Mouse had changed.
Before he announced his engagement to EttaMae he was a happy man, full of himself. It's true that he was especially pleased when misfortune happened to someone else, but at least he kept us smiling. Life was hard back then and a good laugh was worth a month of Sundays.
But just when he had a reason to be glad, Mouse turned sour and moody. He let his appearance go to seed (he was usually a natty dresser) and nobody wanted to be around him because when a small, rodent-faced man like Mouse got ugly he was no company even for the harshest man.
He stopped going to parties altogether. If you happened to run into him on some corner, or back alley, and asked how he was doing, he'd say, "What the hell you think? Here I am gonna get married in two months an' 'tween me an' EttaMae we ain't got enough money for dip an' crackers."
Mouse didn't go out looking for work. All he did was get mad whenever he had to let go of a few coins.
So it was no surprise that his crowd started to shun him.
I mean, even if you wanted to see Mouse it was hard work because he changed apartments almost every month--one step ahead of the landlord, as we used to say.
I didn't want to see him. Mostly because I was jealous. You see, EttaMae was the kind of woman you had on your mind when you woke up in the morning. She was big and friendly, and always knew the right thing to say. But she never lied; Etta spoke her mind, and when she laughed it came from her heart. Everybody loved EttaMae, and she loved the only man I ever knew who didn't have a heart at all.
So between me being jealous and Mouse being so taciturn I was surprised late one Tuesday night when a racket broke out on my apartment door. It sounded more like a fight than a knock. I dragged myself out of a deep sleep trying to think of who might be after me. I knew that it couldn't be the police, they just broke the door down in that neighborhood, and I hadn't seen any seriously married women in more than six months.
"Hold on!" I yelled, thinking about the back window. I was reaching for the butcher's knife on the nightstand when he called, "Easy! Easy! Open this do', man, I gotta talk!"
"Yeah, man! Lemme in!"
I snatched the door open with a curse on my lips but when I saw him I knew he'd changed again. He had on a plaid zoot suit with Broadway suspenders and spats on his black bluchers. He wore a silk hat and when he smiled you could see the new gold rim and blue jewel on his front tooth. For someone who never worked, Mouse knew how to keep himself in style.
"Man, what you doin' here this time'a night? I gotta work in the mo'nin'!"
He pushed by me saying, "That's all right, Easy, I'ma buy some'a yo' time this week." A tan rucksack hung from his shoulder. I could hear the chink of bottles as it swung against his side.
"We gotta talk, man," he said.
He led the way back into my apartment. All it was was a big room with a Murphy bed. He sat down on the good chair and I sat on the bed, facing him.
"Mouse, what do you..."
He held up his hand, half smiling like one of those saints in the illustrated Bibles.
"Easy, I have got it."
He pulled Johnnie Walker from the sack.
"I have got it," he said. "Now do you got some glasses? 'Cause this here's Black Label and it won't do to swig it from the neck."
"Man, what do you want?"
"I want some glasses, Easy, so we can celebrate my good fortune. You the first one gonna know."
"Know what? All I know is I gotta get me some sleep."
"Then get me sumpin' t'drink wit' and I will deliver you the potion of dreams."
There was no use in trying to argue when Mouse was in a preaching mood. There were glasses in the closet at the back of the room. I rinsed them in a tub I kept back there.
"Jelly glasses?" Mouse turned up his nose while he poured.
"Just... just... what do you want?"
He laid back in my stuffed chair and put his feet on my sheets. He flashed his new gold tooth at me and drank whiskey like it was water.
"You know I'm from down Pariah, Easy. Yes, sir! Just a country boy." He poured another glassful. "Down home, that's me."
I poured three fingers and waited. Mouse needed room to tell his story. He was afraid that the idea would get confused unless you had all the facts. If he was to tell you about a nail in a horse's foot he'd start off explaining coal and iron and how they make steel.
"...an' you know us country boys is slow to get a idee, but once we got the picture we ain't never gonna let go.... You got a cigarette?"
"Got some papers an' shag."
"Uh-uh, no thanks. You know I cain't stand them leaves in my mouf." He twisted his lips and slugged back his second glass of scotch. "I guess you know I been kinda worried with the weddin' an' how me an' Etta ain't wit' much dough."
"Yeah, I know."
"Well, I got it all figgered out now." Mouse smiled so satisfied that I felt good.
But I said, "Com'on, man, it's midnight..."
He looked at me real close then, like a dog does when a new smell comes by. Like he was wondering if I was food or foe or some love interest.
He said, "You like Etta, don't ya, Easy?"
"Yeah, sure I like her." I didn't like that question, though. "Etta been hangin' out wit' us fo'years."
"Yeah, that's true," Mouse said, staring down into his jelly glass. Then he looked up at me. "But you like'er more'n just some friend. I mean she's a good-lookin' woman, right?"
"She look fine. Now what's this about yo' stepdaddy?"
But he wouldn't let it go.
"She look good, but that's not what make her so fine. Etta ain't no bow-down woman, she stand up fo' whet she want. An' no one better be foolin' wit' her 'less she like ye, 'cause Etta got a strong arm."
I laughed and said yeah but I was watching Mouse then. For all my size that small man scared me.
Mouse was laughing too, but his eyes were in mine.
"That's the truth," he said. "An' they ain't a real man who don't wonder what a powerful woman like that can do. 'Cause you know the first time I seen Etta sit down to a plate'a food I knew she was a hungry woman." He ran the length of his hand down his crotch. "Yeah, that Etta will eat you up!"
I poured out a little scotch and wondered if that was going to be my last drink.
He held my eye while he poured whiskey, while he drank. I could hear the house settling, it was so quiet.
"Why'ont you roll me one, Ease? You got the touch."
The pouch was on the end table, next to the knife. I reached for it slowly so he could see what I was doing.
I had to suck my tongue to get enough spit to wet the paper.
"Yeah. You know Etta wring me out and in the mo'nin' she tell me that if I wanna keep that good stuff fo'me I better do right." He laughed."And she knew I had plenty'a women t'buy my clothes. An' I knew she weren't no virgin neither.... But I can understand a man, Easy." Mouse leaned back quickly and put his hand in his pocket.
I flinched and the tobacco and paper fell to the floor.
"...a man," he continued as he came out with a red handkerchief to wipe his nose, "who run after a woman like that wit' his nose open an' his tongue hangin' down." I had been down in Galveston once when EttaMae lived there. I spent the night with her even though I knew she was Mouse's girl. He must've found out, but he couldn't know how bad I felt about it.
The next morning all Etta could talk about was how sweet a man Mouse was and how lucky I was to have him for a friend.
There I was facing a jealous fiance when Etta had glazed over me like so much meat.
Mouse was smiling and I believe that he knew what I was thinking. I gave up trying to roll the cigarette; all I could do was stare at him and try not to look concerned.
Somebody might wonder why a big man like me would be scared of a small man, half his size. But size doesn't count for much in this world. I once saw Mouse put a knife in a big man's gut. I was drunk and that man, Junior Fornay was his name, was after me because he thought the girl I was with was his. He ripped off his shirt and came after me bare-fisted and bare-cheated. They cleared the barroom and we went at it. But I was drunk and Junior was one of those field hands that you would swear was born from stone. He pounded me until I hit the floor and then he started kicking. I balled up to try and save myself but you know I could hear my dead mother that night: She was calling my name.
That's when Mouse strolled up.
Junior waved a piece of furniture at him but Mouse just put his hand in the air. I swear he couldn't reach as high as Junior's forehead but he said, "He got his lesson, man, you gotta let him live so he can learn."
"You better git..." was all Junior could say before Mouse had his stiletto buried, maybe just half an inch, in the field hand's gut. I was lying between them, looking up. I could see Mouse smiling and I could see Junior's face grow pale. Mouse quick-grabbed Junior's neck with his free hand and said, "You better drop that stick or I'ma stir the soup, boy."
I think I would rather have the beating than to see that, and smell it too.
So I was listening to Mouse with great respect.
"...but you know, Easy, all that is past. I ain't the type'a man to bear no grudge. Po' men cain't afford no grudge. Shit! It's hard enough for a po' man t'get through the day."
He slapped my knee and leaned back in the chair. When he threw his leg over the armrest I knew I was safe.
"S-so what 'bout yo' stepdaddy?" I asked.
"Yeah." Mouse stared at the ceiling with a smile. "You got that cigarette yet?"
I started rolling again.
"Yeah, my stepdaddy got a big pile'a money out on that farm somewhere. Big pile."
"He wanna give you some'a that?"
"Well, we ain't on the best terms--me an' daddy Reese. You know he's a farm boy down t'his nuts an' he see everything like a farmer see his world. So when I come along he figgers I was the runt'a the litter and I should be put in a burlap sack and dumped in the river."
Mouse was smiling but he wasn't happy.
"Shoo, man! Even a farmer love his chirren."
"I ain't none'a his. My momma had me when she was still footloose an' feelin' good. daddyReese come nosin' around later."
"So how's that gonna help you and Etta?"
Mouse pulled up his pant leg, leaned forward, and slapped my knee again. He said, "That's just what I been thinkin', Easy. How one rich ole hick gonna help me when he cain't stand my face? I been thinkin' 'bout that fo' days. I go t'sleep thinkin' 'bout it an' then I wake up in the same frame'a mind.
"You know I went down to Galveston 'cause Etta wanted me t'see if I could get sumpin' down on the docks. Could you see me in that filthy water? Shit! But I went down there because you gotta respect yo' woman."
That was Mouse to a word. Children loved him and their mothers did too.
"I was down on the docks eatin'a sandwich and watchin' the boys down there. They had this game they played. You see, in the hot day them ship rats crawl up on the top'a the pilin's to git some sun. They just lay out in the sun an' bake with they long nekked tails hangin' down an' wavin' 'round the logs. Uh! It's disgustin'. But anyway, them boys sneak up to where the rats is an' they wait real quiet right next to the tail."
Mouse sat up straight and clapped his hands like a gunshot.
"Then they grab the tail an' swing that rat through the air till it smash on the pier! Oh, man, that was sumpin'! I watched 'em do that fo'a long time. Shoot, they musta killed twenty'a them things.... Then I caught a ride on a vegetable truck comin' back t'Houston. I was still thinkin' 'bout them boys, when it hit me. You know I kept thinkin' that those boys couldn't hesitate a minute 'cause that rat is ready t'bite the first thing you touch'im, an' you know the on'y thing worse than a rat bite is a man bite."
Mouse sat back, showing his teeth.
I handed him the cigarette and he lit it up. He laid back and took a deep draw.
It looked like he was through talking, so I asked, "So what, man? What you gonna do 'bout the money?"
"I'ma go up to Pariah an' get it, that's what."
"How you gonna do that?"
"I don't know, Easy. All I can tell ya is that I ain't gonna hesitate one minute."
Mouse wanted something from me, and he wanted me to ask him what that something was. But I was too stubborn to give in to that.
So he puffed on his cigarette and I fumbled around with my glass. When he'd look at me I'd just look back. Mouse had light gray eyes.
Finally he said, "So, Easy, what you workin' at now?"
"Gardenin' for the Lewis fam'ly. They man is sick."
"You know how t'drive a car, right?"
"I tell you what. I give ya fifteen dollars t'drive me to Pariah fo'a couple' a days."
"Yeah, man, I ain't lyin'."
"Let's see it."
Mouse got that wary dog look again and said in a quiet voice, "I ain't never asked you t'prove nuthin', Easy."
I knew right then that he wanted to trade; that he'd forget about me and Etta if I'd drive him to Pariah for a fifteen-dollar IOU. That's how Mouse was, he didn't care about me and his woman; the only thing that ever got Mouse mad was if you played with his money or caught him in a lie. This was just business, plain and simple.
"What kinda car you got?"
"'Thirty-six Ford. Drive so smooth you think you was in a boat."
"Now where you gonna get a car like that an' you don't even drive?"
"Otum Chenier want me t'take care of it while he gone down Lake Charles." Mouse grinned and rubbed his chin. "Seem like one'a his folks is sick."
"And when you wanna go?" I asked.
"Maybe half hour 'fore dawn."
"Com'on, Ease. It's late. I got business down south an' I'ma pay you fo'it too. I ain't got no time t'waste."
"I got a job, man."
"Easy, you work fo'them three weeks an' you be lucky t'get fifteen dollars. Soon as they man is back you know they gonna put yo' butt out. An' I got food, an' whiskey, an' gas money. I know ev'ry pretty girl in Pariah. An', man, Etta deserve a good weddin', 'cause you know she sumpin' else." He winked at that.
I wanted to go. I knew it from the minute he yelled in my door. I was a young man then, barely nineteen years old, and alone in the world. Mouse was my only real friend, and even though he was crazy and wild I knew he cared for me--in his way. He made me mad sometimes but that's what good friends and family do.
I wasn't mad because Mouse had won Etta. I was mad because when they got married I was going to lose my friend to his wife and family. This was going to be the last time we would go running in the streets together. I'd've gone with him without the threats and the IOU.
"I want my fifteen dollars, man," I said. "You know I ain't doin' this fo'my health."
"Don't you worry 'bout a thing, Easy. We both git sumpin' outta this."
Mouse was curled up in my secondhand upholstered chair like a little boy. The room was all kinds of gray from light that leaked in through the torn shades and the cracks in the door. He fell asleep as soon as the light went out, but I woke up then. I laid there in the dark thinking about the time Mouse had saved my life.
I remembered Junior holding his bloody shirt and running from the bar. Then I thought of what Mouse had said when I tried to thank him.
"Shit, man, I din't save you. I just wanted to cut that boy 'cause he think he so bad....See what he think now...." And we never talked about it again.
"What you doin' there, boy?"
It was six a.m. Socrates Fortlow had come out to the alley to see what was wrong with Billy. He hadn't heard him crow that morning and was worried about his old friend.
The sun was just coming up. The alley was almost pretty with the trash and broken asphalt covered in half-light. Discarded wine bottles shone like murky emeralds in the sludge. In the dawn shadows Socrates didn't even notice the boy until he moved. He was standing in front of a small cardboard box, across the alley--next to Billy's wire fence.
"What bidness is it to you, old man?" the boy answered, He couldn't have been more than twelve but he had that hard convict stare.
Socrates knew convicts, knew them inside and out.
"I asked you a question, boy. Ain't yo' momma told you t'be civil?"
"Shit!" The boy turned away, ready to leave. He wore baggy jeans with a blooming blue T-shirt over his bony arms and chest. His hair was cut close to the scalp.
The boy bent down to pick up the box.
"What they call you?" Socrates asked the skinny butt stuck up in the air.
"What's it to you?"
Socrates pushed open the wooden fence and leapt. If the boy hadn't had his back turned he would have been able to dodge the stiff lunge. As it was he heard something and moved quickly to the side.
Quickly. But not quickly enough.
Socrates grabbed the skinny arms with his big hands--the rock breakers, as Joe Benz used to call them.
Socrates shook the boy until the serrated steak knife, which had appeared from nowhere, fell from his hand.
The old brown rooster was dead in the box. His head slashed so badly that half of the beak was gone.
"Let me loose, man." The boy kicked, but Socrates held him at arm's length.
"Don't make me hurt you, boy," he warned. He let go of one arm and said, "Pick up that box. Pick it up!" When the boy obeyed, Socrates pulled him by the arm--dragged him through the gate, past the tomato plants and string bean vines, into the two rooms where he'd stayed since they'd let him out of prison.
The kitchen was only big enough for a man and a half. The floor was pitted linoleum; maroon where it had kept its color, gray where it had worn through. There was a card table for dining and a fold-up plastic chair for a seat. There was a sink with a hot plate on the drainboard and shelves that were once cabinets--before the doors were torn off.
The light fixture above the sink had a sixty-watt bulb burning in it. The room smelled of coffee. A newspaper was spread across the table.
Socrates shoved the boy into the chair, not gently.
There was a mass of webbing next to the weak lightbulb. A red spider picked its way slowly through the strands.
"What's your name, boy?" Socrates asked again.
There was a photograph of a painting tacked underneath the light. It was the image of a black woman in the doorway of a house. She wore a red dress and a red hat to protect her eyes from the sun. She had her arms crossed under her breasts and looked angry. Darryl stared at the painting while the spider danced above.
"Why you kill my friend, asshole?"
"What?" Darryl asked. There was fear in his voice. "You heard me."
"I-I-I din't kill nobody." Darryl gulped and opened his eyes wider than seemed possible. "Who told you that?"
When Socrates didn't say anything, Darryl jumped up to run, but the man socked him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him, pushing him back down in the chair.
Socrates squatted down and scooped the rooster up out of the box. He held the limp old bird up in front of Darryl's face.
"Why you kill Billy, boy?"
"That's a bird." Darryl pointed. There was relief mixed with panic in his eyes.
"That's my friend."
"You crazy, old man. That's a bird. Bird cain't be nobody's friend." Darryl's words were still wild. Socrates knew the guilty look on his face.
He wondered at the boy and at the rooster that had gotten him out of his bed every day for the past eight years. A rage went through him and he crushed the rooster's neck in his fist.
"You crazy," Darryl said.
A large truck made its way down the alley just then. The heavy vibrations went through the small kitchen, making plates and tinware rattle loudly.
Socrates shoved the corpse into the boy's lap."Get ovah there to the sink an' pluck it."
"You don't have to do it ..."
"You better believe I ain't gonna ..."
"... but I will kick holy shit outta you if you don't."
"Pluck what? What you mean, pluck it?"
"I mean go ovah t'that sink an' pull out the feathers. What you kill it for if you ain't gonna pluck it?"
"I'as gonna sell it."
"Yeah," Darryl said. "Sell it to some old lady wanna make some chicken."
Darryl plucked the chicken bare. He wanted to stop halfway but Socrates kept pointing out where he had missed and pushed him back toward the sink. Darryl used a razor-sharp knife that Socrates gave him to cut off the feet and battered head. He slit open the old rooster's belly and set aside the liver, heart, and gizzard.
"Rinse out all the blood. All of it," Socrates told his captive. "Man could get sick on blood."
While Darryl worked, under the older man's supervision, Socrates made Minute rice and then green beans seasoned with lard and black pepper. He prepared them in succession, one after the other on the single hot plate. Then he sauteed the giblets, with green onions from the garden, in bacon fat that he kept in a can over the sink. He mixed the giblets in with the rice.
When the chicken was ready he took tomatoes, basil, and garlic from the garden and put them all in a big pot on the hot plate.
"Billy was a tough old bird," Socrates said. "He gonna have to cook for a while."
"When you gonna let me go, man?"
"Where you got to go?"
"Okay. Okay, fine. Billy could cook for a hour more. Let's go over your house. Where's that at?"
"What you mean, man? You ain't goin' t'my house."
"I sure am too," Socrates said, but he wasn't angry anymore.
"You come over here an' murder my friend an' I got to tell somebody responsible."
Darryl didn't have any answer to that. He'd spent over an hour working in the kitchen, afraid even to speak to his captor. He was afraid mostly of those big hands. He had never felt anything as strong as those hands. Even with the chicken knife he was afraid.
"I'm hungry. When we gonna eat?" Darryl asked. "I mean I hope you plan t'eat this here after all this cookin'."
"Naw, man," Socrates said. "I thought we could go out an' sell it t'some ole lady like t'eat chicken."
"Huh?" Darryl said.
The kitchen was filling up with the aroma of chicken and sauce. Darryl's stomach growled loudly.
"You hungry?" Socrates asked him.
"That's good. That's good."
"Shit. Ain't good `less I get sumpin' t'eat."
"Boy should be hungry. Yeah. Boys is always hungry. That's how they get to be men."
"What the fuck you mean, man? You just crazy. That's all."
"If you know you hungry then you know you need sumpin'. Sumpin' missin' an' hungry tell you what it is."
"That's some kinda friend to you too?" Darryl sneered. "Hungry yo' friend?"
Socrates smiled then. His broad black face shone with delight. He wasn't a very old man, somewhere in his fifties. His teeth were all his own and healthy, though darkly stained. The top of his head was completely bald; tufts of wiry white hovered behind his ears.
"Hungry, horny, hello, and how come. They all my friends, my best friends."
Darryl sniffed the air and his stomach growled again.
"Uh-huh," Socrates hummed. "That's right. They all my friends. All of 'em. You got to have good friends you wanna make it through the penitentiary."
"You up in jail?" Darryl asked.
"My old man's up in jail," Darryl said. "Least he was. He died though."
"Oh. Sorry t'hear it, li'l brother. I'm sorry."
"What you in jail for?"
Socrates didn't seem to hear the question. He was looking at the picture of the painting above the sink. The right side of the scene was an open field of yellow grasses under a light blue sky. The windows of the house were shuttered and dark but the sun shone hard on the woman in red.
"You still hungry?" Socrates asked.
Darryl's stomach growled again and Socrates laughed.
Socrates made Darryl sit in the chair while he turned over the trash can for his seat. He read the paper for half an hour or more while the rooster simmered on the hot plate. Darryl knew to keep quiet. When it was done, Socrates served the meal on three plates--one for each dish. The man and boy shoveled down dirty rice, green beans, and tough rooster like they were starving men; eating off the same plates, neither one uttered a word. The only drink they had was water--their glasses were mayonnaise jars. Their breathing was loud and slobbery. Hands moved in syncopation; tearing and scooping.
Anyone witnessing the orgy would have said that they hailed from the same land; prayed to the same gods.
When the plates were clean they sat back bringing hands across bellies. They both sighed and shook their heads.
"That was some good shit," Darryl said."Mm!"
"Bet you didn't know you could cook, huh?" Socrates asked.
"Shit no!" the boy said.
"Keep your mouth clean, li'l brother. You keep it clean an' then they know you mean business when you say sumpin' strong."
Darryl was about to say something but decided against it. He looked over at the door, and then back at Socrates.
"Could I go now?" he asked, a boy talking to his elder at last.
"How come?" There was an edge of fear in the boy's voice. Socrates remembered many times reveling in the fear he brought to young men in their cells. Back then he enjoyed the company of fear.
"Not till I hear it. You cain't go till then."
"You know what. So don't be playin' stupid. Don't be playin' stupid an' you just et my friend."
Darryl made to push himself up but abandoned that idea when he saw those hands rise from the table.
"You should be afraid, Darryl," Socrates said, reading the boy's eyes. "I kilt men with these hands. Choked an' broke 'em. I could crush yo' head wit' one hand." Socrates held out his left palm.
"I ain't afraid'a you," Darryl said.
"Yes you are. I know you are 'cause you ain't no fool. You seen some bad things out there but I'm the worst. I'm the worst you ever seen."
Darryl looked at the door again.
"Ain't nobody gonna come save you, li'l brother. Ain't nobody gonna come. If you wanna make it outta here then you better give me what I want."
Socrates knew just when the tears would come. He had seen it a hundred times. In prison it made him want to laugh; but now he was sad. He wanted to reach out to the blubbering child and tell him that it was okay; that everything was all right. But it wasn't all right, might not ever be.
"Stop cryin' now, son. Stop cryin' an' tell me about it."
"'Bout what?" Darryl said, his words vibrating like a hummingbird's wings.
"'Bout who you killed, that's what."
"I ain't killed nobody," Darryl said in a monotone.
"Yes you did. Either that or you saw sumpin'. I heard it in your deny when you didn't know I was talkin' 'bout Billy. I know when a man is guilty, Darryl. I know that down in my soul."
Darryl looked away and set his mouth shut.
"I ain't a cop, li'l brother. I ain't gonna turn you in. But you kilt my friend out there an' we just et him down. I owe t'Billy an' to you too. So tell me about it. You tell me an' then you could go."
They stared at each other for a long time. Socrates grinned to put the boy at ease but he didn't look benevolent. He looked hungry.
Darryl felt like the meal.
He didn't want to say it but he didn't feel bad either. Why should he feel bad? It wasn't even his idea. Wasn't anybody's plan. It was just him and Jamal and Norris out in the oil fields above Baldwin Hills. Sometimes dudes went there with their old ladies. And if you were fast enough you could see some pussy and then get away with their pants.
They also said that the army was once up there and that there were old bullets and even hand grenades just lying around to be found.
But then this retarded boy showed up. He said he was with his brother but that his brother left him and now he wanted to be friends with Darryl and his boys.
"At first we was just playin'," Darryl told Socrates. "You know--pushin' 'im an' stuff."
But when he kept on following them--when he squealed every time they saw somebody--they hit him and pushed him down. Norris even threw a rock at his head. But the retard kept on coming. He was running after them and crying that they had hurt him. He cried louder and louder. And when they hit him, to shut him up, he yelled so loud that it made them scared right inside their chests.
"You know I always practice with my knife," Darryl said. "You know you got to be able to get it out quick if somebody on you."
Socrates nodded. He still practiced himself.
"I'ont know how it got in my hand. I swear I didn't mean t'cut 'im."
"You kill'im?" Socrates asked.
Darryl couldn't talk but he opened his mouth and nodded.
They all swore never to tell anybody. They would kill the one who told about it--they swore on blood and went home.
"Anybody find 'im?" Socrates asked.
The red spider danced while the woman in red kept her arms folded and stared her disapproval of all men--especially those two men. Darryl had to go to the bathroom. He had the runs after that big meal--and, Socrates thought, from telling his tale.
When he came out he looked ashy, his lips were ashen.
He slumped back in Socrates' cheap chair--drowsy but not tired. He was sick and forlorn.
For a long time they just sat there. The minutes went by but there was no clock to measure them. Socrates learned how to do without a timepiece in prison.
He counted the time while Darryl sat hopelessly by.
"What you gonna do, li'l brother?"
"How you gonna make it right?"
"Make what right? He dead. I cain't raise him back here."
When Socrates stared at the boy there was no telling what he thought. But what he was thinking didn't matter. Darryl looked away and back again. He shifted in his chair. Licked his dry lips.
"What?" he asked at last.
"You murdered a poor boy couldn't stand up to you. You killed your little brother an' he wasn't no threat; an' he didn't have no money that you couldn't take wit'out killin' 'im. You did wrong, Darryl. You did wrong."
"How the fuck you know?" Darryl yelled. He would have said more but Socrates raised his hand, not in violence but to point out the truth to his dinner guest.
Darryl went quiet and listened.
"I ain't your warden, li'l brother. I ain't gonna show you to no jail. I'm just talkin' to ya--one black man to another one. If you don't hear me there ain't nuthin' I could do."
"So I could go now?"
"Yeah, you could go. I ain't yo' warden. I just ask you to tell me how you didn't do wrong. Tell me how a healthy boy ain't wrong when he kills his black brother who sick."
Darryl stared at Socrates, at his eyes now--not his hands.
"You ain't gonna do nuthin'?"
"Boy is dead now. Rooster's dead too. We cain't change that. But you got to figure out where you stand."
"I ain't goin' t'no fuckin' jail if that's what you mean."
Socrates smiled. "Shoo'. I don't blame you for that. Jail ain't gonna help a damn thing. Better shoot yo'self than go to jail."
"I ain't gonna shoot myself neither. Uh-uh."
"If you learn you wrong then maybe you get to be a man."
"What's that s'posed t'mean?"
"Ain't nobody here, Darryl. Just you'n me. I'm sayin' that I think you was wrong for killin' that boy. I know you killed'im. I know you couldn't help it. But you was wrong anyway. An' if that's the truth, an' if you could say it, then maybe you'll learn sumpin'. Maybe you'll laugh in the morning sometimes again."
Darryl stared at the red spider. She was still now. He didn't say anything, didn't move at all.
"We all got to be our own judge, li'l brother. 'Cause if you don't know when you wrong then yo' life ain't worf a damn."
Darryl waited as long as he could. And then he asked, "l could go?"
"You done et Billy. So I guess that much is through."
"So it ain't wrong that I killed'im 'cause I et him?"
"It's still wrong. It's always gonna be wrong. But you know more now. You ain't gonna kill no more chickens," Socrates said. Then he grunted out a harsh laugh. "At least not around here."
Darryl stood up. He watched Socrates to see what he'd do.
"Yo' momma cook at home, Darryl?"
"Sometimes. Not too much."
"You come over here anytime an' I teach ya how t'cook. We eat pretty good too."
"Uh-huh," Darryl answered. He took a step away from his chair.
Socrates stayed seated on his trash can.
Darryl made it all the way to the door. He grabbed the wire handle that took the place of a long-ago knob.
"What they put you in jail for?" Darryl asked.
"I killed a man an' raped his woman."
"Well ... bye."
"See ye, li'l brother."
"I'm sorry ... 'bout yo' chicken."
"Billy wasn't none'a mine. He belonged to a old lady 'cross the alley."
"Well ... bye."
"If you get inta trouble you could come here. It don't matter what it is--you could come here to me."
Socrates stared at the door a long time after the boy was gone; for hours. The night came on and the cool desert air of Los Angeles came in under the door and through the cracks in his small shack of an apartment.
A cricket was calling out for love from somewhere in the wall.
Socrates looked at the woman, sun shining on her head. Her red sun hat threw a hot crimson shadow across her face. There was no respite for her but she still stood defiant. He tried to remember what Theresa looked like but it had been too long now. All he had left was the picture of a painting--and that wasn't even her. All he had left from her were the words she never said. You are dead to me, Socrates. Dead as that poor boy and that poor girl you killed.
He wondered if Darryl would ever come back.
He hoped so.
Socrates went through the doorless doorway into his other room. He lay down on the couch and just before he was asleep he thought of how he'd wake up alone. The rooster was hoarse in his old age, his crow no more than a whisper.
But at least that motherfucker tried.