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Deacon King Kong (4. Running Off)

Sportcoat walked into the basement furnace room of Building 9 and sat on a foldout chair next to the giant coal furnace in a huff. He heard the wail of a siren, then forgot all about it. He didn’t care about any siren. He was looking for something. His eyes scanned the floor, then stopped as he suddenly remembered he was supposed to memorize a Bible verse for his upcoming Friends and Family Day sermon. It was about righting wrongs. Was it the book of Romans or Micah? He couldn’t recall. Then his mind slid to the same old nagging problem: Hettie and the Christmas Club money.

“We got along all right till you decided to fool with that damn Christmas Club,” he snorted.

He looked around the basement for Hettie. She didn’t appear.

“You hear me?”

Nothing.

“Well, that’s all right too,” he snapped. “The church ain’t holding no notes on me about that missing money. It’s you who got to live with it, not me.”

He stood and began to search for a bottle of emergency King Kong that Sausage always kept hidden someplace, but was still pie-eyed and feeling addled and murky. He pushed around the discarded tools and bicycle parts on the floor with his foot, muttering. “Some people got to stay mad to keep from getting mad,” he grumbled. “Some goes from preaching to meddlin’ and meddlin’ to preaching and can’t hardly tell the difference. Well, it ain’t my money, Hettie. It’s the church’s money.” He stopped moving items with his foot for a moment and stilled, talking to the air. “It’s all the same,” he announced. “You got to have a principle or you ain’t nothing. What you think of that?”

Silence.

“I thought so.”

Calmer now, he started searching again, bending down and talking as he checked toolboxes and under bricks. “You never did think of my money, did you? Like with that old mule I had down home,” he said. “The one old Mr. Tullus wanted to buy. He offered me a hundred dollars for her. I said, ‘Mr. Tullus, it’ll take a smooth two hundred to move her.’ Old man wouldn’t pay that much, remember? That mule up and died two weeks later. I coulda sold her. You shoulda told me to turn her loose.”

Silence.

“Well, Hettie, if I weren’t taking that white man’s good hundred dollars on principle, I surely ain’t gonna take no mess from you ’bout some fourteen dollars and nine pennies you done squirreled up in Christmas Club money and hid someplace.”

He paused, looked out the corner of his eye, then said softly, “It is fourteen dollars, ain’t it? It ain’t, say, two or three hundred dollars, is it? I can’t do three hundred dollars. Fourteen is sheep money. I can raise that sleeping. But three hundred, that’s over my head, honey.”

He stopped moving, frustrated, still looking around, unable to find what he was looking for. “That money . . . it ain’t mine, Hettie!”

There was still no answer, and he sat down again in the folding chair, flummoxed.

Sitting in the cold seat, he had an unfamiliar, odd, nagging feeling that something terrible had occurred. The feeling wasn’t unusual for him, especially since Hettie died. Normally he ignored it, but this time it felt bigger than usual. He couldn’t place it, then suddenly spied the prize he was looking for and forgot about the problem instantly. He stood up, shuffled over to a hot-water heater, reached under it, and pulled out the bottle of Rufus’s homemade King Kong.

He held the bottle up to the bare ceiling lightbulb. “I say a drink, I say a glass. I say do you know me? I say the note is due! I say bring the hens! I say a poke and a choke, Hettie. I say God only knows when! Brace!”

Sportcoat turned up the bottle, drank a deep swallow, and the nagging feeling bubbled away. He placed the bottle back in its hiding place and relaxed in his seat, satisfied. “G’wan, King Kong,” he murmured. Then he wondered aloud, “What day is this, Hettie?”

He realized she wasn’t speaking to him, so he said, “Hell, I don’t need ya. I can read . . . ,” which was actually not true. He could read a calendar. Words were another matter.

He rose, ambled over to a weathered wall calendar, peered at it through the haze of his drunken glow, then nodded. It was Thursday. Itkin’s day. He had four jobs, one for every day but Sunday: Mondays he cleaned Five Ends church. Tuesdays he emptied the garbage at the nursing home. Wednesdays he helped an old white lady with the garden of her brownstone. Thursdays he unloaded crates at Itkin’s liquor store, just four blocks from the Cause Houses. Fridays and Saturdays had once been baseball practice for the Cause Houses baseball team before it disbanded.

Sportcoat looked over at the wall clock. Almost one o’clock. He had to get to work.

“Gotta go, Hettie!” he said cheerily.

He pulled out the bottle again and took another quick nip of the Kong, slid it back to its hiding place, and walked out the back door of the basement, which exited a block away from the plaza flagpole. The street was clear and quiet. He wobbled easily, freely, the fresh air steadying him a bit and partially lifting the drunken haze. Within moments he was heading down the row of neat shops that lined Piselli Street and the nearby Italian neighborhood. He loved walking to Mr. Itkin’s place, toward downtown Brooklyn, seeing the neat row homes and storefronts, the stores full of shopkeepers, some of whom waved at him as he walked past. Stacking booze and helping customers cart their wine to their cars was one of his favorite small jobs. Small jobs that didn’t last more than a day and didn’t require tools were perfect for him.

Ten minutes later, he ambled to a door under an awning that read Itkin’s Liquors. As he reached it, a police car roared past. Then another. He paused at the door, hastily felt in his jacket vest pocket, where he stored booze or any empty or stray liquor bottles that might’ve been stuffed in there from some previous unremembered moment of elbow bending—forgetting his hip pockets altogether—then turned the door handle.

The doorbell tingled as he entered and closed it behind him, shutting off the howl of yet another police car and ambulance roaring past.

Mr. Itkin, the owner, a stout, easygoing Jew, was wiping the countertop, his paunch protruding over the edge. The store was silent. The air-conditioning was blasting. It was still five minutes till opening time. Itkin nodded over Sportcoat’s shoulder at the cop cars racing toward the Cause Houses. “What’s going on out there?”

“Diabetes,” Sportcoat said, plodding past Itkin’s counter to the back stockroom, “killing ’em off one by one.” He slipped into the back room, where stacks of newly arrived liquor boxes awaited opening. He sat down on a crate with a sigh. He didn’t care about any sirens.

He removed his hat and wiped his brow. The counter where Itkin stood was a good twenty feet from the door to the back room, but Itkin, from his vantage point at the edge of the counter, could see Sportcoat clearly. He stopped wiping and called out, “You look a little peaked, Deacon.”

Sportcoat dismissed the concern with a grin and an easy yawn, stretching his arms wide. “I’m feeling dandy and handy,” he said. Itkin returned to wiping his counter, moving out of sight to work the other side of it, while Sportcoat, carefully keeping out of Itkin’s sightline, grabbed a root beer from a crate, cracked it open, took a long drink of it, put it down on a nearby shelf, and began stacking boxes. He glanced to make sure Itkin was still at the far end of the counter and out of view, then, with the practiced smoothness of a cat burglar, he snatched a bottle of gin out of a nearby case, unscrewed its cap and poured half its contents into the root beer can, closed the bottle, stuffed it into his jacket hip pocket, removed the jacket, and placed it on a nearby shelf. The coat landed with an odd clank. For a moment Sportcoat thought he had a forgotten bottle stuffed in the pocket on the other side, since he’d only quickly rifled through his chest pockets before entering the store and not his hip pockets, so he snatched up the coat again, fished in the hip pockets, and yanked out the old .38.

“How’d my army gun get here?” he muttered.

Just then the jingle of the door sounded. He shoved the gun back into the jacket and glanced up to see several of the day’s first customers entering, all of them white, followed by the familiar porkpie hat and brown worried face of Hot Sausage, still wearing his blue Housing Authority janitor uniform.

Sausage lingered at the door a moment, feigning interest in a nearby liquor display as the paying customers fanned out. Itkin, irritated, glanced at him.

Sausage blurted, “Deacon left something at home.”

Itkin nodded curtly toward the back room, where Sportcoat could be seen, then was called down an aisle by one of the customers, which allowed Sausage to slip past the counter and into the back room. Sportcoat noticed he was sweating and breathing hard.

“Sausage, what you want?” he said. “Itkin don’t like you back here.”

Hot Sausage glanced over his shoulder, then hissed, “Goddamn fool!”

“What you so hot about?”

“You got to run! Now!”

“What you fussing at me for?” Sportcoat said. He offered the root beer can. “Have a sip-sot for your coal-top.”

Sausage snatched the root beer soda can, sniffed it, then slammed it down on a crate so hard liquid popped out the opening.

“Nigger, you ain’t got time to set around sipping essence. You gotta put your foot in the road!”

“What?”

“You got to go!”

“Go where? I just got here.”

“Go anyplace, fool. Run off!”

“I ain’t leaving my job, Sausage!”

“Clemens ain’t dead,” Sausage said.

“Who?” Sportcoat asked.

“Deems! He ain’t dead.”

“Who?”

Hot Sausage stepped back, blinking.

“What’s the matter with you, Sport?”

Sportcoat sat down on a crate, wearily, shaking his head. “Don’t know, Sausage. I been talking to Hettie ’bout my sermon for Friends and Family Day. She got to hollering about that cheese again, and the Christmas Club money. Then she throwed in my momma. She said my momma didn’t—”

“Cut that mumbo jumbo, Sport. You in trouble!”

“With Hettie? What I done now?”

“Hettie’s been dead two years, fool!”

Sportcoat puckered his face and said softly, “You ain’t got to speak left-handed about my dear Hettie, Sausage. She never done you no wrong.”

“She wasn’t so dear last week, when you was bellowing like a calf about that Christmas Club money. Forget her a minute, Sport. Deems ain’t dead!”

“Who?”

“Deems, fool. Louis’s grandson. Remember Louis Clemens?”

“Louis Clemens?” Sportcoat tilted his head sideways, looking genuinely surprised. “Louis been dead, Sausage. He been dead five years this May. He been dead longer than my Hettie.”

“I ain’t talking about him. I’m talking about his grandson Deems.”

Sportcoat brightened. “Deems Clemens! Greatest ballplayer this projects ever seen, Sausage. He’s gonna be the next Bullet Rogan. I seen Rogan play once, back in forty-two. In Pittsburgh, just before I come up here. Hell of a ballplayer. He got to arguing with the umpire and got throwed out the game. Bob Motley was umping. Motley was something. Greatest Negro umpire ever. Jumped like a basketball player, Motley did.”

Hot Sausage stared at him a moment, then said softly, “What’s a matter with you, Sport?”

“Nothing. Hettie’s just been a bear. She come to me said, ‘I know your momma—’”

“Lissen to me. You shot Deems and he ain’t dead and he’s gonna come at you with his hooligans. So you gotta get moving . . .”

But Sportcoat was still talking and didn’t hear him, “‘—degraded you.’ My momma did not degrade me. That was not my momma, Hettie,” he said to no one in particular. “That was my stepmomma.”

Hot Sausage whistled softly and sat down on another crate across from Sportcoat. He looked out into the store at Mr. Itkin, who was still busy with customers, then he picked up the root beer can full of gin and took a long swallow. “Maybe I can get a visitor’s pass,” he said.

“For what?”

“For when they put you in the penitentiary. If you live that long.”

“Quit chunking at me ’bout nothing.”

Hot Sausage sat thoughtfully a moment, sipped the gin, then tried one more time. “You know Deems, right? Louis’s grandson?”

“Surely,” Sportcoat said. “Coached him in baseball. Taught him in Sunday school. That boy got talent.”

“He’s shot. Near dead.”

Sportcoat’s brow furrowed. “Gosh almighty!” he said. “That’s terrible.”

“He’s shot on account of you. Hand before God. You shot him.”

Sportcoat chortled for a moment, thinking it was a joke. But Hot Sausage’s serious face didn’t waver, and Sportcoat’s smile thinned. “You funning, right?” he said.

“I wish I was. You rolled up on him and throwed that old cannon of yours on him. The old one your cousin from the army gave you.”

Sportcoat turned and reached into the pocket of his sports jacket lying on the shelf behind him and pulled out the Colt. “I wondered why I got this damn thing . . .” He hammered it against his hand to check. “See, it ain’t been fired since I bought it. Ain’t got but one bullet in it, and that’s just for show.” Then he noticed the empty cartridge and a pasty look crossed his face as he held the gun in front of him, staring at it.

Hot Sausage pushed the gun barrel toward the floor, glancing at the door. “Put that goddamn thing away!” he hissed, his voice low. “You already done caused a world of trouble with it!”

For the first time, seeping through Sportcoat’s drunken stupor, the words began to have an effect. Sportcoat blinked in confusion, then laughed and snorted. “I disremember a lot of what I do these days, Sausage. After you and me got pixilated on the Kong last night, I went home and had a dream about Hettie and we got to fussing as usual. Then I woke up needing a breakfast of champions as they say so I had a taste of the Kong to keep the crease down, y’know. Then I went to see Deems about getting the baseball game against Watch Houses going again. We can’t win without Deems, y’know. That boy got talent! Could throw seventy-eight miles per hour when he was thirteen.” He smiled. “I always favored him.”

“Well, you picked a poor way of showing it. You walked to the plaza and throwed that gun on him. Right in front of his gang of heathens.”

Sportcoat looked stunned. His brow crinkled in disbelief. “But I hardly carry this thing, Sausage. I don’t know how I . . .” He wet his lips. “I was drunk, I reckon. I didn’t hurt him bad, did I?”

“He ain’t dead. They say just his ear’s shot off.”

“That don’t sound like me. It ain’t smart to shoot a man’s ear off. A man ain’t got but two.”

Hot Sausage couldn’t help himself. He stifled a chortle. “You been home today?”

“Naw. I come straight to work after I . . .” Then Sportcoat paused a moment, his face etched with remembrance and concern. “Well, now that I think on it, I do remembers some boy with his head bleeding and choking for some reason. I remembers that. So I gived him that thing I seen a doctor do back home once. He was having trouble drawing air, poor fella. But I cleared him. I reckon that was Deems I cleared. He all right now?”

“He’s well enough to pin a gold star on your chest before airing you out.”

“Can’t be!”

“You done it!”

“I disremember it! It couldn’t have been me.”

“You shot that boy, Sport. Understand?”

“Sausage, I reckon that running lie is a good one to truck about, being that a boy with that kinda talent that don’t use it ought to be shot in this world for wasting it. But—hand before God—I didn’t shoot him to my recollection. Even if I did it’s only ’cause I wanted him to go back to pitching baseball. He’ll forget all about it when his ear heals. I got only one good ear myself. A man can still pitch with one ear.” He paused a moment, then added, “Anybody seen it?”

“No. Just everybody at the flagpole.”

“Gee,” Sportcoat said softly. “That’s like being on TV.” He took a swig of gin and felt better. He was having trouble deciding whether this was a dream.

Hot Sausage picked up Sportcoat’s jacket and held it out for him. “Git down the road right now while you can,” he said.

“Maybe I should call the police and explain it to ’em.”

“Forget them.” Sausage glanced at the door. “You still got people in South Carolina?”

“I ain’t been to my home country since my daddy died.”

“Go see Rufus over at the Watch Houses. Lay low over there. Maybe it’ll blow over somehow . . . but I wouldn’t buy no sweepstakes ticket on it.”

“I ain’t going over to no Rufus’s place at no Watch Houses to sleep!” Sportcoat snorted. “That Negro ain’t showered in two years. His body is dying of thirst. I got to be dead drunk to be around him. Plus, I got my own house!”

“Not no more.”

“Where’s Pudgy gonna go? I gotta take him to the school bus in the morning.”

“The church’ll see to that,” Hot Sausage said, still holding out Sportcoat’s jacket.

Sportcoat snatched his jacket from Sausage’s hand and placed it back on the liquor rack, grumbling. “You lying! I didn’t shoot Deems. I woke up this morning fussing with Hettie. I walked Pudgy to the blind folks’ school bus. I maybe had a taste or three. Then I come here. Sometime in the middle there I had another swig of the erratic and took Deems’s ear off. Maybe I done it. Maybe not. So what? He got another ear. What’s an ear when you got an arm like Deems? I knowed a man back home who got his pecker cut off by a white man for stealing a lady’s purse. He peed through a groin hole his whole life. He did all right. He’s yet living, far as I know.”

“The white man, or the man without a pecker?”

“They both yet living to my knowing. And they got to know each other good over time. So why you all hot and bothered about somebody’s old ear for? Even Jesus didn’t need but one sandal. The book of Psalms says you ain’t desired my ears and you ain’t opened ’em either.”

“It says what now?”

“Something like that. What difference do it make? God’ll straighten it out. He’ll make Deems’s one better’n two ears.”

That business decided, Sportcoat began unpacking liquor bottles from a crate. “You wanna go fishing this weekend?” he said. “I’m getting paid tomorrow. I needs to reflect on my first-ever sermon at Five Ends. It’s in three weeks.”

“If it’s about the hereafter, you ain’t gonna be short on critters and believers, that’s for sure. If I was a fly and wanted to get to heaven, I’d throw myself in your mouth.”

“It ain’t about no fly. It’s about not eating the dressing without confessing. Book of Romans, fourteenth chapter, tenth verse. Or maybe it’s Simon, seventh and ninth. It’s one or the other. I got to look.”

Hot Sausage stared, incredulous, as Sportcoat continued unloading liquor bottles. “Nigger, your cheese done slid off your cracker.”

“Just ’cause you says I got a note due someplace don’t mean I got one!”

“Is you listening, Sport?! You dropped Deems in his tracks! Then humped him like a dog. In front of everybody.”

“You ought to test your lies someplace else other than your best friend, Sausage. I never humped a man in my life.”

“You was drunk!”

“I don’t swallow any more spirits than anybody else in these projects.”

“Now who’s lying? I ain’t the one they calling Deacon King Kong.”

“I don’t get in a knot over the fibbing and twiddling things folks say about me, Sausage. I got my own thoughts about things.”

Hot Sausage glanced out the door. Itkin’s customers had left, and the store owner was peering into the back room where they were standing. Sausage reached into his pocket and pulled out a small clump of dollar bills. He held the crumpled bills out to Sportcoat, who had paused and was now standing before him, glaring, his arms full of liquor bottles.

“Thirty-one dollars. It’s all I got, Sport. Take it and get a bus ticket home.”

“I ain’t going no place.”

Hot Sausage sighed sadly, pocketed the money, and turned to leave. “All right. I guess I’ll use it to buy a bus ticket to see you in the penitentiary upstate. If you live that long.”

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