by John Alvar
.......My tax return says I'm
a "private investigator," but I guess I'm really more
of a trouble-shooter. Mostly I work for Willie, but still, you
might say I get around.
.......In my line of work, the
subway offers ideal transportation for that. It can get me all
over Manhattan faster than a cab, links me to buses and trains
that go anywhere, and doesn't leave any kind of a trail. No license
plates or log sheets, even my fingerprints are smudged away by
the next rushed grasp as soon as I let go of the handrail. I
just fork over a buck and a half, walk through the turnstile,
and I'm gone like a ghost among the masses. The only problem
with the subway is that it can also take me where I don't want
.......It was August in New York,
a hot and muggy Friday afternoon, and I'd just finished a drop
off for Willie. He didn't have anything else for me to do, so
I'd normally head over to Langan's and have a couple of drinks.
Instead, I got off the E when it made Penn Station and bought
a ticket on the Raritan line. It's a trip that I'd been thinking
about taking for a long while, and I'm not really sure why I
decided to go that day.
.......The Jersey trains are
a lot nicer than the subway, especially mid-day when you can
get a seat that's meant for riding instead of the plastic benches
they use in the subway cars. There's not much to see as you exit
New York City into New Jersey, just tall buildings getting smaller.
You change trains in Newark and, as it takes you farther west,
you pass through more towns with wide streets, big houses,
and old shade trees. They say that, if you go all the way to
the end of the line, you're in the country where people are mostly
decent and you can hear yourself think.
.......I got off at the first
stop out of Newark: Roselle Park. Ahead of me were a couple
of teenage girls speaking Spanish and a kid in a business
suit that made mine look as cheap as it was. Mister Suit carried
a good leather briefcase and an attitude that would take him
places if it didn't get him killed first. The girls wore mostly
their youthful, coffee-colored skin. In New York I might have
taken them for young hookers, but here they seemed like kids
who were too anxious to become adults. Nearly identical in shape
and size, one girl had a red tank top stretched to the breaking
point, while her friend wore a matching blue one. They
might've been sisters, and I figured they could help me out.
.......They turned to look at
me with suspicious eyes, maybe expecting me to come on to
them or thinking that I was a cop.
.......I said, "I'm looking
for Demaris' Deli. It's supposed to be around here someplace."
......."It's straight down
this street, before Westfield Avenue," Red Top said.
and Williams -- you can't miss it, Mister," Blue Top added.
.......My back stiffened like
it always does when somebody younger calls me Mister.
I thought about why Mister bothered me so much during
the ten minutes it took me to reach the deli, then I just let
it go. I opened my damp collar and wiped sweat from my face with
my handkerchief as I looked the deli over. My stomach was sour,
and I knew that the heat was only a part of it.
.......The place was pretty standard
with a large front window that was cluttered with signs for beer
and lottery tickets. About a dozen teenaged kids were milling
around, mostly boys, all white except for a girl who looked like
a Pakistani I once helped out of a bad jam. She was standing
with two girlfriends and the sum of their ages didn't make fifty.
The boys seemed younger than the girls somehow, trying hard
to look cool and failing miserably. They leaned against their
sporty rides and shouted over rap music that spewed out of the
car windows like vomit, raw and violent.
Boom-a, boom-a, nigg-a.
Thump-a, thump-a, muthafucka.
.......Don't get me wrong; I'm
not a stuffed shirt. Obscenities have their place and I use my
share of them. They just don't belong on a public street where
everybody has to hear them. I see this kind of thing all the
time, but in the suburbs it really grabs me. A bunch of
vanilla kids from good families hanging around like it was the
Hood, dressed in ghetto uniforms and listening to angry music
that has nothing to do with their own spoiled lives. The brand
names on the baggy clothes were the same ones I see in New York.
As if some advertising guys figured that they could just blend
together every kid's wants regardless oftheir needs, and it made
me angry that they seemed to have figured it right.
.......I walked toward the nest
of kids and a couple of the boys' heads turned, tossing uneasy
glances at me. One of them, a skinny punk with a shaved head
and a golden earring in each lobe, turned away long enough to
say something to the girls, who giggled in response. I
walked up to Mr. Tough Guy and stopped a few inches in front
......."S'up?" he said,
getting a few more giggles from the girls.
......."You got a name?"
......."Yeah," he said,
keeping with the tough act. He shot me a smirk that melted to
a pout when I didn't say anything.
......."You remember it?"
I asked in a whisper.
......."Dave," he said,
and his voice cracked just a little at the end.
.......I pictured my own kid
looking like this one. About the same age, with a shaved head,
a tattoo instead of earrings, and the same baggy pants and smart-ass
attitude. It's not the way I wanted to see him, but things
changed when his mother took him a few years ago, when
she decided she could do better with someone else, someplace
else. The fact is, she was slumming with me and really belonged
back with the white collar crowd that she came from. She found
an accountant with money in the bank and a car in the driveway,
and Chris went along for the ride. All he had to do was ask,
suggest something he wanted, and he got it. Nothing was beyond
his reach: expensive games as a kid, trendy clothes as a teenager,
and a fancy new car when he got his license. She thought that
she could protect him from trouble by wrapping him in a blanket
of things, but that blanket hid a hole that grew larger inside
of Chris every day. I didn't see how the kid was ever going to
make it in the world when he had it so soft, and I said so. She
told me that I was a fine one to be preaching to her. She was
right about my crappy parenting skills, but it didn't mean I
had to like what I saw was happening to Chris.
.......Dave stared at me now,
waiting for me to say or do something, maybe wondering if he
should tuck tail and run. The other kids were quiet, standing
off to the side, trying to be invisible.
.......A new song cycled on the
stereo system, as loud and angry as the one before. I leaned
forward, nudging Dave aside. I could almost feel him vibrate
as I reached inside of his window, switched off the ignition
and retrieved the keys.
......."Yo! You can't do
that," Dave said.
......."Yo? You from Philly,
Slick?" I asked.
......."Give me my fuckin'
keys back," he demanded, standing up and away from his car
door, but bright enough to keep his hands off of me.
.......I palmed his keys. "You
got a mouth on you, kid."
......."Give 'em to me,"
he insisted, losing a little of his tough edge.
......."I got witnesses,"
he said, flashing a look around at the other kids then resting
his eyes back on my hand that held his car keys.
.......I turned toward the other
kids and watched as everybody drifted away except for the dark-skinned
......."Looks like you've
got one witness, and I'll bet she's got someplace else to go
.......I kept my eyes on the
girl as I spoke, and she got my message right away. She was gone
in a heartbeat, and I turned my attention back to Dave.
......."Look, Dave. I just
want to ask you a few questions. Then you can get back
to doing nothing with your life."
......."I don't know anything,"
......."I don't doubt that,
but let's give it a try anyway."
.......He gave me a blank stare
but didn't move; everything that mattered to him was in the palm
of my clenched hand.
......."You from around
here?" I asked.
......."But not Roselle
place, Westfield?" I asked.
......."Live in a nice house
there, in Westfield?"
......."Okay? You got your
own room? You eat there, shower there, watch tv all that
kind of thing?" I asked.
......."Your mom use drugs?
Your dad beat you - back in Westfield?"
......."Sounds better than
just okay to me," I said.
.......Dave shrugged. He obviously
didn't have a clue how good life was for him. I thought about
giving him a slap to the head to see if I could knock the loose
wires back into place.
.......I said, "You know
anything about a kid that was killed here? Happened four months
......."Na wait, yeah.
The kid, like, got shot or something?" His eyes perked up
as I finally hit on a topic that he thought he knew something
.......I said, "No, he didn't
get shot. He got stomped. It's nothing like getting shot. A couple
of other kids beat and kicked him until he fell down on the street
this street right here. Right where we're standing. Then
they kept jumping on his head until it busted open and he died."
.......Dave looked at the ground,
searching for some sign of the beating or out of boredom.
I couldn't tell.
......."Look at me!"
I said, and he did. "You come into somebody's home and act
like an asshole, you could end up dead. And everywhere you go
is somebody's home. You understand what I'm saying to you?"
.......He shrugged again. I poked
him in his soft shoulder, and he winced back at me.
......."I'm telling you
to stop acting tough, 'cause you're not. I'm telling you to stop
flashing your fancy toys and spilling that shit music out onto
the street. I'm telling you to go back to Westfield and start
doing something with your life. You've got a lot of advantages
that a lot of other kids never get. Don't blow it by acting like
.......I opened my hand and held
out the keys to his car.
......."Go home," I
.......He took the keys cautiously,
as if I might snatch them back, then slid into his car and turned
over the engine. The music roared out and he scrambled to turn
it off, glancing up at me with fear in his eyes.
.......He pulled out and drove
away without looking back. I figured my lecture would leak past
his pierced ears and be lost by the time he traveled a hundred
.......Dave could have been my
kid, driving back off to his mother where she'd make everything
better. But he wasn't. Four months earlier Chris had been hanging
out on a spring evening with his own fancy car. He was acting
important and stupid until he pissed off a couple of real tough
guys who stomped him where he stood. It probably lasted less
than twenty seconds and he was gone, dead before the paramedics
got to him. A few days later he was buried in some expensive
mausoleum as his mother and her accountant-husband looked on.
She sent me a card when it was all over, saying she thought it
was best that I wasn't there, that my presence wouldn't have
.......If she and I had stayed
together, Chris would probably have grown up a lot like me. He
would have had to scramble for work, gotten into some trouble,
maybe even done a little time. Instead, he wanted for nothing,
and had nothing to show for his short life. Chris was nothing
to his killers. They were kids themselves who hated him because
life was fairer to him than to them. They decided to take their
anger out on Chris, and that was that. I took another look around
and realized that I wasn't going to find any real answers there.
.......Back on the platform I
watched as a train departed to New York. I thought about the
kids who stomped Chris and how I might take care of them. But
the thought of killing them didn't sit right in my head. I needed
to think the whole thing through some more.
.......I boarded the next west-bound
train, one that would take me to the end of the line, out to
the country where they say that people are still mostly decent
and the shady streets are wide and quiet.
Copyright (c) 2001 by John Alvar.
John Alvar lives
and writes in the NYC area. Another one of John's short
stories, "Milton Street", has been optioned for a short
film. Readers may obtain a free copy of "Milton Street"
and the first chapters of his crime fiction novel, Prager's
Pattern at his web
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tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man
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