There’s ghetto and then there’s Victory Heights Complex. The building is like a giant horseshoe, and there's only one way in. It’s eighteen stories of crack heads, prostitutes, poor-as-fuck transients, and gangsters who have done shit that make Rickdog and me just shake our heads and wonder how. We know how. We know why. We walk the same broken pavement.
“Why’re we here?”
Rickdog shuts the car off. “You wait here. Don’t touch nothin’. Don’t get out. And sure as shit don’t drive. You just watch and wait.”
“G-ma would have my ass if I drove. Where’re you going? You don’t know anyone here.”
We’d been there maybe twice. Once for a party where a pusher got himself killed and another time to see Rickdog’s brother before he got clinked.
“You forget already?”
“I didn’t forget where G-ma lives and it ain’t here.”
“Why’d you keep me up all last night if you weren’t serious?”
“We’re fine now, dog. We got gas, we can just roll on. Roll on, man. That’s all we need to do.”
“I forgot you have all them jobs lined up. Forgot about all that money in your bank account, son. You have all those meetings to get to and you got the Benz in the garage. Don’t worry, Wall Street, I’ll be quick enough so you can make it to all your appointments.”
Rickdog just looks at me one last time as he gets out and heads toward a man he knows, and they act like they’re old friends though I’ve never seen the guy in my life. He’s skinny as a rail, and he takes Rickdog by the arm and leads him into the horseshoe.
One man waiting in a car alone means something else here. People know that. That’s why the woman with the girl child grips her close to her thigh when they walk by. That’s why the man sleeping under the newspapers gets up and goes to the other side of the building. And that’s why this woman stops by our ride to talk to me.
When I roll down the window, a whirl of smells hits me – creams, oils, and perfumes.
“Why, hello, sugar.”
“No money, baby doll.”
“Not lookin’ for money. Just lookin’ for someone to talk to.”
“Got nothing to say either.”
“Bad gangster like you with nothing to say. Soldiers never talk.”
That makes me smile and so I lie. “We’re all soldiers. You know that.”
“That’s too bad. I don’t like my men like that.”
“We can be gentle, too.”
She smiles and she’s actually a pretty girl. A little thin, underfed, drugs, both. But her eyes are there. They are really in her head, not going wild from the scenery in her mind. “You got a cigarette, maybe? Anything to drink in that ride?”
“Nah. Just waiting for my boy.”
“You expect him soon?”
“I expect him when he gets here.”
She steps back from the window with one of them grins on her face, like she knows shit. “Let me get this straight. You give him all the money so he can have all the fun?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then why’re you stuck here and he’s up there?”
“Get outta here. I don’t have the time for this.”
Her eyes focus on something that isn’t here any longer. “Looks like you got all the time you need.” She steps away, chuckling. “No soldier would be stuck in a car like this.” She points at the car with both arms. “Like a little bitch.” She starts to laugh and she calls some other people over who I didn’t see. There’s a big man and another woman dressed like she is.
“Clarence, we got a bad ass gangster sitting all ‘lone in this ride here. Says he a soldier, killin’ people and all that.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Clarence, a huge man, a fat man, all in black and chains, comes over. His gun is already half hanging out of his pants. The other woman follows.
The knob on the window’s handle broke off long ago, so the window is just inching up as I try to work it. By the time Clarence is standing at the window, there’s only enough space for his fat hand to fit through to the wrist. His fingers claw at the roof and crawl around like a spider. I’m leaning over the console away from his big belly and the butt of his gun that presses into the window. Soon enough, it’s the muzzle of the pistol that is clinking on my window.
“What’s up, son,” he says, dangling that gun like it’s another part of his hand.
“Nothing. Waiting for my boy. I don’t know what got her all up and dime-store crazy.”
“Looks like she was trying to be friendly and you weren’t.”
“She wanted money I don’t got.”
“Why don’t you roll this window down so we can talk man-to-man?”
He steps back, smiling and bald, the sun a white speck on his head. “I ain’t gonna shoot you. Watch.” He puts the gun in his back waistband. “Just give us the money you got,” he says like we’re cutting a deal.
“I told you I don’t got any.”
I adjust myself in my seat to look tougher. By the time my weak ass is situated, the gun is back in his hand. “You treat my property like the way you treat Natasha, then you got a problem, friend. You got a problem?”
“Same problem as you. I got no money.”
“What’s in the console?”
I open it and show him the broken cd cases, bottle caps, and straw wrappers. “Nothing, man. We spent it on gas. We don’t even got the change.”
“Get out.” He motions like he’s a valet, an escort, and then he scratches his head with the muzzle, thinking how to gangster-up his actions. He decides to aim the gun at me by dangling it from his fingertips.
I pull on the door handle, but the door doesn’t budge because it’s still – and always will be – jammed-the-fuck shut. “It won’t open.”
Clarence doesn’t appreciate this and he kicks back the little progress I made. The door jolts me. And when I’m looking back out the window, the gun no longer dangles. It’s aimed, executioner-like, at my head.
The girl, Natasha, screams and then I hear voices shouting from one of the entrances. Clarence looks between me and the noise of men barking and then back to me and suddenly his arms are up above his head and then his gun is on the ground and a body moves quick to him. The shadow swings a silver thing at Clarence’s head and then his head is no longer recognizable as blood is coming out the top of it, and he’s lying on the curb right under my window. When I look back up there’s this other guy holding a piece the size of my forearm and he’s smiling, waiting to be let in the car.
Rickdog is nowhere to be seen, so I lower the window slowly. “What up?”
“Saved your life from this motherfucker here.” He kicks Clarence in the ribs and there’s a muffled groan. Natasha and the other woman come flying in with their insults and claws. Natasha gets too close and is smacked away immediately while the other one gets the gun pressed straight into her throat. “Get the fuck back, bitch!” this man shouts.
All around I search for Rickdog and suddenly there he is behind this man, searching Clarence’s pockets. Rickdog rises with the gun that was meant to kill me as the other man – the man with the silver gun – reaches for my door, opens it as if it had never been jammed-shut in the first place and tells me to get the fuck in the back. I do.
The morning has become afternoon and I don’t know where we’re going, but Rickdog and this man are quickly going through plans – what to shout, what to expect, when to pull the trigger.
“Where we going?” I ask for the third time.
This time, the only time, Rickdog tells me. “We’re getting paid today, Lex.”
After awhile it’s all silence up there and the new guy, a guy I hadn’t ever seen, turns around, lays his big ass pistol on the center console so it’s now aimed at my guts, and he puts a gloved hand out to shake. I take it.
“Nice to meet you, kid. You being made today and you didn’t know it.”
The rearview mirror offers nothing. Correction: The rearview mirror does not contain the eyes of Rickdog that I hoped it to contain. Eyes that could tell me that this is all just shit talk and kicks. They remain set on the road, on the lines, on our destination.
The man lights a cigarette and his elbow knocks his piece. It spins on its invisible axis and no longer points at me. I breathe. He asks Rickdog, “So this boy got a name or he just another punk body to keep the car warm?’
Rickdog laughs because Rickdog is no longer Rickdog. He’s a hard ass motherfucker. “You heard, right? His name is Lex. He’ll be alright.” Finally I get his eyes in the mirror. “You be alright, Lex. You’re gonna keep watch and for that you’re gonna make a couple thousand.”
Cars blur by. Buildings ripple into brown and red shining ooze. My head swims through it all and then a voice – my voice – says, “I’ll be alright.”
The man turns back and this time he is more than a silver gun and gloved hands, he’s a face behind facial hair, and a body covered in black leather. He’s dark shades and vodka breath. He’s pomade and billowing smoke.
“You want my name? I give it to you if you tell nobody.”
“You heard me.” He continues to stare me down. “You look like you’re gonna shit yourself and get this ride smelling worse than it already does.” A second passes, his cigarette smoke falling out his nose like waters over the falls. “Well…are you?”
“Clarence was the guy you beat down.”
“Clarence was not the dude I beat down. That fat fuck was my little brother who uses my name on weak ass little pimps who don’t know no better.”
“The woman was the one who called him Clarence.” He doesn’t seem to register the woman.
He touches the pistol still at rest on the console. It takes only a nudge to aim it back at my chest. “Well that woman is my sister and she ain’t no ho. You treat her like one again, the right side of your head will be wondering what happened to the left.” He turns back to the road, one foot up on the dash. “Shit, kid, you don’t know what to believe.”
I look to the mirror to ask Rickdog’s non-existent eyes if this new Clarence is a liar, but all he does is chew his thumbnail. He bites it and gnaws it, spits a crescent onto the dash and dives in until he’s got blood. The new Clarence turns on the radio. It fizzles in and out until he whacks the dash with the butt of his gun. The music comes in clear, but tinny and faraway.
G-ma’s car slows and pulls to the side, to a curb, to a skyscraper that reaches to the places where I want to be.
“There it is,” says Clarence.
“There she is. We doin’ this alright. We really doin’ this!” says Rickdog, jacking himself up.
Clarence pulls out a mask, drops it in Rickdog’s lap.
“No,” I hear myself say. “Around the corner. There.” I point at the big metallic grill, at the riveted-metal surrounding the squint-eyed glass of the machine, of the armored vehicle.
“Fuck fuck fuck!” Rickdog whips off his mask and hides the gun in his lap.
Clarence doesn’t whip off anything, doesn’t move his hand off his gun, which rests on the dash in broad daylight, framed in all its glory by the windshield; its silver gleam there for every passer-by to see. “No thang,” he says. “Roll on.”
We roll on and not far. One block, two blocks, three, and there it is, another bank on another corner.
“The only thing important,” says Clarence, “is that we hit one by the freeway. It don’t gotta be more complicated than that.” The gun is cocked and the scowl that is printed on his face splits to a grin. He and Rickdog bump fists in honor of what’s to come.
“One cigarette and then we in.”
“Yeah, man, cool,” says Rickdog, distracted and fiddling with his important things, the only things that matter: gloves, mask, gun, duffel. The gloves, he tightens, the leather shrink-wrapping his hand as a he squeezes a fist. The mask, he stretches and inspects to make certain it’ll slide on correctly, and the eye-holes will reveal forever the world of the rich. The gun, he nestles and cocks, checking the clip, the chamber, the safety, which he flips off.
Clarence slides out the vehicle. The shoddy door, red with rust, parts its seams and he totters slowly along the length of the car as he inhales his last cigarette as a poor man.
After Rickdog prepares himself, he turns to me. “Alright, Lex, this is it. We do this and things will be different.”
I don’t say anything. My fingers tangle themselves in the rusted springs poking out the torn vinyl.
“Remember you’re not driving. You’re just watching. You heard Clarence. Lay on the horn if you see lights.” The mask is on his head the exact same way it would be when we’d hustle up to the corner store in mid-winter. The exact.
“But I’m sayin’ this to you once, as Rickdog and as your boy: If shit goes bad, you see them lights, you bust loose. You never knew what I was doing today and Clarence was a dude you never met.” His look is hard, scared, hopeless and electric, everything that made both our lives what they are. “Got it?”
The dust from the springs flakes off and cakes under my nails, some of the flakes still metallic enough to be like bamboo shoots burrowing under my fingernails, searching for that thing that should never exist, that painless torture.
“Got to hear you say it, Lex.”
“I don’t know you.”
“No you fucking don’t.” And as if Rickdog’s words were a cue, Clarence flicks his cigarette, the smolders drifting with the wind as the bud flits through the air. All this is clear as day, slowed down to half-speed, existing in gelatin, in marrow, in viscousness and ooze. He knocks on the window with big old knotted fingers. Through the thick ether that exists at a precipice, he turns and says hi to a woman jogging in a neon jumper and then his ropy fingers once again crack against the glass.
With that, Rickdog jumps out the driver side, his gun by his side, his free arm pulling his mask down, and his legs quick-stepping the whole way toward the front door. Clarence takes long, lumbering strides, mindful of traffic and nodding politely to the taxicabs that screech to a halt only inches from him. Rickdog is at the black-tinted doors first, too quickly it seems, because there he paces, waiting for Clarence to catch up. Once Clarence does, they both enter and five quick shots snap through the noises of the street.
Minutes pass and it’s during this time, I look down to see the blood dripping out from under my thumbnail, and that blood, that little amount of blood, mixing with the flakes of rust, freaks the shit out of me like it’s the last dregs of an Orleans witch woman’s tea. My eyes widen themselves to a world that is in flux, soaking in this scene that is power and stature mutating to a form that is all mine. I bolt out that door and walk twenty quick paces around the nearest corner and there I stand, pacing yet frozen. Worms and ants fight their way through my blood stream and up my back. I do what I can to shake out the nerves in my legs and rotate the squiggling tendons in my shoulders and crack the kink in my neck. Somehow, I set one eye on the bank that sits quieter than ever, and the other on top of the sky scrapers that look so close I could touch their needles with the tip of my tongue.
As I imagine that sharp cool pierce that would burst my world as a poor-ass slack clown, my limbs and back relax in a way they hadn’t ever before. Then suddenly two bodies bust through the glass doors, slamming back the black reflection and briefly exposing a crowd of people all curled and crouched as close to the bank’s polished granite as they can get. The moment those tinted doors shut, a quick glint of light hits my eyes, a flash, a starting gun to the athlete in me and the world becomes all tunnels. I start running the 40 toward the two dudes carrying duffels that look loose, unstuffed, half-filled, quite unlike the riches I always imagined.
Clarence stops in the middle of the street and turns, firing seven shots that rip through a window and cause white uniformed men to duck behind an abstract urban sculpture that is nothing, really, but the contorted representation of misery. Clarence continues crossing the road with the bag draped over his back – cars again screeching – meandering as if this day, of all the days, were just another.
I blink and it takes me a moment to remember fear, then it lashes me like a whip the instant I realize I’m in the car and we’re careening down an entrance ramp.
Rush hour and the freeway is congested. Still our Impala speeds through it, but entirely without grace. Rickdog grunts, curses and needles his way through traffic, straddling the white lines, scraping through tight spots, swerving out to the shoulder – sometimes down into the shallow ditch – all to keep moving because at this moment, more than any other, the three of us together are a single animal, a lone beast sprinting across a savanna of asphalt and burning oil. The shit life we all knew is gone forever, and this mild relief allows us to forget the beginning that we all knew too well – our curb-stomped ignorance, our crack-nourished starvation, our wire-strung hightops. It’s almost as if the predator that has sought – has always sought – to rip through our guts, our entrails, and eat the flesh that made us the men who we are, is less a creature of the dark, of pestilence, but a creature of release.
And there in the mirror those cherry eyes burn, prowling through a herd of metal that neither parts nor stampedes.
Clarence the cool cat, the smoking ace, the ghetto Buddha, doesn’t lose his calm even after the moment Rickdog exclaims we’re fucked. Three semi-trailers, privy to the police chase, fill the three lanes and match speed, forming an impassable wall. Rickdog continues to slide from shoulder to shoulder as the needle to the odometer – no longer measuring speed, but the amount of oxygen needed to sustain three drowning men – falls to suffocating levels.
“This is shit. Fuck this!” Rickdog smacks the roof.
“No,” Clarence says. “We’re alright. Be cool man. Just wait. Watch them cops. Go ‘head. Check your mirrors. They’re like geese, man. All they doin’ is heading south for the winter.”
I look back. They remain a distance behind, satisfied that the semi-trailers have slowed the chase down to something skewed and strange, something slow, manageable. Safe. Without the rush of the wind and exhilaration of the ride, everything seems calm, almost normal. The sirens are a repetitive whir, alarming, but alarming like severe weather sirens on the first of the month. Shrill, but expected.
You can hear the pulsating groan as the semis downshift. You can hear Clarence suck on his cigarette, the burning end fizzle. You can hear that the radio is on and that the news reporters are reporting a bank robbery and the surprising pace of the police chase. How slow it seems. OJ slow, they say. They make predictions as to how soon we will be caught, but the ‘we’ they mention are only two men: Both six-feet tall, both African American, both dressed in black, but one in a mask and the other in a beard. They begin to refer to these two men, Rickdog and Clarence, as the Masked One and the Bearded One.
“You gettin’ this?” Clarence asks. “We just ‘Black Ones’ to them still. Not even respectable bank robbers.” And for the first time in the short time I’ve known this man, he seems disappointed and not just in that small statement, but in something larger.
We have no answer for Clarence.
The cops, now two car lengths back, make announcements on their speaker. Something about pulling over. There was a threat to puncture the tires. Then one prowler surges and nudges the left rear side panel. The tires squeal a moment, the car loses control, the tail end swings, but Rickdog has suddenly become like Clarence, controlled and calm. He rights us and we roll on.
“That’s it,” Rickdog says, his cool lifting as the situation comes back into focus – No, he is not just a man driving behind trailers; he is a man, a bank robber, a six-foot tall African American male, who robbed a bank for reasons that go way beyond the twenty-five thousand dollars that is packed into two duffel bags in five, tens, and twenties. “I’m pulling over. This is stupid. Stupid! We’re fucked,” he says again.
In a motion that’s so quick it seems planned, Clarence has his gun jabbed into Rickdog’s side. He keeps his motions low and smooth, only the body parts that need to move, move. His shoulders remain steady, his head forward and focused. “No you’re not. Up here you gonna take the exit. You gonna drop your fat foot on the gas and get this piece of shit moving. We’re passing these trailers. Got me?”
The exit appears and for a moment it seems we’re going to pass it. And then the car careens across the lanes and races up the ramp. Cars wait at the red light, so Rickdog takes the right turn lane and jumps the curb – the kerchunk and subsequent scraping feels and sounds disastrous. As in moments before, repeating a drama that seemed in the distant past, cars swerve, glass breaks, horns honk. But we are on the other side and the semi’s keep pace with us momentarily, until the Impala picks up speed down the entrance ramp, Mother Gravity saving us and all that oxygen we lost is quickly regained as the needle rises into the hundreds.
The reaction in the car? Cheers? Celebration? Fist bumps? No. Silent, robotic, business-like. Where once we were animals fighting for survival, we are now mechanized beasts who respond, react, blink and bloop, methodically, endlessly, as our world has revealed an open and empty road and become one long algorithm of assessment, charts and graphs of risk analysis, of which we are fully prepared to meet head on.
At some point the sun set and we are right outside the city where trees and swamps finally thrive. Our car, our ride, our Impala – beast of survival and victory – sputters and coughs and then we are shouting at one another because the robot who gains a heart reacts accordingly and he is for moments afterward all emotion.
“Mother fuck! You were supposed to fill up!”
“With what money!”
“Get some from your sister, you bitch.”
“My fuckin’ sister!”
Guns are drawn and pointed yet still we roll on but no longer with a direction. The gravel crunches under the car and we soon stop. They continue to shout at one another. I continue to shout at both of them. And collectively our words garble into barks and the meaning behind them collapse into thoughtless expression.
Sirens crescendo. The semis whoosh by and shake our car. The lights reflect in our mirrors and then the redness splatters the ceiling, splashing and receding. Pulsing. The inevitability of this moment quiets us, stills us and pulls back the thoughts that we tossed to the ditch not so long ago.
The staccato voice of a cop blares out his speaker. We are all hit in our chest by his words.
Clarence attempts to go first. He shoulders the door, but this time, of all the times, it denies his magic and he is stuck. Rickdog shoves out his door, surrendering arms-up. Three cops emerge from behind their open car doors and approach him. At the same time Clarence forces his door open, popping something loose and he positions himself behind the hood like a cop and begins firing. Rickdog ducks and backpedals toward the ditch and fires toward the blinding light and dark shadows.
I crawl out Clarence’s door. He falls near me, alive, a hand bloody but he does not look at me. He is reloading. I squirm further down into the ditch, looking back under the car to see Rickdog’s feet stagger and stumble in a rainbow of warning lights. Then he drops, facing me, looking straight under the car, his arm limp over his head, and his torso – peppered with dark, glistening holes – is framed by the undercarriage of the Impala, the gravel shoulder, and his new Radial tires.
Soon I’m in the ditch wading through a roadside swamp, sloshing into weeds and brush and muck. The spotlights are tangible, burning the skin on my head and neck and shoulders. Once through the ditch, I break a tree line. Shadows open around me. Invisible branches whip my face. Not blind, but unable to see clearly or focus on anything, I stagger the only direction that matters. To the deeper woods, the darker forests, the blacker swamps. I turn once to see the road lit up in white light, licked with the translucent blood of the squad lights. Some of the light stabs into the darkness, but these shadows surround me, protect me.