We use to watch the big cars roll west on 47th Street, Lord’s sun shinin off black paint jobs, brighter than it shined against skin. We’d follow um for blocks–Southpark down to where the strip met Indiana Avenue at least. But they didn’t never stop, not for us, not even for the red lights. Just rolled on through, afraid we’d jump on the fenders and take the joyride west, I suppose. Didn’t want no ride, though, least I didn’t. Alls I wanted was for the rich men hidin behind them car windows to show they faces, to nod. Gimme my respect–that was all I wanted.
The ol souls walkin the strip, they was the ones who told us why the big cars never stopped. Said them limousines had somewhere to be, business to tend, folk to bury. So I’d ask the darkest, drunkest of all–ask if we knew them cars wasn’t never gonna stop, how come we kept followin west on the strip?
Ol 47th Street Black’d laugh, like I was a stupid young’un whose soul hadn’t been lost long enough. When his chuckles was done, his voice’d creak from under his straw hat, like Grandma Rose’s devil’d possessed him, talkin bout, “If this’s all the Lord’s gave us to do with life, what’s wrong in followin big cars, boy? We know ain’t none of um gonna stop, we just hope to catch up one day.” Then I’d laugh, cause that ol soul was the stupid one. Me, I didn’t hope for no ride, just for that rich man to gimme my respect.
Mookie and me met way back, around ’57. I remember comin out to the street–we lived in what they called West Kenwood back then, on 45th Street–and seein a little colored boy hittin balls up against folks’ houses. I think he’d cracked one of Grandma’s windows and I’d gone to check on things, to stop “all that heathen poundin,” like how the ol lady called it. Minute I set eyes on Mookie out on the block, though, I couldn’t do nothin but watch them baseballs getting crushed. Cat swung with a lead pipe, all by himself in the middle of our street. Coulda stopped him if I’d wanted–Mookie wasn’t nothin but a bit bigger than me back then–but that sweet swing and the float it brung had me locked. Wasn’t how the balls beat up the frame sidings or knocked over lawn decorations or shook up the fences. Mookie just made them fly so high–50, 100 feet in the air and on down 45th Street. He was only a boy, eight or nine years ol himself, just a boy givin no thought to how far his balls popped or what they tore up, not studdin a thing but his swing.
“What you doin?” Took five minutes to get that outta my mouth.
“Said what you doin? My grandma told me to look on the street and find out what the racket is.”
“Ain’t no racket. Playin ball.”
“Who you playin with, then? Don’t see nobody else out here. Mus be playin by yourself, and you just don’t wanna say it.”
“Playin with the Lord.”
“Ain’t nobody else out here to catch or pitch to me, so I’m playin with the Lord.” Woulda got his tail whupped black to green if Grandma’d heard that kinda trash comin off his lips–so I knew right from the jump, the boy didn’t have no good home trainin. He tossed his second-to-last ball above his head and slammed it to 45th Place.
“Jesus bringin them balls back for you to keep playin?”
“Don’t know. He ain’t yet.” Mookie got to throwin his last ball in the air and lettin it bounce gainst the street. “You wanna pitch to me?”
Mookie rolled the last ball out where he wanted me to stand, and I followed it into the street. After he’d whacked it away, I ran the neighborhood, collectin balls he’d already knocked about. We was best boys from then on.
Mookie first became the man in high school. Between 39th and 47th Streets at least, he was the man. Playin football–gave up swingin at balls for throwin um long and far–was what done it for him, tossin touchdown passes for Wendell Phillips High School, winnin games and standin as they hero and all. A dark-skinned, wavy-headed star, that was Mookie those last two years of school. That was when the young gals really started throwin themselves at him, when he was tossin them touchdown passes. Hell, if anybody shoulda believed in a pot of gold promised a colored boy, then it was him, specially after seein his snapshot on the Defender sports page them times. I didn’t play no football, framed too tiny. Wasn’t nothin I coulda done out on the field that size. No hidin in Mookie’s shadow out there–nigga was too busy gettin worshiped. So I sat in the stands, cheerin for him just like another one of them silly gals.
But that was over, Mookie bein a football star and all, by the end of junior year. Colleges didn’t want him as no quarterback, wasn’t ready for a colored to be winnin games. Wanted him to be takin handoffs, tacklin, gettin tackled to the ground where he belonged. Proud young cat like Mookie didn’t wanna hear that shit, so when he came to understand didn’t nobody outside the Forties blocks want him for no touchdown-throwin hero, he stopped goin to school altogether. Took to runnin the streets, stealin baseballs outta the Salvation Army store, shootin craps, and smokin squares. No more Phillips High touchdown throwin for my man Mookie, just livin life as one of Grandma Rose’s godless street hoods instead.
That was what I saw him doin from the classroom window–shootin dice across the lot, down there free in the March sun–the day I decided to drop outta school and roll with Mookie for good. Ol Mister Manley stood behind his desk up front, usin his wood stick to point at words that meant not a goddamn thing, scribbled one under the other on the blackboard. My blink slowed to the heavy fade that came on whenever Manley got to dronin his gray sermons and jabbin at the wall with his stick. I looked down on Pershing Road not cause I peeked Mookie’s shadow out the corner of my eye or heard craps crackin off a wall then–just runnin from the man, like every other day. That was how come the muthafucka’d put me in the front of the classroom first off, so he could keep that ol stare fixed on me, make sure I wouldn’t get away with sleepin through lessons. His fault for sittin me close to the peephole so freedom’d keep my eyelids open no matter his hum.
Down there, Mookie crouched to his knees at the middle of a circle of dropouts from the Low End, dark dice (couldn’t tell for sure up high, but maybe they was red) leavin outta his hand smooth, rollin and bouncin against the concrete without losin they pop, then dancin that jumpin bean dance off to Phillips High’s brick. Dice hopped high on that ground, too, like concrete was too hot for restin (but it was cold that day–saw ice clouds breathed from Mookie’s mouth) and craps shot fast down the line, though he’d barely shook before lettin go; and when they landed against the school, brick chips bounced off the walls big as the craps that made um.
Those Low End cats stood tall over Mookie’s squat, but they was still covered in the shadow brung by my man as they gawked his roll. Shock on they faces, cause lookin down to concrete they’d found a shootin star high above. I swore they cheered like the girls in the football stands, too. Couldn’t do nothin to stop themselves, even as they dropped more dimes into Mookie’s winnin pile.
Seein them free on Pershing Road, I had to go to the toilet. Mister Manley took questions from the class behind me, usin the stick to point at brown hands raised here and there about the room, happy palms makin no more sense than the words scribbled in fronta me. Good, happy goddamn palms. I didn’t have a clue of the lesson’s subject till I felt that pee throbbin in my crotch, pressin against my balls and thighs all of a sudden. “Heroes,” the history teacher’d hummed. And the words on his blackboard came to eye as my right leg tapped a jig under the desktop: Patrick Henry, the wall read, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, General John Pershing, under American history’s great figures.
“Who recalls the seven shared traits of these great figures from our history?” Manley said. “From yesterday’s reading. Somebody remember one? Ah, Deborah–”
The palm his wood stick fixed on dropped, and the big-toothed girl with the mini-beehive sat up straight as a pole before answering, “Strength.”
“Good, Deborah–strength. Another from someone else…”
I raised my right hand. The words didn’t make no sense to me–heard talkin, couldn’t make no logic outta it–but squirts stung inside my skin, beggin to trickle into my drawers. Didn’t move from my seat, though, no matter my knees shakin and palm wavin high. Always raise your hand, wait to be excused from somebody else’s table, boy, Grandma’d always said. I heard her under Manley’s hum, too, learnin that to me over and over till her lesson wasn’t no different than the classroom’s hero tales.
And the ol man saw me wavin, more frantic than happy like the rest–shit, I was right in fronta the bastard. I caught them gray eyes rollin on me for less than a second before his stick pointed to the back of the room. “Someone else…Wilfred?”
“Patriotism,” the Puerto Rican boy said.
“Good,” said Manley before pointing past me again. “Someone else with another–”
My left leg tapped, faster than the right, fought off a drip.
The beehive girl giggled.
Mookie stood from the circle, and the Low End fools patted him on the back and shoulders, gave him due dap for hustling they change before the next roller grabbed hot dice from the wall.
Just one squirt into my drawers, and I felt better–for a second, better. Legs went still, and as Mookie stepped outta the circle, I breathed. Could follow Grandma’s words and stay put in that place just then, and learn. Manley’s hum was soft, my body still and peaceful.
Then the rest of the hot juice bit my crotch for a turn to trickle themselves. Legs crunched together till I felt the wet cotton of that drip left in my drawers already. And that only turned the juice inside hotter, madder, screamin to be let free as the first, free all on the floor of Manley’s learnin room. Screamin for righteousness. I dropped my fist into my balls to keep the flow inside, and bit my lips to forget that sting. Right leg couldn’t feel the left for the crunch and the beggin sting and the knuckles diggin at my sack. Whole while, the other hand waved, and Manley pointed every which way but up front.
I remembered Reverend Goode durin one of his Sunday sermons at Grandma’s Ebenezer, talking about how the Catholics counted seven deadly sins a nigga could commit in life, crimes against God sure to get the soul damned to hell fire afterwards. Sounded same as them hero traits jiggin in ol Manley’s classroom. Remembered wantin to piss on myself in that Ebenezer Baptist pew, too.
Three cats left the circle down on Pershing, no more change, and Mookie’s shadow squatted against brick again. He rolled rocks without shakin, smooth and quick as a blink. I waved my palm into one ear, then the other, as I heard a drip under my chair.
“Muthafucka, do you see me sittin here?” The classroom went quiet except for my echo and that second free drip under it. Stingin stopped for good–the flow inside’d won, my fight done, and heat let go all over and around me. My right hand splashed in the pants leg. “Goddamnit, been wavin at you ten minutes…you see me or what, goddamnit…fuck wrong with you?”
“Excuse me, Jacy–that was how Manley’d say my name, “Jacy,” like one goofy, white word, instead of how my grandmamma named me proper, J.C.–“watch your filthy mouth, boy. Is there some problem?”
“Yeah, there’s a problem, muthafucka. Been wavin my hand at you all this time. Goddamn problem…like this.” I waved again, ear to ear, and the beehive girl giggled, followed by the rest–heard laughin from the cats in Mookie’s circle down below, even. “Wavin right in your face, stupid ass. What, am I invisible? Sonofabitch.”
“You’ve got yourself a detention, Mr. Rose.” Manley dropped the pointer at the blackboard and sat behind his desk, scribblin on a yellow pad. “I saw your hand, boy. Your classmates answered the questions. Too late–you’ve earned yourself a detention now.”
A group mumble took over Manley’s hum. Fillin up the walls, that fool chitter-chatter and the drip from my seat, trappin me inside still. I heard, and I watched him write me off, like he couldn’t see wet drippin outta me.
“Muthafucka.” I jumped from my chair and kicked the desk outta my way, back to the mumblin beehive girls and brown boys. The puddle splashed and pee stank sharp and hard in his classroom. I smelled it, at least. “Had to go to the bathroom, damnit. You ain’t see me?”
Manley looked up from my detention and pity took the place of his eyeballs’ roll as he saw my trousers hangin low from the crotch. Muthafucka wanted to apologize–I knew it–but he bit his top lip and grabbed the pointer. “Jacy, boy, if you had to go, you should’ve gone. Nobody was stopping you from getting up to go to the restroom. That’s what you should have done–you are smart enough to know better. Should have gone. Sit back down now, Jacy.”
“Stupid muthafucka…” I ran the six strides to Manley, still heard my drawers squishin together, and the beehive girl gigglin long with the rest of um. Ran to the ol man though he screamed for me to stop; “Sit your black ass down,” I swore I heard him say, so my legs swallowed that path fast as coulda been.
Heard Mookie down on Pershing, too. “Hot seven,” he said, and dice cracked against the wall.
“I’m wet.” Didn’t have a clue what I was runnin to him for till my arm crushed into Manley’s throat and screeched the ol man’s chair into the blackboard wall. Classroom was quiet then–no mumblin, no drips, no gigglin at a sorry, soggy bastard, no oohs or ahhs from them scary niggas–just quiet and shocked same as the Low End dropouts watchin Mookie shoot on Pershing Road. I jammed Manley’s head into the blackboard till clouds of chalk rose up from his scalp, and Lincoln smeared into his gray hair. His eyes couldn’t roll no more, just spread wide and empty. He tried swingin that pointer at me, tried to put me back in my right place–but I snatched the stick outta his weak right hand and crashed wood sideways into the muthafucka’s nose. Splinters popped all round, against my cheeks even, and blood ran from a rip opened at the bone that joined Manley’s empty stare together, and then from his nostrils, bright red blood down pasty skin.
His hand rose to his face, wiped before the flow reached his lips. He looked at the pink palm. “Bastard,” he yelled, and the classroom was full of all kinds of dark oohs then.
I ran again, squished though the door and down two flights of steps, droppin the pointer piece somewhere before makin it out to March sun. Nobody chased after me or paid me no mind as I went, and I heard no alarms soundin when I pushed on the emergency exit door. Ran out there to Mookie’s crap-shootin circle, passin wind and Low End hustlin dryin my trousers.
Be six years more before I came across any more school learnin. Never could go back to Phillips High–didn’t want to or nothin–but never had a choice about steppin foot back inside that joint. Manley was waitin patient there, I heard, lookin to teach my ass a true lesson about his history.
I still loved watchin Mookie swat at balls. Somethin to behold, that swing. Shoulda kept playin baseball instead of football; he woulda stayed a hero like that.
“You gonna pitch to me or what? Slow bastard.”
“What? Wait for what?”
“We ain’t got no more balls.”
“No more balls? What you mean, no more balls? What you got there in your hand?”
“I mean after this one, we ain’t got no more. You scattered um cross the streets.”
“That ain’t none uh my fault, J.C. You know that ain’t my fault. You just been throwin them soft pitches and I ain’t have no choice but to hit um like that there. What else you spect me to do?” “Just don’t hit this one so hard, is all. This our last ball. What we gonna do without no ball?”
“You just run your little ass round the block, take some more outta the secondhand shop. That’s all you can do. Else we be done with this and go get us some squares. Head to Englewood, sit on the curb and watch the Catholic chicks comin outta the girls’ school, comin in and goin out. Or you take your ass back on over to Phillips. What else’s there to do? You don’t wanna take yo ass back to Phillips. You know it.”
“Ain’t goin back. Suppose to be in history bout now.”
“Pitch the ball then, slow bastard.”
“All right. You ain’t gonna hit this one hard, right? Not hard like before.”
“Pitch the ball, J.C. I ain’t gonna hit it hard. For real, just pitch it.”
So I did, threw the thing fast so maybe Mookie couldn’t hit it at all and we’d keep swingin at that one ball long as the sun stayed above. Didn’t wanna go smoke no squares or sit on no curb, was tired of lookin at Catholic gals. Didn’t wanna do nothin but watch Mookie’s swing in that alley just off 49th Street.
He smashed that last pitch. Damn ball jumped up to heaven and stayed for a good long while, too, didn’t come down till God’d gave it wings it couldn’t fly with, wings that wasn’t made to give flight to balls hit by Kenwood boys. When it dropped down from heaven, rejected, the thing crashed behind a ol garbage pile at the alley’s street end.
Mookie ran his circle, touchin tin garbage lids like they was bases and laughin as I thought about what we was gonna do with ourselves. “You said you wasn’t gonna hit it like that, Mookie. You said for real. Now what?”
“Go to the pool hall,” Mookie said as he crossed the last lid and grabbed hold of one of the open cans, pantin to catch his breath.
“Naw, Mookie. I wanna play ball. Ain’t even get to bat really. You said you wouldn’t hit it like that.”
“Go find the ball then, you wanna play so bad.” He got his air and stood straight to put those black, waitin eyes on me. “Find it and we’ll keep on so you can get you a good at-bat.”
I ran the alley, not laughin like Mookie, but smilin cause maybe I could watch him hit the ball to heaven one more time or crack a window on the back side of one of them 49th Street stores.
The smell came on me as I ran. Wasn’t no regular alley odor, cause a alley odor hung in your nose and stayed till you figured out how to breathe without takin in the stink. Wasn’t my nose that caught the April noon’s foul air no ways, more like my whole body’d soaked in it and got drug below gravel. Nose couldn’t do nothin but sink with the rest of me.
“You smell that, Mookie?”
“Smell like stale shit.”
“We in a alley. What else you spect to be smellin?”
“It’s a different kinda stink I’m talkin bout. Smell like somethin rotted all the way out.”
“Like yo grandmamma after she take her panties off? Yeah, I smell it.”
“Respect to Mamma Rose, fool. I smell somethin for real. Like somethin gone bad over here.”
“Don’t know. May be a dead rat. Find the ball, J.C.”
Climbed over the cans and didn’t come across nothin. I swore I knew where the thing’d fell, saw it drop right down into that pile. But I couldn’t barely breathe for the foul of trash and that other, rotten funk chokin me. Only smelled worse as I pushed away the wet bags and cardboard boxes. And holdin my nose didn’t help none–funk found its way in through my eyes and my ears and my mouth, took wind. Couldn’t figure how the ball’d dug itself up under that pile neither. But it had; swore I’d seen it fall there. Nowhere else for it to be.
Somethin gleamed under them pieces of trash. I pushed the last garbage away just as that air was bout to do me in, and our ball did lay there, right in the lap of a whiskey-drunk bum. Nigga’d fell asleep under trash, his skin shinin bright while still givin off rot funk. At least I figured the cat for a sleepin bum, seein as how he’d stretched himself out in that alley with his eyes shut tight to wrinkle the forehead. He wore some fine clothes, though: suit, tie, gold chains around his neck and rings on his fingers bringin the shine, along with them polished Stacey Adams steppers. Except for the skin gone ashy with too much sauce, he was a clean-lookin man. Light behind that sick shade like he wasn’t a full colored. And his mouth was opened up, teeth pearly white besides a front one that sparkled gold. I didn’t figure what his trouble was till I pushed his shoulder and saw the wet blood on his suit jacket as his head tilted loose, neckbone unconnected from the body. Enough blood swam at the crotch of his pants to make a puddle like curb rain after a storm. I found our ball floatin there.
He walked up slow. He knew I’d found a crushed rat or somethin else foul, so he walked to me like he didn’t wanna know why I screamed. But he couldn’t stop himself from askin still, “What’s wrong, J.C.?”
“Look.” I stood over the body, stakin my claim, and Mookie squatted near the bum without touchin him. I wondered what he was gawkin at, so I bent down and caught them gold neck chains shinin in Mookie’s eyes, brighter there than they’d shined under trash.
“You know who this is, J.C.?” He looked at me. “You know who this is? This Johnny the Baptist.”
“Goddamn Johnny the Baptist. Don’t you be listenin to the cats in the pool hall?”
“Pool hall? What for?”
“If you woulda, you’d uh heard um talkin bout this Cajun. Say he come from down South to work for the Outfit years back. Collectin street taxes from the stores on 47th and runnin the numbers loot over to um. Became a rich man round this way, drivin a Caddy and gettin all the high yellow women to chase after him. Then he went and started losin his good sense, did some gangster’s broad and stole some of they racket money. Outfit put a contract on him and his dumb ass ain’t even leave the city. Word been goin round ain’t nobody seen this here Cajun for days. Say even his mamma gave up, hot-tailed back to the swamp talkin bout how she gonna get her a house like the crackas, with a salon on the street level. Figured the gangsters’d caught up to her boy. And here he is–Johnny the Baptist. You spose to listen to the ol men in the pool halls, learn bout life, J.C. Hear how stupid Cajuns end up dead in alleys.”
“Why you disrespectin his name when he ain’t doin shit but layin here?”
Mookie snatched the chains off the Cajun’s dead neck without answerin, no different than had he been robbin the sports page off a bum passed out on the el train. Them was some fancy gold necklaces, too, one thick and ribbed close to the neck to choke, if he’d had any air left inside; the other hangin low down, so far Mookie had to dig under Johnny’s shirt and fiddle before snatchin it loose. Stole them gems right off the Cajun’s smeared neck, and stuffed them into his socks.
“What you doin? Man, ain’t nothin you can do with them chains. Once a pawn shop round here see that blood, they gonna say yo black ass robbed somebody. Then they gonna call the police. Then what you gonna do?”
“You notice it don’t stink round here no more? You smell it now?”
He was right. I couldn’t say how, didn’t seem like a funk my nose coulda got use to smellin. So it musta took over, left us with nothin else to swallow, no clean wind to compare it to, like fish–fish couldn’t drown cause they never got another choice in life except breathin water.
“You gonna take them rings or what, J.C.?”
I lifted Johnny’s cold hands quick and smooth, much like my man as I coulda, and tried to pull the gold off the swelled-up fingers. Wasn’t comin, though, not the fat diamond on his right pinky finger, or the J-shaped gem on his left index, not even the thick bracelets on his wrists. Them hands was makin sure Johnny the Baptist had somethin fancy to be buried in. “Can’t get um,” I said, and licked my lips. “What you gonna do with them neck chains?”
“Remember the beginnin of this past football season, we was playin Mount Canaan? Member that? You came, huh?”
“You was playin quarterback?”
“Course. Just this past season. You member the game I’m talkin bout?”
“Think so–I do.”
“Remember this black limousine pullin into the lot and droppin off some fancy folk to watch the game? Lookin like the president comin to see his boy? Member that? I asked Coach who they had on they team important enough to have a limo bringin his people to the field. Know what he told me? Say they got a boy over there, a white boy, whose father’s a big-time gangster. I ain’t believe him, even when the whole rest of the team got to bumpin gums on that same shit. So I asked this kid–what’s this kid’s name from down the block who folk send him to Canaan?”
“Yeah, Herman, little faggot boy Herman, that’s who I asked. He ain’t wanna say nothin first off, acted weird. Then he get to tellin this tale bout how the only football player over there who folk come to games in limos is a cat name of Tony Ricci. Herman claim this guy’s ol man don’t do nothin but own a secondhand shop on Ashland Avenue, far as he know.”
“That’s what Herman’s faggot ass claim. Now remember…”
“Nope, I don’t member shit. Nope, Mookie.”
“Listen. Remember my uncle Leon, the one who own the store over on Garfield? You know he don’t just sell groceries in there. He got liquor too–Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, Johnny Red, 20/20–all kinds a whiskeys and wines. But you need a license to sell juice in the city. And the Outfit got that liquor license shit tied up so you gotta go through um to get one round here, and after you get it, you gotta pay um to keep it. So ol Johnny would come by the grocery store to collect the fee for Uncle Leon’s license. They got all kindsa rackets, them gangsters. That’s how come they be ridin round in limousines.”
“OK, Mookie, I still don’t see what none of that got to do with this dead bum in fronta us here.”
“Johnny ain’t no bum. Listenin is everythin in life, J.C. If you learn to listen, you’ll be a smart man, won’t end up like this Cajun.” Mookie stood over me, gold chimin in his socks. “Don’t nobody, not even white folk, get rich just off ownin no pawn shops on Ashland Avenue. Not rich enough to be ridin in limos less they dead first off.”
We’d just walked inside a block of him and the ol man’d already started runnin his mouth. “Where you goin, little nigga?” “What you gon bring me back?” “Got a dime? Need to get me somethin out the sto.” And you couldn’t say no to him, or have the good sense to ignore his cries. “Goddamn stupid monkeys is all you is,” he yelled, “all you ever been. Little goddamn monkeys–all you’ll ever be.”
High as a fly on dog shit was what Grandma Rose woulda said bout Black.
From the time he rose outta the concrete at 47th and Ellis at the sun’s first blink, strolled down to Kenwood Avenue, then back again before the sun’d shut eye on that place, 47th Street Black stayed drunk like so. So bubbly you couldn’t even really call him drunk no more–Black just was. Never strolled too far east into Hyde Park or too far west past Michigan Avenue, cause then he’d be messin round with the lake or with the white folk over by the highway.
Truth be told, I wanted the ol man to go far from the strip, go on and take himself off somewhere where I couldn’t hear him mumblin and stumblin bout that shit he mumbled and stumbled bout whenever we came near. Shoulda learned my lesson that very day, payin stupid mind to Mookie King. Only thing made sense after findin Johnny was goin home and figurin on what to do with them chains. Figurin somethin that made better plain logic than the riddles Mookie’d told in that alley.
But there I was on 47th Street, followin my man to the pool hall. He didn’t even shoot pool back then–“Just wanna go listen, ask um bout these chains maybe. You know they know somethin,” Mookie said. He was always minglin with poor bastards back then, always jivin with them fools hangin on the strip.
I heard Black almost soon as I smelled his sweet Mad Dog wine. He stood between Vernon and Southpark Avenues, leanin back on brick, straw hat tiltin off his dried-up conk, raggedy purple shirt opened just above his stomach, showin a hundred curled-up hairs and yellow scratches from sleepin on the street, dungarees brown to hide stains of whiskey, piss, and shit cause even a bum had pride. And skin black, empty, empty black–the nothin up under dirt, sky on top of night, black as that.
“Looky here,” he said, runnin his mouth to the pavement under him. “Two little nappy heads runnin round in a place they don’t know nothin bout. Pickaninnies betta go on and get they tails off my street before they get themself hurt. What you doin over here?”
I knew not to say nothin, cause Grandma Rose raised me up with good sense. “Don’t be getting close to them bums, boy,” she’d say, or “Don’t give um no money when they get to askin.” “Don’t sit next to um on the bus.” “And you better sho not ever let me catch you talkin to one of um in public, boy.” She was a good Baptist woman, Grandma Rose.
But Mookie’s people wasn’t churchgoers, so he didn’t know no better. And his head was hard as steel back then, mouth foul like gutter water, till he came across one of them ol fools on the strip and turned into a sweet, concerned angel boy for um. “What’s up, Black?”
“You ain’t hear me askin you a question? What you doin over here? Come you ain’t in school? Need to take yo ass back over to Forty-fifth. Don’t know nothin bout this place. None uh y’all know.”
“Don’t go to school no more,” Mookie told him. “Ain’t for a while.”
I was just bout at Southpark before the ol man’d said another word. “Stupid. Both of you just stupid. At’s all I got to say.” But all was a long ways off for Black, long as that wine was strong in him. “What’s that noise there? I hear it. Y’all ain’t getting nothin by this fool.”
“What?” Mookie looked, worried as if there was somethin Black could do to stop him.
“That noise down by the ground, by yo feet, boy. You know what I’m talkin bout. Sound like bells ringin. Loud as that, but pretty. Thirty pieces better than silver–sound like gold. So much, it’s comin outta your foot down there. I ain’t deaf, boy, I hear. And I see the shinin. Chimin, shinin, somethin. How come you ain’t sayin nothin over there?”
Black looked at me; him and Mookie stared at me. Felt like Reverend Goode at Ebenezer Baptist bout to tell his folk the Word–they was waitin on me to deliver gospel. “It ain’t nothin,” I said.
“I’m a fool, but I ain’t stupid,” Black said. I caught the fear in Mookie’s eyes–he was bout to run from the ol man’s questions, make us both look shady. I moved in his front so the only way he could get by was to escape out into strip traffic or tear through Black.
“It ain’t nothin, man,” I said again. “What two little pickaninnies gonna be holdin on to gold round this place for? Don’t sound like that make sense to me.”
Black rubbed his hand against pink lips, streakin dirt across his mouth. “You tryin to con me, boy, or you tryin to talk logic to a fool? Either way, you stupid.” Then he gave up, that quick, the strength of his drunkenness gone. Even ghetto wine would only let him go so far. The corners of his mouth raised, not smilin, but shruggin. “Where y’all headin?”
Mookie turned to the ol man and the run was gone from him, and he got to lookin at Black like he gave a damn, much as sweet angel boys really gave a damn. “Just down to the pool hall.”
“Y’all little niggas don’t know nothin bout shootin no pool. Oughta let me go on down there, show y’all what the game’s bout. At’s my game, you know.”
“Naw, Black,” I said, and pulled Mookie toward Southpark. “We goin home, chief.”
Black let his back slide down the bricks. His eyes dropped, away from us, to the strip. “All right. Y’all go on bout yo way then. Get off uh my street. Don’t nobody know nothin bout nothin over here. This my street. Go on back to yo mammies. Stupid little niggas–best take care uh yoself. Best be careful. I hear it ringin, I ain’t stupid. Ain’t no light at this end, but I see that shinin.”
We crossed over to Southpark, but I didn’t say nothin to Mookie, didn’t let myself breathe. Wasn’t till we’d made it to the pool hall door, more than a few blocks safe from the corner, that I opened my mouth and swallowed air clean of a bum’s sweet wine.
We was in Grandma Rose’s wood cellar, the night after findin the Baptist. I shined his chains–first time Mookie’d let me touch um even. He hawked them jewels like it was his treasure alone; didn’t even matter no more that it’d been me who’d found Johnny first. And when Mookie handed them over, he said to just scrub um with vinegar and water, nothin else. “Till the gold part shines,” he kept repeatin. “Don’t clean all the blood away, just make um sparkle. Then give um here.”
Hadn’t told me the plan, but he had one. He’d done the figurin on his own–too much joy was in them eyes for there to have been no plan. “What the hell we doin?”
“Gonna take these necklaces to Ashland Avenue,” he said from the cellar staircase.
“Ashland Avenue for what?” I looked at the gold. “What’s on Ashland, the pawn shop you was talkin bout?”
“Yeah, the pawn shop. Just gotta find out where it’s at exactly.”
“What they gonna do with this gold? You think them white folk gonna give us money for it? That’s how come you got me scrubbin? Ain’t nobody bout to give us loot for no bloody chains, don’t care how much I make um shine.”
“Don’t want loot. We can spend loot tomorrow and it’ll be gone for good, least we won’t never see it again.”
“So what they gonna give us if we go to Ashland? That ain’t no safe place.”
“Just shine them chains, J.C.”
I dropped Johnny’s gold in the bucket. “Naw, man, what we bout to do?”
“Don’t set um in it!” Mookie flew across Grandma’s cellar. He reached into the vinegar water with his touchdown-throwin arm and snatched up the chains. “What difference it make what we gonna do? What was you spendin your time on before we found Johnny? Chasin baseballs round 45th? You said it yourself, what else we got to do with ourselves?”
“Go buy squares from the corner store and sit on the curb down in Englewood. Watch the Catholic gals comin in and goin outta the school, me and you. That’s what you told me.”
“Fuck that,” Mookie said. “We bout to do somethin ain’t gonna be over when the sun go down. Gonna take us to the end, like ridin in a black limousine. If we can be what they is, we ain’t gotta play ball in no alleys, or watch no Catholic girls from no street curb. Won’t even have to lie to our folks bout school no more. We ain’t got nothin more to wish for, if we what they is.”
“What is they, Mookie?” I took the gold from him and shined, just like he’d told me. “And how they gonna make us that? They got the Lord’s power to change how we was born?”
“Yeah, they got the Lord’s power. Gangsters, J.C….evil men, gettin away with bad. Livin off it.” Mookie rested on the steps again. “Ain’t no more Johnny, so they gonna need somebody to collect from this place. I just wanna ride in a limousine like em, jack. Chains ain’t nothin but somethin to show we found out the game. Just clean till they shine. And J.C.?”
“Don’t scrub all the blood away.”
I looked at my hands, winced as the chains scratched skin. Then I cleaned without askin no more dumb questions, kept on scrubbin till Johnny the Baptist’s chains reflected gold against dirty water.
From the forthcoming book 47th Street Black by Bayo Ojikutu, copyright 2003 Bayo Ojikutu. To be published in January by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House Inc.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.