There were two middle aged black men sitting on the stoop that went up to Flash’s place, and one of them was arguing with a heavy white woman that was yelling down at them from a second story balcony. The guy that was yelling stopped to look at me and Cody as we walked up the stairs. The other guy just stared into the street like none of it had anything to do with him. He had a bored look on his face. In a few years it would be a very familiar look. But right then I didn’t quite understand it. I’d only seen it on my father and brother’s faces.
The door to the building was held open by a piece of mail wedged between the lock and frame. We replaced it very carefully as we stepped inside. By the doorway, a mound of envelopes and delivery menus lay up against the wall. It looked like none of the tenants of the building wanted any of their mail. The carpet in the hallway was a color that didn’t have any name. Maybe at some time the landlords had tried to paint over the graffiti of the walls but had hardly given it one coat. The writing could still be seen from underneath it.
We got up to the second story. Down the hall lived this girl I tried very hard to avoid. I’d never slept with her. I don’t think anyone I hung out with ever would, or would ever tell if they did. The main beef with her, besides how sloppy shithoused she’d get, was that she loved to piss in public. If there were ever a line for the bathroom, she’d be the first to run into the yard or alley and squat. I’d seen her go to the bathroom so many times by then, squatting with a slightly amused dumb drunk look on her face, her urine tinkling onto the ground, I just couldn’t imagine any kind of conversation I’d ever want to have with her. The guy she was shacked up with was a nice guy though. He was a cook at a Spanish place up the street. All he did was go to work and come back home and sit in front of the television. He was only a year older than Cody. Cody was twenty. He looked a lot older than that though. The guy, that is.
Up on the third floor was where Flash lived. The door was just slightly open. We could see the chain was up. I could hear all kinds of explosions behind the door. I knocked. Flash welcomed us in.
There were a couple other people already inside in seats surrounding the television, playing video games. The sluggish whirl of the fan hardly helped the cloud of cigarette smoke that didn’t seem to affect anyone there. The cloud was like another friend, just hanging out. Posters of movie and comic book heroes were tacked up and taped on the walls. There was a very long aquarium in there too. The aquarium was empty.
“Hey pal,” Flash smiled, putting his hand on my shoulder. “We’re gonna need you to go to the store.”
“I just stepped into the goddamn door.”
“Well, just so you know,” he said. “We have money.”
I was the youngest person in the room. But nobody was over twenty-one. I was the only one with a fake. That meant I was assigned to this task almost every night we got together. I usually didn’t complain much though. I liked to feel like they needed me, even in this very small way. These guys were still a new group of friends to me, so as long as I was necessary, I had a stable place amongst them.
I collected the money. “Someone’s going with me. I can’t carry it all myself.”
Somehow, the smallest, tiniest Korean kid we hung out with was elected to join me. Maury wore rimless glasses and I don’t think I’d ever seen him more than a few minutes without a cigarette in his mouth. Maury didn’t talk much, but his comic book knowledge was immeasurable.
I walked back down the stairs, a pocket full of cash and Maury in tow. When we got outside, only one of the men were still sitting on the stoop, the one who had had the bored look on his face. He was lifting a paper bag to his mouth. I could see the dark glass of a forty poking out.
This was Grace Street. Hell Block. Richmond’s melting pot of bums, deadbeats, junkies, immigrants, and second-year college students. By now most of the block’s inhabitants were well on their way to being drunk, high, or otherwise. Large apartment complexes that got a new coat of paint every year on the railing that went up to the doors, doors that required a PIN to go through. The PIN was the landlord’s way of trying to make a building safe. If a person really wants to get into a place though, it wouldn’t be much trouble, PIN or no PIN. On the weekend, kids would throw their couches out into the middle of the street and set them on fire. Just walking down the block you could get hit up by some fucker for change five different times. Some of them would become angry if you refused them that change. They’d curse you and spit at your feet and call your mother a whore. This lady junkie had called my mother a whore one time. Afterwards, I would play in my mind a reality in which my reaction had been to smack the shit out of her.
We got half way down the block when Cody came running up behind us.
“What’s up?” I said.
“I’m out of smokes, figure I’d tag along.”
We walked down the block. Around the corner, there was a Community Pride. Community Pride was the local grocery store. Quality would be the last word to be associated with Community Pride, but it wasn’t about quality. It was about quantity. The large black women, with their multicolored double-deckered hairdos, with nails so long they had to tap the keys to the register very delicately, never gave my I.D. a second look. They were too busy holding conversations with each other across the lines of customers.
Maury and Cody walked further down the block, to 7-Eleven, where they would buy their cigarettes and then come back to the grocery store to wait for me outside.
I went into Community Pride and the place, like all grocery stores, was an icebox. I walked by the deli and towards the back of the store, taking the long way to the beer aisle. When I got there, I took out the wad of money in my pocket and counted. There was enough for four cases of Natty Light. It was going to be a hell of a night. I went to the front of the store and grabbed a cart and returned to the beer aisle. I dropped the four cases of Natty Light into the cart and rolled it to the register. The lady didn’t blink an eye. She rang up a dozen or more kids like me everyday. She was just doing her part.
I came outside with the cart and Maury and Cody were sitting on the curb smoking cigarettes. Night was moving in. The parking lot was lighting up. A raggedy looking old white guy with a white and yellow beard and a puffy orange windbreaker was standing against the brick wall of the store and his eyes went wide looking at the cart full of beer. Then his eyes came up to me. I put my finger up and wagged it at him and shook my head. No, no, no. His head went down in defeat.
Maury and Cody each grabbed a case. I grabbed the other two. We got back on Grace and started walking back up.
“Did you watch Seven Samurai yet?” Maury asked me.
“Yeah. Thanks for letting me borrow it. It’s a pretty long movie.”
“Yeah it is. What’d you think?”
“I thought the samurais were cool. The ending blew.”
“I don’t know. They just don’t really get any reward at the end. I mean, it seems like it was all for nothing. The peasants didn’t even seem to appreciate what the samurais did. What was the point? Ungrateful bastards.”
“Yeah, well I think Kurosawa was trying to say something there.”
“Which one am I?” I asked.
“Like, if we were guys out of the samurais, the crew you know? Which one am I?”
“Probably the shithead that was doing all the screaming and trying to fit in with the rest of the samurais even though he could hardly tell his head from his ass,” Cody said.
We laughed. I’m happy with that, I thought to myself.
Across the street from the grocery store was an old people’s home. It was this huge building with a wall built around it and throughout the day some of the old folk hung around outside of it, sitting in their wheelchairs or standing absolutely still, in a pair of Carolina blue slippers holding on to their walkers, staring out into the world. At that moment an old white man with patches of wispy white hair on his old, old head was staring at us as we walked out of the parking lot of Community Pride. He seemed to be almost glaring at us, maybe for the fun time we were about to have, maybe thinking to himself ‘These punk kids.’ I took one case under my arm and with that free hand waved at him heartily. His expression changed to something like confusion, but it was a slightly happier confusion, and he gave a half wave back, the other hand still clutching the walker. He watched us a little longer as we walked away, then went back to staring out in front of him, maybe went back to cussing the world.
We began to walk back up Grace Street. A little Asian lady was getting off the bus as we were coming up to cross a street. She had some very large bags she was trying to get off the bus and looked like they might take her down off the bus in a crash. No one on the bus was trying to help her. I could’ve put her on my back and walked up a steep hill no problem.
Cody stepped up to the bus and put his case of beer down and helped her. She was a little hesitant at first to hand him the bags, her eyes flashed with a mixture of fear and a kind of fierceness, but she finally consented. She got off the bus and it drove off.
“There you go. Don’t want you taking a tumble now,” Cody said. This was the Cody you saw on the street and on campus and in a party where he could have a little room to talk to a girl and call her things like ‘love’ and ‘darlin’ and really make the twang in his accent sing. He was a country gentleman no doubt, and a small side of me envied that, would always. But in this occasion, the little Asian lady took one look at the case of beer next to his legs, grabbed her bags from him with a suspicious glint in her eye and shuffled down the street with not even the smallest word of thanks.
“That was rude,” Maury said.
“No helping some folk,” Cody shook his head.
We got back to Flash’s and it didn’t seem as if anyone had so much as moved. Then they saw us and the video games paused and everyone started moving altogether, moving out of the way to let us through to the kitchen, asking if we needed help and patting us on the back. It was like this every time so it wasn’t any surprise why I didn’t mind making the trips. We were young and humble and still grateful for the little things like a beer run.
We tore open the boxes of the beer and began loading them into the refrigerator. There was plenty of room. Flash’s fridge wasn’t as empty as mine but there wasn’t much more to be found in it. By the time we had all the beers inside, the fridge seemed to glow with the blue and silver light from the cans. We held the door open and stared, as if it were some majestic thing we’d built, seen rise from nothing to become some monument people traveled to see and be in awe of. We almost didn’t want to drink it. But we would. We’d try to drink all of them in one evening.
The moment of reverence ended and I handed everyone a beer. No one asked for change from the money they donated and I didn’t offer to return it to them.
We got back into the living room and the games resumed. The rest of us that weren’t involved sat back and drank and smoked cigarettes and talked shit about the people playing or the last girl Cody may or may not have slept with or the last thing I’d broken in someone’s house. We were pretty sure it was Tim’s microwave.
Tori came through the backdoor with a jerk and slammed it after her. She was Flash’s neighbor, and she’d been around since the beginning. She was just one of those people that had always been there and she’d walk through the door without so much as a knock and everyone accepted her and the shit that came out of her mouth. One thing though, she could hold her drink.
“What the hell?” I said. I hated when people slammed doors.
“There are two huge fucking possums on the fire escape tearing through y’all’s trash,” she said, walking into the living room and dumping her purse on the couch. “I can’t stand those things.”
A couple of people went to the kitchen to look through the window.
“They look like little demons or something,” Flash said.
“They’re horrible!” Tori almost screamed. It was enough to make me want to throttle her, the sound of her voice, but I did agree. Possums had been crawling onto our roof lately as well. It amazed me, that these things would crawl flights of stairs just to get to our trash. But then I thought, well, they gotta live too. They’re just trying to make it too. But God, they were ugly as sin.
Cody came out of the bathroom and saw everyone huddled against the window.
“What’re y’all doin’?” he asked.
“Possums are on the fire escape tearing Flash’s trash apart and no one wants to do anything but watch!” Tori started again.
“Tori, would you chill the fuck out?” I said.
“No one wants to do anything!” she repeated.
“Those sons of bitches,” Cody said and stormed into the kitchen. He grabbed the broom that was next to the fridge.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey, what are you gonna do? Cody?”
“Fucking critters!” he said and everyone broke apart to let him through the door. The possums looked up at us, both of them the size of a big cat. One was just slightly smaller, or you could say one was just slightly bigger. They were a pretty good size, and their hair sticking out made them bigger. Their pink noses and black eyes made them look like they’d be horrible to run into in the alleys. I could understand why Tori was disgusted by them. I was disgusted by them. But Tori was annoying.
Cody started yelling, like some kind of warrior charging into battle, and they saw him coming and they started scrabbling down the fire escape. He chased them down, broom in the air, his hair shaking and as wild as the possums. All of us came out to watch. One of them stopped on the second floor and crouched into a corner and Cody went right past him, chasing the bigger one. Now we had to lean over the railing to see. They came off the fire escape and were in the alley and we could just barely see but Cody had caught up with the possum and, even though we couldn’t see it, we could guess. The broom Cody was using as a club came up and down savagely, over and over again, for what seemed like so long, and we could see blood in the ground of the alley and the walls and on Cody. We didn’t hear any sound from the possum, just grunting from Cody, repeated thuds, the sound of the violence happening. When he finally stopped, he was breathing hard and the broom he held had snapped into two, hanging like a broken arm. He didn’t look up at us, only stared at the mess he’d made. None of us watching said a word.
He started to come up the stairs. When he was coming up to the second flight, Tori said, “Watch out! The second one is there! The second possum’s in the corner there!”
I snapped my neck to glare at her and practically hissed. But Cody wasn’t done. He found it and it tried to run but came too close to the edge of the platform and Cody simply skipped up to it and punted it off the second story flight of stairs. It flew off, bouncing once against the brick wall of the apartment complex and then plummeting into the small yard below. It lay there a moment, then, unbelievably, crawled underneath the bottom platform. Nobody would be able to get to it there. Nobody would be able to see it die.
Cody finally reached the top and stood in the doorway. His jeans with the holes in the knee and white tee shirt had splatters of blood all over. He still held the broken broom and, even though Cody was a relatively small guy, we all kind of looked at him with a bit of terror.
“I’m sorry about your broom, Flash,” he wheezed.
“Uh, it’s O.K. man.” Flash said meekly and came up to him, then waved his hand. “Just leave it outside actually. I can’t use it now.”
Cody seemed genuinely sorry for that.
“That was the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen,” someone said.
For a while, no one said anything, not even Tori, as Cody came into the kitchen and started washing his hands. Slowly, people began to move back into the living room, find their seats and their beers. Sound and life began to return to the apartment. But finally, Maury was the one to take it there, in his simple and always practical way.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more possums on your fire escape, Flash.”
Then, we were all able to laugh and ease up and go back to doing what we meant to do that night, which was, of course, to get stinking drunk.
The funny thing was, though, it wasn’t the last time Flash had a possum come up that fire escape. Every season it was warm enough, the possums would come, searching out our garbage, making the climb, hideous and determined as ever. I never saw one play dead, and I never went down to the alley to see what they looked like when they really were.
Read more about X.C. here.
Read more about Amy here.