Part One: An Awkward Boy
The neighbor woman died, and it was all that Eddie could take.
He found her, returning from the New State Variety, with his big brother, Turtle. Turtle came upon her first, discovered Mrs. Walker in full rigor, facedown dead, her arms and legs splayed out like open scissors on the ruddy red carpet of her parlor. They'd let themselves in through the front door of 51 Woodland, to find her obese body laid out at the bottom of the stairs in the hot room, her aluminum walking cane angled on her back, glowing in the parlor light. Eddie had knocked twice, as he always did, Turtle running in ahead of him, Mrs. Walker's grocery bags in his hands, stopping short, dropping the grocery bags on the floor, standing two minutes silent above the old woman, who'd loaned Mama sugar, who paid the boys $5 a week to fetch her groceries. Eddie ran in after Turtle and then he saw her, the neighbor woman dead, staring at her unmoving face, her eyes wide open, left eye staring at the carpet! He gazed at the waxen brown flesh, dead calves slanting against the bottom stairs. The old woman had that morning tripped, tumbled down the stairs, and broken her neck. She lay upon a bloated, hyperextended arm. The ceiling fan shook on its joint. Turtle ran screaming out of the front door, down Woodland Ave., Eddie after him.
They sprinted two blocks home, across the hot, broken sidewalk to Nana's house. God, Eddie thought, Daddy ain't run off a week ago, and now Mrs. Walker fall down the stairs and die -- and they had found her, Turtle and him, and Eddie had looked into her dead face.
Eddie followed Turtle up the front stoop, into Nana's house, storm door slapping at his back. Nana stood in the kitchen, a wet rag in her hand. "What is it, boy?" Turtle went to Nana and hugged her fat hips until Nana pushed him away, and Turtle told her, each word forming slowly on his pale lips. "Mrs. Walker dead," he muttered, and what came next was a flood of useless sounds. Nana took a sigh, set the wet rag on the counter, and patted Turtle's back. "Okay, boy." Nana went to the telephone to call the police.
The police were just arriving at the dead woman's house when Mama came home from work and found Nana, Turtle, and Eddie at the kitchen table. Nana told Mama the story as the coroner pulled up in a twenty-five-year-old Chevy station wagon, and Mama, like the whole snooping street, watched, from behind a kitchen curtain, the white uniformed men, necks pink from the sun, drape Mrs. Walker's body and take it out on a gurney. "Turtle come screaming down the street," Nana said as Mama stared. "I heard him screaming from two blocks away. He been crying like this all day." Turtle drank beers and cussed, picked playground fights, tore the tails off lizards; he lured and tortured stray cats in the E. Monroe St. Church parking lot. And today he had been crying at the death of an old woman. Eddie watched Mama smile at Turtle in the same way Nana had smiled, as if she thought Turtle's grief was sweet. Then Mama turned to look at Eddie. Nana saw her looking. "This one here ain't let out a peep," Nana said, pointing. "I almost forgot he was here. It beginning to spook me. Christ, you'd think something like this would make him talk."
Eddie was ten, and Turtle was twelve, and Eddie had not said a word since his daddy ran off the week before. It was Turtle who could not set two words together without stuttering, but now Eddie had stopped speaking. No one thought they were brothers. Turtle was lank and frail and light, and dirt stupid Mama called him, and Eddie was hefty and black and handsome, strong like Daddy. Quiet. Eddie was a giant. Nana thought it was odd to see such a hulking boy, a boy who could pass for twelve, fourteen, sit silent at his bedroom window all day, hurt on his face. Just the day before Daddy ran off, Mama had sat behind Eddie on the sunny stoop, rubbing his head. "Look at you, boy," she told him. "You watch, you'll be big like your daddy. Won't nobody ever bother you."
Eddie woke the next morning to find Turtle smiling at him, pointing at the bedroom window. "He run," Turtle said. "That son, son, son of a bitch, I told you he would!" Eddie went to the window and stared out at the empty, oil-stained concrete of the driveway, and laughing, Turtle ran into the kitchen. Eddie found him there with Mama. She was cutting up all the clothes Daddy had left behind, old Kodaks, tossing them into the wastebasket.
That night Eddie was too worried to eat and went to bed without eating the dinner Nana had scrounged up. Turtle waited until nightfall and snuck out through the bedroom window as Eddie lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. "You best, best, best say something when I come back," Turtle said. Turtle spoke in slow bursts because anger made him stutter, made him breathe and think out and pronounce each word, until Turtle was staring at Eddie from the grass outside. Eddie watched him wander across the street and disappear into darkness, imagining Turtle gliding across Woodland Park and beyond to Van Buren Ave., his head bobbing beneath the swaggering hustlers, the prostitutes strutting in spandex, like Eddie had seen him do a hundred times, zipping up and down the street, running his fingers across the chain-link fences of the hooker motels, smoking half-smoked menthol cigarettes he found ashed in the Circle K parking lot. When Turtle came home Eddie was still lying on the bed, suffering, staring at the water stains on the ceiling. Turtle slapped Eddie's face. "Say, something, you crazy overgrown nigger. Say, say, say...!" Turtle slapped him again. Eddie tried to speak, but the trauma of the morning had not left him; it was a panic, a child's midnight anguish, a nightmare, and he decided that he would not speak again that summer no matter how many times Turtle beat him.
Three days after Mrs. Walker fell down her staircase and died, her sons drove down from Texas in a pair of four-door sedans to collect her belongings. Turtle and Eddie peered at them from the shade of Nana's porch. "They will sell it now," Turtle stammered at Eddie. No! Eddie thought. From the shade of their stoop, Eddie and Turtle watched Mrs. Walker's sons stare at the front of 51 Woodland Ave. The sons did not recognize the street, the condition of their boyhood home, the street a slum, the house nearly worthless. Upright Chris-tian types in polo shirts and deck shoes they were, the two sons come down from Texas, climbing the front steps, removing from the house Mrs. Walker's most precious belongings, those things which seemed in an instant to represent her spirit, and leaving the house to rot. Eddie watched them, praying they would not come back, smiling when they drove off two hours later, sedans packed with boxes, as if never to return. Eddie was smiling. Turtle was, too. The house was theirs if they could claim it.
Boys from Maryvale watched Mrs. Walker's sons packing too, trailer park white boys watching from the curling grass of Woodland Park, others orbiting the street on dirt bikes, boys younger than the pimps in do rags and bright shirts who rode their bikes along Van Buren Ave., older, meaner than Turtle. Eddie saw the boys and he nudged Turtle, and then Turtle saw them and cussed. They'd come before, a phalanx of ugly, pimple-faced boys on dirt bikes, casing the houses of Woodland Ave., fatherless boys like Eddie himself. They'd made forays into Woodland Ave., held the street, the park, for a few weeks each summer, only to realize that they lived too far to hold the street for good. They would glide down the street and grit their faces at Turtle and Eddie sitting on their stoop, Turtle gritting back, gritting when Eddie, sitting behind him, knew he could only be afraid.
The Maryvale boys came that very night. Eddie heard them breaking into the back door of the dead woman's house -- Eddie from his pillow heard distant smashing windows, the shrill shouts of wilding boys. Eddie sat up, and he thought, God, God, Turtle, don't you go over there and try nothing. Turtle heard them, too. His eyes popped open. Boys whispering in the backyard of 51 Woodland, scurrying across weeds, the dead woman's back door the next moment shoved in.
Eddie watched Turtle climb into his shirt and jeans, take a baseball bat from under his bed. God, he running over to the house,
Eddie thought. Turtle opened the window and climbed out. Eddie got dressed and followed him. Turtle grabbed Eddie's foot. "No. You, you, you can't," Turtle muttered. "What if Mama find out?" Eddie said nothing. "All right," Turtle said, passing Eddie a flat-head screwdriver from his pocket, "but they ain't gonna fight you soft cause you ten." Eddie nodded, climbed out of the bedroom window. From their stoop they watched the Maryvale boys, the dark silhouettes of their sneaking bodies in Mrs. Walker's living room windows, bouncing flashlights. The boys had claimed the house already. If they fought them now, the boys would beat them down, and if by chance they beat the boys, the boys would only come back with more boys. Turtle was cussing. There was nothing they could do.
Turtle had an idea. Turtle and Eddie took their bikes from the backyard. Eddie felt his pulse beating in his temple as he pedaled his bike after Turtle to the farmhouse of Turtle's best friend, Adolpho, a mulatto boy who lived on the dirt fields under South Mountain.
They parked their bikes inside Adolpho's gate. Adolpho heard them crunching chicken feed and came out onto his front porch. Turtle, gasping, caught sight of Adolpho. "Adolpho, Adolpho," he said. It was all Turtle could do not to stutter. "The house, they claimed it, the Maryvale boys."
Adolpho waved Turtle and Eddie inside. "Well," he said, "come on, then. We best make us a plan."
Early in the morning, at five, they appeared at the dead woman's house, Eddie, Adolpho, and Turtle, and found it empty and smelling of urine. The boys had broken the back window and painted gang signs on the white kitchen walls. The red parlor smelled of weed. Eddie looked at himself in the crack of the parlor window. "Those motherfuckers," Turtle shouted, looking at the broken windows. "They, they, they will be back soon. Tonight."
Adolpho gave Turtle a look. "Eddie, you go home and get a hammer and nails. We got to board it up by noon. Turtle, come on, we needs to get some boys to help us."
A week passed. Others came to claim the dead woman's house, young boys in would-be gangs, boys from the adjoining wards, boys from Apache Junction, from Broadway Rd., brandishing sticks and knives, none older than fifteen, and for days the house was lost to Turtle, Eddie, and Adolpho, until they could gather enough South Phoenix delinquents to reclaim it; there were small street scuffles, rocks hurled from slingshots, young boys sniped at from the almond trees with BB guns, drunken melees, raids of screaming boys, the smashing of beer bottles against undersized skulls, chains whipped against fleeing backs, and once Eddie's own dirt bike was snatched from his backyard in reprisal, his bedroom window smashed with a brick. They met the invading boys in night rumbles, in standoffs, and, at last, in one great and bloody melee in the house itself, each room filled with the shouts of skirmishing boys, the slapping and beating of little fists, until the police station dispatched two squad cars, and policemen came rushing through the front door of the dead woman's house, through the ruddy red parlor, up the carpeted stairs, dragging the South Phoenix boys out of the condemned house, lining them up before the bushes and the great white columns of the 51 Woodland porch for all the neighbors, looking on from dark stoops, to witness. Mama saw the commotion, ran over, and boxed Eddie's ear and smacked Turtle's face for letting Eddie out, knowing as she dragged the boys home they would sneak out the next night.
They ran out into the streets, across the park, seeking out boys to help them, came rapping at their windows at night, set up ambuscades, sharpened penknives, pumped BB guns full of air. They made twelve-hour truces, negotiated treaties in the moonlit cotton fields south beneath the jagged black mountaintops, where opposing lines of bastard boys stood upon the dirt. Before them, Turtle and Eddie stood face-to-face with the Maryvale boys (Adolpho at their flank). They would not give up the house, though Eddie did not know why, and Turtle did not seem to know why, only that this, the house, was all that mattered now, only that Daddy had run off and Eddie had wanted to scream but he could not scream, only that the neighbor woman had died, and there was no money, and they must now have something to compensate. The house must belong to them, and none of their enemies could claim it, because Turtle and Eddie had the advantage of logistics and blood desire.
They fought each night until the police no longer came to arrest them. Eddie could beat any boy down, boys fourteen and fifteen, their faces turning pink at sight of him lunging at them in the cramped rooms of the dead woman's house. He smiled in darkness. Fear and rage rushed into him; his arms stretched back; he beat them; there was the crack of his dry brown fists into the faces of the white boys, the sight of himself in Mrs. Walker's broken parlor mirror beating a stinking pimple-faced boy to the ground. Adolpho was always beside him, swinging his fists, Turtle howling like a dog from the top of the dead woman's staircase. Eddie had loathed Turtle, and now he almost loved him, needed him, in the same way Turtle needed him to claim the house, to beat the boys with his overlarge fists. Goddamn, Turtle was right, the house was theirs. Adolpho knew it, too. Adolpho said they could make some money off the house once they claimed it. And Eddie kept thinking about this, the money, the money, as he beat the Maryvale boys down...then Eddie wished the Maryvale boys would not give up, for he did not fear them now, and he wondered if Jesus had sent the Maryvale boys so that he might beat them, and bloody their faces against all fear. One night, after Eddie had beaten down two fourteen-year-old boys,
Eddie, Adolpho, and Turtle ran across the street to the basketball court to wash the blood off their knuckles in the public rest room. Turtle turned to Eddie and he said, "Damn, Eddie, you fight, fight hard. You fight harder than me and Adolpho fucking put together, nigger!" And Eddie smiled at himself, smiled big, in the graffitoed mirror, and washed the pink blood of his hand in the sink. And Adolpho, nodding, gave Eddie's shoulder a slap.
One day the Maryvale boys ran off and they did not come back. Eddie watched the house from the bedroom window, waiting for the screeching of dirt bike chains, the shouts of boys in the darkness, but heard nothing but the recurrent sound of sirens racing up Van Buren beyond the park. They had won the house. That night Turtle snuck Eddie out of the bedroom and down the street to meet Adolpho, to watch the city of Phoenix above the rim of palm trees from the dead woman's balcony.
Eddie had never seen the city like this before, from so high, above the palmettos, at night. They ran through the house, Adolpho, Eddie, and Turtle, laughing in darkness, playing t-tag in Mrs. Walker's house. They found secret hiding places in her attic, a cubbyhole in the top-floor bedroom. Eddie had never seen Turtle so happy. The house was for them a blessing, the only good thing -- Turtle confessed to Adolpho on the very staircase Mrs. Walker had toppled down -- that had happened to them since Daddy ran off.
Eddie knew that Turtle could tell Adolpho and no one else. Adolpho was Turtle's nigger. Adolpho and Turtle had knocked about the South Phoenix streets together for as long as Eddie could remember. Adolpho had a year on Turtle, but they took the same remedial classes together until they dropped out.
The house belonged to Adolpho, too. He could have a share. Adolpho had been good to them. The second night after Daddy ran off, Turtle dragged Eddie from Nana's shouts and Mama's crying to Adolpho's house. "We needs to get y'all drunk tomorrow, what we needs to do," Adolpho said that night. "We needs to get you tore down." Adolpho stole beers from his uncle Balthazar's corner of the refrigerator and set them in his backpack, and they ran into the city to get drunk. Eddie did not understand why they needed to get themselves drunk until they'd wandered to the city the next afternoon, sat on a Van Buren curb before the Liquor Giant, and Eddie was buzzing off his second beer. Eddie felt good. Eddie felt nothing at all. Adolpho was right. The beer made you feel no hurt. Eddie no longer worried that Mama and Nana would lose Nana's house. And Turtle looked calm, too. They drank with Adolpho into the afternoon. Men in do rags, slouching men, the very men who Eddie sent Turtle on his errands, called Turtle "little nigger," and their hookers, emerged from the ten-dollar motels and Third Ward flophouses half asleep like walking zombies. Eddie watched Turtle watching the men. Turtle was drunk, his skinny body drunk on a couple beers, Turtle whispering, "Nigger, you is only scared. I will buy you toys, toys, toys, toys with the money I gets from Van Buren if you talk. You is only scared, Eddie. You is only scared. We don't need that no-good son of a bitch." They sat on the curb with Adolpho that afternoon, drunk, watching the cars, taking solace in the familiar faces of the pimps and whores, the waking hustlers, rising from a day's sleep -- like vampires, he thought, sleeping out the day -- everyone rising in concert, the men and women, wandering out of their motel rooms, the men to sell the bodies of the women, the women to have their bodies sold by men. And police cars slowed from the side streets, cornered onto Van Buren, as if the cops inside too had slept the day in preparation for this night. Eddie was high. Eddie had no worries, only tomorrow, only tomorrow's beers to get. Daddy had left them, but they could play in the house; it might could be a good summer still.
Adolpho's uncle Balthazar liked to drink, drinking being his only occupation, and though Uncle Balthazar possessed a forbearing disposition, he dragged Adolpho to the refrigerator when they returned to the farmhouse that night, accused Adolpho of vicking his beers, and beat Adolpho down right in front of Turtle, Eddie, and Adolpho's familia that evening, punched him closed-fisted. In the kitchen before his cousins and his mama and his sister, the refrigerator swung open, Adolpho confessed in Spanish, beneath his uncle's slapping fists, to thieving the beers, and Adolpho ran out of the kitchen, Turtle and Eddie after him, into the red dust of twilight, Adolpho panting, crouched on scattered chicken feed, and bleeding from the face. Adolpho took the beating without complaint, his eye the next hour swollen. Adolpho didn't make a fuss about it or fess on Turtle and Eddie. Adolpho was like that. A boy will take a beating for you if he is your nigger.
The three of them drank beers together each afternoon that first week after Daddy left. Curbside beers seemed to lift Turtle's spirit, his worries tapering after each sip, until he worried only for Eddie, complaining to Adolpho that Eddie had not spoken. "Then, don't you be beating on Eddie no more," Adolpho said. "That won't help him now." And Adolpho took Turtle and Eddie back to the curbside in front of the Liquor Giant each afternoon to buy liquor from crackheads, fairies who sold themselves on Roosevelt St., the white marks, executives in four-hundred-dollar suits who drifted into the ward to get their crack at lunch, Arizona State frat boys hunting for dime bags of weed.
One day, sitting at the curb, in front of Eddie, Adolpho made a confession to Turtle. "Turtle, Turtle," Adolpho said, "mira, there is something I gots to tell you, something I ain't never told you before. Sometimes, I fall out on my back. I got this epilepsy shit. I ain't told you on account of it gone away since I was eight, and it ain't come back since last month. Epilepsy make you fall out on your back and shake and spit and drool like a baby. I had a seizure last month I ain't tell you about. But it's cool cause I see the angels, nigger, and I get visions. I look into the future and shit. Uncle Balthazar took me to the doctor last month, and the doctor say I might fall out again on account of something he seen when he looked at a X ray of my brains." Beggars passed by above them. It was midday, sunny. It was hot, and they were drunk on the beers. Eddie felt so good. Eddie understood why Daddy had drunk beers so much. Turtle was staring at Adolpho. Eddie wondered why Adolpho had not told them this before.
"I, I," Turtle told Adolpho, nodding, stuttering.
Adolpho gave Turtle and Eddie an imploring look. "Somebody got to watch me. Y'all won't run from me when I fall out, when I is shaking on the ground?"
"Hell no...!" Stammering Turtle went silent; it was all he could say. Eddie shook his head. Of course not. He wouldn't run, not after everything Adolpho had done for them. Turtle said, "You, you, you ain't got no problem, Adolpho. You won't fall out, out nohow."
"You don't know that," Adolpho said. "I got epilepsy. My brain don't work. You got to deal with reality, Turtle. You can't pretend things ain't a certain way when they is. You got to deal. Your daddy run. You got to deal. Your little brother freak out, go quiet, and you want to beat him. I am telling you about my di-sease and you got to help me. You just look after me when I fall out. Put a twig in my mouth so I don't bite my fucking tongue off," Adolpho said.
"Your daddy run, boy, and you freaking, Eddie. It's okay. You ain't got to talk if you ain't want to. I know how you feel for the simple fact my daddy left me, too."
In the middle of that week Turtle met a funny man named Jules outside the Liquor Giant. Jules managed the mail boys in the basement of the Dial Corporation, up the street on Palm Lane. Adolpho made Jules out for a faggot first thing and told Eddie and Turtle this later that afternoon. Eddie had never met a faggot before, but Turtle said that one time on Roosevelt St. he had seen one of them dressed up like a woman in the back of a lease car with another one dressed like a regular dude. That was all Turtle knew about faggots except that they had AIDS and waved their wrists and said, "Woo-hoo."
Jules was removing a cigarette from a pack of Marlboro reds when Turtle propositioned him to buy him a six-pack of generic beers for Eddie and him (as Adolpho looked on from the alley across the street, in secret, in case the deal went bad) with $5.87 worth of loose change. Jules put a flame to his cigarette and shrieked in laughter. "You think," Jules told Turtle, "I want the money you stole from your mammy's purse?"
Turtle waited on the curb with Eddie for Jules to emerge from the Liquor Giant. He flashed the bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 before Turtle like scraps of meat before a dog. "Well, come on, boys," said Jules. "I ain't gonna give this to you out in the middle of the motherfucking street." Turtle followed Jules to his car. Adolpho was in the alley shaking his head. Turtle unlatched Jules's passenger door, climbed into the seat, Eddie after him, climbing into the back.
"I said beers," Turtle said.
Jules turned his head. "Beers stand out. You might be a little fucking snitch. These fit under your shirt. Oh, drama. What am I do-ing?" He looked at Eddie in the rearview. "What is you looking at, boy?" he shouted. "Say something." Eddie felt his face go red. He looked away.
"He don't talk," Turtle said.
"That is pitiful, and why? Don't tell me he big and stupid."
"No, our daddy left is why. He took it hard. He sensitive like that." Turtle arched his shoulders, pouring the change back into his pocket until his pocket had swollen. For show Turtle grabbed one of the bottles of Mad Dog, twisted off the cap, and took a swig before Jules, who covered his mouth, laughing, as Turtle took the bottles and went running out of the car to Adolpho.
Turtle and Eddie met Jules at the Liquor Giant the day after, brought Jules his lunch in the basement mail room of the Dial Building, riding their dirt bikes up Central to Palm Lane. In the basement Eddie found Jules in a collared shirt. Jules's desk was bigger than the desks of the other, white men. Jules had a good, indoor, air-conditioned office job, but Eddie knew the man hustled because Jules dressed too well for a man who pushed a mail cart.
Adolpho wouldn't come along. Watch out for Jules, Adolpho kept saying. Said, Watch your back, nigger. Turtle did not care. Jules had money. And Eddie was more curious of the man than he was afraid. Jules sent Turtle and Eddie on errands in the city: pick up Chinese takeout, pay the electric bill at the Checks Cashed, get cigarettes from the vending machine, seeming each time less surprised that the boys returned at all with a receipt, his change, with Chinese, his cigarettes. Jules had the manner of an elementary school teacher, of an aunt, always doting.
One night Jules met Turtle and Eddie at the Dial Corporation and drove them to 37 Woodland and, offering a business card, told Mama that he had an associate's degree in business administration from Florida International University, that he was a manager at the Dial Corporation, that he considered himself a Christian man.
"Want me to know they in good hands, what you wanted," said Mama, smiling, staring at the card. "You ain't got to say all that. Shoot, if you can handle them. These boys ain't been nothing but trouble since they daddy left."
Copyright © 2003 by Murad Kalam