So I was sitting on the front porch, chewing on my nail beds, thinking about nothing, when black Kelly from up the street asked did I want to flirt with crime.
A Mustang with a candy-paint mid-coat revved its engine as it passed.
He said if I wasn’t going to be a pussy all my life then maybe we could tag team that shit together, pop my cherry.
He reached into his pocket, looking over his shoulders like in case the world was watching, and pulled out a tiny bag, pregnant with powder. “This is not asbestos,” he said. “You’re in, right? Of course, you are.”
We walked down Bockman Road toward the strip mall, stopping at corners to take bumps off his fist. I told him the only Kelly I knew lived in Castro Valley and that she was a girl. And white.
“It could have been Sue,” said Kelly. “But my daddy wasn’t into country music.” He smiled, really white teeth, dark gums, like candy in the dirt.
I took another bump and stood there feeling bells in my head.
When he was little my pop watched his brother, my Uncle Hank, nearly drown at Monastery Beach. The undertow had him. “He wasn’t more than ten feet away,” Pop said. “And the monastery bells were ringing but there was nothing we could do.”
Kelly said, “I knew a pimp once who thought he was Pavlov because he fed girls powder from the palm. Watch them salivate, he would say. When I asked him what about the bell? He told me, Nothing rings you like a little toot now and then.”
We wiped powder across our teeth and stood ringing.
Outside Dave’s Market, Kelly tongued the baggy before giving it to the wind.
The street was all cigarette butts and broken glass, the parking lot a lambskin graveyard.
Kelly tucked me under his shoulder and we cupped our eyes to the window and made fog on the glass. “Tell me what your little eye can spy,” he said.
The store was a lot of apple crates and rice bags, shelves with mason jars of pickled whatevers, beer posters. An old Asian man pushed a dust broom around while a woman who could’ve been his mother or his wife sat at the register, pretending to watch meat wither under some heat lamps but really holding an eye on the store. She had a large face, pocked with scars cured in a sun foreign to our own, hotter maybe. At the back of the store was a wall full of liquor.
“And X marks the spot,” Kelly said, pointing. “I don’t need to draw you a map, right?”
“You want me to gaff a bottle?”
“No,” he said. “I want you to gaff two. One for us, one for the old lady.”
“Doesn’t matter, but the old lady says make hers anything clear. All you gotta do is hug the aisle, slip the bottles down your legs, and walk out.”
“And what’re you going to do?”
“What I’m doing right now,” he said. “Give me your coat.”
Kelly put on my windbreaker and pulled the hood until his eyes disappeared.
The Asian man was coughing and sweeping and the woman’s face was there.
“What about them?” I said.
“I got them,” said Kelly. “And besides, look at him, man. What’s he going to do, throw an algorithm at you? They don’t all know kung fu, racist.”
I told him I was a purple belt out of America’s Best Karate dojo in the Manor and that my sensei, Mister Marx (who said he was quarter Cherokee on his daddy’s side, but Uncle Hank said that was only true if by Cherokee you mean Jew and by daddy you mean who?), could break more boards than anyone and that I couldn’t feel my lips and that that was normal, right?
But Kelly just stood there making a face like he was turning a thumbscrew but the thumbscrew was his face. “Damn it, man,” he said. “Just give me some Mississippi before you go, okay? Jesus…”
Kelly walked into the store with his shoulders up, his hands in his pockets, and the old man exchanged faces with the old woman before following him down the aisle, pushing the broom like he was chasing the dirt.
Me, I was counting Mississippis slow, thinking about Uncle Hank.
Before he quit the church, Pop would say it was a miracle, that God himself intervened and pulled his brother out of the surf. “Thank the angels,” he’d say. “Thank Jesus.” But Uncle Hank said Jesus had nothing to do with it, that he had just hugged the sandbar until the undertow was through with him. “Sometimes you gotta dig in to get out,” he said. “Even the ostrich knows that.”
After a Mississippi ten count I walked inside the store, going straight for the back wall. The old woman looked at me and smiled like I was exactly what she’d been looking for. I smiled back like of course I am. She reminded me of something carried by the neck, a patchwork of wrinkles stretched.
The back of the store was empty except for a little boy sitting on the floor, Indian style, with a pudding cup in his hands, half empty. He was wearing an I’m A Pepper T-shirt with chocolate pudding on the pepper. And he held his cup close when I walked by, just in case.
The liquor wall wasn’t liquor at all. It was wine—red, white, whatever. They were stacked high and deep like some kind of rank-and-file, tiny soldiers locked at attention. “At ease, gentleman,” I said and slipped two of them into my pant legs, wearing them like ankle weights.
I was walking past the old woman when all this banging happened. Kelly came running out of the pharmacy aisle, my windbreaker bulging, with the old man behind him swinging the broom back and forth like a blind person.
“Book, fool,” he said, running past me and dropping boxes of cold medicine the whole way out the door.
The old woman, still at the register, looked at me and then at the trail Kelly left behind then back at me, trying to put two and two together. Then she was off her feet and running too and yelling in a tongue that seemed as old as the world.
I ran like I was leaving all hell behind me.
Kelly was a couple blocks down when I caught up and we hopped a fence and hid in somebody’s backyard until our skulls were normal.
“What happened?” I said.
“I got anxious,” he said, shrugging. “Figured I’d kill two birds with one stone or whatever.”
“The cold medicine,” he said. “The old lady likes to shake and bake her shit sometimes, gives me a few dollars if I help her out.”
“Shake and bake shit?” I said.
“Yeah, man,” Kelly said. “Shake and bake shit. Crystal. Tina.” He took a deep drag from his cigarette, blew smoke at me. “What’re you new to the world?”
He flicked his butt over the fence and then unzipped my jacket and started pulling boxes out and stacking them in the grass between us.
I was sitting there staring at the boxes like this is the world? when Kelly asked me about my cherry.
“It’s popped, right?” he said, laughing. “Of course, it is. I could hear the Doppler all the way down the street.”
I fished the bottles out of my pants and laid them next to the cold medicine.
“The fuck is this, man?” Kelly said then. “Burgundy? Pee Not No Ear?”
“It’s Pinot Noir,” I said.
“The hell I’m supposed to do with this, nigga, sauté a fucking steak?”
“You said get anything…”
“Clear, I said. Anything clear.”
“I thought you meant, like, Are we clear?” I said. “You know, like crystal?”
Kelly reached back and slapped me across the face, hard, bringing the bells again. Then he wrapped the boxes and bottles inside my jacket and slung it over his shoulder and hopped the fence, leaving me there with the crabgrass and all this ringing in my head.
On the way home I saw the little boy from the store, his pudding lips, his Pepper T-shirt, and he crossed the street soon as he saw me back.
A couple of days later I was at the house, watching old Mash reruns, when my doorbell rang. Black Kelly from up the street with a bottle of Pinot in his hands, an olive-branch look on his face.
“I brought one back for you,” he said, passing me the bottle. “Your coat too.”
We sat on the couch, drinking wine and making faces from the drinks we took. “Maybe we should sauté a steak with this,” Kelly said.
On the television two surgeons traded barbs while a dress with some sort of man inside sashayed around the room.
“How do you watch this white shit?” Kelly said.
I shrugged. “Because I’m white, I guess.” I offered him the last swig of Pinot. “Was your mom mad?”
“About yesterday?” he said. “Not really. I mean, she still got tipped, right? Plus, she took the stuff, didn’t pay me for it. Called it good after that.”
Kelly and I watched TV for a while, then we stood on the porch, sharing cigarettes until he said he had to jet. “I’ll see you tomorrow, though,” he said, walking away. “Thrift shop just opened on Hesperian and the old lady wants a shawl or some shit. You’re down, right? Of course you are.”
Most days, when I think about it, I’m sure my Uncle Hank was trying to teach me all about life and how we get on, digging ourselves in and out of things, and that bells are only bells even if they’re rung just for us. “Mother Nature didn’t make apples just to drop them on your head,” he would say. “But it was a nice gesture anyhow.”
But there are other days I think he was only another asshole who kills God after every miracle just because he can.
There’s an old picture of him and my Pop at the beach, squinting into the camera with the ocean behind them, whitecaps. There’s an undertow there too, waiting, but you would never know.
You’d have to get in first, dig?
I always meant to show that picture to Kelly but never did.