Friday, April 5, 2013

Son of The District (Part 2 of 2)*

By Steve Bartholomew

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

Read Part 1 Here

I was wary of Heavy after the Green Fleece incident. More of being associated with him than of his physical presence, this is what I told myself. It had been a month or so--a long time in street years--and in that time we had not spoken of what happened. Some days Heavy would score a gram or two off me, holding the money out while he asked, a gesture intended to short-circuit my uneasiness. I had glimpsed his unmasked nature and afterward felt a twinge of guilt at how awestruck I was by such methodical violence. A clash of lower-tier thinking, admiration where you know revulsion should be.

But to simply lie to him about whether I was holding would have violated the nameless bond between us now, the queasy sort of knot where our two histories were forcibly combined. I held a dim loyalty toward him, like I'd been through an ordeal with, not because of him. Maybe I enjoyed feeling sorry for someone more outcast than I was. No Ave Rat would deal with him, not even Goatee Rick, who had no detectable fear of anything, including johnny law.

I had no more illusions of a carefree life on the Ave. Cops weren't the only threat anymore; they were only one of a thousand. The District contained everything outside of me now. I was a city of one on a narrow planet of charades, motives hidden and hostile to my being. I distrusted humanity on its smiling face because social fictions were only tactics that could disarm you. I scurried past alleyways as a general habit. I would not get into cars or deal with anyone unless they were alone, nor would I direct sales to anyone when I ran out, not even to Angel. Our main interaction was the looks we traded--she regarded me like an insinuation not quite rating a remark, and I tried to memorize her geometry, one side-eyeing at a time.

When I bought the pistol a few days after the alleyway incident, I knew on some unthinking level it was only a fantasy of safety, the way you know the rabbit's foot in your pocket won't really steer you away from harm any better than it did the rabbit, but you lug it around anyway. I could not pack my lucky charm on the street, not with a barrel so ridiculously long you half expected one of those "Bang!" flags to pop out. Johnny law'd vamp on that like the time Squash Josh tried serving grams on roller skates, all seven feet of him, broomstick arms whipping the sky.

Sitting on enough for an ounce meant you were more likely to get robbed than to actually score. You couldn't just ask around until you found one, because once word got out, you could get caught slipping by anybody with a partner or a pocketknife. Just when you dismiss vigilance as paranoia, your blind spot creeps up on you and peels you back proper. A street kid wandering around with a couple hundred bucks is a pork chop at the pitbull fair.

If Goatee Rick was the eldest of the District, Stormin’ Norman was its favorite uncle, the non-creepy one. They said he predated any Ave Rat and most of the buildings. He held down whatever spot he chose in Moses sandals and rainbow socks, a sort of peaceful demonstration held against winter and fashion sense. His blockish trunk and thick limbs put a rolling efficiency in his stride. A ponytail, long, gray and missing a strip up top, a face you could not pick out of a line-up in The Shire. I‘d heard him called The Beard by people unsure of his name, referring to the grizzled bib of fur that shaded most of his belly and which suggested a pipe be stoked on any given occasion. He carried a black velvet panel hung with beadwork in all forms pinnable. Although peds would stop and buy his merchandise, the colory trinkets on the panel were only a side-gig.

It had taken me weeks to learn that Stormin’ Norman was more than an old hippy beadsmith. He did not watch the faces of needers, nor did he pace the Ave or bother to get ghost when vice was rolling. He had regulars that went back decades who would talk to no one else except to ask if they‘d seen Stormin’ around. They would buy an earring and do the blind man handshake openly, in a way that was difficult to spot as anything unbeadlike. I had only ever made the smallest talk with him--the unquestioning respect owed an ancient street merchant--like whether it was supposed to rain, or if he'd seen that candy apple chopper.

"How they hangin, Stormin’?" I asked, pointing at his display.

"Lower than my standards, boyo, and that's saying something. But all in all," he said and then shrugged.

"Think we could talk something besides beads?"

"You‘re saying my cufflinks don't accessorize your smoking jacket," he said, his forehead folding in mock hurt. A smile centering in the eyes, redrawing the lines there, an upward drift of the beard. "Let's walk."

In an alley two blocks off-Ave, he pulled out a handful of baggies such as you might've brown-bagged sandwiches to school in. "All I got's these eighths," he said. "They ain‘t the toast of no town. But then again if they were, or if you was choosy, neither of us'd be here, huh?" He held out eight loosely rolled baggies, a wilted cellophane bouquet. "These ought to add up near an oh zee, give or take. Don't quote me."

I did not feel the need to unroll the bags. You just trust beards of a certain caliber. He gave me a price break for buying so many and I thanked him and began counting out two hundred in fives and tens. Re-copping with ones was like a raspberry fart on a first date.

"Listen," he said, "I seen you around for what, a month? You seem a little, I don't know, lost. Wide-eyed. I mean, I don't see you mixing it up."

"It takes me a while, I guess. With some people."

"They ain‘t down here to bond--them Ave Rats. You want them to notice, you gotta make ‘em." He arranged the bills carefully into bank order, folded them and slipped the wad into a beaded leather pouch hung beneath his shirt.
"Make them?"

"Like the man says, if you can't be with the one you love, well then, show the ones you're with. Meaning that you‘re about something. Bit of unsolicited counsel, this."

"But I'm down here everyday, all day."

"Eating your brussel sprouts last don't make ‘em dessert. You gotta be more than just around. Them skate punks are down here much as you, see where that gets them."

"But you're not one of them, right? An Ave Rat."

"They ain‘t one of me, is more like it. Listen, I know most what‘s worth knowing bout this street, and much that isn't. People see what they need to. Don't think they ain‘t keeping score. Can't take no shit, is all I'm saying."


He turned and set off toward the Ave, veering half a sidewalk this way and that around puddles. I stayed on Brooklyn, the street paralleling the Ave, and headed toward a parking garage at the bottom end of the District, where there was a maintenance closet that was sometimes unlocked. I thought it was unknown to anyone else and the coils of garden hoses weren‘t bad to nap on if you arranged them right. My office.

As I was crossing the street in front of the parking garage, Heavy rounded the corner. I gave him the usual eyebrow raise, in case of surveillance. Only you should know who all you know. I would lap the block once now, before going in.

"What is it, youngsta. Let me holler at you?"

I stopped. He'd never spoken to me this way before. Almost like an equal.

"Lookee here, dog," he said. "Real talk. I needs work. I'm fixin to roll legit, feel me?" I caught myself mid-nod. He sidled back and forth in what might have been his version of squirming. To work for someone meant walking with however much weed your credit limit allowed and then returning with the money before they had to come looking. "I needs to work with a few of them thangs. Broke as a joke up in here."

"You're trying to actually turn? You mean, instead of."

He nodded soulfully. "But ain‘t nobody tryin to hear that. That‘s real. Muthafuckas is scary, playa. Straight trippin like I'm five-oh." His eyes spoke for the first time. Please.

"Look, Heavy," I said, glancing up then down the street, "I mean, I got a few eighths, but."

The rest of my sentence hung in the air between us, loud and unmistakable.

"Cuz, on my mama. I got you tomorrow. I keep it real with you. Ain't tryin to move nobody no more."

I weighed the possibility of drama now against drama later. The risk of my misgivings being read correctly and taken personally and where that would take us. My next words should be chosen for their balance, for safety.

I imagined what he saw when he looked at me. A lesser being, spectacularly smaller and undeserving of anything I was incapable of taking, or keeping, by force. Even my own clothes had grown flappy on me, but I could use one of his pant legs as a sleeping bag. Paying me would be an afterthought, like leaving a tip in a jar or giving a smoke to a bum. But maybe he really did want to go legit. His money had always been proper with me. Then there is the matter of having to see me all the time if he didn't pay me, which, on the other hand, might only matter to me. He did pretty much jack fools for a living. But he saved my ass when he didn't have to. I slid out an eighth from my sleeve.

"Alright," I said. "But, Heavy?"

He tilted that Easter Islandish head to one side as I handed him the baggie and said, "Don't rip me off."

"Sheeit, cuz. Don‘t even trip. You my dude. I got you."

He walked off and I waited a full cigarette before going into my office.

The next day there was a notable lack of Heavy on the Ave. Chilled sunlight streamed through cloud gaps and needers were streaming from wherever it was they came from. Actual homes, probably. I ended up thirty bucks ahead, which meant Heavy owed me half my profit, more or less. Even still, his absence took up little mental space among the countless reflex measures taken to keep yourself out of jail in a given hour.

The following day I came out of Phuc Ngo Market and spotted Heavy across the street, crouched beside a blue Celica, either selling or storytelling to the couple inside with great hand motions. I walked to the crosswalk half a block down because jaywalkinq would get you vamped for sure. The couple pulled away slowly as I approached.

"Heavy. Got them duckets? I'm trying to re-cop."

He thug-eyed the top of the Ave like I definitely had not said anything. I edged around into his stare, a tentatively determined pace and a half back. A quick wuff of air escaped his nostrils like how a rhino does when his cleaner birds peck too hard.

"Look, man, I--"

He stepped forward and an improbably thick hand hovered in front of my face, creased and scarred. My old softball mit with fingernails.

"Get out my face, white boy. I ain‘t tryin to hear you right now." The serrated warning in his voice told me everything before all his words were out.

I hadn't felt so small since the night of deadbolts and frozen newspapers. I walked away because what else could I do. I went to the upper end of the Ave, thinking I could focus on serving to needers but the eight blocks between us was not enough. The money Heavy had set me back belonged far down the list of survival questions. I tried to convince myself to chalk it up to experience, but experience can load the blood like a toxin, dose after dose, undetectable until it isn‘t.

Shame has a wormy way of running a film of your cowardly moments behind all the thoughts you make yourself think. The mental white noise of powerless rage. Every time I heard his voice dubbed over the gassy rumble of a bus my pulse jerked in my throat and I felt littler, lamer.

I walked up onto the University campus and into the second stand of trees from the building with the greenhouse and found the madrona where JH hearts KM. I sat down in the leaf mulch guarded by rhododendrons, my solitude haunt where I could go to dwell on matters too private to think about in front of strangers. When you're away from people by choice, loneliness has less muscle to it, like something you have control over. I pulled from the dirt the wad of grocery bags and began unwrapping. I sat there cross-legged with my dull pistol gleaming in my filthy hands. An elemental comfort in its unbalanced weight, the metallic fact that in this particular frame of time and space, no one could get away with shit.

I would swagger up to Heavy, draw down on him and have one of those unlikely hero-to-villain dialogues where he grovels and I belittle him in a high-chinned manner before deciding his fate.

I would wear a clever disguise and do a walk-by shooting on him right on the Ave, and then, confident in my ruse, I'd watch with a knowing smirk while johnny law searched for my alter ago.

I would lure him into an alley and kill him in cold blood, mainly because I liked that term, the ridiculous way it sounded. I would get vamped for sure. I would spend eternity in jail, which if it was anything like juvie, I hated even more than Heavy. All my fantasies were hands down--and skirt up--as batshit as one of Crazy Mary's masturbatory monologues given atop the post office wall.

I slid the pistol down the front of my pants, a mobster carry, and asked the madrona if it had a fucking problem with me. The gunsight at the end of the barrel made a narrow tent almost to my knee, absurd to consider on the Ave. I sat back down in the dead leaves.
I longed for teenaged days, when the main concern involved a gir1's phone number or a ride to the beach. I considered the void where there had been schedules and yes, chores--regularity imposed on a life that gave it direction, the framework shoring up days into functional shapes, the small components of a meaningful future. I even missed curfew because of all it implied, not only that you had somewhere to be but also that it mattered to someone. I remembered less and less why I had disliked these things and what I'd found so appealing about aimlessness and the idea of disarray. My warm and pillowed bedroom did not seem so oppressive from where I sat.

I could feel the soft-soul laze of suburbia slowly draining from me. I knew I should care more about what the replacement ingredient meant, who it would make out of me.
I found that if you lean against a maple long enough, hidden and alone, your thoughts can go as sappy as the tree. No telling which was more useless, my self- pity or my piece. I wrapped up both and buried them.

The sky had gone pewter with hardline clouds you couldn't read into, tiny snow shavings atwirl when you looked at dark objects. I went into Sloppy’s Seconds on the upper Ave and dipped into my profit for long underwear, unmatched wool socks, and a faded mold-green army jacket. A greatcoat they called it. It was impervious to snow, confirming its greatness.

I spent the following morning at the top of the Ave because I had not seen Heavy there since the Green Fleece incident. It had been bleak since dawn, like the sky was hungover. The number seven bus had gone by four, maybe five times since I'd made a sale. I walked south.

In the parking lot of Mayhem on Rye, Adam stood in front of an unmarked car, a silver Omni. An ample cop in uniform stood beside him, another sat behind the wheel. On the hood was a large array of grams from which he was slowly choosing one. He peeled it open and stuffed the contents into his mouth and began chewing laboriously, his eyes streaming. The cop handed him a Styrofoam cup with a straw. Adam drank and then swallowed, gagged, gulped it down and coughed. His overbite was biting more over than usual but I was fairly sure he was not smiling, even though he had chosen this option over jail.

You could keep your freedom and your weed so long as you ate the entirety of the latter. Irony enforcement, if that is the right word. Possession of over forty grams was a felony, so Ave Rats kept thirty-nine or less on them, as a rule. By eating it raw, you missed out on most of the desired effects because THC only breaks down in oil of some kind, but thirty-nine grams of manicured bud is two feet of pungent rope, more or less. Enough to hang yourself. Your guts react pretty much as you might expect. Adam would be in toilet orbit with woolly eyes for two days. The cop in the driver seat cackled a comment to his partner about Adam's gag reflex. I passed from view, thankfully unnoticed.

It was that part of day when the sun finally does its business, working down in between buildings and into your layers of clothes. Bad air thick with the grinding of noonish travels. Traffic was tidal at 45th, compressed for a block in either direction, clogged while the crosswise current ebbed by. All four corners were stocked with pads waiting to cross.

Standing next to the signal box in front of Space Port was Heavy in a baby-blue jogging suit. His image throbbed away from the scenery, making me look and not look, a dozen Ave Rats standing or leaning nearby. I considered turning around before he saw me and how this could become my truth, the swallowing of fact after bitter fact laid out on the cosmic hood of a snickering god who sounded pretty much like a cop to me anyway.

I let the surge of peds lead me along. I pulled up close beside Heavy and said, low so as not to front him off, "Heavy, wanna kick me down my duckets?"

He cocked his head and his eyes showed too much white at the top. "You think I'm playin, boy? I ain‘t the one. You got shit comin. That‘s real talk, cuz."

He stared down at me but he did not stare me down. His nostrils unfurled and he got a foot taller and closer. Even his voice was enormous. "What you wanna do, homeboy? You done forgot I will peel your wig back, white boy."

I did not move. I had prepared a profound statement, something pointed and persuasive, establishing the fact of moral high grounds and so forth.

"Okay," I said. I turned away and took two steps.

How these things separate from the fabric of random happenings. If I took one more step I would be accepting publicly his chosen ending. It would become an element of my character, my entry in the Ave Rat ledger, in my own. The heat of a dozen awarenesses focused on my back, on a moment shedding its generic quality, unfolding into something singular. A mover's truck cut the corner by a foot, creaking up onto the curb. The door to Ship the Bed Imports jingled open and a car radio howled about a barracuda. A sun glint walked along slow moving chrome. I felt the shattering of something small and secret, my hesitator. Between courage and shit-smearing whacko is the will to do that which you only later weigh out completely.

I unbuttoned my greatcoat and wrestled the pistol up out of my pants. I turned back around, revolver hanging among the open drapery at my side. Heavy had made a point of dismissing me, a broadcast of my irrelevance, and had gone back to neederspotting. I came up beside him as if to whisper in his ear.

I held the muzzle against the sky-blue expanse of his left butt-cheek and squeezed the trigger twice, fast.

Heavy was jolted, an electric jerk sideways, away from me. And then he shrieked.

I quickly backed out of jab range. His leg buckled and he embraced the signal box like it was long lost, screaming vowels and the word Muthafucka, over and over .

The shots had been bright and sharp, foreign. But they had drowned in the mid-day noise soup of the District. There was no collective gasp from the city, traffic did not squeal its tires in horror, no cops came rappelling from the rooftops. No one on the corner but Heavy made a sound.

I stood bonestill, leveling the gun at his blued middle like Clint Eastwood in his cowboy phase. I felt the urge to soapbox, to express my unwillingness to accept one more slighting, and then realized I'd done just that.

His face was flexing strangely like it wasn't used to making pain and fear shapes. I stared deadpan at him and chambered the notion of one round to the chest if he lunged, of addressing his charge chestally, if that is even a word. He was no longer, apparently, in the mood to stare back.

He looked down at my hand and around us at the enthralled faces and than took off in a wobbly, dipping sort of jog, how people do when they keep counting on an unreliable leg. He cut a drunken path down the sidewalk, bouncing off storefronts and into peds. I could hear murder vows being wailed for half a block.

I remembered the gun now hanging at my side. Goatee Rick's stare glittered above a pirate grin. Squash Josh and his small entourage were still taking the scene in, their cigarettes remembered and coming up all at once for drags. Angel stood facing me with her feet spread and there was no telling what her look meant. This was street history in the present tense and I could see written across faces the recognition of a man inventing himself.

I worked the barrel back into my waistband and turned the corner onto 45th. I did not hurry. I heard Goatee Rick bark, "Did you see that shit?" and someone else answered, "It‘s about time."

*    *    *

It was another autumn afternoon, an edgeless day where everything mentioned by the weatherman was partly. I came out of The Chill Pill and turned south, a white drugstore bag disguising me as no one. I watched him stroll among the peds across the Ave, easily picking him out by the buoyant steps of a kid eager to be going anywhere, a side-flip of the hair every other upbeat of the song only he could hear. What you'd call strawberry blond if he were a girl, yarn-straight and fobbed across one blushy cheek between tosses. I knew he would page me the minute he sold out because he was obnoxiously honest, almost nervous with my money. I walked the side seldom used by Ave Rats now and it gave me a feeling of polished distance, something I could mould into a sense of achievement that I would never admit.

My pager buzzed, a string of numbers that meant vice was crawling out of the North Precinct. I horse-whistled a short and two longs to the kid and crossed, heading back up. Every Friday I left an ounce with the manager of the C'est Moo ice cream shop. His cousin was the cop you hoped would only arrest you, the District's most hated. This cop‘s wife happened to prefer my usual strain of weed over others, which kind he‘d first brought home last winter after busting me and two of my ribs. I gave her some, she gave him some, and he and I each got about ten minutes at a time out of the deal. This was street Darwinism, and you can‘t argue with science.

I thought of when the kid showed up, during the longest days of summer, when the sidewalk was still warm at midnight. One of the good ones fleeing one bad circumstance only to find another, underfed and overjoyed at the promise of no longer facing whatever he‘d run away from. He'd come to me malty-eyed and owning exactly the items of clothing he had on, and I found something endearing in the extent of his raggediness. You could see his toes through his Chuck Taylors. He had heard about me, the swirl of half-fictions as stubborn as a shadow, and asked for work.

The other four in my crew, kids I also called mine, came along after. I gave them each an ounce every morning and tried to instill in them the mental scaffolding to avoid the Green Fleeces, the Heavys and johnny law. I felt the flowery pride never known by my own father, even though at sixteen, I was the oldest by maybe two years. This was my family now, a truth I recognized because I wanted things to be better for them even when they pissed me off, and isn't that what family is. I had lofty plans for them, spare ambition to toss around, but the underpinnings of lasting structure were beyond me.

I provided creature comforts and material things, making them street urchins of privilege in their concert shirts and Reeboks. Walkmans and endless pizza. I kept a second motel room for them next to my own, a palace of screwed-down yellowy landscapes and balding towels. I let myself believe this was nurturing, the guise of a figure in a hollow plot about redemption.

A pastel green sweatsuit filled the corner of my eye and reminded me of Heavy.
How memory toys with your take on the world, reshaping the material of beliefs. Or disbelief. I doubted anyone could be as fearsome as my mind‘s eye claimed Heavy had been. Not now, anyway. I wondered who, in fact, would be more afraid of whom. No one said his name anymore, but I stayed ready, my gun more compact and less buried. Heavy had not been seen in the District in the three or four seasons since the incident. I would have known. Ave Rats kept point for one another.

I walked past a doorway and a hand flashed pale in the shadows, a swanny gesture urging me into You Got Framed.

"Come look at these posters with me," Angel said. Magazine-type eyes that could soften my worldview or make me want to do things in a rented room. She looked at me as if I were the only mystery worth solving. She saw me not as The Man, but her man, as if there had never been a time when I was in any way undeserving. Whether I belonged with her or to her was something I was not brave enough to consider. We stayed up nights, cross-legged on the scratchy floral bedspread, the conversation wandering in a way that felt like taking my soul out for a walk. She listened with a whole-brained sturdiness that drew clarity from the parts of me I had not known to unstop. I listened even when I didn‘t want to.

Or we stayed up not talking, but just as open to ideas. And afterward a million things whispered, shaping the question of permanence from the folded space between us, because Future was the f-word I was afraid to ask of her. She looked famous in just the neon leaking through nicotined drapes. I breathed her in and out with the city night, tangled and dewy in a mess of cheap sheets, telling her funny stories in the dark. You are never more intimate than when you laugh naked with someone.

She tugged me into the shop and out of my reverie.

"You got time?" she asked. "I just want something to make our room more homey."


Well-crafted thoughts burned to the ground every time she slid her hands inside my coat. I exchanged a single nod with the owner standing behind the counter. He was good for a half ounce twice a month.

"Did you pay the rent for another week?" she asked the side of my neck, where my pulse was. "I like it there."

"Two more," I said. "So do I."

She pushed her front against me, an R-rated movement that left me oblong and of a creaturely mind. She tipped her head toward a Zeppelin poster, The Song Remains the Same. It was hued for a blacklight. "I think that one's my favorite. Can we get it?"

She could have had them all.

Steven Bartholomew with his son

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


Laura Ledford said...

Is this a fictional story? That might be a stupid question. I read parts 1 and 2 and was sad when I got to the end!! I would read more.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Steve Bartholomew:

The events in Son of the District did actually happen. Since it has been 28 years, I had to take some creative license with dialogue, remaining true to the spirit of what was said. The business names I invented because the few I could remember were uninteresting. The characters' names are unchanged because I did not say anything untrue or admissible about them.

No, I do not think it is ever a dumb question to ask whether a story is true or not. It is usually difficult for me to tell, in the stories that interest me most. But we expect different things from fiction than we do stories that really took place. Life's plot lines are not always so neatly tied up. I'm glad that a small piece of my story was able to grab your attention. Thank you for letting me share it.