SAN FRANCISCO—An altercation … at the Bernal Dwellings housing project may have led to the death of a man who fell seven stories, police say … The suspects … are believed to be members of a gang …
—From staff and wire reports
Here was the crux of it: before sending him out the window, they’d learned he had next to nothing in his pocket, and, worse, a bad attitude, and so punishing him this way seemed like simple payback. Far below were asphalt, aggregate, and clay.
The words midnight basketball came to dangling man’s mind, wretched and saturated with crack cocaine though he was. His tormentor-in-chief, Donyell Doggett aka Hella Dawg, was a regular, as was he. They played at the Mabel François Community Recreation Center, named in honor of the dangling man’s grandmother.
“Dawg! You know me, muthafuck! From b-ball!”
Hella Dawg smiled amicably, extending a bony, scabbed arm over the sill as if to acknowledge and comfort the man, then slapped him, hard, upside the head.
“Don’t be trash-talkin’ me,” Hella Dawg said, mildly.
Voice suddenly hoarse, the man begged, “Lemme be, brother. Take the money.”
His grip still was firm—a nervous response, independent of thought, last purchase on a life possibly not worth holding on to—but his strength was ebbing.
“Wha’ money, bitch?”
Hella Dawg raised the plumber’s wrench in his other hand.
The man saw the tool’s gaping iron mouth, felt the thing’s strange reptilian presence. Hella Dawg twisted the cylinder. He applied the tool to the dangling man’s right middle finger, the meatiest digit. The mouth moved.
Reginald Mack François was 30 years old, an accomplished saxophone player, a Talladega College graduate, the son of Sheriff Albert François and Alice Mack François, and the grandson of the aforementioned Mabel, proud people for whom the cedilla in their name was as much a source of pride as their quarter-acre family burial ground behind Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Elgin, Texas. Mabel was a civil-rights leader when Mayor Willie Brown was a drug lawyer and the Black Panthers ordinary ghetto punks.
Reggie Mack was good-natured and peaceable under most conditions, despite his capabilities (he was six-two, two-ten) and the company he kept. A child he’d never seen in the flesh lived in Pacific Palisades with her mother, the singer Salomé Scales. His daughter’s picture was in his tattered wallet.
South of Market, Reggie Mack’s handles were Squeegee, S-Man, Squee. Nothing disparaging about the nicknames: he didn’t ambush motorists or drunkenly slather windshields on spec, free hand out for change; he was, rather, a window detailer, a specialist, a contractor. The tools of his trade were squeegees of several sizes, cleaning concentrate, sponges, and rags—all kept in a garbage bag, which also contained his small wardrobe and a few personal items: the mouthpiece of his last sax, a Selmer soprano; Mabel’s 1908 “Songs of Deliverance” hymnal; his father’s marksman badge. In the pockets of his threadbare cargo pants were books, Invisible Man and Chasin’ the Trane: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane.
Things could have been better. He slept outdoors more than he’d like. His knee-high rubber boots were recently stolen. Janine Fitzmorris, manager of Biggio-Kaines Safety Inc., a uniform and bulletproof-vest place on Mission Street, offered to buy another pair. He said he’d work barefoot until he earned enough to replace them.
Janine paid 15 dollars for her windows each week. She started after satisfying herself that there was no alcohol on his breath, and noticing a white restaurant worker’s coat beneath his jacket. She liked his smile and sensed something there.
One side of Biggio-Kaines faced an alley serving after dark as a urinal, shooting gallery, and outdoor tavern. He took it on himself to hose it down, sweep away needles and condoms, and collect empties. Janine invited him in to clean up, but he wouldn’t use her bathroom. One off the lobby in the Hall of Justice, two blocks away, did fine. He talked to the blind Salvadoran selling snacks there.
The change from Power Rangers to Powder Rangers was Hella Dawg’s idea. That’s what they were about: ripping off addicts, taking down grown men with a little money and no fight, men surrendered to their habits.
Clothing also. Albert Jerome Paxton, aka B-Nice, the newest and youngest, wore Mighty Morphin Power Rangers gear, price tags prominent. The older ones—300-pound Charles Lucas, aka PCB; Hella Dawg himself; William Frances Bohannon, aka Willie Beau; Michael Camby, aka Wam Cam; and Anthony Luther King, aka Pest—wore things stolen or pirated from Marley merchandisers, the NBA, and Nautica.
A dapper crew, despite its members’ humble origins. The Rangers had been on the streets all their lives, their mothers welfare queens and hustlers, their fathers rumors, at most. Hella Dawg, the leader at 17, had been in the usual shelters and juvenile hall. A court file on him included a caseworker’s notation, “Latent psychosis?”
Wam Cam didn’t get the re-branding.
“Powder, bitch. Like coke,” Hella Dawg barked, by way of explanation.
The last day of his life, Reggie Mack went to the seventh-floor apartment early, to smoke the remains of Janine’s money. The Rangers—six of them, plus the wannabes Sin and Lil Phil (Ralph Coombs and Phillip Smalley, Jr.)—took every dollar he had, 20 minutes after his arrival, also emptying the pockets of the man who lived there, Benny Corrales, and another regular, Montgomery Goines. In all, 46 dollars were taken, the victims too wasted by late morning to defend themselves, but, afterward, philosophical about it, theft being so common in the doper’s life they couldn’t get too upset. Reggie Mack planned to return, in any event, to spend the few dollars he’d make washing dishes at China Sea, a lunch spot in the Financial District.
He sat on a bench in Precita Park, reading about Trane and waiting until it was time for work. A woman in a better sort of clothing came by. She was heavily made-up, tanklike, one of those big, know-it-all bitches, it seemed to him. He thought of Grandma Mabel, pre-stroke.
“Got a place to stay, young man?”
His eyes burned in the sun.
“Yeah, I do, ma’am.”
“Where’s that, may I ask?”
“Your home, son, where you be stayin’.”
“Hayes … no … High Street.”
“So why’re you here? High Street’s in East Oakland … You don’t work?”
The woman had crossed her arms. He couldn’t look at her face and so he faced her feet: white open-toed shoes, toenails a girlish pink-orange.
“Some. Matter of fact, workin’ today.”
“Don’t look like it, son.”
“I’m waitin’ to start.”
“You’re one of the François children, aren’t you? Mabel François? I know I seen you before. You a musician?”
“No, ma’am. I am a window detailer at present.”
He smiled crookedly.
The woman opened her purse, sighed, and removed a sheet of paper. She thrust it at him, frowning.
“Keep that, heah? An’ read it.”
The paper read: Zion A.M.E. Church Multiservice Center, Earleen Sample, M.S.W., Director—“God’s Hand Is Out.”
Montgomery Goines worked nights and was long gone from the Dwellings. That left Benny alone in the seventh-floor apartment, stoned, on his butt near the window. Juana, his 11-year-old, raced through the dank, pee-drenched halls with other free-ranging children. A wall outside the apartment was spray-painted in gold: PIMPS PLAYERS HUSTLERS—GO TO THE TOP NIGGA.
Reggie Mack had 12 dollars from China Sea. He dropped his gear in a corner, clasped his hands prayerfully, bowed, straightened, and held out a five. When he could, he tried to act spiritual, the way he imagined Trane would. From the fanny pack around his waist Benny produced the pick-me-up Reggie Mack came for.
Fifteen minutes later, Juana (it had to be her, that big, loud voice, happy or sad) screamed, and screamed again. A minute or so passed. She screamed a third time, this one too shrill, too weird.
“Shit,” Benny muttered. He rose with a grunt.
He was five-and-a-half feet tall, overweight, and wore boxers that encouraged his dark dick to play peek-a-boo. On an arm was a souvenir of the public-health service in the state of Chihuahua, a large irregular vaccination mark. He’d done time at Deuel Vocational for burglary, acquiring furniture-making skills inside, which got him occasional jobs outside. His common-law wife worked at a neighborhood taquería. He was close with his daughter, cooking her chilaquiles, singing her Chihuahuan songs.
The door flew open, kicked in by PCB, with Pest, Willie Beau, Wam Cam, and Hella Dawg behind. Juana screamed once more. Over Benny’s shoulder, between the boys lunging forward, Reggie Mack saw the girl on the floor in the hallway, face down, head shaking, hair wild. B-Nice’s foot was on her back. He was undoing his belt, held together by a Mercedes Benz buckle. Lil Phil and Sin flanked him.
Benny rose quickly. They were ready for him. Pest stepped aside and Willie Beau hit the back of the aggrieved father’s head with a plumber’s wrench. Blood spurted from Benny’s broad mestizo nose as his face met the floor.
“Oh shit, ya don’t …” Reggie Mack started to say, then thought better of it. “Look, I got seven. Benny got five, at least, in that thing there. Ya don’t—”
“Don’t wha’, bitch?” Hella Dawg answered, striking a pose intended to affect honest confusion. He liked to cut up and was a good mimic, which would cost him an eye and part of his nose years later in the San Quentin yard.
“That little girl.”
Reggie Mack leaned over to swat the hand Hella Dawg held to his chin.
Once it registered, this audacious act prompted Hella Dawg to launch a fist at the impolitic naysayer’s chest, a blow as hard as Hella Dawg could make it. But Reggie Mack only stepped back a few inches and blinked. Hella Dawg struck again. Reggie Mack didn’t move this time. He was fixed on the scene in the hallway. Juana was about to be raped anally—something the gang made neophytes and wannabes do to underage girls, apparently, hence the tube of petroleum jelly in PCB’s back pocket.
“Wuz yo’ prob?” Willie Beau growled, plumber’s wrench still in hand.
“She ain’t but a child. That’s my problem.”
Pest moved closer. Willie Beau raised the wrench.
“You got money this morning. There’s more now,” Reggie Mack said.
“Seven ain’t shit, bitch,” observed Hella Dawg.
“Twelve ain’t shit.”
PCB crouched—a three-point stance, like a football player.
“What you got to do now, bitch,” Hella Dawg said over PCB’s boulderlike head, “is sit yo’ ass down while we takes care a business.”
Outside, Juana screamed, and B-Nice shouted, “Bitch!”
“Your momma,” Reggie Mack said, “I knew her. Dominique.”
“Fuck you did. Ain’t no Dominique wuz my mutha.”
“How ’bout Desiree? Or Deeanne? I knew her, I’m sayin’.”
He’d gotten high years ago with this shit bird’s momma, whatever her name was, he was sure. Older. Laughed a lot. Hair dyed blonde. Pretty. Choked to death on her vomit, he’d heard.
The door opened. Juana stood there, cheeks wet with tears, shirt torn. A button of breast showed. B-Nice gripped the girl’s slender dark-skinned neck.
“Bitch be bitin’.”
Hella Dawg paid no attention. He was noticing that the wannabes were gone.
“Where’s Sin an’ Lil Phil?”
“Gone—freaked, I’d say. Hey, man: I’m gonna take care a this piece a—”
“Leave her. Get the fuck in here.”
Hella Dawg turned back to his prisoner.
“Your daddy’s jail boss, bitch, but you locked up now, ha-ha,” he deadpanned.
Guffaws all around.
Hella Dawg cued PCB, who moved rapidly forward to head butt Reggie Mack. Willie Beau, Wam Cam, and Pest attacked from the rear.
Dazed, Reggie Mack was helpless to stop them from dragging him to the far wall, near the window Benny kept open to let the smoke out. Willie Beau shoved the wrench’s grip into his throat, below the Adam’s apple. Reggie Mack’s eyes bulged.
He managed a few strangled words.
“Know who you look like, Dawg? McCoy … McCoy Tyner, I’m sayin’ … when ‘My Favorite Things’ came out.”
“What the fuck you talkin’ about, fool?” Wam Cam said.
“Best thing Trane done,” Reggie Mack went on, struggling to his feet. “It was like, like he … fuckin’ invented soprano sax … Dawg, you look like McCoy, I swear.”
Hella Dawg pondered some seconds, as if to give the prisoner a fair hearing, before pointing at Reggie Mack’s waist and announcing, solemnly, “Fool don’t need those no mo’.”
Pest and Willie Beau, knowing the routine well, took hold of the sides of Reggie Mack’s beltless cargo pants. B-Nice, who’d dropped to his hands and knees and crawled among the swarming bodies, grabbed the pockets and jerked the pants down. Wam Cam and PCB threw their shoulders into Reggie Mack’s chest, forcing his upper body backward and out the window, legs flying upward and outward, like bowling pins.
Below, on Cesar Chavez, he saw traffic. His pants hung from his ankles, weighted down by books. He’d snagged the sill with both hands.
B-Nice thrust his head over the dangling man to survey the scene below.
“We cool. No one down dere.”
Willie Beau handed Hella Dawg the wrench.
Salomé’s drummer brought Reggie Mack to a rehearsal two days after her regular sax, Leroy Hines, was arrested a third time for possession and couldn’t make bail. The drummer knew Reggie Mack from Huntington Park salsa gigs. Salomé didn’t believe soprano sax would work.
“That’s a car alarm. It’s high school girls on lunch break.”
“Trust me,” he said, trying not to plead. “I ain’t no car alarm.”
She was skeptical.
“I’ll listen some, that’s all. I got stuff to do.”
“My Favorite Things” was his calling card, the two-bar tremolo and straight-ahead minor-key waltz Trane rolled out after McCoy’s opening vamp. Then he shifted into higher gear, offering up Trane’s hallmark Eastern wail. The dazzling, acrobatic whole verged on madness, but his skill was such that actual chaos never reared its head. The sound was layered, sinuous, sweeping—arrhythmic enough to challenge, not baffle. The places no vocalist could go would make the melodic passages more inviting, more memorable. Eight minutes later (he played a shortened version, not wanting to try her patience), he was done.
“Okay. Pretty good, actually. But didya notice? I ain’t Julie whatsherface. I’m a Negro lady. That’s a white song. I don’t care what Trane done with it.”
Reggie Mack gave her his puppy-dog look, which worked on old Mabel.
“Julie Andrews was the movie, ma’am. Song’s been around longer. Mary Martin sang it before you was born. She was white bread times two. Trane didn’t mind none.”
Three weeks later she was doing flawless, up-tempo versions of “My Favorite Things,” “Summertime,” and “But Not For Me,” each number packed with speed-of-light sax runs, but also shot through with negotiable sections Berlin and Rodgers would have applauded—open spaces where Salomé could roam. Reggie Mack channeled Trane, she was Ella. Two months more and word was out, glowing mentions appearing in the important papers and Downbeat. ECM and Verve talked studio sessions.
A year after they laid eyes on each other, a child was born.
By then he was gone, back to San Francisco.
His drug habit—rarely a hindrance those first months, often a help—had gotten far out of control. He missed practices, studio sessions, paying gigs. His sound wasn’t right. School kids stumbled over him in the driveway of Salomé’s Pacific Palisades home. He wrecked her Lexus.
Checks were mailed north for a time, the thought being he’d rehab and return. When it was clear the first wouldn’t happen, the second was forgotten. Leroy Hines was reenlisted, Salomé defaulting to her merely entertaining repertoire of soul, rhythm ’n’ blues, and soft rock. Reviewers stopped following her. ECM and Verve didn’t return her manager’s calls. But there were no money problems. “Ridin’ the Trane,” 56 minutes and 38 seconds on a second-tier label released before Reggie Mack was written off, did well.
All this, understand—not only the major twists and turns, but snatches of conversation, lyrics, riffs, bright moments on stage—all this passed through Reggie Mack’s mind as he hung there, outside a seventh-floor window in the Bernal Dwellings, right middle finger espresso-brown, then purple, then actual black under the pressure of Hella Dawg aka Donyell Doggett’s plumber’s wrench.
A minute passed, and another, and a couple more.
Reggie Mack tired.
Worse, he lost interest.
And so he let go, pants streaming upward, a blowsy, eccentric tail on a hulky, nose-diving kite.
He was buried in the family cemetery in Texas. Janine Fitzgerald read about it (“Bernal Fight May Have Caused Fatal Fall”). She donated $250 in his name to the United Negro College Fund.
The Rangers were not rounded up, not brought to justice at all, though witnesses might have been persuaded to cooperate—Benny, Sin, and Lil Phil (the two wannabes, backing out on the rape attempt, had hidden in a stairwell and watched through the open door). It wasn’t worth it, the investigating cops and their commanders agreed, given the players. There were better things to do in a city as screwed and brutal as any, regardless of its fey image.
The case went into a cold file a year later—one of dozens of suspected black-on-black homicides barely worked and never solved.
As it happened, that was a week after Reggie Mack’s daughter, her mother, and Leroy Hines celebrated the child’s birthday on a terrace overlooking the Pacific. Regina Delilah Scales grew up believing that Hines—nice enough, older, sound like Joe Henderson’s—was her daddy. Reggie Mack glimpsed this, too, before his skull shattered, a flourish of demisemiquavers in an otherworldly register.
Winner of BOMB’s 2009 Fiction Prize, judged by Jonathan Lethem