Read an Exclusive Excerpt from Leila Mottley’s “Nightcrawling” – Oprah Mag
Maya Angelou once said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
Kiara, the main character in Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling—Oprah’s latest OBC pick—is a 17-year-old who has little room to dream beyond her current circumstances. With the death of their father and the incarceration of their mother, Kiara and brother Marcus struggle to stay above water, keeping desperation a few feet away. In this excerpt, Kiara and her friend Alé embark on a trip to Joy Funeral Home in East Oakland, where they mingle with mourners, nibble on food spreads, and sometimes join in the weeping. Despite the setting, the two friends use this opportunity to bond—to inhabit each other’s lives and escape their obligations. The teens allow themselves to be young and free in this moment, moving beyond mere survival.
As in the rest of the book, Oakland looms large as a character—sometimes warm, sometimes menacing, but always familiar and understood.
“Chunks of road sit beside holes they left behind, where wheels of broken-down Volkswagens dip in and for a second I don’t know if they’re gonna pull back out until they do, the only remnant of distress left in the slight rattle of the bumper. All the holes in Oakland never seem to leave nobody stuck for long, an illusion of brokenness. Or maybe that’s just for the cars.”
On a sentence-by-sentence level, Mottley’s poetry and lyricism, her keen observation of marginalized lives, makes Nightcrawling a must-read. Mottley was the 2018 Oakland youth poet laureate; Nightcrawling, which she began writing at 17, is her first book. —Wadzanai Mhute
Joy Funeral Home is one of many death hotels in East Oakland. It sits on the corner of Seminary Avenue and some other street nobody bothers to learn the name of, welcoming in bodies and more bodies. Alé and I frequent it every couple months, when the employees turn over because they can’t stomach another brushing of a corpse beside a plate of Safeway cheese. We’ve been to enough funerals in our lives to know nobody grieving wants no damn cheese.
Alé and I walk up to MacArthur Boulevard, where we catch the NL, hopping on with Clipper cards we stole from some elementary school lost and found. The bus is almost empty because we are young and foolish while everybody else is sitting at a desk in some tech building, staring at a screen and wishing they could taste the air when it is fresh and tranquil. We don’t got nowhere to be and we like it like that.
Alé is one of the lucky ones. Her family’s restaurant is a neighborhood staple, and even though they can’t afford more than the one bedroom above the shop, she’s never been hungry a day in her life. It’s all degrees of being alive out here and every time I hug her or watch her skate down the sidewalk, I can feel how strong her heartbeat is. It doesn’t matter how lucky you are, though, because you still gotta work day in and day out trying to stay alive while someone else falls through the cracks, ashes scattered in the bay.
Thursdays and Sundays are the only days Alé will come crawling around town with me. She normally stays to help her mom run the restaurant, standing over a stove or waitressing. When I’m lonely, I come watch her do this, observing the way she can sweat nonstop for hours without even moving.
I stare at Alé as she looks out her window, the bus shaking us into each other and away. We’re at a red light when she nudges me.
“They really tryna replace Obama with that woman.” She nods her head toward the poster pasted in some hardware store window with Hillary Clinton’s face creased and smiling. We’re more than a year away from the election, but it’s already started, all the rumors and talk coinciding with rallies and protests and black men shot down. I shake my head, the bus moving again, before settling my eyes back on Alé.
“You not even wearing black, girl, what you doing?” I ask. She’s still in her white shirt and shorts.
“You ain’t either.”
When she says this, I look down at my own gray shirt and black jeans. “I’m halfway there.”
Alé lets out a small laugh. “This a hood funeral, anyway. Nobody gonna question what we’re wearing.”
And suddenly we’re both giggling because she’s right and we must have known this, since we’ve never shown up to a funeral in anything but jeans and stained T-shirts, except for when Alé’s abuelo died two years ago and we wore his shirts, ones that had yellowed from age and smelled only of cigarettes and clay from the deepest, most fertile part of the ground. No mortician ever interrogated the mourner’s apparel just like they don’t stop and ask about no stab wounds. I showed up to my own daddy’s funeral in a neon-pink tank top and nobody said a word.
Mama blamed the prison for Daddy’s death, which meant she blamed the people who made it possible for Daddy to have ended up there in the first place—which meant she blamed the streets. Daddy wasn’t a hustler or a dealer and I only ever saw him high once, smoking a bowl while he sat by the shit pool with Uncle Ty. It didn’t matter though, because Mama could only see the day Daddy got picked up, his friends’ twitching mouths when the cops appeared and slammed them to the plaster walls. It didn’t matter what they did or didn’t do because Mama needed to blame someone, something, and her skin was too soft, too tender to handle blaming the world itself, the click of the handcuffs, the ease with which the cops slid them onto his wrists.
We took him to the doctor when his legs started swelling and they told us it was his prostate. The cancer was far enough along that there was really no shot at improvement, so Daddy refused when Mama begged him to do the chemo and the radiation therapy. He said he wasn’t gonna leave her in no debt from his medical bills.
It was a quick death that felt slow. Marcus disappeared for most of it, off with Uncle Ty. I don’t blame him for not wanting to watch. Mama and I witnessed the whole thing, spent hours every night wiping down his body with a cool rag and singing to him. It was a relief when it finally ended, four years after he was released from San Quentin, and we could stop waking up in the middle of the night thinking his body had gone cold. By the time the funeral came around, I was too exhausted to give a shit about wearing black and part of me wished I had stayed away like Marcus. Death is easier to live through unseen.
The bus rolls to a stop on Seminary and spits us out like the bay spits out salt. We hop from the bus to the curb and wait those few moments to watch it stand back up and continue on its path. The left tires fall into a series of potholes, coming back out again with a cough.
Alé puts her arm around me, pulling me close, and I remember how cold I’ve been without my jacket or her chest. My lips ache and I think they must be purple, nearing blue, but I pass a window of a liquor store and my reflection tells me they’re still pink, the same color as Marcus’s mouth was this morning, sucking in air and snoring. Alé and I walk together out of sync. She moves kinda like the Hulk with giant steps and each half of her body striding, leaving the other part behind, while I take small steps beside her. I lean on her and it don’t matter how unbelievably mismatched we are because we are still moving.
We pause in front of Joy’s, watch people in various shades of black, gray, blue, jeans, dresses, joggers, move sluggish through the doors, their heads slightly bent. The door to the funeral parlor is double-sided and dark, probably bullet-proof glass, and, when Alé looks at me, there’s something that mimics guilt in her eyes. “Buffet or closet?” she asks, her mouth still close enough to me that I can see the way her tongue darts around in her mouth when she talks.
We both nod, copying all the others: heads down.
Alé squeezes my hand once and then walks inside ahead of me, disappearing behind the glass. I wait a few seconds and pull open the door.
The moment I enter the building, I’m met with two sets of eyes. A staple of most funerals, the blown-up photo of the bodies that lie in coffins some small number of feet away stares at me. There are two of them, but only one picture, like a miniature billboard. One is a woman, her eyelashes short ghosts framing her eyes as she stares at the child in her arms.
The child is not even large enough to be given the title of child. She is an infant, a small person bundled in what looks like a tablecloth but is actually a onesie: red and checkered. Neither of them smiles, drooling in the intoxication of a bond too intimate for me, a stranger, to watch. I want to look away, but the infant’s nose keeps calling me back; it is small and pointed, brown but slightly red, like the baby has been outside for too long. I want to warm her, make her return to her color, but she is so far behind this cardboard and you cannot resurrect the dead, even when they have so much life left over.
I taste my tears before I feel them and this is funeral day: touching death and eating lunch. Pretending to cry until we are truly sobbing. Until we have shook hands with every ghost of this building and they have given us permission to wear their clothes like walking relics of their lives, or at least I would like to believe that those are the whispers that creep up my spine as the tears fall.
A hand touches my shoulder and I squirm.
“They were too young.” The man behind me is maybe seventy or so, the silver in his beard appearing too bright in this room.
He is wearing a suit and tie while I shrink into my shirt.
“Yes.” This is all I can think to say back, not knowing them past their faces and their names, which I don’t even know how to pronounce.
I’m about to ask how it happened, how these beings got swept into a casket, but it doesn’t matter. Some of us got restaurants and full-grown children and some of us got babies who won’t never outgrow their onesies. The man leaves, his tie swinging, his handprint a cold spot on my shoulder.
I continue past the photo, through the corridor to the last door in the hallway, which opens up to racks of clothes and the scent of bleach and perfume.
It is a closet of death, welcoming me like it knows we are kindred. I weave through the line of fabric, dragging my hand across the clothes, moving toward the back row. A blazer has fallen off the hanger and sits on the floor, gathering dust. I pick it up, shake it a little, slip it on over my shirt. It’s oversized in that way that makes you feel like the fabric is holding you, like two arms creeping around your chest, warm. I don’t take it off.
Somewhere in this building, Alé is standing in a chapel for the public viewing, staring at the bodies, watching the service, crying. She’s probably already in the back of the room with the food spread, grabbing a plate, some napkins, and beginning to pile it up, discreetly of course, masking her pain in a full belly. Soon she will slip out the back, exit Joy’s, and wait for me at San Antonio Park.
I keep sifting through the racks, trying to find something that reminds me of her. I can’t imagine Alé in nothing this formal, until I find a men’s black sweater. There is a single hole in the wrist, an invitation for its taking, and it is softer than anything I have ever owned, plain in the way that everything Alé accessorizes herself with is plain. She doesn’t need anything extra, with her ink and the intricacies of her face.
I’ve done my part now, gotten us the clothing I should’ve worn to my own father’s funeral, but I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to walk out that door and pass by people with large hands who will touch me briefly and hum a sigh like we are sharing our own internal earthquakes, braving them together. I slide down to the floor, burrow into the racks of black where I’m encased in darkness. It is a relief to be removed from sight. Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears, then light up, eat until we have never felt fuller, and find somewhere to dance. Funeral day is the culmination of all our past selves, when we hold our own memorials for people we never buried right. The funeral always ends, though, and we all gotta get back to the hustle, so I breathe in one last whiff of this room, and get up.
When I make it outside, the sky is blinding. Everything is moving fast, cars and motorcycles stirring wind and dirt like they have forgotten how to stand still. Sometimes I don’t remember how to move my legs, but my body always surprises me, moving anyway, moving without my permission. I start walking down the street toward the park that sits there, in the middle of the freeway and stop signs and small condos that house more people than they can fit.
Alé is sitting on one of the swings, a paper plate balancing on top of her knees, but she isn’t eating. She’s looking up at the sky, which is more of a fog than a cloud now, and I think she’s smiling.
I walk up the slight hill to her and when I am close enough, I toss her the black sweater. It lands at her feet. Alé picks it up, that small smile morphing into a dance across her cheeks and this is funeral day, when we are free to own all the dead things, all the sweaters that were resigned to ghosthood revived.
“It was Sonny Rollins. On a loop,” she says, and the smile is a familiar reflection of my own face. We always listen to what music they play during the wake, not because it says anything about the lost life, but because it says something about the people who were left behind. “What song?” I ask her, wanting to hear it in my eardrums, the whine of the saxophone, the grainy sound of my daddy’s stereo deep inside a memory with no edges, still pure.
“God Bless the Child.” She shakes one of her knees a little as she tells me, the plate tipping slightly.
I sit down on the swing next to Alé’s and she moves the plate of food from her knees to my lap. There’s cheese and chips and celery that she has covered in peanut butter because she knows it’s my favorite. We begin to stuff ourselves, shoveling food, crunching, jaws and tongues and swallows creating a chorus to Sonny’s jazz tap that plays on repeat in my head as it must have in the funeral chapel. Alé and I both believe that funerals either have the most ingenious DJs or act as soundtracks for some hollow unwinding, a catalyst to sobs and suicide notes.
“Vernon’s selling the Regal-Hi,” I say, crunching on my last chip. Alé’s eyes are on me, waiting.
“They raising rent over double.” I don’t know how to look at her when I say it, feels like confronting myself. Like it might just be too real.
“Yeah.” I look up into the sky. “That’s why Marcus needs to get a job.”
Alé reaches out for my hand and touches it lightly, at the wrist. I wonder if she can feel my pulse, if she’s searching for it. “What you gonna do?”
“I don’t know. But if we don’t figure something out, we on the streets.”
I begin to move my legs back and forth off-tempo, staying low to the ground. Alé pulls papers and a small jar with clumps of weed out of her pocket. I like watching her roll, the meditation of it and the smell when it’s sweet and unassuming, kind of like if cinnamon was mixed with a redwood tree. I never figured out how to do it right, how to make sure the joint was tight enough to not unravel, but loose enough to breathe. Watching Alé is better, reminds me of the way my mama used to fold her clothes, so determined to make the crease just right.
She pauses to look over at me. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.”
She sprinkles weed from the jar onto a paper and I catch a hint of lavender. She calls the lavender-infused weed her Sunday Shoes and it don’t even gotta make sense because when I suck it in, blow it out, I imagine my feet cased in something lavender calm and holy. She finishes, holding it up to inspect it, small smile, her lips almost pouting in their pride.
She pulls a lighter out and I cup my hand around the joint, a barrier from the wind. Alé’s thumb presses on the lighter until it sparks and the base of the flame is the same shade of blue our pool was before all the shit. She guides the flame to the tip of the joint until it finally catches.
We pass the joint back and forth until it’s too small to fit between our lips without crumbling. I’ve never really liked weed, but it makes me feel closer to Alé, so I light up with her and try to sink so deep into the high that it’s all I feel.
Alé begins to swing her legs, me following her lead, going skyward. At the top, I think I might just enter one of those clouds. I look down, see a tent behind the basketball courts and an old man pissing by a tree, not bothering to look around and see who is watching. I aspire to be so reckless, so unassuming that I could take a piss in San Antonio Park at noon on a Thursday and not even look up.
“You know what I been thinking?” Alé asks me.
We’re on opposite ends of the sky, swinging toward each other and missing, and for the first time all day I’m not thinking about the paper taped to our door, about Marcus’s sleeping face, about how wide Dee’s mouth opens.
“What you been thinking?”
“Don’t nobody ever fix none of these damn roads.”
She says it and I immediately begin to laugh, thinking she was about to tell me some philosophical wondering about the world.
“You don’t even got a car, what you worried about?” I yell back to her, across the wind and the space between our swings.
Even as I say it, looking out at the streets that extend from the park like the legs of a spider, I see what she means. Chunks of road sit beside holes they left behind, where wheels of broken-down Volkswagens dip in and for a second I don’t know if they’re gonna pull back out until they do, the only remnant of distress left in the slight rattle of the bumper. All the holes in Oakland never seem to leave nobody stuck for long, an illusion of brokenness. Or maybe that’s just for the cars.
“Don’t you ever think about how none of the streets ’round here been redone for decades?” Alé, a skater to the core, spends more time dipping in and out of potholes than I ever have.
“Why it gotta matter? The roads ain’t hurting nobody.”
“Don’t matter. I’m just saying it ain’t like this nowhere else, you know? Why Broadway not this torn up? Or S.F.? ’Cause they putting their money in the city just like they putting their money into downtown. Don’t you got a problem with that?” Alé’s whole body has risen from its slouch and we’re both slowing down now, returning from our sky.
“No. I don’t got a problem with that, just like I don’t got a problem with Uncle Ty buying a Maserati and a mansion down in L.A. and leaving us out here alone. Just like I don’t got a problem with Marcus spitting rhymes in a studio while I’m just tryna pay our rent. It ain’t my place to have a problem with somebody else’s survival. If the city get they money from paying to smooth over the roads on some rich-ass street, then they should go ahead and do that. Lord knows I won’t be thinking ’bout nobody else if someone offers me a wad of cash.”
I wiggle my toes in my Sunday Shoes as the swing comes to a halt and I feel Alé’s eyes on me, determined.
“I don’t believe none of that,” she says. “What you mean you don’t believe it?”
She shakes her head, her own high making her slow. “Nah, you got too much heart to be a sellout, Ki, you ain’t cruel enough for none of that. I know you wouldn’t go leaving Marcus or Trevor or me just to make bank.”
I’d like to think she’s wrong, but if she was then I would stay on these swings all day, get so high I don’t have to think about nothing but Alé’s tattoos and how the streets are fragmenting and will keep disintegrating until we are walking on dirt.
Instead, I think of Marcus, how we used to stand on street corners trying to sell paintings I made on cardboard. It barely made us enough to buy more paint, but Marcus and I were in it together, choosing each other. It’s time I go tell him I can’t be doing all the hard shit for him if he ain’t gonna do nothing for me. Tell him it’s time to put the mic down and face these streets like I’ve been for the last six months.
“I gotta go find Marcus,” I say, hopping from the swing set and seeing the world fuzz, go in and out of focus, all of it sharp yet spinning. I leave her there, on the swings, a puff of smoke exiting her lips like she was holding it in this whole time, and she don’t even have to look at me again because now this blazer smells like her Sunday Shoes and, today, on funeral day, that is all I need.
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