Son of the District
It was after eleven when my father opened the door to my room and, same as every night, stepped in to set the alarm and say goodnight. But instead, he paused and said, “Get out. Get out of my house.” On my dresser was my pipe, a tiny weed pipe made of tin foil. I had forgotten to throw it away because, well, I had used it earlier.
He held it out, thumb and forefinger, pointing at it. The instrument of unforgivable trespass. A crime committed in and against his house. I begged damply to please, let me wait until morning because I have nowhere to go this late and it is freezing—there is snow.
But my appeals could not budge the verdict of him and my stepmother. They would not listen to nor spend another word. So said the padlock resolve in their faces.
Your Honor, the State would offer into evidence the defendant’s sorrowful history of nitwitteries.
Guilty on all counts. Bang.
My posters glowed farewell in the backlight. I thought of taking my favorite, Zeppelin’s Swan Song. But no, they could have them all.
I stuffed a change of clothes into my backpack, emptied my piggy bank and went out my father’s door for the last time.
Cold. Through your sweatshirt and down your back. Ice pecks where your nerves had just been sweating, cold that makes you think about your lungs. I stood in the driveway for a minute, hoping they’d call me back inside and ground me forever. This time I would take it to heart because you don’t forget the lesson with a punch line that lands you on your chin. But none of these things happened. Finality is a deadbolt at midnight. I trudged past the yard and then down the middle of the silvery moonlit road, charged up and muddled from my sudden overdose of independence.
I walked until my feet felt dead—a few miles. I looked down at my high-tops and imagined my toes blackening and then lopped off with tin snips. I climbed into a recycling bin and made the best nest I could. All my life I wanted to be my dad, but he wasn’t around enough to show me much besides how to dial in a carburetor or do a donut. My one year of living with him had been, as they say, too little too late. I could own the fact that I was a disappointment. But the clunky knowledge that your father has no use for you can make your DNA ache. I lay shivering under a pile of newspapers until dawn, wondering how I could be brainwaved so differently from my dad that he would scrap any future that included me.
The last remaining bridge had met with my fiery knack for failure.
The next day was buses and transfers, traveling 30 miles north to Seattle. The University District. I knew of nowhere else where I could get by without the bougie stuff you need for a job, like an address, phone, or laundered clothes. I stared at my reflection in the darkening bus window. My sideburns were coming in fat. At fifteen and some months, facial hairs have almost individual worth—the more of them you have, the less you have to do to prove you’re not a kid. It’s street science, and you can’t argue with science.
I’d been written out of a story where I’d thought I was a main character, and here I was now, one of those blurry extras in the background who doesn’t figure into the plot. In the credits: Spindly Youth with Tragic Hair #3.
You looked up at the buildings and they were towering stacks of unknowable facts, as sealed off from your reality as buildings on a postcard from a city you’ll never visit. Like monochrome middle fingers, the world raised sky-high against the likes of you, its grim heights of tinted glass guaranteeing that certain narratives would remain at a tidy distance. And how small and adrift that made you feel when you thought about it, so you wouldn’t, mostly.
I wandered University Avenue all day, watching. The way Ave Rats curb-served grams of weed was foreign to me, a secret in the open. I eavesdropped on their exchanges, studying tactics the best I could without someone thinking I was Narksville. I did not eat because I only had 31 dollars and food turns no profit.
The next day I scored three of the fattest grams I could find off an Ave Rat named Adam who had slack, waxy hair and overgrown Indian corn incisors that made you think he was smiling even when he wasn’t. I split them into five flat ones and clocked them in less than three blocks. My 51 dollars got me 6 more, which I stretched into 12 that were so wispy I had to include a sob story and an apology for the going price. In an afternoon my 31 bucks had become 115, a pack of smokes and a burger. I needed numbers to make sense at least—here was a story problem worth solving. Beginner’s luck can seem like the American dream when you’re hungry enough.
A week later I bought a piece from a guy sporting an Earp mustache and a faded peace sign t-shirt that might have fit when you could still see his lip. He had an assortment of pistols and ammo in a small gym bag. We dipped into the alley behind Lox, Stock and Bagels. He pulled them out one at a time, displaying each on a crate between two dumpsters. I gave him 50 bucks for a .22 revolver that had a clonky cylinder and a long barrel with rust acne. A target pistol, he told me, and I traded him a gram for some bullets, a detail that seemed germane, like having a lighter if you plan on smoking something. I walked the two blocks up to the campus woods and crawled into a thicket of rhododendrons. I sat on the rotting leaves, cherishing my pistola grande. The rush of newfound adulthood, a word that means the world better think twice before kicking your ass. I wished I could share the moment, but I had no friends in these parts and none anywhere who would understand. I wrapped it up in greasy rags and plastic grocery bags and buried it near the madrona that said JH hearts KW.
I wasn’t the gangster type, all loco to draw down on some fools, but you’ve got to protect your interests, and I was mainly interested in not getting peeled by somebody bigger or tougher, which in truth meant anybody. You can’t be too cautious when you’re el solo, and the only thing more cautious than owning a gun is owning a buried one. These were the thoughts of a suburban white kid schooled in the art of manhood mostly by westerns.
I stood on the corner of 45th and the Ave, waiting for the walk symbol to light up for maybe the dozenth time since morning. The sky was low and blank as frosted glass, not one shade grayer than my thoughts. It had been slow all day, which happens when it’s witch-nipple cold out, but I kept walking to pass the time. I couldn’t expect the needers to track me down and besides, loitering would get you vamped by the cops for sure.
The wind, fumed with exhaust grime and waffle cones, scoured my dripping nose. A small herd of maybe a dozen peds also stood waiting for the light, their hands gloved or stuffed into pockets of winter coats, their breath whisked off in skinny clouds. Serious faces and shopping bags, the kind of fixed expressions that say that you have somewhere to be and what time you get there matters. I hunched against the wind, lit a cigarette behind cupped hands and exhaled impatiently as if I had places to go too, but really this sidewalk was it. Hustle and bustle, I’d heard it be called, but I didn’t know anything about bustling.
I took a drag like I was installing the filter into my lip and cinched up my eyes toward the lower Ave, trying to give off a less-than-criminal interest vibe. I had been cop-spotting along that ten-block stretch of the Ave for just long enough to know they could creep with the quickness. Close-set buildings, an uneven roofline laying shadow-bands onto pavements, awning signs jammed end to dirt-streaked end forever, small restaurants that left A-shaped signs on the sidewalk. Traffic lined up single file in either direction on the Ave, crawling along at a pace set by electric buses and jaywalkers. A flat commotion of singing brakes and mufflers overlapped with human hubbub. Dead leaves chased a magazine page past the storm drain at my feet and a yellow cab blew by on 45th, its underparts skitching heavily against the lumpy intersection. The cold swirl it whipped up bit through my windbreaker. The dead of winter. In Seattle that term might’ve been a stretch, but you curb-serve from dawn to midnight on the daily and you could still find yourself admiring a pretty girl less than the coat she was wearing, or pretend-shopping in a toasty store until they tell you to beat it.
The light changed but I waited to cross until I was mostly alone, because needers were kind of sketchy about showing the signal when you were in a swarm of peds. I walked south past the import shop with its stacks of baskets and plant hangers on the sidewalk—a statement, I thought, in favor of my theory that no one steals wicker. I skimmed the passing faces, not really seeing them, just watching for a signal—eye contact jutting out a little that meant, I am definitely shopping for non-wicker items. Your response had to be low key but quick—too obvious and they scare off, too slow and someone else swoops on them. The rest of the peds studiously un-saw me as they passed by.
I ducked into a defunct doorway, stale with the tang of urine varnish, and dug out from my front pocket a deceptively thick wad of small bills, counting it again just to make sure it was still there—the sense of adding up to more than nothing. Behind the long window in Pearl Harbor Teriyaki across the Ave, a lady seated at a small table hitched up her face at me like she’d caught wind of my socks and then turned away. Sometimes you could offend an eye into seeing you. I was finally sitting on enough to cop an ounce, which is a milestone one precious notch up from the whitening dogshit nuggets adorning the would-be flowerbed in front of Spun Out Records. But I had no connection for an ounce, or any real weight.
If you weren’t an Ave Rat, you were pretty much stuck buying a few grams at a time and splitting them up, nickle-and-dimebagging, which is what I’d been doing. And that meant you wouldn’t make much and you’d have the saddest, airiest sacks since middle school. It was not hard to imagine myself years from now, still sleeping in a formica seat bolted to the laundromat floor, my only other shirt hang-drying on the coat rack because it’s fifty cents cheaper that way. I would fail at this life too, if I did not figure out this business of street business. I knew I did not have the nerve to steal and I would be too embarrassed to panhandle. I stepped out of the doorway and the soy-sauced exhaust mingled with incense wafting out the entrance of Inhale to the Chief—a medley that confused my stomach.
The Space Port arcade was the center of the known universe. Its gravity field was inescapable to needers and Ave Rats alike. I stood at the bus stop in front—the path of least courage, because nobody can lay claim to a bus stop. Some of the usual heads were posted up on either side of the entrance. Rocker Jay leaned against the wall, one casually defiant foot up behind him, his hair teased out with a rebel gel and draped over the studded lapels of his black leather. He was blessed with at least the ego and jacket of a rock star. He was checking his pager while Squash Josh reminisced about another muscle car he’d probably never had, hands held out at the exact width of unlikely tires. His stories never came out the same way twice, the sign of an untreated truth impediment. Squash Josh was pushing seven feet tall and wanted you to believe he was moneyed in, which no one would question if only his cars were not still in the shop becoming even more muscular. He licked his lips compulsively and looked everywhere except your eyes when he talked to you, but he could spot johnny law like he had a built in radio. Adam was a few feet farther down, possibly smiling.
And in the fire-exit doorway stood Angel, fatal in thigh boots and jeans every inch as elegant and tormenting as algebra. The only Ave Ratess, she could throw down a traffic-affecting strut just standing there, high-assed with a lot of gumption, her Cleopatra hair stealing stray color glints from nowhere. She set her prices higher than everybody else, and up close she even smelled expensive. She would tell a needer how much her grams were and you’d see him frown at the news, a refusal working its way out of his chest until she fastened on him, flashing twisty smiles and dark trashed-up eyes. And then out would come his money like one of those snakes in a basket.
I scored off her once and ended up twenty bucks lighter afterwards. She ‘d seen me serve to some needers and asked me how much I was sitting on. I answered before I could help it, and she said I should buy her last four dimebags for “only” fifty, so she could recoup. They were even peedlier than mine. I knew better at first, but she ganged up on my sensibilities until I was mentally naked. One silky jounce of her side-boob against my arm and my thoughts went hormonal. Never mind the money, there’s always more somewhere, but that face, that is a face I cannot put into words, that is a face I cannot put any words into that add up to “no.” I walked away a little fuzzy on whose idea was whose.
I’d read about falling in love, and it had sounded strange, a state of dopiness overblown in print. But this had to be what they meant, something you would gush about if only you weren’t friendless, even if she was more or less indifferent to your existence.
Goatee Rick was standing a few feet away, holding down the newspaper box. He was different than the rest. His notched and whittled face was home to such joylessness that your mind edged him past forty, but word was he wasn’t even thirty. An elder of the District. He was maybe a foot shorter than me and junkie-sleek, but you would not call him small—at least not to where he could hear. I’d seen his goatee before in a book about the devil. He was unimaginable in any gentler setting and I was a little frightened by how much I admired him.
Streetlore had him killing a man at twelve and spending the next nine years in Green Hill, where he incited mayhem until they’d had enough and let him out. I believed it.
I’d watched him demolish a guy, some fool unlucky enough to pick up a paper sack Goatee Rick had set next to the newspaper box. In it was a burnt spoon and some used rigs. The guy made it halfway through the crosswalk before someone said, Hey Rick, that dude just peeled your works. This ped must have outweighed him by a hundred pounds, easy.
Goatee Rick flew at him, jumped up, and head butted him in the nose. The ped reeled and put his hands out like this was something he could stop. Goatee Rick fired three or four combinations at crazy speed, what you’d call a barrage of knuckle sandwiches served a la carte. It was lights out fifteen seconds into the first and only round. Rick tromped back to the newspaper box, screaming at the city in general to never, not ever, touch his shit. He set his bag down right where it’d been. Cars honked and drove around the man-shaped mess in the crosswalk until he got up and shambled away, dribbling a blood trail down the sidewalk.
Two minutes later johnny law vamped with the quickness, six cars deep. They half-listened to about a dozen versions of how the gigantic attacker came at Little Rick out of nowhere and Little Rick was left with no choice and so forth. The other guy was apparently too ashamed to formally own his victimhood—and, over a lunch sack of biohazard. They pissily snapped shut their notebooks and drove away.
Against such a backdrop of mug shots, I could only pose the awkward fact that, as unwelcome as I was, I didn’t belong anywhere else. Superfluous was the word that came to me often. I remembered it from a life ago, when I’d dreamt of being a writer and owned a dictionary. Adjectives can become more uncomfortable the better they fit.
I waited until no peds were in earshot, at least of me. Goatee Rick had a voice not unlike a seal.
“Rick, you know anybody has a decent zip?” I asked, meaning an ounce. His narrow eyes flexed at me real carnivore-like, the way they did most of the time. An unspoken hatred the world had coming, I guessed, for outgrowing him. “You want doses, I got blotter, four-way. Five bucks you got a party.”
“I was just thinking if you were gonna recap yourself.” I knew he could definitely get it, maybe even had it himself.
“You were just thinking. Know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking I’m trying to get paid, Eddie. Dig?” My name was not Eddie, a fact meaning more or less shinola to anyone but me. Eddie was just what he called needers.
“Sorry, man. I just—”
“You just what. You just deaf, Eddie?” he pronounced the word deaf to rhyme with leaf, his tone sharpened enough to quash Squash Josh’s car story. “Or you stupid? Doses. You ain’t spending, get the fuck off my porch.” I could feel eyes at my back, hoping I’d say the wrong thing and become first a show and then subtracted from the landscape.
“Okay,” I said.
I sauntered off like I’d remembered something that needed attending to.
I came to the post office on 43rd, which was surrounded on two sides by a short, wide wall that, whatever the architect had in mind, had become a perch for skate punks. The southern boundary of the thick of the Ave. It was painted an off mailbox blue, but graffiti writers reclaimed it tag by tag until the mailmen would slap on another coat. There were no Ave Rats on the wall, just some panhandler kids and Crazy Mary, who was interesting to talk to, but would sometimes yank up her dress right on the sidewalk and start rubbing one out, and that made conversations awkward. I looked back at Space Port and it too was Ave Ratless. This meant vice was probably rolling. The Ave Rats kept point for one another and had a system, some way to pass the alert that would outpace the unmarked car. They knew how to disappear with the quickness, which would leave you spotlit, centerstage. The few grams left in my sleeve glowed red hot. The stacked rows of windows lining the Ave suddenly felt like those fake mirrors the cops hide behind at the precinct when they’re up in your business about some alleged thing that got boosted.
I high stepped it past the post office and ducked into Phuc Ngo Market. The tiny old lady behind the counter crinkled her nose at me and said, “You come in here all day, ten time, you know that? Buy ten piece candy, no good. You teeth fall down maybe next week, you know that?”
I gave her a toothy smile while I still had one and placed a dime with a Bit-a-Honey on the counter.
I waited until vice had swept through. I needed to reset my nerves, so I turned south. I caught sight of one of The Others, a wildcard that even Ave Rats tried to sidestep.
He made his rounds along the lower reaches of the Ave, where it peters out beyond 43rd before making a T at the canal. I knew he was stalking the next easy mark.
Heavy did not wait for signals from needers. His was the flagrant bizarro method, gesturing to passing cars and asking peds what, not if, they needed. In the animal kingdom, a predator of his size would have built their bulk from great unlucky lengths of food chain. He moved along the opposite curb half a block down, among the peds but easily pegged as not one of them, loping at times with the sort of disregard that comes to someone unaccustomed to yielding the right of way.
I knew he played a game of numbers, some brute force strategy involving a low percentage of a high volume and so forth. Neither stealth nor cops were a factor because he did not sell any actual substance.
A tan Accord slowed and Heavy motioned to pullover and park and then hunkered down at the passenger window for maybe a minute before loading himself into the backseat. The car squatted and rolled away with the left turn signal blinking dumbly. I made a mental note to come back here in about an hour because there might be a show.
I’d met Heavy my second day. He had been posted up in front of Holy Cow (“Burgers almost too divine to eat”), at the top of the Ave. He reminded me distantly of a grown-up Fat Albert in a lime green Adidas jogging suit and visor. I’d always put great store in Fat Albert for his moral compass, so I asked him if the number 43 had gone by yet, just to see if he had the same voice, which he didn’t.
“Youngsta, l ain’ t watching no bus. I’m trying to get off this here chronic. Feel me?”
I nodded that I did, in fact. Little scars trimmed the ridges of his squarish face. If he were a carving, you’d think they got the nose wrong, ineptly flattened and off-kilter. I still had my piggybank account of 31 dollars, and the burgered breeze was sending my stomach into sissy shivers. If I did not invest soon, I could end up with an armload of Trinities with cheese. “You got like an eighth?”
“Cuz, I be having whatever. Oh zees for real. The icky dank bud,” he said.
I thought about this revelation and decided that, sure, people must run into real connects down here sometimes, connects who had ounces like he was saying. No reason I couldn’t be that lucky.
“Oh. I don’t got it like that yet,” I said. “But I know I can turn quick if you wanna break one up?”
“I ain’t trippin’. I got you. Where your car at?”
“I don’t got one. I’m walking.”
“Ain’t walking to the crib for no eighth no-how. Believe that.”
“You don’t got none on you?”
“Sheeit. Po-po ain’t no joke out here, dog. Feel me?”
I felt obligated to nod again even though this time I did not feel him exactly. Why stand around on a corner then? In the District you could get vamped with the quickness, so you did not, as a rule, pocket your felonies because johnny law wouldn’t strip you out on the sidewalk. But ounces were probably harder to fit in your sleeve or down the front of your underwear. His eyes worked the street, swiveling from car to car and face-to-face as each passed. He seemed to be pondering my carelessness. I doubted I would ever be so in-tune with my surroundings. I noticed his gold chain was greening in spots where it sank between neck rolls.
“I could try to get us a ride,” I said, a little crunchy at the prospect of complicating yet another person’s afternoon over so little. “I really need to turn.”
“Where you stay at?” he asked, finally looking all the way at me, an expression that said nothing on a face without an age. I could not tell if he was twenty-five or forty.
“Here, pretty much.”
“Ain’t seen you round.”
“I mean, I only been here a couple days, so that’s maybe why.”
I could feel myself becoming less of a novelty, my small fry money more hassle than hustle. Something told me not to pursue the issue, that this might be a route not on my map of how these things should go down. My sincere belief was that street business should be conducted on the street, not willy-nillying off to who knows. I paced the front of Holy Cow.
A needer in a green fleece stopped me and asked if I was holding. He had a slicked-back ponytail and was old, like in his late thirties. “I’m out,” I said in a way that implied I often was not. I felt an idea wag its tail. “But we can get it if you got a car.”
“Where you gotta go?”
I walked Green Fleece over to Heavy.
“Hey, this guy’s got a ride,” I told him.
Heavy asked him how much he was looking for, which turned out to be a half-ounce, or a dozen grams if they were nice. Heavy assured him that he had all that and a side of fries, the best in Seattle. Green Fleece motioned toward a backset parking lot and they set off in that direction. I trailed a few feet behind.
They were in a silver Jetta double-parked in the farthest corner of the lot, two flannelled guys smoking cigarettes with the windows down and giving off a whiff of illegal uneasiness. Green Fleece gestured and Blue Flannel hopped out and climbed in back with Red Flannel. Heavy dropped into the passenger seat, leaving no room for me. The engine started and they all peered out the windows at me like I might offer a satisfying reason for still being there. I mumbled that I’d see them, later. They drove off.
About an hour later the silver Jetta swerved around me as I was crossing 47th. It lurched over the curb and parked wonky in a loading zone. Green Fleece and the Flannels jumped out and came at me, the malice in their faces simple enough to read but not to place into context. I thought maybe they had me confused with some, other shaggy vagabond. My feet stopped and my limbs went cold even before Blue Flannel grabbed my arm. “Where the fuck we find your nigger friend?” he said in a half hiss, injecting menace into hate. The fusty steam of bourbon and mouth neglect. He had the parted blond hair of a Biff.
“He’s not my friend. I—”
Green Fleece ‘s face loomed within kissing distance, hard-staring me down with saggy eyes. Punctuating with finger jabs to my chest, he said, “You. Fucking. Set us up. With him. Now you. Owe us a hundred. And twenty. Bucks.”
Gulpy-voiced, I asked what had happened. They assumed I already knew that they had let Heavy run into an apartment building with their money. On the street, this is one way the word backdoor can become a verb.
They looked around and maybe it dawned on them how this would appear, the three of them up in my bathwater out in the open. They walked me toward the gaping slot of alley connecting to 50th, Blue Flannel clamped on one arm and Red Flannel on the other. As they yarded me off the sidewalk, I strained to see down the shadowy stretch behind all those buildings, hoping for a delivery truck, or a cop, a bum, anyone. A picture of urban desolation. Dark loading bays, large dumpsters I could easily be stuffed into, or behind if they were locked. I would not even make it onto the back of a milk carton because I would be missing from no one’s life. I tried to break loose and run but they were too strong. How to fight well was another thing nobody had taught me. They shoved me into the alley, skidding along in front of them.
“So you’re saying you can’t find him, your partner. You’re telling us this,” said Green Fleece.
“He’s not my partner and I don’t know where. Really,” I said in too girly a register to be taken completely serious. “I don’t even know him hardly.”
“He’s lying. Look at him.”
“He’s the wingman. Probably gets half.”
“Why the fuck you hook us up with him?”
I shrugged and of course Green Fleece hit me hard in the mouth. The brick wall behind him lit up. Someone rifled through my pockets, which held only a lighter and a few generic cigarettes in a pack. A hand threw these onto the asphalt and a foot stomped on them. Someone pulled my head back by its hair and a fist slogged into my stomach. Two potted ferns waved from the fire escape landing.
I had just scored of Adam and my net worth of three grams was in the liner of my coat sleeve. I thought of offering it up, but I could tell, this situation had built up more than three grams of momentum. Besides, after enough humiliation of the spirit you can find yourself strangely unwilling to plea-bargain anymore.
“Think you can just scam us, punk?” asked Green Fleece. I said no but he drilled me in the nose anyway. Apparently I was unconvincing. I needed to spit blood but couldn’t without getting it on one of them. We were by now deep in the alley, traffic and witnesses a mile off in either direction. We stopped beside a row of dumpsters. Green Fleece shovel-hooked me in the gut. I doubled over and spit a rope of stomach water and blood onto my shoes. Someone clipped me in the ear.
I stood straight as I could and stared deadpan, a counterfeit surface assumed half for my own sake, eyes fixed to a point somewhere in the street beyond Green Fleece. A Seattle Police cruiser rolled by with traffic, two patrol cops unperturbed in profile. Displacing thought was the chorus of an Iron Maiden song, Run to the Hills, a loop of sanity to clutch like lyric prayer-beads with killer drum rolls. No way would they milk another cringe out of me. Red Flannel cocked back his right arm and bared a jaundice grin, shy one tooth. Below the middle knuckle was one of those football rings both gaudy and dull. The fists fell here and there without much gusto, like they wanted to drag it out: eye, mouth, gut, nose, repeat.
A column of lime green crossed my narrow view of sidewalk. Heavy. He would glance down the alley for sure, because in the District you always scoped for creeper cops when you passed one. But he would keep it pushing, maybe even get ghost from the Ave for a while. He wouldn’t want anything to do with this, his own fallout, because isn’t that the point. Or so my thoughts went. But he stopped midstride and stared. Maybe we made eye contact, maybe we didn’t. One of the Flannels said, “Hey there he is,” and Green Fleece turned.
“Hey,” he yelled, and set off toward Heavy in a half run, half swagger. Heavy looked side to side and then strolled stone-cool toward us, a matter of Adidas fact forging the center of the alley. There was no posturing in his stride, no gestures of superiority, but neither was there the faintest Fat Albertish thing about him anymore. The Flannels let go my arms and rallied around their fleeced friend, a flank maneuver. I thought of running but it didn’t seem so pressing now.
Green Fleece stopped and said, “You got our fucking money… boy?”
Heavy eyed them each, flicking from one to the next, as blank as a cinder block. He shot a glance to where I was bent over, steadied by a dumpster. “Y’all some coward-ass bitches up in here. “
Green Fleece hitched himself up and did the head-tilt thing, cracking his neck knuckles. “Keep thinking that while we stomp your black ass out nigger, ” and then he ratcheted up a splat of phlegm—what you’d call a lung cookie—and launched it to the side.
Heavy covered the distance between them in two strides and posted up southpaw, bouncing lightly side to side with his fists up and swaying restlessly, the hugest pugilist ever. Blue Flannel strayed too close and Heavy lunged and knocked him out with a jab. Green Fleece came inside swinging wildly and Heavy rewrote his future, a rhythm of grace and concussion, brief and unanswered. The meaty racket volleyed in the brick narrows. The green visor never budged. This was not how fights looked in the movies. Green Fleece lay on his ponytail, arms out like Jesus, snoring. Red Flannel took off in a dead sprint away from Heavy. He must have forgotten to look back.
Heavy stood straddling Green Fleece. He leaned down and swung one fist then the other, a motion from a chain gang scene. He stood looking down for a moment before stepping over to Blue Flannel. He stomped twice on his ribcage, maybe as a memento, in-case he’d dislodged the actual memory. Green Fleece’s jaw was a drastic shape and bunched off to one side, a medical quantity of blood. The snoring stopped.
“I run this muthafucka,” he roared at them both—really at the world. A wavelength in that voice to make you rethink -your views on urban life, an element forcing its own acknowledgement, some half-burst organ hurling fury through asphalt veins. He turned his back to me, lifted his sweatshirt and tucked it under his chin. The stream of urine clattered as thick as a keg tap, sweeping across both faces and chests. Steam vapors flicked with the breeze. He turned and walked past me, his face gone unreadable again. I scampered after the greater of two evils.
“Thanks, man,” I said. My mouth was clumsy how only one thoroughly clobbered can be. The relief washing over me was muddied by the sheer consequence of this man, the collision course he had plotted and its byproducts.
“Don’t even trip,” he said, breathing hard. “I likes when they come back.”
“Why’d you rob those guys?”
“I ain’t rob nobody. They give me their money.”
I told him my name and held out my hand.
He shook it more or less daintily, pulling up short. His knuckles looked like spilled concrete that someone daubed with red.
“Heavy,” he said.
“You’re telling me.”
* * *
I was wary of Heavy after the Green Fleece incident. More of being associated with him than of his physical presence—this is what I told myself. It had been a month or so—a long time in street years—and in that time we had not spoken of what had happened. Some days Heavy would score a gram or two off me, holding the money out while he asked, a gesture intended to short-circuit my uneasiness. I had glimpsed his unmasked nature and afterward felt a twinge of guilt at how awestruck I was by such methodical violence. A clash of lower tier thinking, admiration where you know revulsion should be.
But to simply lie to him about whether I was holding would have violated the nameless bond between us now, the queasy sort of knot where our two histories were forcibly combined. I held a dim loyalty toward him, like I’d been through an ordeal with, not because of him. Maybe I enjoyed feeling sorry for someone even more outcast than I was. No Ave Rat would deal with him, not even Goatee Rick, who had no detectable fear of anything, including johnny law.
I had no more illusions of a carefree life on the Ave. Cops weren’t the only threat anymore—they were only one of a thousand. The District contained everything outside of me now. I was a city of one on a narrow planet of charades, motives hidden and hostile to my being. I distrusted humanity on its smiling face because social fictions were only tactics that could disarm you. I scurried past alleyways as a general habit. I would not get into cars or deal with anyone unless they were alone, nor would I direct sales to anyone when I ran out, not even to Angel. Our main interaction was the looks we traded—she regarded me like an insinuation not quite rating a remark, and I tried to memorize her geometry, one side-eyeing at a time.
When I bought the pistol a few days after the alleyway incident, I knew on some unthinking level it was only a fantasy of safety, the way you know the rabbit’s foot in your pocket won’t really steer you away from harm any better than it did the rabbit, but you lug it around anyway. I could not pack my lucky charm on the street, not with a barrel so ridiculously long you half expected one of those “Bang! ” flags to pop out. Johnny law’d vamp on that like the time Squash Josh tried serving grams on roller skates, all seven feet of him, broomstick arms whipping the sky.
Sitting on enough for en ounce meant you were more likely to get robbed than to actually score. You couldn’t just ask around until you found one, because once word got out, you could get caught slipping by anybody with a partner or a pocketknife. Just when you dismiss vigilance as paranoia, your blind spot creeps up on you and peals you back proper. A street kid wandering around with a coupla hundred bucks is a pork chop at the pitbull fair.
If Goatee Rick was the eldest of the District, Stormin’ Norman was its favorite uncle, the non-creepy one. They said he predated any Ave Rat and most of the buildings. He held down whatever spot he chose in Moses sandals and rainbow socks, a sort of peaceful demonstration held against winter and fashion sense. His blackish trunk and thick limbs put 6 rolling efficiency in his stride. A ponytail, long, gray end missing a strip up top, a face you could not pick out of a line-up in The Shire. I’d heard him celled The Beard by people unsure of his name, referring to the grizzled bib of fur that shaded most of his belly and which suggested a pipe be stoked on any given occasion. He carried a black velvet panel hung with beadwork in all forms pinnable. Although peds would stop end buy his merchandise, the colored trinkets on the panel were only a side-gig.
It had taken me weeks to learn that Stormin’ Norman was more then an old hippy beadsmith. He did not watch the faces of needers, nor did he pace the Ave or bother to get ghost when vice was rolling. He had regulars that went back decades who would talk to no one else except to ask if they’d seen Stormin around. They would buy an earring and do the blindman handshake openly, in a way that was difficult to spot as anything unbeadlike. I had only ever made the smallest talk with him—the unquestioning respect owed an ancient street merchant—like whether it was supposed to rain, or if he’d seen that candy apple chopper.
“How they hangin, Stormin’?” I asked, pointing at his display.
“Lower than my standards, boyo, and that’s saying something. But all in all,” he said and then shrugged.
“Think we could talk something besides beads?”
“You’re saying my cufflinks don’t accessorize your smoking jacket,” he said, his forehead folding in mock hurt. A smile centering in the eyes, redrawing the lines there, an upward drift of the beard. “Let’s walk.”
In an alley two blocks off-Ave, he pulled out a handful of baggies such as you might’ve brown-bagged sandwiches to school in. “All I got’s these eighths,” he said. “They ain’t the toast of no town. But then again if they were, or if you was choosy, neither of us’d be here, huh?” He held out eight loosely rolled baggies, a wilted cellophane bouquet. “These ought to add up near an oh zee, give or take. Don’t quote me.”
I did not feel the need to unroll the bags. You just trust beards of a certain caliber. He gave me a price break for buying 90 and I thanked him and began counting out two hundred in Fives and tens. Recouping with ones was like a raspberry fart on a first date.
“Listen,” he said, “I seen you around for whet, a month? You seem a little, I don’t know, lost. Wide-eyed. I mean, I don’t see you mixing it up.”
“It takes me a while, I guess. With some people.”
“They ain’t down here to bond—them Ave Rats. You want them to notice, you gotta make em.” He arranged the bills carefully into bank order, folded them and slipped the wad into a beaded leather pouch hung beneath his shirt.
“Like the man says, if you can’t be with the one you love, well then, show the ones you’re with. Meaning that you’re about something. Bit of unsolicited counsel, this.”
“But I’m down here everyday, all day.”
“Eating your brussel sprouts last don’t make ‘em dessert. You gotta be more than just around. Them skate punks are down here much as you, see where that gets them. “
“But you’re not one of them, right? An Ave Rat.”
“They ain’t one of me, is more like it. Listen, I know most what’s worth knowing bout this street, and much that isn’t. People see what they need to. Don’t think they ain’t keeping score. Can’t take no shit, is all I’m saying.”
He turned end sat off toward the Ave, veering half a sidewalk this way and that around puddles. I stayed on Brooklyn, the street paralleling the Ave, and headed toward a parking garage at the bottom end of the District, where there was a maintenance closet that was sometimes unlocked. I thought it was unknown to anyone else and the coils of garden hoses weren’t bad to nap on if you arranged them right. My office.
As I was crossing the street in front of the parking garage, Heavy rounded the corner. I gave him the usual eyebrow raise, in case of surveillance. Only you should know who you know. I would lap the block once now, before going in. “What is it, youngsta. Let me holler at you?
I stopped. He’d never spoken to me this way before. Almost like an equal. “Lookee here, dog,” he said. “Real talk. I needs work. I’m fixin’ to roll legit, feel me?” I caught myself mid-nod. He sidled back and forth in what might have been his version of squirming. To work for someone meant walking with however much weed your credit limit allowed and then returning with the money before they had to come looking. “I needs to work with a few of them thangs. Broke as a joke up in here.”
“You’re trying to actually turn? You mean, instead of.”
He nodded soulfully. “But ain’t nobody tryin to hear that. That’s real. Muthafuckas is scary, playa. Straight trippin’ like I’m five-oh.” His eyes spoke for the first time. Please.
“Look, Heavy,” I said, glancing up than down the street, “I mean, I got a few eighths, but.”
The rest of my sentence hung in the sir between us, loud and unmistakable.
“Cuz, on my mama. I got you tomorrow. I keep it real with you. Ain’t tryin’ to move nobody no more.”
I weighed the possibility of drama now against drama later. The risk of my misgivings being read correctly and taken personally and where that would take us. My next words needed to be chosen for their balance, for safety.
I imagined what he saw when he looked at me. A lesser being, spectacularly smaller and undeserving of anything I was incapable of taking, or keeping, by force. Even my own clothes had grown flappy on me, but I could use one of his pant legs as a sleeping bag. Paying me would be an afterthought, like leaving a tip in a jar or giving a smoke to a bum. But maybe he really did want to go legit. His money had always been proper with me. Then there is the matter of having to see me all the time if he didn’t pay me, which, on the other hand, might only matter to me. He did pretty much jack fools for a living. But he saved my ass when he didn’t have to. I slid out an eighth from my sleeve.
“Alright,” I said. “But Heavy?”
He tilted that Easter Islandish head to one side as I handed him the baggie and said, “Don’t rip me off.”
“Sheeit, cuz. Don’t even trip. You my dude. I got you.”
He walked off and I waited a full cigarette before going into my office.
The next day there was a notable lack of Heavy on the Ave. Chilled sunlight streamed through cloud gaps and needers were streaming from wherever it was they came from. Actual homes, probably. I ended up thirty bucks ahead, which meant Heavy owed me half my profit, more or less. Even still, his absence took up little mental space among the countless reflex measures taken to keep yourself out of jail in a given hour.
The following day I came out of Phuc Ngo Market and spotted Heavy across the street, crouched beside a blue Celica, either selling or storytelling to the couple inside with greet hand motions. I walked to the crosswalk half a block down because jaywalking would get you vamped for sure. The couple pulled away slowly as I approached.
“Heavy. Got them duckets? I’m trying to recop.”
He thug-eyed the top of the Ave like I definitely had not said anything. I edged around into his stare, a tentatively determined pace and a halfback. A quick whiff of air escaped his nostrils like how a rhino does when his cleaner birds peck too hard.
“Look, man, I—”
He stepped forward and an improbably thick hand hovered in front of my face, creased and scarred like my old softball mitt.
“Get out my face, white boy. l ain’t tryin’ to hear you right now.” The serrated warning in his voice told me everything before all his words were out.
I hadn’t felt so small since the night of deadbolts and frozen newspapers. I walked away because what else could I do. I went to the upper end of the Ave, thinking I could focus on serving to needers but the eight blocks between us was not enough. The money Heavy had set me back belonged far down the list of survival questions. I tried to convince myself to chalk it up to experience, but experience can load the blood like a toxin, dose after dose, undetectable until it isn’t.
Shame has a wormy way of running a film of your cowardly moments behind all the thoughts you make yourself think. The mental white noise of powerless rage. Every time I heard his voice dubbed over the gassy rumble of a bus my pulse, jerked in my throat and I felt littler, lamer.
I walked up onto the University campus and into the second stand of trees from the building with the greenhouse and found the madrona where JH hearts KW. I bat down in the leaf mulch guarded by rhododendrons, my solitude haunt where I could go to dwell on matters too private to think about in front of strangers. When you’re away from people by choice, loneliness has less muscle to it, like something you have control over. I pulled from the dirt the wad of grocery bags end began unwrapping. I sat there cross-legged with my dull pistol gleaming in my filthy hands. An elemental comfort in its unbalanced weight, the metallic fact that in this particular frame of time and space, no one could get away with shit. I would swagger up to Heavy, draw down on him and have one of those unlikely hero-to-villain dialogues where he grovels and I belittle him in a high-chinned manner before deciding his fate.
I would wear a clever disguise and do a walk-by shooting on him right on the Ave. I’d watch with a knowing smirk while johnny law searched for my alter ego.
I would lure him into an alley and kill him in cold blood, mainly because I liked that term, the ridiculous way it sounded. I would get vamped for sure. I would spend eternity in jail, which if it was anything like juvie, I hated even more than Heavy. All my fantasies were hands down—and skirt up—as batshit as one of Crazy Mary’s masturbatory monologues given atop the post office well.
I slid the pistol down the front of my pants, a mobster carry, and asked the madrona if it had a fucking problem with me. The gunsight at the end of the barrel made a narrow tent almost to my knee, absurd to consider on the Ave. I sat back down in the dead leaves.
I longed for teenaged days, when the main concern involved a girl’s phone number or a ride to the beach. I considered the void where there had been schedules and yes, chores—regularity imposed on a life that gave it direction, the framework shoring up days into functional shapes, the small components of a meaningful future or even missed curfew because of all it implied, not only that. You had somewhere to be but also you mattered to someone. I remembered less and less why I had disliked these things and what I’d found so appealing about aimlessness and the idea of disarray. My warm and pillowed bedroom did not seem so oppressive from where I sat.
I could feel the soft-soul laze of suburbia slowly draining from me. I knew I should care more about what the replacement ingredient meant, who it would make out of me.
I found that if you lean against a maple long enough, hidden and alone. Your thoughts can go as sappy as the tree. No telling which was more useless, my self-pity or my piece. I wrapped up both and buried them.
The sky had gone pewter with hard-line clouds you couldn’t read into, tiny snow shavings atwirl, they way they do when you look at dark objects. I went into Sloppy’s Seconds on the upper Ave and dipped into my profit for long underwear, unmatched wool socks, and a faded mold-green army jacket. A greatcoat they called it. It was impervious to snow, confirming its greatness.
* * *
I spent the following morning at the top of the Ave because I had not seen Heavy there since the Green Fleece incident. It had been bleak since dawn, like the sky was hungover. The number seven bus had gone by four, maybe five times since I’d made a sale. I walked south.
In the parking lot of Mayhem on Rye, Adam stood in front of an unmarked car, a silver Omni. An ample cop in uniform stood beside him, another sat behind the wheel. On the hood was a large array of grams from which he was slowly choosing one. He peeled it open and stuffed the contents into his mouth and began chewing laboriously, his eyes streaming. The cop handed him a Styrofoam cup with a straw. Adam drank and then swallowed, gagged, gulped it down and coughed. His overbite was biting more over than usual but I was fairly sure he was not smiling, even though he had chosen this option over jail.
You could keep your freedom and your weed so long as you ate the entirety of the latter. Irony enforcement, if that is the right word. Possession of over forty grams was a felony, so Ave Rats kept thirty-nine or less on them, as a rule. By eating it raw, you missed out on most of the desired effects because THC only breaks down in oil of some kind, but thirty-nine grams of manicured bud is two feet of pungent rope, more or less. Enough to hang yourself. Your guts react pretty much as you might expect. Adam would be in toilet orbit with woolly eyes for two days. The cop in the driver seat cackled a comment to his partner about Adam’s gag reflex. I passed from view, thankfully unnoticed.
It was that part of day when the sun finally does its business, working down in between buildings and into your layers of clothes. Bad air thick with the grinding of noonish travels. Traffic was tidal at 45th, compressed for a block in either direction, clogged while the crosswise current ebbed by. All four corners were stocked with peds waiting to cross.
Standing next to the signal box in front of Space Port was Heavy in a baby-blue jogging suit. His image throbbed away from the scenery, making me look and not look, a dozen Ave Rats standing or leaning nearby. I considered turning around before he saw me and how this could become my truth, the swallowing of fact after bitter fact laid out on the cosmic hood of a snickering god who sounded pretty much like a cop to me anyway.
I let the surge of peds lead me along. I pulled up close beside Heavy and said, low so as not to front him off, “Heavy. Wanna kick me down my duckets?” He cocked his head and his eyes showed too much white at the top. “You think I’m playin, boy? I ain’t the one. You got shit comin.’ That’s real talk, cuz.” He stared down at me but he did not stare me down. His nostrils unfurled and he got a foot taller and closer. Even his voice was enormous. “What you wanna do, homeboy? You done forgot I will peel your wig back, white boy.”
I did not move. I had prepared a profound statement, something pointed and persuasive, establishing the fact of moral high grounds and so forth.
“Okay,” I lied. I turned away and took two steps.
How these things separate from the fabric of random happenings. If I took one more step I would be accepting publicly his chosen ending. It would become an element of my character, my entry in the Ave. Rat ledger, in my own. The heat of a dozen awarenesses focused on my back, on a moment shedding its generic quality, unfolding into something singular, A mover’s truck cut the corner by a foot, creaking up onto this curb. The door to Ship the Bed Imports jingled open and a car radio howled about a barracuda. A sunglint walked along slow moving chrome. I felt the shattering of something small and secret, my hesitator. Between courage and shit-smearing whacko is the will to do that which you only later weigh out completely.
I unbuttoned my greatcoat and wrestled the pistol up out of my pants. I turned back around, revolver hanging among the open drapery at my side. Heavy had made a point of dismissing me, a broadcast of my irrelevance, and had gone back to needer spotting. I came up beside him as if to whisper in his ear.
I held the muzzle against the sky-blue expanse of his left butt-cheek and squeezed the trigger twice, fast.
Heavy was jolted, an electric jerk sideways, away from me. And then he shrieked.
I quickly backed out of jab range. His leg buckled and he embraced the signal box like it was long lost, screaming vowels and the word muthafucka, over and over.
The shots had been bright and sharp, foreign. But they had drowned in the midday noise soup of the District. There was no collective gasp from the city, traffic did not squeal its tires in horror, no cops came rappelling from the rooftops. No one on the corner but Heavy made a sound.
I stood bonestill, leveling the gun at his blued middle like Clint Eastwood in his cowboy phase. I felt the urge to soapbox, to express my unwillingness to accept one more slighting, and then realized I’d done just that. His face was flexing strangely like it wasn’t used to making pain and fear shapes. I stared deadpan at him and chambered the notion of one round to the chest if he lunged, of addressing his charge chestally, if that is even a word. He was no longer, apparently, in the mood to stare back.
He looked down at my hand and around us at the enthralled faces and then took off in a wobbly, dipping sort of jog’, how people do when they keep counting on an unreliable leg. He cut a drunken path down the sidewalk, bouncing off storefronts and into peds. I could hear murder vows being wailed for half a block.
I remembered the gun now hanging at my side. Goatee Rick’s stare glittered above a pirate grin. Squash Josh and his small entourage were still taking the scene in, their cigarettes remembered and coming up all at once for drags. Angel stood facing me with her feet spread and there was no telling what her look meant. This was street history in the present tense and I could see written across faces the recognition of a man inventing himself.
I worked the barrel beck into my waistband and turned the corner onto 45th. I did not hurry. I heard Goatee Rick bark, “Did you see that shit?” and someone else answered, “It’s about time.”
* * *
It was another autumn afternoon—an edgeless day where everything mentioned by the weatherman was “partly.” I came out of The Chill Pill and turned sleuth, a white drugstore bag disguising me as no one. I watched him stroll among the peds across the Ave, easily picking him out by the buoyant steps of a kid eager to be going anywhere, a side-flip of the hair every other upbeat of the song only he could hear. What you’d call strawberry blond if he were a girl—hair yarn-straight that fobbed across one blushy cheek between tosses. I knew he would page me the minute he sold out because he was obnoxiously honest, almost nervous with my money. I walked the side seldom used by Ave Rats now and it gave me a feeling of polished distance, something I could mold into a sense of achievement that I would never admit.
My pager buzzed, a string of numbers that meant vice was crawling out of the North Precinct. I horse-whistled a short and two longs to the kid and crossed, heeding back up. Every Friday I left an ounce with the manager of the C’ est Moo ice cream shop. His cousin was the cop you hoped would only arrest you, the District’s most hated. This cop’s wife happened to prefer my usual strain of weed over others, which kind he’d first brought home last winter after busting me and two of my ribs. I gave her some, she gave him some, and he and I each got about ten minutes at a time out of the deal. This was street Darwinism, and you can’t argue with science.
I thought of when the kid showed up, during the longest days of summer, when the sidewalk was still warm at midnight. One of the good ones—fleeing one bad circumstance only to find another, underfed and overjoyed at the promise of no longer facing whatever he’d run away from. He’d come to me melty-eyed and owning exactly the items of clothing he had on. I found something endearing in the extent of his raggediness. You could see his toes through his Chuck Taylors. He had heard about me, the swirl of half-fictions as stubborn as a shadow, and asked for work.
The other four in my crew, kids I also called mine, came along after. I gave them each an ounce every morning and tried to instill in them the mental scaffolding to avoid the Green Fleeces, the Heavys and johnny law. I felt the flowery pride never known by my own father, even though at sixteen, I was the oldest by maybe two years. This was my family now, a truth I recognized because I wanted things to be better for them even when they pissed me off—and isn’t that what family is. I had lofty plans for them—spare ambition to toss around—but the processes of lasting structure was beyond me.
I provided creature comforts and material things, making them urchins of privilege in their concert shirts and Reeboks, Walkmans and endless pizza. I kept a second motel room for them next to my own, a palace of screwed-down yellowy landscapes and balding towels. I let myself believe this was nurturing, the guise of a figure in a hollow plot about redemption.
A pastel green sweatsuit filled the corner of my eye and reminded me of Heavy. How memory toys with your take on the world, reshaping the material of beliefs. Or disbelief. I doubted anyone could be as fearsome as my mind’s eye claimed Heavy had been. Not now, anyway. I wondered who, in fact, would be more afraid of whom. No one said his name anymore, but I stayed ready, my gun more compact and less buried. Heavy had not been seen in the District in the three or four seasons since the incident. I would have known. Ave Rats kept point for one another.
I walked past a doorway and a hand flashed paIe in the shadows, a swanny gesture urging me into You Got Framed.
“Come look at these posters with me,” Angel said. Magazine-type eyes that could soften my worldview or make me want to do things in a rented room. She looked at me as if I were the only mystery worth solving. She saw me not as The Man, but her man, as if there had never been a time when I was in any way undeserving. Whether I belonged with her or to her was something I was not brave enough to consider. We stayed up nights, cross-legged on the scratchy floral bedspread, the conversation wandering in a way that felt like taking my soul out for a walk. She listened with a whole-brained sturdiness that drew clarity from the parts of me I had not known to unstop. I listened even when I didn’t want to.
Or we stayed up not talking, but just as open to ideas. And after a million things were whispered, shaping the question of permanence from the folded space between us, because Future W99 the f-word I was afraid to ask of her. She looked famous in just the neon leaking through nicotined drapes. I breathed her in and out with the city night, tangled and dewy in a mess of cheap sheets, telling her funny stories in the dark. You are never more intimate than when you laugh naked with someone.
She tugged me into the shop and out of my reverie. “You got time?” she asked. “I just want something to make our room more homey.”
Well-crafted thoughts burned to the ground every time she slid her hands inside my coat. I exchanged a single nod with the owner standing behind the counter. He was good for a half ounce twice a month.
“Did you pay the rent for another week?” she asked the side of my neck, where my pulse was. “I like it there.”
“Two more,” I said. “So do I.”
She pushed her front against me, an R-rated movement that left me oblong and of a creaturely mind. She tipped her head toward a Zeppelin poster, The Song Remains the Same. It was hued for a blacklight. “I think that one’s my favorite. Can we get it?”
She could have had them all.