Gerald Langston is half-sleep on the brown couch when his dad, Omari Langston, walks through the back door. Gerald is not the type of tired where he wants to go to sleep, but the type of tired where he does not feel like doing anything. A Whole Foods paper bag near filled to the brim with tissues stands at his side as he slowly sits up. It’s noon on Friday. Dad works at noon on Fridays. A quizzical look settles on Gerald’s face as his dad sets his briefcase on the kitchen table and comes to sit down on the couch next to Gerald.
“Hey, Dad! What you doing here?” Gerald exclaims, trying to ease the confusion. Omari places his hand on Gerald’s knee.
“Hey, son.” Omari pauses, almost to hold back what he is about to say. “It’s about Nick.”
Gerald didn’t like fake things. Fake J’s, fake news, and especially fake friends. He didn’t have a big mouth, but would confront anybody if he felt they needed to be checked. Gerald had spent his whole life stretching into spaces that were not made for him and letting people in who didn’t really look out for him. Gerald’s parents somehow worked it out for him to attend Cooper Elementary in the privileged neighborhood of Grosse Pointe Park, but Gerald could not connect with those kids. They were superficial and unrelatable. They were more in love with gossip than almost anything else. Gerald didn’t realize how important it would be when his parents decided to move him to James Baldwin Elementary, one of Detroit’s best public schools. Not only would Gerald find his footing in a much more diverse environment than Cooper offered, but Gerald would meet Nick.
On his first day of 6th grade at James Baldwin Elementary, Gerald was lost and looking for his classroom. He whisked around like a bobblehead, standing sheepishly in a corner of the hallway. Being the new kid that didn’t know anybody definitely had its perks, but Gerald couldn’t see any of them unfolding right now.
A skinny white boy with his uniform polo tucked in tight and head held high walked up to Gerald and said, “You need help, man?”
“You know it. No idea where I’m going.” Gerald replied, still nervous.
The kid flashed a smile that could light up a stadium and said, “I got you, my brother. Hold on.” He looked at Gerald’s schedule and surveyed his classes. “We’re in the same homeroom! My name’s Nick.”
“I got a good feeling about you, Gerald. Follow me!” Nick said as they raced down the hallway to beat the bell.
The living room fills with a tense energy as Gerald finally looks at his father.
“That’s not Nick, Dad.” Gerald shakes his head in disbelief.
“Son, I just talked to his grandmother. It happened last night.” Omari replies.
“Nick would never do that, Dad! You don’t know him like I do! Nobody does!”
Gerald proclaims as he throws the blanket off of his cold torso.
Nick, was the realest of them all. Although Nick was whiter than Vanilla Ice and Gerald’s nappy head could hold 20 pics in its grasp, they were always on the same page. They were the oldest of their siblings and felt a great sense of responsibility to their families. They had a secret handshake, consisting of two fist bumps, a chest bump, and some other intricacies. They had dreams that ranged past Baldwin and Detroit. Gerald wanted to open up a space for aspiring MCs, to hone their skills away from the industry. Gerald wasn’t the best on the mic, but he could write and was in love with the actual creation of the music. Nick wanted to be a professional basketball player. Nick knew he wasn’t as athletic as other kids his age, with his 5’4” physique and skinny frame, but Nick was a shooter. He was lights-out from mid range and behind the three point line. Within months, Gerald and Nick set the standard at James Baldwin Elementary. Never ones to follow, they were the leaders of the sports teams, the only guys from their grade in the drama club, good students, and beloved by the student body.
“Man, this cold just ain’t fitting my mood right now,” Gerald said, while tying up his black Timbs to prepare for his first real moments of cold in 6th grade at James Baldwin.
“I feel that, bro.” Nick replies, zipping up his blue North Face jacket to brace the brisk Detroit air.
“Feels like just yesterday, we were basking in the sun,” Gerald puts his arms behind his afro and leans back to resemble laying out on the beach.
“Aye, don’t worry about it. I’m gonna show you how to cook up summer in the winter!” Nick exclaimed as he opened the door and saw his breath blow past his eyes.
“How you gon do that, Nick?”
“You’ll see, bro!”
“Dad, Nick made things happen. Everyone loved him.” Gerald tries to find a way out of this situation.
“I don’t believe it either, son. That’s why I rushed over to tell you.” Omari comforts his son, but Gerald is still not having it.
“He didn’t have any reason for this, Dad. We were always having fun, always the life of the party.”
“Give me the sticks, bro! Get John off there!” Gerald called out from the crowded couch as Nick Masterson destroyed yet another opponent on Call of Duty: Black Ops.
“Man, you cheatin’!” John Wilburn complained.
“Why are the people who claim there’s cheating always the losers?” Nick clapped back at John as the bevy of excited youth blew up in laughter. The living room was packed with close friends dressed as movie characters, athletes, and a variety of figures for Nick’s annual Halloween party. Candy wrappers lined the carpet like a paper trail. Ongoing conversations between animated gunshots and Top 40 tunes filled the October air. Nick’s annual Halloween party took over Baldwin Elementary and 6th grade was no different. Gerald, Nick, and John would get notes passed every day in the lead-up to the party about people asking for an invite. They would get together at lunch and go over the list, but everyone had mad love for Nick and he wanted to reciprocate that. The teachers couldn’t even stay away from the buzz! The whole block of 53rd would become a stomping ground for the event with people posted up at the playground, chilling in Ms. Johnson’s backyard, and playing football on the sidewalk. Nick’s Halloween party was the ultimate example of who Nick was: a fun-loving kid who kept it real and loved to bring people together.
“Ok, Nick! I gotta give it to you. This is definitely some summer vibes in the cold Gerald exclaimed as he pulled Nick aside.
“Aye, what’d I tell you! I got you, my brother. Just hold on.” Nick replied.
“You right, you right. I shoulda believed you.” Gerald confessed.
“Have I ever steered you wrong?” Nick smiled and they walked into the kitchen to grab some Capri-Suns for the guests.
“Nick?” Gerald realizes that he had not really talked to Nick in a while. He’d been sick for near two weeks and been gone from school the entire time. It was mid-December and they were excited for winter break. Nick was planning to come to Gerald’s house and vice versa to be around each other’s families. They were also hoping that one of them would get the newest Madden so hours could be whisked away through virtual gridiron combat.
After every interception that slipped into one of Gerald’s players’ hands, Nick always said in the most sarcastic tone, “Great job, man! Way to throw into the fire!”
“Next time, you gotta watch for my defense!! They keeping your QB in check!!” Gerald would respond, gassing up his skills on the sticks.
Nick was never one to let things get him down, but there were times he wouldn’t speak to Gerald after a Madden matchup. Come to think of it, Nick never really talked about anything that garnered a lot of emotion. Even in 8th grade, when Gerald had pushed him to speak on deeply personal experiences, Nick always generalized the situation and ended giving Gerald advice. In Gerald’s mind, this made Nick a leader. Having the ability to move so far past his own difficulties that he could firmly be there for others was what Gerald wanted to be for others.
Nick’s mom died when he was ten years old, two years before he and Gerald met. From what Gerald had gathered talking to other friends, Nick and his mom were tighter than cornrows. His mom was his rock and when she passed, Nick didn’t really know how to react. He let it sit inside and kept it moving. He just kept his shiny smile plastered like a mask, like a costume.
“I’m so sorry, son.” Omari tries to look at his son, but Gerald does not give any eye contact. Gerald stares at the floor and does not speak for a while. Suddenly, he starts to breathe heavily and tears stream down his chubby cheeks as he sulks into his father’s arms. How could he do this? All of our plans and he just left me here? I never knew… what was I supposed to do? I was sick, but he was really hurting. Why didn’t he let anyone know? That’s my best friend. I should have been able to tell! Gerald’s mind races between sorrow and guilt as the droplets start to stain the couch.
And all Gerald wanted was a mask. A mystical creation to cover his reality. A new persona to bask in and forget this moment, forget this pain. A face to sink into and not believe the truth his cheeks couldn’t hide. And all Gerald wanted was to go back to the first Halloween party where he would spin the bottle and wish for Alessia. Where the air would propel his legs into what felt like an endless gravity and he would look up and see Nick right next to him, reaching the same heights. Like they weren’t on swings and the skies made a mattress for them to lay on. Like they were floating together and there was no turning back. All Gerald wished was to pull Nick away from that rope and tell him, “I got you, my brother. Hold on.”
Nile Lansana is a poet from the South Side of Chicago. He currently attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison through the First Wave Scholarship. His work has been published in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky, The End Of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape, and elsewhere. He is a founding member of Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, who won Louder Than A Bomb 2016, made Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals in 2016, and co-coached the elementary school ensemble, Reborn, to two 1/2 Pint Poetics titles in the last three years.