One rule. We rob a house I’m first through the window. Sometimes Juju angles past me, clutching that flathead he always keeps tucked inside his sweats, and tries to cock-block the basement window. But I just stiff-arm that mutt in his cauliflower ear and watch his scrawny ass flop headlong into the hedges. Then I wait until he wriggles himself out of the shrubbery, dusts the twigs out of his hair and say, “One rule, Juju. You forgot my one rule.”
I spin the Nerf football until the blue and orange halves blur. We’re sprawled on the curb, across the street from this brick row-house, our target. On our left is a cemetery, its tombstones pitched forward, its trees knotted and dead. For the last two hours we’ve been running button-hooks and posts, flea-flickers and hand-offs, practicing as if we care about football and aren’t waiting for the pansy to leave his house. If he doesn’t show soon, we’ll have to move down the block. I’ve already caught this old nosey-hole in the window behind us sneaking peeks from her curtains. We keep our back towards her, but still. Snooping neighbors are never a good sign.
“Let’s give it another twenty.”
Juju reaches over my leg and snatches the ball, says, “Maybe they work nights?”
“Maybe they’re bending your mother over. What’s she charge now? Like a shiny nickel and a packet of Heinz?”
“Keep it up. asshole." Juju brushes his greasy hair away from his face. He grows that muff out to hide his shriveled ear. When people ask about it, he always breaks into this long-winded saga about junior varsity wrestling, but that chewed wad of flesh has been stuck to his head since birth. Anyway, who’s he kidding? The wind could pin his banister-pole ass.
“This is the last day I’m sitting on this corner. I feel like a freakin’ fire-hydrant.”
“Aw, don’t be like that.”
“Dom, no more than two days. You always say that, right?”
I rip the ball out of his hands. “I don’t know about that,” though we both know I’m lying.
Breaking into houses is easy. Just be smart and have a plan. It’s not the brightest idea to wait around until the stars click on, then pop a screen and give your luck up to the Virgin Mother. Not that I haven’t hung out with guys that robbed that way, their only plan being an empty driveway. But it always felt sloppy. I like preparation. I like scanning the house beforehand to see what kind of windows, fences, doors. Get a feel for the traffic. Size up the neighbors. But really, my peen rises when I finally spot the pansy we’re gonna rob. I want a snapshot of him. So when I stuff his wife’s necklace into my sweats, or slip his watch onto my wrist, I can picture that cocktail of confusion and anger swiped across his face when he realizes that I just fist-fucked his house and stole anything and everything I could lug away.
Juju snatches the ball, says, “Look.”
Our pansy strolls onto the stoop, the storm door slamming behind him. In each hand he’s holding a green tank, like for scuba diving, but they’re smaller, with dials on top. He trots down the steps and hurries towards his souped up Malibu - tinted glass, wide-rims, spoiler, twin mufflers - and places the tanks down. He sucks in his gut and digs into his jeans, then pushes his keychain and the doors chirp open. He pops the trunk. As he hurries towards the rear bumper of the Malibu, he watches us. His jean jacket clings to him, a size too small. He has a cigarette dangling from his lips. He places the tanks down and squares off in front of us. Juju spins the ball, refusing to make eye-contact, but I stare right back at that sonofabitch. The last thing you want to do is to look guilty. I keep telling Juju not to act so squirrely. Don’t be the guy the pansy remembers when the cops question him about suspicious characters. I run my hand through my hair and smile. Nothing to see here. We’re just some kids. We lock eyes for a couple of seconds, then he turns towards the Malibu and loads the tanks down into his trunk.
“Fuck this,” Juju says.
“He don’t know.”
“Why’s he staring then?”
The guy slams the trunk and leans against the bumper, smoking, watching. There’s this tug in my gut, as if Juju is right, but I dust the feeling off, say, “He’s just finishing his cigarette.”
Juju tosses the ball up, catches. “What you think them tanks are for?”
I shrug. “Maybe he’s a clown? And like the tanks are for all his balloon animals and shit.”
I grab the ball, “Go ask him to make you an ear, then.”
Juju sucks his teeth, says we should leave. Before I can tell him to chill, the pansy flicks his cigarette into the street and walks toward us, his hands stuck in his pockets. He stops on the manhole cover, mid-street, says, “Got something on your mind?” Juju unties his Converse. But I just purse my lips, as if confused. “Youse lost or something?” He points his thumb towards the El.
I squeeze the foamy ball, “We’re visiting our grandmother.”
“She lives on this block?”
I drop the ball and it waddles towards the curb. A crow flies over the cemetery fence. I watch it flap onto a dead branch. This guy is asking too much. I say, “Over on Pitkin. But we can’t play there.” I spin the football. “Street’s too busy.”
“I know everybody round here. What’s her name?”
“Grandma.” Juju stuffs his nose into his shirt and snorts back a laugh. I pick up the Nerf, and against every smart I have, lob the ball towards him. He snatches the football with one hand. “I mean, we’re just playing ball, so?"
“But you’re not.” He tosses the football up and catches it. “And why’s that?”
“You got an answer for everything, huh?”
He yanks a chunk of foam off the Nerf and flicks it towards me. Juju yells about his football, but I wink at the pansy. So far we’ve done nothing wrong.
He points towards Nosey Hole’s. “See that house? My aunt. She says you’re up to no good.”
“Just football, man. I pulled a hammy.”
“Looks like you’re hanging round for something.”
Juju rolls forward, ready to stand. I slap my forearm across his chest and nudge him onto the curb. “And?” The guy tosses the ball into the air. The Nerf skews left from the missing chunk of foam. He catches the Nerf and cradles it in the crook of his arm. Juju loves that ball. That’s the Nerf he swiped from Toy City, my test to see if he would deflate under pressure. Tonight I’m slashing this pansy’s tires, even if we don’t rob him. Cost of one damaged football.
“And you’re making her nervous,” he says. “And, like I said, there’s a park near Pitkin. By your so-called grandmother’s house.” He steps closer, then rips another piece of foam and flicks it. The sponge dings Juju in the forehead. But Juju isn’t a fighter, so he stares into the cemetery, watching the crow still perched on the branch.
“And maybe we like it here. Quiet neighbors. Nosey aunts.” I pinch the chunk of Nerf that hit Juju off the street, about the size of a quarter, and pop it into my mouth. My eyes tear as that clump of foam struggles its way down, but I’m not punking myself, so I smile like it's lobster fra diavolo.
“But here don’t like you.” He tosses up the Nerf, catches. “So I come back and you’re here, I’m calling the cops.”
I smile like it’s no big deal, then point towards his trunk, “What are them tanks for? Cause we got a friendly bet going. I mean not a bet, bet, being underage and all. Don’t want to break any laws.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Gambling’s illegal.” Juju mumbles for me to stop. He’s shaking his foot, his untied laces volleying over his sneaker. “How about help us out and we’ll leave?”
“I don’t make deals with little pricks like you.” He glances towards his Aunt’s house. I turn just as the blinds flap shut. He rips another chunk off the football, says, “Make it quick.”
I elbow Juju in the ribs, “See, he’s not such a hump, right?” The guy flicks the foam at me. It hits me in the shoulder, too big to eat. I step on it, say, “We got this wager 'bout them tanks.” He tucks the ball under his arm. He’s angling to make a move. I scoot back further on the sidewalk, gaining some distance. “I think they’re for scuba diving.”
“Yeah. But now I got a good look.” I sigh. “You’re too much a fat lop a shit for one of them rubber diving outfits. Like sticking flippers on a sausage.” I knock into Juju. “But he thinks them tanks are for balloons. Says, no offense, you’re a clown.” I size him up. “You know what? You don’t even have to tell us, man. I think you’re right.” Juju rocks forward, stands. He’s ready to jet on me. I say, “He’s a balloon jerking, circus flunking, kiddy groping, tubby assed clown.”
“I got your fucking clown,” he says. He rushes towards me and stomps my chest. I roll onto my back as all the air I thought I owned blows out of my lungs. I curl up tight, ready for another kick, but he jogs into the middle of the street and yells, “You wanna see a trick? You little scumbags? Huh? How’s this?” He hauls back and chucks a bomb towards the cemetery.
As Juju’s football sails over the cyclone fence, I picture Juju, hunched forward, arms wrapped around his stomach, as he hustled out of the Toy City and into the parking lot. “I got it,” he said. He stood straight and yanked the Nerf from underneath his black Hoodie. He flicked the ball towards me, “That’s the name of our crew.” I brought the ball to my nose, smelled the new foam, “The Nerfs?” He snatched the ball, “No man, the Hoodies!” Now, I lose the ball as it swats the ragweed. I still think that’s a stupid name for a gang.
The guy gives us the finger then marches towards the Malibu. He swings open the door, “You bastards are still here, I ain’t calling the cops. I’m gonna pistol-whip you.”
“I’ll be right here, Clowny.”
“Fuck you.” He slides into the seat and slams the door. He guns the engine and the Chevy peels into reverse. He cuts the car right, the grill swerving, tires smoking, and shoots the Malibu around the corner. The car fishtails as it rips down the block, towards the El.
Juju grabs my arm and hauls me up, “What a dick.”
“Yeah.” My chest stings where he booted me. I rub the welt with the heel of my palm and scan the street for a rock I can pitch through his bay window, or better, his aunt’s. But that’s sloppy. So I stifle the anger and stare at the crow still perched on the branch.
“He destroyed my ball, man.”
I shove him, “I get punted in the chest and you’re pissing bout your stupid ball?”
“Sorry.” He brushes his hair away from his eyes, “But that’s, that right? For this place, anyway?” We watch another train rumble towards the city. “I mean, he’d definitely know.”
“He kicked me. Chucked your precious Nerf.”
“Right, Dom, but that’s got nothing on this. You always say, be calm, think.”
“Stop telling me what I fucking say, alright?”
I step into the street, away from Juju. The pavement smells like melted rubber, from where that guy peeled out. Anger pulls at my gut. I take a deep breath, focus. His house has ten concrete steps, rising up to the door. Probably two locks. Hard to tell. The frame of the storm door is blocking my line of sight. The bay window is a story up. I’d need a magic cape or a ladder to pry that screen open. The only way I’m breaking in is through the back. The side-gate is four feet, cyclone fence. No hedges. But, lucky day, no Beware of Dog sign. I’ll skip over that gate, easy. I’ll come back in a night or two. Wait until he’s sure he got the better of me. Then blammo. I rub the sore spot on my chest, say, “Yeah, this one’s a no go.” I turn and see Juju walking across the street, towards the cemetery. “Where you going?”
Without turning, he says, “What’cha think? I’m getting my ball, man.”
The backdoor has a rubber seal along the border, making it impossible to pry, but also has panes of glass, framed in a checkerboard pattern. With that blocker strip I thought he’d invest in a solid door. But I’d be wrong. I pull the dishrag out of my sweats and hustle down the stairs. I wrap the rag around my hand and wait until a subway rattles across the El. Then I jab the bottom pane with the side of my fist. There’s a quick pop. I wait a few seconds to see if Clowny hustles into the basement. When he doesn’t, I poke my hand through the empty pane and slide the deadbolt. I undo the dishrag, scoop up the shards and stick the ball by the door, where I can grab it fast on my way out.
The basement smells like laundry detergent. The walls are wood-paneled. Shoved into the corner is a weight bench with a towel draped over the bar, as if that porker lifts anything but meatball heroes. There are stacks of boxes, a washer and dryer. Nothing worth clipping. I hold my breath and listen. The only sound is the thrum of the boiler. I creep towards the stairs. At the bottom of the steps is a heap of towels and dishrags. I sidestep the linens and climb three steps, count to ten, then three more, working in a steady pattern until I’m top of the landing. I idle in front of the basement door. Wood-paneling is glued onto its frame. Classy.
I swing open the door and step inside. The living-room has white carpeting and stinks like cigarettes. Placed next to the leather couch is a halogen lamp, dimly lit. I yank the screwdriver out of my sweats and move towards the couch. I stab the screwgy into the cushion and drag the flathead across pillow. There’s a satisfying ripping sound as the cushion splits open, exposing a fissure of yellow foam. That’s for Juju’s Nerf. This is sloppier than usual. But Clowny is an exception. I picture his ugly face when he realizes who goosed him, worse than any boot to the chest. God, I love my job.
The house has a railroad setup so I move through the kitchen, towards the back rooms. Stuck in the middle of the hallway is a basket stuffed with more of those towels. But these reek of vomit. I swerve around the bin and stop in front of the master bedroom. The door is shut. But I’m not worried. Clowny’s car is missing. He would’ve heard the glass breaking, his living room being trashed. Still, Juju’s whiney voice rattles off warnings. I take a deep breath, evicting his voice and press my ear against the door. There’s a steady beeping and hissing sound. I pull my sleeve over my hand and twist the knob. As I crack open the door the stench of vomit knocks me in the face.
I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. On my left are a dresser and mirror, a nightstand and someone asleep in the bed. I duck behind the door, wait. But all I hear is that beeping and hissing sound. As I creep closer I realize he’s not Clowny. This guy is matchstick thin and smells like piss and pits and puke. With each breath his chest heaves and drops. Plugged up his nose is a spaghetti thin tube. The other end is attached to a green tank. I lean closer and pass my hand across his face, seeing if he’s awake, shit, alive. The tank beeps and hisses air into his nose.
Then I spot his teeth. His choppers are placed on the nightstand, next to a row of pill bottles and dishrags. I fight the urge to clip them. He’s a bystander. Then again, did Juju deserve that pansy ripping up his football? The guy hacks and swallows hard. Bloody spit trickles down his chin. I have to hustle. Clowny won’t leave this decrepit fucker for too long.
I claw the sides of the dentures. The teeth are yellow and smell like vomit. With my free hand I yank down my sweats. I turn towards the wall so if the guy wakes up he doesn’t think I’m one of those kinds of robbers, and stick the gummy part of the dentures underneath my sack. I scrub as if my eggs are a stain on the carpet. I feel a pinch as hairs catch between the teeth, but I keep scrubbing. When I’m satisfied they’re nice and peanut-buttery, I place dentures back onto the nightstand, teeth up. The way I found them. I whisper, “Sorry buddy, nothing personal.”
As I back away from the bed, the guy coughs and spews chunks of bloody rot onto the blanket. For a couple of seconds he focuses his milky eyes on me, then glances around the room as if he’s lost. He groans, closes his eyes. If he saw me he’s so loopy, he won’t remember.
I yank open the top dresser drawer. T-shirts spring onto the carpet. I plunge my hand towards the back of the drawer and snatch a gold chain, stuff the necklace into my sweats. I shove the clothes back in and shut the drawer. The familiar flutter in my chest, as if I could fly around the room. I think of all the jerks with their paper routes and stock-boy jobs - guys who reek like fry grease and rotted produce. Fuck that. I can hock this chain for what they make in a month. No bosses. No weekends. No minimum wage. I wish Juju was here to see this. Then again, that puss would’ve bolted when he spotted the geezer.
I pull open the second drawer and a flash of lights hits the dresser mirror. Clowny’s Malibu rips into the driveway. He guns the engine twice and then the house goes dark. I scan the room for a spot to hide. On the other side of the bed is a closet, riddled with fist holes. I sprint around the bed and slide the door. As I barrel into the closet I trip over sneakers and fall into a cluster of clothes. The closet stinks like baseboard heating and cologne. I press my back against the wall and slide a few shirts in front of me, leaving the door cracked open.
Clowny hustles into the room lugging two more of those green tanks. He clicks the lamp chain on the dresser, casting the room in a piss colored light. He sits on the bed next to the old guy and pulls a dishrag off the nightstand. He dabs the blood off of the guy’s chin. For awhile he stares at him, whispering. Clowny sucks in a jagged breath, nods. But the old guy is still passed out.
Sweat trickles into my eyes. I wipe my face with my sleeve, making as little movement as possible. There’s a window near the guy’s bed. It’s a ten foot drop, but a rolled ankle is light years better than spending a year locked in juvie. It sucks, but hey. We’re the choices we make, man.
Clowny leans close to the old guy’s face as if he’s ready to smooch the crusty bastard, but he reaches across the geezer’s chest and grabs a pillow. He grips the pillow at its sides, like an accordion. The old guy’s mouth hangs open, his chest heaves and drops. The only sound in the room is the beep and hiss of the tank. Clowny apologizes and presses the pillow onto the guy’s face. He pops onto his knees and rocks forward, throwing his weight into it. He turns his head towards the mirror and whispers an Act of Contrition. I flinch as my heart ping-pongs from my chest into my ears. I wait for Clowny to lift the pillow. Tell the old guy he’s fucking around.
Then Juju’s voice pops into my head, two words on repeat: "Do something."
Without rustling around, I slide my hand along the wall, searching for a weapon. Pricks like this always got something painful lying around the house. The wall feels cold, smooth, except for the rough patches of spackle. I stretch my arm towards the far side of the closet until I grip a rubber handle. I slide my hand down the metal pole. It’s a nine-iron. I pull the club towards me, trying not to bang the head into the wall. I’m gonna rush this guy. Tee off on his skull and hustle into the cemetery. By the time he wakes up I’ll be collecting social security. But my smarts tell me to stay put. Wait for a shot to hit the window. Then what? Grab a cop? How could I explain this? And yeah, just 'cause I rob houses don’t mean I’ll watch some buzzard get murdered.
The veins in my neck pulse, ready to burst. I take a deep breath, trying to release the pressure squeezing my brain. Tell myself to move. But I feel as if I’m encased in concrete.
Clowny jams the pillow harder against the geezer’s face. The old guy swats the air, but his movements are sluggish, as if filmed in slow motion. When he doesn’t hit anything, he drops his hands and claws the pillow, his nails scratching against the fabric.
I squeeze the club until my knuckles crack. I picture myself charging, planting my feet and swinging so hard I lop his head off. I release this low growl, getting my blood up. I touch the edge of the door. Here we go. I count to the three,
But Clowny tosses the pillow onto the bed, says, “Why don’t you come out?” I lean into the corner, away from the blade of light shining into the closet. The old guy sucks in wheezy breaths, coughs and hacks. Clowny waits for the guy to settle then reaches into his jacket and pulls a snub nosed .38. “Come out, kid, or I’m putting a bullet through the closet.” He clicks the hammer back. “I ain’t saying it again.” His voice sounds sharp, serious. I’m trapped, like some amateur. What else can I do? So, still gripping the club, I slide the door and stand on the far side of the bed.
He places the gun on his lap, says, “Long time no see.” He points towards the mirror, “Next time, slither to the other side of the closet.” He extends his arm, “I’m Vince.”
I pull back on the club, ready to swing.
“So lemme get this right. You can rob me but you can’t shake my hand?”
I step around the bed, far enough from the dresser so it won’t choke my swing. I raise the club and swallow the fear squeezing my throat, say, “Same hand that’s gonna smother his gramps?”
We both stare at the geezer. The tank beeps and hisses air into his nose. His mouth hangs open. He’s blacked out as if nothing happened.
He touches the old guy’s leg, “That’s my father.”
“Says you, kid.” He stands, flattens his jacket. “That’s my favorite club.”
“You’ll get it.”
“I know I will.” He jabs the gun at me. My knees start to buckle. I stumble towards dresser and lean my hip against the drawer, but still trying to stay in stance, look salty. “Nervous?” He points towards the bed, “Here, sit down.”
“I’ll stand thanks.”
“Unless you fall down.” He jabs the gun at me again. “Tell me what I look like now?” My lungs feel sharp, as if filled with razorblades, I keep seeing a bullet hole in my chest, the blood filling my sneakers. I try to breathe evenly, focus.
He says, “Where’s that quiet friend of yours?”
He steps closer, the muzzle inches from my face. “You know how long it took me to swallow the guilt to do this? Then you come piss in my corn flakes.” The tank beeps, hisses. “Where? Hidden in the hamper? Disguised as a doorknob?”
My voice cracks, “Just gone.” He’s close enough to get a good swing, but my arms feel rubbery. The club weighs six hundred pounds. I inch back.
The old guy coughs and blood sprays the blanket. Still aiming his gun at me, Vince backpedals toward his father. He picks up another dishrag off the nightstand and dabs at the geezer’s chin. He whispers for him to relax. Go back to sleep. Clowny lobs the rag onto the bed. The old guy’s face tightens as he releases this winding groan.
“Doc told me to start making arrangements. Then shoved this hospice pamphlet at me. Like I’m going on vacation.” He exhales this breathy laugh. “Can you imagine?”
I force myself off the dresser. For a few seconds the room swirls. But then I feel steady enough to inch backwards. I say, “Sure.”
“You got no fucking idea.” He scratches his forehead with the muzzle. I pray the gun goes off. “He was a firefighter. Thirty years. Now he can’t even breathe. A fucking sewer rat dies with more dignity.” Oxygen hisses into the guy’s nose. “He wants to stay at home. I owe him that.”
The window has metal bars protecting the glass. “I guess.”
“I know.” He stares at me, his lip trembling.
“That’s funny. Coming from you.” He stands, points the gun. “This thing’s legal. I could shoot you in the fucking face and sleep in my bed tonight. Not even see the police station.” He watches the old guy, his mouth gaping open. He tells me how I can’t stop him.
“Well, I’m gonna leave,” I say, my voice squeaky, still an octave too high.
“That right?” He juts the gun towards me, then again. With each stab of his arm I wait for the pop, the jolt backwards. The rip of searing pain. He wants to kill me, fuck, I would too, but he wants to kill his father even more, and that feels even scarier than getting shot. He gnaws at his lip, aiming his gun, sizing me up. But instead of pulling the trigger he digs into his pocket and flips open his wallet. He wriggles out his license, credit cards and lobs the wallet at me. “Take it.”
I snatch the wallet out of the air. It feels bloated with cash. The leather is cracked. Maybe he needs my fingerprints when he caps me? Maybe he’s bribing me? Maybe one murder is enough for tonight? I stick the wallet into my sweats. Not sure what to do, I mumble thanks.
“Really? That’s all you got from this?” He lowers the gun. “Lemme tell you, any other day.” He points towards his father. “Go enjoy your nice short life.”
“See you around.”
“You better hope not.” He sticks the gun into his jacket. “And leave my club.”
I drop the nine-iron and backpedal into the hall. He pats his jacket, then turns towards his father and sits on the edge of the bed.
I hustle around the basket of towels. My hands are shaking so it takes a couple of stabs before I can dig into my sweats. I wrap the chain around the wallet. Together with the cash and gold I’m hauling over a grand. No thanks. I don’t want any part of this, whatever this is. As I rush into the living room, I flick the wallet towards the couch. It flops onto the cushion. I swing open the front door and Juju flashes in front of me. He’s parked on the curb, flicking his football into the air, laughing cause for once he was right. I blink twice and it’s only the houses, the cemetery.
I touch the doorknob, afraid that if I turn around I’ll spot Vince standing in the hallway, aiming his gun at my head. But then from the bedroom I hear a watery voice, followed by this fit of hacking and coughing. It’s the old guy. Before I step onto the stoop Vince says, ‘That was nobody, Pop. Go back to sleep. Here, lemme fix your pillows.”