Matt parked the ‘97 Grand Am and as the engine roughly idled, he looked out the window at his daughter’s high school. The smell of cheap Chablis jumped from his tongue, hovering long enough to be sucked into his nose. His shirt, the only one he owned at the moment, was a size too small and had a dried ranch dressing stain beneath the first button on the collar. Matt focused on the front entrance to the school and watched several young black students congregating, fumbling through their pockets and fingering the screens of their smart phones.
“Same school, different dropouts. I probably cut class with their daddies. I bet I did half their moms. This place is like a big old toilet bowl just waiting for someone to come along and jiggle the handle.” He grumbled to himself. “There ain’t no next level for them. I’ve been to that next step. Just rows and rows of bars.”
Matt looked to the passenger seat of the Pontiac. A 12-gauge shotgun with a sawed-off barrel waited, its scuffed up pistol grip stock crossing the striations of the cracked pleather. Matt checked himself out in the car’s rearview mirror. His brown skin baked by the pressing rays of the summer sun. The gray hairs on his temple seemed to be spreading like scorched grass on a drought beaten lawn. He brushed his thick fingers through his small afro and stepped out of the car. Before he shut the door, he looked back at his shotgun and gently tucked it under his seat.
Matt hopped up the steps to the school, past the cluster of young thugs. He looked one directly in the eyes as he passed – a decapitating glance. The kid looked down at the ants on the ground. He adjusted his flat billed St. Louis Cardinals cap and stuffed his bony fingers into the pockets of his sagging jeans. Matt approached the school counselor’s office and pulled his shirt sleeve down, concealing his bicep tattoo. His daughter jumped up from her chair when she saw him coming down the hall. The counselor barricaded her from running out of the office and approached Matt with a stack of papers in his hand.
“I’m not authorized to release her to you Matt.” He said.
“Not even a handshake Mr. Jarrett?”
“I apologize.” The guidance counselor said with an extended hand. “I didn’t expect you to be out so soon.”
“Good behavior cut two years off my sentence.” Matt replied. “You’d be surprised how far you get when you play by the rules.”
“I’ve never been surprised by that sort of thing. But I’m glad to hear you finally see it that way. I wish we could get the kids around here to do the same. The dropout rate is about to surpass 52 percent. More than half the kids around here with their hats on sideways won’t see a high school diploma.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised.” Matt said. He turned and watched another cluster of boys shuffle for the school’s front steps. “Pam’s working late tonight. She asked if I could pick up Jasmine. You know, I figured since I haven’t seen her in five years, why not?”
“She seems happy enough to see you. I guess I can let her go with you.” Mr. Jarrett said. “We know what happened to her a few weeks ago. Such a heinous thing. She’s lucky to be alive.”
“Why’s she in your office?”
“Jasmine’s been having some issues in her classes. Art class in particular.”
“That’s always been her best subject.” Matt said. “She’s always been a gifted artist.”
“These sketches are particularly disturbing.” Mr. Jarrett assured Matt. He opened the manila file folder and thumbed through the black and white charcoal renditions. “I don’t know who this is supposed to be. Maybe the man who assaulted her? She won’t talk about it. Not to us or the police.”
“Could you blame her for drawing like this? The son-of-a-bitch attempted to rape her. He was trying to kill her.” Matt said as he briefly analyzed the pictures.
“Why do you say that?”
“That someone tried to kill her?”
“She was singled out. It wasn’t a random act. I’ll get to the bottom of it before the week ends.”
“Let the police do that.”
“They’re not quick enough. Their justice really ain’t justice. Trust me, I know. Do you really think I deserve to be out on the streets after just five years?”
“I’m not here to judge.” Mr. Jarrett told him. “But I feel partially responsible when any of my ex-students get locked up.”
“You never taught me how to steal cars, or sell dope. You taught me to play by the rules. Stick to the straight and narrow. It just took a long time to sink into this thick old afro.” Matt tapped on the side of his head with his knuckles.
“Either way, I think Jasmine needs a little time off. I’ll let you talk to her about these.” Mr. Jarrett handed Matt the manila folder. “She’s a good student Matt. I don’t want to see her push up that drop-out rate around here.”
Matt stepped out of the school’s main office. His daughter was leaning against the wall, standing beneath oil portraits of principals passed. He grabbed her and hugged Jasmine tightly, fighting back tears that teetered on their starting blocks, sniffling as if his allergies were acting up. “I can’t believe Mom let you come get me,” She said, bouncing up and down on him. “I missed you so much daddy.”
Pam struggled to free herself from the loose rope around her wrists. She wriggled her sweaty hands from behind her back, shaking the prickly fibers to the floor. She ripped the duct tape from her mouth and spit out the sweat-stained sock that had been forced in between her cheeks. Beads of sweat dripped down her nose and onto her shirt collar. She folded open the closet doors and inhaled the sticky humidity. It was her first taste of freedom that afternoon. Pam plunged straight for a mason jar that was lying shattered on the nearby bathroom tile. Pennies, nickels and dimes were strewn about as if a vending machine had exploded. She reached for her cell phone charger cord that was dangling against the cabinet of the vanity sink. The phone was gone. Pam glanced at herself in the mirror; tape residue was painted on her cheeks. Rosy patches of redness marked where it had been yanked off. After several frantic pops on the door, the neighbor across the hall revealed himself. The stale odor of commercial weed smoke and two years of cigarettes vacuumed into the dark hallway. The apartment building was an old hotel in its previous life. The wood in the walls and the dirty, trodden carpet held tightly to their memories of debauchery.
“You gotta let me use your phone,” She panted. “I was tied up in the closet. He took all my money and my cell and my car.” Pam began to cry. Her wavy blond hair had filthy looking brown roots. A black man in his mid-fifties handed her his go-phone.
“Watch the minutes,” He cleared his throat and spit into a cup.
“I’ll be quick. I promise.”
The man melted back into his sinking couch cushions and puffed away at a pin sized joint. His yellowish-red eyeballs watched Pam’s every move.
“I told you not to be messing around with them dudes. Now you be looking like the Joker with that red on your mouth,” He mumbled, smirking with the hastily rolled joint in his lips. “Don’t you be bringing no heat my way now.”
“My ex-husband, he tied me up and stole my car,” Pam said to the 911 operator. “He’s going to get to my daughter I just know it. He just got out of prison… I’m not gonna stay calm. I just had a fucking shotgun in my face… I was in my closet with a sock in my mouth. Get somebody over here. You all never have no problems when someone calls about my dog or my bass speakers. Get some cops here!”
The St. Louis sun bit down on Jasmine’s brown sugar skin. She rolled down the passenger window and sat with her knees pressed tightly together, fidgeting with her bright orange painted nails. Matt kept a keen eye on the rearview and maintained a safe speed, several miles below the limit. The Grand Am crept through the city streets. Cracked pavement and potholes sucked under the front tires and shot out the back of the car like moments in time bypassed forever. Matt glanced over at his daughter, a girl of mixed race, white and black, 15 years old, innocence melting away. He ducked into the mall parking lot and parked the car far from the main entrance. He to the back seat and grabbed the file folder that was full of Jasmine’s artwork.
“You’re not mad at me are you?” She asked.
Matt thumbed through them once more; several renderings seemed to be perfectly detailed portraits of a gruesome death, snapshots of hell unleashed.
“How could I be mad? You had something unspeakable happen to you,” He said. “You lived through it.”
“I thought about everything you used to tell me.” She said.
“What did you tell the cops?”
“That I couldn’t get a good look at him.”
“Is that true?”
“No. I seen him. That’s how I drew these sketches. I knew you’d be getting out soon and you wouldn’t have none of what that man did to me.”
Matt shuffled through the drawings, placing each viewed one at the bottom of the pile. He looked at three quickly before slowing down and carefully analyzing the fourth one. “Is this what you want done to him?”
Jasmine looked up at her father and blushed with embarrassment. “Daddy I was just upset. I had to get this stuff off my mind.”
“I asked you a question?”
“You’re joking right?”
“Do I look like Bernie Mac or something?” Matt set his left hand on the wheel, flexing his thick brown fingers, tapping the gray plastic.
“That’s a little harsh don’t you think?”
“I seen worse done for less,” He told her. “What did you tell the cops?”
“Nothing. I told you that.”
“Yeah I’m sure. I remembered what you always told me.”
“Cops just complicate things. The streets solve their own problems. They tend to their own and take care of their own.” She said.
“What did they ask you?”
“The normal stuff. They had a rape kit. They had me at the station for like seven hours. I didn’t tell them nothing.” Jasmine rubbed her long legs, her mixed skin tone like creamed coffee under the sunlight. “I told them I couldn’t see his face. That it just happened too fast. I kicked him in his privates and ran off. He was kind of staggering like he was drunk or something.”
“What’s up with his tattoo?” Matt pointed to the sketch. “Was this part of your imagination?”
“No. He really had that. Hustle City, real big across his chest. The STL was bolded too. Just like that.”
“Did he have tats on his back? His shoulder blades?”
“I didn’t see none. I didn’t stick around long enough though.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“Not for real. He pinned me down. He busted my lip and ripped one of my hoop earrings out. That hurt like hell but I didn’t feel it at the time you know.”
Matt looked at the sketch again, seeming to soak every morsel of detail into his brain, as if he would be tested on it later. “Did he touch you down there?” Jasmine hesitated and took a sip of soda from a frosty cup. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“He got his fingers down there. That’s when I kicked him.”
“You did good Booboo.”
“I should’ve cut his throat,” She began to cry, wiping her tears with a brown fast food napkin.
“You did all you could do at the time.”
“I should’ve did more,” She said with her face in her fingers, eyes red and puffy. “I have nightmares every night. I can’t do anything but sleep in class. Go find him daddy. Keep my drawings and do worse than that to him.”
“Have patience baby girl. Things will happen in due time.”
“I don’t have time.” She sniffled.
“You got nothing but time,” Matt told her. “I learned a thing or two about time when I was locked down. Believe me. That’s all I had. I spent too many days and nights learning to embrace patience. It’s the hardest part about being locked down. You don’t realize you got so much time until it’s really all you got in the world.”
“How often did you think of me?” Jasmine asked.
“Every day.Every night. You’re such a strong girl,” He reminded her. “Back when you got shot on that porch and you were in that coma for a month, I sat by your bed every night, just waiting for you to wake up. Before you did, I fucked up and robbed that lady.”
“I was young and stupid. She had a kid in the next hospital room over from yours,” Matt said. “The kid woke up and they were all celebrating. I couldn’t take hearing it no more.”
“What did you do?”
“Followed her to her car… And bought myself a ticket upstate.”
“What did all that time do for you?”
“Led me to my purpose in life.”
“What is it?”
“It’s gonna boil down to a series of moments,” He said. “Sometimes it’s all we get. You gotta wait your whole life for it and then shine when you get your call.”
Matt reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out something small and narrow, wrapped in some newspaper. There were two rubber bands securing the paper cover on each end of the object. He gave it to Jasmine and gently turned her face toward him with his hand. A semi-dry trail of tears led from her eyes, hooking down beneath her jaw line. “I want you to have this. I made it while I was locked up. It’s the result of months and months of patience. You may need it one day or you may not, but either way, see it as a symbol of waiting for your perfect time.”
“What is this?” She asked, slipping her finger under one of the yellow bands.
“Open it later. For now, let’s go shop and get stuff done. I at least owe you that much. I know you like that hair salon in there.” Matt pointed at the shopping mall. “You look like you could use some new shoes too baby doll.”
“I could always use new shoes daddy.” Jasmine said with a smile. She wiped her eyes and pulled out her make-up mirror.
“You’re gonna stay with your Uncle Chi and your cousins for a while you hear me?”
“You really weren’t supposed to pick me up today were you?”
“Depends on what you mean by ‘supposed to.’”
“What about mama?”
“Don’t worry about her. You’re not safe there no more.”
“Is she okay?”
“Is she still on the dope?”
Jasmine looked down to the stained floor mat. “I think so.”
“You seen her do it?”
“Is she okay Daddy?”
“She’ll be fine. I promise.”
Clouds of dusk began to place their palms over the city skyline. Matt ducked and strained as he did the limbo through a hole in a cyclone fence. It was shrouded by some brush in the depths of a city park. He hiked along a narrow path, through some dense woods until he came to an old flight of broken concrete steps. They were cracked stairs that once led to a mental hospital. Matt descended them, scooting downward on his rear due to the steep gradient and lack of a rail. At the bottom was a set of railroad tracks that crawled alongside the Mississippi River. The murky water was low but the powerful current still whipped along like a treadmill’s belt, rolling New Orleans bound. He walked over the gravel laden terrain, approaching a black man that sat on a graffiti painted boulder at the river’s edge. The man wore a St. Louis Browns hat, brown on the dome with an orange bill as flat as a table top. The paintbrush-like tips of a braided afro hung beneath the backwards brim. Strapped over his shoulders was a wife beater, ribbed and sweat-stained, revealing muscular, multi-tattooed arms. In his lips was the flute tip of a Black and Mild cigar. He extended his arm to help Matt up onto the rock. Matt clasped the man’s hand and put his arm around his shoulders.
“My brother Chicago,” He said. “If there was one ugly mug I missed...”
“Look at all that gray on that fro. Fool you look like you’re 35 pushing 51,” Chicago said. He took a deep pull from his cigar and took off his hat to sop the sweat from his brow. “Everything’s the same out on these streets. Stacking dough, ducking the 5-0, living and living some more. I made 10 G’s this year selling that dog food. I know you dreamed of the hustle when you was on that metal bench.”
“Not for real. I don’t know what I miss less, getting shook down every day by the blues or hiding out on the prison yard.” Matt pulled a pint bottle of Crown Royal from his back pocket and unscrewed it gold cap.
“What do you mean hiding? You don’t hide from no man. Two angel wings tatted on your back. What’s all this sideways talk?”
“I need a favor Chi.” He took a sip of whiskey and handed the pint to Chicago.
“Anything for my fellow angel.” Chi said after a swig.
“That’s the whole deal,” Matt watched the wind whip the tide onto the riverbank gravel. “I’ll get to that in a bit.”
Chi shook his head, looked down at his shoes and back at his friend. “How about you get to it now.”
“I need you to look after Jasmine for me. You need to hide her out. She was attacked a few weeks ago. Kool Aid tried to rape her and kill her. Sugar Man put him up to it.”
“Hold up. That’s a pretty big accusation dawg.”
“She got away, kicked him in the nuts and booked. I seen some pics she drew of him. That big old Hustle City tat was stamped across his chest. I sat next to him when he got that tattoo. It was the same time I got my second wing.”
Chicago snuffed out his cigar with a drop of spit. The last whisk of pipe tobacco aroma disappeared past Matt’s nose. “What makes you think Suge had something to do with it?”
“He couldn’t get to me. They eventually put me in Ad-Seg after I dropped out of the gang. Going after my 15 year old girl was how he tried to hit me where it stung the most.”
“You just hit my gut with a wrecking ball dawg.”
“I fell Chi. I’m a fallen. I couldn’t live that life no more.”
“You mean you’re not my brother no more? That’s what you’re saying.”
“I’ll always be your brother Chicago. Blood’s thicker than water. You know this. We may have different pops but we come from the same womb.”
Chicago jumped down from the boulder and kept a rigid stance. “Don’t give me that womb to the tomb bullshit. What about the bread we broke with our real brothers?”
“What about it? It didn’t amount to shit. I lost my life man.”
“You lost five years. Ain’t nothing.”
“I lost my life Chi. I sold my soul for Suge and his Mud Angels. I killed two people to get these wings stamped on my back. One was just 13.”
“You never did a minute of time for neither one.”
“Not for that. Not behind bars at least. You don’t have to see the bars to be doing hard time man. These two wings,” Matt took off his shirt and pointed to his back. “And the one wing you earned, are gonna fly us straight to hell. All for that fucking Sugar Man.”
“I don’t know what to say to you Judas,” Chicago turned and began to walk away, then stopped and faced Matt once more. “I don’t even want to turn my back in your direction.”
“We’re all dead Chi. All of us out here on these streets. All of us in the pen. We slid out of the womb without a chance in the world. Wasn’t nobody happy the day we were born. Fuck that land of opportunity garbage. Shit, there ain’t no more us when it comes to it. It’s just them against me now. Sugar Man’s a dead man walking. Up in prison for life, calling shots, getting a fat commissary,” He laughed. “It’s all he’s got left.”
“You think you’re some new man now that you dropped out?”
“Hell no. Never. My life, or what I called a life, it’s over. My only remaining purpose is to get revenge for my little girl.”
“I can’t even look you in the eye.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I already told you,” Matt said. “I need to know where Kool’s been staying also. They’re gonna keep coming after Jazzy, till she’s dead. You know how it works.”
“A fallen angel asking me to lift him back up? For a favor?”
“No Chi. A brother asking his brother to do something he knows is right. She don’t deserve none of this.”
“He lives on top of C.K.’s Bar on Bamberger and Meramec. Right there on the corner,” Chi told him. “He’s a dope head anyways. That’s probably why he couldn’t carry out the hit right.”
“I gotta trust you with my daughter. Your niece. You gotta keep her safe. I took her and made sure she got all new clothes and a new hairdo. She don’t look like she used to.”
“After you walk up those steps, I don’t ever want to see you again,” Chi said.“Not never.”
“You won’t. Trust me,” Matt replied as he hopped down to the gravel. “What about Jazzy?”
“I’ll stash her.”
Kool Aid relaxed in his dirty four room apartment smoking a Newport cigarette and sipping red liquid from a disposable gas station cup. Old springs and rusty parts grunted as he leaned back in his easy chair and popped his neck with his palm. He had on no shirt or socks, only a pair of tattered basketball shorts that were loose around the waist. His bare feet were covered with cat hair and crumbs from the filthy wood floors. He reached over to his end table, a TV tray, and fingered a syringe that was cocked, half full of rocket fuel. Kool Aid tied a long strand of restaurant grade plastic wrap around his leg, just below the knee. The wrap had been twisted many times to form a strong tourniquet. He switched the channel on his television and waited for a hungry vein to emerge, ready and willing. The kitchen door that led to the balcony and fire escape slowly creaked open, roughly sliding against the warped kitchen tiles. Kool Aid clicked his tongue several times as if he were calling his cat. Through smudged glasses he saw Matt standing in the kitchen holding the sawed-off 12 gauge.
“If it ain’t the fallen angel,” Kool Aid mumbled. He had his left foot propped up over his right thigh, feeling for the vein. “I see you still got the gauge I gave you for your 25th birthday.”
“It was still under Pam’s sink where I ditched it five years ago.”
“Stick it in your mouth and pull the trigger. You should die a traitor’s death O.G.”
“Look what you sold your soul for,” Matt motioned toward the syringe with the shotgun’s snub tip. “Who you calling a traitor partner? You couldn’t even kill a 15 year old girl.”
“Feisty little bitch ain’t she?”
“I taught her everything.” Matt took a few steps into the kitchen, crunching cat food beneath his boots.
“You know the rules,” Kool Aid said. “You knew I had to do it. Suge couldn’t touch you in seclusion. Somebody had to pay your debt. I know somewhere in that warped-ass head of yours, you know it was only biz.”
“All our lives it’s all been boiling down to this. Sometimes, one or two moments is all we get.” Matt pointed the barrel over the breakfast nook that separated the kitchen and living room.
Kool Aid dug the needle around in the back of his leg but couldn’t get a bite. He stood up from his easy chair and got in front of a Mickey’s bar mirror that hung on the beam by the kitchen.
“Let me at least have this last moment then my brother. Wait till I press this plunger down. I wanna go to the moon one last time.”
“I don’t know what I’m even doing here. Look at you with that needle. You’re already a dead man,” Matt said. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“That dog food? That chow-chow?” Matt temporarily let the gun rest at his side. “Walking around like a zombie?”
“You ain’t never did it?”
“Ain’t never been that stupid.”
Kool Aid squeezed a vein on his bald temple and jabbed it with the needle.
“It’s a suicide you wake up from in the morning. It’s like being back in your mother’s womb and not wanting to come out. Everyday’s a do-over, you dig? “
“I don’t dig.” Matt let the 12 gauge explode. Kool Aid was blown against his TV tray and easy chair. A high pitched wheeze emitted from his pellet peppered HuSTLe City tattoo. The bang caused the TV’s screen to shatter. The movie Any Given Sunday could still be heard. Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx’s phantom voices argued behind a cracked bubble. On the breakfast nook, Matt saw a semi-crumbled piece of paper with Jasmine’s school schedule on it. Kool Aid was wrapped like a pretzel on the dirty floor, his needle still dangling from his head. Matt pulled a knife from his pocket and knelt to the hardwood.
Chicago sat on his couch, reading Source magazine and watching Jasmine and his daughter play games on the X-Box Matt purchased. His phone chimed. On the screen appeared a picture message. It was Kool Aid, dead with his genitals shoved into his mouth. The text read: “Just like Jazzy’s pics. Make damn sure Suge C’s this.”
Chi tossed his I-Phone against the wall, cracking its glass. He grabbed Jasmine by the hair and dragged her out of the room, kicking and screaming.
Two police officers busted into Kool Aid’s apartment with their guns drawn. Matt sat against the nook with his pint of Crown Royal in his hand. One officer looked at Kool Aid and began to dry heave. The other aimed his 9mm at Matt.
“I ain’t going nowhere.”
“Drop the weapon!”
“It’s already on the floor.”
“Down on the floor all the way! Spread eagle!”
“Take me back boys. Take me back.” Matt said as he complied.
Chicago drove his Jeep Cherokee down to the riverbank with a small motorboat attached to the hitch. Rough metal was exposed behind scratched green paint. He pulled his niece out of the back seat and threw her to the gravel. Chicago readied the boat by the water and heaved Jasmine in with his hip. When he reached the midpoint between Missouri and Illinois, Chi killed the sputtering motor.
“I tried to see it your daddy’s way but I just ain’t got it in me. I can’t let myself slip like that.” Chicago tied a thick rope around Jasmine’s leg and pulled the knot as tight as he could get it. “Sugar Man took us all in as kids. Gave us opportunity when we ain’t had none. Your old man turned his back, stabbed us all. He earned them wings on his back. Full fledged. A captain.” He tied the other end of the rope through the center hole of a cinderblock. A tear rolled down his face.
“I’m getting my other wing. I’m gonna run them streets hands down. You’re going where you should’ve been sent in the first place.”
Jasmine lay on the floor of the boat with water sopping into her shirt and shorts. Her eyes were blackened shut. Dried blood was caked on one corner of her mouth and fresh blood streamed from the other. Chi’s hands trembled as he secured the knot onto the concrete block. He fumbled through his pocket and revealed his phone. Jasmine mumbled something inaudible and inched her fingers into the front of her shorts. Chicago readied his camera working with the screen’s distorted view. For several long seconds, he looked into the dark distance and saw a tug boat flashing its fog lamp onto the riverbank. A swift pressure pierced his neck. He was choking and gagging on his broken Adam’s apple. A hand twisted viciously with all its remaining strength. Jasmine’s shaking fist plunged a dagger like a threaded needle. It was a gift made of pure patience: A soup spoon with a handle that was sharpened to a point and its wide end wrapped in waxed twine. The boat bucked and Chicago plopped into the black grasp of the sucking current. Jasmine collapsed onto the boat’s wet floor and passed out, face up. In the midnight distance, the tug boat’s horn shattered the Mississippi River silence.