Monday, April 15, 2013

Last Night And Then Today

One last cigarette, one last sip of bourbon, that was the aim. A nightcap while sitting on the porch, absorbing the stillness in a long coat but no shoes because the spring air had just hit, and then the windows started vibrating like an engine reluctant to start. Thrumming helicopter rotors, circling low and directly overhead. Its searchlight swung down my street, caressed the face of the house across from me. I forgot about my smoke and watched. The spotlight swept past me, put me front and center for a millisecond, and then raced onward, spiraling, homing in.

I sat enraptured with feline curiosity, startled when the dogs started baying, cringed when the chopper light caught my eyes, and kept smoking. One after the other. I was waiting to see who they caught.

Seven cars blocked the intersection of Grant and Darlington. Uniforms meandered, seemingly without purpose, except for when their radios crackled and then they hurried, blueish flashbeams lighting up the windows of decrepit houses. They had purpose then, a bad guy to catch, somewhere nearby. Somewhere near me. I lit another Pall Mall and watched.

The news crew showed up shortly, parking their conspicuous vans a block away, multi-antennaed white beetles preying on the dung of our neighborhood. A smiling black man in a red do-rag, walking a pale pitbull pup past my porch, asked if I knew what was up. I confessed I had no facts, so he asked the YNN reporter stationed at the end of my driveway, her camera on a tripod, solo, nonchalantly taking it all in. She said the 7-11 down the street, the same convenience store I'd visited earlier that night, was robbed at gunpoint. He laughed, turned around, and hurried home.

As he strolled away, a Sheriff's car pulled up in front of my apartment, on the opposite side of the street, facing against traffic. The man who stepped out meant business, strapped in Kevlar. He popped open the trunk, reached in, and I heard something I haven't heard since Basic Training: the unforgettable sound of a magazine being locked and a chamber being loaded into an M-16 (or, in his case, an AR-15) assault rifle. I stubbed out my cigarette and the Sheriff looked up at me. I tried to sound jocular.

"Heh... guess I should head inside now, yeah?"

"Yeah. Probably." Locked and loaded, he joined his fellow manhunters as the neighborhood glowed blue and everyone trembled.

A half-hour later, the windows stopped rattling. The chopper had moved on. I lit another cigarette, poured one more finger of bourbon, and stepped back onto the porch. They'd caught their man. Raasjuan Bloodworth, a giant of a young man, only nineteen years old, who'd robbed the store with a sawed-off shotgun and then met a police officer right outside the door, had dropped the gun and a knapsack containing his ID, and then bolted directly for my corner of the ghetto. He was found in a house on Darlington, a stone's throw from my front porch. That's not a colloquialism; I could hit that beige two-story from here. They bent him in half just to fit him into the patrol car.

Everything was quiet from there, except I double-checked my locks and wondered where the blunt objects in my apartment were, ones I could grab in a clutch, like a cowboy, like a fictional hero.


A small, grinning face peeks over the fence at me while I'm raking up cigarette butts and old leaves. I can't help but smile back. I'm trying to keep my lawn clean, not for any Joneses sake, but because Grant tends to accumulate flotsam after every rain, leaving McDonald's cups and, strangely, entire foosball teams, in my front yard. The kid keeps poking his head over the broken red pickets. He's playing peek-a-boo. He reminds me of my youngest daughter, except male, and black, but still. I want to play back, but I don't want to risk being seen as the Creepy White Guy.

The vacuum cleaner is heavy, and the extension cord is tangled, and I've managed to back the car into the garage just far enough to crack the door open but not far enough to fit the hose in. The car's upholstery is dingy and the floor is littered with pennies and sunflower seed shells. I'm on a mission. And then his face appears again, mischief and dimples. I recognize him, kinda. He's the youngest of the boys next door, the kids that never talk to us, the kids that never have parents around that we can see. From the house that cops were at a couple weeks ago, when their oldest brother threw a garbage can through the back door.

I hesitate again, because my first instinct is to point my finger at him and yell "PEW! PEW!" Like a gun. Like it might be okay, because it's just play, except it's not. Not on Grant. So instead I point and say, "Gotcha!" The kid ducks, laughing, and I reckon everything's alright. I start awkwardly vacuuming.

"...ICO!" I shut down the vacuum and look up. The kid's practically in my car, his cherubic face beaming.

"Whadja say, mate?"

"My name's Chico!" he yells. "Where's Naz?"


The kid points at the fence behind him. There's a blur of movement, a face, some hands over the pickets, quick movement, and then I can clearly see another kid, a bit older, sprinting back and forth out of sight and then into sight. He wants to be seen.

"Damn, son! Naz is fast." That did the trick, apparently, because Naz hops the fence and tries climbing over it to join the party. The party being me, cleaning my car out, while two neighbor boys decide if I'm worthy of playtime. Except Naz gets stuck. His brown hoodie snags on a picket while he's descending, and he looks to me -- not helpless, but wondering.

"Do you want me to lift you up, or do you want me to unstick your hoodie?"

"Just get this," Naz nods at the fence, hanging by wiry brown fingers, no indication of worry. I detangle his hoodie and he jumps down.

Naz is nine, the same age as my son. Chico thought he was four, but Naz corrected him and told him he was five, which means he's the same age as my youngest daughter. I struggled to clean my car for about an hour while these two chatted, ran around my driveway, tried to put air in my tires with a broken basketball pump, asked about the random detritus I'd set on the roof while vacuuming, climbed the fence and back down again, vainly attempted a game of Hide-and-Seek, and then got yelled at by their older brother.

"That's Sincere," Chico confided. Sincere was walking Angel, the pale pitbull pup they've had chained outside the red picket fence for a few days now. Sincere can't be more than fifteen, but he's cagey. He comes down the sidewalk and sees his two baby brothers talking to a white man.

"How's it goin', mate? Sincere, innit?" I smile and extend my hand. I genuinely hope he'll take it, and I can immediately see he's going to hesitate. Luckily for everyone, Angel the puppy hops up and licks my hands, forearms, begging for attention.

"She... Sorry. She does that to everyone," Sincere mutters. I don't believe him for a second.

"It's okay. I don't mind."

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