Deacon King Kong (10. Soup)
The morning after he visited Rufus, Sportcoat lay in bed trying to decide, with Hettie’s help, whether to wear his plaid sport coat or go with the straight yellow.
She was in a good mood and they were getting on quite well when the twang of an errant guitar interrupted them. Hettie vanished as Sportcoat, irritated, lumbered over to the window and looked down, frowning as a crowd gathered in the plaza at the front steps of Building 17, which faced his Building 9. On the front steps four musicians—one guitarist, one accordion player, and two playing bongos and congas—had already gathered. From his fourth-floor view, Sportcoat saw several other bongo and conga players approaching the plaza, toting their instruments.
“Geez,” he grumbled. He looked back into the room. Hettie had gone. And they were getting on so good too.
“It ain’t nothing, Hettie,” he said aloud to the empty room. “Just Joaquin and his bongos. C’mon back.” But she was gone.
Irritated by her disappearance, he crawled out of bed, having slept in his pants, and put on a shirt and a sport jacket—the yellow one that Hettie had favored—and sipped a quick bracer from a leftover bottle of Kong, which Hettie did not favor, but that was what she got for leaving. He stuck the bottle in his pocket and stumbled out into the plaza, where a crowd had gathered around the front stoop of Building 17 to hear Joaquin and his band Los Soñadores (the Dreamers).
Joaquin Cordero was the only honest numbers runner in Cause Houses history, as far as anyone could remember. He was a short, squat, brown-skinned man whose good looks were squeezed into a head that resembled a ski jump in that the back of his head was flat as a pancake and the top of his head sloped downward like a ski slope, thus his childhood nickname “Salto,” or “jump” in Spanish. He didn’t mind. Joaquin was what he called a “people person,” and like any good people person who wasn’t in politics, he had many jobs. He collected numbers from a custom-made countertop window at his first-story apartment in Building 17—the window accessible to pedestrians, with a special cabinet beneath the inside window ledge he’d constructed himself, from which he sold loose cigarettes, whiskey shots, and wine in paper cups to customers who needed a boost of happy sauce in the mornings. He also ran a part-time taxi service, charged a reasonable price for doing laundry for busy workers, repaired chair seat bottoms for anyone who asked, chased the occasional bored housewife, and played guitar and sang. Joaquin was, as they say, multitalented. He was the maestro of the Cause and his merry band was the hometown favorite.
It was hard for anyone in the Cause to say whether Joaquin and Los Soñadores were actually any good. But there wasn’t a wedding, an event, or even a funeral where Los Soñadores were not participants, if not in person, then at least in spirit, for while they sounded like a diesel engine trying to crank on a cold October morning, it was the effort that counted, not the result. It didn’t matter that Joaquin’s ex-wife, Miss Izi, declared the only reason Los Soñadores played at all the Cause events was because Joaquin was piping Miss Krzypcinksi, the young white social worker with big boobs who couldn’t clap on beat and wouldn’t have known a salsa rhythm if it were dressed like an elephant in a bathtub, but whose wide hips moved with the kind of rhythm every man in the Cause could hear a thousand miles away. Miss Krzypcinksi ran the Cause Houses Senior Center, which doled out money and tidbits for special events all over the projects. And it did seem odd that the senior center, which constantly cried broke, always seemed to find the funds to pay Los Soñadores to play lumpty-dumpty music for every occasion in the Cause Houses when Hector Vasquez in Building 34 played trombone for Willie Bobo and Irv Thigpen in Building 17 played drums for Sonny Rollins. Couldn’t she get those guys to play around here sometime?
It didn’t matter. Whenever Los Soñadores played, clunking along like four jalopies in tandem, they drew a crowd. The Dominicans nodded politely and chuckled among themselves. The Puerto Ricans shrugged and said only God was greater than Celia Cruz and that crazy Eddie Palmieri, who stirs up salsa jazz so hot you charanga away all your money in the nightclub, so what difference does it make? The blacks, mostly Southern-born Christians who grew up in churches where preachers packed pistols, slung cotton, and could, without warning or warmup, toss their voices across half a state from their pulpits while holding a bale of cotton with one hand and fingering a female choir member with the other, liked any kind of music, so what’s the bother? They all danced along and got along, and why not? Joaquin’s music was free, and music came from God. Anything from God was always a good thing.
Sportcoat wandered to the back edge of a crowd surrounding the front steps of Building 17, where Los Soñadores, their amps and drums set up on the top plateau of the building entrance steps, plunked on. An electric extension cord strung raggedly across the makeshift stage supplied power to the amps. The cord led to the first-floor window of Joaquin’s place, the window located right next to the main entrance of the building. On the building awning over the band members, a banner stretched across the doorway, which Sportcoat, standing at a distance, could not read.
He stopped and watched from the back of the crowd as Joaquin, croaking away in Spanish, came to a particularly moving passage and lifted his voice to a higher pitch, causing his merry musicians to saw away at the accordion and bang their bongos with even more gusto.
“G’wan, Joaquin!” Sportcoat said. He gulped a sip of King Kong and grinned at a woman standing next to him, displaying several yellowed teeth that stuck out of his front gums like sticks of butter. “Whatever they doing,” he said, “it ain’t no put-down.”
The woman, a young Dominican mother with two little children, ignored him.
“G’wan, Joaquin! The more I drink, the better you sound,” he yelled to the stage. Several people nearby, awed by the display of musicianship, smiled at the remark, but their gazes were trained on the band. Joaquin was on a roll. The band chunked forward. They did not notice Sportcoat.
“Cha cha cha!” Sportcoat blurted cheerfully. “Play it, fellas!” He took another sip of the Kong, shook his hips, then hooted, “Best bongo music in the world!”
That last crack brought a smile to the face of the mother next to him and she glanced at him. When she saw who it was, her smile disappeared and she backed away, pulling her children protectively to her. A man nearby saw her step away, spotted Sportcoat, and he too backed off, followed by a second.
Sportcoat didn’t notice. As the crowd peeled away from him, he spotted at the front of the crowd near the band the familiar porkpie hat of Hot Sausage, nodding to the bachata music, holding a cigar in his teeth. Sportcoat worked his way forward through the crowd and tapped Hot Sausage on the shoulder. “What’s the party for?” he asked. “And where’d you get that cigar?”
Sausage turned to him and froze, his eyes wide. He glanced around nervously, yanked the cigar from his mouth, and hissed, “What you doing here, Sport? Deems is out.”
“Out the hospital. Out the house. Around.”
“Good. He can get back to baseball,” Sportcoat said. “You got another cigar? I ain’t had a cigar in twenty years.”
“Ain’t you heard me, Sport?”
“Stop fussing at me and gimme a cigar.” He nodded his head toward his hip jacket pocket, where the Kong bottle was stashed. “I got the gorilla here. Want some?”
“Not out here,” Sausage hissed, but then took a quick glance in the direction of the flagpole, saw the coast was clear, snatched the bottle out of Sportcoat’s pocket, and nipped quickly, slipping the bottle back in Sportcoat’s pocket when he was done.
“What’s the cigar for?” Sportcoat asked. “You get Sister Bibb pregnant?”
The reference to Hot Sausage’s part-time lover and the church organist, Sister Bibb, did not please Hot Sausage. “That ain’t funny,” he grunted. He took the cigar out of his mouth, looking uncomfortable. “I won a bet,” he murmured.
“Who’s the sucker?” Sportcoat asked.
Hot Sausage glanced at Joaquin, who from the front steps was staring at somebody and suddenly went pale. Indeed, Sportcoat noticed the entire Los Soñadores band staring at somebody now: him. The music, which had loped along poorly before, dropped to an even slower clip-clop.
Sportcoat pulled the bottle of Kong out his pocket and finished the last corner, then nodded at Los Soñadores. “Let’s face it, Sausage. They ain’t Gladys Knight and the Pips. Why’d Joaquin bring ’em out of mothballs?”
“Can’t you see the sign?”
Sausage pointed to the sign above the band scrawled on a piece of cardboard, which read Welcome Home, Soup.
“Soup Lopez is out of jail?” Sportcoat said, surprised.
“Glory! I thought Soup got seven years.”
“He did. He came out in two.”
“What was he in for again?” Sportcoat asked.
“I don’t know. I reckon they went broke feeding him and cut him loose. I hope he ain’t hungry today.”
Sportcoat nodded. Like most in the Cause, he had known Soup all his life. He was a mild, scrawny, quiet runt who got his exercise mostly by running from the local bullies. He was also the worst player on Sportcoat’s baseball team. Little Soup preferred to spend his afternoons at home watching Captain Kangaroo, a children’s show about a gentle white man whose gags with puppets and characters like Mr. Moose and Mr. Green Jeans delighted him. At nine, Soup hit a growth spurt the likes of which no one in the Cause had ever seen. He grew from four foot nine to five foot three. At ten he mushroomed to nearly six feet. At eleven he topped off at six feet two inches and had to sit on the floor of his mother’s living room and strain his neck to peer down at the small black-and-white screen to watch Captain Kangaroo, whose puppet tricks and gags he found, at that age, increasingly boring. At fourteen he abandoned Captain Kangaroo altogether and later favored a new TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, about a gentle white man with better puppets. He also added three inches to his frame. By sixteen he topped six foot ten, two hundred seventy-five pounds, all of it muscle, with a face scary enough to make the train leave the track, with the kind disposition of a nun. But, alas, Soup played baseball like one too. Despite his size he remained the worst player on Sportcoat’s team, in part on account of he was so tall he had a strike zone the size of Alaska. Plus the idea of striking a ball, or anything else, was foreign to Soup.
Like most of Sportcoat’s team, Soup disappeared from adult radar at the Cause when he entered the labyrinth of his teenage years. One minute he was striking out to the guffaws of the opposing team, the Watch Houses, the next minute word got out that Soup was in jail—adult jail—at seventeen. What put him there, no one seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Everybody went to jail in the Cause eventually. You could be the tiniest ant able to slip into a crack in the sidewalk, or a rocket ship that flew fast enough to break the speed of sound, it didn’t matter. When society dropped its hammer on your head, well, there it is. Soup got seven years. It didn’t matter what it was for. What mattered was that he was back. And this was his party.
“I think it’s dandy that he’s out,” Sportcoat said. “He was a . . . well, he wasn’t a solid ballplayer. But he always showed! Where’s he at?”
“He’s running late,” Sausage said.
“We could use him as a coach for the team,” Sportcoat said gaily. “He can help us get the game rolling again.”
“The game against the Watch Houses. That’s what I come to talk to you about.”
“Forget the game,” Sausage snapped. “You can’t show your face out here, Sport.”
“What you chunking at me for? I ain’t the one out here making cha-cha at nine o’clock in the morning. Joaquin is the one you oughta be humping at. He should be taking numbers in his window right now. People got to get to work.”
As if the band heard him, the music ground to a halt. Sportcoat looked up to see Joaquin heading inside.
“Soup ain’t here yet!” someone said loudly.
“I gotta open for business,” Joaquin said over his shoulder. He disappeared through the front door, followed by his band.
“He ain’t worried about no business,” Sausage grumbled. “He wants to be inside when the shooting starts.”
Several people shoved past Sportcoat and Hot Sausage, forming a sloppy line beneath Joaquin’s window. Slowly, reluctantly, Joaquin opened the window and stuck his head out. After peering both ways to make sure the coast was clear, he began taking number bets.
Sportcoat nodded at the window and said to Hot Sausage, “You gonna play today?”
“Sport, get the hell outta here and back ins—”
“Sausage!” a shrill voice hollered. “Are you gonna raise the flag or not?” Sausage had been interrupted by the high-pitched yammer of Miss Izi, who strode up with her hands folded across her chest, followed by Bum-Bum and Sister Gee. “We been waiting at the bench for a half hour. Where’s the doughnuts? Did you know Soup Lopez is back?”
Sausage pointed to the sign over the building entrance. “Where you been? Alaska?”
Miss Izi looked at the sign, then back at Sausage, until her gaze slipped over to Sportcoat and she blinked in surprise.
“Oh, papi. What you doing here?”
“¿Papi, olvidaste lo que le hiciste a ese demonio Deems? Su banda de lagartos te va a rebanar como un plátano. You got to leave, papi.”
Sister Gee stepped forward and said evenly to Sportcoat, “Deacon, the police came by the church asking for you.”
“I’mma find that Christmas money, Sister. I told the pastor I’m gonna and I’m gonna.”
“They wasn’t fretting about that. They was asking about somebody named Thelonius Ellis. You know him?”
Sausage had taken a seat on the top step of the building entrance when the women arrived. From his seat on the step, Sausage looked up, stunned, and then blurted, “What they want me for? I didn’t shoot Deems!”
At the mention of “Deems,” there was a pregnant silence. Several people standing in line to play numbers slipped away before placing their bets. The rest of the people stood in anxious silence, staring straight ahead, number papers in hand, edging forward, one eye in the direction of the flagpole where Deems worked, pretending not to have heard anything. This was juicy indeed, juicy enough to risk your life over but not juicy enough to get involved.
“I didn’t know Thelonius Ellis was your name,” Sister Gee said to Hot Sausage. “I thought you was Ralph, or Ray . . . something or other.”
“What difference do it make?”
“Makes a big difference,” she said, exasperated. “It makes me out to be a liar to the police.”
“You can’t be a liar ’bout what you don’t know,” Hot Sausage said. “The Bible says Jesus had many names.”
“Well golly, Sausage, where’s it say in the Bible that you’re Jesus?”
“I ain’t said I was Jesus. I said I ain’t stuck with just one name.”
“Well, how many names you got?” Sister Gee demanded.
“How many do a colored man need in this world?”
Sister Gee rolled her eyes. “Sausage, you never said nothing about having no other name. I thought your real name was Ray Olen.”
“You mean Ralph Odum, not Ray Olen. Ralph Odum. Same thing. It don’t matter. That’s not my real name nohow. Ralph Odum’s the name I gived to Housing when I come on staff twenty-four years ago. Ellis is my real name. Thelonius Ellis.” He shook his head, pursing his lips. “Now the police want me. What I done?”
“They don’t want you, Sausage. They want the Deacon here. I reckon they called your name thinking you was him.”
“Well there it is,” Hot Sausage fumed at Sportcoat, sucking his teeth. “You done pulled me into the swill again, Sport.”
“What are you talking about?” Sister Gee asked.
But Hot Sausage ignored her. Boiling, he glared at Sportcoat. “Now the cops is hunting me. And Deems is hunting you! You happy?”
“This projects is going down!” Miss Izi exclaimed. “Everybody’s hunting everybody!” She tried to sound disconsolate but instead sounded almost happy. This was high-grade gossip. Delicious. Exciting. The numbers players still in line who were listening shifted lustily, edging closer to the conversation, almost gleeful, their ears wide open, waiting for the next tidbit.
“How did this happen?” Sister Gee asked Sausage.
“Oh, I bought an old Packard back in fifty-two. I wasn’t following the Ten Commandments back in them days, Sister. I had no license or papers or nothing when I come to New York, on account of I hoisted a shot, a sip, and a nip of spirits from time to time in them days. I bought that car and let Sport here register the dang thing for me. Sport’s good at talking to white folks. He went down to motor vehicles with my birth certificate and got the license and all the papers and everything. One colored looks just like another down there. So . . .”
He removed his hat and wiped his head, glancing up at Sportcoat. “We keeps the license and switches off. One week he holds it. The next week I holds it. Now the cops is holding me to judgment on account of Sportcoat.” Sausage barked at Sportcoat, “Somebody who seen you drop Deems in the plaza must’ve seen you beating it to my boiler room and told the cops.” Then he said to Sister Gee, “They looking for him—with my name. Why I got to be burdened with his note? Only wrong I done to him is to place a bet.”
“What bet?” Sister Gee asked.
Sausage glanced at Joaquin in the betting window, who, along with the line of bettors, was openly staring at them. Joaquin looked chagrined but remained silent.
“What difference do it make?” Hot Sausage said glumly. “I got bigger problems now.”
“I’ll explain it to the police,” Sister Gee said. “I’ll tell them your real name.”
“Don’t do that,” Sausage said quickly. “I got a warrant out for me. Back in Alabama.”
Sister Gee, Miss Izi, and Sister Billings stared at each other in surprise. Joaquin, and several people in line, watched with interest as well. This confession was unexpected but juicy.
“A warrant! Oh, that’s bad luck, papi!” Joaquin piped up from his window. “You good people, too, bro.” He said it so loudly that several people in line who had tuned out now tuned back in, staring at Hot Sausage.
Sausage glanced at them and said, “Whyn’t you just put it on the radio, Joaquin?”
“That does change the bet, though, papi,” Joaquin said.
“Don’t try to twist out of it.” Hot Sausage sucked his teeth. “I won the bet fair and square.”
“What bet?” Sister Gee said.
“Well . . .” Sausage began, then trailed off. To Joaquin he said hotly, “I’d sleep in a hollow log before I give you a plugged nickel.”
“Things happen, bro,” Joaquin said sympathetically again. “I understand. But I still want my cigar.”
“I’d fertilize my toilet with ten cigars before I give you one!”
“Could a grown-up speak here?” Sister Gee said impatiently. She turned to Sausage. “What was the bet?”
Sausage didn’t address her, but rather turned to Sportcoat, looking sheepish. “Oh, it was about you, buddy—getting pulled in, arrested, y’see. I ain’t mean nothing by it. I’da bailed you out—if I could. Best thing for you is to get arrested, Sport. But now I got to worry about my own skin.” Hot Sausage looked away glumly, rubbing his jaw.
“A warrant ain’t nothing, Sausage,” Sportcoat said. “The police gives ’em out all over. Rufus over at the Watch Houses got a warrant on him too. Back in South Carolina.”
“He does?” Sausage brightened immediately. “For what?”
“He stole a cat from the circus, except it wasn’t no cat. It got big, whatever it was, so he shot it.”
“Maybe it wasn’t no cat he killed,” Sausage snorted. “Rufus ain’t got no moderation. Who knows what he done? That’s the thing with a warrant. You don’t know what it’s for. When a person got a warrant on them, they coulda killed somebody!”
There was a pregnant silence as Miss Izi, Bum-Bum, Sister Gee, Joaquin, Sportcoat, and several people in line stared at Hot Sausage, who sat on the top step, fanning himself with his porkpie hat. Eventually he noticed them staring and said, “Well. What y’all looking at me for?”
“Did you . . . ?” Miss Izi asked.
“Izi, keep quiet!” Joaquin barked.
“Shut your talking hole, you evil gangster!” she snapped.
“Go take drowning lessons, woman!”
“Me gustaría romperte a la mitad, pero quién necesita dos de ustedes!”
“Will y’all quit!” Sausage shouted. “I ain’t ashamed to tell it. I was on a work crew in Alabama and runned off.” He looked at Sportcoat. “So there.”
“That’s the difference between Alabama and South Carolina,” Sportcoat said proudly. “In my home country, a man on a work crew stays on the work crew till the job is done. We ain’t quitters in South Carolina.”
“Can we rope this in and get to the problem!” Sister Gee said, her voice sharp. She turned to Sportcoat. “Deacon, you’re gonna have to go to the police. Deems was a wonderful boy. But the devil’s having his way with him right now. You can explain that to the police.”
“I ain’t explaining nothing. I done him no wrong that I recall,” Sportcoat said.
“You don’t remember humping Deems like a dog when you shot him?” Miss Izi said.
“I heard that too,” a woman in line at Joaquin’s window said to the man behind her.
“I was right there,” Miss Izi said proudly. “He showed Deems who’s boss.”
The woman laughed and turned to Sportcoat. “Ooooh-wee! You a bad man, Mr. Sportcoat! Oh, well. Better to be a fat man in a graveyard than a thin man in a stew.”
“What’s that mean?” Sportcoat asked.
“Means Deems is gonna come meddlin’. And you best not be around,” Hot Sausage said.
“Deems ain’t gonna do nothing,” Sportcoat said. “I known him all his life.”
“It’s not just him,” Sister Gee said. “It’s the folks he works for. I hear tell they’re worse than a bunch of root doctors.”
Sportcoat waved his hand dismissively. “I ain’t come here to sit around talking all this who-shot-John nonsense. I come here,” he said, glaring at Hot Sausage, “to talk to a certain boiler man about my umpire suit, which I put up in his boiler room.”
“Well, since we is on the subject of taking back things, where’s my driver’s license with your picture on it using my name?” Hot Sausage asked.
“What you need that for?” Sportcoat said. “You’s in trouble enough. Plus it’s my week to hold it.”
“It ain’t my fault that your past is bad.” Sausage held out his hand. “I’ll take it now, please. You won’t be needing it nohow.”
Sportcoat shrugged and pulled out a weathered wallet, thick with papers, and from it produced the license, frayed around the edges, and handed it over. “Now gimme my umpire stuff so I can start up the game again. I’mma get these kids ’round here on the right track again.”
“Is your cheese done slid off your cracker, Sport? These kids don’t want no baseball. Them days ended the minute Deems walked off the team.”
“He didn’t walk off,” Sportcoat said. “I throwed him off for smoking them funny reefer cigarettes.”
“Sport, you is more outta date than a Philadelphia nightclub. I know bartenders from Hong Kong smarter’n you. These children want tennis shoes now. And dungaree jackets. And dope. They whupping ass and robbing old folks to get it. Half of your baseball team works for Deems now.”
“Soup don’t work for him,” Sportcoat said proudly.
“That’s ’cause Soup was a guest of the state,” Joaquin said from his window. “Give him time. You need to go, bro, just till things cool off. You can go stay with my cousin Elena in the Bronx if you want. She’s never home. She got a good job working for the railroad.”
Miss Izi snorted. “She’s been boarded more times than the railroad too. Don’t stay there, Sport. You’ll get fleas. Or worse.”
Joaquin’s face reddened. “Tienes una mente de una pista. Una sucia sucia!”
“So does your mother!” Miss Izi said.
“All right already!” Sister Gee said, glancing around. The line of people waiting to play their numbers had quit, and most had taken seats on the stoop near Sausage to watch this theater, which was better than any numbers game. Sister Gee said, “Let’s think this through,” and as she spoke, the sound of the front door opening behind them was heard and she looked up over their shoulders, gaping in surprise. The rest followed her shocked gaze, glancing over their shoulders to a sight that brought them to their feet.
Standing behind them, Soup Lopez, a resplendent, smiling giant, in a crisp gray suit, white shirt, and splendid black bow tie—all six foot ten of him—stood on the top step, filling the open doorway of Building 17.
“Soup Lopez! Back from the dead!”
“¡Sopa! ¡Comprame una bebida! ¿De dónde sacaste ese traje?”
“Home at last!” Soup roared.
Cries of greeting and handshakes all around as the crowd surrounded the big man, who towered over them. Joaquin, from his window, poured several quick whiskey shots into plastic cups, then abandoned the window altogether, emerging from the building with his guitar, followed by the bongo player of Los Soñadores, who hurriedly rushed out the building entranceway shouting in Spanish, “Nephew!” and hugged Soup, who lifted the small man like he was a pillow. Los Soñadores quickly plugged in and the horrible music began again, with even more gusto than before.
For the next hour and a half, Sportcoat’s crisis was forgotten. It was still early, and Soup greeted all his old friends by amusing everyone with magic tricks. He picked up two women in one hand. He showed everybody one-handed push-ups he’d learned in prison. He showed off his shoes, size 18S, special made by the state of New York, and impressed his old coach, Sportcoat, by taking off one shoe and using it to swat a handball three hundred yards. “You always said I had good basics,” he said proudly.
The joy encouraged a frolic, and several who were embarrassed to approach Sportcoat now came forward to shake his hand, pat him on the back, thank him for shooting Deems, and offer him drinks. One old grandmother gave him the two dollars she normally used to play the numbers, stuffing the money in his coat pocket. A young mother stepped forward and said, “You showed me how to can peaches,” and kissed him. A thick-bodied Transit Authority worker named Calvin who manned the tollbooth at the local G train subway stop ambled up, shook Sportcoat’s hand, and slipped five dollars into Sportcoat’s pocket, saying, “My man.”
The floodgates were open, and the crowd of onlookers who had fled when they first spotted him wandered back to marvel that he was still alive, gawk at him, and shake his hand.
“Sportcoat, you showed ’em!”
“Sport . . . eres audaz. Estás caliente, bebé. Patearles el culo!”
“Sportcoat, come bless my son!” a young pregnant mother shouted, her hands on her rounded stomach.
Sportcoat endured it all with a blend of awe, bashfulness, and pride, shaking hands and enjoying free drinks that were poured for him from Joaquin’s window, paid for by his neighbors, the window now manned by Miss Izi, who apparently knew enough about her ex-husband to know he didn’t give a hoot who poured the hooch so long as the fifty cents per shot was collected. Unbeknownst to him, she kept a quarter from each pour for herself. Handling charges.
The rush at Sportcoat was merry until Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Sensation and Sportcoat’s neighbor in Building 9, appeared with his friend Mingo, a horrid-looking old man with a pitted, pimply face. In his hand was a horrible-looking homemade doll, which consisted of three tiny couch pillows stuck together with a head that looked and felt suspiciously like four size-D batteries taped together covered by cloth. Dominic slapped Sportcoat on the back, held the doll out to him, and said, “You are now protected.”
Bum-Bum, who had faithfully stood in line twenty minutes to play her number and who had lost her place twice since the party started and the line had been reduced to a line for whiskey shots, took umbrage.
“Why you spreading haints and spirits, Dominic?”
“It’s good luck,” Dominic said.
“He don’t need luck. He got Jesus!”
“He can have this too.”
“Jesus Christ don’t need no witchery. Jesus don’t need no ugly dolls. Jesus ain’t got no limits. Look at Soup. Jesus brought him home ’cause we was praying for him. Ain’t that right, Soup?”
Soup, in his suit and bow tie, towering over the party of folks drinking shots and a few now dancing to the horrific bachata of Los Soñadores, looked uncomfortable. “Truth is, Sister, I don’t go to church no more. I’m a member of the Nation.”
“The Nation of Islam.”
“Is that like the United Nations?” Bum-Bum asked.
“Not really,” he said.
“They got their own flag, like the Stars and Stripes?” Sausage asked.
“Them Stars and Stripes ain’t mine, Brother Sausage,” Soup said. “I got no country. I’m a citizen of the world. A Muslim.”
“Oh . . .” Hot Sausage said, uncertain what else to say.
“See, Muhammad was the true Prophet of God. Not Jesus. And Muhammad didn’t use no little dolls like Dominic here.” Seeing the horror on Bum-Bum’s face, Soup added, “But I agrees with you to a point, Miss Bum-Bum. Everybody needs something.”
He was trying to be amenable, as Soup always was, but his words had a terrible effect. Bum-Bum stood with her hands on her hips, thunderstruck into silence. Dominic looked away in embarrassment. Sister Gee, Hot Sausage, and Sportcoat couldn’t believe what they’d heard. Joaquin, noting a lull in the activity among them, unslung his guitar, slipped into the front door of the building as Los Soñadores chugged on, and emerged a minute later with a bottle of brandy.
“Welcome back, Soup. I saved this for you,” Joaquin said.
Soup took the bottle in his giant hand. “I can’t drink this,” he said. “This is the white man’s way of keeping the black man down.”
“With Dominican brandy?” Joaquin said. “That’s the best.”
“It’s piss compared to Puerto Rican brandy,” Miss Izi said from Joaquin’s window.
“Get out my window,” Joaquin hissed angrily.
“I’m making money for you! Like before! Rabbithead!”
“Get out my window and take the midnight broom out of town, hussy!”
There was a fat glass ashtray at Miss Izi’s elbow. She grabbed it and tossed it at her ex-husband. It was a mild, casual toss, flung like a Frisbee. She didn’t even mean to strike him, and she didn’t. Instead, the ashtray struck a pregnant woman in the shoulder. She was dancing near the front of the crowd with her boyfriend, and she quickly spun around and slapped Dominic, who was standing behind her, holding the doll. Being a gentleman, Dominic raised his hand to stop her from striking him a second time and inadvertently clunked the young mother’s boyfriend on the head with the doll’s hard battery head. In turn, the boyfriend reached his fist to whack Dominic, but instead his elbow struck Bum-Bum in the jaw, who had stepped over to help the young mother. Bum-Bum, furious at being hit, flung a punch at her assailant and struck Sister Gee, who fell into Eleanora Soto, treasurer of the Cause Houses Puerto Rican Statehood Society, who was sipping a cup of whiskey, which she spilled down the shirt of Calvin, the Transit Authority worker who had just given Sportcoat his five-dollar lunch money.
And just like that it was on. A fight, with biting, scratching, and kicking. It wasn’t a free-for-all, but rather a series of skirmishes that exploded and quelled, breaking off here, starting again there, with referees and peacemakers scattered about, some taking knuckles in the face themselves, all on a hot morning when they should have been celebrating. Several fought till they got tired, sat down on the front steps in tears and exhaustion, and then, once they’d caught their breath, started up again, just as enraged. Others cursed out one another until one or the other got struck by an errant fist, and then they too joined the fray. Still others fought silently, resolutely, in pairs, working out old grudges they’d held for years. They were all so busy that no one seemed to notice a tall figure in a black leather jacket, Bunch Moon’s enforcer Earl, a switchblade knife in his fist, slowly working his way from the back of the crowd to the front, slipping left and right, easing toward Sportcoat, who was still seated on the front steps in front of Los Soñadores next to Soup, both of them watching the fight in wonder as the terrible band played on.
“This is my fault,” Soup admitted. “I shoulda stayed upstairs and watched television.”
“Oh, the cotton and weeds comes together from time to time but it ain’t nothing,” Sportcoat said. “These things is good. They clears the air.” As he watched the scrambling, cursing mob, it occurred to Sportcoat that Joaquin’s unopened bottle of delicious Dominican brandy, standing on the bottom step just a few feet away, looked lonesome, with nobody to keep it company. He also realized he’d have to get moving soon. He had to do some yard work for the old white lady over on Silver Street who needed him in her garden planting. He usually went on Wednesday, but he’d missed last Wednesday because . . . well, because. He’d promised to come today, Monday, and the old lady didn’t fool around, which made him determined. He’d even decided to skip playing Joaquin’s numbers that morning and head straight out to the old lady’s house, but Joaquin’s lousy band woke him up and derailed him. Now he had to get moving.
Still, seeing the lonely brandy by itself on the bottom step, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick nip. Nothing wrong with getting a little daily relief before the job.
He stood up and stepped down the stairs to grab the brandy on the bottom step. As he reached, someone kicked the bottle onto its back and it skidded onto the plaza and into the melee, unbroken but spinning on its side, stopping a few feet away. He followed it, wading into the crowd. Just as he reached it, the bottle was kicked again and slid between the legs of Sister Billings and the young pregnant mother, the two still tangling as Dominic and the woman’s boyfriend sought to separate them. He followed it, only to watch it get kicked again. This time it took a bouncing, flipping ride before sliding past the feet of Sausage and Calvin the transit worker, slowing to a miraculous, agonizing, twirling stop between the legs of two women who were grappling with one another, each cursing and threatening to rip the other’s wig off.
The bottle spun ’round and ’round beneath their legs, slowly coming to a stop.
Sportcoat crouched low, swiped it up, and was about to unscrew the lid when the bottle was suddenly swiped from his hand.
“This is the white man’s poison, Mr. Sportcoat,” Soup said calmly, holding the bottle. “We don’t need this stuff ’round here no more.”
He tossed the bottle casually over his shoulder, away from the crowd.
Soup, as a kid baseball player, never had much of an arm. But as a giant he had velocity. Several sets of eyes followed the bottle as it made a long, slow arc into the air, high up, twirling end over end, arching a bit as it reached its apex, then falling back to earth in a long, lazy, crazy spiraling curve—boinking Earl, Bunch’s hit man, right on the noggin.
Amazingly the bottle remained intact after pinging off Earl’s head, then struck the pavement before finally smashing into pieces. Earl fell next to it, crumpling to the ground like a paper doll.
The crash of the shattering glass and the sight of the fallen man stopped everyone. The crabbing and scratching ceased and everyone hustled over, gathering around the prostrate Earl, who was out cold.
In the distance, a police siren was heard.
“Now y’all did it,” Joaquin said gloomily.
Everyone realized the crisis instantly. Joaquin’s apartment would be searched. He’d be closed for days, weeks, even months. That meant no numbers. Even worse, Soup was on probation. Any kind of trouble would put him back in the clink. What a mean world!
“Everybody git,” Sister Gee said calmly. “I’ll take care of this.”
“I’ll stay too,” Dominic said. “It’s my fault. I got Bum-Bum stirred up.”
“Can’t no man stir me up, Dominic Lefleur,” Sister Billings snapped defensively. “I don’t need no man to stir my drink!”
“That depends on the straw and the man,” Dominic said, smiling. “I’m the Haitian Sensation—emphasis on ‘sensation.’”
“Don’t try that scalawag sweet talk on me, mister! I know you don’t mean it!”
Dominic shrugged as if to say “What do I do now?”
“We’re wasting time,” Sister Gee said. She turned to the crowd. “Get moving, y’all,” she snapped. She turned to Calvin, the subway toll collector. “Calvin, you and Soup stay. You too, Izi.” To the rest she said, “Hurry up, y’all. Git.”
The crowd vanished. Most ran inside their buildings or hurried to work. But not everybody. Sportcoat and Hot Sausage returned to the stoop, where Joaquin and Los Soñadores were hastily packing up. Sausage nodded at the band. “If they was the O’Jays, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“Bongo music,” Sportcoat agreed, shaking his head. “I never did favor it.”
“Is you gonna wait here to be arrested?” Sausage asked.
“I gotta get to work.”
“Let’s get a snort before we set out,” Hot Sausage said. “I got some Kong in the workshop. We can take the back door and cut through the coal tunnel under Building Thirty-Four. That’ll puts us back at Nine.”
“I thought that coal tunnel was closed up.”
“Not if you the boiler man.”
Sportcoat grinned. “Doggone it, you’s a good rooster, Sausage. C’mon then.”
The two disappeared inside. Behind them, Sausage noticed Soup hoisting Earl over one shoulder and trotting out of the plaza. By the time the cops rolled up minutes later, the plaza was deserted.
Twenty minutes later Earl came to and found himself on a bench on the platform of the Silver Street subway station. Seated on one side was the biggest Puerto Rican he’d ever seen, and on the other a handsome black woman in a church hat. He felt his head. He’d been struck on the same spot where the errant baseball had hit him days before. He had a lump there the size of Milwaukee.
“What happened?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
“You was hit in the head with a bottle,” the lady said.
“Why’s my clothes wet?”
“We doused you with water to get you up.”
He felt in his pocket for his switchblade. It was gone. Then he noticed the handle of the folded knife poking out from the closed fist of the giant Puerto Rican, who had a face ugly enough to belong to a cadaver. His blade, Earl realized, wouldn’t do shit on that Spanish elephant motherfucker but tickle him. Earl glanced nervously around the subway platform again. It was completely empty.
“Where’s everybody?” he asked.
“We seen from papers in your pocket you is from Gates Avenue out in Bed-Stuy,” the woman said. “So we is putting you on the train that way.”
Earl started to curse, then glanced at the giant, who stared back at him, his eye steady.
“Seems to me,” the woman began, “you favors a preacher I once knew over in Bed-Stuy. Reverend Harris at Ebenezer Baptist. A nice man, the reverend was. He died some years back. You any kin to him?”
Earl was silent.
“A good man, Reverend Harris was,” she repeated. “Worked all his life. Janitored over at Long Island University, I do believe. I recollects when my church visited Ebenezer that Reverend Harris had a child or two that favored you. Of course this is going back a ways. I’m forty-eight. I can’t remember nothing no more.”
Earl stayed silent.
“Well, I do apologize for whatever misunderstandings you has had in the Cause,” she said. “We seen from your wallet papers where you was from, and being God-fearing people, we brung you here so you could get home without no trouble from the police. We takes care of our visitors in the Cause.” She paused a moment, then added, “We takes care of our own too.”
She let that one sit a moment, then got up. She nodded at the giant. Earl watched in awe as the stoic man in a neat suit, bow tie, and crisp white shirt, clearly a member, he realized now, of the feared and respected Nation of Islam, stood up. Up and up he went, unfolding like a human accordion, his giant fist still clasping the switchblade. When he stood up to his full height, his head nearly scraped the lights of the subway platform. The giant opened his big palm and, with two massive fingers, gently placed the blade on the bench next to Earl.
“Well then, we bid you good day, son,” the lady said. “God bless you.”
She moved toward the stairs, followed by the lumbering giant.
Earl, still seated on the bench, heard the rumble of an incoming train and he looked down the tracks to see the graffiti-covered G train curving out of the tunnel toward him. When it stopped, he rose as quickly as he could manage, slipped gratefully aboard, and watched through the window as the woman and her giant, the only two souls on the platform, stood at the top of the stairs watching the train roll out.
He was the only passenger to board. He noticed there were no other passengers on the entire platform. The whole situation seemed odd. Only when the train moved did the two turn away.
Sister Gee and Soup descended the stairs of the subway platform, then headed down an escalator that reached street level and the tollbooth. When they arrived, Sister Gee noticed a crowd of about fifteen impatient subway riders standing at all three entranceway turnstiles. All three were closed, each with an emergency cone blocking it. She glanced at the tollbooth, and Calvin, the tollbooth worker, quickly emerged and removed the cones without a word, then stepped back inside his booth. The subway riders rushed through the turnstiles and up the escalators.
Sister Gee watched them mount the escalators in a hurry toward the train platform. When they were out of sight, she didn’t turn away but rather said softly to Soup, standing behind her, “Meet me outside, okay?” The big man lumbered toward the street exit as Sister Gee quickly crossed to the tollbooth, where Calvin stood at the counter, his face stoic. “I owe you one, Calvin,” she said softly.
“Forget it. What happened after everybody left?”
“Nothing. We hightailed over here by the backstreets. Bum-Bum hid Joaquin’s numbers in her bra. Miss Izi told the police she and Joaquin had one of their fights. It’s all good. Joaquin’s back in business. The cops are gone. I can’t thank you enough.”
“If you put two dollars on my number today, that’ll square us,” Calvin said.
“That’s a good-sounding number. What’s it mean?”
“Ask Soup,” he said. “That’s Soup’s number.”
She emerged from the Silver Street station and fell in beside Soup for the short walk back to the Cause Houses. “I reckon if your momma was alive, she wouldn’t be pleased I put her son in a spot like this, cleaning up somebody else’s mess. I don’t know that I done right or not. But I couldn’t carry that fella to the train myself.”
“Course he was up to no good,” she said. “I reckon he come here to do wrong to old Sportcoat. What’s this world coming to if common church folk can’t stand up for one of their own?” She thought for a moment. “I reckon I did right. On the other hand, Sportcoat’s in a little too thick for my taste. You can get in deep water quick fooling around with them drug dealers. Don’t you do it, Soup.”
Soup smiled sheepishly. He was so tall, she had to squint to see his face in the afternoon sun. “That ain’t me, Sister Gee,” he said.
“Why is Calvin playing your number? Is he in your new religion too?”
“Nation of Islam? Not at all,” Soup said. “He and my ma was friends. We lived in the same building. He used to come by sometimes and watch my show with me. The number’s from that.”
“What show is that?”
“You mean the nice little white man who sings? With the puppets?”
“That’s Mister Rogers’s address. One forty-three. You know what one forty-three means?”
His stoic face folded into a smile. “I would tell you, but I don’t wanna spoil it.”