Where the Grass is Greener
by Samuel K. Wilkes
Ward beat a hooker with a baseball bat for two hundred dollars cash. He left her flailing on the sidewalk, then crept through the streets in a Cadillac, spraying pedestrians with an Uzi.
“I’m sick of this,” Daniel said, pacing about in Ward’s game room.
Ward didn’t flinch, staring at the screen, shooting innocent bystanders.
“Can we go to Charlie’s now?”
Ward paused the game and looked up at his friend. “Not anymore. His mom found his stash.”
“And why are you just now telling me this?” Daniel rolled his eyes and slumped onto the edge of the bed.
For their entire senior year Daniel had driven to Ward’s house after school so they could go smoke Charlie’s weed. Ward’s childhood friend, Charlie, was another trust-fund kid that lived in a bigger castle down the street. He spent his bloated allowance on name-brand bud from Colorado, mainly so Ward and Daniel would come over.
“I was going to tell you,” Ward said. “It’s no big deal. Charlie’s getting on my nerves anyway. It’s time we get our own source.”
“Glad you decided to fill me in,” Daniel huffed. “And who did you have in mind?”
Ward turned back to his game. “Holman.”
Daniel hadn’t expected a real answer. “Holman? Like Michael Holman?”
Even as he asked, he knew. Ward had joked about it before, but never really pushed him on it. Daniel and Michael were best friends from grade school through middle school. Back when Daniel attended Birmingham public schools. Before his family moved to Ward’s neighborhood and enrolled him in a private school freshman year. A large extended family, the Holman name had a reputation around north Alabama for running the local drug market. Daniel never knew this growing up. Had no reason to. The two boys simply got along, trading helmet stickers, melting army men, battling with super soakers, crashing matchbox cars.
“He’s dealing by now,” Ward said matter-of-factly, as if he studied these developments. “It’s like a rite of passage for that family. You have his number?”
Daniel peered out the window at the next-door kids shouting laughs and running through a sprinkler in a manicured lawn. He didn’t have Michael’s number, but he did remember his house. He could still picture the beige paint, the brick steps, the carport, and the grey-framed windows. The first time he had seen his mother visibly shaken, when she picked him up in the early dawn. She had never been to that side of Birmingham.
Daniel regretted his next words before they left his mouth. “I think I know where he lives.”
Ward dropped the controller on the hardwoods, letting the game run off course. “About time you step up, Danny-boy. Let’s go reconnect.”
As Ward scrambled to his closet for shoes, Daniel kept watching the kids playing next door, pushing one another down in the soft wet grass. He knew he should’ve kept his mouth shut, but something inside drove him forward.
Daniel’s Bronco crept under the interstate, traveling from the white-washed columns of their suburb to the cracked concrete of downtown Birmingham. From boutiques to payday loan shops, from organic food markets to liquor stores. Their curly blonde heads nodded in the front as the Bronco lumbered over the railroad tracks. Ward reclined back, lighting a cigarette and cracking the window just enough so the grey trail could slither out. He watched two men arguing over a grocery cart full of cans and rags.
“Man, I wish we lived over here. Seems more alive. More real. Not like our fake Nerf world.”
“You’re an idiot,” Daniel sighed, shaking his head. He didn’t necessarily disagree that their world was Nerf-like. He just didn’t like when Ward—whose only experiences came from video games and private school house parties—said such things. “This is the ghetto. You’re not supposed to want to live in the damn ghetto. People work their asses off to move from places like this.”
“No, you’re ignorant.”
Ward flicked his ash casually as if holding an ace card. “You’re the one that quit being friends with Michael because he’s black.”
“Why would you say that?” Daniel turned to Ward. “We’re still friends. I just don’t see him anymore. Hell, I don’t see any black people in our neighborhood.”
“Well, why don’t you have his number? Y’all not talk anymore?”
Daniel ignored the question and focused on his driving, worrying more and more they were lost. He recalled the last time he saw the house. In seventh grade, Michael had invited him over to spend the night. He lied to his mom and told her he was staying with a friend down the block in their rural neighborhood. He never told Michael that he had to lie. He always knew Michael was black and from the poorer part of town, but that had never meant anything in their young world. As he reached middle school though, he began to see that these differences meant a lot more to adults.
That night Daniel and Michael watched one of the Lord of the Rings movies and ate fried bologna sandwiches. They camped out in the back yard in an old musty tent. Michael snuck a stack of his cousin’s Penthouse magazines and two menthol cigarettes. Their first experience tasting mint-flavored smoke and seeing the various moves women could make. After running out of magazines to drool over, Michael told Daniel that he wished they could be neighbors.
“Nobody is fun over here. They’re either too old or running around with folks that my mom won’t let me hang out with,” Michael said, looking down, playing with the flashlight. “Why don’t y’all move over here? The old lady next door is about to move out. Or will probably die soon.”
Daniel just shrugged. He knew that was not an option. He knew his dad had just received a promotion. And that his parents had been talking about private schools more and more, using words like “demographics” and “racial makeup.” But he didn’t reveal any of this. Instead, he promised that they would room together freshman year at college, wherever they both agreed to enroll. They shook on it after lighting the last menthol.
Near midnight, a raccoon rummaged around their tent, sounding like a grizzly bear. Daniel wanted to run inside and sleep in a bed, but he didn’t say anything, not wanting to show fear. Instead, he laid there through the night, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood, far different from his own. As dawn broke, his mom honked frantically out front, after having learned from a neighbor where her son had really gone. It was the last time Daniel saw that house. He wondered if Michael remembered that night. If he remembered their promise.
“Hey,” Ward snapped, pulling Daniel from his thoughts. “I said are we lost?”
Daniel looked at the street signs but the names meant nothing. Before he could respond with something to appease Ward, he recognized a water tower on his left next to an electrical substation. He cut the wheel like a bird dog picking up a lost scent. Ward braced himself, eyeing his quiet friend, wondering if he’d lost his mind. The Bronco rolled up two more blocks, then stopped abruptly at a beige brick house.
“Told you I knew it,” Daniel said, throwing it in park and feeling good about himself.
Nothing on the outside indicated that Michael Holman lived there, except for Daniel’s fried memory. He assumed Ward would question his confidence, just because he could. But he didn’t.
“Good for you,” Ward smirked. “Now, go hit up your boy.”
Fear pushed on the back of Daniel’s eyes. The plan had not progressed in his mind further than seeing if he could still recall where Michael lived, proving it to himself, and seeing if the house actually looked as his younger self had perceived it. As a child, Daniel didn’t know that this was the dangerous part of Birmingham. But he knew now. And never envisioned actually exiting the Bronco.
“Doesn’t look like anyone is home,” Daniel said, his voice fading.
“We drove all the way to the ghetto, we can’t just assume he’s not here. We gotta make contact.”
After throwing insults back and forth, and a game of rock, paper, scissors, the two friends finally got out. They walked through the yard, trying to act nonchalant, but failing with every movement. Daniel put his arms behind his back as if trying to hide his white skin. A brick jostled loose as they walked up the steps. Ward pushed the doorbell, but no chime. They looked for any movement between the black bars mounted on the windows. Daniel shrieked open the screen and knocked on the door. They both stared at the knob, waiting for it to turn.
“Told you nobody’s home,” Daniel said, letting the screen slam shut and starting down the steps.
Before Ward could say anything, a latch popped. Then another. The door popped open, slightly.
“What you want?” a voice asked.
Ward looked down at Daniel. Neither had prepared anything to say.
“That’s what I thought. Get the fuck off my steps.”
Ward motioned to his friend, trying to get him to speak up.
“Michael home?” Daniel finally asked.
The door opened a little wider. A teenager with short braids peeked through, trying not to smile, but enjoying the fear in their blue eyes. “Who you looking for?”
“Michael Holman,” Ward added.
“What’s it to you?”
“These guys are old friends,” Ward said, pointing to the bottom of the steps. “We wanted to get up with him. See if he was holding any green.”
Daniel could feel the blood pouring from his head. His stomach cramped. Everything was progressing too fast and out of his control. He knew Ward should never be a spokesperson, but he couldn’t find the words himself.
“Green?” the teenager with braids repeated. He then turned back into the house. “These white boys want some green, Tre.”
A deep muffled voice sounded from inside. The teenager with braids nodded, then eyed the two blondes up and down. “They look clean.”
Ward and Daniel followed him inside the house as he threw the door open. The dim room reeked of pot and microwavable meals. A faded couch lined the wall of the main room. Two guys sat on the floor playing a Madden football game on a flat-screen television that wasn’t mounted, while one large man named Tre stood in the kitchen, silent and watching. No offer to sit, and no place to sit, Daniel and Ward stood exposed, trying to find something to do with their hands.
“Which one is Michael?” Ward whispered.
Daniel shook his head.
“Is Michael here?” Ward asked everyone else.
Tre barked a laugh that boomed in the small kitchen. “Why you looking for lil’ Mike?”
“This is his boy,” Ward nudged his friend.
Daniel swallowed the lump in his throat and waved like a shy toddler.
“I see that.” Tre smirked.
Daniel eyed the room for anything familiar. It was nothing like he remembered. Not soft and cozy like before, with family pictures, warm vintage lamps, Bible verses framed on the wall, Miles Davis records, and graded papers on the fridge. The walls were bare. No end tables. Just a couch and an unmounted television. Everyone in the house had on a white t-shirt. Nothing identifiable.
“Michael holding any green or what?” Ward projected his voice, trying to act hard.
Before the teenager with braids could say anything, Tre stepped forward from the kitchen. “How much y’all want?”
“How much you got?”
Tre eyed his housemates. They all laughed.
“Don’t play that shit. More than you can handle. How much you got on you?”
Ward started removing twenties from his pocket, but Daniel stopped him. Things were happening out of order. This was not how he envisioned reconciling his past. Or making things right.
“Is Michael here?” he finally spoke. “We’re supposed to meet up with Michael.”
“You sure?” Tre cocked his head.
“Trust me, we go way back.”
“Is that right?” Tre took a sip from his cup, popped his shirt, and walked back into the kitchen as if he was finished. “Hate dealing with smartass white boys.”
Ward looked at Daniel, confused as to what happened. Daniel didn’t know what to say or add. He watched the hallway to see if anyone was moving in the back rooms.
“Two hundred dollars,” Ward blurted out, answering Tre’s initial question.
Tre turned back around and the teenager with braids jumped from the couch, both watching Ward count the bills from his pocket.
“But let’s see the stuff,” Ward added.
“I gotta go get it first,” Tre said, moving next to the kitchen counter.
“Can we sample it?”
“This aint a damn yogurt bar, fool.”
Ward looked at Daniel near the front door.
“Can you at least let Michael know we’re here first?” Daniel spoke up. “That’s why I’m here.”
Ward eyed his friend, assuming he was playing hardball. He folded the bills and put them in his back pocket. “Yea, our hookup is with Michael. We only deal with Michael.”
Tre slapped the countertop with his massive hand. “Fuck, you white boys think you so smart. Coming down here to school some ghetto boys. That it?”
“Easy,” Ward said, his voice cracking. “We’re just trying to deal with someone we know.”
“You don’t know no damn Michael!” Tre shouted. “He don’t live here. His mom moved him out years ago. They thought they was too good for our side of the family. If he was really your boy, you’d know that lil’ douche never dealt green, much less smoked it. Too busy playing his trumpet and dressing up like fucking hobbits. Now, give us the money or get the fuck out of my house!”
The guys on the floor paused the game, turning to gaze upon their guests for the first time. Everyone remained mute as the paint on the walls. Daniel could no longer speak. Could no longer distill a thought into words. He felt like anything he could say would come out wrong at this point. He wanted to run out the door and forget he ever smoked weed. To forget he ever abandoned his best friend.
“Why you playing games? Just give us the damn money!” the teenager with braids shouted, stepping in closer.
Before Daniel could react, Ward pulled a snub-nosed revolver out of his pocket and pointed it at the tight braids.
“What the fuck?” Daniel gasped.
“Everybody freeze!” Ward yelled to the room, his voice trembling.
“What are you some undercover cop now?” Tre said, unmoved.
“No, just keeping you from taking our money.”
Everyone in the room looked to Tre for guidance. Daniel and Ward backed toward the door slowly, the revolver shaking in Ward’s hand. Then a cell phone rang, popping rapid-fire beats. Ward flinched, shooting two rounds into the ceiling. Drywall rained down. Daniel slapped the screen door and collapsed down the brick steps. Everyone in the house scrambled, chasing the two blondes as they sprinted across the yard for the Bronco. Ward jumped in the front as a bullet shattered the back window. Another shot ricocheted off a tire rim.
“That’s enough!” Tre shouted, holding up his hand, stopping the others as they pulled out their pistols.
Daniel stomped on the pedal, sending the Bronco swerving down the street, hopping over a curb and shattering a neighbor’s wooden mailbox. Papers and splintered wood flew up in their wake. An elderly woman hid behind her car with groceries. The tires screeched around the corner, echoing across the neighborhood amongst barking dogs.
“That’s why you don’t let dumbass white boys in the house,” Tre said, spitting into the dead grass.
“Holy shit!” Ward pounded on the dashboard. “What a damn rush!”
“Why the hell did you do that?”
“Why? Those fucking thugs were about to rob our ass. They shot out your window!”
Daniel tried to keep driving. Tried to keep from swerving off the road in anger, slamming them both into a building. “You don’t get it, do you? You’re the one that went in there shooting up the place. Where did you even get a gun?”
“My dad’s. I knew we’d need it. And I’ll take a thank you when you’ve calmed down.”
“For saving us two hundred dollars. And, I don’t know—your goddamn life!”
Daniel rolled his eyes, looking straight ahead, fuming inside. “They were trying to sell us weed. You’re the one that almost got us killed. I should be running from you.”
Daniel had been just as leery as Ward, but he had wanted to trust Tre as if to make up for his guilt. He wished Michael would have been there so he could finally tell him he was sorry for losing touch. For acting like he was on a higher level. But at the same time, he was relieved to hear Michael had moved to a better neighborhood and was playing the trumpet. That he wasn’t dealing drugs and was still a nerd at heart.
As if Daniel was in any position to judge Michael’s life choices or situation. As if Michael needed his approval. From the teen who couldn’t play an instrument. Who smoked weed every day watching his friends play video games. Who showed up unannounced with his trust-fund friend looking for drugs and firing off rounds unprovoked. Even though his family wasn’t half as wealthy as Ward’s, Daniel now understood he was born with the same ingrained privilege.
“You don’t understand these things,” Ward added, breaking the silence. “You gotta feel that shit coming. That’s what I did. I felt that shit coming.”
“You were right earlier. You live in a fake video game world.”
“Whatever. You were standing in there with your dick in your mouth, asking about some butt-buddy you feel white-guilt about. I had to carry you in there.”
“Well, thanks, now we have a target on our heads.”
“Just get us back to our hood. They aint messing with us over here.”
As the Bronco rolled closer to home, the afternoon sun crept behind a mountain ridge. The two returned amongst familiar architecture, flanked again by white columns, old oaks, tree houses and lush estates. Ward appeared to pick at his underwear, but instead pulled out a wrinkled joint. Daniel swerved the Bronco on the narrow road, attempting to see Ward’s hands.
“This is my in-case-of-emergency joint. I figured Michael might be a flake, so I hid it.”
Daniel shook his head while Ward lit the end and smiled. The paper sparked up dense smoke that rushed out the back shattered window. Ward laughed, recalling the mailbox flying across the old lady’s yard like a baton. Daniel worried that she could’ve had a heart attack. Ignoring his concerns, Ward turned up Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell.”
Daniel knew Ward was an idiot, but he kept wondering if he was right in some way, if he’d still be friends with Michael if he had been born white. Daniel had always considered himself to be part of a newer, open-minded generation, immune to the racist ways of the old South. But maybe he failed to see it, just as Ward failed to see his own ignorant ways.
They drove past Daniel’s new house as the landscape crew mowed the lawn. Fortunately, his mom was not outside to see him roll by with a shattered window. As he thought about what lie to tell her later, he decided he couldn’t spend any more time worrying about what-if scenarios. He was tired of feeling guilty.
“It works both ways,” he said aloud. “Michael never tried to get in touch with me all these years. So why should I feel like shit?”
Ward looked at his friend like he had lost his mind. “Man, fuck Michael.”
Daniel nodded and accepted the joint, as if resigning to his place in the world. Cruising slowly, headed toward the setting sun, the two teens slouched into the reggae rhythms, ignoring the lyrics. They were comfortable and content. Ready for the next adventure.
A block from Ward’s cul-de-sac, as the glare faded, blue police lights swirled in the Bronco’s rearview.
Samuel K. Wilkes is a writer, attorney and musician living in Fairhope, Alabama. He lived in Birmingham for many years, where this story is set. However, the root of the story primarily derives from growing up attending a diverse public school in Opelika, Alabama, and later having many private school friends from various parts, and seeing how race, economic class and preconceived notions all intertwine to affect decisions. His short fiction has been published in Deep South, WhiskeyPaper, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, On the Premises, Fiction on the Web, Steel Toe Review, Page & Spine and several others. Follow him on Twitter @Samkwilkes.