“What the fuck, rice?”
With all my daydreaming going on, I had touched someone. Just elbows brushing, but that was enough for someone to consider disrespect, or enough for an excuse to fight. I tensed up immediately and my whole body ached. How could I be so stupid?
A skinny black dude was twitching nearby, dancing side to side.
His friend stood behind him, silent, staring at me with his eyes bulged out. I think it was supposed to scare me but instead it made him look like a human insect
“You deaf, cracka?” the dancing one said. “Retarded? Why you not watching where you going?”
“It was an accident,” I said. “Let it go.”
“Let it go?′ he said, spreading his arms.
What an idiot. I wasn’t as artful a fighter as some, but his display was just stupid. Why did so many guys do that? Throw their arms out wide when they were calling for a fight? If I had wanted to brawl, he would have just given me a golden opportunity to hit him wherever I’d like. Maybe it was a way of luring me in, but that involved the assumption that he’d be able to counterattack.
The bad news for him was he wouldn’t once I kicked his balls out the top of his skull.
“I’ll let it go once we get this shit straightened out,” he said, arms still wide open. Now he was hopping around like a boxer. He made me want to crush his nose just for how ridiculous he looked.
His friend the insect whispered in his ear. “Shit, Jay, look at his face, man. He ain’t afraid to scrap.”
The skinny guy, Jay, looked at me. “Why your face so jacked up, rice?”
“I got in a fight,” I growled, turning to the side to make myself a smaller target like a real fighter should. “With a punk.”
“Oh did you now?”
“You could ask him about it, but he’s got a bad case of dead.”
Jay’s hopping slowed. The moron was tiring himself out.
“Wait a minute,” he said, catching his breath. “You the guy got into it with that kidbanger, right?”
“Yeah. That was me.”
“Oh shit, Jay,” the insect said.
“So what?” Jay said. “Everyone here killed someone.” He turned back to me, “Who’s your partner?”
“The Booker? Right hand of Big X?”
Jay the punk smiled and lowered his arms. His voice got deeper and more serious.
“Dang. I knew I recognized you, rice. I’m glad we ran into each other. I wanted to congratulate the motherfucker that sent that kidbanger on his way, is all.”
From tough guy to friend in seconds. Everyone’s always talking about how bravery makes you do great things, but cowardice is more impressive. It makes a fat guy run, and a loudmouth talk himself out of a fight.
“Yeah. Thanks,” I said.
“So hey, no worries about the bump, just watch where you going, all right? Some pricks in here not as forgiving as I am.”
As Jay walked away, his friend the insect’s eyes retracted. He laughed. “Oh, let me be your friend. You know Booker. You killed a kidbanger. You big bad rice cracka!”
“Shut up. I ain’t tangling with that.”
Jay the punk made a smart move.
That was more than I could say.
All these years, walking this same path around the edge of the pigpen, head down. I practically had sonar. I could take my stroll with my eyes closed.
Then I collide with someone, like a newborn on my first day in the country club. How did that happen?
Because of all this daydreaming. All this thinking.
Because of that crazy bitch. That woman.
All that crap she had said was bouncing around inside my skull. Like when some asshole whistles a song and it gets stuck in your brain and won’t go away.
She said so many freaky things. Nice things. Really nice things, and they were all about me. That I was good, an angel, and from God, too. She said more nice things to me in those few minutes than I’d heard in my whole life. She really seemed to believe all that junk, too.
She was nuts, loco. She had to be.
I’m doing it again. Thinking. Okay, think while you walk. You can do it. Watch where you’re going.
She said I was good.
I don’t consider myself evil, really, not compared to some of the clowns in here, but I was definitely none of that happy crappy stuff. I was just another con. That’s it, that’s all. I had a hard life, a run of bad luck, and a mean streak that all led to here. I was going to die here, just like a million other cons around the world. I wasn’t special and my life didn’t mean anything.
So if she didn’t think God was real, how could she still think I was an angel? That didn’t even make sense.
“Hey, wrong way, guest.”
An ape stood in my path.
“Time to go.”
He pointed toward where the other guests had lined up, filing out of the pigpen and inside for lunch.
“Did the bell go off?” I asked.
The ape reached down and popped the snap that held his club to his belt. “We’re having a conversation. That means you ain’t deaf. So you must have heard it. Now get moving, convict.”
I turned and headed for the file, last in line.
Sometimes when I wanted to tease Booker while he was working his ledgers, I would call him.
“Booker. Oh, Booker.”
I always thought he was just ignoring me, but maybe he got so into thinking he really didn’t hear.
That was a dangerous way to live. I had to get Miss Shannon out of my head quick.
Our jail cell, I mean, our suite was twelve feet by nine feet of concrete home sweet home. A tiny slit on one end, covered by thick glass and reinforced with steel mesh, let in the colors of the setting sun. The opposite wall was nothing but vertical bars looking out across the hall to the other side of the building. We could see everything the guys across the way were doing, and they could see us.
It felt new. Usually that happened for just a moment after I got out of the pit, but this was different. My vision seemed somehow sharper. I was noticing details I never had before.
Did the setting sunlight always make a tiny rainbow in the corner of the windows?
“Raph! You sleeping?”
“Come on man,” Booker said. “Start with hoops.”
I shook my head to wake up. I’d been staring at the newspaper, my finger at the top of the sports page, ready to go.
“Los Angeles. 85. Philly. 91,” I said.
Booker bent over and began writing.
This had been my home for the past thirty years. After my brawl with Dillett, things were getting back to normal. They always did. Not even the riot way back when could break the steady rhythm. Nothing stopped the mechanical routines of the Calliope Valley Country Club. The place sounded and acted like an engine, chugging along, never stopping.
“Next,” Booker said.
“New York. 67. Washington. 72.”
“Boston 99. Indiana 100.”
Scribble. Scribble. Scratch. Scratch.
Booker, my life partner, was writing in his ledgers. He was the record-keeper for Big X, leader of the biggest society in the Country Club. Of course, by society, I mean gang. I was reading the scores so he could find out who won what for bets.
He sat with his back to me, working at a desk made for high school kids. As a small guy he fit in perfectly. The desk was a one-piece thing, the chair attached to the table, all of it metal except for the wooden lid. I knew the desk had been carved with graffiti but only now did I read it.
There was a penis shooting a dash-line stream of piss onto a smiling clown’s head. “Tigers rule,” was carved into the desk, underneath that, a different style of carving added, “...your mom’s balls.”
“Mrs. Kenty gives head,” was another one. There was also, “I fucked Teresa” and three more entries of “So did I,” below that, each in different handwriting.
“Raph! Come on, man.”
“Houston 55. Chicago 70.”
Booker’s head vibrated under the desk lamp, the dim light shining off his scalp, framed by black and gray hair. Had he always had gray hair? When did that happen? A photo of his daughter in her high school gown was taped to the wall. She smiled at me all day long.
I remember pictures of her as a baby. Had I known him that long?
While I waited for Booker to call for the next score, I skimmed the newspaper. I usually ignored the articles. They were always the same.
A lot of people died. Someone was pissed off. The weather was changing.
“Hello?” Booker said, sighing. “Next?”
“Cleveland 88. Detroit 89.”
Miss Shannon said there was a reason for everything.
So what was my reason? Why did I exist? To read scores for a gambling operation?
Was that it? I guess someone had to a do it.
Was I around just to meet Booker all those years ago?