You always be seein some wacky shit on the train. Bitch slap a nigga for eyein her. Nigga piss on somebody who piss him off. Somebody get they throat slit over a gold chain. Shit like that. Like this one time, I see this nigga fall flat on his back in the aisle. His teeth start rattlin like keys, and then he start shakin down the aisle and shake all the way to the other end of the car. Another time, this bitch face bleed away. I mean she just sittin in her seat mindin her own business when this gash open in the sideah her neck. She put her palm over the gash but it keep inchin up her neck. She put her other palm over that gash but another gash start up the other sideah her neck. And these two gashes keep climbin and climbin, like they runnin a race or somethin, climbin right on up to her chin, up her face, then spread this net of blood all over her forehead. Bitch open her mouth like she fin to holler but her tongue all red and drownin in blood. She put her hands over her face, and her hands change to blood. Then her head fall right offah her neck and go bouncin and rollin down the aisle. You shouldah seen it. Everybody screamin, tryin to jump off the train wit nowhere to go. Some wacky shit.
And that ain’t the least of it. The kinda shit this trippy world can put on your brain. You’ve heard about the jumpers, the suicides. Well, one time, I was all the way up inna first car, standin there lookin through the head window lookin down on the tracks, seein what the engineer sees. And I see this lady kneelin between the tracks, inna path of the train. Then she looks up and sees the train bearin down on her, and her eyes get all wide and bright, and she gets that look like, Oh, shit, what the fuck am I doin? So she hops up real quick and tries to squeeze her body flat against the tunnel wall so the train will slip right by her. But inna situation like that, you jus can’t slim up and disappear.
Some trippy shit. And I could tell you more. Lots more. But to spare you the trouble I’m jus gon tell you bout this one day that beat all. Why I had to stop ridin the trains all together and institute a career change.
See, I had this routine. Rise early, freshen up. In this profession it’s real important to smell good. For extra protection, smear some liquid soap under yo armpits. (The department stores downtown have the best shit. That perfumey shit. Top of the line. Always fill you up a baggy full or two for later use.) I tiptoe down the fire escape. (My landlord can be a real bitch when it’s that time of the month.) And make my way down to the cage for the mornin bets.
On this particular day, it’s bright and early in the mornin, but niggas is already out. Standin on the sidelines around the cage, lookin through the metal fence twenty-foot-tall or higher. Lined up like a flock of birds on a telephone wire. Don’t play no ball myself. Niggas is too rough, all elbows and feet and teeth. But I don’t mind watchin from the sideline. Place my bets and flip some money. I got a good eye for that kind of thing.
So, I’m bout to place my bet when I see buck wild Shiheed standin to my left frownin all up inna my face. Shiheed, he one funny-lookin motherfucker. Long square breadloaf head. Eyes all slanted like bird wings. Low eyes, low, almost sittin on his nose. Nostrils big enough to drive two Mack trucks through, cargo and all. Boogers big as peanuts. And these big white wide bright teeth like bars of soap. One other thing. This nigga is skinny. You can see his bones through his clothes. Skin thin as a kite. Pea, he say, I know you ain’t bout to bet on that bitch ass nigga.
I seen him play befo.
That musta been his twin. Nigga be out here twenty-fo-seven gettin his ass toe up.
I kid you not. Look at him.
I look at him, but I can’t see what I’m lookin at cause Shiheed got me all confused. So I think about it for a minute. Well, I guess you should know.
Of course. I’m out here all day.
So I bet on the other guy. We stand and wacch the game. Do I need to tell you what happened? That bitch ass nigga won.
Damn, Shiheed, why you fuck me up like that?
What? Nigga, who you tryin to blame? I’m tryin to look out for you.
Shit. You know how much that fucked me up?
Stop cryin. I lost money too, but you don’t see me whinin like a bitch.
You need to squash all that. I’m sorry. Truly. Sorry. Fuck.
Why don’t you place another bet? Fuck that.
I understand. I owe you. Let me hook you up.
What can I get you ?
I got that powerful shit, that Mount Everest shit. Turn you into a superhero. Leap buildins in a single bound.
I’m on the clock.
Make time fly.
Really. I’m straight.
I heard that. My nigga. Make that money.
That’s what I came to see you about.
That thing I asked you to do fo me. A week before, I’d given Shiheed some ends to flip. Would you have a return on my investment?
Shiheed, he turns towards me, he puts his eyes on me. And they fix me like lasers, burn a hole right through my fohead. All these pictures of fucked-up bodies and piles and piles of dead niggas come flyin and screamin through that hole.
Not today. Things is slow.
I’m lookin at him.
But, hey, I’m gon hook you up.
I don’t say anything.
You know I’m a man of my word. Catch me tomorrow.
Okay. Whatever you say.
My nigga. Hey, walk me up the block.
I really need to bounce.
I’m just goin up to the corner sto.
I got all this business I need to—
Damn, nigga. Why you trippin? You can’t walk me up the block.
My skin shrink around my body, tight, beef jerky. Crazy motherfucker. Aw aight, I say. No problem, I say. I start to walk with Shiheed. Walk behind him.
You hear all that corny shit about the shadow of death followin somebody. Things you hear be true sometimes. Shiheed, he got one foot in prison, the other in the grave. I always walk a little behind him. Keep that shadow in the corner of my eye.
Damn, Shiheed, he say. What the fuck is wrong wit you? Can’t you walk like normal people?
I’m tryin to, I say. I got this strange condition.
Fuck yo condition. Shiheed’s back pockets are packed full, bulgin out like two square titties. That condition wouldn be fear?
Ah, Shiheed. You know me.
Thought I did. So, you got my back?
Of course. But, hey, I ain’t down wit that gangsta shit.
Nigga, there you go again. Trippin.
All I’m sayin—
Did I ask anything from you?
Look, I can’t do no time. They’ll break a lil nigga like me.
What? Nigga, you better wise up. Grow some hair on yo chest.
Just then we arrive at the sto.
You don’t even know what I’m gon ask you.
I know. But thanks for the offer. I’ll holla. I start to walk away.
Pea, you ain’t gon come in the sto wit me?
Like I told you, I got to handle—
Nigga you on some real fucked up shit. Come on in the sto. Let me buy you a double ounce of courage.
I try to laugh it off.
Then Shiheed’s face loosen up and he pop into his weird laugh. Nigga, you know I’m jus fuckin wit you. We cool?
My nigga. Shiheed stroll on into the sto.
Seein that he holdin out on my money—what I’m gon do, gat the motherfucker?—figure I haf to pull me some ends befo my afternoon hustle. So I bounce up to the El platform and wait for the train. I see this other head standin on the platform, a tall skinny nigga wit this green bandanna tied round his noggin, the knotted ends curlin out from his fohead. Nigga standin way high on his toes, head cocked back, like somebodv, tryin to snatch him into the sky. He see me and nod, all silent like. I nod back. Then he go, It’s a good day to make some money, if the squares don’t get in yo way. He watchin me, hard, real hard. So I walk to the other end of the platform.
When the train come, I hop on nice and quick, and whip out my Tall Boy malt liquor can, papered over wit a black label wit red letters savin UPLIFT CAREER ARTS ACADEMY. I make my way from car to car, holdin up my can and askin for donations. Most people ignore me, keep readin or talkin or starin outa the window. I can say I’m disappointed, but can’t say I’m surprised. That is one weak hustle. Always is. So I decide to resort to some real criminal behavior. I’m small and quick, and I can spot an expensive handbag from four car-lengths away. Caiman that is. That’s the only thing I fuck wit. Don’t even go after all that designer and name-brand shit. Everybody got that fake shit nowdays, so it’s hard to tell. And another thing: all that fake ass jewelry. So it’s either the caiman or the money, the money or the caiman. I walk from car to car, fix people in my head and eyes as I pass, lookin for an easy mark.
I snatch this big fat bitch purse and she snatch back her purse and me with it. Then she hop up from her seat and pimpslap me. Knock pain in my head. My brain hummin and vibratin like a dunked-on hoop rim. Bitch put me in this headlock and start squeezin my neck so hard that tears pop outa my eyes. Can’t help but smell her underarms, right? People usually be stinkin under they arms, specially fat people. But this fat bitch bout the best thing I ever smelt. Smell like my head and face inna can fulla sweet flowers and fruits and candies. (She must know that department sto downtown.) But she don’t give my nose long to appreciate. She take off her shoe and she ain’t got on no stockins and I see the prettiest big toe I ever seen, no corns or nothing. Like a fine little titty. I’m watchin that titty when that fat bitch start hittin me upside the head with her hard ass heel. Then she haul off and sling me away from her, a Rollerball move, and I feel sumpin twist in my neck certain that this bitch done snapped my head off, that my head back there under her fine-smellin arm. So I touch my head to make sure it’s still there, and that’s when I feel what I think is blood crawlin real slow down from the topa my head. And I feel this thing inside my head, movin up and down like wings, wings flappin heavy and hard.
Fat bitch jus stand there lookin at me. She got all this white makeup on her face. Look like she dead. She be like, I’m tired of you low life niggers. Some people should never be born. Then that fat bitch kick me right in the nuts. Wit that fine ass big toe.
You can make yo best money down in the financial district at lunchtime when all the suckers spill outta their offices, hungry and loud. When you see ah sucker, stick out yo belly and put on a sad face. Then you be like, Sir (or Madame), could you spare me a quarter for sumpin to eat? You can gank a few. And you can pull a big draw if you can find a whole gang of suckers from the same office all bunched up together.
Hunger make people feel all guilty and shit. An easy hustle. You can pull some substantial loot if it ain’t too many bums around. I don’t believe in knockin nobody’s hustle, but a bum ain’t nothing but a raggedy ass scarecrow scarin all the money away.
Lucky for me I see jus these two bums. This one curled up off to himself inna space between two buildins, his face all red and shiny, set like a diamond in his grimey rags. And this other one wearin a sign round his neck sayin: INSULT ME FOR A DOLLAR. He jus sittin there on the dirty ground with his legs all folded Buddha-style, sittin there like he can’t move, like his sign heavy as a concrete slab. Scarecrow.
So I try not to sweat them bums and start workin my hustle, like I always do, but, for whatever reason, suckas is cheap today. I’m talkin nickles and dimes-and pennies-cheap.
I’m like, What the fuck is this, a recession or some shit?
Got’s to try another strategy.
So I see this one square, an easy mark, and I tell him that I’m wit the circus, The Man of Steel, and ask him if he wanna punch me inna stomach for a dolla. I pull up my shirt and brace myself. This square, he just look at me and shit. But that ain’t all. Guess what he does next? Punk motherfucker spit on me. You heard me? Word. Yo, I’m all hot inside, hot, real hot. I’m like, Hey, money. Suck my dick. Then I run. Fast.
I use some of my draw for carfare and catch the train to my girl Juicy’s crib. Juicy meet me inna hall with a kiss, all sexy and fly in this thin floating negligee, like a spider web. She be like, Hey, Pea, you sweet bitch. How you doin?
I had better days.
Poor baby. She takes my hand, turns—she got more ass than a donkey, I ain’t gon tell you bout her face—and leads me into her crib. Then she leave me standin in the middle of the room and go over and sit down on the couch in fronta the TV to watch her favorite talk show—you know this my show—all content wit her snack: root beer and potato chips wit hot sauce.
She be like, Pea, I was gon give you some. But damn, I’m sick.
My throat sore. I been smokin trees all day but it don’t do nothing.
Oh, I see. Kids ain’t ready?
No. Ain’t you hear me? I’m sick.
What? she say. Sorry? She frown up her face. What sorry gon do fo me? Can’t you order me a pizza or sumpin? Some Chinese food. Home delivery.
I got to make them ends first. We got this nice lil business arrangement, my after-school hustle. I give her twenty-five dollars a day for the use of her sons, Crust and Hamfat. Fifteen dollars for the older one. He ten. And two dollars for the younger. He seven. Suckas like kids. On good days, I can turn a nice lil profit. On bad days, I’m lucky to break even.
Aw right. Well, you better go get them boys then.
I go into the bedroom where Crust and all Hamfat holed up wit the Nintendo game at the foot of the bed, lookin up at the TV on the stand above them. What up, yall?
What up, Pea?
Ready to make that money?
Can we finish our game first?
Yeah. I’m whoopin his ass.
Come on, fellas. Time is money.
I take them back out into the other room. Juicy look up at me from the couch. Yall ready?
Hold up. I’ll walk yall to the train. She goes in the bedroom. I take the time alone with the kids for a last minute review.
You got the wig?
And the dress?
And you practiced the rhyme?
Let me hear it.
Do we have to?
I don’t feel like it.
Aw ight. Stop whinin. But you better not mess up.
Juicy come outta the room stylin some stupid gear. This leather top all right over her titties. These little shorts, real tight too. And some sandals, each toenail painted a different color. Aw right, yall. Let’s go.
So, we bounce from her crib and head for the El, Juicy hangin all on my arm, though she taller than me, the kids holdin hands in fronta us. The hood gnats see me and start wavin their wine bottles, glass flags. They swarm over and start in wit the beggin. Look at the happy family. I got a family too. Aw yea, you a righteous brother. Can’t you set me straight? Family man, let me hold a ten to run up and see my p.o. Can’t you let me hold five til Thursday? I’m good for it. I’ll pay you on Tuesday fo a taste today.
Hey, Juicy say, step the fuck off. What do we look like, the Red Cross or some shit? Those niggas quiet down and diasppear like roaches into dark cracks. Then Juicy turn to me. She be like, Pea, I know you don’t be givin them broke niggas no money. I turn my face away. You better not. A nigga will ride yo jock worse than a bitch.
We go on a ways. What time you think yall be back?
Not too late.
Pick me up a pack of cigarettes. I’ll pay you back.
I don’t say nothing.
Be careful wit Ham. He got a slight cold.
Now; yall mind Pea.
I don’t wanna hear bout yall actin up.
We ain’t. We gon be good.
Some big fat sloppy motherfucker is comin up the block towards us, hoggin the street. I curve around a lamp pole to keep from runnin into him.
Damn, Pea, Juicy says. What the fuck is wrong wit you? Ain’t I told you bout splittin poles.
But that dude—
Bad luck. I can’t have you cursin no bad luck on my sons.
You believe in all that?
She looks at me. Is you stupid or what?
I turn my face away. A cage is a little ways up, and as we pass by, who do I see on the other sideah the fence watch in the game? Shiheed. Shit. Shiheed and Juicy hate each other cause Juicy is mouth-dangerous and Shiheed’ll slap a bitch inna minute. Shiheed looks over and catches my eye. I turn my head. Too late.
Yo, Pea. What the deal, son?
What? Oh, Shiheed.
Shiheed walks over, stands lookin at me through the diamond-shaped spaces of the fence. I keep walkin, but he follows along, right beside us, Juicy inches from him.
Nigga, what you doing up here? Shiheed don’t even look at Juicy.
You know, doin my—
I know you ain’t hangin now wit them project niggas.
I feel quick heat on my skin.
Got way too much pride for that. You handle that business?
My nigga. Pea. Always doin yo thing. You still doin that thing, right?
You know me.
Yeah, I know you. Shiheed sucked his teeth.
Then Juicy says, Damn, Pea. You gon let him diss you like that?
Bitch, was anybody talkin to you?
Who you callin a bitch? Juicy stops in her tracks and stands lookin through the fence right at Shiheed.
Ain’t but one bitch standin here. Maybe two.
Nigga, where yo mamma? I don’t see that one-tooth bitch.
What, you gon talk bout—
Jus shut the fuck up, Juicy says. Yo breath stank.
Yo, Pea, Shiheed say. He lookin at me, big ass nostrils aimed and cocked at my face, a sawed-off shotgun. I can’t talk. I can’t move. Yo. You better do sumpin bout yo ugly Hee Haw-lookin bitch.
Ugly? Nigga, how many mirrors ran away from you today?
Yo, Pea, you better put yo bitch on a leash.
Why don’t you do it?
I’ll wreck this bitch. You know I don’t give a fuck. Straight jackin.
Juicy chuckles. Nigga, you can’t even jack yo own dick.
Yo, Pea. I’m tellin you. Been a long time since I put the screws to somebody.
Well, here’s yo chance. Step to it. Be a man.
Nawl. Nawl. Bitch, you think I’m gon stomp you with yo kids right here in fronta you watchin?
Crust and Ham lookin round fo weapons. Crust picks up a pop bottle and breaks it. Ham finds a piece ah coat hanger. They assume war poses.
Bitch, you caught a break this time.
Anytime. Juicy says. You know where to find me. Then she turns to the kids, fulla venom. Yall put that down. Go ahead. They do what she tells them to do. Now, let’s go. We wasted enough time wit this shit. He ain’t nobody. They use to punk him in jail. We all start to walk off together.
Yo, Pea, Shiheed shouts. This shit all yo fault. Is you a man or is you a mouse? Nigga, you better learn how to smack the shit outa yo bitch every now and then.
Juicy chastizes her kids. What I tell yall bout weapons?
But nothing. I don’t like repeatin myself.
The kids drop their heads, breathin all hard, ready to cry.
Yall better not start all that cryin. We can go on back to the house.
Okay, mamma. We ain’t gon cry.
We stop at the entrance to the El station. I can’t look Juicy in the face.
Aw right, she says. Don’t forget my cigarettes.
I won’t. I hurry off wit the kids.
The after-school hustle is set up to catch the rush hour crowd. Of course, all the heads be out there too, in close proximity of the cash. Like this Chinese nigga come walkin through the car, pullin along a lil cart behind him and screamin.
And you also got them old school hustlers, like this one game-talkin nigga named Sinbad who dress the part in this checkered sports shirt and brown double-knit polyester slacks. Nigga pants is slack alright—floods, all high above his white socks and black square-toed kicks. He kick that shit bout sumpin he call the Action Factor. He be like, A wise man once said, the gods weave misfortunes for men so that the generations to come will have something to sing about. But I say that we don’t have to sing sorrow songs. You see, our boys are in the pit. We hand them the ladder to get out. We put them in school, train them, educate them, teach them that knowledge can give tongue to the winged cries of their souls. I know. I was one of those boys. But I stand before you now, a new man. Help us light the torch of wisdom. Help us rekindle the fires of manhood. Help us chart the stars.
Won’t you help us, the Action Factor? Won’t you reach out your hand to us, Action Factor? Please help us, the Action Factor.
He come up to me rattlin his can.
I jus look at him. Then I be like, I know you.
His eyes go scared. He hurry off.
When he leaves the car, I signal Crust and Ham. They pop up from they seats and move into the aisle.
Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. Sorry to interrupt your conversation and readin pleasures, I’m Pork and I’m Chop, and together we the Pork Chop crew. We don’t snatch chains, gangbang or sling cocaine, or live in the correctional way. We jus tryin to earn an honest dollar. We gon tell you a lil story bout our grandma.
After Crust and Ham kick the introduction, I duck down inside that high-sided area right in fronta the doors where nobody can see me and I slip this old granny dress over my clothes and fit this old gray granny wig on my head.
A few grumpy ass squares start complainin and shit. They be like, Hey, I don’t wanna hear all that noise. Tell you what, I’ll give you a quarter if you jus sit down and shut up. But the other riders squash all that drama. Who the fuck is you? If you don’t want no noise, drive yo car to work. I paid my carfare just like you and I want some entertainment.
I start granny-walkin down the aisle all bent over like I got a cane.
Got no food to eat and
My feet got no beats
My welfare check didn’t come
Not even a little sum
They stole my radio
Hamfat and Crust, they be like, Why they do that granny?
Guess they don’t love they granny no mo.
People start crackin up, bent over in they seats, slob flyin off they tongues. I make it to the end of the aisle balancin myself against the fast movin train.
It would be a big appreciation.
If you gave us a small donation.
We just tryin to earn an honest dollar. If you don’t gibe this time, maybe you’ll gibe next time. Crust and Ham start comin down the aisle with their baseball caps stretched out to the people on both sidesah the train. I say, And we accept pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, dollars, checks, transfers, tokens, food stamps, and Crust and Ham say, ladies’ phone numbers. Everybody laugh. Good fo me. Laughter loosen up the wallets and purses. Once the kids reach me, we turn and face everybody. Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I’m Pork. I’m Chop. And we the Pork Chop crew. Enjoy your evenin. We move on to the next car.
We start in the last car and work our way up to the front. Seven cars in all. Then we get off the train and catch one back in the opposite direction. We work it this way through rush hour. Not much money to make after that. And by then the kids start to bitch and whine bout how they tired and hungry and thirsty. So I let em share a candy bar until we make it down to Mickey D’s so I can buy them a Yummy Deal.
I want my own King Mac.
He slobbered on the bun.
He put mustard on it.
Pickles is nasty.
He stole my fry.
Where the salt?
Ketchup is nasty.
He spit in the shake.
Hey, yall shut up, I say. Can’t you see I’m tryin to think. I’m countin my ends in the dark space under the table, the boys positioned in fronta me fo cover on the other side. Shit. For the day, I pulled jus enough to maintain. I count it again. Shit.
I take Crust and Ham to the park to pump the swings for awhile. I sit down on the hard splintery bench and watch them go up, down, up, down, their own lil competition. Who can swing the highest? I’m thinkin the whole time. When they get tired of the swings, they starts into feedin the pigeons, pitchin potato chips hard and fast, seein who can clobber the most birds. We leave the park jus as night starts to fall.
A block from the El station, Crust yells out, You ain’t buy Juicy’s cigarettes. Shit. So we swing into a corner sto. I’m hopin the owner won’t card me, but he jus looks me up and down, takes my money, and places the squares on the counter. He even throws in an extra book of matches.
We head fo the station. I’m busy addin and subtractin as we walk. I got to pay full adult fare for me and reduced fare for the kids. By the time we make it to the station, I’ve come up wit this plan. I direct Crust and Ham right past the agent sittin in the glassed-in booth and right over to the large wall map. And we stand around the map. I’m studyin all the routes and lines like I don’t know where we going.
I wait until I hear the train comin in to the station. I says to the kids, Okay, remember what I told you. The train grinds to a stop, the doors pop open, and people come rushin out. Go on, I tell them. Duck under.
They duck under the turnstile. Then I duck under, but soon as I pop up, I see this transit dick standin in the do of the train lookin at me. He say, What the deal, son? He reach to grab me and I take off as fast as I can, hot foot, the dick shoutin commandents behind me. Far as I can tell, Crust and Ham shoot off runnin in another direction. Either that or they already made it onto the train. I run in lil rushes of speed, curvin around iron beams, tryin to shake off the dick, I look back and see that I’m puttin some good distance between our bodies. That’s when I feel my legs start to shut down, my steps get smaller, my ankles band together, like some cowboy done hooped me in a lasso. I trip and stumble face first towards the ground, but break my fall in the nick of time wit my hands.
The dick come up behind me breathin and coughin all hard. He reach down and jerk me to my feet. He keeps one hand on me, the other on his hip and stands there swaying from side to side, tryin to catch his breath. Damn, he says, grinnin and shakin his head. They make you all dumber every day. Nobody never told you how to keep yo pants up?
What? I look down and see my jeans all tangled up around my ankles. I’m standin there in my draws. People is pointin and laughin.
Those jeans got to be what, five sizes too big? You got enough room in there for an entire family.
Would you pull my pants up?
A second dick comes over with Crust and Ham. He takes one look at me and tells his partner, Pull his pants up. The dick pulls up my pants. They start to walk away wit us.
Damn, he could run.
Need to put him in the Olympics.
They take us back into this little office. That’s when I get my firs good look at the two dicks. The dick who’d caught me ain’t much older than myself. He got this lil lima bean head and this peach fuzz on his chin, and he keep his chin stuck way out for the world’s admiration. The second dick older, a big ugly Frankenstein-lookin motherfucker. Round pigeon shoulders and muscular ears. Face all scrunched up and serious, like he bitin down on his words, snappin them in two. He shoves me into the wall.
Okay, let’s see some ID.
You’re lookin at it.
You don’t have any ID?
I lost my wallet.
I’ll go back and see if I can find it, peach fuzz says. Nawl, I lost it a long time ago.
Monster dick starts goin through my pants pockets, pullin the insides out like used banana peels. Look, I say. Mind my civils.
Be quiet, peach fuzz says. Civil rights are for citizens. You’re underage.
What? Hey, I’m not—
Frankenstein shoves me into a chair. Sit there. Shut up. Then he bearhugs the kids and starts pullin them towards his face like he gon screw them into his eyes. They start bawlin. Juicy! Juicy! Juicy! Juicy!
Hey, officer, I say. Don’t scare the kids.
He lets them go and points to a chair. They squeeze into it. Then he stands there lookin at me. Mr. Hero, he says.
You shouldn scare the kids.
I jus sit there watchin him, quiet.
Mr. Hero, let me ask you something.
I know my rights.
Come on, just one question. Off the record.
I watch him. Off the record?
I would have it no other way. Aw ight then.
Where will you be in five years?
The dick’s frown burns away.
But see, we criminals never die. I’ll probably come back as a pimp or serial killer in my next lifetime. Maybe even the president.
His face seals over in anger. So, you one of those smart ones.
Look, you caught me. I slipped up. Can we get on with it? No disrespect. Can you jus gon and write my summons?
Wish we could, the young dick says. But we don’t handle kids. City policy.
I ain’t a kid.
He grins. Okay, if you say so. But what about them? He motions to Crust and Ham.
Can’t we forget about them?
Wish we could. But I’m not getting caught up in a lawsuit.
Everybody wants to sue nowdays.
Look, I jus wanna—
I already told you. We don’t handle kids. You don’t like that policy, take it up with the city council. The mayor.
Man, I don’t believe this.
The young dick sits down at his desk and starts fillin out some forms.
What? I got to wait fo you to do yo paperwork?
That’s right. Then you’ll go down to the 107th Precinct.
I don’t believe this.
Why don’t you relax?
Frankenstein leanin against the wall beside the desk lookin at me. I eye his badge: Jason George Sams.
I be like, Hey, yall ain’t even real cops. What kind of cop got three first names?
Frankenstein don’t say a word.
Why don’t you jus gon and call the real cops?
The transit dick puts his pen down and starts lookin at me. Hey, you want this to take all night? I didn’t think so. Why don’t you pipe down and relax? He starts back on his form.
Hey, Hero, Frankenstein says to me. You mind if I have one of your cigarettes?
What? You on the job.
Maybe I want to smoke it after I get off the job.
I’m thinkin, why is this nigga fuckin wit me? They ain’t mine.
What you stole them?
How you gon play me like that? Officer, I ain’t no thief. I’m a sneak.
My mistake. So, Hero, let me just take one of your cigarettes, see, and I’ll tell them to let you keep the pack. Otherwise.
He removes Juicy’s pack of squares from this plastic Baggy, opens it, and pulls outa square. He taps the butt, puts the square between his teeth, and fires it up wit his own lighter.
Hey, Jason, the other dick says, pass me one of those.
Jason holds out the pack fo the young dick, and he waste no time pullin outa square and firin it up. And the two of them jus start puffin like crazy, the young dick sittin there at his desk, strings of smoke risin up to the ceiling, jerkin him this way and that like he some kinda puppet. And the other one real relaxed against the wall, blowin fats white rings and cannon balls.
Hey, I say.
They look at me.
Ain’t you heard?
Smokin is bad for you. Make yo balls shrink.
I guess that jus pissed them off big time cause they hurry up and finish those squares mad quick, then fire up two fresh ones. They smoke on those long and good, til they see these two city dicks approachin the office, strapped with gats, nightsticks, radios, handcuffs, and mace. The transit dicks stub out the squares in a glass ashtray and shove the ashtray into a metal drawer.
This him? one cop asks.
Workin together, the municipal dicks pull me up from the chair and start
pattin me down.
We already frisked him, Frankenstein says. Here are his effects.
They continue to frisk me. Satisfied, one dick takes the plastic baggy from Frankenstein, the pack of squares inside. Paperwork?
Peach fuzz holds out a form. The dick takes the form and folds it into his breast pocket. Two other city dicks come and take Crust and Ham into they custody. Jus befo the kids step outa the room, they turn to me and throw up they sign. I nod.
I guess we’re about done here. Okay, son. Let’s go.
We get on the elevator and rise up to the street like smoke up a chimney. Then they shove me in the back of this paddy wagon and slam the door shut. And I jus sit there, like the last sardine in a can, dry and forgotten. Ain’t gon lie, I’m scared as a motherfucker.
They hustle me into the precinct and we go in one room after another, the escortin dicks noddin to the station dicks. Seem like we walk damn near a mile. Finally, we come to this one tiny ass room wit jus one dick sittin at a desk readin a sports magazine.
Hey, Steve, look who we got for you.
The dick named Steve looks up at me from his desk. This here’s—tell him your name.
I tell him my name.
Ain’t he a beauty. I’m thinking I should take him home and make him my son.
Could I have him first? Steve tosses his magazine on top a pile of papers on his desk.
Only if you say please.
The cop shoves me into the chair next to Steve’s desk and hands Steve the form and my personal effects. Steve takes a quick look at the form and flips it onto his desk.
Routine, he says.
That’s right. Nothing special. Never is.
The two dicks turn and head outa the room. Steve tapes the form to my personal effects bag, then tosses the bag onto the desk. Halfway out the door, one of the departin dicks stops and turns back around. Hey, Steve?
You should show him our resident.
This one here?
No, I don’t think so.
Go ahead. It might do him some good. He leaves.
What’s all this bout some resident? I ask.
Police matters. He sittin there writin sumpin on a clipboard.
How long is this gon take?
They’ll release you from juvenile after you see a judge.
What? But I ain’t underaged.
They’ll have to verify all of that.
What? I’m thinkin, They got all kinds ah ways to fuck with you. Officer, what’s the charge?
Solicitation? What? I ain’t no pimp.
That’s the charge.
Look, I’m jus tryin to make a livin.
It’s still against the law.
Then somebody need to change the goddamn law.
The cop looks over at me. I’m sure they’ll change the goddamn law for you. You’re so wonderful. You’re so essential to our long-term survival.
I snorted. Ain’t this a bitch.
Could you do one thing for me? Steve says.
Would you mind?
Would you shut your fuckin mouth? Thank you.
So I jus sit there and shut the fuck up. What else I’m gon do?
There’s something you don’t realize, Steve says.
What’s that, officer?
I’m givin you a fuckin break here.
A break? Is that what you call it?
Yes, that’s what we call it.
Okay. You the authority. I suck my teeth.
He lookin at me. You know what, we got theft of city services. Three counts. Endangerment of a child. Two counts. Corruption of a minor. Two counts. Fleeing the scene of a crime. One count. Evading arrest. One count. And one count of aggravated assault.
What’s the assault for?
On the train platform you stepped on some lady’s toe.
I jus slid down in my seat. These niggas is a trip.
You should be thanking me.
Okay, that’s the paperwork. He flips the clipboard down on the desk. They’ll be takin you over to juvy.
You already told me that.
So I can’t tell you again?
I ain’t say shit, not one fuckin word.
Are we clear?
Okay. So, they’ll be taking you over to juvy. But before they do, I want to show you something.
I’ll show you.
Because you’re such a smart and honest and delightful and handsome sonuvabitch.
You gon beat me or sumpin?
You think we really do that.
I jus look at him, and keep lookin.
So he gets up from the desk and I gets up from the chair, and I follow him through a door into a large room wit one cell, a good twelve-feet high and wide and maybe ten deep. There’s this one nigga inna cell stretched out on this one cot, his hands behin his head and his feet crossed at the ankles.
Okay, Steve says. I’ll leave you to it. He walks outa the room, shuts the door, and leaves me standin befo this stretched-out nigga.
The nigga looks over and sees me, and that’s when I see his face for firs time. Some old nigga. Well, maybe he ain’t too old. His hair got nappy patches of gray and gray hairs curl though his goatee. But the face is smooth. He swing his legs round and props to a sittin position, bent over, lookin down at his shoes. Then he be like, So what they get you for? Talkin to his shoes.
Jumpin the turnstile.
They arrest people fo that now?
I chuckle. Nawl. They send you to college.
He looks up at me. Is that what they do? sayin it like he don’t know I’m dissin his ass.
So, Pops, what you doin back here?
What it look like I’m doin?
Not much. Jus sittin there. Hey, I really think I should bounce. Why don’t I let you sleep it off?
You can’t sleep off what I got.
I chuckle. Pops, they takin you to the rehab? Is that where you goin, the rehab?
Why would I need to go there?
You tell me.
Are you as dumb as you look? Any fool can see I’m here workin wit you.
What? Workin wit me? Okay, Pops. Really. Why don’t I let you sleep it off? Hey, Steve.
Nigga, what’s wrong? You afraid?
Don’t stress yourself.
The cell locked.
Hey, Pops, I’m fin to bounce.
Nigga, you might as well relax. That door locked.
I look at the door, look at Pops, look at the door, look at Pops. Hey, what’s all this about? You an officer? Aw ight, you got me. I’m scared.
Do I look like an officer?
I look him over. He wearin this kinda two-piece, a plain red shirt, no collar, and plain red sweats, and the material is all worn, with lint and loose thread. The shit look raw, like a plucked chicken. What they get you for?
You don’t wanna know.
How long you been in?
Oh, about twenty-seben years.
What? Twenty-seven years?
Give or take.
I’m thinkin, okay, he’s one of the crazies. One of those loons who’ll sneak up behin you and shove you off the platform. Maybe I do have me a lawsuit. Got me locked up in here wit some crazy. Cruel and unusual punishment.
I work fo the city. Around the clock. I help them with some of the problem cases.
I know he a crazy, but I don’t let on. So that means I’ve graduated.
The dick out there called me a piece of shit. But now I graduated to a problem problem case.
Steve didn’t say that.
Yes he did.
He lookin at me. What’s your name?
Didn’t they tell you?
Would I be askin if they did ? Well, I don’t feel like sayin.
Suit yoself. You know why they brought you back here?
You sure in the fuck are gonna tell me. They want you to see my wings.
Thinkin, Oh, man. I know I got me a lawsuit. You can fly?
Most winged creatures can.
I look around the room fo a chair or somewhere to sit. Shit.
I ain’t stepped outa this cell since they arrest me. Twenty-seben years.
What bout when you haf to take a piss or a shit?
He jus look at me. You ain’t sayin nothin but what’s natural.
So, you a natural man too, huh, Pops?
No. I’m a public servant. And I’m damn good at it and I enjoy my work. I got clean comfortable board. I get my rations and my commisary. And the pay ain’t bad. Though I don’t spend none of my salary. Ain’t spend none in these twenty-seben years. I just have them put it all in the bank. I must be richer than Rockefeller by now. Maybe someday I’ll leave it all to a young buck like you.
Fuck someday. I’ll settle for a loan today.
No way. I can tell by the way you dressed you ain’t got no collateral.
Pops, look at you. Don’t talk bout the way nobody dressed.
Granted. We both men. He cough. Will you allow me to ask you a difficult question?
Why, Pops? What you got to ask me?
You drop outa school, didn you?
Nawl, Pops. I’m in college. I got to get my law degree so I can represent broke ass motherfuckers like you.
Why you stop goin?
All they did was teach me how to curse.
You don’t say? That’s the same exact thing they taught me.
I get a real good laugh offa that one. Pops, you is funny. Real funny. You old niggas master them jokes. Man. So now I bet you gon tell me that you used to be like me?
I ain’t never been like you. I ain’t never been anything like you.
He just sittin there starin at me, eyes all glowin, and I’m thinkin, This motherfucker bout to go off. Better do somethin to calm his ass down. So, Pops, where yo wings?
You ready to see them? He starts to takin off his shirt, pullin his arms outa the sleeves.
Hey, hold up. I’m thinkin maybe I should go over and make sure the jail cell locked.
Don’t worry, he says. I ain’t no freak, he says.
Why don’t you keep yo shit on. Jus tell me what you got to tell me.
But he pulls the shirt over his head and throws it onto the cot. He in pretty good shape fo an old man, the muscles in his arms and chest cut. He stands up. I’m hopin this nigga won’t take off his pants.
He spins his back slowly toward me, and sure nough, he got wings. Lil wings no bigger than yo hands, all folded up like paper planes or church fans.
Are those supposed to be real?
What you think?
I don’t say anything.
Tell you what, why don’t you touch them. Go ahead. Touch them.
Nawl, that’s awright.
I step closer to the cell so that I can get a better look, a good five feet away from him, close enough to see but far enough away if I need to jump back. The wings ain’t got no feathers. They all dried up and brown and crusty, like some fried chicken wings.
You gettin a good look?
My tongue won’t move.
You know what?
I can’t speak.
These things cause me all sortsa trouble on the outside. Let me show you sumpinn else. He moves, and I flinch and jump back. He starts climbin the bars up one sideah the cell, like one of them circus acrobatics goin up a ladder, and then when he gets to the topah the cell, he eases around wit his hands on the bars behin him, and stretches his body forward out over the bed ten feet below, lockin his arms, stiff triangles behin him. Then he lets go of the bars.
He falls straight forward and stops midair, body horizontal, that cot a good five feet beneath him. Holy shit. What did I jus see? Those lil wings are movin up and down, up and down. Like a skydiver, he rises straight up to the topah the cell, then he starts slidin forward on the air, all the way to the end of the cell, then he turns and comes back the other way, and he goes on this way fo quite some time, flyin about the cell, makin sharp turns cause it ain’t much room to manuever, flyin like this a good ten minutes befo he swoops down and sits himself on the cot.
I’m standin there lookin. His fohead and chest and neck are bright wit sweat. He takes a good look at me. Then he be like, I don’t need to tell you what you jus saw.
I wish I could speak.
Don’t worry, son. With one big jump the men get there.
If I could jus speak.
Well, I guess that bout does it, wouldn you say? I nod, my neck stiff.
Good. Hey, befo you leave, do me a favor, would you?
What? My voice is quiet, a scratch.
Get the keys from Steve.
I’m lookin at him.
Just then, the do swings open and Steve pops into the space. All done here?
All done. You got a towel?
Sure. Steve tosses Pops a towel and motions fo me to follow him into the other room. I do. In fact, I follow him all through the entire station, back to the precinct entry. Then he turns and looks at me. You ain’t got to say a word. You free to go. The city allows you a token. He drops the transit token into my hand.
I ask no questions and step out to the street. And I wanna think bout my personal effects and Juicy’s squares, wanna think bout this flyin nigga I jus seen and bout all the other trippy shit that happen to me today. I wanna think bout all that, but the minute my foot hits the pavement, it starts to rain, hard and fast, rainin punches. Shit. Now don’t this beat all? I put my head down and run faster than the rain to the El station. I stand near the turnstile and check to see how dry I am. Can say I’m wet but can’t say I’m soaked.
I open my hand and, you guessed it, the token gone. What the fuck else can happen? I jus stand there a minute, searchin through my pockets, and the next thing I know, I feel myself liftin into the loosenin air, my feet three inches above the ground. And I don’t rise no higher than jus those three inches. I’ve levitated on the regular every day since. Always three inches. No lower, no higher.
Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of five books including the novels Song of the Shank, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Rails Under My Back, which won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction; the short story collection Holding Pattern, which received the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence; and two collections of poetry. He was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. A new collection of short stories is due out in 2021.
“Holding Pattern” was originally published in the TLR Summer 2003 issue, and was then reprinted in TLR: Current Events, the 60th Anniversary Issue.