Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
God help me, I’m fallin’,
Helpless, I’m callin’,
Restless! Hell of a hand,
But I was dealt it.
Now what’s a brotha to do?
I flipped the butt of the smoked-out blunt toward the storm drain. “Hey, Chachi, you believe in God?”
He looked my way with a smirk. “Only god I know is ‘Mr. God Damn,’ but why would I ever believe in him? What’s he ever done for me?”
“That ain’t right, man,” my brother Derrick chimed in. All three of us were sitting on a bench in front of Temptations pool hall and strip club, which along with the Circle-K convenience store and gas station anchored the little strip mall where we ran our business. “You shouldn’t talk like that,” Derrick added. “That’s like blasphemin’. Something bad’ll happen to you.”
Chachi stood up and stepped out into the parking lot, raised his hands, looked up, and spun slowly around as if he were a radar screen. “Well, if he don’t like it, he can strike me right here, right now. Bring it on!”
I shook my head. “You just stay away from me, man. I don’t want none of that. How come you don’t believe in God?”
He came back to the bench … guess I wasn’t too worried about him being close. “Look,” said Chachi, “any God who would let my best friend get murdered when we were only nine years old ain’t one I’d even want to believe in, even if he did exist.”
There wasn’t anything either Derrick or I could say to that, so we all sat there in silence, passing the forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor back and forth, thinking about who was going to have to go back into the Circle-K and steal another when that one was gone. It was a slow day for drug dealers, and I was feeling depressed. Guess that’s why I’d started thinking about God. Maybe everything was going wrong because we’d been doing so many wrong things and he was punishing us.
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, chin in my hands. “You guys realize we’re everything they taught us in school not to be?”
“You know, those classes where they tell you not to steal or lie or sell drugs or rob people? Well, we’re all that and more. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Chachi slapped me on the back. “Yeah, so we bad! So what? Everybody does that stuff these days. It’s the only way to get ahead. You know if we like let up for even a hot minute, there’ll be Crips and GDs and Vice Lords and the Mexicans and the Cambodians all up in here tryin’ to take over our block.”
“Yeah,” said Derrick, “like most of them already think they runnin’ this trap.”
“I know, and that’s the problem,” I said. “There ain’t no getting’ ahead. This was our real estate, but now all Atlanta wants in on it.” I was talking about the thirty or more other dealers who worked our trap night and day, week in and week out. Everyone was doing the extortion thing, robbing one another, beating up the crackheads and addicts who came there to get their dope. One guy got shot in the head, blew his brains all over the garbage he was sitting beside. He stayed there all night, moaning and sobbing, calling for help until morning when he finally died. None of us helped him or even moved his body. Guess the Circle-K people finally found him and called the police. After that the cops cranked up the pressure, raids several times a week. It was crazy, crazy, crazy, like an insane scene out of a movie.
There was no peace!
I might have put up with all that—considered it came with the territory—but what really twisted my ulcer, was how cold and heartless I’d become. I still ran into Celia from time to time. We’d been schoolmates a while back, and I always liked her. Just that morning I’d seen her again, this time at Target when I’d dropped by for a pair of socks. Target always had a sale on ’em. You know, all you could fit in our pocket for “lifty cents”? Anyway, Celia was working the checkout and called to me as I was heading toward the door. I went over, hoping she hadn’t caught me. But she hadn’t. “Hold on, Damien,” she said. “I’m going on break as soon as I finish with this customer.”
We went outside where she could grab a smoke. I could see something was troubling her. “So, wassup? How you doin’?”
Her gaze at me turned into a squint as she took a deep drag and a tendril of smoke snaked up to burn her eyes. Or was that a tear? “It’s my dad,” she murmured, turning away to exhaled.
“So … how’s he doin’?” Though I already knew how he was doing, and I knew she probably knew I knew, so I also looked away, staring hard across the parking lot like I’d seen someone I knew walking by on the street.
Celia didn’t make a scene, but her voice was heavy with disappointed. “He’s destroying our family with the crack. It’s gonna kill him, too, if he doesn’t quit. Know what I’m sayin’?”
“Oh yeah, that’s bad stuff, bad stuff.” I knew exactly how bad it was for her dad, too, because I was his supplier. I’d seen him go from a strong, confident man with a good job when Celia and I had been schoolmates to an out-of-work junkie who’d lost his health and all his dignity. Just the week before he’d come to me begging me to extend him a little more credit because he didn’t have any money. He was desperate, but I turned him down, so he went to one of the other dealers. When he couldn’t pay, that dealer beat him up and left him facedown in the middle of the parking lot. When I left the trap at 4:30 that morning, I walked right by his body and didn’t even flinch.
It was gone the next day, and the police weren’t crawling all over the place, so I figured he must have made it on his own and forgot all about him … until I saw Celia.
“If you get a chance,” she sighed, “would you say something to him, Damien? Encourage him, maybe? You know he used to like you.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll do what I can.”
Now, I sat on the bench outside Temptations with my two homies feeling as low as something I’d scrape off the bottom of my shoes. I couldn’t even tell the other guys about it because it wasn’t just the pressures of gangbanging and drug dealing that was getting to me. I could excuse all the robbing, stealing, cheating, fighting, even the people who had been killed. But how could I excuse myself? How had I become so cold and heartless?
Yeah, I did believe there was a God out there somewhere, and if he knew what I’d turned into, I wouldn’t blame him for getting back at me.
“Hey, Damien!” Derrick slugged me in the shoulder. “Wake up, man. You zoned out there. Hey, man, it’s your turn to go get us another forty-ounce. Okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” I got up and headed toward the convenience store, still thinking about Celia and her old man, the guy whose life I was ruining. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a green lowrider turn into the parking lot, throbbing with the beat of some Latin hip-hop. But I didn’t pay any attention as I entered Circle-K.
Tony, the manager, knew we stole from him all the time, but what could he do? We owned the block. Our beer and cigarettes were like the rent he paid us for letting him stay in business. Still, I never made it too obvious. A new woman was running the cash register, so I assumed Tony was in the little stock room in the back. I had just opened the door to the refrigerator and was reaching for the beer when one of the wannabees who were always hanging round the strip mall came running into the store and right up to me.
The kid looked up with wide eyes. “Hey man, you can’t go back out there. Those Brown Side Locos are lookin’ for you. They say they’re gonna shoot you, and they look serious, man.”
Instinctively I reached behind my back to where the big “Dirty Harry” .357 was tucked in my belt under my XXX-sized San Francisco 49ers jersey. Then I waved my hand. “So what?” I slipped the forty-ounce into the pocket of my cargo pants, and started toward the door.
The wannabee grabbed my arm. “You can’t go out there. Derrick said to disappear.”
“For real, man? Don’t be jackin’ me around, now. You gettin’ on my last nerve here kid!”
“No B-S, man. I seen their guns.”
I shook my head, and pushed the kid toward the door while I turned and went into the back stock room. Tony was there as I expected, moving some boxes around.
“What you want?”
“Gotta use your backdoor.” And I walked toward it.
“So you’re gonna steal my beer—” he pointed at my bulging pocket “—then you expect to use my backdoor ’cause you’re too lazy to walk around the outside. No way, man. Give me that beer or pay for it up front.”
So today Tony was feeling brave and thought he could stand up to us, was he? I shook my head. “Look, man. Just let me cut through this one time.”
“Why should I?”
“’Cause some BSLs are out there saying they want to blow my head off. I don’t have time for this today, and you probably don’t want bullet holes through your front windows. Okay? So let me go through.”
I pushed past him and went out the door, across the little driveway where delivery trucks dropped off stuff for the store, and ducked through the hole in the fence that led into the woods.
Fifty yards into the woods I came to a large rock out-cropping that overlooked a small clearing. I walked out onto the rock and sat down, letting my legs hang over the edge. I looked up and was surprised to see the sun shinning. Huh! I hadn’t even noticed what kind of a day it was. I was only sixteen, but both Derrick and I were already homeless, sleeping in vacant apartments, laundry rooms, or sometimes out in the open. So we always knew when the weather was bad, but seldom paid attention when it was good. It was just another symbol of how low I’d gotten.
I’d never wanted to be a gangbanger or a drug dealer. I never intended to be drinking and smoking weed all the time. But there I was, and even as I thought about it, I opened the forty-ounce, chugged a few gulps, and lit up a blunt. The Dirty Harry was poking into my back, so I pulled it out and laid it on the rock beside me. It sure was shiny. I picked it up and hefted the weight of it.
I pointed it at a tree across the clearing, imagining wasting those BSLs back there who had it in for me and all my other enemies and the cops and my mother’s boyfriend and my dad and everyone else who made my life miserable.
“Ha!” I shook my head. I used to be a mediator, the baby of the family who tried to help keep the peace between all my brothers and sisters. I’d been so smart in the first grade that they sent me to a special school, but now I was a dropout. What had happened to me?
My shoulders shook, and I started to cry. I drank some more and smoked some more while my spirits got lower and lower. “I can’t do this no more,” I muttered. I picked up the Dirty Harry again, and this time, instead of pointing it at the trees across the clearing, I spun the cylinder. I put the barrel up to my temple. That would be one way to get out of this mess. I put it down, drank a little more beer, and took a few more tokes off the blunt.
I didn’t know any other way out.
I picked up the Dirty Harry again and cocked it. It seemed like the only way.
“Hey, Damien. That you out there? Wassup, man? You cool?”
I quickly put the gun down and wiped my eyes on my shirtsleeve before turning to see who was coming up the trail. Lamar … a younger guy who sang in a group from Chicago called Subway.
“Hey, how you doin’? How’d you find me out here, anyway? Not many people know ’bout this place.”
“Derrick figured you’d be out here. He told me to come tell you the coast was clear.”
“Oh yeah? Good. Okay, you go on back. I’ll be along directly.”
I stood up, reeling a little from so much alcohol and weed … or maybe it was the realization that I should’ve been dead if that kid hadn’t come along. He said Derrick sent him, but was it only Derrick who sent him right at that moment? Was someone looking out for me? It had me going.
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© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson