Rats In The Trees by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission (aka STOLEN PROPERTY) and in violation of copyright law.
Rats In The Trees was my first book, written in 1989 and published by John Daniel & Company in 1990. It's a collection of interrelated stories about street kids in Oakland, California, though mostly about Robby, a 13-year-old boy from Fresno, California who runs away from an abusive foster home. Robby arrives in Oakland on a Greyhound bus, then, lost and alone in the city, he's befriended by a "gang" of 12 and 13-year-olds who call themselves The Animals.
The stories were originally "told stories" in what some might call the oral tradition for kids at a West Oakland youth center where I worked at the time, and when I began to write them down I tried keep that flavor.
While never intended as a documentary, the stories portray the conditions for many inner city kids during the late 1980's after "Reaganomics" and the beginning of George H. W. Bush's "kinder, gentler nation"... which was when crack-cocaine was starting to flood into poor black neighborhoods, as if designed to bring down the people, and especially to destroy kids.
The times of happy black music of the late 1970s and early '80s were ending. So was the striving for social-awareness and brotherhood which had bonded and strengthened black people during the 1960s and '70s. The break-dance era was over, and the brutal years of gangstuh rap, of hopeless despair and self-hatred fostering black-on-black crime, were beginning as if in retaliation for that brief interlude of relative peace.
Robby and The Animals were old enough to remember the days when African-Americans seemed united in a common cause for freedom, justice and empowerment; and like most black kids at the time they knew they were losing something, even if they might not have been able to give it a name.
Sadly, all the predictions made in Rats have come true, the ever-increasing dominance of guns, gangs, drugs and violence in U.S. inner cities, kids killing kids, and the shameful decline in the quality of public education. These days society is more concerned with shrinking kids' waistlines than expanding their minds.
It was also predicted in Rats that these things would move into white suburbia... as Chuck (a character in Rats) said: "Coming soon to a neighborhood near YOU!"
How many school shootings and massacres have there been since 1989?
Of course, much of the language and many expressions, as well as some attitudes toward certain types of people, have changed since then, or are at least masked by political-correctness -- except for anyone perceived as "obese," who are now societally-sanctioned targets for hate, discrimination and ridicule -- but judge for yourself if the U.S. has gotten kinder, gentler or any more enlightened since 1989.
Rats In The Trees received a PEN Josephine Miles Award in 1990, and was published in the U.K., Germany and Japan. It was also reprinted by Viking in the U.S.
The stories were originally "stand-alone" stories, and several, such as One Way and The Ship, were published on their own. In this edition I have done some editing where there were repetitive descriptions of characters and settings. The Kindle Special Edition also includes an extra story and additional material not available in print editions.
Jess Mowry - 2011
Rats In The Trees
This edition is dedicated to Donny
Welcome To Oakland
Robby pressed his nose to hot glass and watched the other bus pull away. He still might have made it, grabbing the paper bag and his board beside him on the seat, but it didn't seem worth the hassle. Fuck it. He was tired. He slumped back with a sigh, tears burning his eyes. He fought them, sight blurring as he looked down the Greyhound's empty length to a big black number above the windshield.
Wrong bus, retard! he thought. No wonder he'd sat here for half an hour and nobody else had gotten on.
His stomach felt tight with that scared feeling he remembered from when he'd tried to skate down a bridge shoulder. He'd lost it halfway, ending up a bloody mess in broken glass and gravel below, but hadn't cried then. For sure he'd wanted to, but Jeffers, Tad, and Ryan were there.
He dug in a pocket for his ticket... FRESNO, CA to SAN FRANCISCO, CA. Outside, faded white letters on green cinder block said, WELCOME TO OAKLAND. It was hot in the empty bus, and strangely quiet after hearing the engine drone all those hours. He listened as other busses came and went and people talked and laughed. There were a few kid- voices, happy with someone to take them home.
Sweat trickled from Robby's hair, and his black Steadham T-shirt stuck to his chest. He pulled up his legs and huddled in the seat. Jeffers kept ragging him that his hair looked like an old-fashioned Afro, but Robby liked it that way. Thinking of Jeffers brought that crying feeling again, but he held it back and hugged his knees. There was no time for kid shit now.
He shoved the ticket into his pocket, checking that the sweat-wet five-dollar bill was still there, and forced himself to think. Jeez, turd-brain, he told himself, there had to be a zillion busses going to San Francisco. So he'd missed this one? Big fuckin' deal. Nothing to get all sad-face about. People missed busses all the time, and nobody cried about it.
He glanced out the window again. What the did it matter anyway? Wasn't like he had to be somewhere on time anymore. He could do what he fuckin' well wanted.
Robby considered that. It was a strange feeling. A little lonely too.
Jeez, it was hot! He'd thought wherever they had ocean was going to be cool. This was even worse than Fresno, with the diesel smoke, hot oil stink, and a strange stickiness in the air that made it hard to breathe. Dudes here probably skated in nothing but jean-shorts or baggies... deadly on knees. Or maybe they all surfed?
He pictured a bunch of surf kids, blond, blue-eyed, and tanned. On TV there would always be one black kid with any group of whiteys, even if it didn't seem to happen in real life. Then he frowned. Dudes here would say different stuff... maybe hot for cool and awesome for hot A few wrong words and no one would like him, even if he could shred to the max. He picked up his board, a killer Steve Steadham with Indy 169 trucks, black Bullet wheels, and scarred Saber Tooth ribs. Definitely not a poser plank.
He looked out the window again and wondered how far San Francisco was. At least you could feel like somebody on a bus, like you had a life and were going somewhere... and had someone waiting for you. But Jeffers had said he thought there was an ocean in Oakland, too. What difference did it make? An ocean was an ocean. It was four in the afternoon, hotter than hell, and he was tired and hungry. He snagged his stuff and walked up the aisle.
A bus driver was walking past as Robby reached the door, a black dude who had his gray jacket slung over his shoulder like a cool kid.
"Um?" said Robby.
The driver stopped. He looked tired and hot, and maybe hungry. "Yeah?"
"Um, I think I missed the San Francisco bus."
The driver gave Robby a scan... sweaty clothes he'd slept in, ragged jeans with one knee ripped, T-shirt too big, and worn-out Pumas. There was the usual brown paper bag, falling apart, and his best possession, the skateboard. The kid might as well have been wearing a sign. The driver sighed. He'd seen all these kids before and mostly wished he hadn't. It didn't matter what color they were, and they got younger every year. Something was wrong in this country and getting wronger all the time. But the driver had kids, and one had a board. This boy was sort of chubby and cute, but there was hardness in those big brown eyes..
"Let's see your ticket, son."
The driver checked it, then handed it back. Another day in that sweaty pocket and nobody would be able to read it. "There's another bus in about an hour. Check at the counter inside." The driver hesitated a moment, but what the hell else could he do? "An' be careful with that ticket or they'll run you out of here." He walked away.
Robby pushed open the station doors, getting pushed by people behind him who'd just arrived on another bus. He carried his skateboard under one arm and the paper bag in a hand. At least the air was cooler inside, though reeking of city and diesel smoke. He smelled cheeseburgers from the cafe and his empty stomach growled, but five and change wouldn't go far. He looked down at his roll of belly chub peeking from under his sweaty shirt and wobbling as he walked: maybe he could live off his fat awhile like bears on Wild Kingdom?
He spotted a whole cigarette on the floor and snagged it fast before somebody else did. Matches were always a prob to score when you were thirteen and looked eleven; but he'd boosted a Bic from a Quick-Mart and it was still almost full.
He got out of the way of the pushy people and walked to a black plastic TV chair, just like the ones in Fresno. He slid behind the little screen, slipped the cigarette between his lips and scowled at his button-nosed face in the glass. He looked like a panther cub trying to snarl. His shirt was too small and its sleeves had shrunk, baring his arms almost up to the shoulders, but he didn't have any muscle to show and his chest was bobby and soft. A rag was tied around one upper arm, about where a bicep should have been, its grimy whiteness showing stark against his midnight skin.
He brushed back his hair, then pulled the lighter out of his pocket. He wondered if they had The Thundercats here, but it wasn't worth risking a quarter. The cigarette was a pussy light, so he broke off the filter before lighting up. The smoke eased his hunger a little, but that cleaning shit they used on the floor was giving him a headache.
A security guard materialized as if beaming down from a Klingon ship. He was bored and white in a brown uniform that might have come from the Salvation Army.
"Got a ticket... boy?"
Robby pulled it out, and the man examined it carefully as if it was Robby's license to live.
"One way," he said as if scoring a point. He jerked a thumb at a clock on the wall. "Next bus leaves at seven-twenty. I'd hate to see you miss it. ...And put in a quarter or sit somewhere else."
Wannabe pig! came to Robby's mind, but it didn't seem worth the hassle to say it. Besides, he needed to piss. He took a long hit off the cigarette and blew out a smart-ass cloud of smoke. Then he slipped from the chair and walked THE walk to the bathroom while letting his jeans slip low on his butt. He wasn't wearing shorts so the meaning should have been clear.
A tall skinny black kid stood by the door. "Blunts," he murmured expectantly, as if knowing what Robby's problem was.
"Just say no to drugs," said Robby. "Even if they don't listen."
That got him a "bitch" and a shove; but he only smiled, hearing the cop-shoes coming over, squeaking their way across the floor.
"Get out!" growled the guard to the boy, finally performing a useful function.
"Later," the kid replied, while giving Robby a glare.
The bathroom was all shiny tile under ugly pink fluorescent lights. It smelled like piss and pine disinfectant, both of which burned Robby's eyes. An old white guy, maybe forty, was leaning against the line of sinks. He offered Robby a too-friendly smile just like his twin back in Fresno.
Perv! thought Robby. He saw the long trough and the man watching him. He hated those things, out in the open and always too high. How could anyone take a piss trying to stand on their toes? Naturally, all the stalls wanted money, except the one with somebody in it. It was stupid to pay a dime to piss: he should have used the one on the bus; he had to start thinking of stuff like that. But at least he could lock the door.
He fed the box a dime and went in. His jeans were only halfway buttoned, giving his belly the freedom to hang, and he slid them off his hips without unbuttoning any more. He made a lot of water-noise for no particular reason, then flipped his cigarette into the toilet and used his foot to flush it. Then he lay his skateboard across the seat and sat down in his ten cents of personal space.
Should he go on to San Francisco? How long would that take? It would probably be dark when he got there -- too late to see the ocean -- and without a ticket they’d run him out if he tried to sleep in the station. He'd slept on the street a few times, when his parents were fighting or when he was drunk. He could always find a place.
Somebody tapped on the door. "Hi, little guy, are you busy in there?"
Robby looked down, seeing a pair of ugly Adidas showing under the door. He'd never let anyone touch him before, but Jeffers had, in Rotting Park, and had gotten twenty dollars. He'd said it was creepy, though not really bad, but to get the money first.
Robby considered; a Jackson would be cool, and he could buy a cheeseburger. "Yeah," he said, wondering what he'd have to do -- touch or be touched -- and deciding the second was better. Then he had an inspiration: "You can watch for twenty."
The perv sounded like he had hurt feelings. "Hey, little guy, I think you're cute."
Robby yelled in sudden fury, "I ain't cute, you dog-suckin' bitch!"
The ugly white shoes didn't move.
"Stick your head under that door," added Robby, "an' I bust it with my board!"
The shoes went away.
The evening air was still hot as Robby came out on the sidewalk. His ticket was good for tomorrow, and he'd decided to stay here tonight. It was best to find a crib before dark, and there might be an ocean in Oakland.
A black kid rolled by on a thrashed old Hawk. He and Robby ignored each other but checked-out planks as he passed. Robby's was cooler and both of them knew it. The kid wore urban camouflage pants, which rode even lower than Robby's jeans, and his T-shirt was tied around his head like a Foreign Legion hat in a movie. Robby took off his own shirt to clone the local style. His jeans didn't need adjusting, and another half-inch would have gotten him busted.
The skinny dude was on the corner trying to sell to passing cars -- a pretty retarded thing to do -- which showed how desperate he was from getting high on his own supply. Robby rolled the other way; it didn't seem to matter, but he thought of the ocean again. Jeffers said you could sleep on a beach.
His wheels clicked cracks and the blocks rolled by. The sidewalks were crowded at first, and he was too busy dodging people to pay much attention where he was going. The concrete here was old and rough. The curbs were different too, and some had iron bands in them, though Robby didn't know why, but there was a lot of skateboard paint where other kids had blown their ollies.
The sun grew orange in distant fog as it slowly sank in the sky. The air began to get cooler, and Robby stopped sweating so much. Though he'd been chubby all his life, he hadn't been able to skate for a month -- locked in for having a 'tude -- and had put on a little more weight. The food hadn't been very good, but there hadn't been anything else to do, and by stuffing himself he could sleep.
He passed another boy on a board, a little black dude on a Punk Size who was also shirtless in low-riding jeans. The kid studied Robby as he rolled by, then smiled and flashed two fingers of peace. There was still some brotherhood left in the world.
There were lots of little storefront cafes, and the smells of food were a torture. Robby tailed in front of a diner and thought about buying a burger, but saw a cigarette under a bus bench and picked it up instead. He fired the smoke as he rolled along, but it didn't ease his hunger, and buzzed his head a little. He pinched it out halfway, and dropped it into his bag for later.
The streets were getting deserted now; that quiet time between day and dark when working people were home and night hunting things were just waking up. Shadows were stretching long and thin, alleys were turning to dangerous canyons, and doorways becoming threatening caves. Robby rolled a few more blocks, then came to a stop and scoped around. The buildings were old and crumbling brick, the color of rust in the fading light. There were no more stores or restaurants, only a little corner market with massive bars on grimy windows blinded by ads for beer and malt. The other buildings were industrial shops, closed for the night and massively shuttered. The sidewalk was littered with trash, and a man lay drunk or dead in a doorway. It was all so ugy, dirty and sad... and stupid because it made Robby homesick.
But then he smelled the ocean! He'd never smelled it before in his life, but he knew what it was anyway. He lifted his face and took a deep breath, then rolled in that new direction.
Battered trucks and shabby cars were parked here and there at the curbs. Windows of buildings were heavily barred or covered with plywood and planks. He looked at the spray-painted tags on the walls; some were familiar but most were strange, and a lot of the meanings were different than Fresno... the same words and signs but arranged different ways.
He jumped a gutter, crossed a street, and slapped his board against the curb, tired and blowing his ollie. A cartoon tag of many colors faced him from a corner wall, cute but also menacing... a territory mark for sure. It was old, but no one had fucked with it. Whatever that saber-tooth tiger-dog stood for, it rated a ten in respect.
He scanned around and felt uncertain: to go on would be trespassing. Of course, everywhere was somebody’s ground, but this was marked and personal. But the sea smell was strong and beckoned him on. He rounded a corner and there it was! He tailed his board and stared. Tears filled his eyes but he fought them back.
There was no surf. The water lay silent and darkly sullen. There was no beach, only greasy black mud, rotted wharf pilings and slimy rocks. Dim and gray in the thickening fog was a ramshackle wharf that was half-collapsed and a big old warehouse with broken windows.
He walked to a rusty chain-link fence where a weathered sign warned, DANGER KEEP OUT, but that kind of warning meant nothing. The mesh was peeled away from a post, and he crawled underneath to go out on the wharf. The planks were rotten and missing in places, and weeds grew tall in the cracks. He walked to the end and sat down, dangling his legs and looking between them at oily water where garbage floated. A mossy old tire drifted past. He pulled the cigarette out of his bag. Tears welled up in his eyes again, but he told himself it was only the smoke.
He should have known it would be like this! The ocean was just as worn-out and trashed as everything else in the whole shitty world! Things were no different anywhere, and if there were white sandy beaches for real, it would be like a mall with security guards to keep out kids like him. This was all the ocean he was going to get!
The sun had set somewhere in the fog, but a blood-red gash like an open wound still lingered in the western sky. Robby sat alone in the dark. He smoked until the butt burned his fingers, then let it drop into the water. Its hiss was small as it died. The thickening mist was wet and cold, and he put his shirt back on. He wished he had a forty so he could drink until he passed out. Then he pulled up his knees, lay his face against them, and cried for some retarded reason.
A wharf plank creaked in the darkness, but Robby didn't look around. What the fuck did it matter? Maybe it was the Tiger-Dogs, but he didn't give a shit. Let them beat him up. Maybe they'd even kill him. And maybe that would be good: there was nowhere to go from here.
That was funny, even now. Robby turned around to see the fattest kid in the world! For a second he could only stare. The boy didn't look any older than him, but must have weighed at least four-hundred pounds. His T-shirt was almost as black as he was, and clung to the water-balloons of his chest as if it was spray-painted on. His belly was completely bare and hung almost down to his knees, His belly button could have swallowed an orange, and he seemed to cover more of his jeans than they could cover him. "You ain't Whitey," said the kid.
"Or duh!" said Robby. Even as awesomely fat as he was, the dude might be able to kick his ass -- a lot of fat kids were really strong -- but he'd have to catch Robby first. Then Robby saw the dude had a board, a home-made plank that was a plank -- maybe once part of a fence -- and had six wheels like a garbage truck on triple Indy 169s.
The dude smiled a little as if at a joke. "You ain't from here."
"No shit," said Robby.
"So, where?" asked the kid.
"So, nothin'!" said Robby, trying to snarl. "I'm Panthro from Third-Earth, dude!"
The fat kid only smiled again, and that bothered Robby a little. Nobody smiled when you dissed them... unless they knew something you didn't.
"I like The Thundercats too," said the kid. "But, you startin' to sound like Mum-Ra to me. Wanna get put on your back?"
"By you?" snorted Robby. "I doubt!"
The fat kid grinned with big white teeth. "You be in Animal Land, boy. Lion-o ain't gonna save your ass here."
The dude had a point, but Robby didn't care. "Who you callin' boy... boy?"
The fat kid moved a lot faster than it looked like he could, snagging Robby's ride.
Robby jumped up, clenching his fists, but the dude was only checking the board. Robby wasn't sure what to do; the boy wasn’t any taller than him, but how could you fight a kid that fat? Like, what could you hit that would hurt him? His belly and middle were so big around it would be hard to swing at his face. And anywhere else would only bounce off. Besides, he had that massive plank.
"Cool," said the fat boy. "Whitey gots the same deck. Like, a parallel universe." He checked the downside and pointed to a sticker. "Skully Brothers. I seen their ad in Transworld. They in... um..."
"Fresno," said Robby, unclenching his fists.
"Yeah." The kid handed back the board, and Robby studied him. The dude looked almost too fat to walk,
The boy seemed to guess Robby's thoughts. "It's easier to ride, but I don't ollie much."
"Guess not," said Robby. "Bein' so... big."
The fat kid laughed and slapped his belly, which wobbled in waves like an earthquake in Jell-O. "Just say fat, it save you time."
"Yeah," said Robby. "Guess it does."
The boy scanned Robby. "You sure look like Whitey."
"The fuck could I look like a whitey?"
"Whitey's black, an' kinda cute."
"I ain't cute, goddammit!"
The fat kid only laughed again. "Now you even sound like Whitey."
"Hey, I'm older than you think!"
"I think you 'bout thirteen," said the dude. "But you startin' to sound like three."
"...Oh." said Robby. "...Well... why's he called whitey if he’s black?"
"'Cause. ...An', what's the rag on your arm for?"
"If them be somebody's colors, you better lose 'em yesterday."
Robby thought for a moment. There was a door on the side of the warehouse, and the other -- Animals? -- were probably in there. For sure he was going to get his ass kicked as soon as they got bored.
"They nobody's colors," he finally sighed. "I cut my arm yesterday. I'm Robby. Carve that on my stone. Can I have a smoke before I die?"
"Want a blindfold, too?" The fat kid gave him another smile, then pulled a pack of Kools from a pocket. He carefully straightened two cigarettes and handed one to Robby. "Got a match? ...An' if you say, 'not since Superman died,’ I throw your ass in the water."
"I can swim," said Robby, pulling his Bic.
"You ain't supposed to eat fish from that water no more than two times a month. Think about it, man."
"Yuk!" said Robby as he fired the fat kid's cigarette.
"I'm Donny," said the dude. "Randers could give you a dirt-nap if you really lookin' for one. But he probably just do you best moves for keeps an' score himself your board."
Robby didn't say anything; he'd lost another plank that way. He took a big hit off the Kool, then checked the warehouse doorway as Donny sat down on the edge of the wharf. Finally Robby joined him. They sat for a while in silence, smoking and spitting in the water. Robby's empty stomach rumbled.
"Sound like a lion," said Donny.
Donny chuckled. "Oughta hear mine when it's hungry. So, where's Fresno, man?"
"A long ways from here, that’s all I know."
"How'd you get here?"
"On a bus."
"I ran away. From nothin'." Robby blew smoke and spit in the water. "An' ended up in nowhere."
Donny blew a perfect smoke ring. "Even a nowhere be somebody's somewhere."
"...Yeah. Guess it is. Sorry, man."
Donny shrugged. "Kevin don't gots a home no more. Not since his mom caught the crack express. He stay at my crib sometimes. Or with the other dudes."
"It's good when you got friends," said Robby.
"You got friends, then nowhere be somewhere wherever you are."
"Is that tiger-dog your mark? For the Animals?"
"Yeah," said Donny. "I do 'em."
Robby glanced at the doorway again. He knew better than to ask how many Animals there were... or where they were.
"So, where you cribbin' tonight?" asked Donny.
Robby shrugged. "Nowhere."
Donny stretched, his shirt riding up so it looked like a bra. "I’ll take you somewhere. ...An' I'm alone."
"Oh. Ain't you scared?"
"Of you? I doubt."
"How you know I ain't packin'?"
"Gimmie a fuckin' break."
"It 'cause I cute, huh?" demanded Robby.
"No, it 'cause you can't lie worth shit. Besides..." Again, Donny made a move, and Robby was suddenly facing a gun, its muzzle an inch from his nose.
"...Oh," said Robby. "That’s a ol' 45, like an Army gun."
"Robby wins a cigar."
"Can I see it?"
"You’re seein’ it now."
Donny gave Robby the gun. "Be careful, the safety don't work."
Robby checked it, then gave it back, and Donny flipped his cigarette away. “You hungry, man?"
"Like twenty tigers."
"C'mon, then,” said Donny. “Can’t leave you out here in nowhere. Weasel is cool... might check you out before doin’ damage... but Whitey an' Rix follow orders. An' you sure wouldn't wanna meet Kevin."
"What's he pack?"
"You don't wanna find out."
"Um... what about Randers? You made him sound bad."
"You never know what he gonna do." Donny struggled to get up and Robby finally helped, shoving his shoulder under one massive arm that was bigger around than his thigh. It still took a lot of puffing and panting, and Donny lost his jeans on the way so Robby pulled them halfway up, which was only as far as they would go.
"So, why was you cryin'?" asked Donny when vertical at last, though he had to lean backward to balance his belly. "You don't gotta say."
Robby shrugged and pointed. "Your ocean sucks."
Donny looked out on the Bay. The fog was too thick to see San Francisco, or even the bridge going across. "Got that right."
Donny waddled slowly away as if every step was a major event, his jeans cuffs dragging over the planks, leading Robby into the warehouse, a vast and empty echoing place. They came out a front door to a trash-littered street. Donny decked, which was something to see, and they rolled about a block from the water to stop at the steps of a three-story building. Donny was panting and sweating by then but took keys from a leather boot-lace that hung around the roll of his neck, unlocked rusty security bars, then a heavy old door. The tiger-dog had been painted there, too, which explained why there were no other tags. They entered a lightless hallway and rats seemed to scatter in every direction.
"We got those in Fresno," said Robby.
"Natural born survivors," puffed Donny.
The boys climbed squeaky box stairs that smelled like beer and piss. It didn't seem like Donny could make it, or the stairs were going to hold, but finally they reached the second floor.
A single small bulb lit a hallway. Maybe it was just the light, but it looked like the floor was tilted, as if the building was slowly sinking. The boards creaked loudly beneath Donny’s weight as they walked to the end of the hall. Donny took off his keys again and unlocked a door that was sheathed in plywood and tagged with another tiger-dog. The hinges were loose, and it dragged in a groove it had scooped in the floor. Donny flipped a wall switch and a lamp came on in a corner. Robby felt homesick again: nothing was different anywhere.
The shadowy room was also half kitchen. The other half had some sad furniture, an overstuffed chair and a couch bleeding cotton, both of which showed sagging signs of Donny sitting on them, and an ancient console TV. Pictures in frames stood atop the TV, of Huey Newton in Panther gear, and other, smaller, snapshots. Two windows looked over the street, one of them patched a piece of cardboard. Beneath them was a messy bed... Donny's for sure from the way it was bent. An open door showed a claw-footed bathtub, and another door, closed, was probably a bedroom. But, something was different in this place; against one wall were board-and-brick shelves loaded with hundreds of books.
Donny locked the hallway door and mopped sweat from his face with the tail of his shirt. "What you think, Robby? Is this somewhere?"
"It ain’t nowhere," said Robby. He set down his bag and board then went to check out the shelves. "These are real books, man! Where you get 'em?"
"Junk shop mostly,” said Donny, tossing the gun on his bed and leaning his board against the couch. An' the library throws 'em away sometimes."
"You read all these?"
"I'm workin' on it."
"That's kinda cool. I read books when there's nothin' else to do... an' they don't all got pitchers in 'em."
"Did I say they did?"
Robby looked at the pictures atop the TV. "Guess you always been fat?"
"An' gettin' phatter all the time." Donny peeled off his shirt then plopped down on the couch, seeming to shake the whole building. "Can you take off my sneaks? I can do it myself, but it easier with somebody else."
"Sure." Robby pulled off Donny's old Cons, and then his ragged socks. "Can you see your feet?"
"Why? There somethin' wrong with 'em?"
"No. They cool. ...Can I use your bathroom?"
"Pick up the seat or my mom has a cow."
"So did mine."
Donny was in the kitchen when Robby came out of the bathroom. He looked somehow savage beneath a bare bulb, the keys gleaming gold on his ebony chest. "Wanna split a forty?"
"Sure," said Robby. "What you makin'?"
"All-purpose porpoise pus."
"No greasy grimy gopher guts?"
"Would you settle for cheeseburgers?"
"Fuck yeah! I been dreamin' about 'em all day."
"Look like your dream comin' true, man. ...Brew's in the fridge. You can have firsts."
"Hey, this is good shit, Eightball.", said Robby opening the fridge. "Your mom don't mind you drinkin'?"
"Long as I’m cool about it. Lotta worse things I could do. An’ none of the dudes do nothin' else. How 'bout you?"
"Smoked a few times, but I don't think it cool like everybody say."
"Yeah," said Donny, squashing some hamburger into a big black frying pan. “You watch rap vids, you get to thinkin' nobody ain't shit 'less they high all the time. Same with them stupid magazine covers with smoke comin' outta some retard's mouth. But, weed is a drug for slaves, man. It lets you be happy bein’ a slave."
"That's deep,” said Robby.
"Thanks,” said Donny, picking up a spatula. “Besides, I can't draw when I'm high. I think cool things but they never happen."
Robby uncapped the bottle and tilted it to his lips.
"Ain't you forgettin' somethin'?" asked Donny.
"Oh yeah. ...Um, on the floor?"
"Yeah, but don’t waste a lot, it only symbolic."
Robby carefully poured out a drop. "For all the dead homies." Then he took a small hit... he knew better than to chug on an empty stomach.
"Make yourself at home,” said Donny.
Robby wiggled out of his shirt, kicked off his Nikes and pulled off his socks. Donny scanned him again. "You even got innies like Whitey."
"They kinda cool," said Robby, patting his bobby chest.
"So, how you be chubby an' homeless?"
"I'm new at the homeless part."
Donny shook salt on the sizzling meat, then added a dash of Crystal hot sauce. “Don't wanna talk about it?"
Robby took another drink. "Maybe later."
"Get the cheese out the fridge," said Donny. "Ketchup an' mustard on the door. You know how to slice an onion?"
"Where's a knife?"
"In the drawer... an' it sharp, fool! Don't be wavin' it like Psycho! ...What Fresno like?"
Robby found onions and set one on the counter. "Fresno got nothin', man. Not even a dirty ol' beach."
Donny flipped the burger patties and lay on slices of cheese. "Didn't you see nothin' nice when you was on the bus?"
"It was night when I left yesterday. An' then I was mostly sleepin'. Ain't nothin' nice anywhere, man. 'Cept what they show on TV. ...You got cable?"
"Nah," said Donny. "We the only 'partments left on this block, an' they won't hook up the wire."
"That's gotta suck."
"Will you watch out with that fuckin' knife!"
"Sorry." Robby took another drink and started slicing the onion. "What about lettuce an' tomatoes?"
"In the fridge."
"On the door."
"Hey, you got Grey Poupon! An' Twinkies an' Ding-Dongs! How you score all this prime-ass shit?"
"Mom work at Safeway, she get damaged stuff."
"Shit! I cut myself!"
Donny snorted. "'Bout what I figure! ...Don't bleed on the onion! Get a paper towel! ...Just... Oh, get your ass out my kitchen before you cut off your dick! They's comics under my bed. Take the bottle, I catch up later. ...The hell you cryin' for now, man? It's only a little cut."
"I ain't cryin', it the onion!" Robby took the bottle and went to the bed. This part of the room was in shadow, but there was a shadeless lamp on a box. He twisted the switch, then stared in surprise: the entire wall was one huge tag. "Shit, man!" he said. "This rocks!"
Donny got buns from a breadbox. "Just a little thing I do."
Robby stood back and gazed at the wall. "This is so fuckin' way past cool, just the light from cool take ten years to get here!"
"Thanks," said Donny. "I wanna do a comic book, an' maybe even a graphic novel."
Robby scanned the cartoon images. There were five dudes on boards, all life-size. All were black except two, and none looked over fourteen. They were shirtless as if it was summer, and Donny was good at drawing bods. One of the white kids was lean as a coyote and hard as a sheet-metal roof. The other was blond and husky and had a cheerful smile. One black dude had mega muscles and a deadly serious look... that had to be Randers, Robby decided. Another black dude was chubby and did look a lot like himself: Whitey. The last black dude was tall and wiry with a mouth full of oversize teeth. There was also a saber-tooth tiger-dog, and Donny was sitting beside it. It was like having a room full of friends, including yourself.
"Fuck!" said Robby. "I don't know what to say!"
Donny laughed. "You just did." He came waddling over, bearing two plates with four massive burgers.
Robby snagged a burger and took a huge bite. "Shit, that's good! Now I know I'm somewhere!" He pointed to the cartoons. "That's Weasel, right? He look bad an' sneaky."
"Nah," said Donny, sitting down on the sagging bed. "That's Kevin. Weasel's the chubby white dude."
"He don't look weasel."
Donny drank brew and burped. "One time he put a rat in a microwave." You know, 'pop goes...'?"
Robby laughed. "Oh yeah. ...I think I got Randers... there in the middle. An' I see what you mean about never knowin' what he gonna do. Who the bro with the teeth?"
"No, R-I-X, man. Thought you was down with the Thundercats?"
"I ain't seen every show."
Donny leaned over the mass of his middle and pulled a box of comics from underneath the bed. He selected one and flipped it open. "That's Rix, he’s a Mole-man. Check out his teeth. That's why we call our homie Rix. ...An' don't be sittin' on my gun! I told you the safety don't work. Put it on the window sill."
"...Anyways, Rix is the leader of the Mole-men. At first they hate the Thundercats. ...See, what happen is, Mum-Ra was stealin' the Mole-men's diamonds from down where they lived."
"Mean underground?" asked Robby.
"Where else do Mole-men live, duh. But he kept lyin' to the Mole-men, sayin' it was the Thundercats stealin'. But once the Thundercats an' the Mole-men started talkin’ to each other, they figured it out an' chased Mum-Ra away."
Robby drank malt and checked the comic. "Them Mole-men don't look friendly to me. Would you want one of 'em at your back?"
"Maybe that's why the Thundercats was scared of 'em at first. But they was good dudes behind them teeth. I trust 'em with my back any time."
"Damn!" said Robby around a mouthful of burger. "You cook just as good as you draw!"
"Another little thing I do."
Robby finished his second burger, then lay back against the wall at the tiger-dog's feet. He unbuttoned his jeans the rest of the way and patted his wobbly belly. "Fuck, I'm full! An' it feel so good!"
Donny laughed and patted his belly, making it ripple in waves. "I try to feel good as much as I can, like storin' it up for when I don't. They's another forty in the fridge. Wanna get drunk?"
"Fuck yeah! Then I can die happy."
Donny frowned. "Don't say shit like that. Even for a joke." He glanced out the window. "Seem like the whole fuckin' world out there be wantin' kids like us to die."
"Yeah," agreed Robby. "I get that feelin' a lot. They tell us in school, 'we be the future,’ but they really don't want it to happen."
"Oh, they want it to happen," said Donny. "But they want us to be what they want us to be, which is nothin' in nowhere."
"You get that from readin' books?"
"You get a lot from readin' books." Donny drank the last of the malt and lay against the wall beside Robby. "You want that other forty, go get it."
Robby got up and walked unsteadily to the fridge.
"So," said Donny when Robby returned. "Wanna tell me your story now? 'Bout runnin' away from the home?"
"How you know I was in one?"
"Elementery. Chubby kids usually got cool moms, so you wouldn't of run away from her... if you had a choice. So somethin' musta happened." Donny pointed to Weasel's picture. "He was in a home for awhile. They feed you beans an' rice 'cause it's cheap, an' I can see you put on some weight 'cause your jeans won't button."
"You'd make a good detective," said Robby.
"Fat kids observe a lot, an' we store it up, too."
Robby uncapped the bottle and poured a few drops on the floor. "For all the dead homies." Then he took a big gulp and passed it to Donny before sitting down. "My folks had good jobs a few years ago. An' my mom kinda figured that chubby kids don't get into trouble as much."
"Mostly they don't," agreed Donny.
"I like bein' chubby," said Robby. “It's bein' cute that sucks."
"Like, cute ain't a black thang?"
"Don't seem to be."
"Well," said Donny. "If it make you feel any better, you ain't gonna get no cuter. It all downhill from here."
Robby lay back next to Donny. "Anyways, my dad got laid-off an' couldn't find no other job. Then him an' mom started fightin'. Mostly 'bout money. Then he left. Then she had to work two jobs." Robby sighed and drank. "I guess she couldn't take no more. ...Maybe what happen to Kevin's mom."
"I feel ya," said Donny, passing the bottle.
"Thanks. ...Anyways, them Social Service fuckers put me in a home. But, nothin' a home if you locked inside it."
"How you get out?"
Robby drank and passed the bottle. "They didn't think I be stupid enough to jump through a window."
Robby touched the rag on his arm. "How I got this."
"I call that more desperate than stupid," said Donny. "Kinda like them animals that chew off a leg to get out a trap."
"Maybe," said Robby. "So, here I am. ...Can I have another smoke?"
"In my jeans over there."
Robby got the cigarettes and fired two with his lighter.
"Want me to look at your arm?” asked Donny. “I got some peroxide an' bandages. I fix up the other dudes a lot. Even took a bullet out Rix."
"Who shot him?"
"I was a stray from a cop."
"Oh. Maybe later. It's kinda gross. An' the rag's all stuck to it now."
"I gonna be drunk later on."
"So am I. Then it won't hurt so much."
Donny puffed a smoke ring. "So, why you come to Oaktown?"
"I was really goin’ to San Francisco. I wanted to live on a beach. The kind you see on TV."
"Ain't no cable on a beach."
"I wouldn't need cable on a beach. ...You think there really are places like that?"
"Somewhere." Donny puffed another ring. "I hook you up with Randers tomorrow. We figure out somethin' 'bout you."
"Thanks," said Robby. "This a pretty cool somewhere, even you gots a nowhere beach." He drank, then looked around. Against the wall by the bed was a battered old Chris Miller. It had obviously been ridden a lot, but was dusty now. "Was that yours before you got so fat?"
Donny took a big drink. "I always been so fat, just smaller. That belonged to a dude name Duncan."
"He get a new one?"
"He dead, man."
"...Oh. ...Um, that why he ain't in your pitcher?"
"He wasn't around long enough to get in the pitcher.” Donny looked out the window. "He jumped off the roof of that warehouse, man. Next to the wharf where I met you tonight. I found his board in the rocks." Donny drank again. "I think he tried to take it with him. I go down there at night sometimes. Ain't even sure why."
Robby looked up at the wall again. “Think I could ever be in that pitcher?"
"If you around long enough."
"Hey, you little fuck!"
Kevin didn't even look. He ran, fast, clutching his board by its front truck. No time to deck. Too much garbage anyway.
"Come back here, you little shit!"
Did a coyote think about running from a wolf? No way! He booked or got his ass wiped; no shame, no nothing. Fact of life.
"Get back here, bitch! Gonna ream your ass!"
Kevin had seen reamers at the shipyard. He ran, twisting between a rusty Dumpster and battered garbage cans. There was a whistle past his ear and a bottle exploded on grimy brick and something stung his cheek. His head hurt, and this shit wasn't helping. Howling echoed down the alley, as breaking voice, half-man, half-boy, cracked or dusted or something. "Fuckeeeerrrr!"
Kevin ran. He was good at it, even if his head hurt. He didn't know if the dude was following, and wasn't going to look. Ahead, a garbage truck rattled, its rusty sides barely clearing the buildngs, a big black dude with mirror sunglasses riding the ass-end and watching with a grin.
"Go for it, little man," he offered.
There wasn't any place to go but into the packer-trough. Kevin scrambled over the lip, into stuff he didn't want to think about, and the black dude laughed. "Any port in a storm."
Kevin didn't know what that meant; it didn't matter anyway, the howling faded away behind him... the prey was gone, like on Wild Kingdom.
Kevin jumped out, slipping in garbage, landing hard on his ass. Starbursts popped bright in his head. The black dude broke up. "Have a nice day." The truck bumped away like a bored dinosaur.
Kevin sat there a while. Why not? Legs hugged in thin arms, head buried between, and mongrel-blond hair in tangles. His jeans were kneeless and tight over huge dirty Nikes. The morning air was already hot and he panted like a dog while his head thumped blaster music.
"Got a quarter, kid?"
Kevin's eyes peered blue from under long shag and he snagged his board. What the fuck now? Across the alley, an old wino sprawled. "Fuck you, rag-bag," Kevin said.
The wino scowled and floundered a little, but wasn't going anywhere. He started spewing curses, but Kevin had heard them all before. He got slowly to his feet, his huge old Nikes a stable base for a little tower of hurt. His mouth tasted like beer puke, and some still crusted his nose. He dug it out, looking toward the street and down the hill where one rusty cargo mast was all he could see of the ship.
There was stickiness on his cheek and his fingers came away bloody. He wiped at his face with a handful of the black Iron Maiden T-shirt he wore. His eyes ached when he glanced back, over tarred roofs that shimmered, to the Bay. He dropped his eyes and walked to the alley mouth, hurting too much to ride. Horns honked and exhaust fumes made him want to puke again. He turned to flip-off the wino, but the old piece of shit didn't notice.
A bus was grinding up the hill. Smoke billowed black, the engine screamed, hurting his ears, and the big stupid thing was helpless. Kevin checked the street but there wasn't a cop escort today. He snagged a bottle from a doorway and threw it as hard as he could. It shattered against a window, starring the glass, getting a scream from a black lady and curses from the driver. Kevin decked and rolled downhill, letting gravity do the work.
Two blocks closer, he could see the ship better... both cargo masts and the rusty wheelhouse. He gave it a long look before tailing in a doorway. Taking a key from a pocket, he unlocked rusty bars, then a heavy old door brightly tagged with a tiger-dog. Then he climbed narrow box stairs that squeaked and smelled like piss. The second-floor hallway was dimly lit by dirty-window light. From behind a door at the far end came sounds of an old Zoom rerun; happy kids singing, "I wanna zooma. zooma, zooma, zoom..."
Yeah, thought Kevin, the fuck out of here!
The door was tagged with a tiger-dog. Kevin knocked, but got nothing but happy TV sound. He pounded and added a kick. "Donny!"
A chair creaked, floorboards groaned, locks rattled, and the door dragged back on loose hinges in a groove it had scooped in the floor.
Donny was black and fat to the max with a chest like a pair of water-balloons and a belly almost down to his knees. He only wore jeans as usual, and carried a slopping bowl of Fruitloops in one hand. He smiled at Kevin. "What's up, Kev?"
Kevin pushed past, dropping his board on the floor. "The fuckin' sun, like I care." He stumbled across the room into the kitchen section and yanked open the fridge. Three Buds stood among the other stuff and he grabbed one.
"Hey!" said Donny. "My mom have a cow if you drink all them."
Kevin ripped the tab and sucked, slumped against the door, coughing once and spattering his chest. "I'll score you some more before she gets home." He killed that one and grabbed another.
"Okay," said Donny, wadding to sagging chair in front of the TV and plopping down. The Zoom kids were talking Ubbi-dubbi.
"Uuuk-fay oo-yay!" another voice called from the floor.
Kevin turned to see Duncan sipping beer at Donny's feet and tightening a truck on his board with a pair of pliers. "The world is dogshit," Duncan added.
"But you don't have to be," said Donny.
Duncan was fourteen, a year older than the other boys, shirtless in faded 501s, with tangles of dark brown hair almost as long as Kevin's, and a faint smudge starting above his lips. He was tanned and muscled like a surf-nazi. "Figure you can score them beers soon?" he asked. "I'm bored. Wanna get totally wasted." He laughed. "Like you are all the time."
Kevin wandered to the window. He could see the ship a lot better from here. The tide was turning, and it was swinging slowly around, but still faced the scrap yard... some people called it a ship breaker.
"I guess," said Kevin.
"Don't sound so stoked about it," said Duncan. "Figured you lived on that shit."
"Fuck you," said Kevin, sounding tired.
"Bet you'd like to."
"I'd rather fuck your mother, 'least she's worth two dollars."
"Fuck you!" yelled Duncan.
"Bet you'd like to.
"Both you shut the fuck up," said Donny, spooning Fruitloops. "Or go away an' fuck each other. I'm tryin' to watch this."
Duncan looked like he wanted to spit, but turned back to the TV. Kevin came over and leaned on the arm of Donny's chair, watching too. Some big chubby kid in a captain's hat who was really too old to still be with the others, was talking about dolphins and whales. There were ships in the background, and an island, with water as blue as a swimming pool.
"This sucks!" said Duncan and reached for the knob.
"Leave it the fuck alone," said Kevin.
"Yeah? Wanna make me? Or you too fucked to fight already?"
"Peace-out, goddammit!" snapped Donny.
Kevin's eyes narrowed. "Leave it alone, dick-breath!"
"What he said," added Donny. "Besides, The Thundercats come on next."
"That shit's for little kids an' retards!" Duncan looked at Kevin and Donny, then chugged the last of his beer. The Zoom kids were back in the studio, now talking Spanish.
"Fuck, I'm bored," said Duncan. "Where the fuck's the other Animals?"
"Right the fuck there," said Donny, pointing to a wall that was tagged with life-size drawings of dudes, including himself and a tiger-dog.
"When you gonna put me in that?"
"When you belong in it," said Donny.
"Fuck! I been here as long as Kevin! An' I can skate better, too!"
"You been here," said Donny. "But you ain't been here."
"I'll pay you," said Duncan.
"You don't got enough."
"Fuck you." Duncan got up and went to the fridge, snagging the last can of Bud, and Kevin went to the window.
Duncan faced Kevin's back. "How come you're always testin' me? All of you?"
"Dubuh," said Kevin.
"Fuck you all."
"Dubuh," said Kevin.
Duncan held out the beer. "Halves?"
Kevin nodded. "Sure. Thanks."
"Mom gonna have a cow," sighed Donny.
Kevin accepted the can from Duncan. "I'm scorin' some more."
Duncan smirked. "That's why you're in the picture."
"Wrubong," said Donny.
"The fuck you talkin' about?"
"Dubuh," said Kevin.
"You sayin' I should do it?"
"Did I say that?" said Donny.
Kevin handed back the beer without drinking any. "You dudes gonna be here all day?"
"Or what," said Duncan. "Nothin' else goin' on, an' Donny's too fat to do anything."
"Donny does everything," said Kevin.
"Quit talkin' that fuckin' ooby-talk!" Duncan started to turn away, then stopped and picked up his board. "Um, wanna ride mine? Just scored new Powell bearings."
"Nah, but thubanks."
Duncan shrugged, then glanced at Donny. "He'll just get fucked an' fall off anyways." He dropped back to the floor in front of the TV and fired a cigarette as The Thundercats came on.
Kevin pulled off his shirt and went into the bathroom. Donny got up and followed him, watching while Kevin splashed water on his face then soaped under his arms. He offered Kevin his Afro comb.
"You don't gotta do it, Kev."
Kevin smiled. "What about the cow?"
"We can use the milk."
Kevin tugged at his hair with the comb, trying to yank out the rats. "Gotta do it sometime, so why not now."
"Let me do that," said Donny, taking the comb. "You gonna snatch yourself bald. What you do to your cheek, man?"
"Some crack-head threw a bottle at me."
"Let me fix it."
Kevin glanced in the mirror. "Yeah, it looks kinda gross."
Donny took a bottle of peroxide out of the medicine cabinet, snagged a wad of toilet paper and dabbed Kevin's cheek.
"Ow!" said Kevin.
"Don't be a puss," said Donny. "Turn around an' I'll fix your hair."
In the other room, Lion-o was telling Panthro about Thundercat honor. Duncan called, "Why don't fuck each other, too!"
"Dubuh!" called Donny.
Kevin held his shirt to his nose. "Can I use one of yours? Maybe your Def Leppard one?"
"Sure, but it way too big for you."
"That's cool, it'll make me look smaller."
Donny finished combing Kevin's hair, then Kevin went to Donny's bed under the Animal picture and slipped into Donny's big black shirt that draped him like a dress. He looked out the window: the tide was coming in, and the ship was swinging toward the sea beyond the distant Golden Gate Bridge. The anchor chain was huge.
Kevin rolled toward the water, then walked to the end of a rotting wharf and looked at the rusty old ship. Its bow pointed out where other ships were going, maybe to islands with dolphins? In the ship breaker's, big hammers beat on a rusty old hulk and torches burned laser-blue.
Kevin walked back to the street, rolled a few blocks and sat down on the curb in front of a shabby corner market with massive bars on its windows... maybe made out of recycled ships. He stood his board against a fire plug and pulled up his legs, looking small and alone. The Vietnamese owner came to the door, but recognized Kevin -- or at least the tiger-dog on his deck -- and went back inside to listen to music like cats being strangled.
The hot day dragged itself past noon and stink blasted from the sidewalk. The store's few customers came and went, but didn't pay any attention to Kevin. A few were women shopping for food, but most were beaten-looking men who came out with bottles or sixers of beer. Kevin obviously didn't have money so no one tried to rip him off with bogus offers to buy him beer. The traffic was mostly container trucks that filled the air with diesel smoke, though several newer cars had slowed, maybe checking him out, but none returned for a second look. Sweat trickled from under his hair and made his cheek burn. More sweat ran from his armpits beneath the black tent of Donny's shirt. The fire plug dripped, and he washed his cheek. A cop car cruised past; he got a glance from behind dark glasses but it rolled on and didn't come back.
Then a new blue Beamer appeared, slowing to a nervous crawl then speeding up again. Kevin didn't look up, but shifted his eyes back down the street. A few minutes later the Beamer returned after circling the block. Again it slowed approaching Kevin, almost speeded up once more, but finally came to an uncertain stop. Inside was a man, not too old... at least still young enough for the car, and probably a Silicone, with mirror sunglasses like insect eyes. The power window sighed down. "Hi, little guy. You know the way to 880?"
Kevin looked confused and got up. He ruffled his hair and stretched, so his belly sucked in and his jeans slid down... though he'd forgotten that wouldn't show under Donny's shirt. He pointed. "I think it's that way, mister."
The man checked the street. "Would you have time to show me?" He forced a chuckle. "I'm lost."
Kevin looked more confused, and rolled his hands up in the front of his shirt, accidentally baring his belly and low-slipping jeans. "Um... I guess so."
"I'll pay you, little guy. ...That's a neat skateboard."
"Um... okay," said Kevin.
The man popped the door and Kevin climbed in. They drove away fast. Of course the Beamer had AC, but it had just been turned off and it started to get hot inside, even with the windows open.
"Sure a warm day, huh, little guy? My air-conditioner broke."
"Oh," said Kevin.
"You can take off your shirt if you want."
"I'll join you." The man pulled off his Computerland T-shirt. His body was white, chubby like a little kid's, and his hands were soft. Both he and his car smelled like aftershave or something and there was a Garfield air-fresh thing hanging from the Blaupunkt knob. The man smiled. "A lot more comfortable, huh?"
"Yeah," said Kevin. The car's windows and locks were driver-controlled, which always made him wary, but his board would take out a window. ...And maybe a driver, though he'd never had to, yet.
"You dig rock and roll, little guy?"
Kevin glanced at the tape tray... ancient fuckin' history, even the fuckin' Beatles. "Um, KRQR's kinda cool." Kevin found it quick on the dial. The man seemed fairly new at this... or maybe just new to this hunting ground. The container trucks seemed to make him nervous, like they might attack his car, but he'd obviously scoped the neighborhood and knew where he was going... ahead was the old Navy storage yard, abandoned except for a watchman or two who didn't do much watching.
"What's you're name, little guy?"
Yeah, an' mine's really Lion-o.
"Would you like a beer, Timmy? Your folks mind if you drink beer?"
Kevin gave him little-kid sly. "I never tell 'em nothin'."
The man stopped at the last little market, clearly knowing it was the last, and gave Kevin a pat on the shoulder. "Be right back, Timmy."
Of course he took the keys, and the glove-box was locked. Kevin yawned and stretched. His head still hurt a little, but that would soon be covered. In the outside mirror he could just see the masts of the rusty old ship above the warehouse line.
The man returned sweating with a sixer of Miller, probably thinking that was enough... which meant that Kevin would have to work and leave the man hoping to see him again. Kevin drank the first bottle fast while it was still ice-cold. The man watched him from the corner of his eye as they drove away, and Kevin figured he'd better be cool and slow down for the next one. He pointed. "Um, I think the freeway's that way, Jim."
The man gave Kevin's shoulder a squeeze. "We've got plenty of time, Timmy, and you look pretty thirsty."
"Um, okay, Jim. This is cool." Kevin popped another beer. His head felt a lot better now.
The man put a friendly hand on his leg. "You live around here, Timmy? It looks like mostly colored kids live here. Don't you get lonely?"
"I'm just visitin'."
"Going to be around long?"
"Um, I don't know yet."
The man patted Kevin's chest. "You've really got a some muscles for a boy your age."
"Um, thanks." Kevin eased back in the seat and sipped beer. If he played this right he could score a case.
It was dusk when the Beamer stopped, just long enough for Kevin to bail with a case of Bud and his board.
"Next Sunday, Timmy?"
"If I can, Jim."
His board on top of the case, Kevin headed up the street toward Donny's as the Beamer squeaked away.
"Hey, Kev's back, an' he scored!" Duncan called to Donny as he dragged the door open for Kevin.
Donny looked up from the stove where he was stirring spaghetti sauce. "He always does."
"Yeah, that's why he's in the picture."
"Too bad you never learned Ubbi-dubbi," said Donny as Kevin came to the fridge and replaced the missing beers. "Thanks, Kev."
"No prob." Kevin put the other sixers on the table, and Duncan snagged a can.
"Hey," said Donny. "Say thanks."
"Yeah, thanks Kev. ...Guess we should call the other dudes, huh?"
"Dubuh," said Donny.
Kevin walked to the window and looked out through the night to the Bay. The old ship was only a shadow. It didn't have an anchor light. No reason for one, no other ships came near this place.
Who in hell would want two hubcaps off a '63 Rambler?
Chuck stood in the Oakland morning fog and stared at his thrasher car. They'd been on last night, home in Pacifica -- he remembered seeing one glint in the street light -- and nobody over there would want them. Now, he'd just walked a couple blocks to a corner market for shitty coffee and they were gone. Since the car had only had two when he'd bought it -- for seventy dollars, and Leese said he'd paid too much -- it now had zero.
He crumpled the styrofoam cup in his fist, almost tossed it into the car -- the passenger window was missing -- then glanced around at the trash-strewn sidewalk and dropped the cup in the gutter.
The fog made his nose run and he wiped it, studying the car, trying to see it like a street-kid would; chalky white paint, rusted-out panels, and narrow old tires worn so thin nobody would want them. It had a cracked windshield, too: he'd be getting a ticket for that any day... illegal in the Golden State: Not only for your own safety, but for the safety of others.
He didn't give a damn about the car -- a fuck about the car -- or the fucking hubcaps, though he was still having trouble with the idea that there was nothing personal about getting your shit ripped-off. But, who'd want goddamn Rambler hubcaps!?!
Stupid question. But then, over here, most of his questions were stupid and he tried not to ask any more than he had to. ...Like, what did it mean when you shared a cigarette with a naked thirteen-year-old boy?
Christ, he hated that fucking car! One of these days it was going to die right in the middle of the Bay Bridge, and he'd leave it there... a statement to everything fucked in the world! He had to park in the street at home because his parents didn't want it leaking oil in the driveway, or maybe they thought it had some kind of Oakland death-virus sticking to it... like his mom always washed his Oakland clothes separately. And with bleach. The neighbors weren't stoked, ether, the same assholes who laughed when he kept falling off the skateboard he'd bought. Someday the cops would tow the car because, for sure, it didn't belong in that neighborhood. The whole thing made a totally stupid movie, considering he had a Beamer in the carport. Even stupider was that he was driving the Rambler more and more in Pacifica because it pissed everybody off. Christ, old-man Norton next door always bragged how he'd through hell in 'Nam, and now a rusty Rambler gave him vapor-lock.
Chuck's Beamer wasn't even new, a cheap little 2002 his parents had bought him used during his sophomore year at high school. He'd driven it over here once, the first day. Naturally his parents had warned him, and Corey had warned him... BMW meant "break my window" in Oakland. But nothing had happened: all day in the stinking street, with container trucks roaring past, winos stumbling, kids on skateboards, and only about three white faces seen all day, and not even a scratch. Nathaniel had come by on his board that evening as Chuck was leaving. Arrogant on his stupid kid-toy, Nathaniel didn't even stop, didn't even look really.
"Don't drive it again," was all he'd said.
And that was the friendliest thing Nathaniel had said to him in four months.
The fog swirled in wet breeze from the Bay. Chuck hoped it would burn off later. Sometimes it hung around until all the kids had snotty noses and were coughing and spitting on everybody. He almost never saw any of these kids in coats or jackets.
Chuck gazed through the fog at two shabby stories of crumbling brick. There was a thing up there on the building's front... a cornice? It was cracked to hell, even leaning a little, and one of these days it was going to fall right on the goddamn sidewalk, earthquake or not. Kids all over hell and a ton of bricks was going to fall and nobody gave a shit. The whole fucking world was falling apart and kids played and fought and sometimes even killed each other in the ruins.
And shared cigarettes in bed.
What did that mean?
Maybe nothing, retard, he thought, except to you. There was an old Bob Dylan song about trying to hide what you didn't know to begin with.
Chuck wanted to believe that. It wasn't any of his business anyway, but everything these kids did, said, or wore meant something. And it usually wasn't the obvious.
One skateboard gang, the Animals, wore heavy dog-chokers around their necks. Another, the Rats, had chains welded around their left ankles. Some of the younger boys wore rags tied around their left knees. Everything was always left. Maybe it was like that old gay thing with the earring? Chuck was twenty and it wouldn't seem right to be asking some eight-year-old to explain. Leese knew, Nathaniel knew, but Chuck figured he'd rather ask a little kid than either of them. The stupid thing was they probably figured he knew, anyway.
Chuck leaned against the car and picked a scab of paint from a fender. Everything meant something to these kids, no matter how small. No matter what color, they were a new and primitive race evolving fast from garbage, like those scary radical animal sculptures an artist had done; animals that were supposed to inherit the earth someday. Nathaniel never said anything unless it meant something, like, "Don't drive it again." Chuck hadn't, even though Nathaniel was nothing but a big stupid dirty boy who'd probably be dead in five years... or a lot sooner if a snotnose dealer-kid had his way.
Chuck was the only staffer who drove. Leese and the others rode the bus... when it wasn't re-routed because little kids threw stuff or bigger ones shot at it. Then they walked. The kids walked, through dogshit and dealers and perverts and pimps and crack-heads and winos and trash. Nathaniel, the Animals, and the Rats rode their boards through the same shit. Chuck drove a '63 Rambler, Pacifica to Oakland, sometimes seven days a week, when he got minimum wage for three, and meals of government-surplus food -- the same crap the kids got -- when he had a Beamer in the carport and enough money to eat at McDonald's three times a day. Worse, he was going to miss the first semester at Berkeley with Corey. Worse still, he was starting to wonder if he was doing it for these kids, himself, or Nathaniel. ...And Nathaniel probably didn't even like him.
Stupid movie! Just like Nathaniel and Randers sharing a Marlboro in bed.
Randers? Probably Randy or Randolph; he could check the files but it didn't matter. Randers was Randers until death, which probably wouldn't be long in coming. Real street names weren't cute like in books and movies. And like Ubbi-dubbi, they made no sense if you didn't have a code book. The fattest kid in the world was called Donny -- not Albert -- and his name was Donny. One Animal was called Whitey... and he was black! Trouble was, Chuck knew it all made total sense to everybody here but him.
He picked some more paint. Let it rust... match the rest of the fucking car. Come to think of it, what the hell kind of name was Nathaniel? Chuck pictured some farm in Mississippi a hundred years ago, and a kid wearing nothing but overalls. He should have been holding a pitchfork like in American Gothic, but instead Chuck's mind put him in cold blue moonlight on a lonely hilltop like some Transylvainia werewolf. Maybe he'd had weird parents, the kind who named their kids Rudyard or Foxhall to make them weird, too. Chuck ripped a long scab of paint off the fender.
There were heavy steps on wet sidewalk as Leese came up from the bus stop. Chuck hadn't noticed her coming but knew she'd seen him a block away. She looked like a badass Nell Carter who saw everything a block away, just like these kids and Nathaniel. Chuck still had to remember to look, and half the time he didn't know what he was supposed to be looking for. If Leese was pissed about something she'd call him Chuck. If she was really pissed she'd call him Charles. If not, she'd call him boy. He'd learned that much in four months.
Leese smiled. "Mornin', boy."
Chuck stopped picking paint and asked the hubcap question.
"Somebody who wanted 'em," Leese said.