A Hellhole Named Desire
Later on in life, Malik Fullerton would attend a number of cocktail parties, receptions, various functions well-stocked with balding men in bow ties and serious-faced women. Malik felt out of place at these events; he had little in common with those people, he got no lasting pleasure from small-talk, and the prospect of meeting new people didn’t appeal to him. He’d hear a lot about securing funding for research, shakeups of board personnel, who got published where doing what — in Malik’s estimation, one big drag. On the off chance that a strange soul would approach him and strike up a conversation, the chatter invariably drifted toward a handful of basic topics. Malik had no trouble going on about his research, and remarking on the weather was tiresome, but easy. Often as a gesture of good manners, folks would ask Malik about his background, and that was where he got the urge to hit the eject button. He found that vagueness was the best course of action to pre-empt any unwelcome conversational turns. Malik would go as broad as he could without arousing suspicions, telling inquiring parties that he “grew up in New Orleans.” Unfortunately, many out-of-towners regarded the city with a fascination both vicarious (“Didja get sloshed at Mardi Gras when you were little?”) and anthropological (“Have you found that attitudes towards frankness shifted once you left the city?”, to which Malik simply replied, “Yep.”), all of which led to further, more specified questioning. Those poor bastards who knew no better would ask Malik if he lived in the French Quarter, a question that Malik felt was akin to asking a Seattle native if he lived in the Space Needle. Malik told them that no, but that he lived nearby in a planned community called Desire.
Since the ground was first recklessly broken back in ’56, the Desire Projects were New Orleans’ bastard child, mistreated at every turn, left to fend for themselves when not actively fucked. The feds granted a three-hundred-million-dollar payday to housing authorities in New Orleans back in the day, in the hopes that local forces could clear out the gaping, crime-stricken shithole that roiled between Higgins-to-Florida boulevards and Alvar to Pleasure and Piety streets. The idea was that the slums could be cleared out and demolished, to be replaced with cleaner housing that would naturally give way to a crime-free atmosphere. The money came through in ’49, and it wasn’t long before the sagging derelict structures, along with the legendary Hideaway Club where Fats Domino cut his teeth, were ash in the wind. Those ushered out of the neighborhood were understandably frustrated, but not opposed to the idea of a higher-quality living arrangement (and besides, everyone knew well enough that there was little that could actually be done to stop the wheels once they had begun turning). Six weeks before the Desire Projects were scheduled to welcome inhabitants, however, the Tenants Association issued a report declaring the structures “undesirable for many reasons” and “unsafe for human habitation.” It turns out that the high-rises had not been built on a cement foundation, as many lasting structures are, but were instead sitting nakedly on top of wet soil. Within the first year of operation, porches were breaking off the faces of houses like Kit-Kat Bars. The buildings had no support system, and were consequently being swallowed up by the earth beneath them. As omens go, it was a pretty fucking bad one.
By 1970, the Desire had grown into the largest housing project in New Orleans and the most impoverished sector of the city’s notorious Ninth Ward. The neighborhood was a sort of farm system for the Ninth’s robust drug trade, as three-quarters of Desire’s denizens were under 21 years of age. For a while in the seventies, the Black Panther Party had set up shop in the neighborhood, headquartering themselves on Piety and Desire streets. Malik’s mother spoke fondly of the Panthers’ residency in Desire. She said that the neighborhood had a sense of purpose back then, that everyone respected the Panthers and that they did what little they could to make the area a better place to live. In awed tones, Cilvia Fullerton recounted to little Malik the story of one police raid on a Panther stronghold down the block.
“Baby, there was hundreds of police stomping down the street, a helicopter too, all for six or seven people. But we had the jump on them, ‘cause we knew they were on their way. What I did with the other kids in the neighborhood, we all got together and stood around the apartment we knew the police were after. Must’ve been me and sixty other kids. I think I was around your age. We held onto each other and didn’t move an inch when the cops told us to. We knew they wouldn’t do anything to hurt children — imagine how that woulda looked in the paper! — so we weren’t afraid. We stood for a couple hours, even though that feels like much, much longer when you’re that young. Eventually, the police’s boss called everyone back and they left! It was like something out of a movie, but I swear, Malik, baby, it was real.”
A week after the standoff, cops disguised as postal workers and religious officials stormed that same apartment. Six arrests, all acquitted, and one woman shot in the shoulder while resisting a man with a club. The year after, both Panther headquarters burned to the ground. Nobody knew how, but everybody knew why.
By the time Cilvia gave birth to a bouncing baby boy a week before Christmas in ’92, things had not gotten better, but had gotten slightly less awful. The powers that be around New Orleans had finally recognized the way they handled the Desire Projects as a failure of the highest order, a colossal fuck-up with an embarrassingly high body count. As the nineties rolled on, a new plan came together: tear everything down one last time, and build fewer houses, so that everything wouldn’t become overcrowded. The folks calling the shots (who, not insignificantly, did not view their family heritages of palatial plantations as a mark of ignominy) decided that population was the key to the puzzle. Yep, the shards from shattered vials that studded the ground to form a lethal Milky Way when catching the streetlights; the nightly gunshot tarantellas; the weeping mothers; the houses cracking open down the middle like a gate straight into hell; the undulating oceans of roaches that blanketed entire walls in burned-out homes; the reek of excrement and putrified food that wafted into family living rooms; all of it a simple matter of personal space.
Cilvia had hoped that she’d be able to push out Malik into a stronger loving world. The night Malik hit fifteen weeks, three bodies with four extra holes between them painted an alley the next block over. The cops who rolled up a couple hours later announced it had been the result of a coke deal gone contentious. Cilvia, looking on, pulled little Malik real close and whispered: “The police weren’t holding the gear and they didn’t pull the trigger, but they did it, baby. It was them.” Malik squealed in delight, as he always did when his mother spoke quietly to him. The sirens’ light danced on Malik’s guileless face, epileptic red-white-blue.
Malik was the second of what would end up being a five-child posse, and Cilvia raised them all, mathematical logic be damned, with 100% of her being. Before Malik came Jamal, after him came Josie, with the twins Sherane and Laetitia bringing up the rear. Cilvia always kept the understanding that Malik was himself a child in the back of her mind, but out of necessity, she eased him into the duties of co-parent as soon as he had proven that he was ready. Jamal spent most of his hefty reserves of spare time scowling around the house or making mischief with neighborhood boys, so Malik grew into a preternatural self-sufficiency. He and Cilvia tag-teamed the majority of all duties, cutting down daily challenges in record time. The girls’ lunches were made in a flash every morning, the kids dressed and fed and out the door with Malik leading the way. He would not have looked out of place waving a flag, his pint-size battalion of sisters behind him. On some mornings, Cilvia would get a little teary-eyed, watching them march down the street to school.
On a Tuesday morning, Malik and his nattering retinue turned up on Cilvia’s doorstep a few hours before she expected them.
“Why aren’t y’all in class? Don’t you tell me there’s a half-a-day, I checked.”
“Miss Angela told us we could all go home. She said to walk straight home and to tell you to turn on the news right now. She said something bad happened. Mattie from Miss Beverly’s class said they’re not gonna play baseball games today, neither.”
Cilvia turned a dial on her modest TV and a warped image settled into focus. She clasped her hand to her mouth, but her breath had already fled her.
“Baby, take your sisters outside. Stand outside and just wait there. See if you can’t track down your brother’s hide, too. I bet he’s out with Allen. Just get him back here, baby, okay?”
Cilvia let the voice from the television go on for another minute, then smashed the dial into the ‘off’ position. She took a quivering breath, closed her eyes, and sat down on the part of the couch that was technically broken, but objectively comfier than the other parts of the couch.
“Malik, come back in here,” she hollered.
“A bad thing happened. Someone flew a couple big airplanes into a skyscraper in New York City. The skyscraper’s wrecked now, you understand?”
“Why would someone do that?”
“I don’t know.” Cilvia’s voice shook with anger. “I don’t know, baby, all I know’s that a lot of folks died up there and even more got hurt.”
“Why’s it a bad thing, mama? Why’d I get school off?” Cilvia looked at Malik, the boy picking up on his mother’s confusion. “I just mean that folks are dying every day and I haven’t got school off until just now. I didn’t get school off last month when those two boys got shot up the next block over. And this is all the way up north, right? It doesn’t have anything to do with you and me, doesn’t it?” Cilvia had never let her son see her cry.
“Dammit, Malik. Just be a good boy, go outside and tell your sisters.”
Malik Fullerton’s first great love was for a web-slinger. As soon as he was capable of doing so, he’d toddle down the street to the Alvar Library and tunnel through the stacks of books, leaving ant-farm paths in his wake. He’d run his eyes over anything he could get his uncreased little hands on. He graduated out from chapter books pretty promptly, sinking his fangs into Lord of the Flies by age 10. But all along, nothing captivated Malik quite like comic books. The colorful, glossy exploits of spandex-clad crimefighters enchanted him in a way that Robinson Crusoe (Malik: “If they’re both on the same island, why Friday’s still gotta be Robinson’s slave?” Cilvia: “Cause that book was wrote by a white man.”) and Johnny Tremain failed to. Malik’s first and most cherished obsession was Peter Parker, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Malik was taken first and foremost with Parker the boy, moreso than his wise-cracking costumed alter ago. Malik had never latched onto the adventures of Superman or Batman with the enthusiasm he brought to Spidey. Superman comics soon bored him; homeboy’s an invincible alien who can move the goddamn Earth if he’s running out of options for besting a foe. Bruce Wayne was a kajillionaire with a big-ass mansion and a butler and probably, Malik assumed, all the Calypso Lemonades he could ever care to drink. Malik figured: at that point, why even bother being a superhero? They clearly had equally cool stuff going on in everyday life, so putting on a costume and beating up supervillains hardly seemed like a departure. Leave some of the awesome stuff to the regular people, Malik thought.
Peter Parker, though. He was a kid who lived with his wrinkly old aunt and had to worry about sewing his costume and didn’t know how to talk to Gwen Stacy. This, this was a life Malik intuitively understood. The Alvar Library stocked omnibus compendiums of Amazing Spider-Man reproductions, the original books from the 60’s, and Malik burned through them like Sherman to the sea. Malik marveled at how real the superpowers might look in the real world of the page. Over the course of a single issue, Peter Parker would expend equal efforts besting the nefarious Scorpion and working to pay the bills for that month. Malik could easily imagine Spider-Man slinging his webs in the Ninth, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, clogging a corner boy’s gun with webs with milliseconds to spare. In one issue, a mysterious masked figure begins to take control of the crime syndicates around New York, running afoul of the Green Goblin in the process. The no-goodnik adopts the moniker of the Crime-Master and cooperates with the Goblin to capture Spidey, bind him in chains, and unmask him. Of course, (Malik loved the certainty that Peter Parker would always wriggle free at the last possible opportunity) Spider-Man breaks through the chains and bests the flunkies, the Goblin, and the Crime-Master. But what fascinated Malik was the big reveal of the Crime-Master’s identity. It was Lucky Lewis, a low-level gang boss previously unintroduced in the comics; in other words, just some guy. That clicked with pipsqueak Malik. It made sense. Why should all of the bad guys just so happen to be someone we’ve met before? It was cool, the way it played out with no reason.
But it wasn’t long before Spider-Man was supplanted in Malik’s eyes. The boy was rifling through the library’s catalogue of softcover comics collections when one uncreased volume gave him pause. This omnibus contained the various exploits of T’Challa, a super-strong, super-fast, keenly aware crimefighter who spent the daylight hours ruling over the isolated jungle paradise of Wakanda. Malik took it home that day and returned to the library three hours later for the second volume. His obsession was twofold:
1. Malik felt a strange recognition towards Wakanda. As the site of the world’s lone stash of Vibranium, Wakanda had long since closed its borders for fear of political encroachers, hungry for mining capital. It was a land outside of time and space. The outside world ticked on and Wakanda abided by its own set of rules. Its seclusion from the rest of the world resonated with Malik.
2. T’Challa was the first black superhero Malik had ever laid eyes on. Until that fateful day, Malik had fostered a creeping suspicion that black people weren’t allowed to be superheroes on their own. The X-Men had Storm, but everyone knew that Cyclops and Professor X were the brains of the operation and Wolverine was the real star. The Falcon existed solely to be a flunky to Captain America, the whitest hero of all. Likewise, War Machine was little more than a cheap Iron Man knockoff. But T’Challa not only wrestled silverback gorillas into submission with minimal effort, his day job was ruling a goddamn nation. Seeing him wield so much power activated something in Malik’s brain that had long lain dormant. Though it might’ve also had something to do with T’Challa’s moniker. The cover’s splashy title page trumpeting the adventures of THE BLACK PANTHER felt important and right to Malik. He knew in his heart of hearts that he, too, would one day realize a superpower of his own.
It was around this same time that Malik’s coin fixation took hold. When Malik was six, the U.S. Mint launched its Fifty State Quarters Program, in which each state in the blessed union would commission an artist to create a small design that would adorn the back of a twenty-five-cent piece. As more and more designs trickled into public circulation, Malik became obsessed with the coins’ intricacy and uniformity. Malik would keep one quarter in his pocket at all times, to scrutinize and memorize in spare moments. When he’d find a newly-released coin, he’d switch the previous quarter out and run his thumb over the tail-side of the new addition, marveling at the laborious detail expended on something so matter-of-factly commonplace. The tiny space shuttle lifting off in Florida’s design, the individual cornhusk leaves on Wisconsin’s, the beckoning condor of California — they amazed Malik.
After spending the better portion of a hot summer afternoon drinking in the wonder of Georgia’s minuscule peach, Malik went to his mother with a question. “Mama,” he said, “how do they get the tiny pictures on the back of the quarters all the same every time?”
Cilvia squinted in thought. “Your auntie Syleena used to date a man who worked at the Mint, where they make all the quarters. She said they used to pour the quarter metal into a mold, like when you and me make muffins. But now, they use little lasers to etch up the coins.”
Malik picked his jaw up off the ground and hightailed it to the library, bursting through the door, heaving breaths. The government could use a laser gun to make a hundred works of identical art small enough to keep between your thumb and index finger, all in a minute? Malik had no idea how such a miracle was made possible. Somewhere, an inconceivable feat was being effortlessly pulled off through means Malik couldn’t possibly comprehend. He knew exactly what was going on here: This was a superpower if he had ever seen one. Plain and simple. Malik had to learn its secrets.
He accosted the librarian: “Do y’all have any books about the lasers they use to make the pictures on the tail side of quarters?”
She peered down at him over a copy of something thick and leather-bound. “Coin lasers? Hmm. Lemme take a look in the computer for you, Malik.” Her long fingernails sounded out a loud clacking on the dusty keyboard, an irritating noise Malik tried his hardest to ignore. “Good news is that we do have a book like that. Bad news is, we don’t have it.”
Malik was ready to combust. “Do you have it or don’t you?”
“You can take home the book, but it’s at one of our sister libraries, uptown. We’ll ask them to send us the book and you can come back and take it out next week. How’s that?”
“But I need it today! Right now! Where’s the other library? I’ll go there and get it myself. I can’t wait a whole week, I just can’t do it.” The librarian gave him a glance of acquiescence, writing down specific directions delineating streetcar lines and numbered busses for Malik to hop on. The instant the librarian had removed her pencil from the slip of paper, Malik snatched it up, looked it over once, and was out the door, darting down the street at a pace damn near close to superhuman.
As Malik stood, itching his elbow, a nauseating feeling crept into his bowels. He looked up at the sign denoting the 88 bus down St. Claude, and realized that this would be the first time he had left the Lower Ninth. He had spent every day of eleven years treading the same swelling, cracking cement in Desire and its adjacent neighborhoods. But he knew the Black Panther eventually had no choice but to leave Wakanda to meet with foreign dignitaries, which led to his brief stint in the Avengers — in other words, as Malik saw it, a hot date with destiny. Samwise broke out of the Shire, Harry left Privet Drive; Malik knew that, likewise, there was nothing he couldn’t do, especially once he had harnessed the power of the art-making laser. The 88 bus lurched up to the stop and the doors parted for Malik. He rumpled around in his pocket for fare, fishing out a dollar he had originally intended for a Calypso Lemonade later the afternoon. That doesn’t matter, thought Malik, we’re talking about destiny. He silently nodded to himself and slipped the dollar into the automated fare slot.
The driver looked over at Malik. “It’s a buck twenty-five, little man.” Malik extricated Georgia’s millimeter peach from his pocket and looked it over. A smile crept over his face and he slapped the coin into the bus driver’s hand, striding down the bus’ center aisle.
As Malik aged into teenagerdom, he affected a mild air of surliness. But the only real, rip-snorting showdown between Malik and his mother came way back on the eve of the great flood. Malik had been tracking Katrina’s movements on the library’s sorry excuse for a PC, and he feared the worst. The constant stream of doomsaying news articles had impressed upon him the situation’s grim gravity. He came home like a madman warning of an impending apocalypse, raving to his mother about the end of days in Desire. Cilvia, however, remained unconvinced that a bit of rain could pose any sort of real threat.
“You’re getting up in your ages now. You’re thirteen, you think you know everything. Hell, I used to be thirteen and I was the same way, baby. But I know better now. It’s gonna rain, but I’ve lived through much worse. We’ve lived through much worse. Besides, look around. What’s some water gonna do to this shitbox? Maybe this’ll give the city the kick in the ass it needs to fix things up around here. We’re staying, baby.”
“You don’t get it mama, there’s not going to be any place to stay. It’s not like we can put up the windows and sit it out. The way the city’s set up, we’re gonna be in real danger. We’ll get picked up by the police if we don’t die first. It’s gonna be bad, mama, really bad. Just call auntie Syleena in Houston, ask if we can stay with her for a week. That’s all we need, then we can come home and figure out what to do next.”
The Fullerton family stayed with Syleena in Houston for a month and a half. Quarters were cramped, but Malik got a lot of reading done.
The following years saw Malik carefully honing his superpowers, maintaining top marks in school while spending every free hour neck-deep in physics textbooks. The librarian uptown knew Malik’s name after a week and a half, even going so far as to introduce him to an old friend who gave the occasional physics lecture at Delgado. As vast as physics’ purview may have been, Malik saw it as a simple, single pursuit: the mastery of the natural world. With every paper Malik devoured, he came another step closer to bending the very fabric of reality to his will. When he fully developed his superpowers, Malik knew he’d be able to escape Wakanda. He had already begun receiving aggressive letters of courtship from top-tier universities hailing from far-off lands such as Connecticut (bare-limbed tree), North Carolina (Wright brothers, attempting their first flight at Kittyhawk) and Pennsylvania (female statue grasping staff, state outline in background). Malik was old enough to know that his family could never afford to send him so far away for school, but his mother gave him a reassuring message after a woman in an uncreased suit came to the house one day to discuss Malik’s future.
“Baby, that lady said she was a career counselor, working with kids getting ready for college. She says that it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the money. She says it’s almost better that way, because if you’re smart enough, college will let you go to class and put you up and feed you for free. She says we’d only be in trouble if we had a little money. She says it turns out being flat-ass broke all this time was a blessing in disguise. I told her it didn’t feel much like a blessing when you were a baby crying for food I couldn’t get from the store. But that’s not what I’m saying right now, baby, because you’re going to school!”
“Are you for sure, mama? Who’s gonna help out around the house and look after the girls? The twins still need to be walked to school.”
“That’s what Josie’s for. She can give me a hand, and by the time she’s out of school, the twins will be old enough to care for themselves.”
“But what about you, mama?”
“I made it this long, baby, I’m indestructible. Call that my superpower. You’ll go on to school, you’ll graduate, come home and I’ll be right here. All you worry about is keeping your grades up and impressing those schools, and you’ll be just fine. I’m so damn proud of you, baby.”
So he did. Malik buried himself in his studies. He had cultivated a handy skill of walking and reading a book at the same time, which made it somewhat easier to ignore the furtive offers to smoke sherm that teens in undershirts and Timberlands would hiss at Malik when he passed by. Malik made a few friends at school, but they were hardly the sort to come over for sleepovers or to play stickball until it got too dark to see. Malik would sometimes join them for fried gator po’boys at the corner grocer or chat with them about everyone’s new favorite hip-hop record (hometown hero Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 2 mixtape could be heard rattling the trunks of any cars rolling through the neighborhood), but he mostly kept to himself. He divvied his spare time between the library, cobbling together meager meals for his younger sister, and keeping his mother company. He dreamt tirelessly of the day that he’d have the full resources of an actual lab at his disposal, where he’d be able to play out all the experiments he’d pored over and committed to memory. He imagined himself in a clean white lab coat, clear plastic goggles, a pencil tucked behind his ear. No, Dr. Fullerton, they’d say. Yes, Dr. Fullerton. That life was within his grasp. Malik knew it.
About a week before his eighteenth birthday, Malik was — shock of shocks — at the library, reading about the chemical properties of gold foil. He was so absorbed in his textbook that it took the librarian three times to get his attention.
“Malik! Phone for you.” He went over and picked up the receiver, confused. He had never gotten a phone call at the library before. It could only be very good or very bad news.
Malik was in tears before he even got to the hospital. The surgeon’s phrasing only made matters worse; saying Cilvia had “caught a bullet” positioned her as the subject of the sentence where Malik knew she was an object. It wasn’t bad luck. This was not like getting caught in the rain without an umbrella. Someone else had actively done this, put his finger around a trigger and squeezed. It was probably an accident (who would possibly have reason to hurt a quiet mother of five, sitting out on her sagging porch?) but that only made matters worse. She wasn’t getting robbed, she wasn’t getting attacked. A couple fuckboys had no idea what direction they were pointing their guns and that was that. This played out for no reason. Malik convulsed with sobs through gritted teeth. They hadn’t subsided by the time he was allowed to speak to his convalescent mother.
“I’m okay, baby. I’m gonna be okay. The doctors said they can’t fully heal my back, but they said that it’s a blessing I’m not dead and gone. A half-inch over, they said, and I’d have been cold by the time the ambulance came around. They’re even going to give me my own wheelchair.
“Mama, I’m gonna—”
“Hush. You’re not gonna do anything. You’re a good boy, so you’re just gonna stay smart and let the police work this out in their own way.”
“They’re already out getting coffee.”
“Just keep your nose down. Stay smart. You’re still gonna go to school in the fall, I swear it. But I just have one thing to ask you, baby.”
“I’m yours, mama.”
“I need you around. With the wheelchair, I won’t be able to do much and I’m gonna need more help than ever with the girls, but also with me. I’m not saying you can’t go to school, but I need you in the city. Go uptown. Go anywhere, so long as I can still get at you if I need you. I’m sorry, baby.”
“It’s okay, mama.”
“I’m so sorry.” Cilvia began to tear up. “Get out of here. Go wait in the hall.”
Tulane had offered Malik a full ride a month before. Malik knew it was not a bad school.