I was a freshman in high school when my boy Tookie hit me up. I’d just walked in the apartment and thrown my bags on the floor, ready to perch on the futon in front of the TV when the landline rang. I figured it was Moms letting me know she wouldn’t be back till late. But when I answered, the voice on the other end was an unexpected, welcomed ghost. I hadn’t heard from Tookie since summer league ball several months before. We caught up a minute like chatty school girls.
Then, he asked me: “So, guess who’s swerving now, Grigs?”
“Yeah right, man. You get your license finally?”
“What’re you into tonight, Bro? I’ll just show you.”
“Just got done with practice.”
“‘Practice? Talkin’ ‘bout practice?’” Tookie did his best Allen Iverson imitation. We laughed.
Before Moms and me split on Pop two years prior, we’d lived in Montgomery Village, unit 2A– the brick government housing projects in South Knoxville, pretty much big enough to be its own county. Tookie’s family lived across the hall from us. His family was like my own growing up, and if I missed nothing else from that ghetto prison, I missed my boy. We called each other brothers. His sister Renee was like my own sister, except I’d had a crush on her for most of forever. My Moms was his. His granny was mine. And my dad had always loved him like a son, and Tookie was the one who gave him his nickname—everybody’d called him “Pop” long as I remember. Nobody cared that me and my folks were some of the only honkeys living in the Ville back then. I was Irish pasty, and Tookie was bitter cocoa black. As kids in the summer time, we ran around shirtless, and the sun would turn me Hawaiian Punch, Tookie grape Kool-Aid. But skin color didn’t matter. Neither did history. Our heritage was one cemented by our location, an asphalt creed, and our family extended past last names. Love was less than loyalty. I learned that young.
“So you down to ride or what?” Tookie asked. It was late enough to get into trouble, around nine. You can take the kid out of the ghetto, and all that.
“Moms gets off in like, two hours. You know how to get here?”
I put on my jacket, re-laced my shoes and waited for him at the corner of Fifth and Magnolia under a streetlight, my breath a visible orange cloud. I wondered if Renee would be with him, or if he’d seen Pop, knew what he was up to. Tookie pulled up in an old green Buick like twenty minutes later and rolled down the tinted windows. Smoke plumed out and up into the air.
“This piece of shit yours?”
“What are you driving? Roller blades? Get your ass in here, Grigs.”
We drove down Magnolia and joked on each other. “My man, eighteen years old—‘bout time you got your own ride,” I said. “Figured you’d get a GED way before a whip.”
His face was shrouded under his hood. His right hand gripped the bottom of the steering wheel, the left taking a blunt to his lips. He passed it to me. I’d done the shit before plenty. It was some skank weed—I could tell by the scent and the crackle—all seeds and stems. Some Ville-thrill, they called it, some of that nobody-wants-this-shit type of shit, but okay. I took the blunt, got back to my roots. I’d hit it first when I was like eight, when Pop taught me how. I inhaled, tasted the Swisher strawberry wrapping on my lips like bad Chap-stick, and sucked it down. I coughed like I was eight again, and Tookie laughed. “Been a minute, huh?” We took a left down Maple Street, familiar terrain with cracked sidewalks like broken picture frames. Few cars on the road.
“Yeah. Where we headed, man? How’s your granny? What’s Renee up to?” I asked like machine gun fire, trying to hold the hot cough in my lungs. The first two questions were buffer space for the last question, the one I really cared about. I cranked the window down and exhaled.
“My man,” Tookie said. A basketball and duffel bag were in his backseat, and Tookie wore his own practice gear with a black hoodie zipped all the way up. Our schools were gonna play each other soon. Me as a freshman dressing out, and him as a senior starter at the high school I would’ve gone to if I still lived in the Ville. I secretly wanted to guard him, go toe-to-toe. Show him I hadn’t forgotten where I was from and hustle his ass into the wood grain of his own home court. I wanted to conquer, and I wanted Moms to be there in the bleachers, maybe take a night off from work to watch me do my thing. I thought about Pop and wondered if he’d be proud. Tookie was my brother—had been from my earliest days in the Ville– but I think the person most people wanna dominate most is their brother. This especially true for younger brothers. I nearly hacked up my lungs out of the Buick window. The weed tasted like gutter iron and skunk tail.
“You good?” Tookie asked.
I nodded and passed the blunt back to him.
“Renee’s been missing you,” he grinned.
I knew he was baiting me, but I didn’t care: “I’m trying to get in your fam, Fam.”
He smiled. “Just like that, huh—all wifed up. You gotta job or what? Gonna get a ring from the cereal box?”
“Shit, man, I’m trying. For real, she single?” I asked it more jokingly than I really meant.
Tookie came to a stop light between Herm’s Piano Store and the Krystal and asked, “You got any cash on you?”
“Yeah. I’m loaded,” and I threw my hands up. “Hell no, I don’t got any cash.”
He pulled into the Krystal and ordered a meal with extra waters. He handed me a couple of the sliders and said, “For old time’s sake, my man.” And he placed the waters into the cup holders. Then he swerved back onto Maple headed South towards the Bridge.
“We going back to your place?” I mumbled through the onion-loaded snacks. Wondered if he had any gum or mints since I might see Renee.
“Nah. We’re going to McDonald’s.”
And we pulled in the drive-thru a few blocks down. Then, after the Arches, we pulled through BK, then Wendy’s. At each window, Tookie ordered waters. I was holding two cups in each hand, and he was grasping them between his feet and his legs before I asked, “The hell, dude?”
Tookie got quiet, serious, grip tight on the wheel. He hit the blunt hard and said, “Renee got jumped.”
I didn’t know what to say, or if he was kidding, or what the hell. “You mean like, uh, violated?”
“Down the hill on Daylily,” he nodded. “She was walking back from school.”
“Shit,” I said, losing my appetite and balancing the cups. “You know who?”
“Some homeless fuck, she said. Some bum,” Tookie explained as we approached the Bridge. The Bridge was a notorious hang-out for homeless people in Knoxville. They all lined the streets on the sidewalks, and the air became noticeably urine-foul infested, sour and pungent in the cold night the closer we got. There were like, three different shelters for the hobo community downtown near the Bridge. And if they got kicked out of the shelters, they just camped under the interstate, under the Bridge, in the gravel parking lots until somebody made them move. Montgomery Village was less than a mile from the Bridge, but even the roughest thug in the Ville didn’t want anything to do with the hobos from downtown. Nothing-to-live-for is way scarier than trying-to-eat. Addiction always outweighs hunger. People get the two mixed up all the time.
“I mean, you know which one?” I asked, slinking down in my seat and staring at the crowds huddled along the sidewalks. They all blended together in shades of black and gray like shadows of people who were already shadows.
“Naw, they’re all the same,” Tookie said. He rolled down his window as we approached the Bridge. He took one of the water cups. “Coulda been him for all I know,” he said, pointing at an isolated dude lying down on a makeshift pallet by some stairs. Then he flung the water cup out the driver side window and nailed the guy on his cot. The guy jumped up confused and soaked, like What the fuck, like Kick me while I’m down why dontcha. “Hand me another one, Grigs,” Tookie said. I did, dumbfounded as to what the fuck was happening. A fat woman pushing a stroller full of grocery bags with about sixty layers of sweatshirts on saw what had happened to the guy on the cot, and she tried to outrun the Buick as we approached her. Tookie swerved onto the sidewalk and launched the bomb at her. It exploded by her feet. It was like five degrees outside, and I felt colder just watching. “Damn, I missed,” he said.
“What’s new?” I tried to joke.
“Your turn,” Tookie said, handing me a cup that read Have it your way.
“Pass,” I responded, and he gave me what was left of the blunt. Not what I meant, but I hit it viciously anyway. Let it go to my head. Bad thoughts on top of worse ones piled up in my brain, and I pictured Renee getting screwed by some vagrant in a poncho with a shopping cart, knife to her throat. Sweet Renee, she was only like thirteen then, maybe fourteen, eighth grade. Goddamn ghetto, goddamn Ville, fucking Bridge, animals everywhere, army of goons. I leaned out of the passenger side window scanning for a target. An older-looking dude leaning on a chain-linked fence outside one of the shelters was talking to himself, moving his hands up and down as if preaching. My damn conscience kicked in, and the weed had little devils and angels on my shoulders. One told me Moms would be disappointed, don’t do it. The other said to do it for Renee, for loyalty and family and all that creed shit. I chucked the water at him. Drilled him square in the chest, soaked his beard and his jacket and his moccasins, and he stumbled to the ground holding his hands up in surrender. Then he looked up and shook his fists as we cruised past. He began to run after us.
“Nice shot, Grigs!” Tookie yelled, pulling a U-turn in the middle of the road. The homeless guy I’d bombed was flying towards our car in the street. “Peg him again. The fucker deserves it,” Tookie said and handed me another cup of water.
I leaned out the window once again, much closer now to the guy than before, as if we were playing some weird and unfair version of chicken. Him flailing down the opposite lane in his drenched clothes and thick beard, and me hanging out the Buick, justifying the whole fiasco in my head like I was trying to protect something holy. Tookie swerved towards the guy at the last minute when I was about to throw the cup, and he almost clipped the dude’s legs. The guy leaped out of the way, one of his moccasins flying into the air as I smashed him point-blank in the face with the cup of water. It exploded, and he fell to the concrete under the Bridge, hitting his knees. Something about his face up close seemed familiar, and whatever the opposite of laughter is was how I felt.
Tookie yelled out the window, “Get a job, bitch!”
Talk about the pot and the kettle, I thought. He hit the gas and zoomed off.
“You think that was him?” I asked, rolling the window back up.
He laughed so hard I thought he was going to throw up. “Naw, dude! Renee didn’t get jumped! She’s always talkin’ crazy! Can’t ever trust her. You know she stays lying about everything, trying to get attention. I just wanted you to get wild-n-out with me tonight. Bum-soaking! Everybody’s been into it since I gotta ride,” Tookie guffawed. “We’ve missed you, Bro!”
I felt sick to my stomach, and in the rearview mirror, I could’ve sworn I saw the dude’s eyes like an alley cat caught in the red moonlight, all wet and leaky and shivering above his beard as we sped away. Moms’ conscience– my conscience– ate at me, went down into my guts and pressed on my spine. I threw open the Buick door at a stoplight. My vomit splashed off the road and spewed out of my nose, burned like baking soda volcanoes. “The fuck, man?” Tookie asked.
“It’s that shit weed you’re still selling,” I said, wiping my mouth. But I knew it had nothing to do with the weed. I shut the car door.
“Your Pop– it’s his weed, Grigs! It ain’t shit.”
“That explains it.”
“He wants you to come see him in the Ville tonight.”
“Why y’all so hard on him, man? Your Moms made y’all up and leave your home, where you—where we—grew up just because he slings a little on the side?”
“Slings a little and does the rest.”
“Naw, man, he’s clean. Swear. No more of the hard stuff. You wouldn’t even recognize him.”
“How would you know?”
Tookie sipped on one of the left-over waters and whipped the car down a back road towards the Ville. He raised his eyebrows comically and looked at me, all like, You know, moron.
“You’re dealing for him now?” I asked.
“I’d say working with him, and yeah, man, I always have. We’re like business partners. I’m a entrepre—uh,” and he got stuck on the word.
“–Neur,” I finished for him.
“Newer than what?”
“That’s the one.”
Bad weed always made me paranoid, and I was getting stoned, and I was getting paranoid about being stoned from the bad weed. All my thoughts followed this spiraling circular pattern, spinning me into a tangled heap of nerves. Me and Moms—we’d intentionally avoided Pop the past two years, and I didn’t think it coincidence that our lives were getting better because of it. The thought of him now, though– I felt sick again.
“You ain’t gonna puke again, are you?” Tookie asked.
I shook my head. “So y’all are just selling green?”
“I didn’t say that. I said he is off the hard stuff, not off selling it. He don’t do it no more, but we’re cooking more than ever.” Tookie reached in the backseat and felt around in his duffel, threw a Ziploc bag in my lap. I turned on the overhead light and inspected the baggie. Hard-powdered, mud-white ice inside.
“Put that shit down,” Tookie said, hitting the light. “You know how much that’s worth?”
I stuffed the zip into my jacket pocket. “Few hundred?”
“Try a few thousand, Bro.”
I’d seen both Pop and Moms cracked out when I was little, before Moms left his sorry ass and sobered up. Pop was usually pretty funny when he hit his peak, all toked up, like a one man show of the Three Stooges, running around our apartment into walls, talking in funny voices– anything to make me laugh. Moms could be a fiend though. I watched Pop give her a pimp-strong backhand and call her crack-head this one time when he caught her tripping out on his supply. Her eyeballs were all rolled back whiteness in her head, eyelids fluttering, face like a constant curl of riptides. “We can’t make any money if we don’t have nothing to sell,” he’d screamed, “And we don’t have nothing to sell if you’re using all of it, bitch.” I think now, he’d just been more pissed that she hadn’t waited on him to indulge. The other names he called her were mostly as un-creative as crack-head. I once asked him what cunt meant when I was six or seven, and he kneeled down, pointed to Moms in the kitchen, had me repeat the word and point with him. Pop’s laugh was contagious.
Moms sobered up by the time I was in seventh grade, and Pop gave her nothing but shit for it. We hit the road shortly after and settled in the spot off Magnolia where Tookie had picked me up. It was only a short car ride back to Montgomery Village, but it was far enough away that me and Moms had felt like we were starting fresh. But the zip in my pocket then was like a weird kind of compass, and Tookie was driving us closer to the Ville, the junkyard where Moms and I had tried to toss for good our old memories and habits and names.
“He’d probably cut you in if you wanted, man,” Tookie said. “Those rich crackers spending their parents’ money at your school. You’d probly make double what I see in a week.” He laughed baring all of his crooked pearly teeth. His bottom left incisor was capped in silver, and it flashed in the passing streetlights as he spoke.
We pulled into the Ville and drove up Daylily, then parked between a blue dumpster and a Tahoe with a flat tire. There it was: my old building. We got out, and I walked up to the door, unit 2A, and memories and old routines hacked back into my brain. Tookie brushed in front of me and pulled out his keys, opened the door like he lived there. “Yo! Pop, we got a guest! Anybody here?” he called as we stepped inside. “Take your shoes off, Bro. This ain’t a barn.”
Everything was a little nicer than I’d remembered. No clunky TV or rabbit-eared antenna, but instead, a mounted flat screen that took up most of the far living room wall. Too nice– almost awkward considering where we were, like a Bentley parked at a pawn shop. Leather couch. Leather recliner. Ash tray on the coffee table. Menthols and joint roaches jammed into the heap of ashes and poked upwards like dead flowers. The kitchen all immaculate clean, like Pop had hired a maid or some shit. Somebody’d painted the place, too. The walls weren’t grungy white, or “accidental beige” as Moms called it—not anymore. They were a warm, nonjudgmental, neutral eggshell white. There was even a coatrack beside the door. Tookie hung up his jacket and took a seat on the couch. The old place now looked like the projects’ Presidential suite. Smelled like it, too. I took off my shoes and walked to the TV in awe. So. Many. Pixels. A Blu-ray player underneath the screen sat on a new wooden entertainment center, looking like a damn display at Best Buy. Not VHS, not even DVD– but motherfucking Blu-Ray. No wires showing either. A door squeaked open down the hall, and I peeked around the corner. Then his voice.
“My boys,” Pop said, tucking in his shirt as he walked into the living room. He’d shaved off his beard, combed his hair. Pop didn’t look high, but it’d been a couple of years, and with professional junkies you can’t ever be too certain. When you get used to seeing somebody totally loaded all the time, it’s way weirder to see them sober. Your perception of fucked up gets all fucked up. “Goddamn, son. How you doing, Griggy? Feels like I hadn’t seen you in forever,” and he wrapped his arms around me. He’d gained some weight, must’ve been eating decent. Pop smelled like bubble gum shampoo, ladybugs in the summer time, perfume and sweat and smoke. The whole thing stunk.
“You should’ve seen your boy bum-soaking tonight.” Tookie smiled and started rolling a joint on the coffee table.
“Oh yeah? Shit, we used to do that all the time,” Pop said. “I had a arm like Peyton Manning. Come sit down with me, Grigs. How you holding up? How’s your Momma?” He flipped on the TV. “Damn you’re getting tall, boy. You dunking yet?”
I nodded dumbly– didn’t recognize the man. I liked him better when he was strung out, and I felt like a ghost haunting the wrong graveyard.
“Have a seat Grigs,” Pop said again, collapsing beside Tookie on the couch and patting the spot next to him.
“I’m okay. Been sitting too long anyway,” I said, still standing there like an oaf. I stared at the TV. Sports Center reruns. Round burn holes blotched the green carpet. The small round scar on my forearm felt hot. Reruns and reruns. “I gotta dip out, Tookie,” I blurted out, “Good to see you, Pop. Holler at me.”
And as I was putting my shoes back on, Pop came between me and the door. “Griggy, I dunno what you think this is. I just wanted to see my boy.”
“And maybe get me to sell for you again?”
Pop looked at Tookie who shrugged from the couch and sparked the L he’d just rolled. Then Pop said, “Only if you want, son. We’re selling good these days, making decent coin, and I’m happy to let you in on our business venture if you’re so inclined. We’d be like entrepreneurs,” and I saw Tookie wink from the couch. “But I don’t care, Grigs. I just wanted to spend time with my boy tonight. What’s it been—two years?”
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“Reminds me,” Pop said, hustling back to his room, calling over his shoulder, “I got your birthday presents, but your Momma wouldn’t let me give them to you, so I been saving them.” He came out with a new Xbox. “I’m shit at wrapping presents. But I got this for you, and a few games.”
I sat down and stared at the box. “Thanks, Pop,” I said. I wanted to hug him, but the devils and angels on my shoulders from before were bickering again, and my loyalty was being split in half. I knew Pop was a snake, but I also thought people could change. Moms did, right?
“Wanna hook it up?” Pop asked, waving an NFL game in front of me.
“Please, God, Grigs,” Tookie said, “Let’s do it. I’ll whoop both your asses.”
We hooked up the system and played for like, two hours. I hit the joints that were passed around, and I honestly forgot I was supposed to hate this place that I was supposed to have forgotten. It’s hard to hate anything that you’re invited into so selflessly, so intentionally and lovingly, and it’s unnatural to hate home, anyway. For old time’s sake, I remembered Tookie say. I’d been ambushed with, what, love? It’s hard to hate family, even when you know hate is all they deserve sometimes. And it can be hard to love them for the same reasons. A knock on the door, and Tookie paused our game.
“Keep playing,” Pop told us, getting up to answer.
“We’re all out,” I heard a woman’s voice softly say from the hallway outside.
“Oh, come on in, Renee,” Pop said and unchained the door.
She stepped inside, and she was beautiful, God-blessed beautiful– more so than I remembered. Her braids were long, halfway down her back with red and fuchsia strands in the weave. She’d always been darker than Tookie, and I’d always wondered what color a mix of our skins would create. She was a little taller since I’d seen her last, and her jaw seemed squarer, more filled out like the bones around her mouth had grown thicker and pulled her lips into a resting, pouty frown. What wonderful words she must be capable of, I thought. Her eyes were still the brightest brown, the kind redbones everywhere would kill to have, or drop cash on color lenses to fake. Her frame was still skinny, though her breasts were like swollen anthills on her chest. Her belly protruded outwards in an innocuous bump. I’d seen that bump before, and I winced and looked away. That was the knocked-up bump, the don’t-ask-any-fucking-questions bump. Was it anger, jealousy that surged through me, or was it those green devils telling me to be jealous, whispering from my shoulder and dancing around my head?
“You remember Renee, right, Griggy?” Pop asked flippantly, reaching for something in his pantry in the kitchen. As I stared up at her, Tookie completed a touchdown pass on our game. I didn’t care.
“Yeah. Hey, Renee. Those microbes?” I pointed at her hair.
“Oh– Hey, Grigs. Look at you, all grown. Yeah, they are,” and she smiled something beautiful and fingered her braids. Pop returned. She took the baking soda and whispered something in his ear.
“How’s Granny?” I asked.
“Good. You should come visit sometime. You driving yet?”
“One more year–” I started, but she was already waving goodbye, closing the door, winking through the crack. She vanished as quick as she arrived. I remembered Tookie’s story about her getting jumped, getting raped by some bum. I wondered if there was any truth behind his story, or if she had just become subject to the way of the Ville: babies having babies. After all, Granny was barely fifty, and she was apparently about to be Great Granny. Shit, and she was old compared to some of the other grannies in the neighborhood. That was the role of females, especially the attractive ones, in the Ville. They were the livelihood of the ghetto, the beautiful beating pulses of the projects and all its offspring. Those who produced the forefathers of our concrete constitution.
It was midnight, and my eyes were heavy, my fingers slow on the controller’s triggers. I was losing. “Grigs, I’m gonna give you a ride back to your place,” Pop said, putting out a menthol.“Uh, but–”
“Don’t worry about it. I insist. Y’all still live on Magnolia, right?” He stood up and took a black overcoat from the rack.
Ha-ha, the coatrack, I thought, ha-ha: What is this, Downton fucking Abbey? I laughed in slow motion, said, “Y’all fancy, now, huh? Biscuits and tea, hmm?” in a terrible British accent. Tookie laughed. The first noise he’d made in over an hour, or was it two hours, or thirty minutes? We were zombie stoned.
“Grigs—y’all still off Magnolia, in that dump?” Pop repeated. I disliked the way he emphasized dump.
But I nodded, though I didn’t know how he knew where me and Moms lived. Probably how Tookie knew how to get there in the first place, or even knew what number to call. Tookie tossed Pop the Buick keys. I stood up wobblier than I expected, folded over and pushed my top half back up from the coffee table to rebalance, knocking over the ash tray in the process. “Boooo,” Tookie jeered without looking up from the game.
“Come on, Grigs,” Pop said. I followed him outside.
“Later, Tookie,” I called. He threw up two fingers from the couch, and I closed the door.
It started to rain, and by the time I realized I was in the hallway, Pop was starting up the Buick in the parking lot. I walked over and knocked on the door across the hallway. Renee peeked out. “What’s up, Grigs?”
“It was good to see you, you know?” I said, trying to lean against the doorframe all James Dean and LL Cool J.
“You should come around more,” she said, opening up the door so I could see her more fully. Her nipples were hard through her wife-beater, and I tried to look everywhere but her chest. She smiled, all bleachy teeth and muddy gums. “Y’all got pretty geeked tonight, huh?”
“Naw, I don’t do that no more, Renee. I’m a real athlete now, can’t afford it—this body’s a finely tuned machine.”
She laughed. “Maybe I’ll come catch a game soon?”
“You so should. I’m starting.”
“No. Just dressing out. Varsity though.”
“Ok, superstar. I’ll come check you out.”
“Same,” I said, eyes half-open.
She stepped outside and kissed me on my cheek. Her belly brushed up against me. “Night, Griggy.”
Pop honked the horn and flashed the headlights. I looked over and motioned one minute, but Renee had already stepped back inside and shut the door.
I hadn’t been alone with Pop in like, over two years, and I was very well-aware that my fondest memories were of him all cracked out and doped up, though this night was different. This guy sitting in the driver seat next to me was like an inaccurate but charming clone, maybe a better version of the dude I remembered, though maybe not him at all. I wondered what Moms would think. I wondered what I’d actually think if I wasn’t all baked like sugar cookies. My cheek still felt hot from Renee’s lips.
“Damn it,” Pop burst out suddenly, and I was roused from my passenger seat trance.
“What is it?” I asked.
“We left your Xbox.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I hid my disappointment.
“I’ll get it to you next time.” He looked over at me, his eyes reflecting the neon city lights, his toothiness reminding me of the purple cat in Alice in Wonderland. “Moms dunno where you are, does she?” And I couldn’t tell if he was asking a question or stating a fact.
“Naw, she was working when Tookie picked me up.”
Pop sighed a weighty staleness, like an ancient burden was seeping out of him. I rubbed my eyes and put my hood up, and Pop turned onto Maple. The Bridge in sight.
“I wanna get us out of here, Grigs,” he said. “We wasn’t meant for the Ville. Your Moms is a queen, and you’re gonna be a damn superstar. I wanna get us outta here.”
I didn’t know what my old man was riffing about, but I responded somewhat defensively, out of instinct and involuntarily: “We already got out, Pop. It’s just you.”
When we passed under the Bridge, I was higher than I’d been since probably ever. I remembered the dude’s face from earlier when I soaked him with the water, the defeat and bewilderment in his eyes when he hit his knees. I searched for him out the window as we passed by the shelter, but saw nobody through the rain. A flash of lightning lit up silhouettes of tents and people in the distance under the Bridge.
“That’s where the bums sleep when it gets bad outside,” Pop said. “See all those tents back in that gravel lot?” And he slowed down, pointing out his window.
What instead caught my attention was a moccasin in the Buick’s head beams in the middle of the road. Pops didn’t notice, and we drove over the shoe. I closed my eyes.
“I could’ve been one of them, Grigs. I was born homeless. Worked my way up to where I am now. I know that ain’t a lot compared to like, Clint Eastwood or Dr. Dre, or whatever, but I put my work in, and I got a roof and a family.”
“You made us feel homeless,” I said—I thought I’d just thought it, but I actually said it.
“It’s home when we’re together.”
I dozed off for a second.
“Tookie tell you about Renee?” he asked.
“No.” I shook my head, trying to count the rain pellets that nailed the windshield.
“She’s gonna have a little boy. You’re pretty much gonna be like a new brother. Or a uncle.”
“Wow,” I said, envisioning Renee sweeping her fingers through her braids. God-bless. “Who’s the daddy?”
“Some dipshit fuck-boy. She’ll be fine, though.”
“Where is he?”
“He won’t be around anytime soon.”
“Oh. Who’s gonna pay–”
“Me and Tookie are gonna make sure she’s all right. Already have. Granny helps a little, too. That’s what we do. We take care of family, son. Right? And listen, if you ever need some money…”
“I’ll call you,” I said. I was tired and scared Moms was sitting up, waiting on my ass. All I could think was that I’d be a good daddy.
Pop turned down Magnolia and parked on the street by my building, mine and Moms’ apartment on the second floor facing the road. I looked up for any signs of Moms, but the apartment window was dark, empty. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sure proud of you, boy.” Those couldn’t have been tears in his eyes. Weed made everyone’s peepers leaky, right?
“Thanks, Pop,” I said and climbed out, water sliding off my hood.
Pop hollered when I was about halfway across the parking lot, and I turned around, gazing into the Buick’s impenetrable black windows with a shielding hand over my eyes; and in the night shadows and dimly lit street, it was impossible to see him through the tint as he yelled: “I’m gonna make it to your next game, Grigs! Give ‘em hell!”
I waved, and Pop sped away. I don’t remember exactly what my thoughts were then, but I do remember a vague feeling as I trudged through the downpour. Like a scab on my brain had been peeled back and exposed a deep hole I’d tried to cover up over the last couple years, a fresh saltiness marinating the wound.
Dodging black puddles on the asphalt, I quickened my step and stuffed my hands into my jacket pockets. My fingers rustled against plastic. It was the Ziploc baggie Tookie had shown me earlier. I’d forgotten all about it. As I passed the dumpster, I opened its lid and removed the bag from my jacket, dangled it over the trash. A few thousand, I remembered Tookie saying. With that kinda cash, me and Moms could pay rent for the next three months without busting a sweat, and Moms could come watch me play. We could go to a sit-down restaurant, and I could actually order whatever I wanted, appetizers and everything. Moms could even get a new car, or shit, I could get a car. I could get Renee out of the Ville. She could come stay with us, and we could play house. So I thought: Wait, hold on to it—You can give it back to Pop at the game. Talk to him about it. Maybe just sell this one. I stuffed the zip back into my pocket and climbed the metal stairs, then opened the door to an empty, quiet apartment. I stalked through the dark to my room and shoved the zip in my backpack, then collapsed onto my bed, fully clothed and soaking wet. A heavy sleep came over me. I dreamt of water and concrete and the Bridge and roads that weaved in and out of each other like black braids, all leading to nowhere.
I kept that Ziploc baggie in my Jansport that entire season and searched the bleachers every game. There were a few times I thought I saw Pop cheering in the crowd, and other times I could’ve sworn I saw the bum in his moccasins staring at me among the fans, talking to himself, mumbling something I couldn’t make out. I saw brown eyes, and I saw newborn babies, but I never saw Renee. The stands were only ever full of strangers, all faceless and nameless bodies shrouded in static cheers and boos and grunts and whistles. The Ziploc bag grew heavy, wearisome over those months. I got used to seeing it beside my ball gear down at the bottom of my backpack, or next to my school books and notepads. It sat there lifeless, like a dead baby I couldn’t bury, and I felt like an amputee carrying around a severed limb. A few grand began to seem less and less enough to change my life, or anyone’s life for that matter—least not the folks I knew. They’d dug pits too deep, submerged themselves wholly in riptide currents, been drowning so long they forgot they were drowning. The Ville had sucked them under until they learned to breathe all its empty promises.
The clock ran out, and the horn echoed throughout the gym at the end of the fourth quarter. We’d lost, but I didn’t care. I had scored nine points. Two threes and an and-one play.
In the locker room after our last game of the season, I waited until everyone was gone—the coaches, the team, the fans, the shadows. Then I emptied the zip’s contents into the toilet and flushed. Watched the crack rocks spin around in the bowl and dissolve, along with the memory of the Ville and Pop and Tookie and the shirtless boy I’d once been, running around barefoot and sunburnt, dribbling a half-flat ball through the streets and daydreaming about Renee and all the good things life had in store for each of us. They all swirled and collided with one another in the water, and by the time I left the gym, they had disappeared altogether.