Life in the Atmosphere
by Anthony Wilson
Genre: YA, Coming of Age
Yet, everything changes once Mr. Malachi gave Jahlil a necklace that he didn’t even want.
After that, everything was not the same. In fact, Jahlil began to realize that there was much more to who he was. There was much more to who Mr. Malachi was. There was much more to his existence. The lid of limitations was lifted from Jahlil’s life.
Now, all that mattered was the limitations that the sky had to offer.
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Things were rough for me as a 15-year-old boy living in the hood. I don't care what anyone says.
I had to be the most awkward and sensitive boy ever. Not only did I wear glasses, I also had the worst fashion sense. Oversized shirts and Walmart clothes came off as my wardrobe. To top it all off, I rarely kept up my appearance. I didn't always keep my hair brushed. Yet, I kept my teeth clean and my clothes washed. But who cares when I keep holes and stains in my fresh trailer trash clothing? I guess you can say I may have been born to lose.
Or, I didn't understand what winning meant.
Regardless of it all, I kept my composure. I tried to do my work in school during my ninth-grade year. Not many girls liked me, but it did not matter. Most of them weren't an interest to me. All I cared about were my comic books and my basketball. No more, no less. Everything else came off as extra-curricular.
That is, until the faithful day I got into the crosshairs with Maxwell Smith a.k.a. "Max the Maniac".
The day carried itself as a regular old day walking to Montclair High School.
Winters in the Midwest are always pretty cold. However, with the uneven brisk lakefront winds coming in, it felt much colder than perceived. So, you know a little man like me had to bundle up. Big jacket, a couple of scarfs, and about two different shirts with gloves and a skullcap were the ideal wear for this madness. I kept myself pretty warm until I became snatched up in the alley as I walked to school.
The tug threw me to the ground by a dingy old garage. As I looked up, wiping the snow out of my eyes, I saw him. Max Maniac wanted to do his worst to me. "Your money or ya life, kid. Your money or your life," he said with a stone-cold glare. Maniac's stare became so frozen it could freeze a polar bear's toenails.
"My mom gave me this money," I said, trembling within my clothes. For it to be such a cold winter morning, I became strangely hot at the time. Call it nervousness. Call it adrenaline. Whatever it may have been, it had me sweating like a hog in heat.
"Oh, okay," he said kindly, helping me up. As I became close to making it to my feet, he blindsided me with a slap to the face. Due to the piercing wind and below freezing temperature, the slap hurt more than it needed to. My face ached. Before I could get the pain out of my mind, the sharp pain took over once Max kicked me in the back. The pain became so intense that it almost paralyzed me.
"Alright, alright...take it. Take it all."
I tearfully pulled the five dollars out of my right pocket and handed it to Max. He snatched it from my hand with sheer force. Sneering at me, he had the nerve to say, "You better not make me keep harassing you for it, punk." Max trotted off while I stayed seated, wallowing in the pain of being his inferior.
I knew this could not keep going on. I would have to keep being hungry forever if I kept giving up my lunch money. I would have understood if I possessed a Starter jacket or a pair of Jordan's that people wanted. But I had none of the material stuff people wanted. All I had were the comic books in my bag and the lunch money in my pocket to eat with. And now, I had to be hungry for the rest of the week? Devastating. Nothing more than devastating.
As I lumbered to the school, I had to make sure I wiped the snow off of me, so it wouldn't stick too long. Let it stay on there, and it would melt. Let it melt and my body would be wet. Nothing could be worse than sitting in class with wet clothes. Ninth grade in the year 2000 should not have been so rough. Alas, that is how it all happened. Making it through the double doors past the principal's office, I crept so nobody would notice me. The shame of being bullied out of my lunch money had been an ongoing thing for a while now. Nonetheless, it never becomes customary. I never got used to it. So, each and every week, I would make sure to become invisible to those around me. I wanted to make sure no one knew my inner struggle. Or my outer disgrace.
"Hey, young man. Are you okay?" asked Mr. Malachi, the school janitor. He carried himself as a cool cat, if I would say so myself. He stayed right above me in the same apartment building I lived in. He kept his demeanor very respectful, but also very quiet. Weirdly, I would always notice he found a way to always be around me when I went outside. It seemed as if he kept an eye on me. It felt kinda weird on a pedophile
level. So, I usually spoke but stayed away.
"Hey. Yeah, I'm cool," I stated, trying to get away from those piercing eyes. They always glanced at me in my neighborhood.
"You sure? You look like you had a rough morning. Want to walk and talk about it?" Mr. Malachi asked, hands in full "shrug" position. He looked okay enough at this moment. Contrary to my previous beliefs, he presented himself as quite nonchalant. He almost had an aura about him. Then again, I had been beaten and robbed in the alley some odd minutes before. Blame it all on disorientation.
"No, sir. I'm okay. I need to hurry up to class," I said as I sped off.
Geez, Mr. Malachi came off as weird. First, he always wants to look at me and stare at me while I played outside at the apartment complex. Now, he wants to chat? Naw, man. I know about the evil men giving candy to kids to take them and molest them. I'm good with the situation I'm in.
Making it to my locker, I noticed most of the hallway being clear. This gave me temporary relief until someone startled me from behind.
"Do you ever smile?" the soft voice said as I turned around. It had to be Trisha Thompson, the pretty nerd girl of ninth grade. And the truth came to be: my assumption became reality. While many would make notice of her glasses, I made notice of her soft chocolate skin and her pretty smile. Plus, she possessed smarts that eclipsed the rest of these idiots I became surrounded by. Good lord, I adored her.
"Yeah. Ain't nothin' to smile about," I retorted with a bad attitude. Using a better tone with her seemed to be the better option. All around, I came off out of character and bitter. But before I could clean up the mess I made, she said "Well, excuse me for caring", and walked off.
Man, I couldn't catch a break!
The only good thing about it all is that I did not end up late for Miss Ellis's class.
If there could be anything could be said about Miss Ellis, is she had a wonderful class. Not too decorated but had enough colorful flair to keep us engaged, Miss Ellis kept an environment conducive to learning [ And yes, I do mean conducive. I like words like conducive. Sue me.]
"Morning class!" she started off each day of the morning.
"Good morning, Miss Ellis!" we would all shout in unison. Some would try to drag it out and be cute. Whenever she got tired of the foolishness, she would give a look sharper than a laser cutting through butter. I always found her look to be hilarious.
"Alright, your assignment is to read the book "Bud, Not Buddy".
"Awwwwwww..." the entire class emphatically let out.
"Now, now," Miss Ellis related with her serious yet soothing tone. "You all have a chance to read a story won an award for its excellence. Do not miss the opportunity to learn something worthwhile. This book can be enlightening. Work to draw parallels from what you read, okay?"
"Miss Ellis, what is enlightening and what are parallels?" noted James, the prototypical class clown within the ninth-grade class. Everybody else either snickered or rolled their eyes.
"Well, anyone wants to explain what I said by using smaller words? You all are pretty smart, so I'm not explaining myself more than once," noted Miss Ellis, with full seriousness to test our mettle. All the students looked at each other, waiting for the other person to take the risk of raising their hand. Me? I kept trying to sink into my chair and play like Sue Storm [i.e. Invisible Woman= become invisible]. Trisha looked dead at me. She figured I knew the answer. But, forget all of the immaterial. I wanted to be unseen and unheard. So, being tired of me not taking the risk, her hand rose.
"Yes, Trish. Did you get the message?"
"Well, Miss Ellis," noted Trisha in all her teenage intelligence, "parallels go along with showing how things are the same. Enlightening means it helps you learn more. So, you want us to see how we are like Bud and learn something. Right?"
With an emphatic laugh, Miss Ellis says "You are correct. Thank you, Trisha, for the wonderful summary you gave the class. Class, it's time you learned the value of reading. Take the time to learn something for real. This is why each one of you possess a book on top of your desk. Your assignment from here until the bell ring: please start reading."
And easier than expected, the room hushed and we were reading. As I read, the time progressed from one point to another. By the time I got into the story well enough, the bell rang and time shifted for my next class. I gathered my things and scurried along to the next class.
"Hey, Jahlil! Wait up!" Trisha yelled as she tried to catch up with me. I stopped in the middle of my tracks so I could listen to what she had to say.
"Yo. I'm sorry for what I did earlier. You forgive me?" I noted before she could say anything to me.
"Yeah. But, what is wrong?" she inquires. The look in her eyes said I could trust her with all of my heart. I don't know what this girl possessed that drove me crazy. It felt like everything seemed more worthwhile. Life with her around became great. Maybe the attraction blinded me. Maybe her kindness influenced my opinion. Or her spirit. I don't know. But whatever it could have been, I felt good around her. I felt right.
"Max. He is always taking my lunch money," I noted to her with a look of pity and seriousness.
"You should tell someone."
"I don't know if telling would be a good idea," I noted, feeling nervous thinking about the pummeling I would get if I squealed on Max. I know I would get my butt handed to me on a silver platter if I told. And I am referring to a silver platter with garnish and vegetables.
"No. Either you go or I will go," Trisha said.
"Okay. But you are going with me," I said with plenty of stern seriousness.
Let's think here, people: this moment scared me!
"Alright. I'll go with you."
So, we went and told the principal. As I told my story to Mr. Baldwin about how I had been harassed, I could see the concern over his face. Once it happened, he excused me from the office and had Max called down. During the time, I walked out and saw Trisha at the front.
"Let's hurry up and get outta here," I said with an uneasy feeling I could not explain. As we both walked out, my favorite weirdo (Mr. Malachi) stopped me in my tracks. Not this again. I started to believe I became a magnet for madness.
"Hey, Young Blood! Come here real quick," he said as he walked around with a mop bucket coming out of the bathroom. As I cautiously walked toward him, he reached out his right fist. In his hand resided a crucifix on a beaded chain. Nothing fancy. Some regular silver jewelry. "I think you are gonna need this. You got some trouble with Max, I hear?"
Insurmountably stunned, I almost shouted "How you know about any of it?"
"Look, Young Blood. Don't worry about your situation, man. You need to wear this cross around your neck at all times. It's for protection. Whenever you need extra help, rub on this cross."
Yeah, okay. Now I know he is a child molester, a sideline reverend, or a substance abuse addict. Whatever it may have been, I stood dumbfounded he knew my business. No one sat in the office but me, Trisha, and the principal. We had left the principal. So, I highly doubt he told either. This situation becoming very, very strange.
Still, any type of help would not be turned away. So, I took the necklace (like a dummy) and put it on. But if Mr. Malachi tried to touch me, I had to report him.
The day moved on at a speedy pace, yet slower than I would have hoped. It may have been the rumbling in my stomach kept me unnerved. Also, the sneers and jeers I kept getting from Max every time I passed by him in the hallway did not help me. Even Rip, Man-Man, and Bink would give me those looks. Those soul piercing stares. I knew trouble awaited me as soon as 3:00 p.m. hit the clock.
And then the bell rang, signaling school time ended for the day. My ending became my future.
"Whatever happens, don't fight him. Well, maybe you gotta fight," noted Trish right next to me at my locker. I could feel it all as she peered at me through her glasses. I saw her concern. But I felt too busy being scared for my life.
"I guess I gotta fight, huh?" I loudly questioned with no belief in the mess I got myself into. All of this for trying to be honest. For trying to avoid another beating for my lunch money. Now, my anti-bullying stance just led to more bullying. Great. Great indeed.
"No, Jahlil. Look. I don't want you to do anything crazy. You know there is...there are four of them. They want to get you. Wait..." Trisha says before trailing off into thought. "I got it!"
"You got what?" I wondered out loud.
"I know what we are going to do, Jahlil. I know EXACTLY what we are going to do. I got an escape route. Follow me."
So, me and Trisha darted through the hallways into the back of the school. The back doors led to the football field. In between the space and the football field sat a parking lot. I had NO clue as to what she figured she could do, but I hoped that it worked in our favor.
"See? I told you this would be better. Now you gotta wait here and don't try to do anything foolish," she said.
"Like what? I still gotta make it home, remember?" I questioned her, looking all wide eyed like I just witnessed the birth of sweet baby Jesus.
"I know, I know. But cool out, though. You gonna make it home safe. I promise."
"Alright, whatever. So, what are we supposed to do under the football field bleachers until it's time to go, woman? It's cold out here, remember?"
"Well," Trisha began, "we can sit here and talk. We are friends, somehow."
"Somehow? You're joking, right? You the only person I know who looks forward to seeing me on a daily basis."
"Alright, we are friends. But, dang! Nobody knows who you are and what you are about. All I know is you are unhappy most of the time."
Lord, why me? Why did I have to feel like I played Caine in Menace 2 Society when the old bald-headed detective interrogating him. Couldn't we try to keep each other warm instead of having all of these weird talks about my plans, my desires, and why? I hated talking about myself. Half of the time, I hated my life. But, since its Trisha, I guess I can warm up to her interrogating ways. The minute she asks something crazy,
though...the conversation is over.
"Okay, ask me any question you have on your mind and I will answer it," I said, with my soul wincing at the thought of sharing myself with someone else.
"Any question your heart desires."
"Okay, let me get them outta my brain first," Trish says while rolling her eyes. I think she kept trying to gain access my mental Rolodex. This all meant I not going to be left alone anytime soon. Me and my big mouth: it always got me into trouble.
"Oh! I got my first question. Who lives at home with you?"
"It's me and my mom alone. I have not seen my father since my days as a toddler. I still possess some of the old dusty records and cassette tapes my father used to keep around. Plenty of Maxell UR's. Plenty of mixtapes. Hip hop. R&B. Dusty grooves. This is how I identified my dad: as the music lover. But nothing much is said about him. I miss the man. I don't know..."
With sorrow, Trish said, "Dang. Must be rough, huh?"
"Yeah, it is. Look at me. No real friends to note of (besides you). No nice clothes. Well, the clothes are okay. And then, there's the glasses. They have me looking like the best side of Urkel. But there isn't much going on with me. I keep to myself. It makes things easier."
"Oh, wow. Next question: what is your favorite hobby?"
"Well, I do love to draw. I also love reading comic books and shooting hoops. Listening to music, relaxing with my art pad, collecting my Marvel, DC, and Image titles. Nothing too fancy. Nothing too exciting. I am your basic nerd in the hood."
"So, who is your girlfriend?"
"Girlfriend?" I asked. Why would she ask whether or not I had a girlfriend in the first place? "You trying to be my girlfriend or something?"
"No, no boy! I'm asking. You never know nowadays. Plus, I don't want any of your hussies and heifers coming up to me in school trying to lump me up."
"You ain't gotta worry about anything. These chicks ain't thinking anything about me or what I got going on. Trust."
"Alright, well," Trisha gathers as she shivers while hiding with (and for) me, "those are all the questions I got for you. Now, it's time for us to get outta here. You sure you gonna be okay?"
Inquisitively, I sighed "Yeah, I'm gonna be okay. All I gotta do is run home fast."
"Fast, huh? How fast?"
"Carl Lewis fast. Like 1984 Olympics fast," I noted with a giggle.
Trish, quite confused as to what my reference meant, inquired "Okay, but who is Carl Lewis?"
"Eh, he's before our time. Don't sweat it. Do some research on the guy. The internet is useful for more than Instant Messenger, you know. You ask me, I think it's the future."
"I'll believe it when they come up with something better than dial up connections," Trisha joked. "You good, though? You think you can make it home without getting in trouble?"
I looked at her perplexed. I looked around at all the whiteness around me and Trisha. As I became concerned, I felt the silver cross around my neck become warm. I thought my mind played tricks on me: as soon as I touched my chest, I didn't feel a thing. Maybe the nervousness played mind games with me. Whatever the case may be, I knew I had to get home. My mom? Worried sick .
"You know what, I'm good. I'll stick with my Carl Lewis story."
Laughing enough to make visible mist come from her mouth, Trish says "Alright, then. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Aiight, Trish, See ya tomorrow."
I began my nice brisk jog across the streets. Already my watch shown me the time as being close to five o'clock. I knew my mom had to be worried. Hey, with the lateness I had going on, I knew I had a potential cursing out coming my way. The thought of having my mom exercising her inner demons through her word became a bigger concern for me than any type of problems with Max Maniac. As my luck would be as it may, jumping many gates and fences, strolling through alleys, and fending off stray dogs made this effort to get home much more worthwhile.
As I unlocked the door to the apartment, I met by my mom. I knew a chew out became the imminent reality.
"Jahlil, why haven't you told me about this Max boy?" my mom questioned. I stood there, looking around to gather a great explanation for what occurred. Yet, the more I looked into her overly-concerned eyes the more I couldn't come up with any worthwhile excuses.
"Ma, I didn't wanna bother you about it. I wanted to handle the situation myself.
Who told you?"
"Your principal. He felt concerned about whether or not I knew. Of course, you didn't tell me. Jahlil, you have to tell me if these things are going on. I told Mr. Malachi to keep an eye..."
"Mom, he is weird. I think he is some type of sexual predator or something. He's always looking at me. Always wants to talk to me. I get a funny vibe from him."
Laughing loud enough to awaken resting spirits, my mom said "Hush the fuss, boy. Mr. Malachi has known us for quite a while. He became very good friends with your father before he left us. He cares. And we all need people who care."
"Whatever, Ma. I don't trust dude for anything on my life."
"Well, you need to. He's a loyal and trustworthy man. Okay?"
"Alright, Ma," I said with a reassuring, yet defiant tone. I knew good and well I didn't wanna have anything to do with Mr. Weirdo. But my mom said I may have to consider this "trust thing". I had not been too keen on doing any of it. But I did know I had to honor my momma. So, maybe I could give this "trust thing" a good whirl around the merry-go-round. And if it didn't work? I could go back to my regularly scheduled
I got my clothes off and put them where they needed to go (coat in closet; other clothes in the laundry). Afterward, I retrieved my book to read for Ms. Ellis's class. As I read my book, the cross on my neck began to glow. It had an aura of its own. If one could capture pure sunlight and harness it from a small artifact, this would be it. Dang. I may have been young and silly, but not a fool by a longshot. I knew my mind could not have been playing tricks on me. I am not Willie Dee, Scarface, or Bushwick Bill.
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