Along the way, Eddie falls for a Mexican beauty with a past she is trying to escape. But his romance is almost cut short when he is dragged into a drug war, becomes a murder suspect, and is forced to participate in an ill-conceived casino heist.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
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About the Author
Daniel Serrano was born and raised by his mother in the tough streets of New York and Chicago. The eldest of three boys, Serrano witnessed gangs, crime, drugs, poverty, and even murder, as his family lived the urban Latino struggle. After drifting through menial jobs for years, he enrolled in the Weekend Program at Shimer College and studied the classics.
Serrano went on to earn a law degree from St. John's University. As an attorney, he has spent the bulk of his career advising politicians and alleged criminals. Daniel lives in New York City with his family and is currently at work on his next book.
Read an Excerpt
By Serrano, Daniel
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Serrano, Daniel
All right reserved.
Murder began when I was ten years old.
It was a long summer’s day, in the late seventies, and the sun kicked hard enough to melt your wings. We lived in West Town, a Puerto Rican neighborhood near Humboldt Park, in Chicago. Fifteen minutes and a million miles from downtown.
My father ran bolitas, the numbers, and muscled for a local loan shark.
“I never take nothin’ from nobody,” he said. “Except what they owe.”
My father was tall for an Island-born Rican, nearly six feet, and brown. He was thick from rocking push-ups and pull-ups in the park. His street name was Caballo. Rumor had it he earned it by kicking a deadbeat in the style of a crazy horse.
One time I saw him attack two men in front of a movie theater. He kicked them with his eyes wide and his nostrils flared, and he smiled the entire time. I held his beer. Afterward, we strutted into the theater as if nothing happened.
The houselights dimmed, the curtain rose. My father lit a cigarette and blew a stream into the red light that flickered above our heads. Smoke floated like the wake of some scarlet ghost.
My father looked down at me and smiled. “My partner told me this is gonna be a good flick. It got a lotta action in it.”
“Uh-huh.” He winked. “He tole me there’s a little romance too.”
My father smiled down at me, but he must have seen some residue of that sudden violence on the sidewalk. He passed his hand through my hair. “So now you know,” he said. “Don’t ever be a punk.”
One day my mother was at church. My father lingered in the apartment, mopped sweat off the back of his neck with a white handkerchief, and sipped straight rum. He owned congas, two hand drums carved from wood. They were elderly, scarred by chips, scratches, and varicose cracks. Mostly, they slept in the corner. The leather skins stretched across their tops were filthy from a generation of sweat, dirt, oil, even flecks of blood that my father kneaded into them. Some days, if he drank enough, we’d pretend we were in a salsa band. I sang and he beat the drums.
But not that night. Instead, the time came, my father dressed, he headed for the door. I asked where he was going.
“To the moon,” he said. “No kids allowed.”
“Can you buy me an ice cream, Pop? When you come back?”
The cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. He squinted. “Te estás poniendo grande.” He reached in his pocket and flipped me a quarter. “Go down when you hear the truck, OK? But come right back up. And don’t let Mami know you was out there.”
I nodded. He patted my head and left. I ran to the window and watched my father slide from view, grooving on his private rhythm. I pocketed the quarter and ran down after him.
In the west the sun appeared as a giant bleeding ulcer on the horizon. I shadowed my father. Large metal cars roamed Chicago like modern buffalo, and one custom horn blasted “La Cucaracha.” The shells of burnt houses reeked of smoke and stale water and stared sullenly through boarded windows. Children frolicked in the geyser of a corner hydrant. On sidewalks and stoops the adults moved slowly, like chickens on a spit.
My father entered a bar with a sputtering neon sign: LA SIRENA. He exited, rubbed a tall can of beer across his forehead, then cut down a side street to drink and smoke pot.
Finally, he met his appointment: a tall black man in a wide-brimmed hat. Shadows concealed most of the stranger’s face, but not his teeth, which were made of gold.
The gold-toothed man slapped my father on the shoulder and grinned. “My brother!” he said. “I thought you got lost.”
My father shook his head. The gold-toothed man invited my father into a nearby gangway, and they went.
I crouched in a gutter across the street, between two parked cars. I spotted my face in a curved chrome bumper, and a convex gargoyle version of me stared back. I stuck out my tongue at my distorted self and almost laughed. Somewhere nearby the melody of an ice-cream truck faded and the quarter tingled in my pocket. I held my place and watched the men negotiate as silhouettes framed by the mystery of their business and the final embers of a fiery dusk.
Then came the horror.
Another man slithered from the silent shadows. He, too, wore a concealing hat. In his hands was a sawed-off shotgun. The hit man pointed the barrels at the base of my father’s spine, and pulled the trigger.
I saw the flash, heard the echo, and the startled birds roared helter-skelter from the trees above. In one sick motion my father dropped to one knee and snapped his face toward the sky. Smoke rose and a sudden hot gush of piss ran down my leg. A scream got tangled in my throat.
The man with the smoking sawed-off spotted me across the street—I was trembling between the cars. Our eyes locked.
Am I next? I thought. Is this our secret?
The shooter froze inside my gaze. But his gold-toothed accomplice did not look in my direction. He snatched the shotgun from his partner, pointed the barrels at my father’s head, and pulled the trigger.
I saw a spray of flesh and was knocked unconscious by a tidal wave of grief.
The earth swallowed my father’s coffin. My mother suffered his demons, but she prayed and wore black in the unflinching sun. I prayed, too, and hoped he was going to God, though I feared that he was going to the other place. I’d seen my father’s partner stash reefer, money, rum, and a gun in the casket before they closed it.
The títere patted my father’s stiff shoulder before the lid went down. “Everything you gonna need for the next life, Negro.” He looked at me. “Ven acá, nene.”
I went to him.
His Puerto Rican accent was thick with alcohol. He rolled his R’s. “You father was a good man. ¿M’entiende? Un hombre verdadero.”
“Acuérdate de él.”
As if I could ever forget. I tried to pull away, but the man held me in place.
“You gotta be a tough guy now, little man. Unnerstand?”
My lip trembled, but I nodded, and I swallowed all that pain. It was a jagged rock inside my throat, but I swallowed it. My father was dead and so was my innocence. I was ten years old.
WINDY CITY SHAKEDOWN
MONEY AIN’T A THANG
Getting out of prison felt different this time. Not that tired, ex-con bullshit about flying straight and keeping legit. Fuck that noise. I mean, I had a strategy, a definite plan, and it was simple. Legal too. Legit even. It involved forming a corporation, keeping books, paying taxes. But that didn’t mean I was a good guy now. Why would it? I wasn’t a born-again Christian, a Muslim, or even just tired of crime. It was that the rackets had never been that good to me. Not enough to justify the sacrifice. The rackets hadn’t been practical.
Don’t get me wrong: I had my moments. Scores where you hauled so much cash your eyes watered. Hell, I had one five-year era where the crib was sweet, the rides were mint, and the green just kept on flowing. I juggled females and got backslapped by every bouncer in every hot club.
But that turned out to be a mirage. Mostly, my life of crime had turned up dust. I was slipping through my thirties and the only thing I had to show was a criminal record, scars, and some dirty stories to tell. That, and a little over forty thousand dollars in cold, hard cash that I’d stacked running reefer out of my cell during the second half of a dime, a ten-year bid at Stateville Correctional Center, in Crest Hill, near Joliet, Illinois.
The forty large was strapped to my body, my gut. It felt like a part of me. I intended to walk out of the main gate, find my way to Miami, and invest it all with a friend who was starting a record label. We were gonna make salsa records. Good ones. Not the commercial crap that’s been killing the genre.
First I had to sneak the money out of the prison compound. It wouldn’t be easy. Hiding a nut like forty thousand when you’re incarcerated is like trying to cover an elephant with a washcloth. Somehow I pulled it off.
I checked the mirror and gave the money belt one last tug. It didn’t show. Not under my shirt and my new army field jacket. I winked at my reflection to get the nerves down.
The final pat-down on my way out was the main hurdle. I’d already undergone a strip search and retrieved the money belt after dressing.
My escort arrived. He was a new guard I hadn’t gotten to know yet.
“Thanks for coming, Officer.”
“Save it, skell. Move.”
New guards always feel they have something to prove. I picked up my small suitcase, breathed, and took that final march.
The red-haired guard, who I knew too well, chewed gum, lazylike. It was still morning, but already he sounded tired.
“Arms up, Santiago.” He began a slow pat-down.
I held my breath. The red-haired guard had been greased, and so had his supervisor, but you never know. Red let his pudgy fingers linger over the money belt.
“Put on a couple pounds, did we?” He flashed his bleeding gums. “Must’ve been all that high living you did at the taxpayers’ expense.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Nothin’ but juicy steaks and red wine up in here.”
“Save the sarcasm, Santiago. Turn around.”
Red finished the charade and gestured to the guards behind the mesh. “This one’s clean.”
They buzzed me through. One guard was busy putting up Halloween cutouts of witches and black cats with arched backs. I said, “It’s a little early for that,” but she ignored me. A corrections officer with a receding Afro went down a checklist:
“Recite your number.”
He looked me up and down.
“All right, two-thirty-five,” I said.
“Better. Stand over there. Toes on the line.”
I stood up straight.
“Look at the red dot. Smile if you want.”
I didn’t. The flash went off.
“Good,” he said. “Talk to Hanks while this thing prints.”
Another guard handed me my discharge papers. He spoke without looking up. “Don’t lose these, Santiago, these are important. Department of Public Health info, so you can get an HIV test.” He examined the next one. “Says here that you been ID’d as alcohol and/or substance dependent. Did those Pre-Start classes help?”
“I feel more reformed already.”
“Anyway, this form is a referral to a treatment program in Chicago. Highly recommend you follow up with that.”
I glanced at the heading on the form and nodded.
The guard inspected everything in front of him. “All right, Santiago, the rest of these forms are self-explanatory. Any questions?”
“None you can answer.”
The photographer handed me a warm piece of plastic. “Here’s your ID then.”
Issued by the Illinois Department of Corrections, it identified me as discharged from state prison. The photo showed the beginning of wrinkles. Little bags under the eyes. Padding under the chin. It had been a while since I had my picture taken.
“You need a better flash for that camera. I look washed-out. Like I got no color.”
The paperwork guard closed my folder. “It’s a temp, Santiago, take it to the secretary of state within thirty days. Cough up a dollar, they’ll give you a state ID. Maybe that one’ll capture your pretty side. Now come on. Sign here, here, and here.”
And that was it. My debt to society? Paid.
Outside it was the Midwest in autumn: cool air, decaying leaves, clouds, drizzle—the smell of these mixed together. I scanned the parking lot.
A glossy candy apple red Cadillac, one of those long, wide monsters built in the late seventies, idled. It crouched and kept its distance from the prison structure. Heavy metal pulsed behind its tinted windows. I walked toward it.
Antonio Pacheco, aka “Little Tony,” my oldest friend, slid out from behind the steering wheel. Short and thick, he was dressed all in black. The belt of his leather jacket hung loose. He wore driving gloves and black wraparound shades cocked up on his head, even though the clouds were heavy and gray.
Tony whistled. “What up, dawg?”
“¿Qué pasó, loco?”
We hugged, then looked at each other. I hadn’t seen Tony since his release, a couple years earlier. Standing up close now, I noticed his chin was also thick and visible, even though he wore a goatee. He had new wrinkles too. And his hairline headed for the hills. But he still had the dark, serious eyebrows, the deep-set eyes. He smiled. The fucker still had dimples.
“Looking good, kid.”
“Me?” He squeezed my bicep. “How about you? What the fuck have you been doin’, man? Breaking rocks?”
“A little bit.”
A dark green spider clung to the side of Tony’s neck. I flicked it.
“Wicked tattoo,” I said. “Still a gangster, huh?”
“You know it.”
I was happy to see Tony. A month earlier he had sent a messenger, a fine young Negrita who popped her gum and told me Tony needed to see me in Chicago when I got out. He needed my help on something. I had a contraband prepaid cell phone inside, and Tony had the number, but evidently this innocent request was something he did not want a record of. The girl he sent didn’t say shit either.
I was focused on Miami then, and hadn’t planned a detour to Chicago. But I owed Tony enough to listen. Plus, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to spend a couple of weeks roaming the city, reconnecting. Seeing Tony outside the gate now made me feel satisfied that I’d made the right decision.
I smiled. “Tony, did you get my letter?”
He reached in his pocket, pulled a set of keys, and tossed them. “Got you a room in the old hood. Close to North and California. Near the park.”
I looked at the keys and pressed the teeth into my thumb.
“Tell you the truth,” he said, “I don’t know why you spend the money when you can just bunk at my place.”
I pocketed the keys. “Man, I been sharing space for a hundred years.”
“Understood.” Tony grabbed my bag. “Is this it? Where’s the library? I know it don’t all fit in this little thing.”
“I donated most of my books,” I said. “Those pigeons inside need ’em more than I do.”
“And the congas?”
“Gave those away too.”
Tony said, “You committing hari-kari or something?”
“Naw, man, I just felt like I needed a clean break.”
Tony nodded and dropped my bag in the trunk. I read his bumper sticker: GAS, GRASS, OR ASS. NOBODY RIDES FOR FREE.
I tapped the Caddy. “You look to be doing all right.”
“I manage.” He produced a pack of Marlboros and shook one toward me.
I put my palm up. “Got nine months free of them shits.”
“Word? Wish I had the balls.” Tony flipped the square into the corner of his mouth, a trick I’d watched him practice a thousand times when we were teenagers, and later, a million times in the yard, the prison laundry, the kitchen, and his cell.
He smoked and squinted at the thirty-three-foot wall that surrounds Stateville. “The fucking ass of hell, huh?”
I nodded. “Remember when you compared it to our version of a frat house?”
“Hey, I was delirious from lack of pussy, all right? I ever say anything like that again, slap me.”
We stood there, in silence, and stared at the top of the wall. Tony got the shivers. “Let’s pull up,” he said. “This place is stomping on my buzz.”
Inside, the Caddy was clean and shiny. It smelled of a coconut-scented air freshener, which was too sweet. A miniature Puerto Rican flag hung from the rearview mirror. On the dashboard a small statue of Saint Judas, the one with the horn, kept watch.
Tony horseshoed the sunglasses around the little statue, made the sign of the cross, and dropped the transmission into drive. The tires slipped and squealed. I gave Stateville the finger as we fishtailed off.
After a minute I said, “It feels strange to ride in a car again.”
Tony said, “Everything in the free world is gonna be like new to you.”
We got on the interstate. I kept checking the speedometer, certain the car was pushing one hundred, but the needle never moved past seventy.
Tony threw Fat Joe on the system and sparked a blunt. “Cuida’o,” he said, handing it over. “This ain’t that bunk you been smoking in Roundhouse.”
I hit it. “Please, Tony, who taught who how to smoke weed?”
But Tony was right, the shit was flame, and more banging than anything on the market inside. Two tokes and the music got tasty, the sky became infinite, and the road stretched to some unseen point beyond the horizon.
Tony slapped my leg. “How the brothers doin’?”
“The same, I guess.”
“Probably gonna cut each other to pieces, now that you’re gone.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I sold my reefer business to Múcaro.”
Tony shook his head. “I give that bug-eyed motherfucker a week before he catches another case behind it.”
“Yeah, or lets the Aryans muscle him out.”
“Fuck it,” I said, toking. “That’s his problem now.”
I turned the music down to listen for the wind. It was silent, but visible in the leaves and the flocks of birds that ricocheted like molecules in the turbulence.
Tony glanced over. “So what’s up with your drums, bro? You don’t play no more? I thought I was gonna hear your tumbao.”
It was my intention to buy new congas as part of my business venture. Like an expense. Part of me was eager to tell Tony all about it. But I knew it was too soon. I looked at him.
“I’ll probably pick up some new congas, once I settle in somewhere. I didn’t wanna carry all that weight around. But how about you, Tone? What’re you up to?”
Tony licked the corner of his mouth. “Me? Not much. Got a little crew goin’. Young bucks. You know, can’t tell their tongues from their assholes, but they do the trick.”
Like most men we knew, Tony and I had fallen into gangbanging early on. We started by hanging out with friends from the neighborhood, and before we knew it, we were a crew slinging nickel bags of weed on the corner. Most of our operations had been fairly small-time.
Ever since those early days, it had been Tony’s dream to make the shit more sophisticated, like a Latino version of La Cosa Nostra. Part of it was that Tony was a born schemer and a natural thug. Another part was his fetish for all things Italian. The only book he ever finished was about Lucky Luciano. At least half of Tony’s eight or nine illegitimate kids were, as he put it, “half-Guinea and part Wop.”
I asked Tony a direct question. “So what exactly are you slinging these days?”
“A little bit of everything. Mostly H-ball.”
“Really? You cutting heroin now?”
“Yep. Got a smooth operation going. You’d be surprised: the Hot Corner still gets traffic. I call my shit cornuto. Italian for ‘the horn.’ ” Tony glanced at me. “Don’t front like you don’t know what’s poppin’.”
Tony knew full well that most of what happens on the street winds its way to the prison grapevine.
I grinned. “You know them hags I did my stir with. Nothing to do inside but gamble, gossip, and smoke.”
“Uh-huh. And talk shit about niggas too.” Tony paused, but I acted like I didn’t realize he was waiting for me to say something.
He cocked his head at me. “So?”
“So what, Tony?”
“What did you hear?”
“About you?” I turned to get a good look at him. “Nothin’ much. Just a couple rumors.”
“Lies, you mean?”
“I don’t know. You tell me, Tone. I heard a really wild one about how you muscled in on Roach’s cut.”
“Oh, Roach’s cut?” Tony nodded like he absorbed it all. He took one last annoyed pull off his cigarette, then ground it into the ashtray. Smoke escaped from the corners of his mouth. “Let me tell you something, Eddie: that business fell into my lap. You understand? I didn’t muscle nobody outta nothin’.”
“Fuck no.” Tony shut the music off. “I don’t know what them tricks inside been telling you, Eddie, but—”
“Forget about what you think I heard, Tony. Just tell me the truth.”
“Don’t I always?”
I did not change my expression.
Tony shifted. “Roach must’ve got a bad shipment of Pitorro.”
“Pitorro. Puerto Rican moonshine.”
“I know what it means.”
“Well, that’s what Roach calls his dope: ‘Pitorro.’ Maybe he stepped on it with something toxic, I don’t know.”
“Why, what happened?”
“Junkies started droppin’ like panties in a two-dollar whorehouse.”
“Only Roach’s customers? Not yours?”
“Nope. Four or five a day, for like a week.”
“A bad batch of Pitorro?”
“Looks like it. Bucketheads on the street started calling it ‘Da Holocaust.’ It was all over the news.”
I knew the news accounts. I read the Sun-Times every day. “You know what I don’t understand, Tony?”
“How Roach’s junkies going belly up add up to you walking away with his clientele.”
“Do the math, Eddie.”
“Whyn’t you do it for me, Tone?”
“Junkies wanna live too. Roach’s clients needed a place to cop. Someplace safe. They didn’t wanna drop Pitorro anymore, not if they could help it. Everybody out here knew you shoot that, it’s Russian roulette. Roach tried to rename it, but everybody knew it was from the same source and looked for another shop.”
“So you set up your own franchise?”
“Hey, it’s a free country.”
“Cornuto to the rescue.”
“The fuck you want, Eddie? I saw a market.”
It was exactly what I expected Tony to say. I looked him over. No sweating. No shifting. Tony was a killer at poker.
I sucked my teeth. “So you got no idea who spiked Roach’s supply?”
Tony knew exactly what I was asking. He sniffed. “C’mon, Eddie, you know I don’t play dirty pool.”
I let out a sharp, one-second laugh.
“All right,” said Tony. “Sometimes I play dirty pool. But not this time. You know I’d tell you.”
I wondered. Long as I’d known Tony, I just couldn’t be sure.
“So? How’s the money?”
Tony slanted an eyebrow. “In heroin?”
It was a stupid question.
Tony flicked the gold necklace that hung heavily around his neck. “Like a sweet piece of ass on a Sunday morning.”
Tony’s cell phone rang. He fished it out and flipped it open, secret agent–style. “Yo. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh.” He glanced over at me. “Whenever I get there. Quit breaking my balls.” He shut the phone.
I said, “Girlfriend?”
“Who was that on the phone?”
Tony hesitated. “Nobody. Customers. Where was I?”
“You were telling me about your business.”
“Right. Anyway, the thing is, right now I got a chance to invest in some serious weight. Brown stuff, the good sticky shit. So pure, you can step on it and restep on it. I’m getting it from some Sicilians. Profits’ll be through the roof.”
“Yeah, Tony? And what about Roach?”
“What about him?”
“How you gonna deal him out?”
Tony tilted his head. “The old-fashioned way, I guess.”
Not smart, I thought. With a big drop in business, Roach was certain to be desperate and more dangerous than ever.
I shook my head. “Tony, aren’t we a little senior for this?”
“Street war. You got beef with Roach right now, and I mean I got your back and everything, but—”
“Hey, Eddie, do I look like I’m asking you to fight my battles?”
“Yeah, Tony, as a matter of fact, you do. I was all set to ride to Miami.”
“Miami? To do what?”
“That girl you sent said you needed my help on something.”
“She made it sound important.”
“It is. But it ain’t got nothing to do with this other shit about Roach. That’s my business. But how come you gotta be so serious? We ain’t seen each other in two years.”
I already knew that Tony had crossed into Roach’s turf. Even a donkey could see that equals street war. For me, it was the most logical thing in the world to expect Tony to ask me to back him up on that. Now it appeared he wanted something else.
“I just wanna know the scheme, Tony. Why did you send for me?”
Tony nodded. “OK. You have a right. But keep an open mind, ’cause this? This shit is over the top.” Tony licked the corner of his mouth. “I need you to muscle with me on another heist.”
“A heist, bro. A stick job. You, me. Couple other cats. Shotguns and balls. Like the olden days.”
And that’s just how he said it. Like he was talking about baking a cake or putting up some drywall. I should’ve told Tony to drop it right there. To take me to the airport, the bus depot, drop me anywhere. Hell, if I’d have jumped out of the car at seventy miles an hour, I’d have been better off.
But then Tony said, “Listen, we’re talking about a fuckload of money here, papa,” and it was hypnosis. Like seeing your fat aunt’s humongous tit, the dark brown nipple, that time she forgot to lock the bathroom. Or a cat with its guts hanging out.
I licked my bottom lip. “How much is a fuckload?”
“A million. Maybe more.”
“Per man, Eddie. A million dollars per swinging dick on this job.”
“Tony, you been smoking too much of that happy stick.”
“Naw, kid. How you think I’m getting the buy money for that shipment I told you about? That’s at least three quarters of a mill right there.”
“Three quarters of a mill?” Tony had grown up on welfare like the rest of us. Even in our heyday as burglars and coke dealers, we never pulled a six-figure job. And we spent every penny without ever investing. “Tony, who the fuck you know that’s got that much paper lying around?”
“Like Las Vegas?”
“Uh-uh. Joliet. Shit’s full of ’em now. Right down the block from Stateville. Big-ass boats on the river.”
I almost laughed. “Tony, you ain’t heisting no friggin’ casino boat.”
“You bet your brown ass I am. Pelón’s got a foolproof plan.”
My jaw muscles tensed. “Pelón? He’s in on this?”
“Of course. He’s the mastermind.”
I took a second to make certain I heard Tony correctly. “Tony, are you telling me you still deal with that prick? Even after that shit he pulled?”
“Like he had a choice? C’mon, you were there, the bullets were flying. You can’t hold that armored-car thing against him forever.”
“Just keep him away from me.”
Tony said, “I ain’t asking you to lick his twat. The man generates paper, and I want in on that.”
“Tony, you do what you want, but do it without me.”
“I told you to have an open mind, Eddie. Pelón’s got a surefire plan this time. He’s cased the boat. He knows which way to go. Wait’ll you see his crib.”
“Tony, you really think you’re gonna walk out of a casino with their loot? Them places got security up the ass. Cameras watch everything.”
“That ain’t stoppin’ us.”
“No? What, Pelón figure a way to make your ass invisible?”
Tony didn’t come back.
“Fill me in, Tone. What’s this master plan?”
Tony kept silent. The wipers ticked and a thousand beads of rainwater streaked across the surface of the windshield. Tony shifted in his seat.
“I can’t do it, Eddie.”
“You can’t do what?”
“I can’t give away the store like that.”
Tony lit a cigarette and blew a thick stream of smoke, which crashed against the windshield and spread in an uneven circle. Then he turned on the radio and flipped through the stations.
I looked at him. “Tony, are you holding out on me?”
He looked over. “You know that ain’t how it is. Pelón said mum’s the word. Not unless you come on board. I already said too much.”
I knew this made Tony uncomfortable. He was sentimental, and he thought of me as his best friend. He probably worried that I felt betrayed.
I shook my head. “Pelón’s jerking your chain, kid.”
“No he isn’t.”
“Sure he is. You’re buying his loada crap, and you don’t even know what’s underneath.”
“You think I’m that stupid, Eddie?”
It was a left jab, light, but square on the chin, calculated to shake Tony loose. Maybe he’d spill more info. But he didn’t flinch. I had come prepared to discuss a street war. To let Tony know that I wasn’t gangbanging anymore, how much it bored me. I was not prepared to talk about a heist of any kind. I retreated.
“Tony, this is silly. Let’s just drop it.”
“I’ll take it up with Pelón myself. If he’s got the guts to face me.”
“That’s fine. He wants to talk to you.”
“I’ll bet he does. But like I said, he’s feeding you a load.”
Tony scrunched his shoulders. “¡Coño, man! I thought the shit was dropped?”
We rode in silence for a while. Tony sparked another joint and switched the CD to a classic, Lo Mato by Willie Colón. I thought about the wild things that poured out of Tony’s mouth: Pitorro. Cornuto. Money. Big shipments. Shotguns and balls.
But then I got high again and all I could think about was the poetry of the lyrics, the menace and melancholy of the music, trombone, the spell-casting voice of Héctor Lavoe.
And that’s when it hit me: I was out. I was outside. I was in the open. I was free. No bars. No walls to contain me. I could choose my own direction. I was not restrained. The emotion of that moment rose. I shut my eyes and let it swell.
After a moment Tony said, “Yo, I know you must be ready to bust a nut, though.”
I opened my eyes and smiled. “Brother, it’s been so long, I get solid if I blink too much.”
Tony laughed. “Relief is on the way, maestro. Chicago’s a pussy buffet.”
“I ain’t sweating that.”
Tony smirked. “Yeah you are.”
It was true that a strange feeling had begun to invade me in the months prior to my release. Not the raw lust that Tony was talking about, although that was always there. Something else. A hunger maybe. Consciousness of emptiness. The sense that I had missed out by never getting married, never starting a family, never letting a woman get close. The day that I received Tony’s messenger in the visiting area, I saw another inmate kiss his wife with such passion, it almost hurt. It was their one weekly visit, their only weekly kiss hello, and they meant it. I realized then that there had always been something unnatural about being alone. Like Adam by himself in the Garden. I didn’t say any of this to Tony.
I cracked my knuckles. “Yeah, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of skirts to chase. Right now I’m just looking forward to being able to go for a walk.”
We rode in silence. After a while the skyline came into view.
Tony nodded. “My kind of town.” He switched the CD to “When the Levee Breaks,” by Led Zeppelin. “Still my first love,” he said. “Rock and roll.”
Ahead of us, Chicago spread like a multicolored fire on the plain. Giant buildings reached for something they could never know. And above them were the black and purple clouds. They hung like bunting over the unsuspecting city.
SAGITTARIUS (DEEP INSIDE)
Tony pulled up to the curb and pointed to a bar with a lit Old Style beer sign. “One of my accounts.”
The place was empty except for an old man sitting at the far end of the bar watching the Bears struggle on TV. The bartender sat on his own stool, chin in hand, fixed on the game. He watched the third down and the punt before he ambled to where Tony and I leaned on the bar.
Tony made the peace sign. “Two cold ones.”
The bartender opened two sweaty bottles and placed them in front of us. He took Tony’s twenty from the bar.
Tony raised his bottle. “To you, brother. The Man tried to break you, but you held it down. Welcome back to the real world.”
We clinked our bottles. The beer was cold and it chased away the cotton mouth. The bartender returned Tony’s change, which Tony pocketed right away. He downed his beer. I left most of mine. We split.
Once in the car, we drove until we hit a stoplight. Tony reached in his jacket pocket, pulled out the change, counted it. Two hundred and twenty dollars.
I rubbed my nose. “Didn’t you pay with a twenty?”
“Good eye, Eddie. Every week I go there, I collect two bills.”
“That old racket?”
“Two hundred a week, from that Polack alone. Plus a free beer.”
Next we stopped at a Mexican panadería, where Tony pulled the same stunt. He ordered a bagful of pastries, paid with a twenty, got back a couple hundred, plus the original twenty.
I bit into a cherry empanada. “How many of these accounts you servicing right now?”
“Right now, only eight. But yuppies keep moving in. They already own the whole other side of Western. This area’s getting more commercial.” A light dusting of powdered sugar decorated Tony’s goatee and shirt. He talked with his mouth full. “I figure I’ll grow with the neighborhood.”
We parked in front of a hot dog stand with a faded picture of a Vienna sausage.
Tony brushed himself off. “One more quick stop.”
“I’ll wait in the car.”
“What, and miss all the fun? C’mon.”
The place was a dump. It looked like you could use your finger to trace your name in the grease that coagulated on the walls. Fly tape swung from the ceiling, peppered with dead flies. In the seating area the only customer, a large black woman, sat and began to unwrap her food. Behind the counter a young Korean man in a fresh white smock put his newspaper down and wedged a cigarette in the ashtray.
“For here or to go?” said the Korean, without an accent.
Tony looked past the man at the Korean woman, no doubt the young man’s wife, washing and cutting vegetables by the sink. He looked back at the Korean cashier. “For here, chief. Let me get some fries.”
The man began to bag French fries for Tony from under a heat lamp.
Tony pointed at the deep fryer. “Naw, man. Fresh ones. Who knows how long them turds been sitting out there?”
The Korean kept bagging fries. “Sir, these fries are fresh.”
Tony raised his tone half a notch. “Hey, do I know you?”
The Korean stopped bagging and turned to stare at Tony.
“We don’t know each other, do we? Let me get some fresh fries.”
The man dumped the bagged fries back under the heat lamp, then threw a handful of frozen ones into a wire basket and lowered the basket into the bubbling oil. Steam rose.
The Korean said, “Anything else?”
Tony placed the twenty on the counter. “Naw, friend, I already ate.”
The Korean rang up the order, took the twenty, and replaced it with Tony’s change.
Tony looked at the change without picking it up. “Yo, what the fuck is this?”
The Korean blinked. “Excuse me, sir?”
Tony pointed at the change on the counter. “This. What is it?”
“Right. Where’s Kim?”
“Kim, the owner. Call him. Tell him to get his ass down here pronto, like instant noodle. What the fuck does he think this is? Some kinda game?”
Understanding flooded the Korean’s eyes. “Kim? Oh! Mr. Kim. No, he is not here anymore. I just bought this place.”
Tony said, “You bought it?”
Tony looked at me. I shrugged. He turned back to the Korean.
“Listen, what’s your name?”
“Sue? Is that short for Susan or something?”
“No,” said the Korean. “S-O-O. Soo.”
“Oh. OK. Listen, Soo, Kim and I, we had, like, an agreement.”
Soo narrowed his eyes. “An agreement?”
“You mean like . . . a contract?”
“Something like that.”
Soo tightened his lips. “Are you a supplier?”
“Sort of. Basically, I come here every week. I order something from the menu. I pay with a twenty, like the one I just gave you.”
“Now, when you bring back the ‘change’ ”—Tony emphasized the word by saying it slowly and making quotation marks with his fingers—“I want the same exact twenty that I handed you, OK, Soo? Plus two hundred-dollar bills on either side of it. You got that?”
Soo made a face like he didn’t follow. I noticed then that Soo’s wife had stopped chopping and was watching us with her hands on her hips. The knife was in her right hand. I glanced over at the lone black diner as she bit into her cheeseburger and left a perfect half-circle.
Tony grinned. “Look, Soo, it’s not like you won’t get your money’s worth.” Tony lifted the countertop and walked behind the counter.
Soo contorted his face. “Hey, mister, you cannot come back here!”
Tony made the “silence” gesture with his index finger to his lip. “It’s OK, Soo, it’s all right. I’m just gonna show you what I can do.”
Tony walked past Soo, toward where Soo’s wife stood next to the sink and the chopped vegetables. In one slick move Tony had the woman by the right wrist. The knife fell from her hand. She screamed as Tony spun behind her, grabbed her hair, and restrained her.
In a soft voice Tony said, “Scream again, bitch, and I’ll cut your tongue out and drop it in the fryer.”
Soo’s wife swallowed the next one. Tony kicked the knife under the sink, beyond anyone’s reach.
I looked over at the black woman. She began to get up to run with her food in her hands.
I pointed straight at her and spoke firmly. “Sit. Do not move. Turn your face away.”
The customer eased back down and did as I said.
Tony dragged Soo’s wife to the fryer. Soo had his hands out in front of him, like he was bracing, but he did not move. His wife’s pleading eyes made me wish that Tony would just let go.
The husband’s hands shook. “Sorry, mister. Look, look. Money.” He hit the register, opening it. “Take it. Take the whole thing.”
But Tony didn’t stop. He extended the woman’s hand to just above the bubbling oil. She emitted a low sob, and you could see her strain, but she was no match for Little Tony. Droplets from her wet fingertips sizzled as they hit the surface of the hot oil.
Tony held her in place and looked at her husband. “Please, Soo, focus. I don’t want to get ugly here: The routine is, I pay with a twenty. You give it back to me with two hundreds kissing either side. Capische?”
Soo fumbled through the cash drawer, rattling coins. “I have only one hundred-dollar bill,” he said. “The rest in twenties.”
Tony paused as if considering. “Fine, Soo.” He released Soo’s wife, and the woman jumped away, clutching her hand to her chest. “I don’t wanna be too much of a hard-on, but from now on, Soo, make sure it’s in hundreds, OK? Too many bills makes my wallet hard to fold. It throws my balance off.”
Soo paid the ransom.
Tony counted it. He looked Soo in the eye for a few seconds. “Listen, don’t hold it against me, all right, partner? Let’s start fresh. I just needed you to understand.”
Soo remained still, but his mouth twisted.
Tony snagged one of the fries that Soo had originally tried to serve him from under the heat lamp. He popped it in his mouth, made a face, and spit it into a napkin. “You see, Soo? I told you them shits is cold.” Tony looked at me. “How ’bout you, Eddie? You need anything?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good. Now you ready for some real fun?”
We passed beneath two giant metal sculptures of the Puerto Rican flag, with its lone star, arching across Division Street, Paseo Boricua. We headed west, then drove zigzag patterns up alleys and side streets. Eventually, we came to Tony’s intersection.
Streetlamps lit the rest of the city, but not this part. Someone had cut the power to the streetlights, throwing a black veil over the entire spot.
I shifted in my seat. “Looks like yuppies haven’t quite discovered this block, have they, Tony?”
“Not yet they haven’t.”
Even if you’ve never been to the city, or you steer clear of low rent, you know about these pockets. You’ve seen them in movies, or on the news. Maybe you’ve dreamt that you made a wrong turn somewhere and got lost there, turning in circles, a breath ahead of the Minotaur. Tony parked next to a hydrant and pointed at the opposite corner.
“La Esquina Caliente,” he said.
I knew the spot. Back in the day we stood there in parachute pants and zipper jackets, moonwalking, laughing, staving off cold, selling small bags of marijuana, and making out with rebellious girls. We never imagined we would ever be anything other than cool.
A new crop of teenagers stood with less energy now. They wore circus-tent jeans slung low on their asses, big hooded sweatshirts, and unlaced boots. They leaned a lot, shot dice, sucked 40s, and puffed weed like it was a chore. I would say at least half had their ears pressed against a cell phone.
I took a deep breath. “What are we doing here, Tony?”
“One last bit of business.”
“Whyn’t you drop me off first? I’m tired.”
“Relax.” Tony powered his window open. “You’re back in Chi-town now. This is my turf.”
A skinny punk with a heavy gold medallion ran over to Tony. “What up, T?” The skinny kid glanced at me, then back at Tony. “I thought you wasn’t coming by till later.”
“Yeah, well, I’m here now. You got my money?”
The kid pulled a small canvas bag from his waistband.
Tony snatched it and weighed it in his palm. “Feels light, Moco.” He looked inside, then shot the kid a look. “Yo, Moco, what the fuck’re you assholes doin’ out here? Jaggin’ each other off?”
Moco said nothing.
Tony shoved the bag under his seat. “Come ’ere.”
The kid took a step toward the car.
Tony reeled him in with an index finger. “Down here, Moco. Close to me.”
Moco leaned until his face was within Tony’s reach. In the dark the orange glow from Tony’s cigarette made a jack-o’-lantern effect on Moco’s sharp features.
“Tell me the truth, Moco. You pinching my stash?”
“Adding any cut to my shit, Moco? I know all the tricks.”
“No, Tony, I swear.”
“What the fuck is the problem, then?”
“We ain’t been able to sling.”
“Them narcs keep rolling through here, breaking everything up.”
Tony said, “Coltrane and Johnson?”
Moco nodded. “I tried calling you, T, but it keeps going into voice mail.”
Tony’s face went south. “Jesus! Why can’t those pigs keep their snouts out my goddamn business?”
Moco shrugged. “They’re crazy, bro. Johnson punched JJ in the eye. Almost knocked him out.”
Another skinny punk swaggered over. He removed his hood to verify Moco’s story. A purple lump of flesh stretched the rim above his eye so that his eyebrow looked like a black caterpillar feeding on a soft dark plum.
Tony examined the wound. “Man, ain’t this about a bitch?”
The kid with the shiner stuck his chest out. “Yo, T, I can take whatever them pigs got.”
Tony waved him off. “Shut the fuck up, JJ. Get back on post.”
JJ flipped his hood and swaggered back to his spot next to the fire hydrant.
Tony turned to Moco again. He thumbed at me. “Moco, you see this man?”
Moco eyeballed me.
Tony said, “This is my boy that I was telling you about. Remember?”
Moco nodded. “Palo, right?”
“Call me Eddie.”
“Eddie, yeah.” He shook my hand. “Bro, you a straight-up legacy around here. Everybody knows about you. I been hearing about you ever since I was a shorty.”
I barely nodded.
Tony said, “Moco, make sure everybody on the block knows he’s my boy, all right? He comes by, you give him whatever he wants.”
I said, “That’s OK, Tony.”
Tony ignored me. “You talk to him, Moco, it’s like you’re talking directly to me, you got that?”
Moco said, “Got it.”
“Good. Now let me get a deck.”
Moco looked up and down the block, then whistled. Another kid broke from the pack and hustled to a gangway, the cell phone still pressed against his ear. He disappeared into the gangway, then reappeared and hustled back, handing Moco a small bag, all the while chatting. Moco looked up and down the street again before leaning in. He handed Tony the bag.
It was a tiny glassine envelope with a small amount of white dust in it. Tony lit the Cadillac’s interior.
“I wanted you to see my product.”
Tony held it up. The small plastic Baggie was stamped with an image of a bull’s head on it, like a cheap imitation of the Chicago Bulls logo. Tony pointed at the horn. “You see that? Cornuto.”
“Congratulations, Tony. Now can we break the fuck out?”
Tony said, “What, you got a hot date or something?”
“I just ain’t feeling this.”
“You’re paranoid, right? Like the COs are just about to walk in on you. You keep expecting the old ‘face the wall and spread your butt cheeks’ routine. I went through that when I first got out.”
“It’s not that, Tony. It’s just—”
Suddenly, a skinny man emerged from a gangway across the street and shuffled toward us, with his shoulders hunched and both hands in his pants pockets. He was bony, but he had a thick, uneven beard and a head of hair grown wild.
Tony tossed his cigarette. “Great. Here comes buzzkill.”
Moco pulled his sleeves up. “You want me to get rid of him, boss?”
“Just chill, Moco. Post up.”
Moco x-rayed the intruder with his eyes as he walked off.
The man stepped to Tony’s window and saluted. “¡Capitán!”
“Don’t start, B.”
The skinny man grinned and nodded. “How you doing, papi? Everything tight? How’s your moms?”
Tony said, “You really peel yourself from the gutter for small talk?”
The man’s grin widened. He was missing several teeth and the dark spaces staggered between the remaining ones meant his smile resembled the keys of a piano. There were dark circles under his eyes. He scratched his head.
“It’s that, um, you know, Tone, I’m gonna get my Social Security check next week, and, um, how do you call it, as soon as I cash that, I was, um, I swear on my mother, I was gonna get straight with you, right? My hand to God. You know I’m good for it, right? But, today, I—”
Tony said, “Beto, stop trying to cop over here without cash, aw’ight? Go talk to Roach. I ain’t carrying you no more. And where’s your manners? Don’t you see who this is sitting next to me?”
That was when I realized that I knew Beto. I mean, I really knew him. We went to high school together and dropped out around the same time. We ran in the same crew, hung out in the same clubs, pulled capers together. During our heyday we called Beto “GQ” because of his dapper style. The ladies loved him.
Beto looked at me. He appeared to be about half of his original size. His yellow eyes widened. He slapped his hands together. “Oye, pero, look who it is!”
He came around to my side of the car. I got out. Beto hugged me and I noticed that he stank mildly of urine. He felt real thin under his wrinkled shirt, which was damp. His face was sweaty.
Beto tugged at a knot in his beard. “Palo, wow, what a trip. The ‘Man with the Plan,’ huh? Wassup, gangster? How long you been out? You was still inside, right?”
“Until today. But you can call me Eddie.”
“Eddie, yeah, that’s good, papi, that’s good, you look good. ¿La buena vida?”
“Something like that. What’s up with you?” I said, and felt embarrassed the instant the words tumbled out of my mouth.
Beto bit his lip, scratched, and tilted his head forward enough to suggest that I take a good look. “Holding on, papi. You know how it be. I—I got the virus and everything. Fucked myself up.”
“Sorry to hear that, Beto. I been reading they’re working wonders with the drugs for that now.”
“Yeah, so they say. But that shit costs. Anyways, you know me. Can’t be on no kind of program.”
Beto rocked in place and rubbed his forearm. “Yo, Eddie, you know—I wanted to thank you, you know? For never ratting me out on that thing.”
“Forget about it.”
“You could’ve done yourself a solid by stabbing me in the back, and I really, I just . . .” He leaned in and gave me a quick half hug. “De corazón, bro. For not opening your mouth.”
“Never thought of it, Beto.”
“That was never your style.” Beto flashed his piano keys. “Eddie, you think, you know, for old times’ sake, maybe you could hit me off with just a couple dollars? Just for a few? I’m solid for it. I get my SSI check—”
“Remember ladies’ night at Eddie Rockets, bro? Erik’s North? Prime and Tender, back in the day?” Beto began singing the chorus from Exposé’s “Point of No Return.” He launched into a dance move called “the Running Man.” “Remember, Eddie? When we used to battle?”
Beto froze the dance in midstride, with a leg in the air. “We used to be tight, Eddie, remember?” Beto popped back into action for a couple more steps, then froze. “I’ll get the money back to you with interest, Eddie, I promise.”
“That’s not it, Beto—”
He popped back into song and dance for a wild breakdown, then froze. “C’mon, Eddie. You can call it money in the bank.” He moved again, pop-locking and doing the chorus, then froze. “I’ll never bother you again.” Beto hopped and repeated just the chorus until he ran out of breath. He bent with his hands on his knees, huffing. “Remember, Eddie? The good times?”
“You always were the best dancer.” I began to reach for my wallet when Tony piped in.
“Yo, Eddie, you givin’ this títere legal tender? You may as well light that shit on fire.”
Beto begged with his eyes. “C’mon, Tony, why you gotta be like that?”
“Beto, the guy just got back. Already you’re hittin’ him up with your pity party? Show some respect.”
I waved Tony off. “I’m all right, Tone.”
“I know you are. That’s your flaw. You’re soft. Beto! Here!” Tony tossed the sack of heroin he showed me out the window onto the street.
Beto jumped on it.
Tony snapped his neck for me to get in the car, which I did.
Beto leaned in to Tony’s side with a bigger grin. “See, Tony? You always come through. Man, you got a heart of gold!”
“Stop counting on it, Beto, this ain’t welfare.”
Beto slapped Tony’s shoulder and looked at me. “He’s a good man, Eddie. Solid. A prince. He’s gonna go far, this guy.”
Tony lit a cigarette. “Why don’t you go back to the methadone program like I told you, Beto?”
“I am, Tony, I am. I’m planning on it. It’s my New Year’s resolution, I swear. But you know, right now it’s the holidays and everything. I just wanna celebrate.”
Tony started the engine. “The holidays, Beto? It’s a month to Halloween.”
Beto nodded. “I know, right? You noticed the shit starts earlier every year? It’s getting too commercial.”
Tony shook his head.
Beto began to launch into more gibberish, but Tony powered his window up and cut him off. Beto waved like a kid in a home movie about to jump into the ocean and took off toward the gangway with his stash.
Tony slumped as if contemplating another shift at the mill. “The shit you go through to make a living these days. Anyway, let’s stop at the crib. I got something I wanna show you.”
Tony’s place was a couple blocks away. A rear apartment on the second floor of a two-flat. We parked in the alley. Tony nosed the front bumper right up to a utility pole, next to the back fence, which left barely enough room for him to get out.
The backyard was dark, overgrown with brush, and full of garbage. It reminded me of the lot where I once saw a kid jump ten feet after getting bitten by a rat. I moved across the narrow sidewalk quickly to the back porch.
The back of Tony’s gray building was scarred by graffiti, most of it gang-related. The porch creaked like an old woman’s bones. The door to Tony’s apartment was covered with a metal gate. The lone window had bars on it.
Tony worked the locks. “I’m staying here to save money right now. Once we pull the caper, I’m buying a condo on Lake Shore Drive.”
We entered through the kitchen. The room was barely lit by a single low-watt bulb. It needed a paint job. The walls were yellow with grease, and years of dust caked the molding. There was a table surrounded by four mismatched chairs and the hardwood floor was painted plasma red. The sink was empty. A pot, one pan, and two dishes were stacked neatly on the counter. Music poured in from one of the other rooms.
Tony padlocked the gate behind us. He shut the door. “Anybody in?”
Two teenage girls bounced into the kitchen from the living room. If they were legal, they were barely legal.
Tony grinned, removed his shades, and tongued the dark-haired, olive-skinned one like he had just gotten back from the war. He whipped his leather off in a practiced style and hung it on the back of a chair, revealing thick forearms and a menagerie of tattoos.
I recognized the dark-haired female as Nena, the girl Tony had sent to Joliet to speak to me. The other girl was cream-colored. A green-eyed Puerto Rican who looked almost like a white girl with light brown hair.
Tony grinned so you could see his dimples. “Eddie, meet Sweetleaf.”
Tony’s girl, Nena, said, “We call her that ’cause she smoke a lotta weed.”
Sweetleaf’s white jeans were so tight, they were like a fine glaze.
I smiled. “What’s your real name?”
“Pure as the driven snow, huh? Your mother must have taken one look at you and come up with that.”
Nieve opened her green eyes wide. “How did you know?”
I smiled. “Intuition.”
Nieve asked for my jacket and carefully hung it on the back of a chair.
Tony wagged his eyebrows. “Yo, let’s set this shit off.”
We sat around a card table, boy-girl, boy-girl, and played drinking games. Nieve broke weed and rolled it into a cigar leaf. Tony did impressions and told jokes. The boom box went through a repertoire of freestyle and house, most of it from the eighties. Tony repeated, “Remember this? Remember this?” during almost every song.
Nieve held in smoke, but smiled when our fingertips touched as she passed the blunt.
Tony snapped his fingers. “Damn, I’m snoozing.” He went in the bedroom and returned with his kit. “Almost forgot the yayo.”
Therapists warn against this: hanging out with the old crowd. Scenarios that set off craving as predictably as ringing a bell. Your only thought becomes, Do coke, do coke now! Sometimes you don’t know the trigger. Other times it’s a lock. Like watching your old running buddies do blow. That’ll get you thirsty every time.
Tony cut lines on a little mirror. He sucked them with a metal straw.
My nose tingled. “Where’s the bathroom?”
They all pointed.
Tony thumbed at the cocaine. “Walk in the park first?”
I smiled and hustled to the can.
Tony said, “Try not to stink up the joint, huh?” and the girls laughed, but not as hard as Tony.
I locked the bathroom door. My heart galloped. I needed to stick my mind on anything other than the coke rush. I splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror over the filthy vanity. My eyes were close.
After a few minutes Tony banged on the door. “Yo, kid, you fall in? Need a life jacket?”
“Tony, can you get away from the door?” I sat on the toilet and closed my eyes. I imagined Miami. The beach. Hot sand. Women in thongs. I ran my fingers over the money belt under my shirt.
There is no doubt about it: cocaine can devour forty thousand dollars faster than the IRS on a rampage. I whispered the Our Father, said a couple of Hail Mary’s, and the craving began to settle. I splashed water on my face again and walked out.
Tony blew a big cloud of reefer smoke. “Yo, E, you find the toilet paper under the sink? Or’d you go with the hand on this one?” Tony cracked himself up, but the girls laughed in a way that felt like they were only humoring him.
“I could use some candy or gum.”
Nena was on Tony’s lap by then. She offered bubble gum.
Nieve flicked her hair. “Yo, so how youse two know each other?”
Tony slapped the table. “Me and this nigga? Girl, since the seventies. Grammar school.”
Nena said, “The seventies? Ho shit, I wasn’t even born yet!”
Nieve and Nena were teenagers. This was prehistory to them. Their parents’ generation. Tony recounted the first day, in fifth grade, when he was the new kid, a transfer student, and how I was the first boy in the class to befriend him during recess.
I smiled again. “Tony conned the teacher into believing he was such a little gentleman. Kept answering, ‘Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am’ to every question. Yet all the while I can see him giving the old bag the finger under his desk.”
The girls giggled.
Tony sniffed his middle finger. “Cunt was onto me within a week.”
“Yeah, but what a week.”
We bullshitted like that for a while, recalling childhood adventures, like shoplifting comic books at Woolworth’s and changing ratty old gym shoes for new ones at Goldblatt’s and just running out. We talked about other times, in our twenties, when we shared an apartment, a loft, and threw wild parties, like one where we dressed as the Blues Brothers, and another where we dressed as KISS—Tony was Ace Frehley and I was Gene Simmons. We ate magic mushrooms until they kicked in and Tony tried to do a backflip off the couch and stumbled into our TV, breaking it.
Tony said, “The next day we stole a bigger one from the Polk Brothers warehouse.”
The girls told us about a time they cut class to do acid and walk around Water Tower mall, laughing in people’s faces.
Tony said, “Good times. That’s what life is all about.” He looked at me. “Now we’re gonna make some new memories.”
He took Nena’s feet into his lap, removed her shoes, and began to give her a foot massage. Nieve poured Alizé into my cup. We kept on chatting.
Eventually, all talking stopped. Nena climbed in Tony’s lap again. They humped, laughed, and made out. She rubbed him over his pants. Nieve and I sat in silence and pretended not to notice, but I was getting stiff.
Tony got up and grabbed the boom box. “We’re going in the bedroom. Front room’s all yours.”
I swallowed. “Ain’t you taking me home, Tony?”
“Later.” He staggered toward the bedroom. Over his shoulder he said, “Talk to Sweetleaf, will ya? She looks lonely.”
I followed him to the bedroom door. “Tony, I don’t feel like small talk.”
Tony looked at me with bloodshot, watery eyes. I could see over his shoulder as Nena spread herself on the bed. Tony whispered, “Don’t be nervous. It really is like riding a bike.” With that, Tony slipped into the bedroom and closed the door.
I went back to the table and sat in silence. Music pumped out of the bedroom. Before long we heard the bedsprings, muffled voices, laughter. Then the headboard banged slowly against the wall.
Nieve stood and headed for the living room. “You wanna watch TV?”
We sat in the curtainless room, on opposite ends of a soiled couch. Tony’s weights and bench took up most of the space. Nieve offered me the remote.
I waved it off. “Watch whatever you want.”
Nieve flipped through stations and stopped on a show about a California high school. Teenagers put on a play.
Nieve tilted her head. “You like this show?”
“I don’t care.”
“I can put a movie on if you want.”
Nieve got up and pressed play on the DVD player, then sat down again, closer.
We sat in silence as a set of woman’s lips, a blonde, pumped up and down, machinelike, on a giant black cock. The camera pulled back and changed angles. The couple worked through an itinerary of positions. Freestyle music bounced in from Tony’s bedroom and mixed noisily with the synthesizer porn score. Tony’s headboard continued to bang against the wall.
The camera closed in and pulled back on the action. It focused briefly on the word “Sagittarius” tattooed in a cheap green cursive on the woman’s back. Her ass was thick for a white girl. She looked right in the camera and said, “Deep inside, baby. Pay those bills.”
By then, my dick was like cobalt. Nieve touched my hand, but did not hold it. She slid a little closer, leaned without a word, and started kissing my neck. I was too embarrassed to look her in the eye. I focused on the action on-screen.
Nieve unzipped my jeans and pulled it out. Her hand felt small. Her stroke was awkward. Still, it was warm. And soft. I don’t know where Nieve imagined it was going, but there was no time. A heavy load bubbled out.
Nieve held it as it shriveled up. I’m not sure what she was waiting for, but the couple in the porno kept going, and Tony’s headboard slapped the wall.
After ten seconds that felt like ten minutes, Nieve released. “I better wash up,” she said.
I zipped so fast, I almost pinched myself. Nieve disappeared into the bathroom. After a while she returned, and we avoided eyes again. I felt like telling her that I hadn’t been with a woman in a very long time. Maybe we could try again another day. I could get her number. Or maybe we could wait a few minutes.
But I didn’t say a word. Nieve shut off the porn and sat Indian-style on the floor to watch the show about the California high school. The students’ play was in trouble. Then somebody fixed everything by saying the show would go on.
The bedroom door creaked open. Tony came down the hall less urgent than before. His belt was undone. He wore a dago T, a wife beater that showed off his biceps and even more tattoos. The ones I remembered looked a little faded. Tony was sweaty, but not out of breath. He flashed a big tacky grin.
“What up, pimp?”
I didn’t say a word.
He looked at Nieve. “You two getting along?”
Nieve looked at Tony, then at me. “He’s really sweet.”
“I told you.”
I got up. “Ready to go, Tone?”
He looked at me. “Do I look out for my boy or what?”
“Just give me the address, Tony. I’ll find my new place myself.”
Tony waved me off. “Don’t get your panties in a bundle, stud.”
He went back to the bedroom and came back fully dressed, down to the driving gloves. Nieve got up from the living-room floor and joined Nena in the bedroom.
Tony had one hand behind his back. “Close your eyes and stick out your palm.”
“How many times I gotta tell you, Tony? I’m ready to roll.”
“Just do it. I got a surprise for you.”
I felt stupid, but I closed my eyes and put my hand out. Tony slapped it with cold metal. I opened my eyes and saw a .38 Special. Chrome. As polished as Tony’s car.
I handed it back. “I don’t need this.”
“Why not? This heater’s a classic.”
“I don’t run in your crew, Tone.”
“It’s for security.”
“I ain’t that insecure. And I sure as shit ain’t looking for no weapons rap.”
Tony held the gun like he didn’t quite understand. “Suit yourself.” He tucked the chrome into his waistband and grabbed weed and coke off the table. “I thought it might come in handy.”
We left without saying good-bye to the girls. Once in the car, Tony slipped the reefer, the coke, and the .38 under his seat. I was ready to get to my new place, take a hot shower, and spread out on some clean sheets.
Tony started the engine. He looked in the rearview mirror. “Fuck!”
Tony opened his mouth to answer, but was cut off by flashing blue lights, and the unmistakable peal of a Chicago police siren tearing through the night.
Blue and white lights bounced off every surface in that alley like bottle rockets. My heart did the same.
Tony punched the dashboard. “Shit! It’s Coltrane and Johnson.”
I looked back at the unmarked squad. A white light flooded us, but I could see that they had snuck up and pinned the Caddy to the utility pole, which left no way out.
“Tony, you know these humps?”
A bullhorn blared: “All right, Pacheco. Get out.”
Tony looked back. “We’re stuck.”
The horn: “Outta the vehicle! Now!”
Tony shut off the engine.
I caught his arm. “What’re you gonna do?”
He jerked away from me. “Pull it together, Eddie. These leprechauns don’t play.”
Tony climbed out with his hands in front of him. Even if I made a run, they’d recover my suitcase from the trunk and ID me from what they found inside. It wasn’t worth a bullet in the back either. I followed Tony into the spotlight.
Two plainclothes officers hopped toward us with their guns drawn. They doubled us over the hood of Tony’s car and shackled our hands behind our backs, but didn’t bother to pat us down.
One cop was black, the other was white. Their outfits were standard issue: blue jeans, windbreakers, baseball caps. The black cop wielded a round gut. A thin wedding band pinched his sausage-link ring finger. The white one was lanky, and tucked his jeans into skinny cowboy boots.
The black cop breathed raw onions down my neck. “Stay down, big man.”
I did not resist.
The white cop flexed a deep rasp of a voice, with a slight Southern accent. “You too, Pacheco, stay down.”
For reasons known only to him, Tony flopped like a marlin on a hook. The white cop unholstered a big metal flashlight and jabbed it into Tony’s ribs. Tony tensed like he’d been stunned with an electric current.
The white cop reholstered the flashlight and looked at his partner. “See that, Johnson? Still breaking ’em after all these years.”
Tony flared his nostrils and said something nasty about the white cop’s mother. The man’s pockmarked face almost cracked in two. He grabbed Tony by the collar and the back of the pants and shoveled him into a garage door, making a loud percussive thump and putting a dent in the thin door metal. The cop then picked Tony up and rammed him into trash bins, knocking them over like bowling pins. Garbage bags spilled. For a finale the tall white cop swung the point of his cowboy boot in a sudden, perfect arc, right into Tony’s gut. Tony yelped.
The cop bent down and grabbed Tony by the wisps of his receding hair. “Don’t you never say nothin’ about my momma!”
Tony’s face sagged. If he had anything else to say, he swallowed it. The black cop, Johnson, did nothing.
Coltrane let go of Tony and turned his square jaw at me. “And who the hell are you?”
I cleared my throat. “Santiago. Eddie Santiago.”
“Santiago, why are you polluting my jurisdiction?”
“I’m from around here.”
“Where, Santiago? I want an address.”
I didn’t even know where I lived.
“By the park. I just moved here.”
“You don’t know your own address?”
“I’m new in town.”
“Where from? My patience is growing thin.”
There was no use hiding it. Coltrane could simply punch my name into the computer and it would all pour down. Or he could check my wallet and see my newly minted Department of Corrections ID.
I cleared my throat. “Stateville. I just got out.”
Coltrane raised an eyebrow. “Now we’re sharing.”
Johnson crinkled his nose. “I thought I smelled convict.”
Coltrane took a comb from his back pocket and raked it through his oily, dirty blond head. “Fresh from the penitentiary, and already itchin’ to get back.”
Coltrane put the comb away and dug a tin of chewing tobacco from his breast pocket. He pinched a wad and stuffed it between his cheek and gum. He looked at his partner. “Let’s investigate, Johnson.”
They frisked us, Coltrane on Tony, Johnson on me. Johnson immediately felt my money belt. My throat tightened.
The chemicals in my stomach churned.
Johnson yanked my shirt open and the buttons flew. His eyes widened. He removed the money belt and unzipped it. “Aw, hell naw!”
Coltrane leaned and eyeballed the money without a reaction. He rubbed his chin like it was an unanticipated turn of events. Finally, he thumbed the cash.
My gears jammed. I couldn’t process the words.
Coltrane’s pitch rose. “Are you deaf, Santiago? I asked you a question.”
My voice almost cracked. “It’s a little over forty thousand.”
The cops looked at each other, paused, then burst out laughing.
“Let the good times roll,” said Johnson.
I tried to weigh them down. “I worked real hard for that.”
Coltrane stopped laughing on a dime. “Hey! Santiago! Blow it up somebody else’s ass. Them prison jobs don’t pay but a couple cents an hour. We know you didn’t earn this.”
Coltrane took the money belt from Johnson’s hands, zipped it, slung it over his shoulder like it was the championship belt. “Keep your eye on the suspects, Johnson, while I check what else we got.”
The black cop ordered us to our knees.
Coltrane went straight for Tony’s stash. “Aha! Johnson, look at this jackpot. We got marijuana . . . a white substance that appears to be”—he sniffed it without snorting—“powder cocaine. And, oh yes”—he held up the .38-caliber revolver—“we got ourselves a peashooter.”
Johnson leaned toward us. “Boy, you dumb fucks really stepped in it with that one. We coordinate with the feds on one of them RICO joints? You’re talkin’ mandatory minimums. So much time, you’ll learn to suck your own balls.”
Coltrane examined the gun. “That is, of course, unless CPD Forensics is looking for this.” He looked right at me. “In that case it gets serious, doesn’t it?”
Coltrane opened the .38’s chamber, ejected the bullets into his palm. “Hollow points. Fat stretch right there.” He sniffed the barrel and reacted like it was rotten milk. “Dang thing’s been fired recently too.”
Coltrane closed the chamber, put the bullets in his breast pocket, and tilted his head at me as he tucked the gun into his waistband. I looked at Little Tony, but he played “Keep Away” with his eyes.
Coltrane found my suitcase in the Caddy’s trunk. He laid it on the pavement. “What’s inside, Santiago?”
“You claiming it?”
I knew from all of my jailhouse lawyering that I should never say or admit anything to a cop other than my pedigree information—name, address, and birthday. Whatever else you say will never be used to excuse you, and will only be used to screw you. I said, “Everything in that suitcase belongs to me.”
Coltrane opened it and shook everything onto the wet, dirty pavement. Then he pulled a bowie knife from his boot to pick through my stuff. I only had a couple of books left in my collection, but Coltrane said, “Brace yourself, Johnson. Another convict who loves to read.”
Johnson shook his head. “Nigga, you a straight-up cliché.”
Coltrane resheathed the knife in his boot. He opened a jewelry box and the one thing contained within it fell onto the clothes on the street. Coltrane’s hand moved slowly toward it. He held it up.
“Is this a genuine Purple Heart?”
I did not say.
“Answer me, Santiago. My pappy earned his getting blinded while killin’ Red Chinese. How’s a sperm bag like you get one?”
“Be careful with it.”
Coltrane stepped closer. I could smell the tobacco and saliva on his breath. “You serve in the military?”
I was a veteran of too many wars, but not in the way Coltrane meant. “No.”
“Hmm. Figured this couldn’t be rightfully yours.”
Coltrane put the Purple Heart into the same pocket where he kept his chewing tobacco. Then he flipped through my mother’s Bible. Rose petals preserved between the pages for nearly thirty years came loose and fluttered lifelessly to the pavement. I wanted to kick Coltrane’s yellow teeth in.
For a second he appeared to read one of the passages. He shut the book. “Santiago, you one of them jailhouse converts?”
I clenched my teeth. “Put my things back as you found them.”
The flame in Coltrane’s fading gray eyes sputtered, and I got ready for the flashlight in the ribs. But he turned the heat down.
“Perp, you ain’t worth the sweat.” He looked at Johnson. “Let’s wrap these two in a bow.”
Johnson shoved Tony into the backseat of their unmarked squad, while Coltrane tossed my things back in the suitcase, then tossed the suitcase back into Tony’s trunk. He put the gun, the coke, the reefer, and my money belt into the trunk of their squad car and said, “Official evidence” as he slammed it shut.
Johnson folded me into the backseat. “Looks like you dildos just fell into a hole.”
My throat constricted. “Where are you taking us?”
Johnson curled his lips. “Like you don’t know.”
Coltrane jumped behind the steering wheel and looked over his shoulder. “You belong to us now, Santiago.”
He shifted the machine into drive and took off. My stomach flipped. We turned onto the street that leads to the station, and sped the rest of the way.
My heart squeezed against the walls inside my chest. We were a couple blocks from the station. Coltrane turned toward us as he drove.
“Got you girls shittin’, don’t I?”
He smirked, cut the wheel, and burned rubber down an alley, away from the precinct. I didn’t know what to think. Obviously, we weren’t on our way to the lockup. If we did not go to the precinct, we would not be processed. No process, no judges. No DAs. No indictments. No prison.
My pulse came down a little. I realized the whole thing was some kind of shakedown.
My money was in the trunk. My number one object became to get out of the vehicle and away from these assholes with as much of my savings as possible. I wondered whether I should speak up. I’d witnessed many power plays and it was usually the guy who shut his mouth the longest who came up aces in the end.
But not always.
I cleared my throat. “Where are we going?”
Coltrane and Johnson ignored me.
“Are we under arrest?”
Their body language portrayed nothing, no movement. They were like a still life of the backs of two heads.
I raised my voice a little. “Officers, I demand to speak to an attorney—”
Johnson turned. “Boy, if you don’t shut that blow-hole—”
I cut him off with, “Detective, I demand to speak—”
Johnson cut me off with a solid right hook to the side of the head. A black shroud dropped over my frontal lobe. I was knocked out.
When I came to, we were parked someplace quiet, and dark. My head felt heavy. Everything was dim. Tony and I were alone in the car. Coltrane and Johnson hovered above us like ghosts. I closed my eyes. Everything spun.
When I opened my eyes, I saw Coltrane and Johnson again, only now they stood on a loading dock next to the car. A sign behind them read, WHOLESALE MEATS.
Tony sounded far away. “You up, Eddie? Can you hear me?”
“Whut?” It hurt to talk.
Tony whispered, “Are you all right?”
It felt like I’d had too much to drink, only a lot worse. I had to concentrate because Tony was on some kind of time delay. His words only made sense a few seconds after he spoke them. The pain spiked inside my head.
“Goddamn. Where are we?”
I had no clue. I looked around. The area seemed deserted.
“What are we doing here, Tony?”
“Coltrane stopped at a pay phone while you were zonked. Made a quick call, then drove straight here.”
Tony looked out the window, away from me, away from the dock and from Coltrane and Johnson. “I think we’re up for sale.”
“For sale?” Maybe I was punch-drunk. “What’d you just say?”
“Roach?” It took me a second to recollect who he meant. “You mean . . . your street war?” It took me another second to realize what Tony was getting at. “Are you saying they’d turn you over?”
“Turn us over.”
“They know you got beef with Roach and his crew?”
“Of course they do. And they know Roach’ll pay.”
“Don’t they know what he’ll do if he gets his hands on you?”
Tony turned to me. “Eddie, for a price, these niggas’ll do it themselves.”
“You’re outta your mind.” The pain shifted from my head to my stomach. “These guys are cops!”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Whatta you think we’re doing out here? Look around. Nobody knows we’re out here.”
I looked up at Coltrane and Johnson, and again felt the impulse to run. I scouted a route, but the car door was locked, with no way to open it from inside. No key in the ignition. Kicking the glass out and trying to jump through was too many steps to complete before Coltrane and Johnson’d be off that dock and on top of me.
At some point they would open that door, to get us out. I determined that at that exact moment I would hoof it, even with my hands shackled behind my back.
Johnson looked down on me from the loading dock. It was like he’d read my mind. His eyes said: “I’ll shoot you in the fuckin’ back, punk.”
I turned to Tony. “Think we can negotiate?”
“My money. We can give them some.”
“They already have that.”
We were in wet cement. “Ain’t you got something saved, Tony? What about that cash you picked up at the Spot?”
“Man, that was just a couple G’s.”
“Nothing in the bank?”
“I thought you were rolling. Where’s all that cheese you been grating?”
Tony said, “Wake up, Eddie!” He hard-whispered: “If they wanted to deal with us, they would. Obviously, that ain’t why they dragged us to bumfuck.”
Tony left no doubt: I was without a partner and without a chance. And if the line between love and hate is a thin one, the one between hope and desperation is even more so. I crossed it.
I shrank farther into the seat. My chest tightened. I envisioned Roach leading us to some dark place to cap us, or maybe hang us from some pipes. At once, an image of my dead mother flashed, looking pasty, waiting for me at the end of the tunnel with her droopy eyes. Blood drained to my feet.
Just then, a long white limousine flew out of the mist. It slid to a stop in the gravel next to us.
Tony sat up. “Oh shit! It’s Pelón! That’s his ride!”
Tony thanked God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary out loud.
The limo driver got out, waddled to the back, held the door open. I saw the sheen of a white suit against tough dark skin. Pelón, who was in his mid-sixties now, peeled himself slowly from inside. He still shaved his head, and it still looked like a giant coconut.
Pelón poked the gravel with his cane, and worked like a newborn foal to find his posture. Once he got his balance, he moved quickly to the foot of the dock.
Tony kept thanking God under his breath.
I watched Pelón deal with the narcs. I hadn’t seen him in over a decade. He looked older, of course, with more lines in his face. The black handlebar mustache of his middle age was gone, replaced by a thin silver mustache, which ended at the corners of his mouth. His eyebrows were salt-and-pepper, and his face was otherwise as clean-shaven as his skull. He looked thinner than when he was younger and into lifting weights. The cane was a new addition as well.
Pelón and the cops agreed on a price. I began to feel the noose loosen. The narcs jumped from the dock to the hood of Pelón’s limo to make noise and demonstrate how agile they still were. Pelón cursed at them in Spanish, but he fished cash from an envelope.
Tony showed his dimples. “I told you the man was proper.”
The cops yanked us out and undid the cuffs, which let blood rush back to my hands. Johnson licked his lips.
Coltrane flashed his yellowed smile. “Be careful where you walk, Santiago.”
They hopped in their car. My money belt was still in the trunk.
I took one step toward their car with my finger raised. “Hey!”
Johnson looked right at me with his black hand on the door.
I nodded at the trunk. “My money.”
Johnson crinkled his eyes. “Fuck you, Santiago.” He slammed the door shut. “You bring that shit up again, I’ll chop you in the fuckin’ throat.”
Coltrane punched the gas and they sped off, kicking up gravel.
Like a statue of an easy mark, I stood there and watched their taillights disappear into the mist. After they were history, I suddenly picked up a rock and threw it.
Tony spit. “Thank God they’re gone.”
Pelón grunted. “Them cochinos ain’t gone nowhere. They just on ice.”
I stared at the spot where the cops had entered the fog. My money was smoke. Florida? The salsa label I was going to invest in? Vanished.
Pelón coughed into a monogrammed handkerchief. I saw for the first time that his right hand had only the thumb and index finger. The missing fingers made his right hand look like a claw. He extended it.
“Bueno, Eddie, hace mucho tiempo.”
I looked at the claw and did not take it.
Pelón looked at his hand, then back at me as he lowered it to his side. “You found a little trouble, eh?”
I had a lump in my throat. “My money.”
Tony let some air out. “I just can’t believe they gangstered it like that.”
Pelón said, “¿Cuánto fue?”
I held my tongue for a second, then said it. “Forty. Forty thousand dollars.”
I looked at the ground. “I got nothin’ left.”
Pelón shook his head. “Don’t look at it like this. Is only money.”
I looked at Pelón and wondered how he could possibly say that with a sober face.
We stood in silence for a second. I felt really lost.
Pelón put his claw on my shoulder. In Spanish he said, “Sometimes life hits hard to awaken us.” He opened his envelope again and, with his claw, quickly counted twenty-five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. “Toma. Take this until you get on your feet.”
I looked at the money.
Pelón held it closer. In a Puerto Rican accent he said, “This ain’t time for pride.”
My whole life I’ve known guys like Pelón. They pretend to be stand-up compadres in order to gain advantage. For these types a couple of dollars always means leverage.
I took it. “You know I’ll pay you back, Pelón.”
“Who’s keeping track? We do these things for our friends.”
Pelón clapped his hands. “Bueno, vámonos. I got an appointment. But I take you home first, no?”
The fat driver held open the door. We climbed in and glided off. Inside the limo was very cold. The air was on full blast. Pelón had Tony fix him a drink.
“Later this week we make a little party,” said Pelón. “The three of us.” He touched my knee. In Spanish he said, “We must celebrate our friend’s liberation!”
At that moment the only thing that I could think about was my money.
Tony sat up next to me. “Pelón, can we do something high-class?”
Pelón flaunted a perfect smile. “Ya tú sabe’ que I don’t do it any other way.” He looked at me. “And you, Eddie? Don’t you worry about them pennies. Squash it. Forget about it. Pelón gonna take care of everything.”
As it turns out, he did.
MAESTRO (THAT LATIN STRUT)
I craned my neck up at my new apartment building: four stories of faded green aluminum siding that seemed to lean a little. Not like an old man who needs a cane. More like a tree that’s begun to go away from its center. It reminded me of a teacher’s explanation of the difference between potential energy versus kinetic. How a boulder on the edge of a cliff equals potential energy, while a falling boulder equals kinetic. The façade of my new apartment building was faded and quiet and grim. And it leaned just enough to give a hint of its potential.
Tony pointed to an empty window with the lights out. “Top floor’s you, kid. The penthouse,” which was his attempt at making things light.
Tony grabbed the suitcase out of my hand and went in. The hallway was a mix of roach spray, patches of worn, musty linoleum, and plaster from shit-colored walls that came off in chunks. Tony lugged my suitcase up the steps like a bellhop in one of those old black-and-white movies where white people travel by train and fall in love.
“Sweet location,” he said. “Close to the park.” Tony looked over his shoulder as he inserted the key. “You probably remember the ’L’s pretty close, when you need to zip around.”
Tony unlocked the door, stepped in, pulled a string in the center of the room. A circular fluorescent bulb fluttered on with a buzz. I remained in the doorway. Tony occupied the center of the room.
“I know it’s tight,” he said, “but it’s just a spot to hang it for a while. Come in.”
I traveled the length of the room in three steps. It had a small low bed, a scratched dresser, a mirror with the silver backing peeling off. The card table had a tiny refrigerator tucked under it. In the corner was a rickety chair.
“Smells like moldy clothes.”
Tony forced open the window. “So you buy some incense.”
The vomit-pink carpet was sticky, like it wanted to gum up the soles of my boots.
“Is there a toilet somewhere?”
Tony pointed toward the hallway. “You share with the other rooms on this floor.”
Tony cocked his head. “Get real.”
I sat on the piss-stained mattress. Empty hangers dangled in the doorless closet like a previous tenant’s bones.
I sniffed the air. “Did something commit suicide in here?”
“What the fuck did you expect for five hundred clams? You think this is 1986?” He pointed an unlit cigarette out the window in the direction of downtown. “At least you got a view. And you ain’t locked in. This is by the week. You’re good for a solid month.”
Tony dragged the chair to the window and sat. He propped his heels on the sill, and tipped the chair back on two legs.
I rubbed my temples. Handcuffs, right hooks, and evaporating money morphed into a cinder block inside my head. “What the fuck happened out there, Tony?”
“With the narcs?” He leaned to flick ashes out the window, but got them on the windowsill. “Nothin’. Just another night in the business. They must’ve staked us out.”
“Don’t you mean they staked you out, Tone?”
He inhaled tobacco smoke. “If that makes you feel better.”
I began to get heated. “Tony, how’d they know where to find you?”
“They’re cops, Eddie. They probably followed us from the Spot.”
I said, “When you picked up the money? We ran into Beto?” I replayed the tape in my mind of when we stopped at Tony’s dope spot. “Didn’t I tell you to take me home first?”
“You gonna blame me now?”
“You refused, didn’t you?”
“Eddie, how the fuck was I—”
“You blew me off, didn’t you, Tony? Every time I wanted to go, you made an excuse.”
He narrowed his thick eyebrows. “You driving at something?”
“I’m out forty G’s behind this.”
“You saying I had something to do with it?”
“Measure your words, Palo.”
“Tony, you knew I’d be holding.”
“You knew business was good, and that I’d save. That’s why you cooked up this stew. To rip me off. I wouldn’t be in this if it wasn’t for you.”
“You were real secretive on the phone.”
“Eddie, you’re paranoid.”
“Who fired the gun?”
“The one you tried dropping on me, not two minutes before the heat popped in.”
“Coltrane lied about that. Did you forget how it is when pigs try to shake you?”
“You got my fingerprints all over that chrome. Why did you do that?”
“I was trying to give you a gift.”
“Yet you handled it with gloves.”
“My driving gloves?” Tony pulled them from his pocket and held them up like a trial lawyer. “We were going back to the car, remember?”
“You got a reaction for everything, don’t you, Tony?”
“Eddie, if I was half as clever as you’re making me out, I might have tried it.”
Tony turned his attention back out the window. He smoked and shook his head, with the chair angled, and his feet back up on the sill.
“I’m gonna forget about this, Eddie. You just got sprung, you’re tripping. And it’s true that you have suffered a terrible shock. You ain’t thinking right. Besides, you always had an active imagination.”
I stared at my empty hands. Finally, I got up and walked across the room, took off my army field jacket, and hung it up in the closet. On the way back to the bed, I surprised Tony by kicking the chair’s hind legs out from under him so that he fell hard to the ground. I jumped on top of him with my knee in his gut as I dug my forearm under his chin. Tony’s face turned red and his eyes bulged with surprise.
I spoke through clenched teeth. “I want my money back.”
Tony’s windpipe sounded distressed. “I—I didn’t take it.”
“Liar! You set me up!”
In one swift move Tony threw me off and rolled out from under. In another move he was up on his knees, with his fists in a boxing position. His face was red. He breathed like a stoked engine. “I oughta pop you in the mouth.”
I was a little out of breath too. We stood up straight, pupils locked. Tony lowered his fists.
I startled him with a hard slap from the right, before throwing a quick hook around his neck from the left and yanking him into a headlock. I squeezed.
“Where’s the money being dropped?”
“Sto—” He couldn’t get the word out.
I shouted, “When do you get your cut?”
Tony bucked and threw me into the empty bureau. We knocked my suitcase on its side, but I didn’t release. I squeezed Tony’s head with my biceps, and kept my weight above his. Suddenly, the image of Tony’s neck snapping spilled across my mind and I released to catch my breath.
Tony stood upright. His face glowed. His eyes watered and two lone tears spilled in long thin streaks to the bottom of his face. He sucked the mucus into his nose.
“Eddie, we been friends a long time. Don’t you trust me?”
“Go tell whoever’s got my money now to give it back.”
The muscles in Tony’s face turned slowly downward. He moved to the door. His shoulders slumped. “I’d hang myself before burning you.”
Tony waited with his hand on the doorknob.
“You got the message, Little Tony. Gangster. Go deliver it.”
Tony left. I listened to him hustle all the way down, keys and change jingling in his pockets. From the window I saw him jump in his red Caddy and rip a loud, squealing U-turn. Tire smoke rose into the yellow streetlight. It tainted the atmosphere with the smell of burnt rubber.
I picked up the chair and righted it. Tony’s cigarette had flown and landed on the carpet, where it burned a small hole. I flicked it to the street, then pulled the window shut.
I jammed the chair under the doorknob to hold off intruders, and noticed a small illustration taped over the door. Saint Michael the Archangel. He flew down with scales and a sword upon a cowering Satan and knocked him into a lake of fire.
I counted the twenty-five hundreds Pelón loaned me, and divided them into three piles, which I hid under different sections of the carpet. Then I bent a wire hanger into a shank. If anybody came through the door, I would open negotiations by taking his eye out.
I grabbed my field jacket from the closet, folded it into a pillow on the bed, and hid the shank underneath. I pulled off my construction boots, placed them by the bed in a way that would make them easy to slip on in a pinch. I lay down to stare at the ceiling and to dwell.
My problem was the money. I toiled for it so long, staked so much on it. Losing it felt like an amputation.
I needed that cash to go into the salsa business with Chiva down in Miami. Chiva was to be my business partner, but he was also my mentor, my padrino in more ways than one. Neither one of us would be happy if I showed up without the seed.
I thought a lot that first lonely night about the past, especially my partnership with Chiva. The way it all started when he stopped for weed one day at my cell.
I’d seen Chiva before, hanging around with some old-timers in the Yard. He was a skinny black Cuban in his late fifties, with a salt-and-pepper goatee that he stroked a lot as he talked. He kept his kinky gray hair pulled into a short, stiff ponytail.
Chiva looked up and down the passageway when he came to score that first time. “Gimme two dimes.”
I heard the man’s order, but didn’t move. “You a Cubano?”
Chiva said, “What the fuck, chota, you work for Fidel?”
“What’s up with those hands?”
He made a face. “What kind of questions are these?”
“Your hands look calloused. They get that way from jerkin’ off?”
Chiva balled up his fists. “Maricón, who the fuck is you to talk about my love life?”
Chiva was all of a hundred thirty pounds. I was two decades younger, and outweighed him by a hundred in solid muscle.
I said, “Relax, Manos de Piedras, I’m just curious.”
Chiva tossed the money on the cot. “Just get the herb, cotorro. Stop putting on a show.”
“You used to play congas?”
Chiva looked at me with his lids half-lowered and paused. “The proper name is tamboras.”
“Your hands remind me of my father’s.”
Chiva said, “Wow, a sentimental marijuanero. You see everything in this place. Send me a postcard on Father’s Day. For now, get me my dimes, OK?”
Chiva waited. Then he finally looked at his own hands. “You right, I play. But they’re getting soft. I’m out of practice.”
“Why’d you stop?”
Chiva raised his skinny arms to indicate the cell. “The fuck I’m gonna play in here? And get these faggots on my culo?”
“Think you’re that good?”
“Mira, I didn’t come here to stretch my tongue. Give me my yerba.”
I got Chiva his weed and he split. For days, all I could think about was the sound of the drum. Finally, I greased a couple guards and imported two: a conga and a tumbadora.
The next time Chiva came to my cell, I stood next to the drums like a kid who brings home a ribbon. Chiva’s almond eyes went round.
“What you think, Cuba? Think you can still play?”
Chiva stroked his goatee and looked at the drums. “You should’ve got a quinto.”
“Part the Red Sea and carry you?”
Chiva grinned. “Rólate un tabaco.”
I rolled a fat joint. Chiva inspected the drums. He looked them up and down, walked around, but did not touch or take his eyes off them. He turned them over and looked inside their hollow bodies. Then he set them upright and got down to their level to peer across the surface of their skins with one eye closed, the way a golfer or a pool player lines up a shot. I had no clue what Chiva looked for, but he impressed me that there was something innate about the instruments, something in their natures to sniff for, the way a dog confirms one of his own.
Chiva arrived at a conclusion. He sat on the edge of the cot, pulled the drums close, one between his legs, cracked his knuckles, and warmed up.
He slapped the leather. Tuned it with a wrench. Slapped it some more. Tuned it. We burned a big bomber. Then Chiva was off and drumming.
Beats ricocheted around the cell with the rumble of mythic stallions. Without thought, I yelled, “¡Camina Cubano!” like I heard on a record once. Black and Latino inmates gathered in and around my cell, and jammed with us, playing tin cups like cowbells, and even tapping out rhythms and melodies on the bars. Chiva’s calloused hands made like jackhammers and butterfly wings all at once. He grimaced as he caressed and punished the drums. And when he smiled on certain high notes, his white teeth shone.
Over time I learned how Chiva studied percussion his whole life. He’d grown up with it, from his mother’s overturned pots and pans, to some cheap bongos he got for Christmas once. As a teenager he scored the full-sized drums from money he earned shining shoes in the Capital. As he grew, he traveled the world in pursuit of certain teachers, certain experiences to call out the drummer within. He even returned to Cuba once and holed up at a relative’s house in Oriente for months. They lit candles and channeled spirits with the help of rhythm, tobacco, and rum. Chiva studied percussion from an old man who actually invented a widely imitated variation of an ancient rhythm.
“In Cuba music’s more than just to party. Is spiritual. Like a way of feeling the voice of the earth, the universe, and everything that lives.”
I knew that Chiva believed it. He made me believe it. He told me stories about New York. How he strutted all over the Big Apple in the sixties and early seventies, hustling on the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx.
“Living the life,” he said. “Smoking weed. Bebiendo ron. Eating steak in Times Square. And poosy? Olvídate. Boricua, Cubana, Colombiana. Dominicans? Asses as big as the moon.” Chiva held his rough hands out wide enough to demonstrate. “¡Brutal!”
In those days Chiva played on the street, on the Brooklyn Bridge, in Central Park, in a thousand nightclubs. He heard the great ones play live too. Joe Cuba, Mongo, Candido, Patato. Even Barretto. Chiva witnessed a heyday through the skin of his drums. And he began to teach me the craft of it early on. The history. And the mythology too.
We started with the clave. “It’s everything,” he said. “For the music you wanna play. The heart of it.” Chiva clapped it out, and made the sound with his mouth: “Ta-ta. Ta, ta, ta. Ta-ta. Ta, ta, ta.”
I clapped along. At first I didn’t quite feel it. I was on time. I had the rhythm, the tempo. But I couldn’t quite feel what was so special about this 2/3 beat. Until one day, when I was practically meditating, going through the exercises Chiva made me do on the drums. The clave surprised me. It came from inside, like a secret from another dimension.
After that, I practiced everything Chiva taught. Especially tumbao. And guaguancó, which seemed more spiritual to me.
One day Chiva looked kind of depressed as he went through the lesson. I asked what was wrong.
“These drums. I don’t know. They get us through the night, but—”
I braced myself. I really did not want to hear that Chiva was finished with our studies.
He stroked his beard. “You know what? It’s that if you want a drum that’s really gonna speak to you, you gotta make it youself.”
“You mean build it?”
“What difference does that make?”
“That’s how you know it got a soul.”
A couple years passed and Chiva’s sentence was almost done. He’d be out about a year before me. I knew I would miss him, so I never raised the subject of his release. One day he brought it up.
“Bueno, niño, what you gonna do when you get outta this hole?”
I kept drumming. “Back to Chicago, I guess.”
“I thought you got no family up there.”
I didn’t respond.
“No woman, no kids, right?”
“Your friends there are worthless.”
I shrugged. “It’s the only place I know.”
Chiva stroked his goatee for a long time. He corrected something I did on the drum, then spoke as he studied my hand placement. “What about Miami?”
I stopped. Miami was where Chiva was headed. Like every Cuban, he had family there.
“Don’t fuck with me, Chiva.” I practically heard the surf in my eardrum.
“¿Cómo te parece?”
“What the hell would I do?”
“I bring you into what I got cookin’. I gonna start a business with some cats from my New York days. Musicians, music industry people. We gonna start a record label. Something like Fania. Make real salsa dura. Heavy shit. Not like these comemierdas.”
Chiva and I often shared our disgust with the state of salsa from the eighties coming forward. The way lightweight salsa romántica had all but killed the market for what we considered salsa, the sound that I grew up with in the seventies.
“A record label, Chiva? I don’t know shit about that.”
“Listen, you making a little money here. You just invest. Be one of the owners. We gonna start small, so you can buy in with thirty, forty thousand.”
I raised my antennae. Chiva had been a con artist his whole life. In his early teens he escaped the communists by bullshitting his way onto an American cruise ship, pretending to be the son of a Cuban diplomat. By Chiva’s own admission, he had defrauded people, governments, and institutions all over the Western Hemisphere. In fact, the crime that landed him in prison involved a complicated insurance scam that resulted in Chiva’s ripping off his own ex-wife and former mother-in-law, and then his ex–brother-in-law getting hot about it and “accidentally” getting “bumped” out of a seventh-story window. Still, in my heart I believed that, with me at least, Chiva had always been straight-up.
I took a breath. “You wanna be business partners with me, Chiva? You don’t know that side of me. I can be fuckin’ ruthless.”
“I’m counting on it. And let me tell you, Eddie. Miami got so much delicious poosy, you pinga gonna write me a thank-you note.”
That first night after I was released from prison, after my seed money got swiped by Coltrane and Johnson, after my scuffle with Tony, I lay in bed and let the gears crunch in my head. The scenes leading up to me getting ripped off replayed in a continuous loop:
Tony leading me by the nostrils. Coltrane slinging my money belt over his shoulder. Johnson punching me. Pelón’s extended claw.
Around two in the morning I accepted that I couldn’t sleep. I got up, laced my boots, and began to pace the small room. The yellow streetlight poured in and hung itself in abstract patterns on the ceiling and walls.
I felt a little guilty about the dustup with Tony. The way his face sagged as he stood by the door. But forty thousand dollars had sprouted wings, and it was very possible, likely even, that Tony played a part in that. No way I could just let that pass.
Either way, the narcs had my money now. And I had no clue how to get it back. Being cops made them untouchable. Sort of. Fucking with them would be very high risk. They obviously didn’t give a shit about boundaries. How do you get an edge on hoodlums that carry the law around inside their wallets?
I leaned against the window. At least Tony was right about one thing: the view from my room was a clear shot of the Chicago skyline. I took my boots off and lay on the bed again. There was no point in staying up all night.
I certainly had enough cash with the two and a half G’s that Pelón lent me that I could jump a bus to Florida. I could catch up with Chiva, let him know what went down. Chiva would understand. I could work, start over, deal from zero again, stack paper until I had my share of the investment. Chiva and I could still do our thing. There was no real need for me to stick around Chicago looking for trouble.
But then, that wouldn’t be me.
I stared at the ceiling as I made my decision. Fuck running. Fuck taking it up the ass. I was determined to get my money back. No matter what.
Excerpted from Gunmetal Black by Serrano, Daniel Copyright © 2011 by Serrano, Daniel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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As a reader who likes "Urban" or street-life novels, I can't tell you its very hard to find a writer who's not only legit in street knowledge, but also very talented in word play & storytelling, but Daniel Serrano has nailed it with this book! I can't wait until his next book comes out!