The Muralist

by Ibi Zoboi

Man, let me tell you about the nighttime. A blank canvas. A lame brick wall. Except for the walking dead who traveled with their own colors. It was work to be able to see them. A stroke of my paintbrush fingers in midair would reveal the aura of the closest one. A few more strokes, and the fully formed spook would appear. Crazy-ass nighttime. Like Whodini said. Except it ain’t the freaks. It’s the spooks. Soon as dusk settled like dirt over the city resting its filthy head for some Zs, the spooks came out against the city’s perpetual bright lights. Flashing all that color like strobe lights at the club. Like that stupid spinning disco ball that’ll make you throw all your shit up if you stared at it too long after you’ve had too much to drink.

“That’s my spot! Get out my spot!” I yelled as I limped my way over to a bed for the night.

Just when it was still light enough outside, I roamed the streets of Brooklyn looking for a makeshift shrine of seven day candles, flowers, and crying folk. That’s where it was quiet. The spooks didn’t come close to where a Newdead was about to make its way into the Cracks. Too much confusion. So these were the only corners in the city I could lay my head right at night.

But the crying folk wouldn’t leave. Some fool gunned down somebody’s son right next to a corner bodega. Always something about the crossroads. You make a deal with the devil, do your dirt, and there was always four directions you could choose to run towards.

“Man, get outta here!” one dude yelled at me. He was rushing towards me with his fists clenched.

I stayed put, removed my shades, and dared him to try something. He came close enough, though. Until he saw my eyes. His broad shoulders dropped. His sweaty face softened a little. I limped backwards, leaned a bit, feigning heroin-induced ignorance. “Nah, nah, nah. You must got me confused with someone else. I just want somewhere quiet to sleep, is all. It’s so pretty over there with the flowers and lights and shit.”

He squinted, licked his lips. Then, “You can’t sleep here, homie. Find somewhere else to stay.” He placed his hand under his shirt and right by his belt. A few other dudes had come closer and stood behind him with those same clenched fists and tightened jaws. As if shooting or beating the crap out of me would make any difference.

I’ve been around long enough to know the language and dress code of the streets. I better know if I’m to look for work here. I was at that drive-by on Marcy two weeks ago, that shooting at Pink Houses projects, even at that media circus where the undercover detective was did in execution-style right under the Kosciusko Bridge. The city streets with all its sleepwalkers during the day and walking dead during the night was also my home. He must’ve thought I was one of the soldiers in this gang war. An undercover enemy coming to scope out the scene to see if the job was done right.

Nope. No soldier here. But the folks who paid me to do this shit called me the Muralist.

Someone would come asking soon enough, for sure. If I cleaned myself up right. I needed some toothpaste, a shower, and clean clothes. I’d cut up some cardboard into little rectangles to make up my business cards. That’s how it’s done here. Like Jay-Z said: I’m a business, man!

But now was too soon to approach this boy’s family. The grief was too raw. His mother was still sobbing over the spot where his body lay riddled with bullets. It was long after the ambulance and detectives were gone, the news people closed shop, and the yellow tape taken down. Another woman had pulled the crying mama away. The clenched-fist dudes had to strategize their retaliation elsewhere.

And I would keep vigil for a few hours, before I was lulled to sleep by the small space of quiet stillness. But not for too long, though.

The boy started wreaking havoc once he realized what the fuck had just happened to him. This one was a young buck. Barely 13, I heard the crying folk say.

There he was moving about like globs of unmixed paint on a palette. Too young to have settled in any one color—emanating no particular aura. He hadn’t found himself yet. And he hadn’t gotten used to how fast he could move without the use of legs and the rest of his body. He zoomed from one corner of the block to the next in less than five seconds. Next thing I knew, he was trying to get into his building across the street but went right through the first door, the second, the concrete wall at the other end of the lobby, and probably ended up in the courtyard.

Greatest entertainment in the world watching a Newdead get a hold if his new reality. “Welcome to the Cracks, little brother. Welcome to the Cracks,” I laughed.

He heard me. Within milliseconds he was just a few feet from me. Turning his head every which way like a dope fiend. Panting. Restless. Never in peace, of course.

His colors became a red-based rainbow of confusion, anger, and panic—would’ve been straight up a muddy brown mess. Colors didn’t mix so well in innocent souls. Each one was contained within its own vibration. Red in anger and sex territory, nurturing blue lingered right around the neck, and throbbing yellow pulsed at his core. Like the gangs with their colors and turfs. But little did they know, the streets belonged to the spooks—the very souls from the bodies and lives they jacked.

Better to keep quiet until he figured some of this shit out on his own. No sense in me trying to initiate the Newdead into the Cracks anymore. That was work I couldn’t get paid for. What good was spook money? Couldn’t put food in my belly and couldn’t pay rent or the liquor man with that kind of work.

Folks walked past his little shrine, shook their heads, and gossiped about who might’ve done it and why.

“They’re talking about those guys from Fort Greene projects got somebody to do it,” one girl said.

“Shhh!” the other one whispered. “Nobody’s saying nothing. Or else they’ll be snitching!”

“Hey!” Little Newdead tried to talk to them. “It’s me, Ace! Can’t you see I’m right here? I’m right here!”

The red part of him was starting to take over his bottom half. Frustration.

I started to gather my stuff to move into my spot. I got my shades and my one beat up bag of nothing, save for my bottle of sunshine. Not moonshine, ‘cause I hate the nighttime. Better to look like I carried around painting supplies than to be accused of stealing shit. What I look telling somebody that I got my materials from the ethers? That I didn’t need anything that nature hadn’t already provided to be able to do my job?

I had to get paid top dollars for this mess, son. My shit was gallery material. My paint didn’t run, fade, or chip. It’s bad enough that I used to be that smelly, crazy, homeless dude that used to draw people up in the subway. For chump change. I mean, I was using my own colors and shit. Depleting my own soul till I looked like a crackhead. No putting spooks out of their misery in that kind of work.

I settled right next to the dumpster against the corner bodega wall. The shrine was just a few feet away. What was usually a 24 hour bodega had to shut down for a couple of days. The blood stain on the sidewalk was removed hours ago, but I could still see its lingering glow. A luminescent gray for now. As the sun settled, the deep crimson would reveal itself against the canvas backdrop of the night.

I closed my eyes to the boy’s whirling colors. He’d be at it until the next morning when the sun rose and he’d be forced to hide from the light. The spooks slid behind the shadows of the walking dead during the day. I watched the rest of them gliding through the streets in the distance. They’d leave me alone tonight. I’d sleep long and hard. Tomorrow would be a work day.

*

I washed up in the bathroom of a Mickey D’s right next to the funeral parlor just a few blocks away. With my shades to shield my eyes, clean and fed after begging for some change, I was good enough to offer my services to the family. No need in telling them that putting their boy’s body six feet under wasn’t going to make him rest any more peacefully. I had to get my game right.

“Hi, ah, Miss, ah…” I cleared my throat and extended my ashy hand—not the left one with all the colors on it. “I’m what you call, a…a Muralist.”

She didn’t take my hand. Some folks had gathered around her, but she was willing to hear me out. “You one of Ace’s friends?” she asked, slowly blinking her sad eyes.

“Uh, no. You could see some of my work all around Brooklyn. Uh, you know that dude that was shot over on Snyder? That wall over on the handball courts in the playground across the street? That’s me. I did that.” I smiled, despite knowing that she wouldn’t look too favorably upon my missing front tooth.

That dude over on Snyder? The only casualty of a playground shootout in the middle of the day. He was wrecking up shop over there by the monkey bars and swings as a Newdead. Had to set him straight. That one was pro bono on my part. Served him right to be all trapped up on a wall getting his face smacked with a little handball over and over again.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” was all she said, shaking her head and starting to sob again.

These things took time. I was patient. But the Newdead would soon meet the spooks. And the deeper he got into the Cracks, the harder it would be to pull from his colors. That boy Ace was too young for the Cracks. He had too much going for him to be lingering in that space between life and death for all of eternity.

*

I had two more restful nights while Ace ventured past the corner bodega—seeing more of his city in death than he’d seen in his lifetime. He’d be gone for about half an hour, probably going as far as the Hudson on one end and the very edge of Queens on the other. And going right through the other spooks in the process. It’ll be some time before he could see them—before he realized he was not alone in the Cracks, the city of spooks.

He’d bug out even more if I dared say a word to him right now, mess with his colors a bit. I needed that palette to stay the way it was—no need bringing fearful yellow even more into the mix.

“Yo, asshole!” the bodega owner yelled at me. The spooks were barely back into the shadows when he straight up screamed in my face as I slept.

“This is my spot,” I said. Throat dry. Breath stinking, for sure.

“Come on, man! What you mean this is your spot? You’re not paying rent!”

He started grabbing things from the trash can at the corner and throwing them at me. I couldn’t do anything but hide my face.

“Hey, hey, hey!” a lady yelled from across the street. “What are you doing?”

It was Ace’s mama holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a candle in the next coming to refresh the shrine.

“Lady, you want this bum around where your son just got killed?” the bodega store owner asked.

Ace’s mama came closer and squinted at me. I quickly put on my shades.

“You came to me the other day,” she said, side-eyeing me. “You’re the muralist.”

I grabbed a sheet of newspaper—one of several that doubled as a blanket. I gently brushed my left hand fingers down the sheet of irrelevant words and pictures, pulling from my own supply of colors, and created an image of her son—this Ace.

I risked her seeing me do this little bit of magic. She would definitely think I was crazy. But it was my one chance to prove that I was a bum with real skills. I needed some cash money in my pocket fast. Bodega man wasn’t trying to have me shack up against the wall of his store for another night. Besides, Ace’s altar was fast becoming impotent in keeping the other spooks at bay.

“How’d you do that?” she asked of my magical masterpiece, looking more scared than anything. She’d stepped back like I stunk or something.

“You know, I’m an artist.”

“But how’d you know what my son looks like. Did you know him? Who are you?” She spoke softly, even though she had that deep, raspy voice that I was sure could spit out stabbing, venomous words if she felt crossed in any way.

“He got it from the newspaper, that’s all,” the bodega man replied on my behalf.

There was a stack of newspapers just a few feet away, and at the very bottom of the front page was a picture of Ace: Latest Victim In City’s Gang War.

“Yeah, yeah. You know, if he was important enough to be in the newspaper and shit, then maybe he should be up on some wall. Like, for the world to see.” I smiled my very best toothless smile.

Ace’s mama closed her eyes and looked down. “No, thank you,” she whispered.

I stood there for a minute. Then I tried to hand her my drawing of Ace, but she didn’t take it.

“You heard the lady, leave her alone! She’s mourning for chrissake!”

The bodega man was all up in my face again. Some corner bodega owners were keepers of the crossroads—tricksters, dual-faced. Selling quarter candies to the babies with one hand, and stashing dope for the dealers with the other. If his soul were to ever get jacked by some drive-by bullet or some highfalutin boss man, I’d paint him right into the concrete sidewalk. Nothing worse than getting stomped on, spat on, and pissed on in your own turf.

No matter. It was time for breakfast anyway. The sun was rising over the brick buildings that lined Fulton Avenue. The colors of the daylight hours—the trees in summer, the signs and traffic lights, the cars, the skin tones, the patterns on clothes—all blended into a pale shade of gray once again. Legal blindness was a handicap, I was told. But it was hard luck trying to collect disability checks when there was no proof of ever being born—a birth certificate, names of parents or kin, much less a raggedy mailbox attached to someplace called home.

I dug into my jacket pocket and pulled out fifty-two cents. I’d buy a bag of chips, but that dude wasn’t going to get not one cent of my business. There’d be another corner bodega a block away.

I spent the day in the subway, having made my way in alongside a group of camp kids on a field trip. I made ten bucks from a few drawings of random folks. Much more money than I’d made just using colored pencils or crayons. Five dollars was from a bright-eyed young lady who saw what I had done. Her thin red lips parted to ask me how. But the words never escaped. Maybe she thought talking to me would get her clothes dirty or something.

The other five bucks was a combination of coins thrown at my drawings as I sat beneath a subway map a few inches from a Metrocard machine. It was enough for a fancy lunch of Chinese takeout. Good enough to keep me full until the next day.

The sun was easing down beneath the horizon and I had to introduce myself to Ace—it’s been one week. But there was a candlelight vigil at the bodega. A good twenty to thirty people stood around holding flickering white lights. I could see dim flashes of color weaving in and out of the crowd—Ace wanting desperately to get somebody’s attention. It wasn’t the night yet and he forced himself out of the shadows.

“This has got to stop! They’re killing our babies out here in these streets,” Ace’s mama cried from somewhere in the midst of the folks.

I caught a glimpse of the shrine with even more candles and flowers than before. This time, a framed photo of Ace was placed right at the center—eager brown eyes, a reluctant smile revealing a set of braces, and a crooked tie.

It was times like this that I wanted desperately to gouge my crazy eyes out and give them to a grieving mother so she could see the beautiful work of art her son had become. Not that the living human body wasn’t a masterpiece in and of itself. It’s just that hardly anybody even noticed when you’re pissed off about everything, desperate for some kind of attention that felt something like love, and doing stupid shit to prove your worth to the world. The changing colors of life’s ups and downs were all trapped in the body. Like a thick dark stormy cloud muting the light of the sun.

I stayed at a safe distance. Some news people came around, took some pictures, asked some questions. The boy was whirling around those folks like a fireball—red and orange with anger and desperation.

“They can’t see you, Little homie,” I whispered. I shouldn’t have.

In an instant he was circling me where I stood against the gate of a nearby brownstone. His flaming colors became shades of yellow, then blue, and almost violet. He was starting to figure something out.

“Yeah, you heard me. They can’t see you, so calm the fuck down,” I said. So what that I looked like I was talking to myself. That’s what people expected anyway.

Each of his colors were getting brighter. Excitement. And they shone right through my dark shades. I saw the crowd parting in the distance and Ace’s mama had stepped out and was looking in my direction. She started to walk over to me. I fixed my posture, adjusted my shades, and cleared my throat.

Her eyes were looking towards me, but not at me. Ace, the Newdead spook, had become like Times Square, but I was the only one who could see him. But it looked like his mama was staring directly at him. And he was getting all excited about it.

“Ascencio,” she whispered. “Ascencio, mi hijo. Dónde está?” Her eyes wandered around me, seemingly following Ace’s path.

“Luz, he’s gone, honey. He’s with the angels now,” another woman said.

But Luz’s eyes wouldn’t pull away. And Ace had zoomed towards her, circling her head, coming so close to his mama that she almost inhaled him. Untrained, he was. If he knew better, he could’ve found in entry point through her nose, ears, or mouth. Could’ve rode her body and let his mama know for sure that he was not lingering somewhere above the clouds. But he was so desperate to get his mama’s attention that he could’ve done it by accident and wreaked havoc in her body. There’s got to be nothing more awkward than finding yourself as your own mama’s flesh and bones, the very source of your soul. Maybe being possessed by your own son’s spook is even worse.

“He’s here, alright,” I said. “He’s trying to get your attention.” Whether or not they believed me didn’t matter. His mama felt his presence and that’s all I needed. It was hit or miss with these things. Sometimes folks knew for sure that there was a presence of some sort, other times they just really wanted to believe and would pay good money for me to give them more details. Where is he now? What’s he saying? Does he know who did this to him?

*

She came to me in the middle of the night. I’d covered my head with a magazine and put up a huge piece of cardboard between my wall and the black canvas sky. The spooks had been coming closer to Ace’s altar as he left to explore the lay of the land in the Cracks. Some spook must’ve gotten to him by now, letting him know what he was and how he got there.

“Why do you stay around here?” Luz asked. She’d only wrapped a beat-up bath robe around her, her headscarf was sliding off, and her flip-flops didn’t match. But I wasn’t the one to judge.

The night air looked like a child’s finger painting project. The braver spooks had come closer to Ace’s altar to get closer to me. “I want to paint your son,” was all I said.

“Right there?” She pointed her bottom lip towards the graffiti-tagged wall behind me.

“Right there.”

“How much?”

“Well, uh, I need some supplies. And to get myself something to eat if there’s anything leftover.”

“How about you give me a list and I’ll get the supplies for you?”

I stood to my feet, catching a whiff of my non-bathing self on the way up. “You see, I got some connections so I get a discount on my supplies. If I send you to my man, he won’t know you and will charge double what I pay for, is all.” I sniffed, trying to keep my focus on her and not the patterns of color behind her. Hopeful spooks trying to get my attention.

“You bullshittin’ me? I just lost my only son and you have the nerve to bullshit me?” Luz said. “Is this what you do? Go around to grieving mothers and take their money?”

“No, no, no. No such thing, miss. This is my job, and to tell you the truth, it’s not enough to pay no rent,” I said.

Ace was whirling right behind her, a luminescent blue, not quite violet. That would mean he’d reach some greater understanding of his situation, closer to being at peace with the Cracks and the world. And that’d be when I’d lose him for good. This sort of thing didn’t happen too often in the Cracks where the spooks were too busy looking for revenge. All this boy wanted was his mama’s attention.

I took off my shades and stared directly at Luz.

She gasped. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“This is how I see your son, miss. I can paint him the way I see him.”

She looked away and hugged herself as a cool breeze swept past. She reached into the pocket of her bathrobe and handed me a wad of money. “This is only a little bit. A collection taken up by my church. If you run with it and I don’t see you again, I know my son will come after you.” Luz smiled. “If you finish and do a good job, you get the rest…and probably a little bit more. I want the whole neighborhood to remember my son’s face and whenever those assholes come around, I want his face to scare the shit out of them”. She laughed.

Easy, this one was. She wasn’t disgusted by my pupil-less eyes. Ace trailed behind her as she walked back to her building. When she went through the front door, he floated up to a third floor fire escape and eased in through an opened window. Some spook must’ve schooled him on how to make his presence known. How to close doors and knock down stuff and bend stale humid air into a cool breeze.

*

“Get away from me. This wall ain’t for you,” I said to the swirls of color coming closer to me. I could read their desperation in the mixes of longing blues and envious greens. Some spooks got weary of hanging in the balance and needed a firm, stable place to rest their colors. But I couldn’t save every spook, unless it was guaranteed that some mourning loved one would flip the bill.

“Ace, my man,” I said. In an instant he was a few inches away as I surveyed the wall on the side of the bodega to find its center—where to place Ace’s face for a balance of negative and positive space. A deep red color was invading him, bleeding into the other hues. He was plotting his revenge. “I’m gonna put you out your misery, little homie.”

It was exactly midnight and the others had come to watch. These spooks weren’t aware of their colors, they couldn’t see their own beauty. The spooks were nothing but shapeless prisms. Bending the memory of the light of the sleeping sun into my palette of unending color. The colors of all the feelings of the soul.

“You can’t stay here, Ace,” I said.

He hovered above my head. His deep red cooled into a burnt orange. Defiance.

“You know all these spooks around me are wishing they were you right now. You too young to be up in all this mess. I’m sure you heard that before. Getting all caught up in finding your killer and making sure he ends up in the Cracks just like you,” I laughed. “Both of you would just be smoky globs of color not being able to do much else but swirl around each other, like two dancing fools in a knife fight. ”

Quickly, I reached up and snatched a bit of color. Felt like nothing but air, but when I rolled in my left hand, it became hot like smoke coming from a flame. I always started with the eyes. Just so he’d be able to see what I was doing. A bit of his soul was missing, so Ace wasn’t going nowhere.

I rolled it in my hand until it became a round iridescent ball. A few more seconds of body heat and I turned it into a midnight black, dipped my right index finger, the perfect size paintbrush for pupils, and dotted the grey concrete wall. Then I pulled the deep brown and whites for the rest of the eyes. The windows. Nothing else to do from a wall, but to watch, and rest, and maybe even cry.

With my fingers and the colors of Ace’s aura, I painted this Ascencio, a.k.a. Ace. The last bit of color I left for his New York Yankees cap, tipped to side just how he liked it. And from my own supply, I tagged the usual ‘RIP’. Only this time, it was true. His eyes guarded that crossroads of a corner. There was a secret behind that cocky half smile on his face that was sure to creep anyone who stared at it too long.

Nothing new about this work. You could call me the Da Vinci or Michelangelo of the ‘hood. These spooks didn’t need to be in no fancy church ceiling, or some hoity-toity museum. Ace was going to be all right in his heaven of a wall.

A few hundred bucks from Luz got me a couple nights of peace at a B&B, a bath, some clean t-shirts, and bottles of that good stuff to keep my spirits up. I’d be chillin’ hard till the cash ran out or the next ‘hood casualty pulled me back into the Cracks. Either way, it was a job no one else ‘round these parts could claim.

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