I clenched the handle of my tool bag, walked past the dealers with red eyes. Do-rags. Waiting for their first customers. Peeping the scene with stoned faces, purple haze blurring their vision. Taxis, trucks, buses rushing down Rip City’s gentrified arteries.
One of the kids was eyeing me. Dwayne was his name. Lanky, darting eyes. A couple weeks since I’d seen him. Since Shapiro had kicked him and his mother out of the building.
“You seen the game last night?” He smiled wide, wider than I’d ever seen him smile. “My dude Ray went off for 50.”
“When you gonna give me that rematch?” I asked.
He shook his head, tried to keep from laughing. One day after work I’d challenged him to a game of one-on-one. I was boots; he was in sneakers. But it still seemed like a good idea. For twenty minutes, he ran me ragged. Posted up, popped jumpers, and finished me off with a two-handed tomahawk slam.
“No time soon, my dude. I’m getting the fuck outta Rip City.”
“Where you going?”
“Into the clouds. Never gonna see me again.”
“Just stay out of trouble,” I said.
We slapped hands. I walked past him and up the front steps.
“Hold on!” He ran up the steps. “I gotta ask you something,” he said. That one question almost did me in.
Tool bag in hand, I went through two double doors, then climbed three flights. Brown paint chipping off the walls, a layer of dust on the steps, smell of turkey bacon beating back the stale piss. And from up above, I heard the sound of a suitcase banging against the steps. A brown-skin lady lumbered downstairs. Two plaid suitcases in her hands, two beige children tugging at her arms. Today’s lucky losers, I assumed. Another tenant that hadn’t paid, tried to sneak back in and was getting kicked out again. They looked the part. The tired, haggard, beat-down faces. Sometimes people crept up the fire escape, slipped in through an open window. Other times they busted the lock off the door.
I moved up against the wall to let them pass. I kept my mouth shut. Nothing to say. Sorry, I hate to do this would have been stupid. Don’t worry about it, you’ll find somewhere else to live. Head down to Gifford Park. Pitch a tent, join the protest.
She brushed a tangle of hair from her face, and said good morning. Then her eyes narrowed.
“When y’all gonna get rid of them boys out front?”
I didn’t answer.
“Y’all got people in this building that work. Decent people.”
She caught me staring at her bags, smiled. “No, honey, he ain’t kicking me out. I’m just going back home is all.”
One of the kids started pulling at her leg. “C’mon, grandma. Let’s go.”
“My daughter work all night at the hospital. And first thing she gotta see when she get home is a bunch of drug dealers?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s nothing I can do.”
“I should have been called the police.” She shook her head and went past me. “You be safe now, young man. Don’t go getting involved in none of that foolishness.”
The suitcases clop-clopped on each step. One of the boys turned around, wiped snot from his nose, and waved. I tried to smile back, but couldn’t. I trudged up two more flights, threw down my tool bag and waited.
Put your hands behind your back. You have the right to remain silent. Duck your head. Sit back. Hands tightly cuffed, metal digging into my wrists. Hard plastic behind my back. My legs cramped. I had to turn sideways to stay on the seat. Tight turns tossing me from side to side. Step forward. Turn to your right. Turn to your left.
A voice boomed through the stairwell. The landlord, my boss. Three floors away and I could already hear him grunting. Could see the sweat dripping down his fat neck, sliding under his collar, staining his button-down shirt. His chest heaved. He wiped his neck with a paper napkin, leaned against the wall.
“You got here on time today,” he said.
I half-smiled. I’d been late a few times—train delays, oversleeping. But had always called to let him know when I’d be there.
He punched some buttons on his phone. “This bullshit again,” he said. “That kid Dwayne tried to break back into the apartment last night.”
“You want me to go and talk to him?”
“What’s the point? He doesn’t want anything different.”
“No. Just do what I tell you to do.”
He wanted me to go in the apartment, look around and make sure no one was hiding in there. One of Dwayne’s friends maybe.
“Hiding?” I asked.
“Under the bed, the curtains, in a closet. Those kids have no place to go.”
He stared hard at me.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“No. Your P.O. called today. He wanted to make sure you were still showing up.”
I spent two days in jail, before my mother bailed me out. She had to borrow the money from one of her co-workers. We took the bus home. Halfway through the ride, she began crying. Neck bent, hand held over her eyes, sobbing.
My sentence: Two years probation and minimum 10 months in drug rehab. When you got busted for dealing in Rip City, you told the cops, the D.A., the judge, and anyone who’d listen that you had a drug problem. That you’d been struggling for years, searching for a way out. Treatment, not jail, was what you needed.
Treatment. Four hours a day, five days a week. Fifteen heads huddled in a room, confessing their sins. The dregs of the city. On parole, probation, or conditional discharge. Shuffling from one institution to another.
I reached into my tool bag, grabbed the metal head of a hammer. Just in case someone was still in there. I slid my fingers down to the rubber handle, squeezed. My body, tense. Legs, a bit wobbly. Ten bucks an hour for this shit. Hauling buckets of paint and plaster, unloading pieces of Sheetrock, and plugging up leaky ceilings.
I pushed the door, jumped back. The lights were off. Most of the apartment was empty. In a corner, a black garbage bag. I sifted through it. Clothes, CDs and DVDs. I heard sounds coming from the bedroom. I gripped the hammer. The bedroom window, half-open, led onto a fire escape. Six stories off the ground. Nobody coming up or down. On the windowsill, an empty baggie. Twenty sack. I looked around the room. Covers torn off the bed, Scarface poster on the wall, basketball sneakers lined up neatly.
I got down on my hands and knees, reached under the bed, extended my arm. I reached out a little further, and with the tips of my fingers felt something. A plastic grocery bag. Inside: a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. And inside the Ziploc: Baggies, lots of them, tightly packed twenty sacks. I opened one, sucked up the smell. Purple haze. Fresh, just off the boat, the plane, or the back of the truck. I did the math quickly. More money in the bag than I could make in three months on this job. Wholesale. A couple phone calls and I’d have the bread in my pocket.
I need to get back in there. Please. Just five minutes. He must have panicked, left the stash behind, gone down the fire escape.
“Robert!” Shapiro yelled from the hallway.
I jammed the stash into my tool bag and zipped it. Or at least I tried to. The zipper got stuck, jammed, teeth caught. I yanked at it. It didn’t budge.
“Why you taking so long?” Shapiro was standing over me. “I got other jobs for you.”
I nodded, tugged harder at the zipper.
“Let me try,” he said.
“No, that’s okay.”
“You have to unzip it. Give it here.”
I shook my head, then grunted and tugged. And it finally came unstuck, zipped all the way up. I was out of breath.
“You need to relax, kid. Or else you’re not going to last very long.”
Back in the hallway. Loud boots stomping down the steps. And something being dragged across the floor. Willie, the super, wiry thin Jamaican guy, black garbage in hand, two gold chains around his neck.
“Man, dat one nasty motherfucka,” he said.
I laughed. I loved the way he said motherfucker.
“Him toilet overtrow for tree fuckin’ day, boss. What da hell wrong wit dese people?”
I stopped laughing, I hated when he said boss. Or dese people.
Loud feet coming down the stairs. The three of us backed up against the wall.
A chubby kid, running with his head lowered, nearly barreled into us. Shapiro reached for his arm, grabbed it. Willie took hold of the other arm.
“Who the hell are you?” Shapiro asked.
Then Willie, “Why you runnin’ so?”
The kid shook himself free, pushed them away. “You the cops?” He rubbed his forearm, grimaced.
“Boss, dis boy tink him smart.”
“I’m going to work!”
“Fuck you. When you gonna fix our bathroom?
Willie’s bloodshot eyes were about to pop out his head. He pointed a finger right in the kid’s face. “You fat bastard. You no want me lay hands on you.”
“What bathroom?” Shapiro asked.
“8A Hernandez. My dad’s been calling you for a week.”
Willie and Shapiro looked at each other.
The kid jetted down the steps, and when he got to the floor below, turned around. “Go back to Jamaica, you faggot ass motherfucker.”
Willie took a step, like he was about to go after him, but stopped. “Bastard.”
“Robert, go up to 8A. See what the problem is.”
8A Hernandez. Part of the bathroom ceiling had collapsed. Fragmented Sheetrock surrounded the toilet. I had to pick up the pieces, patch up the hole. I slipped on the cotton canvas gloves, scooped up pieces of piss-and-shit-logged Sheetrock, and tried to ignore the maggots scurrying in and out of crevices and in between my fingers.
“You guys got any more jobs?” Hernandez asked. He lit a cigarette, blew the smoke out the window.
I told him no, then asked him to back up so I could do my work.
“I’m a good worker, papi. I do everything you say.”
His cheeks, sunken. Eyes, scarlet. I told him to back up again. Then I measured the hole, cut a piece of Sheetrock.
“My own son. I gotta ask my own son for money.”
I placed the Sheetrock over the hole, nailed it into the beam.
“You know what that feels like?”
I spread the plaster into the cracks, and slowly smoothed tape over them.
“I paint, sweep. I do anything, papi. Anything.”
“I’m sorry.” I put another layer of plaster over the tape. And told him it was finished.
“No, no. It don’t look good. Let me help.” He reached towards my tool bag. I rushed at him, shoved him. He stumbled, fell on his back. Stared at me with frightened eyes. “Why you did that?” He grimaced, rubbed his elbow. “Fuckin’ asshole.”
I helped him back to his feet, apologized. I was shaking, I had to get out of there. Out of the building. Out of the job. Out of everything. I packed up my tools, zipped the bag, and left.
I knew what I had to do. That fucking kid. Burnt out eyes, scratchy voice, sagging jeans. He should have been in school, high school. Should have been in English class or Biology. Studying Shakespeare or dissecting frogs. Should have been in the locker room, laughing, stretching, getting ready to run out on the court.
Where would we rather be. Both of us. How do rats end up in cages. Shuffled from one institution to another. Electroshocked, force-fed. White coats looking on. Chopping off tails, amputating limbs. Clean hands, clear consciences. Rip City’s rats. Scratching at the cages.
Tool bag in hand, I walked down to ground level, slowly approached the double doors. Looked through the Plexiglas. He was huddled up with a few other guys. I tapped on the glass. Their heads turned towards me. Some talking amongst them. Then Dwayne came up the front steps. He looked left, right, quickly pulled the door open. Baby face, no pimples or blemishes. A few scraggly hairs on his chin. I took out the grocery bag. He stared at it, then up at me.
“Good lookin’ out, my nigga,” he said. He unzipped his jacket, stuffed the bag into it, zipped it back up again. “You won’t see me here no more.”
“It’s my last day too,” I said.
Goines Bar, 115th Street. Pitcher of dark beer, plate of wings, and a basket of fries. A few seats down the bar, a couple of young professionals with their jackets off. They had on the same light blue tie, their necks being choked by collared shirts. Their eyes locked on the TV mounted above the bar. “We work. Why don’t they get a job?”
On the screen: Army of cops shooting pepper spray, swinging batons and fists. Protesters swinging back, protecting their heads. Others sitting on the concrete being kicked, punched, dragged by their hair.
“But the cops don’t have to do all that.”
“Why not? The mayor told’em to get out of there.”
“You been to the park?”
“Man, I ain’t got time for all that shit.” He took a swig of beer, turned in my direction. “Brother, what you think about this? A little ass whooping might do those white kids some good, right?”
I smiled, shook my head. Then stuffed a fistful of fries into my mouth.
“See that brother agrees with me. You want something you gotta be ready to go out there and fucking take it.”
I got on the bus the seventeen crosstown bodies crushed together thrown from side to side. My head light, belly full. Across from me a man with salt and pepper dreadlocks in between his legs a large black garbage bag, probably stuffed with all his belongings. His skin the same brown as my fathers same brown as my grandfather’s, the grandfather whose face, smiling, proud, defiant I remember from the black and white photo which used to hang in my parents’ living room: hands on hips, posing in front of Mount Pelee, months before it blew its lid same photo my mother held to her chest every year on the anniversary of the eruption that scorched the family tree, So you’ll remember where we come from, she’d cliché but of course she realized how meaningless that was because Rip City had turned us into rats, like the rats she used to carry to the cages, the cages she used to clean, scrub disinfect, because the white coats never got their hands dirty and now I regret never asking her how she could work everyday in that hospital, same hospital where she died where my father died, but I might have asked her that night. The smell of sweet bread and rum drunk chicken wafting through the kitchen her special recipe and she proudly served me a plate, like always she pampering me, making sure I had everything I needed before she sat down, smiling at me her only son because I was going to make to make it because I had changed, reformed, enrolled in a community college found a part-time job. My dealing days were over. Or so she thought. Believed, hoped, wished, prayed.
But that was before the pounding at the door, before the plate she carried to the table fell from her hands, crashed to the floor, splattered chunks of chicken and onion and beans and carrots and her special brown sugar sauce and the pounding continued until the cavalcade finally kicked the door down and the commandos stormed the apartment, Get on the fucking floor and a minute later I was on the floor, hands cuffed behind my back, two knees crushing me, a black barrel pressed to my temple, threats exploding in my ear while the commandos ransacked the apartment ripped couches apart, tore photos off the wall, emptied dressers and cabinets and sauntered out of my room grinning like pillaging pirates.
My mother’s eyes, Caribbean Sea green, swimming with tears, her apron and legs splattered in stew. The broken look on her face, the tears she tried to wipe away. Never again. I’m done. My last day. Or so I thought. Believed, hoped, wished.
Clark Cooke is a New York-based novelist, screenwriter, and book reviewer. He recently completed the screenplay adaptation of “Last Day” and he is seeking a filmmaker to bring it to the screen. The story is currently being translated into Spanish and Italian. His book review of Justin Giffords’ Pimping Fictions: African American Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books. Visit him online at clarkcooke.com.