There once was a black teenager from South Florida named Darnell who got into a little bind with money, so he asked his girlfriend Denise if he could pawn the ring he had given her with the promise to return it as soon as he’d earned enough money to buy it back. She agreed and he took a job after school at a fast food restaurant, and two months later he had earned enough to fulfill his promise.
But when he arrived at her apartment with the ring Denise’s sister said she was at his friend Edward’s house, so Darnell walked over there and Edward answered the door in his underwear. Moments later Denise came up beside him, her shoulders bare and her body wrapped in a sheet. “I brought you your ring,” Darnell choked.
Denise said that he could keep it since she didn’t want it anymore, but he protested and explained how hard he had worked to get it back because he thought that they loved each other. She told him guys gave her stuff all the time and that he acted like a little boy, which is one of the reasons why she had never slept with him.
Darnell had always been rather passive and not one to fight, and now, after Denise and Edward had gone back into the bedroom, he stood quietly on the stoop as his heart broke. At last he shuffled away, clenching the ring in his fist as the hot Florida sun bore down on his drooping head.
On the way home some local tough guys who had seen him earlier at the check cashing store surrounded him and demanded the money. When he told them he didn’t have it anymore they grabbed him and searched his pockets, and finding nothing, began to punch and kick him until he fell down and dropped the ring. After pocketing it they yanked off his shoes, tied the laces together, and threw them over a power line. “Now you ain’t got no shoes!” they laughed and sauntered away.
Bruised, bloodied, and his nicest polo shirt soiled, Darnell crawled to the curb and sat there in despair. “What am I gonna do now?”
After a while he glanced up at his shoes dangling in the breeze, then looked over at the corner shopping center and the people bustling in and out of the liquor store, the Chinese BBQ, the payday advance, the barber shop. Discarded lottery tickets danced up and away as passing cars swept them in their wake. A grisly homeless man leaned against a pay phone muttered to himself between sips from a paper bag, and nearby a deal was going down in a parked car.
A sick feeling of futility burst up from his stomach. He saw the ugly scene so clearly—with himself stuck right in the middle—and it was a pitiful sight. “What am I gonna do? How am I gonna get out of here?”
He eyed the army recruiter’s office next to the BBQ and shook his head. Enough local guys had come back wounded or messed up in the head that Darnell knew better than to sign up for that. A quick way out with too many strings attached. Some other kids from around town went off to college on football and basketball scholarships each year, but a lot of them flunked out and fell right back into the soup. Darnell couldn’t shoot a free throw to save his life anyway. A lot of people were in jail, too many, but that was no way out either.
He thought back on those weeks spent flipping burgers to pay for the ring, how he hadn’t even minded the work because at the time he still thought Denise loved him. It was maybe the only time in his life when he had been able to focus on something and not worry about what was going on outside. Life felt good—it made sense—when you knew what you had to do to get something accomplished.
But in one afternoon he had lost it all and come crashing back to earth. And standing tall above him now were all the lies, violence, and ugliness that no tropical rainstorm could wash away from his world. “Oh no, no, no, no. What am I gonna do?”
That evening as the sun slowly made its way down in orange majesty, and the birds fluttered playfully amongst the treetops in a ritual millions of years old, young Darnell dragged himself home in sock feet feeling in his heart that same ache all sensitive souls have felt throughout the ages, men too simple and pure to stomach the lawless daily scrum that plays out from the mean streets and trailer parks to the gated communities and mansions beyond. Yet at the end of this sad day, despite it all, Darnell finally cracked a small smile when he figured that his mama would probably give him a few dollars to buy a pair of used shoes from the thrift store in the morning.