What It Takes

I slouched in the passenger seat of Ricky’s shitty-looking Chevy Cavalier and cracked my knuckles. We were parked across the street from the place I had to go. I knew the building, knew the whole ‘hood pretty well, growing up on the edge of the projects like I did, like Ricky did, like all our crew did. The good feeling from the blunt me and Ricky shared earlier was fading fast, replaced by a nest of writhing snakes in my gut.

A gray-haired old woman in a blue and green flowered mu-mu crossed in front of the car without raising her eyes. She pulled one of them fold-up grocery carts behind her. I thought, if Ricky smacks the horn right now, she’ll probably have a heart attack. She wasn’t fat, but had ankles like tree trunks above her white sneakers. She tugged the cart up over the curb and limped along the cracked walk to the building.

“Hey, you goin’, hijo?” Ricky asked. He flicked his cigarette out the window. The sun had just dropped down below the buildings and the long shadows had disappeared like ghosts in daylight.

“Yeah, gimme a minute.” I wiped my clammy palms on my shorts, took a deep breath. It came back out in a long, stuttering sigh.

“You want a popper? I got a couple amyls in my pocket. Do one, then knock on the door. Give you some cojones, bro.”

I sat up, glared at him. “What, you saying I don’t got the nerve? Fuck you and your amyls. I don’t need no damn drugs to bust a cap in some asshole’s head.” I reached under the seat and grabbed the Glock, then leaned back and shoved it into the waistband of my shorts, pulled my shirt down over it. The salt in my sweat made the day-old tattoo on my chest sting.

Ricky smiled all cool. “That’s m’man.” He put out a fist. I bumped mine on it and slid out of the car. “Party with the homeboys tonight, you do this thing, Leo.”

The building was eight stories of brown brick, surrounded by a black iron gate. There was a couple short lampposts by the front stoop, but only one threw out a weak, yellow light. Some kids were playing on the steps, a little girl jumped rope on the walk.

I went round the front of the car and started across the street, wiped my hands on my ribs. Shit, they were slick with sweat again.

“Yo, perrito,” Ricky called.

“Yeah, what?”

He motioned me to him, so I came back to the car.

“You know the dude, right? Apartment 4D.”

“Yeah, Bones pointed him out to me.” I started back toward the building.

“Yo!”

“What?”

“Make sure you take it off safety first, perrito.” He grinned.

“Man, fuck you…”

Like at fourteen I’m still a “puppy.” My older brother Diego was a daddy at fourteen. His babymama Adriana was two years older. I don’t think pulling a trigger is any harder than making babies. Both take cajones, but you don’t gotta be grown-up to do either one.

I looked up at the row of windows on the fourth floor and crossed the street. Music came from one of them on an upper floor, but the hum and rattle of the dripping air conditioners in most of the others nearly drowned it out.

The little girl jumping rope stopped and smiled up at me, front teeth missing. The girls on the steps only threw glances at me as I went into the building.

I decided to take the stairs up. It would give me time to think, which maybe wasn’t such a good thing. I could feel my whole body vibrating. It wasn’t I was shaking, but more like everything in me was buzzing like a power line.

I pulled the gun from my waist and flicked off the safety. Then I stuck it in the back of my shorts and climbed the stairs. When I got up to the fourth floor, I peeked through the strip of wired glass in the metal emergency door. I couldn’t see shit. I wiped my face with the hem of my shirt and pushed the door open, looked down the hallway before stepping into it. It stank of cat piss.

The hall went off to my left. I followed it past the elevators. The grime was so thick on the cracked linoleum floor, I couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be. Most of the walls had graffiti on them, some in spray paint, a lot in pencil and Sharpie. I could hear music, and people talking. A TV blared some game show from behind one of the doors I passed.

I came to 4D. The door was painted a gross pale yellow, a rotten-egg-yellow, and looked like some little kid had smeared shit all over the bottom half. I looked up and down the hall. Nobody. I tried to pray a Padre Nuestro real quick, but couldn’t remember the words after the first few lines. I tried again. I knew the damn prayer but the words wouldn’t come to me. God probably didn’t want to hear my prayer right before shooting the brains out of some dude I don’t even know.

Get it done and they gonna throw me a party. Get drunk, get laid. And Diego, he’ll know that I’ma be okay, I can take care of Mama and Adriana and little Roberto. I know he’s been worried. A few months ago when me and Mama went to visit him, he said, “Leo, you gotta be the man while I’m locked up. You gotta look after them. You’re young, but not too young to be a man.”

I took out the gun but kept my hand behind my back. Sweat was stinging my eyes, scorching the spot on my chest. I knocked on the door. A little dog started to yip behind it. I heard steps coming up to it and prayed again, this time that I wouldn’t piss myself.

The door opened. It was the old woman with the tree-trunk ankles, varicose veins wrapped around them like vines. She had on glasses with thick lenses, one of them scratched up. The little dog, same frizzy gray as her hair, looked up with black bead eyes and growled, about as scary as a teddy bear. The smell of bacon, and of arroz y frijoles wafted out into the hall like perfume, covering the stink.

“Si?” Behind her, sitting at a table, eating and watching a TV was Tomaso, the dude I was to take out. He didn’t seem to notice that someone was at the door, kept eating and watching TV. He looked a little bit like my brother Diego, but older, maybe three, four years. Old lady musta been his abuela.

When Ricky first told me what it would take to come into the gang, I was ready. I knew from Diego how it would go down. I got through being jumped in, no problem. I felt I’d been dragged over a demolition site after, took weeks for some of the bruises to go away. But it felt good, too, on the inside, knowing I took it like a man. This here was my final test. I could pop the old lady and get Tomaso, too. Or I could just knock her out of the way and get up close to Tomaso before he could even get up from the table. I was ready. But Tomaso was eating, watching TV. He wasn’t coming at me, was holding a fork, not a gun. If I shouted his name, he might come at me. Then I’d have reason to pop him.

Something didn’t seem right. The fear left me, but so did my reason for being here. It didn’t make sense no more. I was confused.

The old woman brushed away a fly that landed on her face. Then she looked back to me. She smiled. “Que pasa, mijo? You look for somebody?”

I swallowed. “Yeah. I’m looking for…Freddy.”

“Lo siento. No Freddy. No Freddy live here.”

I nodded and she closed the door. I flipped the safety back on the Glock, slipped it back into my waistband and took the elevator down. I didn’t think my Jell-O knees could handle the stairs. But the nest of serpents was gone.

I came out of the building into the growing darkness. Ricky had moved to this side of the street and had the engine running. His eyes were wide, questioning me. I shrugged and got into the car.

“Well, Leo?”

I put the gun back under the seat. “He wasn’t there. Just an old lady and her dog.”

I felt more like a man than I ever had.

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Kevin’s Family

The original prologue of my novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of your Fist, was a scene from Kevin’s childhood. I’ve long since changed that, and so this will not appear in the final canon, although it remains part of the character’s backstory. 


Last night Kevin dreamed about the zoo. He’d been there once, when he was little. He remembered walking between his parents, holding their hands. Together they counted, “One, two, three!” and lifted him into the air, swinging him like a monkey on a vine, and his dad called him Monkey and carried him on his shoulders.

When he woke up, Kevin thought he might ask his dad if they could go again some time. But he couldn’t ask now. His dad was dope-sick and looking for a fix.

“Dammit, Kim, where’d you put the goddam money?” Despite the chill in the apartment, his dingy tee clung to him, and he wiped his palms on his jeans.

“I told you, Gary. I bought food with it. Kevin’s gotta eat.”

Kevin glanced up from where he sat on the worn sofa. His fingers picked at the loose threads around a tear in the upholstery fabric. He wished it was a school day.

“Yeah? Yeah?” Kevin’s father stalked into the kitchen. Kevin heard cabinets being opened and slammed shut. “Yeah, Kim? Where’s all that food? You get a slice of pizza for the kid and a couple of six-packs and smokes for yourself?” He came out of the kitchen, face red with rage, and knocked the beer can from her hand. She flinched, took a few steps back, watched beer pour out onto the floor.

Kevin drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, trying to refocus on the Saturday morning cartoons. He couldn’t. He shut his eyes tight. “Go away,” he whispered into his knees. “Go away. Go away.”

“You’re holding out on me, Kim. You worked this week. You got some tip money stashed around here somewhere. I just need twenty bucks to get me through the next couple days.” He pleaded now, raking his fingers through his short, blond hair.

“If I had twenty bucks, I’d go and buy Kevin a jacket and shoes. I don’t have any money. Go find someone else to cover your smack.”

Kevin’s father took a backhand swing at her, and she fell hard against the table. Kevin saw her touch her face and his stomach rolled. His father’s ring had caught the bridge of her nose, and blood trickled down from the gash.

“Get up,” his father growled. “Get up, bitch.” He bent down and grabbed her by the wrist.

Kevin propelled himself from the sofa and leaped onto his father’s back, eyes blinded by tears, his thin arms hooked around his father’s neck. “Leave her alone! Go away! Just go and don’t come back!”

His father tore Kevin’s arms from his neck and flung him to the floor, knocked the wind out of him.

“Please, Gary, don’t,” his mother begged.

“You fucking little cockroach, I’ll throw your ass out into the street…” He grabbed the front of the Kevin’s shirt and yanked him to his feet. Flailing his arms, Kevin broke free and scrambled to the apartment door. He unlocked the deadbolt, bounded out onto the landing, raced down five flights of stairs and took off running down the sidewalk beneath a steel-gray Manhattan sky that threatened early snow.

 

It was dusk when Kevin returned to the apartment, shivering in his jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. He forced his numb feet to mount the stairs, trying to count them as he went up, but was unable to concentrate for the cold and the gnawing emptiness in his middle. The low-wattage light bulb was out on the second floor, and Kevin walked sliding his hand along the banister to guide him through the murkiness. The stairwell smelled of cat urine and mildew. A door slammed on a floor above, and on the third floor landing Kevin passed a heavy-set black man in a parka who made brief eye-contact, but said nothing as he headed down the stairs.

The door to the apartment was locked. Kevin went to the far end of the landing, to the stairs leading up to the roof. He crouched down and grabbed the bottom stair tread with both hands and pulled it out. From the dark space beneath, Kevin retrieved an empty tobacco tin and opened it, dumping the contents at his feet. Four wheat pennies, a hood ornament from a BMW, a chain with his dad’s dog tags from when he was a soldier in the Middle East, and a slightly rusty key. He took the key and returned everything else beneath the step, replaced the stair tread and pounded it back into place with the heel of his hand.

Kevin turned the key in the lock and opened the apartment door. The lights were out in all the rooms except for the kitchen.

“Mom?” He flipped the switch by the door and scanned the living room. As he walked to the kitchen, his sneakers stuck where the spilled beer had dried. He went to the fridge and pulled out the grape jelly, a loaf of white bread and a carton of milk. He took the peanut butter from the cabinet, but as he opened the bag of bread, his hunger sharpened to agony, and he shoved a doughy slice into his mouth, nearly choking as he tried to swallow it. He had another while smearing peanut butter onto a couple slices to make sandwiches. The milk smelled funky, so he left the carton in the sink.

Turning on lights as he walked through the dark apartment with a sandwich in each hand, he looked around. His heart sank. The TV was gone. He guessed his father probably took it to pay for his dope.

He switched on the bathroom light, and a few cockroaches scurried across the floor. On the sink there was a beer can and some of his mother’s makeup. A towel smeared with blood hung over the side.

He went into his bedroom and polished off the second sandwich. Then he pulled on two sweatshirts over his T-shirt, took off his canvas sneakers, and put on another pair of socks. Tired as he was, he didn’t want to stay in the apartment by himself, especially without at least a TV to keep him company. Pulling on a ski cap, he went back to the kitchen and grabbed the bag with the remaining bread, then headed out, locking the door behind him.

On the first floor landing, he looked down the flight of stairs to see someone entering the building. A slim man with a pea coat and a thin mustache looked up at him from the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey there,” he addressed the boy, smiling. “You’re Kevin Sheehan, right? You remember me? I’m John Garrett from Children’s Services. I was here a couple of months ago. Can we go up and talk to your mom for a few minutes?”

“She’s not here.” Kevin eyed him warily and took a step backward. Garrett put his foot on the bottom step.

“Well, how about your dad? Is someone home I can talk to?”

Kevin took another step backward and then spun and ran up the stairs. Garrett took the steps two at a time in pursuit.

“Kevin! I’m on your side, man…I’m not gonna hurt you!”

As Kevin ran up the third flight, Garrett nearly caught up and stood at the bottom, coughing, his chest heaving. Kevin tucked the bread into his shirt and turned to look at him for just a moment. He put his hands on the banister and leaped from the stairs across the open stairwell to the opposite landing. Then he spun on his heels and headed downstairs as fast as he could run.

“Hey, Kevin! C’mon, buddy,” Kevin heard him shout from above. “I’m here to help you!” Kevin’s feet hit the pavement and he was running again, this time down the dark street toward the warmth of the subway, holding the bagged half-loaf of bread against his body as he ran.