Updated: Mar 15, 2022
'Never was there a clearer case of 'stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.'
Yes, it was partly the bourbon. But mostly, it was the fact that it was two in the morning and early autumn. The night was cool. The air smelled like cut grass and discarded charcoal briquets. It was so late on a Thursday night, or early on a Friday morning, depending on your philosophy of telling time, that the street outside the coffee shop was empty.
That was the other part – fully lit streets, stop lights turned to flashing, amber, warning signs, but not a solitary soul in sight. Oddly enough, he loved it. Fall always reminded him of the first week of a new college semester, which meant old friends and new acquaintances – and he was self-aware enough, now, to know that feeling was really about new possibility. But there was something calming about an empty street this late at night – something singular about it, making him feel like he was the only person in the world. He liked it.
Drexel tossed the butt of his cigar in the cigarette pail next to the door. The windows of Octane were long since darkened but its employees didn’t care if you sat at the stone tables out front. He’d wiled away a few hours with a flask of bourbon and an Avo Syncro Fogata double toro.
The parking lot out front was the size of a deck of cards, so he parked down the street. A crescent moon hung so low in the night sky it was like a tree branch you could reach up to and pluck an apple from. The luminous, celestial body cast a glow so radiant the hundred tinier lights in the heavens around it strained to be seen. It was as if those stellar nurseries were jealous of how much sky the moon took up. Or maybe that was all just the bourbon talking.
The soft clap of the leather soles of his boots on the sidewalk was only interrupted by the jarring infrequency of a passing car. It was so quiet. It reminded him of the moment between when an orchestra finishes a symphony, and the audience decides to applaud. It was like the whole world belonged to him.
Drexel caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye and froze. The rear parking lot, nestled behind the shops like a backpack between the shoulders, was only open to deliveries and employees, unless you wanted a three-hundred-dollar tow bill.
Did he see something or was it just really late?
He shrugged it off and started walking again. Drexel made it three more steps before he heard a muffled cry.
His mother raised him to stick his nose in, but eventually he learned it was also just naturally in him. When you’re on the mat, in the ring, the dojo, or the wuguan, and you get hit, you learn something about yourself. Your instinct is either to step back or step forward. Drexel always stepped forward.
But he was also, always, incredibly aware of being a large, Black man. Any time he forgot, even for a moment, someone would remind him by moving their purse to the other side of their body, locking their door at a stop light, or refusing to get on an elevator with him. So, he made sure to stay in the light and move slowly. He put his hands up as he rounded the corner.
He’d also learned to mentally dial for a light tone and higher pitch to his voice. God forbid it was a white woman doing some crazy shit. He didn’t need to have to explain to cops why he was in the back lot after midnight, with a scared white woman.
“Hey, no need to be afraid. I just heard something as I was walking by and I’m just checking to make sure everything is ok.”
Did that sound friendly enough? Was it unthreatening? Ease inducing? This shit was exhausting.
He moved to his right so he could round the corner from the middle of the lot and be in plain sight. Hopefully, they could see him clearly. Though that was no guarantee a white woman wouldn’t flip the fuck out and scream like he was trying to mug her or worse. He took pains no to look or be threatening to women in general, they had it tough too. But a white woman with a particular bias was something else altogether. She could get him arrest on some bullshit, or worse.
“My hands are up. Let me know you’re ok and I’ll move on. I was just heading to my car. Hello?”
Nothing. Fuck, he thought.
He was going to be pissed if this turned into a thing. This was America though. One moment you’re living your Black joyful life and the next you’re carrying the weight of all of America’s bullshit. In the back of his mind a small voice was telling him to move the fuck on. But the other, louder, one was saying someone might be in trouble.
He quickly considered, and then tossed, the idea of pulling out his phone and recording. Darkness, the late hour, and something in his hand, would be a pretext for some scared white person to shoot him and get away with it. The last thing he wanted was to be a hashtag or have his name on a fucking t-shirt.
Drexel stepped around the corner and stopped dead. The smell of sulphur hit him like a cloud of sensimilla at a house party. The first thing he saw was the black, cap-toe brogues. Their glossy polish glistened in the streetlamp light. The suit was sharper than a thumb tack. It was slim-cut, royal blue, and chalk striped. The white guy was average height with close-cropped, black hair. He was holding another white guy like he was a limp ragdoll. The ragdoll was wearing jeans, a checkered shirt, and work boots with well-worn soles. And his chest was torn open.
It was instinct more than anything else. Drexel had barely processed what he was seeing before he’d opened his mouth. He took three quick steps forward – I always step in. The guy in the perfectly pressed suit dropped him. The body made a soft thudding sound when it hit the pavement. Then, suit-guy turned toward him.
Drexel instinctively threw his hands up, covering his face and chest. It was a fighter’s habit, something deeply biological – a defense mechanism that was evolutionary. He’d read something about it once. It was called the uncanny valley. Normally, it was used in the context of robotics, but it was also, more generally, about things that looked human but weren’t.
Something about the guy’s face sparked it. It summoned something primordial in Drexel. The rest of him should have matched it – like claws, fangs, or a misshapen body. But it didn’t. He looked like a wealthy businessman, with a five-hundred-dollar haircut, and a three-thousand-dollar suit. The incongruity was the blood dripping from his lips, onto his chin, and the heart in his hand, which was still beating. And then there were the eyes. His eyes were completely black.
Drexel was frozen to the spot. He couldn’t move. Something was holding him there. A small voice, in the back of his mind, screamed.
But he couldn’t move. He wasn’t even sure if he was breathing.
What the fuck was he looking at?
Suit-guy went from being twenty feet away to standing right in front of him in a weird jump-cut, like a scene out of a Jordan Peele horror flick. And Drexel still couldn’t move. His nose filled with the smell of sulfur. His mouth tasted like copper.
In an odd moment of clarity, the kind where you feel like you’re standing outside yourself watching, he realized he was going to die. It was a calm, clear, rational assessment. This was how it ended.
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