I heard the feet behind me quicken to a slow trot. At that point I knew my only choice was to turn and face them. “What’s good?” I said trying my best not to look as scared as I felt. There were five guys. One of them looked familiar – barely. He was the tallest in the crowd and stood about six feet three inches. The rest simply look vexed. “What’s good with you, son?” The tall guy asked. “Chillin’. Just walking home.”


“Yeah, walkin’ real fast too, son. Like you know you don’t belong around here or somethin’. Know what I mean?” he added as he began sizing me up while the others did the same. “You don’t remember me. Do you, Mo? We played on the same Boys' Club basketball team back in the day. I think we were about eight years old then. I played center. Shaheed Banks? I believe you played two guard. Anyway, I hate to spoil this reunion, but I’m a Face now, a Screwface to be specific and my gangstas seem to believe that you’re a Supreme.” “Yo, why we even talkin’ to dude, son? We should just be mashin’ him out. He’s out of bounds, yo! You know what we do when dudes go out of bounds! A Supreme? On our block? It’s impossible to be dissed more than that. He 42

might as well piss in our face, yo!” said the shortest dude in the clique with balled fists. “So, whattup, Maurice? You a Supreme?” “Nah, man. I ain’t no Supreme.” “Ohhh. I remember him now. That’s Lukemon’s boy,” said a third kid out of the blue. A second later, I was staring down the barrel of a nine-millimeter being gripped by Shaheed’s shaky right hand. “That’s where I remember him from, Lukemon and ‘em! I guess you were cool with Terrance too, huh? May he rest in peace,” the short guy said with insincerity and a smirk. “Tell me why shouldn’t I do you in 43

right now, punk?” he stated with his fingers giving a steady massage to the gun’s handle. “B-B-Because, I’m not a Supreme and I don’t have a beef with y’all,” I stuttered before swallowing a lump of air. “I’m sayin', though. You chill real hard with them, son. Know what I mean? You don’t get to choose whether or not other cats consider you a Supreme or not. I know your kind. You're the type of dude that try to get ‘cool’ points from chillin’ with thugs, but don’t want to do the dirty work that comes with building that kind of reputation. It ain’t hard to tell you not gangsta and that reason alone may be enough to save your life. If I’m gonna take somebody out, I’m gonna take out someone who’s a real threat. I’d feel like I’m wasting my energy dealin’ with you. I’d be wasting a bullet, too.” 44

“Awww man. Y’all gettin’ soft! On everything. Y'all gettin’ soft! This dude should have holes in him right now, son. He messed up big time! And you’re willin’ to let him off the hook, just like that? Y’all got it twisted, son. He wanna act gangsta. Let's treat him like a gangsta. Step back. It takes a man to do a man’s job,” the short guy said pulling out a small revolver of his own. He pressed it between my eyes as I looked around to see if anyone was going to step in and stop it. No one moved a muscle. He then cocked the trigger as my eyes widened to an inhuman size. Then he pulled the trigger as I blinked at the same time. An explosion of laughter followed as I shook in my pants. “Hit the road, Wannabe! Next time, you may not be so lucky. Believe me,” he said removing the gun from between my eyes. “You got about two minutes to 45

get on the other side of Chancellor Avenue and don’t walk either. Run, like you just had a second chance at life!” You better believe I ran – faster than I had ever run before – all the way to my house on Hansbury Avenue. I ran straight to the backyard where I took about fifteen minutes to get my head right. To my surprise, dad’s car was already in the driveway. I was dripping with sweat even though it was a crisp thirty degrees in late February, but I was happy to be alive. I could have easily become the subject of a newspaper article. I finally decided to go into the house where I found my father sitting on the living room couch aimlessly flipping channels with the remote and staring blankly at the screen. “So, how was school today?” he asked suspiciously. 46

“School was school. You know. Nothing special.” “Really?” “Yeah……………why’d you ask?” “Because, I decided I wanted to pick up my son from school and treat him to that CD I promised him for making the honor roll. Thing is, I got there and some of your classmates told me that they saw you board a bus headed downtown. They said that was before three o’clock. Which means you must have cut your last class.” “I can explain.” “Then you’d better start. Fast!” “I left to meet up with Lukemon. I wanted to stop him from getting even 47

with the Screwfaces.” “The Screwfaces, as in the gang?” “Yeah.” “How many times did I tell you about hanging with Lukemon? It’s only by the grace of God you weren’t killed along with Terrance. What’s it gonna take for you to wise up and listen to me? I know about the kid that was killed yesterday, too. Your mother told me that Hakim guy has been over at the house a few times.” “Yeah. He was my friend.” “Your friend? You need to take a course in how to pick a friend. You’re hanging with guys who are toting guns. What kind of friends are they? Let me answer that for you. That would be a 48

dead friend, that, or a felon.” “You didn’t feel that way about Uncle Larry.” “What does Uncle Larry have to do with this?” “Well, remember you’d read his letters he’d send here from prison. You were amazed at the knowledge he had. You used to always say that the only difference between the two of you was that you had good people in your life that told you when you were doing wrong. You also said that if he had those people in his life, then things would have turned out completely different for him.” “Your point is?” “Well, maybe I could be that person in someone’s life. You know. The person 49

who tells them just what they need to hear just when they need to hear it. I feel terrible at the idea of just walking away from a friend who’s in need of some sound advice when I can offer it to him. There are too many people doing that as it is now.” “Okay then. Was your advice heeded by Lukemon?” “No. It wasn’t,” I said as I lowered my head in dejection. “He didn’t kill anyone. Did he?” “I don’t know. I didn’t stick around to find out.” “Did he have a gun?” “Yeah. He got it from a kid in school who stole it from his father.” “He left school specifically to kill a Screwface?” 50

“Yeah, but I don’t think he was able to do it. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that he was snatched up by the cops before he had a chance to do anything.” “Really, why are you so certain?” “I called and told the cops he had a gun – anonymously,” I said flopping on the couch with exhaustion. “I called while I was on the bus on my way home, before taking a nap and waking up past my stop.” Dad slowly lowered himself to a seat next to the couch and hugged me. “That was a very brave thing you did, son. Lukemon should feel lucky to have a friend like you.” “I feel awkward. To tell the truth, I know I did the right thing, but I feel terrible, almost sick. He’s probably in jail 51

right now.” “He probably would have been in jail anyway if he had gone through with it, but he still has another chance at living life now and he has that chance because of you, Maurice.” “I know you may not feel great right now, but that’s because doing the right thing isn’t always satisfying; but, in the end, it’s the right thing to do.” It was a week later on a Saturday evening. I was downtown shopping for sneakers with my father when I ran into Lukemon. My mouth was frozen shut as he stared blankly at me. My father looked on with apprehension while I searched for the right words to say, but Lukemon broke the silence first. “Gimme some love, Mo,” he said with outstretched arms as a smile slowly formed on his face. I happily obliged 52

him, as I was glad to see that he was not mad at me. “You were right, Mo. You were right about everything. I know you told the cops I was holdin’ that day and thank God you did. See, they arrested five Screwfaces at McDonald's that day and all five of them had burners. I would have been gone, son. I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for you. Not only that, but I was held in the Essex County Youth House for two days. I realized that I’m not built for prison and that’s not even a prison. That’s just a Youth House. I swear those two nights seemed like a lifetime to me. All I could think was "Thank God for Mo!" Then, I started thinking about Hakim and all the years he’s gonna have to do in prison. You were right all along, Mo. I just wish Hakim could have realized that before pulling the trigger. It’s no more gangsta life for me, son. I got dreams I wanna 53

make come true too. You know? Kinda like you. Anyway, I gotta go. My mom’s waiting for me by the ATM.” “When are you coming back to school?” “Oh, my mom and I are moving to Pennsylvania, way up in the Pocono Mountains with my aunt. Just because I dropped the beef with the Screwfaces, doesn’t mean they dropped the beef with me. Mom’s afraid about some of them wanting revenge. Besides, I’m all for new beginnings. My mom was already house shopping out there anyway, so we won’t be with my aunt too long. Maybe you can come up and chill for a weekend sometimes. That is, if it’s okay with you, Mr. Baker.” “That’ll be just fine Lukemon. That’ll be just fine.” ****** 54

A Letter from Hakim Dear Mo, What’s good, son? Needless to say, it’s mad lonely in here. I know that’s a dumb statement, especially since it’s so many cats locked down with me. See. I’m experiencing a loneliness of a different kind. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the feelings that are developing from knowing that I’m gonna be locked down for years to come. How long? I don’t know. My trial is next week. I think of you a lot, Mo. I think about everything you stood for and the way you lived your life. I always considered you the “soft” one, when, in fact, “soft,” was only a synonym for “smart,” but I didn’t know that at the time. Yeah, I used the word synonym. I’ve been hittin’ the books hard since being locked down. I wish I had started before I got here. I have nightmares all the time. You know – about that kid I killed. I swear I wish I never pulled the trigger. I thought I was a real gangsta, a born killer, when in fact, I’m the furthest thing from it. After I pulled the trigger, I froze and stared 55

into the victim’s eyes. I remember him desperately reaching his hand out to me – pleading for help, but not saying a word. The anguish on his face let me know that he was in too much pain to talk. I remember wanting to grab his hand and say, "I’m sorry." I remember hoping I would wake out of a dream and he would be okay. I thought it would be cool to “represent” for the Supremes. I wanted to show them that I was down for whatever, but seeing that boy die in front of me was the worst feeling I ever had in my life. Just to think, that was probably the same look Terrance must have had on his face when he died. I remember seeing the kid’s mom in court when I was arraigned. She held up a picture of him and yelled at me to stare at it, but I couldn’t. I was shook. Ain’t no sense in frontin’. When I finally took a quick glance, I could see him taking his last breath all over again. At least I feel the pain though. Right, Mo? I mean, at least I have a conscience – right? That counts for something. It's gotta. I hope – at least. I heard that you called the popo on Lukemon. I wish somebody had 56

called them on me – before I did what I did. I think of all the people who call others “snitches” and how dumb they sound. You probably saved a few lives by calling the police. I wish somebody had saved mine. I got no rights in here, Mo. None whatsoever. They tell you when to eat, sleep, and shower. I’ve enslaved myself. I have nobody to blame but me. I just wanna say thanks to you for all the times you advised me to do the right thing though I ignored you. You did your part and you genuinely cared. I appreciate that. I’d also appreciate if you were to write me every now and then. Don’t no members of my “socalled” Supreme family write me. Next week is my eighteenth birthday. They’ll be moving me to a state prison somewhere in South Jersey. I’ve been lifting a lot of weights trying to get ready for whatever comes my way. Please write me. You know – whenever you get a chance. Just to get a letter in here is an escape and the next best thing to a real escape. Holla at your boy. Hak57

I got Hakim’s letter on a Thursday and I started at least a dozen letters before balling each one up and throwing it into a wastebasket. This was by far the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. I felt a need to inspire and comfort. All kinds of mixed feelings went through my head. It’s not everyday I had to write a letter to a teenager who I grew up with and who could possibly be facing a life sentence. A part of me felt that the only real regret he had was getting caught. I mean, it’s easy to pour your heart out when you’re confined to a cell most of the day. That’s kinda like a forced form of repentance. I wasn’t sure if all the feelings he poured out were genuine. Then I had to check myself and stop being judgmental. I had to realize that any form of remorse should be accepted and taken for what it is – words of regret – that hopefully lead to reform. I felt the best way to approach writing this letter 58

would be to channel visions of our childhood together, his pre-Supreme childhood where innocence was ever-present and dreams were attainable – not stunted by a lengthy prison term. ****** A Letter to Hakim Dear Hak, I got your letter last week and was moved by the display of emotions you put forth. I was also impressed with your use of the word “synonym”. I think of you a lot, too. It’s been kinda hard getting used to not seeing you around. Come to think of it, I may have seen you everyday since I was six years old. I like the fact that you have clearly taken accountability for what you have done. However, I find myself questioning the sincerity of your remorse. After all, you know what they say: "Talk is cheap." You still have an opportunity help shape a lot of lives destined to be destroyed. How? Glad you asked. You can 59

start by writing a letter to the other Supremes that are out here on the streets of Newark still bangin . Let them know what real bravery is and that there are no rewards for revenge — just punishment. Tell them exactly how you felt when you saw the dude take his last breath. It will hit them right in the heart Hak. I guarantee! Let them know there s no shame in turning the other cheek, especially if it means saving a life — their own life —in most cases. The old Hakim I know would have laughed at this suggestion a few months ago, but this is the new Hakim. Right? I know all the remorse included in your letter was real. Wasn t it? You have a thirteen-year-old brother walking the streets of Newark, never with books in his hands and swearing to get even with the Screwfaces as soon as he gets a chance. Holla at him and let him know what s good. See, you could talk about it or you could be about it. Of course, I know you re gonna be about it because you meant every word in your letter, right? I gotta bring this letter to a close now. I m studying for the SAT. I thought it would be a 60

good idea to take it this year just to see what it’s like. Just a couple more things: You've said you wish you had listened to some of my advice in the past. I hope you listen to my advice now. By the way, my meaning of bravery is standing up for what’s right – even when that makes you a minority, and sticking to such morals even when you are alienated. Here are a few synonyms for bravery, you, me and anyone else who wants to be. Enclosed is a picture of me and my new girl, Tia Smith. Yes! That Tia. Don’t forget what Tupac said: "Keep Your Head Up." Your Boy

The end.


Ralph Burgess was born in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Newark and East Orange public schools before graduating from Clifford J. Scott High School in 1986. Mr. Burgess attended Lincoln University before beginning a fifteen-year banking career. He founded InnerCity InnerThoughts Publishing in 2003 after rejecting many publishing offers for his trademark character, Cool Calvin. Mr. Burgess resigned from Amtrak in May 2005 to concentrate on his publishing career. His company’s first release, The Learning Adventures of Cool Calvin, received rave reviews from critics at Book Expo America 2005 and was featured at the prestigious Kids Multi-Cultural Book Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in November ’05. No Bandanas for Me/Staying Gang Free, an antigang children’s book, is the latest release in the Cool Calvin series. No Bandanas for Me/Staying Gang Free is the only illustrative anti-gang children’s book of its kind in the world geared for children in primary grades and has been featured on NBC’s Today Show as well as dozens of national publications. Mo The Pallbearer is the first book of Mr. Burgess’ young adult series. Expect more to come.

Mo The Pallbearer  

Mo The Pallbearer