Deacon King Kong (17. Harold)
Two hours later, with his pay from Miss Four Pie in his pocket and two bottles of booze standing atop a cinder block like crowns on a king’s head, Sportcoat and Hot Sausage considered Sportcoat’s encounter with the Elephant.
“Did the Elephant have a gun?” Sausage asked.
“Nar gun!” Sportcoat said triumphantly. The two were lounging in Sausage’s basement lair, seated on overturned crates, sipping from the first bottle Sportcoat cracked open, peppermint bourbon, saving the second, a bottle of King Kong, for dessert later.
“What’s he like?”
“He’s all right, partner! A good man. He was fighting to give me that smooth hundred dollars.”
“You shoulda taken it. But then, why would you do that? That would be the smart thing to do, which you is allergic to.”
“Sausage, his momma already paid me. Plus he helped my Hettie.”
“For all you know, he coulda been the one that throwed her in the harbor.”
“Sausage, if ignorance is bliss, you is happy. A big man like the Elephant wouldn’t bother my Hettie. He liked her. He said he seen her wave all the time as she come and go from church.”
“When you get tired of thinking, Sport, call me. Maybe she seen something he done. Maybe she knew something. Maybe he robbed her!”
“You watch too many movies,” Sportcoat said. “He wasn’t hauling not a bit of trouble at her, not one bit. She was following God’s light is all. And she found it.”
“So you say.”
“She’s in a good place. She’s turned loose, a free angel now, by God. I talks to her most every day.”
“If you don’t watch your points, you’ll get your wings too. Deems is busy these days.”
“I ain’t studying him.”
Sausage considered this. “I see him every day, out there selling that poison hand over fist, the devil keeping score. He knows we’re partners. He ain’t asked a lick about you. Not a mumbling word. That makes me nervous. He got a trick to play, Sport. When you ain’t looking, he’s gonna chop cotton and pull fodder. You got to get outta these projects.”
Sportcoat ignored that. He stood up and stretched, took another sip of peppermint bourbon, then passed the bottle to Sausage. “You don’t never get tired of thinking, do ya? Where’s my umpire costume?”
Sausage nodded at a black plastic bag in the corner.
“I’mma take this home tonight. Tomorrow, I’mma go out there and see Deems again. I won’t be drunk this time, for I wants to remember what he says. After I speaks to him, I’mma tell you all about it.”
“Don’t be a drag-behind fool.”
“I’m going right out there and I’mma say, ‘Deems, I’m getting the team together, and I just want you to pitch one game for us. One game. And if you don’t wanna play no more baseball after that, why, you can quit. I won’t bother you never no more. One game only.’ He’ll be begging me to get the team back together again after that.”
Sausage sighed. “Well, I reckon to really understand the world, you got to die at least once.”
“Stop talking crazy,” Sportcoat said. “That boy loves baseball. He got the same ways old Josh Gibson had. You know Josh Gibson? Greatest catcher to ever play the game?”
Sausage rolled his eyes as Sportcoat extolled the virtues of Josh Gibson, the greatest Negro catcher ever, how he met Gibson after the war in 1945, and on he went, until Sausage finally said, “Sport, I don’t know that you seen even half the people you calls out.”
“Seen ’em all,” Sportcoat said proudly. “Even barnstormed a little myself, but I had to make money. That ain’t gonna be Deems’s problem. He’ll make plenty money in the bigs. He got the fire and the talent. You can’t take the love of ball out of a ballplayer, Sausage. Can’t be done. There’s a baseball player in that boy.”
“There’s a killer in that boy, Sport.”
“Well, I’ll give him a crack at one or the other.”
“No you won’t! I’ll fetch the police first.”
“Ain’t you forgot that warrant that’s on you?”
“I’ll let Sister Gee fetch ’em then.”
“Sister Gee ain’t studying no police. She’s hard on me about that Christmas Club money. She’ll be wanting that money first, Sausage. Folks is losing faith in me on account of it ’round these parts. Even you. Betting against my life for a cigar with Joaquin.”
Sausage blanched, then took a quick snort of the peppermint. “That wasn’t about you,” he said. “That was about Joaquin. I been playing numbers with him for sixteen years. Only hit once. I think he’s got it out for me. I wanted some of my money back.”
“Sausage, you done found the secret of youth, ’cause you lying like a child.”
“I figured it this way, Sport. Since you didn’t wanna run off and was gonna be ki— gonna go out by Deems’s hand, however the cut come or go, I figured you wouldn’t mind if I made a few chips on account of it. I been a good friend, ain’t I?”
“Very good friend, Sausage. I don’t mind you making a few chips on my account. In fact I’ve got a proposition for you. Help me make peace with Deems. Tell him I wanna see him, and I’ll forget the insult you done to me by betting against my life.”
“You losing your marbles, son. I ain’t going near him.”
“Deems ain’t mad at me. Do you know Deems bought me this very umpire uniform?”
“Yes he did. Brung it to me brand-new just after Hettie died. Come right to my house two days after we buried her. Knocked on the door and handed it to me saying, ‘Don’t tell nobody.’ Now, would somebody like that shoot a friend in cold blood?”
Sausage listened in silence, then said, “If it was Deems, yes.”
“Hogwash. I needs you to go out there and tell him I wants to speak privately. I’ll meet him in private and clear this all up.”
“I can’t do it, Sport. I’m too chickenhearted, okay?”
“It’s me he’s pining for, Sausage. You ain’t got to worry about your skin.”
“I do worries about my skin. It covers my body.”
“I’d go to the flagpole myself. But I don’t wanna embarrass him in front of his friends. If I speak to him in private, he won’t be shamed.”
“You shamed him by shooting him. In fact, him giving you that umpire outfit makes things worse,” Sausage said, “being that you shot him for his kindnesses.”
“That boy got plenty goodness left in him,” Sportcoat said, taking the bourbon from Sausage and sipping. “His grandfather Louis was all right, wasn’t he?”
“Get shot on your own, Sport. I think I’ll set here and strangle this bottle of bourbon.”
“A true friend would do it. Otherwise, he would not be no true friend.”
“I ain’t your friend.”
“I’ll get Rufus then. He’s from my home country. You can count on a South Carolina man. He always said Alabamans gets torn up when they got to stand up for something.”
“Why should I hitch my mule to you, Sport? You the one that got drunk and shot him.”
“You got a can tied to your tail, too, Sausage. Deems knows we is partners. You taught him in Sunday school too. But you go on. I’ll get Rufus to do it.”
Sausage frowned and poked at the ground with his boot, pursing his lips, his nostrils flaring angrily. He rose off the crate, turned away from Sportcoat, and with his back to him, held his arm out parallel to the ground, straight, fingers stretched.
Sportcoat, from behind, placed the bottle in Sausage’s hand. Sausage took a long, deep sip, set the bottle down on the cinder block, and with his back to Sportcoat, stood a long moment, swaying as he got drunker. Finally, he shrugged and turned around. “All right, dammit. I’ll be a fool with you. You don’t give me no goddamned choice anyway. I’ll set it up. I’ll see Deems and ask him to come down here and talk to us—talk to you. I ain’t got no pony in that race.”
“Sausage, you never gets tired of thinking, do you. Why’s he gonna come down here and talk to me? We got to go see him.”
“We ain’t gotta do nothing. It’s you. But I’ll go see him, man to man, and explain that you want to see him in private, in person, and that he got to come by hisself, so you can apologize to him in person and explain everything. That way, if he’s gonna kill you he can do it in privacy someplace so I don’t see it and he don’t go to jail right off. I reckon he won’t air me out for asking him, being that I wasn’t the one who shot him.”
“Don’t you ever tire of bringing that up? I told you I don’t recall not one bit of it.”
“That’s funny. ’Cause Deems damn well do remember it.”
Sportcoat thought a moment, then said, “You go fetch him. You watch. I ain’t gonna have to beg that youngster for nothing. I’d just as soon put him over my knee and paddle him for wasting what God gave him.”
“I don’t know that you could lift his hand, Sport. You seen him with his shirt off?”
“Seen more than that. I warmed his two little toasters in Sunday school many a day.”
“That was ten years ago.”
“Same difference,” Sportcoat said. “You get to know a man after you seen his straight and narrow.”
It was nearly dark when Deems and Phyllis, the new fly girl in the neighborhood, had settled onto the edge of Vitali Pier. They dangled their feet over the water, staring at Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
“Can you swim?” Deems asked, pretending to shove her from behind, as if pushing her off the dock.
“Stop it, boy,” she said. She elbowed him playfully.
He’d seen her the very first day she came to the flagpole as a customer, then a couple of days later when she came for a second go-round. She’d bought two bags of smack, then another bag two days later. She was a light user, he guessed, and a hottie, a redbone, a killer looker: a light-skinned black girl with long limbs and a gaunt, tight jaw and high cheekbones. He noted she wore long sleeves on hot days like junkies did, to cover her arm tracks, but her skin was smooth and her hair was long. She seemed awfully nervous, but that didn’t bother him. They all were when they were fucking up. He’d noticed her the first day she came out. He watched her disappear into Building 34 and sent Beanie into the building to find out who she was. He reported her name was Phyllis. A visitor. From Atlanta, niece of Fuller Richardson, a regular dope fiend who’d gotten busted and whose apartment was full of his wife, his cousins, his kids, and everybody he owed money to, which apparently included this girl’s mother, who was his sister. “She says he owes her mom a bunch of dough, so she can stay in his bedroom till he gets back,” Beanie reported. “She might be around awhile.”
Deems wasn’t taking any chances. He decided to move in quick before someone else popped game. He took a close look at Phyllis the second time she came through, just to make sure she was worth it, before he made a move. He happily concluded she had too much weight to be a full-blown junkie. She still owned a purse. Her shoes, coat, and clothing were clean. And she had some kind of temp job. She wasn’t a dopehead yet. Just another light-skinned chick on her way to skankdom who maybe got herself skinned by some bad motherfucker in Georgia probably. Come to New York to ease her broken heart and play big. Telling all her friends in Georgia she was dating the Temptations or some shit, no doubt. But Phyllis was fly, and she was new. And he had money. And it was all good.
The third time she showed, he let Beanie and Dome handle sales, posted Stick, his main lookout, on the roof above with three other kids on roofs nearby, and broke from his bench to follow her back toward 34 as she left. Business was slow that day anyway.
She saw him coming. “Why you following me?”
“You want an extra bag of Big H?”
She looked at him and smirked.
“I don’t need no extra,” she said. “I’m doing too much now.”
Deems liked that. He thought later, much later, that this very first exchange told him more than it should have. It was the body language more than anything. She didn’t seem nervous when she copped her dope. Up close there was a directness, a tautness to her that was unusual. She was tight, almost stiff, and alert. He attributed that to an attempt to hide her nervousness, being a small-town girl from the South who confessed to him the very first day he’d asked her to meet him at the dock that she was, that she had once been, and still was, a church girl. He liked that. That meant she was a wild girl inside, all bunched up like him. He had a few church regulars, working junkies. He’d been a church boy himself. He knew that bunched-up feeling. He needed someone all coiled up like him. Everybody in the Cause knew him now. His rep had grown since he’d been shot by Sportcoat. He was bigger and better than ever. Everybody knew he was gonna rock old Sportcoat. Deems knew it too. It was just a matter of time. Why hurry? He was in no hurry. Hurry got you busted. He would deal with Sportcoat at the right time. Sportcoat wasn’t a problem. But Earl? Now that was a problem.
There was a distance now, between him and Earl. He felt it. Earl, after his initial rage and displeasure with the whole Sportcoat business, now suddenly seemed to shrug the whole thing off. He insisted Mr. Bunch was pleased with his work. “The Cause is your area. You handle it like you want. Just keep moving the dope.”
That wasn’t like Earl. Everybody knew Earl got his head bonked in by a baseball at the Watch Houses after trying to bust down on Sportcoat. And then that doofus Soup Lopez was seen carrying Earl to the subway station after Earl tried to bust up Soup’s homecoming party—with Sister Gee walking behind them like a damn schoolteacher. He’d also heard Earl got dragged out of Building 17 by Sportcoat and Sausage—after the two old fuckers supposedly tried to electrocute him in the basement of Building 17 but screwed up and put out the building lights for two hours instead. Earl was getting punked. There was something wrong with that.
If Mr. Bunch was so cool about his screwup with Sportcoat, why was he letting his main man, Earl, get his ass kicked up and down the Cause District? And why was Earl so cool about it? It felt like a trap. He’d copped heroin from Earl twice a week for four years. He’d watched him work. He’d seen Earl stick a fork in a guy’s eye just for looking at him wrong. He’d once watched Earl pistol-whip a rival drug dealer to unconsciousness over a ten-dollar short. Earl did not fuck around. Something was wrong.
He couldn’t get it out his head. There was a play involved. It was just a matter of time before it showed itself. But what was it?
The waiting didn’t bother Deems, but the uncertainty of strategy did. Everything to him was about strategy. That’s how he’d survived. He heard that other big-time dealers called him a boy genius. He liked that. It pleased him that his crew, his rivals, and even at times Mr. Bunch marveled at how someone so young managed to figure things out on his own and keep ahead of older men, some of whom were vicious and clawing to get his business. He liked that they wondered how he could stay ahead of the competition, knew when to attack rival drug dealers and when to back away, what to sell and when and for how much, what button to push and who to push against. Mr. Bunch once told him that the drug game is like war. Deems disagreed. He watched people, observed how they moved. He saw drug dealing as a kind of baseball game, a game involving strategy.
Deems loved baseball. He’d pitched all the way through high school and could have gone further had not his cousin Rooster lured him into the fast money of the heroin game. He still kept track of the game, the teams, the squads, the statistics, the hitters, the Miracle Mets, who, miraculously, might be in the World Series that year, and most of all, the strategy. Baseball was a pitcher’s game. Your basic batter knew the pitcher had to throw the ball over the plate in order to get him out of the game. When you did, the batter would try to clobber it. So you had to keep him guessing. Was the batter looking for a curve? A fastball? A curve outside? Or a fastball inside? Hitters, like most people, were guessers. The good hitters studied pitchers, watched their moves, anything that might give them a hint of what pitch was coming. But the good pitchers were smarter than that. They kept the hitters guessing. Throw inside? Outside? Curveball? Splitter? Fastball up and away? Guess wrong and the hitter knocks your pitch out of the yard. Guess right and the guy’s out and you’re a baseball millionaire.
Drug selling was the same. Keep ’em guessing. Is that dealer coming at me this way? Or that way? At night? Or during the day? Is he selling smack now cheaper than me? Or the Big H? The Asian stuff? Or the stuff from Turkey? Why was he giving away the brown smoking shit out in Jamaica, Queens, for practically nothing and then selling it at triple cost to buyers in Wyandanch, Long Island?
That kind of thinking had vaulted him to the top of the game in South Brooklyn, and it allowed him to push into Queens and even parts of Manhattan and Long Island. He felt good about that. He had a tight crew and, most important, a baseball mind. He’d been trained by the best. A man who knew the game.
Sportcoat was, Deems thought bitterly, a fucking idiot and a sticky issue to be dealt with later. He had to focus on Earl now, and Mr. Bunch. Had to.
But the going was difficult. He was so bent on trying to figure out Mr. Bunch’s strategy behind Earl’s getting punked that he was losing sleep. He woke up in the mornings feeling achy and with bumps on his arms from rolling against the wall. His ear, what was left of it, still hurt all the time. He needed sleep. And rest. And this fly girl Phyllis, seated with him at Vitali Pier, was the perfect distraction. He needed this break. Otherwise, he was an explosion waiting to happen. He’d seen in his own housing project what happened to the dealers who didn’t ease up and figure things out. Mr. Bunch and Earl had a plan. What was it? He wasn’t sure. But if he busted hard on Earl now, or even defended himself against Earl should he attack, his plan to get with Joe Peck could come crashing down before it even got started.
Peck, Deems knew, was the World Series. He was the man with the means. Deems couldn’t toss a pitch for Peck till he got his own team together; he was still working on that, adding muscle to his crew, figuring the costs, the risks, the allies in the Watch Houses, in Far Rockaway, and the two trusted guys in Bed-Stuy from his days in Spofford, all of whom he needed to be in tight shape before he could approach Joe Peck. He’d sent Beanie, his most trusted crew member, out to Queens to sound out some fellow dealers in Jamaica, to ask if they’d buy from him if he sold to them at 20 percent less than Mr. Bunch. The answer was a quiet yes. He just needed to tighten things a little more before he approached Peck. Just be cool a few more weeks, then make his move.
But the stress was difficult to handle. There were so few people to trust. More and more, Deems found himself leaning on Beanie, who was more mature than the others and could keep his lips closed and not say dumb things. Outside of that, everything had gotten complicated. His mother was drinking more. His sister had disappeared someplace and hadn’t been seen in months. Deems found himself unable to get out of bed in the morning. He’d lie in place, pining for the old days, hearing the crack of a baseball bat on a warm summer day, watching Beanie, Lightbulb, Dome, and his main ace boon coon Sugar shag balls in the outfield while Sportcoat hollered at them, sitting them down in the rancid dugout and telling them stupid stories of the old men in the Negro leagues with funny names. He’d recall the days he and his friends used to lie on the roof of Building 9 waiting for the ants in fall. They were innocent boys then. Not now. Deems at nineteen felt like fifty. He got out of bed each morning feeling like he’d slept on the edge of a dark abyss. He actually toyed with the idea of running away to Alabama, where Sugar had moved to, and cooling out at Sugar’s house, just giving up the whole business altogether and finding a college down south that had a baseball team. He still had his stuff. He could still throw ninety miles per hour. He was sure he could still make a good college team as a walk-on. Mr. Bill Boyle, the baseball coach at St. John’s, had said so. Deems had known Mr. Boyle for years. Mr. Boyle used to come around every summer asking about him, watching him throw. He kept scorecards, and ratings, and notes on him. Deems liked that. All the way through his days at John Jay High School, where his pitching took the team to the state championship, Mr. Boyle said, “You got a future if you don’t screw up.” But Deems screwed up. The summer after he graduated from high school, already enrolled in St. John’s, Mr. Boyle came to visit, and by then his dope business was booming. He saw Mr. Boyle coming and scattered his dealers and pretended nothing was going on. He walked Mr. Boyle to the old ball field in the Cause and showed him he could still toss at ninety miles per hour and even faster. The old coach was excited. He called Deems when the fall semester began, and Deems said, “I’ll be there,” but something came up in his business—he couldn’t even remember what it was, looking back, just some bullshit. And that was it. Mr. Boyle hadn’t heard from him so he showed up in the Cause, unannounced, and spotted Deems at the flagpole, surrounded by dopers, moving heroin. “You’re a waste of talent,” he said to Deems, and was gone. Deems wanted to call him again, but he was too embarrassed.
Then again, he told himself, Mr. Boyle drove an old Dodge Dart. My Firebird, he told himself, is nicer than his car. Besides, Mr. Boyle didn’t live out here in the Cause, where life was hard.
Sitting at the edge of the dock with the flyest girl he’d ever had a chance to put his arm around, with his feet clad in brand-new Converse sneakers with the star on the side, $3,200 cash in one pocket and a .32 caliber in the other, Beanie serving as his bodyguard because now he never went anywhere without crew, Deems dismissed the baseball idea and forced his mind back into the other game. The real one. He had to keep focused. He had gotten a call that afternoon from one of his boys in Bed-Stuy who’d served time with him in Spofford. His hunch was right. Bunch was about to make a play.
Bunch was on to him, the guy said. Bunch somehow learned that Deems wanted to cut a deal with Joe Peck to take over Bunch’s distribution. Earl was just a feint to lull him to sleep. “Earl ain’t the guy to look out for. Bunch sent for somebody else.”
“Who?” Deems had asked.
“Some motherfucker named Harold Dean. Don’t know nothing about him. But he’s a shooter. Watch your back with him.”
So that was it. Okay. Curveball. Harold Dean. He sent out an alert and got his crew ready, moving them into every building. Any strange dude not from the Cause, who walked through Buildings 9, 34, 17, all his strongholds, any man or kid who lagged through the flagpole plaza looking suspicious, watch him. It could be Harold Dean. Don’t do nothing. Just report to him. That was the word. He’d made it clear. He spent some money and sent out a few extra bodies. There wasn’t a corner of the Cause he hadn’t considered. Every roof. Every building. Every alley had someone in his crew watching it, including his own Building 9, where he placed Stick on the roof, along with a second kid named Rick working the hallways, along with Lightbulb.
There was something about Lightbulb Deems didn’t like. Lightbulb hadn’t been feeling it. Ever since Deems had been shot, and Lightbulb and Beanie came to visit him two weeks ago, and Lightbulb got scared, talking about “you” instead of “we” when Deems said he planned to approach Peck, Deems had gotten suspicious. Lightbulb didn’t like that plan. In fact, when Deems really thought about it, Lightbulb never had the heart for the game. Bunch was on to him because somebody had dimed on him. He’d gone through the list of possible double-crossers, and if he had to bet on the outcome . . .
He felt a burning in his throat as anger fought to take hold.
The cooing of the honeyed girl next to him, sighing and dangling her feet over the water, cooled the burning and brought him back to the moment. She was speaking to him but he didn’t hear. His mind couldn’t stop moving. It circled the Harold Dean problem again, then settled back on Lightbulb.
He couldn’t believe it, but he had to. Lightbulb had tipped his hand when they were in the apartment two weeks ago. He hadn’t been around much. He was also using, which meant that when Lightbulb made deliveries, he might be cutting the stuff with baking soda or whatever he could get his hands on. Diluting the goods to keep the good stuff for himself.
Rage climbed into Deems’s clear thinking. It was a mistake, he knew. But he couldn’t help it.
“He tipped his hand right then and there in the apartment.” He spit out the words.
“Say what?” Phyllis was talking. She was so sweet. Her voice, lovely and lilting with that Southern accent, was a turn-on. She was almost like a real woman, like the black chicks he’d seen in the movies and on TV, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson, sitting there looking fully grown with her fine self. He felt like a movie star and a grown man all at once, too, sitting next to her. He was embarrassed that he didn’t have much experience with girls. She was twenty-four, five years older than him. Most of the girls he knew were younger and worked for him; the older ones occasionally screwed him for dope, or simply became whores for their own habit, which made them untouchable. This little honey was so fine and smart, it seemed a waste to let her get all fucked up on heroin before he got his dibs. Plus she was a little cold and distant, which made her irresistible.
She’d agreed to walk with him to the dock, where there were plenty of empty corners, perfect places for a guy to get his nuts dipped. It was better than risking his life using an apartment of some dopehead in the Cause who might set him up for the price of a ten-dollar bag of brown scag.
She looked at him oddly, waiting for his response. He shrugged and said, “It ain’t nothing,” then gazed out over the water at the twinkling lights, which began to appear one by one, as the sun made its last descent over the western skyline. He said, “Look at them lights.”
“The very next thing I’m gonna get me is an apartment. In Manhattan.”
“That’s cool,” she said.
He placed his arm around her shoulder. She removed it.
“I ain’t that type of girl,” she said.
He snickered, slightly embarrassed, aware that Beanie was fifteen feet off packing a Davis .380-caliber handgun, watching their backs. “What type of girl are you?”
“Well, not that type. Not yet. I don’t know you that good.”
“That’s why we’re here, baby.”
She laughed. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Girl, we ain’t gonna bang skins out here like teenagers, if that’s what you asking. Not with him standing right there.” He nodded to Beanie. “We come out here to just see the water and cool out and talk.”
“Okay. But I need a little bit of something, y’know. I’m just feeling it . . . y’know. You ain’t gonna ask me to do a little extra here for it, are you?”
He was disappointed. “Girl, I don’t want no extra. Not right now. You need a hit, I’ll give you a hit.”
“Forget it,” she said. She tilted her head side to side as if she were thinking about something, then said, “Well . . . I probably could use a little taste,” she said.
He glared at her.
“I thought you said you wasn’t hooked.”
“I ain’t talking about doing no works. I’m talking about tasting you, boy!” She tapped his pants near his zipper.
He chuckled. Once again, he had a fleeting feeling of sudden alert and would have driven into that feeling further had he not been interrupted by the sound of Beanie behind him bursting into laughter and saying, “Deems, oh shit, check this out!”
He turned around. Beanie, a good ten feet off, was standing next to old Hot Sausage, of all people, who was stone drunk and without his stupid porkpie cap. He was dressed instead in the garb of an umpire, complete with jacket, cap, and chest protector, and holding the face mask in his hand. He swayed unsteadily, completely blitzed.
Deems scrambled to his feet and stepped over to them. “What you doing here, Sausage?” he said, snickering. “You drunk? It ain’t Halloween yet.” He could smell the booze. Sausage was totaled and looked so ready to collapse that Deems almost felt sorry for him.
Sausage was bombed. “It wasn’t my idea,” he slurred. “But being that as you . . . well . . . I was told if you seen this here umpire outfit, it would be a message.”
“What you talking about?” Deems said. An idea was forming in his head. He glanced at Beanie, who was still laughing, and at Phyllis, who had wandered over. He pointed in the direction of the park, several blocks away. “Baseball field’s that way, Sausage,” he said.
“Can I speak to you private a minute?” Sausage asked.
Now Deems smelled a rat. He glanced around. The dock was empty save Beanie, the new girl Phyllis, and Sausage. Behind them, the empty paint factory lay dark. Sausage, despite his inebriation, seemed nervous and was breathing hard.
“Come see me tomorrow. When you ain’t drunk. I’m busy here.”
“It won’t take long, Mr. Deems.”
“Don’t Mr. Deems me, motherfucker. I hear you talking about me at the flagpole. You think I’m sitting around sucking eggs while you sneaking Sportcoat about? If it wasn’t for my granddaddy, I’da knocked your teeth out two weeks ago. You and Sport. You two old-bag motherfuckers, starting up shit . . .”
“Gimme a minute, son. I gotta tell you something. It’s important.”
“Open your talking hole then. Go ’head.”
Sausage seemed terrified. He glanced at Phyllis, then at Beanie, then back at Deems.
“It’s private, Deems, I’m telling you. Man to man. It’s about Sportcoat . . .”
“Fuck Sportcoat,” Deems said.
“He wants to tell you something important!” Sausage insisted. “In private.”
“Fuck him! Get the fuck outta here!”
“Show some respect for an old man, would ya? What have I ever done to you?”
Deems thought it through quickly, checking off boxes in his mind. His crew was at the flagpole. Chink was in place. Rags was in place. Stick had a crew of kids on the roofs. Beanie was there with him, packing heat. He was packing heat himself. Lightbulb was . . . well, in place, and far distant and no threat and was a problem that would be dealt with soon. He glanced at Phyllis, who was dusting off her pretty rear end. She took a step back toward the empty paint factory.
“I’ll go away for a minute,” she said. “You can talk.”
“Naw, girl, stay here.”
Hot Sausage said to Phyllis, “I think it’s best you go.”
“Git off her, Sausage!”
“It’s just a minute, Deems. Please. Gimme a minute in privacy, will ya? For God’s sake, boy! Just a minute!”
Deems lowered his voice, enraged now. “State your business right now, or I’ll knock every Chiclet outta your mouth.”
“All right,” Sausage slurred. He glanced at Phyllis, then said, “Sister Gee . . . you remember her?”
“Out with it, motherfucker!”
“Okay then!” Sausage cleared his throat, swaying drunk, trying to control himself. “Sister Gee come by the boiler room today when me and Sport was there having a . . . taste, y’know. She said the cops been asking lots of questions. She come upon some information from one of them cops that she gived to Sportcoat. He wanted you to have it.”
“What kind of information?”
“Somebody’s coming to get you, Deems. Someone bad.”
“Tell me what I don’t know, old man.”
“Somebody named Harold Dean.”
Deems sucked his teeth and turned to Beanie. “Beanie, get him the fuck outta here.” He turned away and suddenly noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a movement to his right.
She had stepped away from him, and in one smooth motion she slid her arm into her leather jacket, pulled a .38 short-nose Smith & Wesson, aimed it at Beanie, and pulled the hammer on it. Beanie saw her and tried to reach, but he wasn’t fast enough. She dropped him, pivoted to Hot Sausage, who was backing away, and popped him once in the chest, which sent the old man reeling to the deck. Then she turned the gun on Deems.
Deems, standing at the dock edge, leapt backward into the harbor when he saw the light wink from the eye of the Smith & Wesson. When he struck the water he felt his ear, still healing from Sportcoat’s blast, burning, then the cool waters of the East River surrounding him, then an explosion of pain bursting out of his left arm, the pain seeming to paint his whole body, which felt as if it were ripping apart. He was sure his left arm was gone.
Like most kids who grew up in the Cause Houses, Deems had never learned to swim. He’d avoided the filthy harbor and the projects pool, which was used mostly by the white residents from the surrounding neighborhood and was policed by cops who discouraged the projects kids. Now, in the river, he flapped his hands uselessly and reached out desperately with his right hand. As he did, he swallowed a gulp of river and heard a splash of someone landing in the water near him and thought, Oh shit, that bitch jumped in. Then he went down again, and for the first time since he was a child, in the darkness of the water, he found himself calling on God, asking for help, pleading, Please help me, swallowing more water and panicking as he flailed. Help me now, God, and if I don’t drown . . . God, help me please. Every lesson he’d learned in Sunday school, every prayer he’d uttered, every pain he’d felt in his young life, every sorrow he’d caused that stuck in his craw and nagged his conscience, like the gum he stuck under the pews of Five Ends Baptist Church as a kid, felt like they had risen up in a swirl to create a necklace around his neck that choked. He felt the current grab his legs, toss him to the surface, where he took a desperate gulp of air before it snatched his legs and pulled him down again—for good this time. He couldn’t resist. He felt himself being gently sucked away by the current and was suddenly exhausted and could no longer fight back. He felt urgency seeping from his feet, and felt blackness coming.
Then something grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him up into air. He was yanked backward, slung against one of the deck pilings, and pinned there, held fast by a single strong forearm. Whoever was holding him was out of breath. Then he heard a harsh whisper: “Shhh.”
He couldn’t see a thing in the pitch black. Deems’s left shoulder burned so badly it felt like it had been dipped in acid. He was dizzy and felt warm blood oozing down his left arm. Then the grip that held him loosed for a moment to get a better grip and pulled him farther back under the wooden dock and closer to the shore. He felt his feet touch rocky ground. The water was neck high now. Whoever held him was standing. Deems tried to stand himself but he couldn’t move his legs. “Jesus,” he gurgled. A hand quickly slammed over his mouth and a face moved close to his, speaking just over his shoulder.
“Shush now,” the voice said.
Even in the water, with the stench of the dock and the fish and the funk of the East River everywhere, Deems could smell the booze. And the smell of the man. The personal body funk of the old Sunday school teacher who had once held him in his lap by the warm woodstove at Five Ends Baptist when he was a howling boy of nine with wet pants, because his mother got too drunk to go to church on Sundays and sent him alone in piss-smelling church clothes, knowing that the old drunk Sunday school teacher and his kind wife, Hettie, would put shoes and clean pants, shirt, and underwear on him, clothes once worn by their blind son, Pudgy Fingers, knowing that Hettie, each and every Sunday, would discreetly carry Deems’s soiled clothes back to her apartment in a bag she carried to church expressly for that purpose, along with a Christmas Club money box in which the two faithfully dropped fifty cents each week—twenty-five cents for Deems and twenty-five cents for their own son, Pudgy Fingers. Then she’d wash Deems’s clothes and send them back to his mother’s apartment in a paper bag with a piece of cake, or a piece of pie, or some fried fish for the children. True Christian kindness. Real Christian love. A hard woman showing hard love in a hard world. Her and her husband, a straight-up-and-down drunk, who years later would show the boy how to throw a pitch at ninety miles per hour and kiss the outside part of home plate with it, which was something no eighteen-year-old kid in Brooklyn could do.
Sportcoat held Deems against the piling, his old head cast upward, his old eyes peering through the slats in the pier walkway. He listened intently until the sound of the girl’s running feet passed overhead, rang along the dock, and disappeared toward the paint factory and the street beyond.
When all was silent, save for the sound of the water lapping up against the pilings, Sportcoat’s grip on Deems loosened and he spun Deems backward and yanked him toward the shore, pulling him like a rag doll till they reached the rocks. He laid him on his back on a sandy stretch near the rocks and sat next to him, exhausted. Then he called out to the docks directly above where they sat. “Sausage, you living?”
There was a gurgled response on the deck.
“Shit,” Sportcoat said.
Deems had never heard the old man curse before. It felt sacrilegious. Sportcoat moved toward the edge of the dock to climb onto it, then dropped to one knee, his spent face illuminated by the lights of Manhattan just across the river. “I got to catch my breath, Sausage,” Sportcoat called out. “I can’t move quite yet. Just a minute. I’m coming.”
Sausage gurgled again. Sportcoat glanced at Deems, who still lay on the sand, and shook his head. “I don’t know what got into you,” he panted. “You don’t listen to nobody.”
“That bitch shot me,” Deems gasped.
“Oh shush. Your good arm ain’t hurt.”
“I didn’t know she was packing.”
“That’s the problem with you young’uns. If you’da growed up down south, you’d knowed something. This city don’t teach y’all nothing. I told Sausage to tell you. Sister Gee passed the word about Harold Dean coming to kill you.”
“I was on the lookout.”
“Yeah? Whyn’t you look past your little wee wee then, which I expect was stout and hard as bone? Harold Dean was holding your hand, son, purring like a kitten and stinking of trouble. Harol-deen, boy. Haroldeen is a girl’s name.”
The old man stood up and climbed onto the dock where Sausage was. Deems watched him, then felt sweet blackness coming. It came right on time.