“A Seat In The Circle” by Sean Thor Conroe

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Wasn’t till I heard Desiigner’s “Panda” play for a third consecutive time, at apartment wall-shaking decibels, that I gave up: closed my laptop, removed Winnie from my lap, and went out for a smoke.

Milo was kicking it with the crew.

Milo lived next door, in the bando-looking apartment adjacent. He rocked a grill when not eating, meticulously maintained his waves, and, though about my age, was a father.

 

I shuffled street-ward, along the unlit back walkway separated from Milo’s by chest-high fence, patting myself down for my lighter. Narrowly avoided eating it on a balloon I last-minute sidestepped that must have squirmed over from Milo’s son Tayshawn’s party last week.

A black four-door with tinted windows was idling on Ashby, at the entrance of Milo’s driveway. Passenger open, streetlight glinting off its hood. Maybe six dudes not including Milo congregated inside and around it. Of the maybe six, maybe three had phones out. Were by the looks of it Snapping.

“Bruh what’s good,” said Milo, emerging from one of apartments at the back of their lot, behind me.

“You know,” I said, removing my right earbud, which wasn’t playing anything. “Same ole.”

He typed into his phone.

“Y’all turning up tonight?”

“You know me,” he said, going in for the dap up, over the fence. “Always.”

“For sure.”

He put his head down. Continued texting.

“Welcome to come through and kick it,” he added. “We’ll just be. You know. Kicking it.” He tapped a button on his phone. Spoke into it from a distance: “Bruh these hoes tryna do what?”

I eyed the six-some at the end of the driveway. Recognized one of the bulkier dudes in a white tee and low-hanging gold chain from my first encounter with Milo. Didn’t see the fool who tried to step to me though…

The wifey and I had just moved in, I was smoking out back one weekend afternoon, adjacent to our backdoor, on the bottom step of our upstairs neighbor’s staircase, directly facing Milo’s: grill going, picnic tablecloths spread out on fold-out tables, kids running haywire. I’d just woken up, so needed thirty at least of solitary calibration before even considering speaking to anyone. Preemptively avoiding this possibility, I paced Ashby-ward, along the walkway on which I was presently idling.

But midday weekend traffic on Ashby can be on one. As the foremost thoroughfare leading onto 580 South, which led onto the Bay Bridge, it funneled just about all SF-bound South Berkeleyites and North Oaklanders—where it intersected San Pablo, a couple houses over from Milo’s, literally the neck of the bottle.

Quickly realizing I wouldn’t be able to handle the energy of the street, I stopped, one-eightied, and started back towards the staircase. Figured I’d hide out on the cinder block I’d found, while moving in the week before, behind the dumpster abutting our back window.

Ninety degrees into my one-eighty, I caught the eye of one of Milo’s homies who, the moment I noticed him, I could tell had been eyeing me since I’d stepped outside.

“That’s right dog. Keep walking.”

I heard this only vaguely, amidst the chatter of the barbeque.

I stopped, turned, to ensure whoever spoke was in fact addressing me.

Homie—light-skinned, durag just visible beneath a beanie—was blatantly mean-mugging, his fingers massaging the blunt he was rolling.

“What was that?” I said.

“Said ain’t nothing to see here, dog.“ He stood up. Looked left, right, left again. Licked the paper, lit it to dry it, and lit up.

“I mean, I live here. Who the fuck are you?” I said, dragging hard.

He approached aggressively. Stopped about ten feet away.

“Bruh who am I? I been here. Born and raised. I know everyone here. Who the fuck is you?” his voice going an octave higher at the end.

None of those gathered took notice, save for this bigger, bulky dude with a gold grill and gold chain and crisp white tee who stood by, avoiding eye contact but whose expression conveyed, Not getting involved yet, but you see me and I see you; I’m right here.

“Well shoot,” I said. “My name is Sho. And I live here.” I indicated our back door. “Recently moved here, that is. Ever moved before?”

“Nah.”

“Huh,” I said, considering this. Flicked my butt, spat, and proceeded to the back.

“Bruh,” he said, following me. “I been here since I was born. Where the fuck you from?”

“Shit dude. All over! Moved every two years damn near since I was born. Fuck outta my face.”

Here Milo stepped in, “holding him back.”

I sat down on the cinder block. Someone had moved it to the side of the laundry shed, against the back fence, facing Milo’s lot but also partially obscured from it by the back row of apartments. Opened my book, Parzival (ca. 1200), and began going through the motions of reading.

 “What are you then, dog? Like, what are you?” He paced side to side behind Milo’s outstretched arms, doing that thing fools do when flexing where they lick their lips and rub their palms together, as if their hands are cold.

Thinking I’d flexed enough for the day, I almost ignored this. Until I was piqued by the question. By what he meant.

“What do you mean?” I said, laughing lightheartedly enough to diffuse the conflict somewhat, derisively enough to convey “it’s still beef.”

“I mean what you rep? Norteño? Sureño?”

“Ha,” I said. “I don’t rep shit. Just out here.”

“You Mexican?”

“Nah bruh. Japonés.”

He would later come over, ask what I was reading, comment “Reading’s mad important yo, gotta keep your mind right,” here tapping his temple.

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Reading’s where it’s at.”

Milo, too, would introduce himself. As did White Tee homie who’d stood by and surveyed; he saluted impassively from back of Milo, without coming forward. And he was whom I recognized on this night—out by the idling four-door blasting “Panda.”

 

Milo had invited me to come over and kick it a number of times in the nine-or-so months since that first encounter. But I never had, not least since his invitations seemed like, and likely somewhat were, tacit requests that I don’t hit him with a noise complaint: his music, lately Dirty Sprite 2 (2015) on loop, really was apartment-wall-shaking. Plus weekend nights—when the invitations tended to come—I generally spent out with co-workers or cuddled up with the wifey and our cat, Winnie. The wifey, however, was on this night out of town.

“Ay!” I called out to Milo, who’d meandered over to the idling car, was showing White Tee something on his phone. He looked up. “Y’all gonna be out here in like ten?”

“For sure bro,” he called back, lifting his thumb aloft.

I went inside, rolled a more ambitious spliff than I would have were I smoking alone, grabbed a 40 oz. sparkling water from the fridge door, replaced it with another from the pack of six stashed atop the fridge, and returned outside.

Vaulting over the fence, I found them congregated in the semblance of a circle, on fold out chairs out front the two-story back row of apartments, illuminated by a motion activated light. They were passing around a bottle of something pink and bubbly.

After conducting intros, Milo pulled up a chair.

“Anyone tryna smoke?” I said, procuring the spliff.

“I’m straight,” said Milo. “Don’t smoke.”

I surveyed the circle, gesturing Anyone?

All except homie directly to my left, whom I didn’t recognize from a previous shindig, declined.

“Word,” I said, for some reason thrown.

Homie to my left passed me the bubbly, which I traded him for the spliff I’d gotten going. Swigged. Sweeter than expected. Passed it along.

White Tee was going on about someone who was fronting like he wasn’t into dudes but was pretty clearly into dudes.

“Nah, I don’t even understand that though,” said Milo, pouring codeine out of a wrinkled paper bag into a two liter of Sprite, the outdoor light glinting off his grill. “Like, how you a dude, with a dick, and not be fucking hoes? Like how?”

“Nah for real though,” someone else added. “Not even gonna lie, if my kid was gay I wouldn’t even fuck with him.”

“Damn,” someone else said.

“Even if it was a girl?” I said.

“Huh?”

“If you had a daughter, who was gay, would you fuck with her?”

“Oh, I mean, yeah. That’s different.”

“Word,” I said, taking back the spliff homie to my left handed me. Toked. Exhaled. “My sister…” I began, as if about to rail off additional details, before trailing off, feeling the weed all at once, mid-clause. A hyper-pixilation of my surroundings, like HD television to the unaccustomed eye. Needed a sec was all.

“Yo, play back that Stick Talk,” said Milo to whomever was closest to the speaker, a sizeable subwoofer bungeed onto a dolly-type cart.

Took a shot o’ Henny I been goin’ brazy brazy!

Milo held the two liter to the light. Watched the lean and soda mix.

“Activis?” I said, once Future got a few bars in.

“Shoot,” said Milo. “Is it?” He removed the paper bag. Examined the label. The bottle looked pharmaceutical grade. “Yeah. It is.”

“Damn,” I said.

“Yo, you fuck with lean?” said Milo, his fist over his mouth as if about to bust into a laugh. Everyone not on their phone looked up—homie to my left holding in his inhale, as if until I responded.

“I mean,” I said, smiling. “Nah.”

Everyone laughed.

“But—,” I said, holding up my pointer. “By no means saying I wouldn’t. Just haven’t ever.”

“Aha, this nigga said ‘by no means saying I wouldn’t’,” said White Tee, the part repeating what I’d said in a ho-hum Square White Dude voice, before swigging the bubbly.

Everyone went silent.

Of the moths circling the motion detector light at the base of the upper level balcony, one, the largest, kept banging into the bulb, bouncing off, banging back into the bulb.

“Hold on. So all you fools do lean? But don’t smoke weed?” I said, addressing everyone but for some reason looking directly at White Tee.

“Shoot,” he said. “I don’t even fuck with that no more.”

Others in the circle nodded.

“That’s only ’cause this nigga wife-d up,” said Milo, snickering like kee-kee-kee.

White Tee pssshhh-ed. Looked down at his phone.

Next the bubbly came around I said I was good, opting instead for my forty of sparkling water. Grabbed the bottle by its neck, swigged it like one might a Mickeys.

I imagined myself as a gaucho-type wino, face dirtied and lounging trackside, glugging a forty of malt liquor. Only it wasn’t malt liquor. It was sparkling water. This image, the clarity of it, filled me with silent laughter. The feeling came over me like a wave, warming my insides.

Then the wave passed.

I dragged. Got only crutch.

Panicking, not wanting to forget the feeling, I jotted into my phone:

Sipping 40 oz. of sparkling water like it’s booze.

Before last minute adding:

“The Hydrationists.” 

I asked Milo whether he made music, whether he rapped; and, when he said ’Course, suggested he play something, but in a sec—to Think of a good one need to grab something be right back—before vaulting back over the fence and into my apartment, which I’d left unlocked since I could see the backdoor from where I’d been sitting. Refilled my grinder with dispensary-bought Gorilla Scout, re-exited, vaulted back over the fence, and returned to my seat in the circle.

Things had shifted slightly in my absence. There was commotion from inside the main apartment, around the corner but in earshot. White Tee was where he’d been when I left, except now he was standing: on his phone, stance active as if organizing a relocation. I recognized the central voice of the commotion as the grandmother or guardian of Milo’s son Tayshawn. In her mid-forties, she at times conducted herself in a matriarchal, domineering way, at others could be seen mildly made up, getting lit with the younger folks.

Undeterred by the Changes, feeling “I was onto something,” I rolled up another.

Two tokes in, an old, beat up, raised pickup barged up the driveway. Skrt-ed abruptly, as if about to occupy one of the slanted spots in the back corner of the paved yard. We all stood and in unison yelled versions of “Woah woah woah!” indicating we didn’t want to get run over. The driver, a girl I hadn’t seen before, looked not only lit but untrustworthy the way she sat awkwardly upright, craning her neck over the steering wheel. She lurched to a stop at an oblique angle to the property-separating fence and promptly killed the engine.

Five tokes in, two older dudes in tank tops, basketball shorts, and slides emerged from upper-level apartments. Began disputing something with the pickup driver.

Milo had his head down, was focused intently on his phone. Whether scrolling for a suitable song to play or for something else entirely I wasn’t sure. Homie to my left was debating with homie across the way about whether the group of women they were about to meet up with were “tryna get it” or not. The consensus-held hope was that they were.

The arrival of this tertiary force to compete for auditory supremacy in this shared outdoor space stressed me out, but evidently didn’t anyone else present. Milo seemed a bit withdrawn, like he might be irked by the trio arguing. Or maybe by my presence, which seemed to take on a different significance with the arrival of the pickup. Couldn’t tell.

“This some shit right here,” said Milo. “Where that aux at?”

He turned off “Panda,” which had somehow made its way back onto the speakers. Threw on his song.

It sounded like some early-aughts, Bay Area Hyphy shit, except with the influence of all the current, Atlanta-based rap I knew Milo listened to evident. Although only obliquely: I felt, like I did with most amateur rap, that the flow could vary more from bar to bar. Same time, the barometer for bar-quality in that Hyphy sound was more the consistency and oomph applied to each enunciation, rather than the complexity of the syllabic patterning.

So yeah, I fucks with this, I was about to say, before the truck’s engine, on its third attempt, screeched back on.

The truck lurched back, scraping the fence. Three or more bodies yelled and strolled briskly to strategic, mirrored points around it. The driver swiveled frantically, apparently unaware of how to employ side-mirrors. Homie stationed behind the truck, on the exhaust-side, began coughing and stepped back, enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke.

By the time the driver backed out to the road and successfully entered the gauntlet of westbound Ashby traffic, the gathering seemed shot.

I dapped up Milo, my sole co-smoker, and White Tee, before vaulting back over the fence and into my apartment, where I was greeted by an especially vocal and frenetic Winnie.

Closed and this time locked the door.

 

 

Sean Thor Conroe was born 香村 翔宇 (Kamura Sho) in Tokyo. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, on sidewalks and in fields. He hosts the podcast ‘1storypod,’ tweets @stconroe, and edits http://1storyhaus.com 

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