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BOBBY LAY IN BED listening to the rats scratching and squealing in the wall a few inches behind his head, the rats sounding as if they were ready to gnaw through his skull and chew on his eyeballs from the inside.
The first time Bobby heard the sound, when he was a little kid, he fell off the bed screaming and stumbled to his mother in the kitchen who continued wrapping a clean diaper around his baby brother and told Bobby to hush his mouth, Aint nothin but the rats an you bes be gettin used to them boy cause you goin to be livin withem your whole life an anyways theys in the wall an long as theys in the wall they dont be gettin toya so just be hushin an get out my way an shut up that yellin I got nough with this screamin baby—Bobby continuing to yell and scream, scrambling around the floor after his mother and when she picked up the baby to put him in his crib she almost tripped over Bobby, Damn, you bawlin little snake, you worsen the rats, now HUSH—YOUR MOUTH FORE I BE FIXIN TO FEED YOU TO THOSE GAUDDAMN RATS—clutching the baby, shaking and trembling with rage, crying with frustration, trying to find some way to lash out at the forces that kept her locked, with 2 young kids, in a rat infested tenement filled with kids who were all the time yelling and screaming, it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check, but never no man to help her with these youngins, not so much to even look afterem while she be boilin water for coffee or maybe scramblin some eggs, an I just be a teenager my own self, O damn chile, get out my way, YUALL HEAR ME GAUDDAMN IT BE GETTIN OUT MY WAY BEFORE I be chewin on your neck—slowly folding onto the floor, sitting, squeezing the baby, rocking back and forth, Bobby crawling under the table watching his mother trembling and rocking, his face wet and sticky with tears, but silent, no sound, not even of crying, coming from him, just staring at his mother squeezing the crying baby, warding off all awareness of sound, noise, presence, surroundings with her rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth ... time, space and everything within them disappearing for a brief moment as she went wherever she went at these times, Bobby knowing only when his moms stopped she wouldnt be yellin no more for a while an she be given him a hug an maybe some kool aid an it be alright ...
for a while....
In time the terror tempered to fear and he lunged out of bed and ran to his mother ... then, in time, he just ran out of the room and waited until he was awake, then went back to his room ... and now he just lay there thinking of the day, hearing the sounds and noises coming from the streets, and the wailing, crying and shouting in the building. But his hearing was fine tuned to the rats, the gnawing, scratching, squealing, scampering, frenzied rats covered with plaster and grit, mottled with balls of dust as they searched the darkness with fiery eyes and twitching noses on their way to and from the piles of garbage that nurtured them, fearless in their fear, ready to leap at anything threatening them and rip it to shreds with yellow teeth.
Bobby leisurely reached back over his head and tapped the wall and smiled as he heard the sudden sounds of panicked scuttling and squealing, Nasty mutha fuckas. He banged harder on the wall, Run mutha fuckas. Some day Im gonna be gettin me a 5 gallon jug a rat poison an watch you fuckas squirm ... yeah, you goin feel like you swallow fire....
Bobby listened to them for another minute, then stretched with boredom and sat on the side of the bed.
He had 2 brothers in the small room with him, somewhere between ages 5 an 9, but their beds were empty. They always beat it out of the room when they heard the rats. Used to be he had to hug them quiet and tell them, aint nothin to be scared about....
Yeah, aint nothin to be scared about, the rats out in them streets be bigger an meaner than the mutha fuckas in the wall—and he banged on the wall and laughed for a moment hearing only his laughter and the panic of the rats....
He stretched and scratched then yanked his pants up, put on his shirt and sneakers then went into the living room and walked across the couple of feet to the chair by the window and looked out at the street, feeling the cool breeze on his face and thinking it was gonna be a nice day, not too hot an pretty soon school be closed for the summer, just a few more weeks, then maybe he be gettin hisself a job an make some bread so he an Maria can do a few things, like go somewhere, somewhere away from here, maybe catch a couple a movies downtown before they be so old even tv not be wantin em—then went to the kitchen and splashed some cold water on his face, shaking the excess off his hands into the sink, patting his face and rubbing it, feeling the water soft and cool on his skin, then brushing his hands through his hair and wrinkling his nose as he passed the dirty diapers on his way out of the house, down the 4 flights of dark, dingy stairs, to the street, the sudden brightness always causing him to blink and stand still for a moment. He used the toilet in the bar next door, then continued toward school.
His girl friend, Maria, was waiting for him on the stoop of her building. She jumped up and they hugged and kissed and continued walking down the street with their arms around each others waists. Hows everything babe? you lookin good.
Im alright hon. Things are goin good. Alicia let me try her new lipstick, cool, eh?—tilting her head back and pushing her mouth toward Bobby.
Hey, that be cool. I gotta get me some a that—pulling her closer to him and kissing her, then licking his lips, Maria laughing. How I be lookin in my new lipstick—wiggling his hips and rotating his shoulders in an exaggerated feminine manner, Maria laughing louder and shoving him on the shoulder a couple of times until he bounced into a parked car, Hey, dontcha know you should be treatin womens with respect, dont they teach you that in school?—grabbing her arms and pushing her backwards down the street a few feet, both laughing, then putting his arm around her waist again, and she his, and continuing down the street and turning the corner into sudden shade. Four teenage Puerto Rican boys got up from a stoop, spread across the sidewalk and strolled toward them, glaring with hatred. Maria muttered, madre Dio and clutched Bobbys arm. Bobby narrowed his eyes as much as possible and stared into the face of the one boy who stepped forward, ignoring Bobby, and looking at Maria with hatred, You should be my girl, what you doin with this nigga punk? Bobby leaned forward and Maria clutched his arm tighter and pulled him back, continuing to look the other boy in the eye, You leave us alone Raul. We dont be hurtin you.
Hey, youre hurtin all a us goin out with this black piece a shit—Bobby lunged forward and hit Raul with his free hand as he yanked his other from Marias grip, Maria screaming and trying to protect Bobby as he and Raul grabbed each other and the 3 other boys rushed forward, one hitting Bobby on the shoulder with a chain, Bobby trying to spin Raul into the others as one of the boys separated himself from the pack and threw a liquid into Marias face and she screamed and started thrashing about, her screams unending and filled with pain and terror, each scream more terrified and terrifying as the 4 boys started beating Bobby, hitting him again with the chain, punching him, knocking him down, kicking his head and body and then people from the stoops and streets started coming at them, yelling, Maria still screeching, her hands covering her face being burned by the lye, squeezing her head, delirious with pain, spinning in erratic circles, staggering from parked cars to building walls, stumbling, falling on her knees, crawling, staggering to her feet, screaming, screaming, screaming and a couple of women held her and someone yelled to call an ambulance and a couple of men started dragging the boys off Bobby whose face was beaten and bloodied and Raul kicked him in the balls, Bobby yelling with pain but barely conscious, Raul breaking free and running as the sound of a siren became louder, the others following him, Bobby dragging himself up by leaning on a parked car and someone told him to lay still, he be needin a amblance and Bobby tried to say, No, but only an almost inaudible sound gurgled from his lips and he hung over the car looking for Maria but only able to see the blood filling his eyes and he started dragging himself down the street hearing his head calling for Maria, Maria, but only blood oozing out of his mouth, the siren getting louder and louder and someone brought a bottle of water and started pouring that over Marias face as the 2 other women continued to hold her, trying to comfort her and keep her from tearing the burned flesh from her face as Bobby continued to stagger off in the opposite direction, Maria, Maria, echoing in his head and then the police car turned the corner and everyone except the 3 women with Maria went back into darkened doorways or strolled away as Bobby staggered down the street, the parked cars hiding him from the cops in the prowl car, and soon he was totally hidden by people walking the street who glanced at him and the commotion down the street, the police, and just continued walking, and when Bobby banged into the wall of a building he groaned with pain and spun around the corner and ended up hanging over a short railing on the side of steps going down under a building, the area below his head soon splattered with blood, hanging there an eternity, gasping for air, trying to breathe through the pain while his head continued to call for Maria, Maria, MARIA, and another voice screamed at the punk muthafuckas and he unconsciously pushed himself off the railing and continued down the street determined to find Maria and kill those muthafuckin spic bastards, everything ceasing for Bobby except the pain and rage driving him forward through the crowded streets, people stepping aside as he approached, some asking, You alright boy? Yo needin help? but he said nothing hearing only MARIA, MARIA, MARIA over and over in his head and feeling the screaming rage driving him toward them spic muthafuckas so he could cut their fuckin throats but he couldnt see where he was going and he kept knocking into people and ricocheting off parked cars and walls, having the wind knocked out of him as he fell over a railing or the hood of a car, and from time to time he vaguely heard the gasp of a woman as he stumbled past her but could not see how she reached toward him to try and help him but even if he had he would have continued because he didnt want anyones help, he just wanted to get to Maria but he couldnt find her and as the shock from the beating and the sudden attack increased he became less and less aware of his surroundings, less and less aware of time and his face painfully wrinkled into a frown when he heard the name Maria in his mind and he was almost immobilized from confusion because he knew Maria but couldnt make a connection with her name or why he was moving, if he was moving, yet vaguely aware of her image in his mind, and it seemed like he was on a beach or some sandy place and there were buses all around him and he couldnt hardly move and he suddenly stopped and stood still, swaying back and forth, slowly leaning forward more and more, an inch at a time, and suddenly he was spinning around and felt himself slowly going over the edge of a subway platform and he knew there was a train coming but couldnt hear it and was almost crying trying to figure out how to not fall in front of the train and suddenly his breath was gone and he was hanging like a life sized rag doll between 2 subway cars as a guy staggered from a bar and bumped into Bobby then reached out and held him so he wouldnt fall, while trying to maintain his own balance and figure out what had happened and who this was in front of him and then became aware that Bobby couldnt stand and he blinked his eyes against the sun and the look on Bobbys face.... Damn boy, what the fuck be happenin to yo face—Bobby hanging from the mans arms, folded and bent trying to understand what a face is—You bes be commin in here—holding Bobby under his arms, the 2 of them staggering back into the bar and into a dark corner, the bartender squinting at them, What the fuck yo be bringin that in here fo Darryll? He be one fuckin mess.
Where else I be bringinim. He needin a drink.
I dont want that mutha fucka dyin in here.
What the fuck you be talkin about. If he can swallow a drink he be fine.
The bartender poured a couple of ounces of bar whiskey into two glasses, I dont be wantin no trouble man.
The 2 other men at the bar strolled down and looked at Bobby, Sheeit Marv, what trouble that dude gonna be givin yo? He and the other man chuckled and shook their heads, He sure did take a couple a bad licks.
If he be part of a gang could be some bad ass trouble. Them kids be crazy the way they goes aroun doin people.
One of the men laughed louder, Dont you worry none Marv, ol Darryll here be protectin yo.
Marv leaned his head back, O shit, oh deep purple shit—and the three of them laughed as Darryll gulped his drink then dipped his finger in the other glass and dropped whiskey on Bobbys tongue after seating him and leaning him against the wall, encouraging him to swallow, the other three watching as Darryll continued dropping whiskey on Bobbys tongue, suddenly seeming sober and having all his body movements under absolute control and doctoring Bobby with love and care and the skill of a brain surgeon. Bobby coughed and gagged when the first of the whiskey hit his throat, but kept it down, and Darryll soothed and encouraged Bobby to keep swallowing and waited a few minutes before allowing a few more drops to drip into Bobbys mouth, That the way boy, you jus keep that down—few more drops—you be feelin jus fine shortly, and Darylls voice became rhythmic and hypnotic like a chant as he continued the procedure of putting the whisky into Bobbys mouth a few drops at a time and smooth talking Bobby to keep it down then waiting a few minutes before putting a few more drops in his battered mouth, the other 3 silent and mesmerized by the procedure, watching intently as they leaned against the bar, then looked at each other, still silent, when Bobby moved his head slightly and Darryll put a few more drops into his mouth and Bobby swallowed without coughing and now the drinking was going faster and Bobby actually moved his eyelids and 20 or so minutes later the glass was empty and Bobby was almost sitting up by himself, and they all stared at him for a minute, each other, then Darryll with amazement and approval, and smiled as a glimmer of life started to flicker in Bobbys eyes and Darryll started gently rubbing the back of Bobbys neck, then carefully opened his shirt and shaking his head as the others made various sounds when they saw the bruises and chain marks on his chest and shoulders, You be needin some doctorin boy. Gimme a clean rag an some water ... an a couple more drinks. Marv continued looking at them as he got the water, rags, and poured more whiskey into the glasses. Darryll continued rubbing Bobbys neck and shoulders, squinting his eyes as he looked him over carefully, Well, yo be breathin so I guess you be alive. He leaned his head back and looked carefully at Bobby then gently dabbed at his face with a wet rag, Bobby wincing and moving his head, Thats okay boy. Here, have another drink—carefully holding the glass near his lips and allowing a slow trickle into Bobbys mouth. He swallowed and Darryll, again, waited before giving him more to drink, then once more started gently cleaning Bobbys face, backing off for a moment each time Bobby winced and moved his head, Dont be movin yo head too quick boy, it jus might be fallin off. The other 3 chuckled, then one of the men asked Marv if he had a firs aid box or somethin, and Marv said he thought there be somethin aroun somewhere, at leas some curachrome, and Darryll continued his process of alternating between dripping whiskey into Bobbys mouth and cleaning his face, gently rubbing his neck in-between and talking to him in a soothing voice; and Marv found a small battered cardboard box with a couple of bottles of peroxide, methiolate and bandaids and put them on the bar, then asked Darryll how the boy be doin as if Darryll were a surgeon, He be doin jus fine.
Excerpted from The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jr.. Copyright © 2007 Hubert Selby, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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