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  • L.A. McCrae

Quick or Dead

Submitted to the Globe Writers' Group in Prague, Czechia. February 2020.


Hard times in the city

In a hard town by the sea

Ain't nowhere to run to

There ain't nothin' here for free

Oh, Baltimore

Ain't it hard just to live?

Oh, Baltimore

Ain't it hard just to live?

Just to live

~ Nina Simone, “Oh, Baltimore,” 1978


It’s just after 1900 on a cold, Friday evening. Mid-February. West Baltimore. A group of rug rats are roaming the streets of Baltimore looking for a warm place to hold up for the rest of the evening. They haven’t seen their parents in days. School was long, hard, and cold. Together, they are family. But during this Black History month, they know they have to move quickly and together, or wind up dead on the streets that claimed countless of their ancestors.


“’Ey yo. I see a spot up there,” Jamal calls out to the crew. He’s a bit older than the rest and the surrogate older brother, dad, uncle; all the things these kids never had. They cast all of their hopes and aspirations on to him. Though he is broken inside, he always seems to hold it together for this motley crew.


“I’m hun…..gggg….ry,” Tony lets out with a yawn. Not only is he hungry. He is tired. There will be no school on Monday because the national stops to celebrate men who were cis, het, mediocre, and managed to fool the nation. Oh. Some Pilgrims call it “Presidents’ Day.” Why would they make the observation of this day smack dab in the middle of Black History Month? Can’t they just give us that? Damn. Fucking Christ. During the middle of Black fucking History Month we have to stop and honor white supremacy. To make matters worse, banks are closed, offices are closed but worst of all: schools are closed. These kids need those school meals as much as the Panthers needed guns and as much as the Klan needed Johnson.


“Word. Let’s post up.” CJ, the second eldest of the group hurries the others inside before 5-0 catches them and tries to take them back “home.”


Inside, the group does the typical assessment to see what junkies and whores have made this bando their own. It seems safe. The electricity isn’t working but it’s warm enough for the night. There’s mattress-like bedding on the floor. Syringes, dirty napkins, blood stained chairs line the rest of the walk-in level. They know that if someone comes in, it won’t be safe for them. The entire crew moves as one and in silence. Everything is temporary, including their lives.


Ascending the stairs, they scope out the three bedroom pad. Towards the front of the Brick rowhome, they find a fully furnished bedroom. “What King has been staying here,” Bianca exclaims with amazement as she plops on the king sized bed with plush sheets. “EWWW. That’s disgusting. Who knows what’s happened on that bed,” Deanna replies. The bed is large enough for the whole crew to fit one. They gather on the bed, pulling the sheets up to their faces. Jamal reaches deep in his hoodie pocket, pushing through the loose change to find a lighter. “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” Jamal reaches over to light the candles he sees in the room. CJ hands him a pack of 8 24-hour candles he lifted from the Dollar Tree earlier.

CJ and Jamal open their jackets and pour the candy and food-like substances they’ve been swiping all day. Bianca empties her purse which is full of sodas: Pineapple, Orange, Strawberry, you name it. The kids dig in. It’s their communion and thanksgiving.


“So… in school, my teacher gave me this bag with all these strips and instructions. She said there’s a game we can play together. It’s like Bubble-Gum-Bubble-Gum in a Dish…” Tony begins.


“How many pieces do you wish?!” The littlest of them all, Amber, is so excited. She loves that game. But she never understands why she always ends up being it. She loves being the container. Oh, dear. She has much to learn.


“No silly. So, we get in a circle and pull out the strips. On the strips are the names of Ancestors…” Tony tries again while loosing his patience.


“ANTStestors?” Amber questions.


“Yo. Let me fucking finish. Damn. Ancestors. The homies that died before us. You know. Like, Pops.”


“Oh.” Amber says defeatedly.


“So, like I was saying though. We say a rhyme. Then pick a name. Then we learn about the life of our ancestors.” Tony tries the last time. The kids eat their snacks, enjoy their communion, and continue talking until they are ready to try Tony’s game.


Listen children,

All draw near.

Hear these stories,

No one hears.

Will you, dear (Tony pulls name) Jerry, be Quick or Dead?


Tony reads: “Jerry Williams. Assassinated by the Asheville Police Department. July 2, 2016.”

CJ seems a bit un-nerved. “Something doesn’t feel right about this, Tony. This ain’t no game, man. How this ‘posed to help us learn shit, man We already know pigs don’t care about us.”


“Come on, let’s try a few more. I have never heard about Jerry Williams. All we hear about in July of ’16 is Charlotte. I don’t even know where Asheville is…” Bianca yearns for knowledge. She and Amber stay in the stacks at school. It’s the only place they are safe without the help of the guys. The gather back in the circle and try again.


Listen children,

All draw near.

Hear these stories,

No one hears.

Will you, dear (Bianca pulls name) CJ, be Quick or Dead?


Bianca: “Madame CJ Walker. The first Black woman millionaire. No, she did not make her money ‘quick’ like we think of today. But in her time, she rose to fame, power, prestige, and monetary wealth quite quickly.” The kids settle in and agree that they should keep playing and learning. As typical with kids their age, they start to get loud and settle in for the evening. Unbeknownst to them, trouble awaits outside their West Baltimore window.


Listen children,

All draw near.

Hear these stories,

No one hears.

Will you, dear…


POP-POPPOPPOP – Gunshots cry out in the still of the night like a mother who has lost her only child. Tony and Amber fling up to the window. “EVERYONE DOWN, QUICK!” Tony yells at the group. Just at that moment, as the crew gathers together, bullets scream through their window.


Listen children,

All draw near.

Hear these stories,

No one hears.


Will you, dear, Tony…Amber…Bianca…CJ…Jamal…be quick or dead? Oh, Baltimore.

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