“I’m thirteen percent black, man!”
My cousin Bennett was always saying and texting stupid stuff, so this proclamation came as no surprise to me.
But for his part, Mr. cole stood with his shiny head cocked to the side, his mouth a quarter open, wheezing against the moist august air. he was shrouded in a bathrobe with holiday inn embroidered above the right breast pocket. his Jheri-curled hair was glistening in the sunbeams. and he was armed with a bowling pin, and it was clear that someone was about to get their skull busted open by it.
His Yorkshire terrier, Franklins, aloof to the situation, was sit- ting on his butt, left leg propped up, licking his balls. Normally I wouldn’t take the lowbrow route and point out when a dog is lick- ing his balls, but I was so terrified by the idea of being concussed by Mr. cole’s bowling pin that I could either look at my cousin Ben- nett, in his sagging purple nylon pants, or I could admire Frank- lins’s profound focus on cleansing his eggplant-colored ball sack.
And I knew if I looked at Bennett I would end up killing him myself. I had no idea why Mr. Cole was mad. all I knew was that my cousin was most likely guilty of something terrible.
I had just gotten home from the studio and was getting ready to water my jalapeño and tomato garden when I noticed Bennett and my neighbor Milton Cole, arguing across the low backyard fence. Both were talking over each other and cursing a lot. I had swiftly walked up to see what was wrong.
On a physical combat level, Bennett was in way over his head. We both were. But I had no idea why they were arguing. I just knew that out of all the people in my new subdivision one could get into an altercation with, Mr. Cole, my fifty-one-year-old, stocky— ex–Black Panther—neighbor was the worst choice. the man had been imprisoned for twelve years on a federal kidnapping charge, stemming from road rage after a sixteen-year-old kid cut him off in rush-hour traffic. he was so angered by the kid’s “lack of respect for elders,” that he dragged the boy out of his car, threw him in the back of his Lincoln town car, drove to the kid’s parents’ house, and threatened to kill the father if he didn’t teach his son how to drive better. he’s a fucking lunatic. Plus he named his very effeminate dog Franklins—after plural $100 bills.
“I paid a family tree company to locate my roots—and my grand- pa’s mom is from africa!” Bennett declared.
Really, Bennett? A family tree company? I thought. Bennett had a very bad lying problem. It didn’t help that he was a bad liar, as well.
Point being, we have zero African in our bloodlines.
Mr. Cole appeared homicidal. “Y-Y-You just a sissy-ass white mothafucka! I’d s-s-s-s-s-s-s-snap yo mothafuckin’ neck if I wouldn’t end up in . . . L-L-Lan-Lansing again,” he peppered out.
Mr. Cole lifted the bowling pin above his head and was seconds away from delivering a shattering blow to Bennett’s cranium. Ben- nett leaned back and weakly raised his arms to protect himself.
I ￼was in a heated trance, unsure of whether I should jump between them, hop the fence and tackle Mr. cole, or just stand there watch- ing, avoiding damage altogether. the thing I was quite certain of, however, was that when someone stutters through his death threat, it’s kind of hilarious.
Don’t laugh, I reminded myself.
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He cocked back his arm, making us now mere milliseconds away from Bennett’s demise. Fortunately for us, right then Mr. cole seemed to sense the fear in both of us and perhaps got a little too cocky. In a moment of spontaneity, he decided to say something vengeful and horrifying to preface the blow—something those super badass moth- erfuckers do in shitty, low-budget action movies before they blow up a building and walk away all slowly, unaffected by it.
Unfortunately for him, his brain was so overwhelmed by anger and frustration, that when it was time to hit us with his deadly catchphrase—he malfunctioned worse than before. Ramping up his emotional radiator to such egregious levels, the stutter shut his entire body down.
He began rapidly making weird noises, and instead of proclaim- ing something undeniably macho, he just stood there gurgling horrifically.
“F-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-faaaahhhhh . . . !” he burped. I stared back down at Franklins’s balls, clenching my teeth, holding my laughter in for dear life. Mr. cole’s lower jaw zigzagged away from his upper jaw. his eyes rolled into the back of his head. “Flaaahhhhhhh.”
Every second was an eternity in which I might fall to the ground, laughing my ass off. he was just convulsing, making gut- tural noises, his entire body in stutter-induced paralysis, unable to be moved by his brain.
Bennett and I took the opportunity to step back out of harm’s way, relying on the waist-high chain-link fence for protection in case he regained control of his body and lunged.
The stutter only got worse. the vague letter F sounds gave way to a strange whistle. horrendous, cacophonic squeaks and hums filled our yards. his eyes crossed; he was foaming at the mouth; his jaw stuck open. I could see an amalgam cavity filling in the back of his mouth.
“Vvvvvvhhhhhhhhhnnnnnn,” he . . . uh . . . said? Moaned? I don’t know how to describe it.
Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. I tried to think of atrocious things to erase any frivolity. I started thinking of hitler. I started thinking of Mao. I started thinking of hitler and Mao, in bikinis, on the beach, frolicking and skipping, while holding hands.
Wait, shit, that’s going to make me laugh.
Okay, back to Franklins’s balls. Nothing funny about Franklins’s balls.
Meanwhile, Bennett had little regard for the fact that we were minutes away from being bludgeoned to death by a bowling pin. Nonchalantly, with a smirk on his face, he looked at Mr. cole and, with genuine curiosity, little respect, and zero fear, asked, “What the fuck is wrong with you, homie? You choking on something?”
Flabbergasted by Bennett’s irreverence, a calm, killer instinct came over my neighbor. he stopped making noises. his eyes opened to the size of oysters, and he stared directly at both of us. One eye on Bennett, one eye on me.
“Fuck. You.” he finally got out in two clean, decisive stabs.
Which was oddly satisfying for me, maybe satisfying for Ben- nett, and definitely satisfying for Mr. Cole.
“Fuck you, you racist kid.” But his tone had changed. his voice cracked and became a little more nasally. there was disappoint- ment and confusion in his larynx. his swagger was less predatory, and it seemed like his feelings were genuinely hurt by something.
What had Bennett done?
“Okay, hang on a second.” I interjected, “Mr. cole, wha—”
But before I could ask him what the problem was, he turned around and stomped back toward his house, Franklins in tow. I stood there silently, giving him time to walk back into his house, before turning to Bennett.
“What the fuck was that about?” I asked Bennett, half-whisper- ing. “Seriously! Dude? What the fuck did you do?!”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼“I don’t know! Fuck! that dude is a dick, mane!” Bennett pleaded.
Now, my cousin had a way of saying things that most people are uninitiated to. he spoke with a pure, midwestern ghetto twang. Words like man came out “mane.” Words like dude became “doo.” and words like reciprocity weren’t pronounced at all. People like Bennett don’t know what reciprocity means.
“how he gonna get mad at people jus’ like him?” he said.
I turned around and walked to my back patio, reservation and anger battling inside me. I was sealing my mouth and holding in any hostile accusations until I knew the whole story. I had been borderline verbally abusive to Bennett and his family for the past few weeks and wanted to exhibit patience and tolerance.
But, Jesus, my house was a fucking mess, I thought as I walked inside. excessive partying, psychotic damsels on designer drugs, and my white-trash family tree branch had performed a coup d’état on my once very clean and organized home. In order for me to even sit down in my favorite chair at my kitchen table, I had to scoop a basketball, a magazine covered with crumbs of marijuana and cigar guts, and an empty bottle of actavis promethazine cough syrup with codeine (an oddly popular drink among the gangsta community).
I plugged my phone into the wall closest to the table to let it charge.
“Uh, why did Mr. cole just try to kill us, Bennett?” I asked my cousin, only to realize he hadn’t followed me into the kitchen. I could hear him rapping to himself in a distant room.
after a few minutes of quietly decompressing, my phone turned on. I had missed several texts but quickly skipped all of them as they popped up, to locate my conversation with Bennett from earlier.
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For the past few days, my much younger cousin had been giving me dating advice. Yeah . . . more on that later.
And I guess that’s where my phone must have died. I was pretty busy in the studio and didn’t have a charger there, so I didn’t really think much about it at the time. however, it looked like Bennett pro- ceeded to text me about the Wi-Fi several times while I was MIa.
That was it. Bennett walked into the kitchen as I was finishing the texts, still dumbfounded. I glared at him as he filled a massive bowl of cereal for himself.
He chewed a minute, swallowed, took a thoughtful pause, took another scoop of cereal, chewed and swallowed again, then pro- ceeded with, “to answer your question. I dunno why he wanna kill us. I ain’t racist, my nigga. I’m more in tune with my black incesters than my white ones.”
I knew he meant to say ancestors, but whatever. Bennett butch- ering the english language wasn’t new, surprising, or important at this point.
However, the term incesters struck me as weirdly appropriate when I thought about Bennett’s part of the family. Nevertheless, I had learned to pick my battles, language and otherwise, with him. even though I’ve done extensive research on both sides of my fam- ily lineage, I had sworn to never engage Bennett in a discussion where we debate about whether we have african in our bloodline. Never again, that is.
“Okay, well, something happened. Did you leave the house today?”
“Did you listen to any loud rap music, with the n word, that he could have misinterpreted as being racist?”
“Did you, your mom, or Leshaun, do anything today that Mr. cole could have perceived as racist, uhhh . . . offensive, or disrespectful?”
“What did you do today? tell me your entire day,” I said as he took a seat at the table.
“Okay. It go like this. I woke up and eated some cereal. I smoked a Newport out front. Then I watched TV in the basement. I watched some show named MacGyver about a white nigga who can make a bomb out of a watermelon and a vibrator battery. then I jacked off to Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals show. I ate cereal again. I rolled a blunt. I smoked it in the garage, since I’m not allowed to smoke weed out front no more. then I smoked a Newport out front ’cause you never told me I couldn’t smoke cigs out front no more. I rode my bike to the store to get more cigs. I rode back. Uh . . . I did some push-ups. the internet guy came to hook up your cordless internet. I smoked a Newport, then went downstairs and turned the tV off, then I came upstairs because SpongeBob is on the DVR up here. and right when I turn on SpongeBob I hear Mr. cole yelling outside.”
“And that’s when you went outside?”
“Well, at first I ain’t think he was yelling at me. But the more I looked at him, the more I noticed he was talkin’ shit. So I ran out- side to see what was up. We argued for a couple minutes, then you showed up.”
I had nothing. I’ve learned to tell when Bennett is lying. Bennett is usually lying. But he was unwavering and stern, so I decided to chalk it up to Mr. cole’s being a loon. there are numerous elements of Mr. cole’s dossier that would point to him being a batshit crazy loon, like, for example, kidnapping a sixteen-year-old for driving like a sixteen-year-old.
“God, what a crazy fucker,” I said to Bennett and patted him on the shoulder. he guffawed and took another bite of cereal. I sat down next to him at the table, and opened my laptop. I was just going to have Bennett listen to the new song I created in the studio today.
I right clicked on the Wi-Fi icon and the menu of neighborhood networks dropped down. I slowly scanned the list top to bottom. at first it didn’t register. Maybe it was denial, maybe I just didn’t notice it. But after adjusting my retinas and mouthing the words silently to myself, I caught it. I found it. My heart stopped. My life flashed before my eyes. My jaw was on the floor.
“Oh my fucking God, Bennett! What did you do?!” Bennett was so startled that he slammed his hand into his bowl of cereal, flipping it over, drenching himself and the table with milk and soggy Frosted Flakes.
“What? What? What?” he barked as he squinted his untreated, astigmatic eyes at the screen. “What this stuff mean?”
“Look, dude.” I pointed to the Wi-Fi menu. “this is why Milton thinks we’re racists!”
“What? I don’t get it!” he pled. Bennett was clueless.
I swear we both read it a good twenty times to make sure what we were seeing was real. I pushed my fist in front of my cousin and counted off his mistake on my fingers. “One K . . . two K’s . . . and a third, racist, K.”
“What do you mean ‘racist K’? It was ’posed to be funny!” Ben- nett bellyached, perhaps close to tears.
He leaned back in his chair, covered in cereal and milk, with the eyes of a crushed little boy. he wanted to be black more than any- thing else in the world, and he had just committed a mistake that a highly skilled, white-haired, samurai warrior would commit seppuku over. Well, if the code of ethics that this particular samurai warrior lived by involved never saying anything racist, accident or not.
Also, accident or not, this was the third neighbor in three months who Bennett had infuriated to levels of disrepair. after all that had happened lately, I was a little shocked to realize that it had only been that long since Bennett and his family had been living with me and my life was changed forever.
At which point the thought occupying my mind was, Just give him the money before something bad happens. . . .
But hang on. I can’t start the story here, let’s back up a bit to the beginning and the email that started it all.