Friday, February 22, 2013

Son of The District*

By Steve Bartholomew

*This story won first prize in the memoir category of the 2014 Annual PEN Prison Writing Contest

It was after eleven when my father opened the door to my room and, same as every night, stepped in to set the alarm and say goodnight. But instead, he paused and said, “Get out. Get out of my house.” On my dresser was my pipe, a tiny weed pipe made of tin foil. I had forgotten to throw it away because, well, I had used it earlier.

He held it out, thumb and forefinger, pointing at it. The instrument of unforgivable trespass. A crime committed in and against his house. I begged damply to please, let me wait until morning because I have nowhere to go this late and it is freezing, there is snow.

But my appeals could not budge their verdict, his and my stepmother's. They would not listen to nor spend another word. So said the padlock resolve in their faces.

Your Honor, the State would offer into evidence the defendant's sorrowful history of nitwitteries.

Guilty on all counts. Bang.

My posters glowed farewell in the blacklight. I thought of taking my favorite, Zeppelin‘s Swan Song. But no, they could have them all.

I stuffed a change of clothes into my backpack, emptied my piggy bank and went out my father's door for the last time.

Cold. Through your sweatshirt and down your back. Ice packs where your nerves had just been sweating, cold that makes you think about your lungs. I stood in the driveway a minute, hoping they'd call me back inside and ground me forever. This time I would take it to heart because you don‘t forget the lesson with a punchline that lands on your chin. But none of these things happened. Finality is a deadbolt at midnight. I trudged past the yard and then down the middle of the silvery moonlit road, charged up and muddled from my sudden overdose of independence.

I walked until my feet felt deadish, a few miles. I looked down at my hightops and imagined my toes blackening and then lopped off with tin snips. I climbed into a recycling bin and made the best nest I could. All my life I wanted to be my dad, but he wasn‘t around enough to show me much besides how to dial in a carburetor or do a donut. My one year of living with him had been, as they say, too little too late. I could own the fact that I was a disappointment. But the clunky knowledge that your father has no use for you can make your DNA ache. I lay shivering under a pile of newspapers until dawn, wondering how I could be brainwaved so differently from my dad that he would scrap any future that included me.

The last remaining bridge had met with my fiery knack for failure.

The next day was buses and transfers, traveling 30 miles north to Seattle. The University District. I knew of nowhere else where I could get by without the boojy stuff you need for a job, like an address, phone, or laundered clothes. I stared at my reflection in the darkening bus window. My sideburns were coming in fat. At fifteen and some months, facial hairs have almost individual worth--the more of them you have, the less you have to do to prove you‘re not a kid. It’s street science, and you can't argue with science.

I'd been written out of a story where I'd thought I was a main character, and here I was now, one of those blurry extras in the background who don't figure into the plot. In the credits: Spindly Youth with Tragic Hair #3.

You looked up at the buildings and they were towering stacks of unknowable facts, as sealed off from your reality as buildings on a postcard from a city you'1l never visit. Like monochrome middle fingers the world had raised sky-high against the likes of you, grim heights of tinted glass guaranteeing certain narratives would remain at a tidy distance. And how small and adrift that made you feel when you thought about it, so you wouldn't, mostly. I wandered University Avenue all day, watching. The way Ave Rats curb-served grams of weed was foreign to me, a secret in the open. I eavesdropped on their exchanges, studying tactics the best I could without someone thinking I was Narksville. I did not eat because I only had 31 dollars and food turns no profit. The next day I scored three of the fattest grams I could find off an Ave Rat named Adam who had slack, waxy hair and overgrown Indian corn incisors that made you think he was smiling even when he wasn't. I split them into five flat ones and clocked them in under three blocks. My 51 dollars got me 6 more, which I stretched into 12 that were so wispy I had to include a sob-story and an apology for the going price. In an afternoon my 31 bucks had become 115, a pack of smokes and a burger. I needed numbers to make sense at least, and finally, here was a story problem worth solving. Beginner‘s luck can seem like the American dream when you‘re hungry enough.

A week later I bought a piece from a guy sporting an Earp mustache and a faded peace sign t-shirt that might have fit when you could still see his lip. He had an assortment of pistols and ammo in a small gym bag. We dipped into the alley behind Lox, Stock and Bagels. He pulled them out one at a time, displaying each on a crate between two dumpsters. I gave him 50 bucks for a .22 revolver that had a clonky cylinder and a long barrel with rust acne. A target pistol, he told me, and I traded him a gram for some bullets, a detail that seemed germane, like having a lighter if you plan on smoking something. I walked the two blocks up to the campus woods and crawled into a thicket of rhododendrons. I sat on the rotting leaves, cherishing my pistola grande. The rush of newfound adulthood, a word that means the world better think twice before kicking your ass. I wished I could share the moment, but I had no friends in these parts and none anywhere who would understand. I wrapped it up in greasy rags and plastic grocery bags and buried it near the madrona that says JH hearts KW.

I wasn‘t the gangster type, all loco to draw down on some fools, but you've got to protect your interests, and I was mainly interested in not getting peeled by somebody bigger or tougher, which in truth meant anybody. You can't be too cautious when you're el solo, and the only thing more cautious than owning a gun is owning a buried one. These were the thoughts of a suburban white kid schooled in the art of manhood mostly by westerns.

I stood on the corner of 45th and the Ave, waiting for the walk symbol to light up for maybe the dozenth time since morning. The sky was low and blank as frosted glass, not one shade grayer than my thoughts. It had been slow all day, which happens when it's witch-nipple cold out, but I kept walking to pass the time. I couldn't expect the needers to track me down and besides, loitering would get you vamped by the cops for sure.

The wind, fumed with exhaust grime and waffle cones, scoured my dripping nose. A small herd of maybe a dozen peds also stood waiting for the light, their hands gloved or stuffed into pockets of winter coats, their breath wisked off in skinny clouds. Serious faces and shopping bags, the kind of fixed expressions that say you have somewhere to be and when you get there matters. I hunched against the wind, lit a cigarette behind cupped hands and exhaled impatiently as if I had places to go too, but really this sidewalk was it. Hustle and bustle, I'd heard it called, but I didn't know anything about bustling.
I took a drag like I was installing the filter into my lip and cinched up my eyes toward the lower Ave, trying to give off a less-than-criminal interest vibe. I had been cop-spotting along that ten-block stretch of the Ave for just long enough to know they could creep with the quickness. Close-set buildings, an uneven roofline laying shadow-bands onto pavements, awning signs jammed end to dirt-streaked end forever, small restaurants that leave A-shaped signs on the sidewalk.

Traffic lined up single file in either direction on the Ave, crawling along at a pace set by electric buses and jaywalkers. A flat commotion of singing brakes and mufflers overlapped with human hubbub. Dead leaves chased a magazine page past the storm drain at my feet and a yellow cab blew by on 45th, its underparts skitching heavy against the lumpy intersection. The cold swirl it whipped up bit through my windbreaker. The dead of winter. In Seattle that term might've been a stretch, but you curb-serve from dawn to midnight on the daily and you could still find yourself admiring a pretty girl less than the coat she was wearing, or pretend-shopping in a toasty store until they tell you to beat it.

The light changed but I waited to cross until I was mostly alone, because needers were kind of sketchy about showing the signal when you're in a swarm of peds. I walked south past the import shop with its stacks of baskets and plant hangers on the sidewalk--a statement, I thought, in favor of my theory that no one steals wicker. I skimmed the passing faces, not really seeing them, just watching for a signal: eye contact jutting out a little that meant, I am definitely shopping for non-wicker items. Your response had to be low key but quick—too obvious and they scare off, too slow and someone else swoops on them. The rest of the peds studiously unsaw me as they passed by.

I ducked into a defunct doorway stale with the tang of urine varnish, dug out from my front pocket a deceptively thick wad of small bills and counted it again just to make sure it was still there, the sense of adding up to more than nothing. Behind the long window in Pearl Harbor Teriyaki across the Ave, a lady seated at a small table hitched up her face at me like she'd caught wind of my socks and then turned away. Sometimes you could offend an eye into seeing you. I was finally sitting on enough to cop an ounce, which is a milestone one precious notch up from the whitening dogshit nuggets adorning the would-be flowerbed in front of Spun Out Records. But I had no connect for an ounce, or any real weight.

If you weren’t an Ave Rat, you were pretty much stuck buying a few grams at a time and splitting them up, nickel-and-dimebagging, which is what I'd been doing. And that meant you wouldn‘t make much and you'd have the saddest, airiest sacks since middle school. It was not hard to imagine myself years from now, still sleeping in a Formica seat bolted to the Laundromat floor, my only other shirt hang-drying on the coatrack because it's fifty cents cheaper that way. I would fail at this life too, if I did not figure out this business of street business. I knew I did not have the nerve for stealing, and would be too embarrassed to panhandle. I stepped out of the doorway and the soy-sauced exhaust mingled with incense wafting out the entrance of Inhale to the Chief, a medley that confused my stomach.

The Space Port arcade was the center of the known universe. Its gravity field was inescapable to needers and Ave Rats alike. I stood at the bus stop in front-- the path of least courage, because nobody can lay claim to a bus stop. Some of the usual heads were posted up on either side of entrance. Rocker Jay leaned against the wall, one casually defiant foot up behind him, his hair teased out with a rebel gel and draped over the studded lapels of his black leather. He was blessed with at least the ego and jacket of a rock star. He was checking his pager while Squash Josh reminisced about another muscle car he‘d probably never had, hands held out at the exact width of unlikely tires. His stories never came out the same way twice, the sign of an untreated truth impediment. Squash Josh was pushing seven feet tall and wanted you to believe he was monied in, which no one would question if only his cars were not still in the shop becoming even more muscular. He licked his lips compulsively and looked everywhere except your eyes when he talked to you, but he could spot johnny law like he had a built in radio. Adam was a few feet farther down, possibly smiling.

And in the fire-exit doorway stood Angel, fatal in thigh boots and jeans every inch as elegant and tormenting as algebra. The only Ave Ratess, she could throw down a traffic-affecting strut just standing there, high-assed and gumptious, her Cleopatra hair stealing stray color glints from nowhere. She set her prices higher than everybody else, and up close she even smelled expensive. She would tell a needer how much her grams were and you'd see him frown at the news, a refusal working its way out of his chest until she fastened on him, flashing twisty smiles and dark trashed-up eyes. And then out comes his money like one of those snakes in a basket.

I scored off her once and ended up twenty bucks lighter afterwards. She'd seen me serve to some needers and asked me how much I was sitting on. I answered before I could help it, and she said I should buy her last four dimebags for "only" fifty, so she could recop. They were even peedlier than mine. I knew better at first, but she ganged up on my sensibilities until I was mentally naked. One silk jounce of her sideboob against my arm and my thoughts went hormonal. Never mind the money, there's always more somewhere, but that face, that is a face I cannot put into words, that is a face I cannot put any words into that add up to no.

I walked away a little fuzzy on whose idea was whose.

I'd read about falling in love, and it had sounded strange, a state of dopiness overblown in print. But this had to be what they meant, something you would gush about if only you weren‘t friendless, even if she is more or less indifferent to your existence.

Goatee Rick was standing a few feet away, holding down the newspaper box. He was different than the rest. His notched and whittled face was home to such joylessness that your mind edged him past forty but word was he wasn‘t even thirty. An elder of the District. He was maybe a foot shorter than me and junkie sleek, but you would not call him small--at least not to where he could hear. I'd seen his goatee before in a book about the devil. He was unimaginable in any gentler setting and I was a little frightened by how much I admired him.

Street lore had him killing a man at twelve and spending the next nine years in Green Hill, where he incited mayhem until they‘d had enough and let him out. I believed it.

I‘d watched him demolish a guy, some fool unlucky enough to pick up a paper sack Goatee Rick had set next to the newspaper box. In it was a burnt spoon and some used rigs. The guy made it halfway through the crosswalk before someone said, Hey Rick, that dude just peeled your works. This ped must have outweighed him by a hundred pounds, easy.

Goatee Rick flew at him, jumped up and head-butted him in the nose. The ped reeled and put his hands out like this was something he could stop. Goatee Rick fired three or four combinations at crazy speed, what you'd call a barrage of knuckle sandwiches served a la carte. It was lights out fifteen seconds into the first and only round. Rick tromped back to the newspaper box, screaming at the city in general to never, not ever, touch his shit. He set his bag down right where it'd been. Cars honked and drove around the man-shaped mess in the crosswalk until he got up and shambled away, dribbling a blood trail down the sidewalk.

Two minutes later johnny law vamped with the quickness, six cars deep. They half-listened to about a dozen versions of how the gigantic attacker came at Little Rick out of nowhere and Little Rick was left with no choice and so forth. The other guy was apparently too ashamed to formally own his victimhood, and over a lunch sack of biohazard. They pissily snapped shut their notebooks and drove away.

Against such a backdrop of mugshots, I could only pose the awkward fact that, as unwelcome as I was, I didn't belong anywhere else. Superfluous was the word that came to me often. I remembered it from a life ago, when I'd dreamt of being a writer and owned a dictionary. Adjectives can become more uncomfortable the better they fit.
I waited until no peds were in earshot, at least of me. Goatee Rick had a voice not unlike a seal.

"Rick, you know anybody has a decent zip?" I asked, meaning an ounce.

His narrow eyes flexed at me real carnivore-like, the way they did most of the time. An unspoken hatred the world had coming, I guessed, for outgrowing him. "You want doses, I got blotter, four-way. Five bucks you got a party."

"I was just thinking if you were gonna recop yourself." I knew he could definitely get it, maybe even had it himself.

"You were just thinking. Know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking I'm trying to get paid, Eddie. Dig?" My name was not Eddie, a fact meaning more or less shinola to anyone but me. Eddie was just what he called needers.

"Sorry, man. I just--"

"You just what. You just deaf, Eddie?" he pronounced the word deaf to rhyme with leaf, his tone sharpened enough to quash Squash Josh's car story. "Or you stupid? Doses. You ain't spending, get the fuck off my porch." I could feel eyes at my back, hoping I'd say the wrong thing and become first a show and then subtracted from the landscape.

"Okay," I said.

I sauntered off like I'd remembered something that needed attending to.

I came to the post office on 43rd, which was surrounded on two sides by a short, wide wall that, whatever the architect had in mind, had become a perch for skate punks. The southern boundary of the thick of the Ave. It was painted an off-mailbox blue, but graffiti writers reclaimed it tag by tag until the mailman would slap on another coat. There were no Ave Rats on the wall, just some panhandler kids and Crazy Mary, who was interesting to talk to, but would sometimes yank up her dress right on the sidewalk and start rubbing one out, and that made conversations awkward. I looked back at Space Port and it too was Ave Ratless. This meant vice was probably rolling. The Ave Rats kept point for one another and had a system, some way to pass the alert that would outpace the unmarked car. They knew how to disappear with the quickness, which would leave you spotlit, centerstage. The few grams left in my sleeve glowed red hot. The stacked rows of windows lining the Ave suddenly felt like those fake mirrors the cops hide behind at the precinct when they're up in your business about some alleged thing that got boosted.

I high-stepped it past the post office and ducked into Phuc Ngo Market. The tiny old lady behind the counter crinkled her nose at me and said, "You come in here all day, ten time, you know that? Buy ten-piece candy, no good. You teeth fall down maybe next week, you know that?"

I gave her a toothy smile while I still had one and placed a dime with a Bit-o-Honey on the counter.

I waited until vice had swept through. I needed to reset my nerves, so I turned south. I caught sight of one of The Others, a wildcard that even Ave Rats tried to sidestep.

He made his rounds along the lower reaches of the Ave, where it peters out beyond 43rd before making a T at the canal. I knew he was stalking the next easy mark.

Heavy did not wait for signals from needers. His was the flagrant bizarre method, gesturing to passing cars and asking peds what, not if, they needed. In the animal kingdom, a predator of his size would have built their bulk from great unlucky lengths of food chain. He moved along the opposite curb half a block down, among the peds but easily pegged as not one of them, loping at times with the sort of disregard that comes to someone unaccustomed to yielding the right of way.

I knew he played a game of numbers, some brute force strategy involving a low percentage of a high volume and so forth. Neither stealth nor cops were a factor because he did not sell any actual substance.

A tan Accord slowed and Heavy motioned to pull over and park and then hunkered down at the passenger window for maybe a minute before loading himself into the backseat. The car squatted and rolled away with the left turn signal blinking dumbly. I made a mental note to come back here in about an hour because there might be a show.

I’d met Heavy my second day. He had been posted up in front of Holy Cow ("Burgers almost too divine to eat"), at the top of the Ave. He reminded me distantly of a grown-up Fat Albert in a lime green Adidas jogging suit and visor. I'd always put great store in Fat Albert for his moral compass, so I asked him if the number 43 had gone by yet, just to see if he had the same voice, which he didn‘t.

"Youngsta, I ain't watching no bus. I‘m trying to get off this here chronic. Feel me?"

I nodded that I did, in fact. Little scars trimmed the ridges of his squarish face. If he were a carving, you'd think they got the nose wrong, ineptly flattened and off-kilter. I still had my piggybank account of 31 dollars, and the burgered breeze was sending my stomach into sissy shivers. If I did not invest soon, I could end up with an armload of Trinities with cheese. "You got like an eighth?"

"Cuz, I be having whatever.  Oh zees for real. The icky dank bud," he said.

I thought about this revelation and decided that, sure, people must run into real connects down here sometimes, connects who had ounces like he was saying. No reason I couldn't be that lucky.

"Oh. I don‘t got it like that yet," I said. "But I know I can turn quick. If you wanna break one up?"

"I ain‘t trippin. I got you. Where your car at?"

"I don‘t got one. I‘m walking."

"Ain‘t walking to the crib for no eighth no how. Believe that."

"You don't got none on you?"

"Sheeit. Po-po ain‘t no joke out here, dog. Feel me?"

I felt obligated to nod again even though this time I did not feel him exactly, why stand around on a corner then? In the District you could get vamped with the quickness, so you did not, as a rule, pocket your felonies because johnny law wouldn't strip you out on the sidewalk. But ounces were probably harder to fit in your sleeve or down the front of your underwear. His eyes worked the street, swiveling from car to car and face to face as each passed. He seemed to be pondering my carelessness. I doubted I would ever be so in-tune with my surroundings. I noticed his gold chain was greening in spots where it sank between neck rolls.

"I could try to get us a ride," I said, a little crunchy at the prospect of complicating yet another person‘s afternoon over so little. "I really need to turn."

"Where you stay at?" he asked, finally looking all the way at me, an expression that said nothing on a face without an age. I could not tell if he was twenty-five or forty.

"Here, pretty much."

"Ain't seen you round."

"I mean, I only been here a couple days, so that's maybe why."

I could feel myself becoming less of a novelty, my smallfry money more hassle than hustle. Something told me not to pursue the issue, that this might be a route not on my map of how these things should go down. My sincere belief was that street business should be conducted on the street, not willy nillying off to who knows. I paced the front of Holy Cow.

A needer in a green fleece stopped me and asked if I was holding. He had a slicked-back ponytail and was old, like in his late thirties.

"I'm out," I said in a way that implied I often was not. I felt an idea wag its tail. "But we can get it if you got a car."

"Where you gotta go?"

I walked Breen Fleece over to Heavy.

"Hey, this guy's got a ride," I told him.

Heavy asked him how much he was looking for, which turned out to be a half-ounce, or a dozen grams if they were nice. Heavy assured him that he had all that and a side of fries, the best in Seattle. Green Fleece motioned toward a backset parking lot and they set off in that direction. I trailed a few feet behind.

They were in a silver Jetta double-parked in the farthest corner of the lot, two flanneled guys smoking cigarettes with the windows down and giving off a whiff of illegal uneasiness. Green Fleece gestured and Blue Flannel hopped out and climbed in back with Red Flannel and Heavy dropped into the passenger seat, leaving no room for me. The engine started and they all peered out the windows at me like I might offer a satisfying reason for still being there. I mumbled that I’d see them later. They drove off.

About an hour later the silver Jetta swerved around me as I was crossing 47th. It lurched over the curb and parked wonky in a loading zone. Green Fleece and the Flannels jumped out and came at me, the malice in their faces simple enough to read but not to place into context. I thought maybe they had me confused with some other shaggy vagabond. My feet stopped and my limbs went cold even before Blue Flannel grabbed my arm. "Where the fuck we find your nigger friend?" he said in a half hiss, injecting menace into hate. The fusty steam of bourbon and mouth neglect. He had the parted blond hair of a Biff.

"He's not my friend. I--"

Green Fleece‘s face loomed within kissing distance, hard-staring me down with saggy eyes. Punctuating with finger jabs to my chest, he said, "You, Fucking. Set us up. With him. Now you. Owe us a hundred. And twenty. Bucks."

Gulpy-voiced, I asked what had happened. They assumed I already knew that they had let Heavy run into an apartment building with their money. On the street, this is one way the word backdoor can become a verb.

They looked around and maybe it dawned on them how this would appear, the three of them up in my bathwater out in the open. They walked me toward the gaping slot of alley connecting to 50th, Blue Flannel clamped on one arm and Red Flannel on the other. As they yarded me off the sidewalk, I strained to see down the shadowy stretch behind all those buildings, hoping for a delivery truck, or a cop, a bum, anyone. A picture of urban desolation. Dark loading bays, large dumpsters I could easily be stuffed into, or behind if they were locked. I would not even make it onto the back of a milk carton because I would be missing from no one's life. I tried to break loose and run but they were too strong. How to fight well was another thing nobody had taught me. They shoved me into the alley, skidding along in front of them.

"So you're saying you can't find him, your partner. You're telling us this," said Green Fleece.

"He's not my partner and I don‘t know where. Really," I said in too girly a register to be taken completely serious. "I don‘t even know him hardly."

"He's lying. Look at him."

"He‘s the wingman. Probably gets half."

"Why the fuck you hook us up with him?"

I shrugged and of course Green Fleece hit me hard in the mouth. The brick wall behind him lit up. Someone rifled through my pockets, which held only a lighter and a few generic cigarettes in a pack. A hand threw these onto the asphalt and a foot stomped on them. Someone pulled my head back by its hair and a fist slogged into my stomach. Two potted ferns waved from the fire escape landing.

I had just scored off Adam and my net worth of three grams was in the liner of my coat sleeve. I thought of offering it up, but I could tell this situation had built up more than three grams of momentum. Besides, after enough humiliation of the spirit you can find yourself strangely unwilling to plea-bargain anymore.

"Think you can just scam us, punk?" asked Green Fleece. I said, No, but he drilled me in the nose anyway. Apparently I was unconvincing. I needed to spit blood but couldn't without getting it on one of them. We were by now deep in the alley, traffic and witnesses a mile off in either direction. We stopped beside a row of dumpsters. Green Fleece shovel-hooked me in the gut. I doubled over and spit a rope of stomach water and blood onto my shoes. Someone clipped me in the ear.

I stood straight as I could and stared deadpan, a counterfeit surface assumed half for my own sake, eyes fixed to a point somewhere in the street beyond Green Fleece. A Seattle Police cruiser rolled by with traffic, two patrol cops unperturbed in profile. Displacing thought was the chorus of an Iron Maiden song, Run to the Hills, a loop of sanity to clutch like lyric prayer-beads with killer drum rolls. No way would they milk another cringe out of me. Red Flannel cocked back his right arm and bared a jaundice grin, shy one tooth. Below the middle knuckle was one of those football rings both gaudy and dull. The fists fell here and there without much gusto, like they wanted to drag it out: eye, mouth, gut, nose, repeat.

A column of lime green crossed my narrow view of sidewalk. Heavy. He would glance down the alley for sure, because in the District you always scoped for creeper cops when you passed one. But he would keep it pushing, maybe even get ghost from the Ave for a while. He wouldn't want anything to do with this, his own fallout, because isn't that the point. Or so my thoughts went. But he stopped midstride and stared. Maybe we made eye contact, maybe we didn‘t. One of the Flannels said, Hey there he is, and Green Fleece turned.

"Hey," he yelled, and set off toward Heavy in a half run, half swagger. Heavy looked side to side and then strolled stone cool toward us, a matter of Adidas'd fact forging the center of the alley. There was no posturing in his stride, no gestures of superiority, but neither was there the faintest Fat Albertish thing about him anymore. The Flannels let go my arms and rallied around their fleeced friend, a flank maneuver. I thought of running but it didn't seem so pressing now.

Green Fleece stopped and said, "You got our fucking money... boy?"

Heavy eyed them each, flicking from one to the next, as blank as a cinderblock. He shot a glance to where I was bent over, steadied by a dumpster. "Y'all some coward-ass bitches up in here."

Green Fleece hitched himself up and did the head-tilt thing, cracking his neck knuckles. "Keep thinking that while we stomp your black ass out," and then he ratcheted up a splat of phlegm, what you'd call a lung cookie, and launched it to the side, "nigger."

Heavy covered the distance between them in two strides and posted up southpaw, bouncing lightly side to side with his fists up and swaying restless, the hugest pugilist ever. Blue Flannel strayed too close and Heavy lunged and knocked him out with a jab. Green Fleece came inside swinging wildly and Heavy rewrote his future, a rhythm of grace and concussion, brief and unanswered. The meaty racket volleyed in the brick narrows. The green visor never budged. This was not how fights looked in the movies. Green Fleece lay on his ponytail, arms out like Jesus, snoring rapidly. A sound unsettling to hear coming from someone so recently standing.

Red Flannel took off in a dead sprint away from Heavy. He must have forgotten to look back.

Heavy stood straddling Green Fleece. He leaned down and swung one fist then the other, a motion from a chain gang scene. He stood looking down for a moment before stepping over to Blue Flannel. He stomped twice on his ribcage, maybe as a memento, in case he‘d dislodged the actual memory. Green Fleece's jaw was a drastic shape and bunched off to one side, a medical quantity of blood. The snoring stopped.

"I run this muthafucka," he roared at them both--really at the world. A wavelength in that voice to make you rethink your views on urban life, an element forcing its own acknowledgement, some half-burst organ hurling fury through asphalt veins. He turned his back to me, lifted his sweatshirt and tucked it under his chin. The stream of urine clattered as thick as a keg tap, sweeping across both faces and chests. Steam vapors flicked with the breeze. He turned and walked past me, his face gone unreadable again. I scampered after the greater of two evils.

"Thanks, man," I said. My mouth was clumsy how only one thoroughly clobbered can be. The relief washing over me was muddied by the sheer consequence of this man, the collision course he had plotted and its byproducts.

"Don't even trip," he said, breathing hard. "I likes when they come back."

"Why'd you rob those guys?"

"I ain't rob nobody. They give me they money."

I told him my name and held out my hand.

He shook it more or less daintily, pulling up short. His knuckles looked like spilled concrete that someone daubed with red.

"Heavy," he said.

"You're telling me."

Click here to read part two

Steven Bartholomew with his son

Steven Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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