Uncategorized (7. The March of the Ants)
Just before fall each year, for as long AS anyone could remember, the March of the Ants came to Building 17 of the Cause Houses. They came for Jesus’s cheese, which came magically to Hot Sausage’s basement boiler room once a month, with several one-pound hunks Sausage kept for himself, which he stored inside a tall stand-alone pendulum clock he’d found years ago in Park Slope and dragged into his basement to repair it. The repair never happened, of course, but the ants didn’t mind. They happily headed for it every year, crawling through a slit in the building’s outer door, marching through the labyrinth of discarded junk, bicycle parts, bricks, plumbing tools, and old sinks that crowded Hot Sausage’s boiler room, moving in a curling line three inches wide that snaked its way around the discarded junk to the clock itself, which stood along a back wall. They climbed through the broken plate glass and across the clock’s dead hour hand, then down into its guts and innards to the delicious, odorous white man’s cheese wrapped in wax paper that lay inside. After demolishing the cheese, the line moved on, snaking its way out the back of the clock and along the wall, gobbling whatever was in its path—bits of old sandwiches, discarded Ring Dings, roaches, mice, rats, and of course their own dead. These ants were not normal city ants. They were big, red country ants with huge backsides and tiny heads. Where they came from no one knew, though it was rumored they might have wandered over from the nearby Preston Carter Arboretum in Park Slope; others said a graduate student from nearby Brooklyn College had dropped a beaker full of them and watched in horror as the beaker smashed to the floor and they scattered.
The real truth was that their long journey to Brooklyn began in 1951, care of a Colombian worker from the nearby Preston chicken-processing plant named Hector Maldonez. That was the year Hector slipped into New York on a Brazilian freighter, the Andressa. He spent the next six years living the good life in America, before he decided to divorce his wife and childhood sweetheart, who had dutifully remained back home with their four children in their village near Riohacha, in the northern Perijá mountains. Hector was a man with a conscience, and when he dutifully flew back home to explain to his wife that he’d found new love in America, a new Puerto Rican wife, he promised he would continue to support her and the children as always. His Colombian wife begged him to return to their once-blissful marriage, but Hector refused. “I’m an American now,” he said proudly. He neglected to mention that as a big-shot American, he could not have a village wife, nor did he invite her to return with him.
Much angst and arguing followed, complete with swearing, hollering, and tearing out of hair, but at the end, after many assurances that he would continue to provide funds every month for her and their children, his Colombian wife tearfully agreed to a divorce. Before leaving she cooked him his favorite dish, a platter of bandeja paisa. She stuck the carefully wrapped blend of chicken, sausage, and rolls in a brand-new lunch box she had purchased and gave it to him as he left for the airport. He grabbed the whole business as he ran out the door, stuffed a few dollars in her hand, and left for America feeling light and easy, having gotten off scot-free. His plane landed back in New York just in time for him to make it to Brooklyn for his shift at the factory. After working his morning shift, he opened his lunch box to devour the delicious bandeja paisa and instead found the lunch box packed with hormigas rojas asesinas, the dreaded red ants from back home, along with a note that read more or less, in Spanish, “Adios motherfucker . . . we know you ain’t sending no pesos!” Hector yelped and tossed the new lunch box into the long open trough that ran beneath the chicken factory, which sent chicken guts and sludge into a labyrinth of pipes that ran beneath the Cause Houses and out to the banks of the warm harbor. And there, in the agreeable coziness of the pipes and sludge, the ants lived in relative harmony, hatching, devouring each other, and happily indulging in the mice, rats, shad, crabs, leftover fish heads, and chicken guts, along with several other unfortunate live or half-live cats and mongrels from the nearby Cause Houses that wandered into the chicken factory for occasional munching, including a German shepherd named Donald, a favorite of the project’s residents. Apparently the poor creature fell into the polluted Gowanus Canal and nearly drowned in the foul-smelling water. He emerged from the water a mess, his fur colored orange and barking like a cat. He staggered around the bank for a full hour before collapsing. The ants ate him of course, along with other unmentionable creatures that lurked in and around the sludge and waste pipes that ran beneath the chicken factory, the ants surviving fine until each fall, when their inner clocks denoted they make their pilgrimage to the surface to do what every God-worshipping creature from the tiniest cell-sized hatchling in Victoria Falls to the giant Gila monsters that wandered the Mexican countryside did, or should do, or should have done: they sought Jesus, or in this case, Jesus’s cheese, which happened to be in Building 17 of the Cause Houses of the New York City Housing Authority, stored by Hot Sausage, a man who faithfully prayed every month that the Lord would allow him to lay his own sausage beside the tenderloins of Sister Denise Bibb, the best church organist in Brooklyn, in addition to faithfully laying aside several bars of Jesus’s cheese every week for a rainy day, which every year, in the fall, worked to the ants’ benefit.
Of course no one in the Cause paid much attention to the March of the Ants. In a housing project where 3,500 black and Spanish residents crammed their dreams, nightmares, dogs, cats, turtles, guinea pigs, Easter chicklets, children, parents, and double-chinned cousins from Puerto Rico, Birmingham, and Barbados into 256 tiny apartments, all living under the thumb of the wonderfully corrupt New York City Housing Authority, which for $43-a-month rent didn’t give a squirt whether they lived, died, shat blood, or walked around barefoot so long as they didn’t call the downtown Brooklyn office to complain, ants were a minor worry. And no resident in their right mind would go over their heads to the mighty Housing Authority honchos in Manhattan, who did not like their afternoon naps disturbed with minor complaints about ants, toilets, murders, child molestation, rape, heatless apartments, and lead paint that shrunk children’s brains to the size of a full-grown pea in one of their Brooklyn locations, unless they wanted a new home sleeping on a bench at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. But one year a lady in the Cause got fed up with the ants and wrote a letter of complaint. The Housing Authority ignored it, of course. But the letter somehow made its way to the Daily News, which ran a story about the ants sight unseen. The story triggered mild public interest, since anything about the Cause Houses that didn’t involve Negroes running around cockeyed screaming for civil rights was seen as good news. NYU sent out a biologist to investigate, but he got mugged and fled. The City College of New York, desperate to clamber over NYU for public respectability, dispatched two black female graduate students to take a look, but both had finals that year and by the time they arrived the ants had departed. The city’s proud Environmental Action Department, which in those days consisted of hippies, yippies, draft dodgers, soothsayers, and peaceniks who smoked pot and argued about Abbie Hoffman, promised to take a look. But a week later a city commissioner, a first-generation Pole and a key mover in the New York Polish American Society’s annual failed effort to get the City Council to honor that great Polish-Lithuanian general Andrew Thaddeus Bonaventure Kosciuszko by naming something after him other than that half-assed, pothole-filled, rust-bucket shit bomb of a bridge that yawned over Williamsburg, bearing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and whatever suicide jumper had the guts to wander up through the veering traffic before leaping off the crusty rails to crash into the poor souls below, wandered into the office, got a whiff of the freshly smoked Acapulco Gold being enjoyed by the hippie commie staffers who were busily engaged in arguing about the virtues of that esteemed early-twentieth-century union-organizing hell-raiser Emma Goldman, and left enraged. He cut the department’s budget in half. The investigator assigned to look into the Cause ants was sent to the Parking Authority, where she collected dimes from parking meters for the next four years. Thus, to the wider city of New York, the ants remained a mystery. They were a myth, a wisp of annual horrible possibility, an urban legend, an addendum to the annals of New York City’s poor, like the alligator Hercules who was said to live in the sewers below the Lower East Side and would leap out from manholes and gulp down children. Or the giant constrictor Sid from the Queensbridge Projects who strangled his owner, then slithered out the window to the nearby Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, his ten-foot body camouflaged in the girders above traffic, occasionally reaching down at night to pluck an unlucky truck driver out of an open window. Or the monkey that escaped from the Ringling Bros. circus and was said to be living in the rafters of the old Madison Square Garden, eating popcorn and cheering as the New York Knicks got the shit kicked out of them for the umpteenth time. The ants were poor folks’ foolishness, a forgotten story from a forgotten borough in a forgotten city that was going under.
And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich—West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious—and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color. And all the while, the ants marched each fall, arriving at Building 17 kicking ass, a roaring tidal wave of tiny death, devouring Jesus’s cheese, moving out of the clock and into the boiler room and into the trash can by the hall door, polishing off whatever leftover sandwiches and bits of cake from the wilted, soggy, uneaten lunches Hot Sausage left behind each afternoon as he and his buddy Sportcoat ignored food in favor of their favorite beverage, King Kong. From there they moved on to more plentiful goods in the halls and supply closets: rats and mice, which were in abundance, some dead, some alive, the mice still trapped in glue traps and tiny cardboard boxes, others expired, having been smashed by Hot Sausage’s hand, the rats crushed by his shovel and lying underneath old carburetors and discarded fenders, amidst brooms and on dustpans, sprinkled with lime for later incineration in the giant coal furnaces that heated the Cause Houses. After supping on them, the ants turned upward, filing in a thick line up the broken toilet pipe to Flay Kingsley’s apartment in 1B, where there was little food or garbage to be found, since Miss Flay’s family of eight actually used apartment 1A across the hall, which had been empty since Mrs. Foy, the sole tenant, died four years previous and forgot to tell the welfare department about it, which created the perfect scenario for the welfare department and housing to blame each other about it—since one department didn’t tell the other. The apartment was quiet. Welfare paid the rent. Who knew? From there the ants moved up to Mrs. Nelson’s apartment, 2C, munching on the old watermelon rinds and coffee grounds she kept in a garbage can for her outdoor tomato garden, then up the waste pipe to 3C, Bum-Bum’s place, which was slim pickings, then across the hallway via outdoor viaduct to Pastor Gee’s place in 4C, which had no pickings at all, since Sister Gee kept a spotless house, then through Miss Izi’s bathroom in 5C, where they sampled all manner of delicious soap from Puerto Rico, which Miss Izi every year forgot to store in glass containers in the fall knowing they were coming, and finally to the outer roof, where they attempted to perform a high-wire act by trooping across a stepladder that connected the roof of Building 17 to the roof of Building 9 next door—where they met their death care of a group of clever schoolboys: Beanie, Rags, Sugar, Stick, and Deems Clemens, the best pitcher the Cause Houses had ever seen, and the most ruthless drug dealer in the history of the Cause Houses.
As he lay in bed in apartment 5G of Building 9, his head wrapped in gauze, his mind fogged by painkillers, Deems found himself wondering about the ants. He had dreamed of them many times since he’d been hospitalized. He’d been home in bed three days, and the fog of painkillers and the constant ringing on the right side of his head had brought on odd memories and vivid nightmares. He had turned nineteen two months before, and for the first time in his life, he found himself unable to focus and remember things. He discovered with horror, for example, that his childhood memories were fast disappearing. He couldn’t remember his kindergarten teacher’s name, nor the name of the baseball coach from St. John’s University who had called all the time. He couldn’t remember the name of the subway stop in the Bronx where his aunt lived, or the name of the dealership in Sunset Park where the car salesman sold him his used Pontiac Firebird and then drove it home for him because Deems himself couldn’t drive. There was so much going on, everything was a spinning whirlwind, and for a kid whose almost-perfect memory once allowed him to collect illegal numbers for the local numbers runners needing neither paper nor pencil, the whole business of losing his past was troubling. It occurred to him, as he lay in bed that afternoon, that the shrill buzz on the right side of his head where what was left of his missing ear now lived might be the cause of the problem, or that if there are a thousand things you should remember in life, and you forget them all but the one or two useless things, maybe those things aren’t so useless. He couldn’t believe how good it felt to remember the dumb ants from Building 17. It had been ten years since he and his buddies had dreamed up wonderful ways to stop them from invading their beloved Building 9. He smiled at the memory. They tried everything: Drowning. Poison. Ice. Firecrackers, aspirin soaked in soda, raw egg yolk sprayed with bleach, cod liver oil mixed with paint, and one year a possum that his best friend, Sugar, produced. Sugar’s family visited relatives in Alabama, and Sugar hid the creature in the trunk of his father’s Oldsmobile. The possum arrived in Brooklyn sick and prostrate. He was tossed into a cardboard box taped shut with an entry hole and placed in the ant path on the roof of Building 9. The ants arrived and obediently climbed into the box and began to politely devour the possum, at which point the possum came to life, writhing and hissing, which caused the frightened boys to toss a glass of kerosene on the box and set it on fire. The sudden whoosh of flames caused panic and they kicked the whole business off the roof, where it landed in the plaza six stories below—a bad idea, since that was sure to bring the wrath of adults of one kind or the other. It was Deems who saved them. He grabbed a five-gallon bucket left on the roof by a work crew and, scampering downstairs, scooped the remnants of the whole business into the bucket and dashed to the harbor, dumping everything at the water’s edge. He became their leader then, at ten, and had remained their leader since.
But leader of what? he thought bitterly as he lay in bed. He turned on his side, groaning. “Everything,” he muttered aloud, “is falling apart.”
“Say what, bro?”
Deems opened his eyes and was surprised to see two of his crew, Beanie and Lightbulb, sitting by his bed staring at him. He had thought he was alone. He quickly turned to the wall, away from them.
“You all right, Deems?” Lightbulb said.
Deems ignored him, staring at the wall, trying to think. How had this started? He couldn’t remember. He was fourteen when his older cousin Rooster dropped out of CUNY and started making big bucks selling heroin, mostly to junkies from the Watch Houses. Rooster showed him how to do it, and bang, five years passed. Was it that long ago? Now he was nineteen, had $4,300 in the bank; his mother hated his guts; Rooster was dead, killed in a drug robbery; and he was lying in his bed without his right ear.
Lying there staring at the wall, the smell of the lead paint wafting into his nostrils, Deems thought of the old man not with rage, but rather with confusion. He could not understand it. If there was one person in the Cause who had nothing to gain by shooting him, it was Sportcoat. Sportcoat had nothing to prove. If there was one person in the Cause who could get away with backtalking him, charming him, yelling at him, calling him names, kidding him, jiving him, lying to him, it was old Sportcoat. Sportcoat had been his baseball coach. Sportcoat had been his Sunday school teacher. Now he’s a straight drunk, Deems thought bitterly, though that’s never affected anything before. As far back as he could remember, he realized, Sportcoat had been a drunk more or less, but more important, he’d been the same—consistent. He never complained, or gave opinions. He didn’t judge. He didn’t care. Sport had his own thing, which is why Deems liked him. Because if there was one single thing in the screwed-up Cause Houses—in all of Brooklyn, for that matter—that Deems hated, it was people who complained about nothing. People with nothing complaining about nothing. Waiting on Jesus. Waiting on God. Sport wasn’t that way. He liked baseball and booze. Real simple. Sportcoat did the Jesus thing, too, Deems noted, when his wife, Miss Hettie, used to make him. But even then he could see the old man and he were the same. They were stuck in Jesus houses.
Deems had long ago decided that Sport was different from the Jesus nuts of his life. Sport didn’t need Jesus. Of course he acted like he did, just like a lot of grown-ups at Five Ends church. But Sportcoat had something that nobody at Five Ends, nobody in the projects, nobody Deems Clemens had known in his entire nineteen years of growing up in the Cause Houses, had.
Sport was happy.
Deems sighed heavily. Even Pop-Pop, his grandfather, the only man he’d ever known as a father, had not been happy. Pop-Pop had spoken in grunts and ruled his house with an iron fist, collapsing into his armchair at night after work with a beer in his hand, listening to the radio all night until he fell asleep. Pop-Pop was the only person who visited him when he went to juvy prison. His mother didn’t bother. As if hours of talking about Jesus and the Bible would substitute for a kiss, a smile, a solitary meal together, a book read to him at night. She wore his ass out with her switch for the least offenses, rarely found anything good in what he did, never went to his baseball games, and dragged him to church on Sundays. Food. Shelter. Jesus. That was her motto. “I sling eggs and sugar and bacon twelve hours a day and you don’t even thank Jesus that you got a place to live. Thank you, Jesus.” Jesus my ass.
He wanted her to understand him. She could not. There was no one in his house who could. He wanted to be an equal. He saw how stupid the whole thing was, even as a child, all these people crowded into these shitbox apartments. Even a blind person like Pudgy Fingers could see it. He’d even talked to Pudgy about it, years ago, when they were in Sunday school. He was nine and Pudgy was eighteen. Even though he was a teenager, Pudgy was sent down to stay in Sunday School with the little kids during service because he was said to be “slow.” Deems once asked if he minded. Pudgy simply said, “Nope. The snacks are better.” They were in the basement and some Sunday school teacher was prattling on about God and Pudgy was sitting behind him and he saw Pudgy feeling the air with his hand until his hand landed on Deems’s shoulder and Pudgy leaned over and said, “Deems, do they think we’re retarded?” That surprised him. “Of course we ain’t retarded,” he snapped. Even Pudgy knew. Of course he knew. Pudgy wasn’t slow. Pudgy was smart. Pudgy remembered things that nobody else remembered. He could remember how many singles Cleon Jones of the New York Mets hit against the Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training last year. He could tell you when Sister Bibb playing the organ in church was feeling sick just because of the way he heard her feet on the pedals. Of course Pudgy was smart, because he was Sportcoat’s son. And Sport treated kids like equals, even his own. When Sportcoat taught Sunday school, the Lord’s word was all candy and bubblegum, games of catch played in the church basement with balled-up church programs while the congregation sang and yelled upstairs. Sportcoat even took the class on a Sunday morning “outing” to the harbor once, where he’d hidden a fishing pole, tossing the fishing line into the water while Deems and the other kids played and muddied up their clothes. As for baseball, Sportcoat was a whiz. He organized the All-Cause team. He taught them how to catch and throw a ball properly, how to stand in the batter’s box, how to block the ball with your body if need be. After practice on lazy summer afternoons, he’d gather the kids around and tell stories about baseball players long dead, players from the old Negro leagues with names that sounded like brands of candy: Cool Papa Bell, Golly Honey Gibson, Smooth Rube Foster, Bullet Rogan, guys who knocked the ball five hundred feet high into the hot August air at some ballpark far away down south someplace, the stories soaring high over their heads, over the harbor, over their dirty baseball field, past the rude, red-hot projects where they lived. The Negro leagues, Sport said, were a dream. Why, Negro league players had leg muscles like rocks. They ran the bases so fast they were a blur, but their wives ran faster! The women? Lord . . . the women played baseball better than the men! Rube Foster hit a ball so far in Texas it had to take the train back home from Alabama! Guess who brought it back? His wife! Bullet Rogan struck out nineteen batters straight until his wife took a turn and knocked his first pitch out of the yard. And where you think Golly Honey Gibson got his nickname? His wife! She’s the one made him good. She’d hit line drives at him for practice, the ball traveling like a missile at the height of your face for four hundred feet, so hard he’d jump out the way, yelling “Golly, honey!” If Golly Honey Gibson was any better, he’d be a girl!
The stories were crazy, and Deems never believed them. But Sportcoat’s love of the game washed over Deems and his friends like rain. He bought them baseball bats, balls, gloves, even helmets. He umpired the annual game against the Watch Houses and coached it at the same time, wearing his hilarious umpire costume—mask, chest protector, and black umpire’s jacket—running around from base to base, calling runners safe when they were out and out when they were safe, and when either side argued, he’d shrug and switch his rulings, and when there was too much yelling, he’d holler, “Y’all driving me to drink!” which made everybody laugh more. Only Sportcoat could make the kids from those two housing projects, who hated each other for reasons long ago forgotten, get along on the ball field. Deems looked up to him. Part of him wanted to be like Sportcoat.
“The fucker shot me,” Deems murmured, still facing the wall. “What’d I ever do to him?”
Behind him, he heard Lightbulb speaking. “Bro, we got to talk.”
Deems shifted around and opened his eyes, facing them both. They had moved to the window ledge, Beanie smoking nervously, glancing out the window, Lightbulb staring at him. Deems felt his temple. There was a huge lump of bandage there, wrapped around his head. His body felt as if it had been squeezed in a vise. His back and his legs still burned, aching from his fall off the plaza bench. The ear, the one that was wounded, itched badly—what was left of it.
“Who’s covering the plaza?” he asked.
Deems nodded. Stick was only sixteen, but he was original crew, so he was okay. Deems checked his watch. It was early, only eleven a.m. The usual customers didn’t show up at the flagpole until noon, which gave time for Deems to establish his lookouts on the four buildings that directly faced the plaza to spy for the cops and hand-signal any trouble.
“Who’s the lookout on Building Nine?” Deems said.
“Yeah, Building Nine.”
“Nobody’s up there right now.”
“Send somebody up there to look out.”
“For what? You can’t see the flagpole plaza from there.”
“I want ’em up there looking out for the ants.”
The boys stared at him, confused. “For the ants?” Lightbulb asked. “You mean the ants that come ’round that we used to play with—”
“What’d I say, man? Yes for the fucking ants—”
Deems snapped to silence as the door opened. His mother marched into the room with a glass of water and a handful of pills. She placed them on the nightstand next to his bed, glanced at him and at the two boys, and departed without a word. She hadn’t said more than five words to him since he’d gotten out of the hospital three days before. Then again she never said more than five words to him anyway, other than: “I’m praying that you change.”
He watched her as she moved out of the room. He knew the yelling, the screaming, and the cursing would come later. It didn’t matter. He had his own money. He could take care of himself if she made him move out . . . maybe. It was coming soon anyway, he thought. He stretched his neck to ease the tension and the movement sent a flash of pain firing across his face and ear and down his back like an explosion. It felt like the inside of his head was being torched. He belched, blinked, and saw a hand extended at his face. It was Lightbulb, holding out the water and the pills.
“Take your medicine, bro.”
Deems snatched the pills and water, gulped them down, then said, “Which apartments did they get into?”
Lightbulb looked puzzled. “Who?”
“The ants, bro. What apartments did they get into last year? They follow the same trail like always? They come up from Sausage’s basement in Seventeen?”
“What you worrying about them for?” Lightbulb said. “We got a problem. Earl wants to see you.”
“I ain’t studying Earl,” he said. “I asked about the ants.”
“Earl’s mad, bro.”
“About the ants?”
“What’s the matter with you?” Lightbulb said. “Forget the ants. Earl says Sportcoat got to be dealt with. He’s saying we gonna lose the plaza to the Watch Houses if we don’t do something.”
“We’ll deal with it.”
“We ain’t got to. Earl says he’ll deal with Sportcoat hisself. Mr. Bunch told him to.”
“We don’t need Earl in our business.”
“Like I said, Mr. Bunch ain’t happy.”
“Who you working for? Me? Or Earl and Mr. Bunch?”
Lightbulb sat in silence, cowed. Deems continued: “Y’all been out there?”
“Every day at noon,” Lightbulb said.
Lightbulb, always a goof, grinned and pulled out a round wad of bills and held it out to Deems, who glanced at the door where his mother had disappeared and said in a hushed voice, “Put that up, man.” Lightbulb sheepishly pocketed the money.
“Light, anyone come through from the Watch Houses?” Deems asked.
“Not yet,” Lightbulb said.
“What you mean not yet? You hearing they gonna come through?”
“I don’t know, man,” Lightbulb said forlornly. “I ain’t never been through this before.”
Deems nodded. Lightbulb was scared. He didn’t have the heart for the game. They both knew it. It was just friendship that kept them close, Deems thought sadly. And friendship was trouble in business. He looked at Lightbulb again, his Afro covering his oddly shaped scalp that resembled from a side view a sixty-watt lightbulb, thus his nickname. The beginnings of a goatee were growing on his chin, giving Lightbulb a cool, almost hippie look. It doesn’t matter, Deems thought. He’ll be shooting heroin in a year. He had that smell on him. Deems’s gaze shifted to the small, stout Beanie, who was quiet, more solid.
“What you think, Beanie? The Watches gonna try to move on our plaza?”
“I don’t know. But I think that janitor’s a cop.”
“Hot Sausage? Sausage is a drunk.”
“Naw. The young guy. Jet.”
“I thought you said Jet got arrested.”
“That don’t mean nothin’. You check out his sneakers?”
Deems leaned back on the pillow, thinking. He had noticed the sneakers. Cheap PF Flyers. “They were some cheap joints,” he agreed. Still, Deems thought, if Jet hadn’t hollered, Sportcoat would’ve . . . He rubbed his head; the ringing in his ear had now descended into a tingling pain, working its way down to his neck and across his eyes despite the medicine. He considered Beanie’s theory, then spoke. “Who was lookout on the roof of Building Seventeen and Thirty-Four that day?”
“Chink was on Seventeen. Vance was on Thirty-Four.”
“They didn’t see nothing?”
“We didn’t ask.”
“Ask,” Deems said, then, after a moment, added, “I think Earl sold us a bunch of goods.”
The two boys glanced at each other. “Earl didn’t pop you, bro,” Lightbulb said. “That was Sportcoat.”
Deems didn’t seem to hear. He ran through several quick mental checkoffs in his mind, then spoke. “Sportcoat’s a drunk. He got no crew. Don’t worry about him. Earl . . . for what we paying him, I think he double-crossed us. Set us up.”
“Why you think that?” Lightbulb asked.
“How’s it that Sportcoat could walk up on me without nobody calling it out? Maybe it ain’t nothing. Probably old Sport just lost his head. But selling horse is so hot now . . . it’s taking off. Easier to just rob somebody than stand out on the corners selling scag and smack in five- and ten-cent bags. I been telling Earl’s boss we need more protection down here—guns, y’know. Been saying it all year. And we need more love on the money tip. We’re only making four percent. We oughta be pulling five or six or even ten, as much shit as we move. I had all my collection money on me when I was shot. I woke up in the hospital and the money was gone. Cops probably took it. Now I got to pay that back, plus the ten percent Bunch charges for being late. He don’t give a shit about our troubles. For a lousy four percent? We could do better getting our own supplier.”
“Deems,” Beanie said. “We doing okay now.”
“How come I got no muscle to protect me then? Who did we have out there? You two. Chink on Building Seventeen. Vance on Thirty-Four. And a bunch of kids. We need men around. With guns, bro. Ain’t that what I’m paying Earl for? Who’s watching our backs? We moving a lot of stuff. Earl shoulda sent somebody.”
“Earl ain’t the boss,” Beanie said. “Mr. Bunch is the boss.”
“There’s a bigger boss than him,” Deems said. “Mr. Joe. He’s the one we should be talking to.”
The two boys looked at each other. They all knew “Mr. Joe”: Joe Peck, whose family owned the funeral home over on Silver Street.
“Deems, he’s mob,” Beanie said slowly.
“He likes money just like us,” Deems said. “He lives three streets over, bro. Mr. Bunch is just a middleman, from way out in Bed-Stuy.”
Beanie and Lightbulb were silent. Beanie spoke first. “I don’t know, Deems. My daddy worked the docks with them Italians a long time. He said they ain’t nothing to mess with.”
“Your daddy know everything?” Deems asked.
“I’m just saying. Supposing Mr. Joe is like the Elephant,” Beanie said.
“The Elephant don’t do dope.”
“How you know?” Beanie said.
Deems was silent. They didn’t have to know everything.
Lightbulb spoke up. “What y’all talking about? We ain’t got to mess with the Elephant or Mr. Joe or nobody else. Earl said he’d handle it. Let him handle it. It’s old Sportcoat that’s the problem. What you gonna do about that?”
Deems was silent a moment. Lightbulb had said “you” rather than “we.” He filed that thought for later, and it made him feel sad all over again. First he’d mentioned the ants and they’d hardly remembered. Protecting our building! That’s what the aim was. The Cause. Protect our territory! They didn’t even care about that. Now Lightbulb was already talking “you.” He wished Sugar were here. Sugar was loyal. And had heart. But Sugar’s mother had sent him to Alabama. He’d written to Sugar and asked to visit and Sugar wrote back saying “come on,” but when Deems wrote him a second letter, Sugar never wrote back. Beanie, Chink, Vance, and Stick were all he could trust now. That wasn’t much of a crew if the Watch Houses came calling. Lightbulb, he thought bitterly, was out.
He turned to Beanie and the pain from his ear shot through his head. He grimaced and asked, “Sportcoat been ’round these parts?”
“A little bit. Drinking like always.”
“But he’s around?”
“Not like always. But he’s still around. So’s Pudgy Fingers,” Beanie said, referring to Sportcoat’s blind son. Pudgy was a beloved fixture in the Cause Houses, wandering around freely, often brought to his door by any neighbor he happened to run across. The boys had known him all their lives. He was an easy target.
“Ain’t no need to touch Pudgy Fingers,” Deems said.
“I’m just saying.”
“Don’t fuck with Pudgy Fingers.”
The three were silent as Deems blinked, deep in thought. Finally he spoke. “Okay, I’ll let Earl take care of my business—just this once.”
The two boys immediately looked glum. Now Deems felt worse. They had wanted to take care of Sportcoat, now he’d agreed, and now they were sad. Goddamn!
“Stop being crybabies,” he said. “You said we got to do it, and now it’s done. Otherwise, the Watch Houses is gonna come gunning for the plaza. So let Earl deal with Sport.”
The two boys stared at the floor. Neither looked at the other.
“That’s how it is out here.”
They remained silent.
“This is the last time we let Earl take care of our business,” Deems said.
“Thing is . . .” Beanie said softly, then stopped.
“Thing is what?”
“Well . . .”
“What the fuck’s the matter with you, man?” Deems said. “You so scared of Earl you want him to take care of our business. Okay, I said let him. It’s done. Tell him go ’head. I’ll tell him myself when I get on my feet.”
“There’s something else,” Beanie said.
“Spit it out, man!”
“Thing is, when Earl come around yesterday, he was asking about Sausage, too.”
Another hit. Sausage was a friend. He’d helped out Sportcoat with baseball in the old days. Sausage gave out the cheese to their families every month. Everybody knew about Hot Sausage and Sister Bibb, the church organist for Five Ends. She was also Beanie’s aunt.
That’s the problem, Deems thought. Everybody’s related to everybody in these goddamned pisshole projects.
“Earl probably thinks Sausage is hiding Sportcoat,” Beanie said. “Or that Sausage is diming us out to the cops.”
“Sausage ain’t diming nobody,” Deems scoffed. “We working right in front of Sausage’s face. He ain’t no stoolie.”
“Everybody in the Cause knows that. But Earl ain’t from the Cause.”
Deems glanced at Beanie, then at Lightbulb. One looked concerned, the other frightened. He nodded. “All right. Leave it to me. Earl ain’t moving on Sausage. I’ll talk to him. In the meantime, listen: In the next week or two, it’s the March of the Ants. You two take turns setting on top of Building Nine like we used to. Let me know when the ants come. You the only ones that know how to do that.”
“What for?” Lightbulb asked.
“Just do it. When you see signs they’re coming, wherever I’m at, come fetch me. The first sign you see, come get me. Got it? You remember the signs, right? You know what to look for?”
Beanie spoke up: “Mice and rats running in that little hallway near the roof. Bunch of roaches running up there, too.”
“That’s right. Come get me if you see that. Understand?”
They nodded. Deems looked at his watch. It was almost noon. He felt sleepy; the medicine was taking effect. “Y’all get down there and help Stick make us some money. Post all the lookouts on the buildings and pay ’em afterward, not before. Beanie, check the roof of Nine before you go to the plaza.”
He saw the look of worry on their faces.
“Just be cool,” he said. “I got a plan. We’ll get everything back to normal in no time.”
With that, Deems lay sideways, his bandaged ear toward the ceiling, closed his eyes, and slept the sleep of a troubled boy who, over the course of an hour, had suddenly become what he’d always wanted to be: not a boy from one of New York City’s worst housing projects, an unhappy boy who had no dream, no house, no direction, no safety, no aspiration, no house keys, no backyard, no Jesus, no marching-band practice, no mother who listened to him, no father who knew him, no cousin who showed him right or wrong. He was no longer a boy who could throw a baseball seventy-eight miles an hour at the of age thirteen because back then it was the one thing in his sorry life he could control. All that was past. He was a man with a plan now, and he had to make a big play, no matter what. That was the game.