Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The intercom’s blast, big and commanding, woke Natty. “Y’d think there’s a fuckin’ fire somewhere,” he thought irritatedly. The alarm had made him start up from his bed—the living-room sofa. “Damn, somebody’ll haveta fix that fuckin’ bell! Th’shit’s enough to …” He shook his upset head as a horrible enough image failed him, and crossed the room to the speaker, jammed his thumb hard on the ‘TALK’ toggle, and bawled into it, “WHAT?”
He released the toggle and listened, glaring at the intercom like it was some drooling fool bothering him.
Although he well suspected who it was downstairs annoying him so early in the morning. He would bet his balls it was Swooney: the early man of the crew he’d recently got down with. Swooney’s folks [unlike Natty’s father] had no idea that he scrambled. They were strict church-going people, he had to show them school report cards with aces. If not, from the way Swooney acted, they’d probably sell him as a slave, or something.
Because of all this dangerous living, Swooney had to be out in the street every morning by six or seven o’clock, supplying the early dopefiends. His folks, meantime, thought he was in training with an athletic club.
And all this was cool with Natty; except that he had noticed that since he began scrambling with the crew, Swooney’d been fucking him up like a cheap whore’s pussy; as if he planned on proving his reputation as a bully by messing with Natty’s sleep, and waking him up long before … Natty couldn’t finish the thought as Swooney’s impatient voice came loudly through the raspy speaker, “Yow, Natty. Come on down, man! I gotta go!”
Like the rush of a familiar high, Natty’s irritation swelled to anger. He jammed ‘TALK’ again and screamed. “Okay. Okay! Just get off the fuckin’ bell. Y’fuckin’ asshole!”
As he replied though, the edge of the nozzle caught painfully into his thumb’s ball, and forced him to release it too soon. So even as he was finishing his retort, he heard the hollow click of the intercom returning to neutral and nullifying his response. His anger wanted him to jam it again and repeat, but his sudden pain was wicked and sharp and surrendered him to sticking it in his mouth and sucking it away as he turned, sore and ugly, to get ready and go down.
As Natty went to the bathroom, his father’s voice, hollow-hoarse like a weak jalopy’s horn, warned, “Tell them motherfucker friends o’ yours ‘a man’s gotta rest,’ y’hear me!”
Natty sucked his teeth and grumbled impatiently, “Yeah, Pa. Yeah.” He slapped a dismissing wave at the closed bedroom door, thinking, “What th’fuck’re you fussing at? Just ’s always talking for wolfing sake. Y’still’ll be here resting up all fuckin’ day, anyhow.”
He turned the frown in his mind to speculating about hot water in the faucet. The cold flow confirmed his expectation: the super was probably drunk again. Natty muttered, “Business as fuckin’ usual,” spat his disgust into the bathtub, and left without bothering to wash up.
As he rounded the corner he connected on, the first person he saw was Black, the crew’s lieutenant. In his robot-motion manner, he was leaning on the lightpole, staring past Natty, up the far end of the street. He must have, but gave no sign he noticed Natty’s approach.
Natty greeted him, “What’s up, Black?”
As if he had to plan it, Black turned slow and stiff towards him, and stuck his palm out. Natty exchanged a casual touch. Still without a word, Black then resumed his pose; leaning stiff against the lightpole as if thawing arthritic joints.
But Natty knew the attitude was only Black’s play. When on the street, he moved slowly and didn’t talk much. He looked on at everything from behind his wraparound sunshades and dark clothes he wore night and day, keeping his mind behind that mystery-fence like the killer-monster in some cut-em-up horror movie. Because on the street, he was the man in charge. But get him on a basketball court, don’t think sneakers because that quick, he’d dribble past and lay you up.
Even so, Black’s street mean wasn’t just play. He had become lieutenant after Freddie Dingle, the bigtime dealer, had got busted, and Black took the possession rap for him. Being only 15 at the time, he was in Rikers for only four, five months. While inside Black never had to give up his sneakers, or his ass, or suck nobody’s dick, either. That was because he didn’t drop no dime on Dingle, or make no turn for the Man. And Freddie Dingle had weight. Nobody fucked with his business. So that was why Black could be so cool. He had proved. He had people. They had his back.
Natty stood there thinking and looking around for a few minutes. Then he asked Black for his dope: “So wha’y’got?”
With great effort, Black replied, “ … quarters.”
“Lemme hold a deuce,” said Natty.
Black sauntered across the sidewalk, away from the building, and looked up at a second floor apartment. “Yow, B’s,” he called up.
Immediately a girl’s head poked out a window, listened attentively to Black, then went back in to return a minute later. A packet fell down. Black picked it up like it weighed a bus, and handed it to Natty. “Quarters, each 20 J’s at a dime, awright?” he drawled.
“Yeah,” Natty said, “y’got it.” And stashed the dope in his inner clothes. A minute later he broke for his safe place, Pepito’s.
Pepito’s was a candy store up the block from where they did their main scrambling. A Puerto Rican man they called Señor Pran Natty’s crew had an arrangement with Señor P that he held their daily working stash for them. When they made a sale, they went and got the J’s from the candy store. For this, each of them, Black, Swooney, and himself, gave Señor P a 20 a day. It was a good deal all around since Señor P was dependable. The few times the bulls busted his store, they never even found an aspirin.
Tall and athletic in dark grey warm-ups, Swooney was already there. As soon as Natty saw him he went off again. Two schoolgirls from the nearby junior high were at the counter buying from Señor P. But Natty’s rage was a train taking him past his stop; he was helpless within it. Right on throw-down distance from Swooney he stopped, and arms wide and aggressive, said, “Why th’fuck y’always leaning on m’bell like that? Huh?”
He got everyone’s attention, and an excitement from their notice fanned his anger. He felt flushed from the tension that charged the store. He was about ready to do anything at all and release his power when Swooney backed out of his own ready stance, and glancing at Natty warily, walked out the store.
Natty watched him with no relief. Instead he felt strained and queer, and that he had gained nothing at all.
One of the schoolgirls tittered and he was about to go after Swooney, when Señor P got in front him and began shouting the new excitement away: “Hey! Hey! Take it easy, my friend. Let him off this time. Don’ bother no more, amigo. Let it go.”
He spoke as though he knew Natty could’ve and would’ve torn up Swooney’s ass. Natty took to the matter and quit as if reluctantly.
Immediately the girls left, he did his business with Senõr P. Throughout their little talking, Natty played the mean avenger calmed by Señor P’s peace-making. All the time though, Natty suspected the quick-eyed, smooth-faced old man knew the real deal: he knew who had been saved.
At a spare five-feet-ten in sneakers, Natty knew he couldn’t tangle with Swooney. Although same age at 16, Swooney had cleared six feet, and was growing. He was also built solid like a longtime Cadillac. But still more than all that, Swooney, with his straight A’s and handsomeness, was killcrazy. And this is what Natty feared in truth; because he himself didn’t have that in him.
Natty called to mind one late spring night when a gang of them had gone blockbusting over in the Flagg projects. About nine or ten of them went; two carloads, with everyone carrying weight. Redblood George was one of the older guys. He was sort of in charge. Del, Natty’s cousin from uptown, went along because Natty asked him. They had come up on some Flagg project guys hanging out near a firepump; about six of them. The cars had pulled over really slow, one behind the other. Soon as the Flagg project guys noticed the slowdown action, they figured something was wrong. They might’ve thought it was the Man, so they tensed up to watch. Then as the lead car stopped, suddenly, out of it jumped someone wearing a white ski-mask pulled down over his eyes to his nose. And he was covering them with a glinting sawed-off shotgun held at his hips.
In his car, next to Natty, someone sighed, “Shiiitt …” drawling it out long and slow, as now a few other guys stepped out of both cars, backing up Ski-mask by aiming their guns at the Flagg project dudes. Natty himself remained in the car loosely pointing his .25 at them. Like everybody else though, he was really watching Ski-mask. In the half-dark and the excitement he hadn’t yet made out who it was. Then he heard the crazy sniggering in between Swooney’s voice taunting the Flagg project guys: “Sooo … who’ll start the races? Huh?”
The whole night went quiet then; until Swooney was telling them, “ … at the count … okay? Here we go … one … two …”
And the Flagg project guys were gone WHOOSH! like a crowd in a Flintstone cartoon. Then as Swooney counted “… three!” he shot a blast behind them. BOOM! Natty was certain some of them got pellets in their rearviews. And that was really just funny, for if they hadn’t jumped the gun, and had been ten yards closer, someone’d have definitely been blown away.
When the Flagg project guys set off fast away, Natty and some others, just for the waste and noise, shot off a few rounds at them. Then they shot out a few windows and some street lights before driving away. They were all still charged up though, so they went to a party and got dusted-up some. Except Swooney. He had them first drop him off—shotgun in a sportsbag—near his house. It had been close to midnight. “Y’all know my hours,” he laughed as he stepped out the car.
As they drove off Natty looked back and found Swooney waving at them. He looked the perfect TV picture of a bright, college-bound kid being dropped off. Then Natty thought of what was in the sportsbag, and could only shake his head and grin. Swooney was brave, or crazy, or something. Whatever it was though, he wasn’t all right. And Natty never wanted to suffer of it.
Back out Pepito’s, the street was becoming nine o’clock busy. Droves of schoolchildren were coming out the subway shafts and buses on their way to either the junior high, or the elementary schools close by. More important to Natty though, were the many dopefiends standing about in small groups waiting for their Methadone Maintenance Clinic to open doors; reminding Natty of hungry vultures in black-and-white westerns. Except that in this case, the vultures were the rotten food he and his crew scrambled on.
Swooney was talking to a regular customer—a temporarily outside prison-yard queen; an ugly thing. His hormone treatments had grown him small, sudden bumps of breasts and larger, blotchy lumps on one cheek and his neck. Today, despite the cool, he wore a short coat and a thin shiny dress over skinny, man-hard knees. He still managed to bare some of the chemical breasts. He was complaining in high falsetto backed with heavy hand movement, “Listen darling, I have to say it. This product ain’t quality. I mean, I don’t know, but it doesn’t do it … I could tell you personally that what I get from those nice fellows across the Park is definitely nearer the mark.”
“Well, go across the Park,” said Swooney.
“Who? Me? Go across the Park alone?”
“Y’afraid of rape … ?” said Swooney.
His sarcastic tone seemed to convince the fiend to stop bullshitting, as he slipped into a regular man’s voice, and asked, “Com’on, tell me what ya got, huh?”
They put bodies together and was halfway private, although Natty could see the dopehead palming over money and Swooney checking the bills. Then Swooney said, “Yo! There’s only nine here, man!”
The fiend went back female, conducting air with his fingers again. “Y’gotta gimme a break, darling. Y’know I’ll take care a’ that little thing. I mean, it’s just a dollar.”
Swooney sucked his teeth and started to hand back the cash, just as the fiend added,
“ … I’ll bring you by some business with it, later …”
Swooney abruptly put the cash in his pocket. He told the fiend, “Wait here!” and went down the block to Pepito’s.
The transvestite leaned against the building preening debris from his shortcoat, when some schoolchildren passed by. One quick-faced kid commented deliberately loud, “Look at that he-she faggit with a beard!”
The fiend cursed, “Fuck all y’all!” and faked a ladylike lunge at them as the group raced oft charged by fear and laughter. Then Swooney was back; warning as he handed over the dope, “I don’t see you later with some business and you get a fuckin’ sneakers up your ass, y’hear me.”
The dope in his hand, nothing frightened him, the fiend was walking away shaking his ass like two bricks and talking feminine again. “You worry too much, darling.”
Then he split for his morning methadone looking so weird and funny, Natty couldn’t help remarking, “Th’fucker’d prob’ly enjoy that.”
Swooney laughed his strange giggle and slapped palms with him. Natty was even further relieved than his grinning now the unspoken understanding was that their earlier hassle was done with. The least was he could concentrate fully on business.
Once the clinic opened, the fiends came for their dope, and Natty’s quarter moved fast. Then after about half an hour, Swooney handed him a dime bag. “That’s all I got left, man. And I’ve got a ten o’clock class. A seminar thing. Do me a big favor and handle it for me, and hold the bank until later. I’d really appreciate it.”
Glad for the chance, Natty said, “Bet,” and Swooney split for school. Watching him go, Natty had an urge to laugh at him. Not because he was funny, but because it was funny that Swooney did what he did: his very idea being a scholar scrambling part-time. It was like thinking of shitting in heaven: nobody did.
A little way down the street, Black was also doing his business. Being lieutenant, he could never leave the street while his crew scrambled. He did his own dealing by having one of his girls—Tira Jemson—fetch from Pepito’s for him. Tira was one of the several freaks and younger guys who hung around the crew happy to do whatever for them. Until a few months ago when Black put him down, Natty himself was one. Other than fetching, Tira also kept on the lookout for rollers (in patrol cars), and DT’s (in unmarked ones). As a girl, she sometimes stashed weight for the crew (in her drawers or pussy) during emergencies like narco raids and so on. Before Natty was really down, his job was to walk with the music—an expensive stereo boombox with equalizer and double automatic repeat cassettes, sponsored by Black.
Margo, the dickwit now doing this chore, joined Black and Tira, then motioned Natty to come talk with them. It was to find out what light dope he preferred for their coming lunch-break. Black was about sending Tira to connect. Natty gave up ten dollars for some budda.
By one o’clock lunchtime Natty had sold all the dope he held. After putting aside the ten dollars he did for Swooney, he had four hundred and ninety-four dollars; six short of two quarters’ worth, because of some breaks he’d given regulars. He gave the money over to Black, who returned him the ninety-four as his own. Then, business settled, they went to a Chinese restaurant for some take-out; after which they headed to the Park to get high, and gamble some.
They met Del and Tomas there playing ball, and got them high on the smoke Tira had brought back. Then someone suggested craps.
After a while of playing, Natty was holding the bank and rolling his point as if Lady Luck was living with him, when a politician-looking man walked into the Park leading a group of well-dressed people.
A few local senior ladies in heavy coats were sitting around airing their faces watching the world happen. It was these folks the politician approached and, no questions asked, began speechifying.
When Natty paid close attention, he found the man was criticizing the location of the methadone maintenance clinic. “ … is a bad policy, from cruel politics. A cold politics. A politics of selfishness and bigotry. A system in which we are used up, consumed by abuse. A system that’s callous, dishonest, and short-fall in humane aims. These politicians who allow this dumping of methadone clinics in despairing communities such as this, they are profiteers from narcotics. They are criminals when they convert our already struggling communities into magnets for criminal elements. They corrupt our hope with the trash. They organize the crimes against us …”
His little crowd of followers and the bunched-up ladies agreed, “Yes, yes. It was a shame.” The senior ladies however, since they lived around the area, knew the crew as scramblers, and were sending informed glances from the speaker towards the crew where they grouped near the hoop listening.
The politician continued spouting. After a bit more of it, Tomas raised his voice and suggested, “Maybe someone oughta burn th’motherfucker down. Huh?”
At this, the politician, either from misunderstanding the ladies’ glances or interest in the simple solution, led his well-behaved crowd over to the crew. A couple of the seniors followed.
In his same speechifying volume and tone, he greeted them, “Hullo, young fellows.”
Tomas answered for the crew, “Yeah, man. How y’doing? I think y’got it right.”
The politician started right in, “We’re with the Community Task Force seeking to close these methadone clinics. We think they represent a corrupting influence on our young people … ” He had everyone’s attention. “So do any of you have views on this important matter?”
Tomas, grinning hugely, repeated, “Yeah, man. I say give th’shit a light.”
Del chimed in, “That’s right. Them firemen shit around all day planning on their pension. They need some work, man.”
Natty added, “That’s right. They play ping-pong. I seen them.”
Now everyone in the crew, even Black, seemed ready to bullshit with the guy a little bit. But then a serious-looking man behind the politician asked, “What do you fellows do?” and glancing at his watch, “Shouldn’t you all be in school?”
It was Tomas as spokesman again: “You blind, mi’man? Can’t you be seeing it? Look, I am in school, and this break-time. Uh-huh, I’m studying to be a warmonger in big government.”
At which Natty offered, “And I’m going to be a nuclear physicist, so I could nuke-up the whole fuckin’ world, especially the politicians.”
The uneasy expressions on the faces of the main speaker and his proper little crowd settled into determined “let’s-get-outta-here” looks, and they began to leave.
Meanwhile Del had thought up his ambition, and now shouted it after their receding backs: “I’m goin’ to be an explorer so I could search out you suckers’ bank accounts.”
By now the crew was laughing outright. Tomas had changed his mind and was screaming that he now intended to be a “Task Force Asshole” designer, as the man and crowd got into their cars and escaped. Even the senior ladies were laughing.
Then Black, becoming serious again, suggested it was time to get back to business. Natty didn’t mind at all; it’d been a fun lunch, and had left his pocket winning.
It was about eight o’clock, and the whole crew was out there: there was Black, Swooney, Natty, Del, Tomas, Tira, Margo-with-the-music, her younger sister Dee, and Fat Noleen. Business was sporadic at that time of evening, and Black, Swooney, and Natty were standing apart talking, while the others attended to the entertainment, and the occasional junky copping.
Between his scrambling and gambling, Natty had cleared about seven hundred dollars, his own money. Swooney, too, was flush, and Black had just proposed they go see the latest horror movie downtown. He would take Tira so he’d have some pussy afterwards. Dee, the younger sister, liked Swooney, so he was fixed up. Natty however, with neither Black’s cool command nor Swooney’s good looks, had no one. So Swooney was on his case, teasing Natty to take Fat Noleen. “You’d definitely get some pussy, once you find it between them monster legs she got.”
Trying to laugh it off Natty replied, “Man, I don’t fuck with frogs.”
At this point Margo-with-the-music joined them. She was high and Tomas was boldly fondling her breasts and ass as if he was searching for cancer lumps. She was acting uninterested as if she was one. Lowering the volume, she explained that she wanted to leave the music. She had something to do, she told Black. Tomas grinned and elaborated, “She’s got a nut to crack.”
Immediately Swooney upsed with, “Let Natty hold the box. He don’t’ve nothing else to hold.”
Sensing the point, Tomas suggested, “Why don’t he go’n fuck Fat Noleen. Del swears she sucks bone like a vacuum-cleaner snake.”
He and Swooney began laughing and slapping palms. Natty, seeing it getting out of hand, began blustering, “All right, all right. Stop fucking with me. Okay?”
Between howls, Swooney said, “But who … who’s fucking with you … ? Nobody’s fucking with you … not even the frogs.”
Everyone was dying with laughter.
A rage beginning, Natty shouted, “All right, Swooney. Y’d better stop right now, okay? Before I really fuck your shit up.”
He was so hard and serious that suddenly as if a tape had ended, all the laughter ceased.
Swooney’s voice came softly and too friendly for its quiet. “How’re you going to fuck my shit up, Natty-nat?”
Still angry and vengeful, Natty challenged him, “How about if your fuckin’ old people find out you’re just a fuckin’ dope dealer, huh?”
As if he’d just said the secret of Life and Death, Natty felt everyone staring at him; a glance showed even stoned-eye Margo-with-the-music was blinking for a better view.
Swooney, muttering “Shit-faced motherfucker … !” through his grin, moved fast, his fist poised to throw down before Natty could react. But Black had flashed in between them and shielded him, saying slowly as ever, “Y’can’t do that, Swooney.” And Swooney stopped, as he had to. If not, he’d have been punching Black.
He tried getting around Black. But shaking his head ‘no,’ Black shifted to deny him.
“Get out m’face, Black,” Swooney warned him. “I ain’t bullshitting.”
Black didn’t budge. “Y’can’t do that ” he repeated. “All week you been fuckin’ with mi’man. And you won’t be hitting nobody while I’m around.”
Swooney let out his crazy giggle then. He asked, “So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?”
Firm as a sentencing judge, Black answered, “That’s how it’s gotta be!”
Throughout all this fast action, Natty was more confused than anything else. Although he felt safe as if surrounded by a solid wall just about his height wearing black clothes, he knew he was also looking wimpish and protected from Swooney; and now the commotion had attracted the rest of the crew and brought Dee running excitedly to Swooney’s side, grabbing him and pulling him away possessively, as if he was the last man on earth. Tomas and Margo joined her and dragged him away. Then, after advising Natty to go home and cool out, Black and Tira went off, leaving Del, Natty’s cousin, and Fat Noleen to console with Natty.
Uncomfortable with them, and still slightly confused about what had happened, Natty started away alone. But they hurried to catch up and walk with him. Del asked, “So what’s goin’ down, Coz?”
Before Natty could respond, Fat Noleen said, “Why y’want to be fighting that crazy fool for?” Then with heavy distaste, added, “Y’know how he wantsa be trying to bully-over everybody?”
Her point-of-view, with the sympathy in her voice, was just what Natty needed. He didn’t feel so much in the coward’s shadow of Black’s big wall anymore. He answered them both with a determination he was uncertain of, “Well, I ain’t taking no more shit from him.”
They all stopped and both of them looked at him. He shook his head decidedly at them. “I just ain’t. That’s all. See y’all tomorrow.”
Then he went home.
* * *
Next morning Natty was dozing on his sofabed vaguely expectant in his halfsleep when he rose up abruptly as he remembered the hassle with Swooney and realized that his bell wouldn’t be ringing. Before his relief could settle down he became anxious about how Swooney would react to their beef. He speculated on this as he prepared to leave and finally decided to carry his .25 to work today. He took it from its house-spot, and stuck it next to his skin in his pants’ waist. The moment before leaving the apartment he thought of talking to his father about it. But earlier on he had heard a double set of snores through the bedroom door. So there was a woman in there. She would be a stranger, and this was a family matter.
Over at the spot, Black told him Swooney wasn’t down with them anymore. Natty asked, “Who told you?”
Black looked at him, blank.
Natty asked, “Dee?”
Black looked at him, Maybe.
Natty asked, “Y’hear anything ’bout what he goin’ do?”
Black shook his head, no.
Natty nodded as if he agreed. He said, “You worried?”
Black looked at him blankly. Then he changed his mind and said, “Look, man. Swooney ain’t stupid. This is Dingle’s business ’n he don’t fuck around. Swooney’s hip.”
Natty nodded as if he agreed with every word. “Yeah,” he said, “yeah.”
Black said, “Maybe y’should double up for a few days, huh? Them early dopefiends should be going wild over in his spot. If y’want to handle them.”
Natty felt the weight of the .25 in his waist, and his resolve not to take any shit, and he felt serious. He said, “Yeah, give it up. I can handle it.”
He collected the dope and headed for Pepito’s.
Señor P had heard about the trouble and had advice for Natty, “Hey, my friend. You must try to fix this thing up. What you say? Huh? You such nice fellas. Why spoil it with the fighting and trouble. You have a good li’l business. No? Don’t foul your nest, amigo. Huh?”
Natty never looked at him or answered. Back to the counter, he kept his eyes on the door as Señor P spoke to the back of his ear. He wondered why the old man was so concerned. Maybe it was his 20 every evening. Maybe Swooney had asked him to quiet and cool down the trouble. Think of the Devil. Señor P was just saying his name: “ … that Swooney fella. Now, he’s not really a bad fella. Maybe a little, you know how they say, loco, maybe. But he’s mostly mischief. That’s all. He’s a good amigo to have. You must try with him …”
A group of schoolchildren trooped in for their junk, interrupting Señor P. Natty saw it as a good chance to break out. But just in case the busy Señor P was playing the kissinger, he said, “Hey, I don’t want no hassles either, Señor. But y’know how it is. Right?”
Then he went to work.
A Viet-vet junkie was giving him a hard time about some dope bought earlier in the week. “Yo, listen up. Yo, listen here. The shit ain’t shit. This is the worst dope I’ve ever, ever gotten next to. It ain’t worth shit. And the bags’re too small anyhow. It’s a fuckin’ ripoff, man.”
Natty was hardly listening to him. He said, “Don’t know about it, man. Can’t help you.”
The junkie went on, “ … an’ how th’fuck y’all c’n call this shit ‘Devil high.’ Devil shit, I say. An’ what th’fuck you motherfuckers cutting the shit with, huh? Last bag put a hurting on me. Cramps and shit and everything. Man, I was sick as a motherfucker …”
Natty knew the junkie as Onezy. He had lost his right arm at the elbow in the Nam, and was a dependable booster. He worked the nicer Fifth Avenue stores, and usually paid for his dope with fine clothes, or shoes. But he was a complainer—always dissatisfied, always grumbling, always threatening. Natty was trying, but he had things on his mind this morning, and no patience for the fiend’s usual bullshit. He cut him short. “Look here, Onezy. I never sold you nothing, okay. I don’t know nothing about your gripe, okay. So quit yer fuckin’ crying in my face, okay.”
The junkie walked about 15 feet away, and from that range proceeded with his whining attack. It being near nine o’clock, the street was busy with schoolchildren, folks going to work, to the laundromat, fiends, regular people, and so on. Thus Onezy’s loud complaining was drawing attention. Two fiends made purchases from Natty, then as they went away, paused to listen better to Onezy. After a bit, one returned to Natty. “He didn’t want the dope because he felt it might be bad. Onezy just told him it was cut with something dangerous.”
At that, Natty went off.
He took the pistol from his waist, and holding it concealed in his pocket, rushed up to Onezy, and had collared him and shoved him against the wall before even thinking if he should. “What’re you doing, sucker?” he bawled into Onezy’s face. “What th’fuck y’re trying to do, huh?”
From in his pocket he rammed the pistol’s barrel hard into Onezy’s stomach, and felt the fiend’s thinness surrender away from the jab. Immediately Onezy’s whine changed into a frightened pleading. “I ain’t serious, man. I’m cool, baby. I’ll go, I’ll go. Please.”
Something offensive about the junkie’s smell, and his attitude, and his flinching frailness combined to disgust Natty. He wanted to be rid of the nasty pest. In his pocket he squeezed the trigger hard, then deliberately again in surprise at the mere muffled clicks he heard instead of the blasts of gunfire.
But Onezy too must’ve felt or heard the misfire. He suddenly began screaming, “Don’t shoot me, man. Don’t kill me!”
And the curious that had so quickly gathered began scattering every which way like roaches busted by sudden light.
Next thing Natty knew was Black dragging him off the junkie and stumbling him away, asking him angrily, “What th’fuck is wrong with you, man? We can’t have no trouble here. You know that!”
Natty still wanted to get off, but was a bit bewildered also. In a rush, he began explaining, “You wasn’t here to see. But I was right. Onezy was right there in front of me badmouthing the product to th’other fiends, making them return it. I couldn’t deal with that no more. And then the fuckin’ gun won’t fire. Y’know what I mean, and fuckin’ Onezy there fuckin’ around. That’s too much shit. And I ain’t taking shit no more …”
Black said, “Okay, man, okay. But y’got to cool out. Cool out. It’s all right. He ain’t nothing but’n angel-dust hero. You can’t get fucked-up over him.”
How Black spoke suggested a special looking-out between the two of them. Natty was willing, wanted to be contrite and pacified. He listened to his main man advice, and took a walk while Black took care of Onezy.
He had just rounded the corner away from the fracas when he met Fat Noleen coming his way. She blocked him, and asked, “What’s on, Natty?” Then looking at him more closely, held his coatsleeve and asked excitedly, “Something’s going down ’round the block … ?”
Still stimulated by the hassle with Onezy, Natty fattened his answer: “ … nearly popped a fuckin’ dopehead. He was fuckin’ with me …”
Her eyes widened with thrills and fright. She held on to his other arm and cried, “Natty. How y’always gettin’ in trouble, huh?” but crooning like she was applauding a bad baby. Then she said more specially, more closely, “Where’re you goin’ now … ?”
“Just cooling down … ” he said.
“Why y’don’t come up to my house, huh? Y’know you should get off the street.”
Natty hesitated. He took a sly glance around. As he met her eyes, she turned away slightly, and said, “Nobody’s home … and no one’ll be seeing you.”
Seeing by that that she’d understood, he said, “Bet,” and went up to her house.
She had her own bedroom. The main thing in it, bigger than even her dresser, was a wall unit of three shelves with many large fishbowls set along them. The fish in the bowls were tiny things with oversized fantails of blues, and greens, with spots of silver, or black, and any color at all. So impressed he was, Natty instantly forgot his uneasiness about being seen. He realized she’d arranged the bowls in rainbow order of fantail colors: the whatever variety of reds, then oranges, then yellows, and so on. The fish were totally happy and spry, darting in between waterplants, parading their pretty spots, or rays, or stripes of color on their outrageous tails. Natty sneaked a glance at Fat Noleen as he checked them out. He found it hard to fit the two sights in the same room: lumbering Fat Noleen, and these skimpy flashes of color. She caught him looking at her. He said, “Hey, this is really the joint, Noleen. These shits’re stupid pretty.”
Her eyes popped as she flushed. “Lemme get a jay,” she said, and went to a cupboard.
Natty could see the big blush forming all over the soft brown skin of her fat neck and shoulders, giving it a raw look. He grinned to himself and asked the bulging sacks of her backside, “So what kinda fish is they?”
“Guppies,” she answered, “that’s what they call them in some books. But their real name is millionfish … they’s from the Caribbean, Trinidad, I think.”
Natty, half-listening, studied her sitting at the table cleaning the chiba, talking fancy fish. It was the first time he’d heard her even talk that long in one burst. Suddenly he felt compelled to show that he also knew something about fish. He couldn’t think of anything but began talking anyhow: “Tropical fish is something else …”
But she had continued, “ … a pastor, an Island guy named Guppy, he saw them as a special type, and sent them to England to find out, and the white people in England named the fish guppies. But he had called them millionfish because was so much a’them. ’S what the local people used to call them, anyhow.”
She stopped and concentrated on lighting the joint. She dragged deeply and passed it over.”
They look real pretty,” Natty said, before he pulled on the sweet-smelling budda jay. He held in long and sighed it out slowly. He passed the joint and said, “Different kinds in each bowl, uh?”
“Only the males pretty,” she explained, “all the fancy-tailed ones’re male. The females’re plain. I only put them together to breed.”
The budda had given him an enormous rush of clear-headed cool. He became precisely aware of everything about him: the spot of bright sunshine on the crystal fishbowl; the sootsoft margins of the different levels of water in each bowl; the flicking darts and frilling pauses of the male millionfish; and Fat Noleen’s smooth voice, deep and charged like the rich flush that had recolored her. He had to laugh. “Yow, Noleen,” he said, “y’got some good shit here.”
Natty had the joint again; he toked and passed it back. She hadn’t answered, but just sat looking fat and soft at him. He figured that the chiba must be getting to her and recalled what Tomas’d said about Del’s comment about her vacuum-cleaner snake head. Abruptly turned on, he became interested in finding out.
Noleen began talking fish again. “The females make babies every month. Makes it easy to experiment with them, if y’feel like it.”
“So they’s easy to breed, uh?” Natty followed up, trying to get her attention. Her eyes only fluttered at him and fled back to the fishbowls, and Natty realized she was shy about looking at him in the way that said he could have her.
She replied, “Uh huh, and bold too. Y’see how they always come up to the bowl face begging. And they’d eat anything … even their own babies. The store guy sez that in Trinidad, in the countryside, they eat wigglers and keep the mosquitoes under control … “
Her voice got softer and softer as she talked away. Natty kept his eyes hard on her face, but she wouldn’t look at him. Just sat there soft and flushed and fat like he could piss on her and she wouldn’t move, staring at the gulping fish as if they were sending code signals to her. He went up to her smooth, fat face and pulled out his dick. He shook and rubbed it about on her soft cheeks. Then he held her head steady and shoved it at her mouth. Her take-me lips were still shaping on how “guppies can live with little oxygen,” when his dick slid in and she was forced to turn to slippery sucking.
It was a morning about two weeks after that when Natty’s bell rang sudden again. When he answered it, however, no one was there. He figured someone had made a mistake downstairs. About an hour later, sevenish, he rounded the corner to Black’s block and saw a small crowd milling; mostly junkies and younger street people. They gathered around someone laid out on the street. As Natty got closer, someone at the crowd’s edge recognized him, and shouted, “Natty! Natty! They jus’ done fucked-up y’man!”
And hearing that, Natty broke to the middle.
Black was lying on his back with his face twisted oneside and spit drooling from his mouth, past his ear and into his naps. From that side of his face, other than the spit, he could’ve been sleeping. But as Natty stepped around and peered closely around the ear resting on the street, he could see the sunk-in part where Black’s head had been crushed and the blood was leaking out slowly onto the asphalt; from that view Black looked like he was dead.
A fiend had seen it all. Nothing to say to the police, but he had seen this guy creep out from the corner of the building where he’d been hiding. He had ambushed Black with a baseball bat when Black came out to lean on his lamp-pole. When they asked him who the guy was, the junkie said he didn’t recognize him. But from how he said “recognize,” Natty knew he could easily clear up the fiend’s mind with a jaybag.
It took two bags, and as he had expected, it was Swooney. He had worn the same white ski-mask, and had giggled while he batted Black a second, and a third time, after he fell. That’s mainly why the junkie spoke up at all. “… th’mutha didn’ ’aveta be so dog mean on mi’man, see,” he said, ” ’E’d crunched ’im firs’ strike. Ah’erd it clear crost th’fuckin’ street. Y’un’rstan’?”
When he got this news, Natty didn’t fuck around. He knew exactly what he had to do. He hailed a gypsy to Freddie Dingle’s place. All the ride he thanked his luck that he had such a rich chance to see the Man himself; depending on how he showed right now, he might get a big play.
Natty left Freddie Dingle’s place feeling very good about himself. One of Dingle’s crew had called the news to Freddie. Then the guy had called Natty to the phone. He said into it, “Hullo …”
“Lemme hear it.”
“Is about Black, Mr. Dingle. A guy, usta be with th’crew, Swooney his name. Well, he batted Black this morning. Black looks real bad …”
“ … Swooney?”
“Yessir, Swooney. A fiend seen it all, an’ he tol’ me.”
“He had a beef wif Black, sir, and me too …”
“I know … You did good coming right away, Natty. We’ll take care of it. You did good.”
“Thanks … sir.”
“I’ll be in touch, but you should get off the street now, Natty.”
Natty hung up in a triumphant daze. He’d hit a final-second three-point-play winner: Freddie Dingle said he’d done good; Freddie Dingle knew him by name, had said it twice; and Freddie Dingle’d be keeping in touch! As he left the lounge, Freddie’s man handed him a bill; Natty blinked at two zeroes, heard the man say, “Go to the movies, Champ.” He stepped out the door into bright sunshine. A service car was waiting, engine running, at the curb. The driver stepped out and asked, “You Natty?” in a way that said, his ride wherever was compliments of Freddie Dingle.
Now, it was nearing eleven, Natty eased into Fat Noleen’s building and rang her apartment bell. As usual it was no problem. She buzzed him in. They had worked out this rendezvous since the millionfish day. Now he had her every day around lunchtime. On the street they acted distant as usual.
When he was inside and they had talked about the millionfish, and that he was cooling out for the day, he asked her for a joint.
She said, “Maybe y’shouldn’t be smokin’ Natty. Can’t do nothing today, y’know.”
Natty didn’t get her meaning. He looked at her.
“Friend’s here,” she said. She was apologizing.
He didn’t let on his relief. She was so big around and heavy, fucking her was clumsy and awkward. He much preferred her to just suck him off. That he couldn’t complain about.
She was standing near the cupboard with the chiba when there was the sound of heavy boots landing on the floor somewhere else in the apartment. Noleen said, “Ma’s bedroom …” and Natty knew instantly what had happened. Someone had entered the house from the fire-escape ladder. Then before he could even get up off her bed, Swooney and two other guys had filled up Noleen’s bedroom.
Natty didn’t know the two guys. The shorter, dark-skinned one looked older—maybe twenty. The other was skinny, kid-faced. All three of them looked blank-happy dusted. Swooney was giggling and talking crazy-friendly: “My man, Natty-nat. My main man! Now my man’s getting the pussy big-time. Fatty-froggy Noleen piggy-pussy. An’ it all belongs to Natty-nat. My main main …”
The long, light-skinned one interrupted, “Come on, Swooney. We goin’ to fuck’im up, or what?”
Natty measured the skinny shit and decided to try and kick his balls in. Then he noticed the stocky guy and Noleen staring dead at each other; she with her mouth trembling open and closed like one of her silly fish in the bowls. The stocky guy said abruptly, “Let’s fuck her!”
Right away the skinny dusthead said, “Bet!”
Then Swooney agreed, “Yeah, let’s run a train up the fat cunt.”
A rush of closeness from being with her reminded Natty of how Noleen had just been embarrassed about her period. Feeling protective, he put it to Swooney, “Hey man, she’s bleeding …”
The stocky guy cut over him, “Shit, I don’t care.”
Natty caught her eye. He shrugged. He had tried. Noleen just stood there springing tears from her big, soft, empty face as they went at her.
They made Natty sit in a chair while each rode her three, four times until they got fed-up. Then they shoved make-up bottles and other stuff up her. The room became stink with a stale, rotten smell from her blood. Once, when Natty tried to sneak away, they pushed him to the floor, and wiped her dirty pad all over his arms and clothes. Swooney and the stocky guy punched him around some, while the skinny one pissed in some of the fishbowls, and hawked and spat in the rest. Then he joined in and tried to kick the shit out of Natty while Natty rolled himself in a ball, minding to protect his nuts. They didn’t seem at all tired out from their raping, and only stopped when Noleen began screaming and swearing that her Moms was due back any moment. Then Swooney and his boys called it, and left through Fat Noleen’s front door.
After they’d gone, Natty was so hurting he just lay down on the bed while Noleen, crying and sniffling, did all the cleaning up; even of his own body and clothes. Every time she found a new daub of blood on the floor or the wall, she started sobbing anew. “O God, if Ma sees this mess, I’m dead… she’d be crazy mad,” she bawled.
Partly to distract her, Natty said, “Them fish’re fucked up, girl. Look, them at the top. Like they’re gasping.”
“I don’t care, Natty. I can breed guppies,” she almost screamed at him. Then it was back to her clean-up moaning, “Ma sees this shit ’n I’m dead …”
It was a month before the doctors were allowing anyone but family to visit Black. As soon as Natty could he went to the hospital; and wanting to avoid the rest of the crew, he went morning hours. Black was in a private room decorated pretty in blue. But he himself looked fucked-up among all the flowers and nice sheets, and so on. His whole head was like a cloth egg with bandages. His eyes were swollen tight-lidded, and running pus. In a hoarse grandfather whisper, he said, “Yow … Natty.”
The sight of him brought back afresh to Natty that Swooney had done this, and that Black had got into it protecting him. It made him feel so bad the tears were burning up his eyes. He abruptly stepped up to the head of the bed where the bottles and tubes hung, and where Black couldn’t turn his crippled head to see. There, he quickly dried himself. To cover the time, he asked, “So how y’feeling, man? When y’comin’ out?”
“When I could move … mi’hands again.” Black forced the words one at a time, more paralyzed than in his slow, slow way; with two-toned whispers, only sounding sadder longer.
They talked around; Natty bringing him up-to-date about this and that: Swooney being nowhere to be seen; Señor P sending flowers; Tira bugging out because Black was hurt; how he, Natty, was carrying his careful .25 ever since; that the dopefiends were going off all day by the clinic, now they didn’t have dope; in response, DT’s were covering their former scrambling corner and standing out like pork in a drugstore.
The cop story made Black laugh, but it hurt him somewhere to tears. After the pain passed, he went tired and motioned Natty nearer to croak a number into his ear. “Freddie Dingle sez y’should call him,” Black whispered, “they found Swooney.”
At about eight o’clock the intercom sounded three short blasts. Natty, already dressed, was up and off his sofabed by the time the third blast had ended. He went in the kitchen and reached in the oven to take out a .38 Special. He’d got it yesterday from Freddie Dingle as the job was lined out. Now Natty was careful to remember, and loaded the gun with the special bullets Freddie Dingle’d given him. That done, he shoved in the safety, and stuck the gun deep in his waist. Then he went downstairs.
As planned, the car waited a little up the block with the engine running. Natty went to it and got in the back seat. The driver didn’t look around; only raised the music loud and bassy as soon as Natty slammed the door. The driver wore extra-big warm-ups with the hood pulled low over his forehead. All Natty could see of his face was a side of jaw. Driver tossed a parcel over to the back seat. “Put it on, man,” he said, “just like mine.”
It was another warm-ups top, monster-sized, with a hood. Natty put it on, just like Driver, with the hood pulled low down. Then Driver rolled the tinted windows completely up, and they sped away.
It was a high school in a nice area, in another borough. With the engine running, they had been waiting near 20 minutes when they saw Swooney walking across the playground. Immediately Driver geared up and cruised slowly towards the blind corner. Natty shifted nearer to his door, took the .38 out his clothes and put it on the seat next to him. Driver spoke in a calm, reminding voice: “Wait ’til he’s alongside the fence so’s he can’t run in nowhere. Move in quiet, he might be carryin’.”
Natty sensed Driver checking him out through the rearview mirror. So he didn’t swallow the spit leaking into his mouth. He said, “I got it, man. I’m awright.”
For that’s how he felt in truth. The action coming down was set in his mind like a learned play, simple as a pick and roll, easy. Especially so as Driver stopped a purring car a 15-foot jumpshot blindside from where Swooney would come out the playground. Then Driver switched off the engine and the jamming music went silent. And the play was set waiting for Natty to make his move.
Swooney walked onto the sidewalk and seemed to look directly at the silent, tinted-glass car. Then he continued up the street carrying some schoolbooks in one hand, and a small shopping bag in the other. Natty, right hand on the gun in his pocket, opened the cardoor without a sound. He was quickly out the car and alongside the school building’s wall. Then he sneakered up to Swooney at a fast walk. As Dingle’d made him practice over and over, in his pocket he gently released the safety. When he was close enough, he took the gun out his pocket, and putting it near behind Swooney’s head, he called softly, “No school today …” And as Swooney turned around Natty blew his face away.
The kick from the gun jerked back his hand, hurting his wrist sharply. But Natty sucked in the pain, followed Swooney’s flailing body down, and hand-to-wrist police style, put another jolting shot into the head.
The carhorn blasted close beside him. Driver was shouting, “Call it, man. We outta here!”
Natty ran back and was swift in through his still opened door. Before he could shut it, they were revving up the street, tires screeching, powerful, and around the corner flying; just as Natty felt as he met Driver’s eyes in the mirror. Driver’s shifted away as he said, “Y’fucked ’im up, man.”
“Said I would,” said Natty.
Two weeks later, up at his place, Freddie put Natty down with his main crew. He handed Natty a handful of 50s and some quarters of dope, and told him the setup. Bottom line was, Black might never make it back, so Natty was now lieutenant. He’d get so much dope and had to bring back so much basic bank. He mustn’t mess with the supply: what he got, he sold. Prices on his block was whatever his business could make it. He’d make seven and a half a day, plus whatever. Natty thanked Mr. Dingle and assured that he wouldn’t disappoint.
Afterwards, sitting in his cab home, he thought of Del, Tomas, Margo-with-the-music, and the others, and tried to select his crew. When he came to considering Fat Noleen, what he remembered was the train Swooney had organized on her. It made him feel soft for her, and he decided the one thing he’d do for certain. Tomorrow he’d give her some money to get a brand new crop of guppies.
Kelvin Christopher James is a born Trinidadian living in Harlem on his way to being a native New Yorker. His work has been published in Quarto and will appear in Between CAD. He is currently at work on a novel.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.