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Roselle Park

by John Alvar



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.......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 to go.

.......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.

......."Excuse me," I said.

.......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."

......."Yeah," they answered together.

......."It's straight down this street, before Westfield Avenue," Red Top said.

......."Between Charles 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 of him.

......."S'up?" he said, getting a few more giggles from the girls.

......."You got a name?" I asked.

......."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.

......."Calm down."

......."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 girl.

......."Looks like you've got one witness, and I'll bet she's got someplace else to go too."

.......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," he whined.

......."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.

......."Yeah."

......."But not Roselle Park."

......."Na. Westfield."

......."Westfield. Nice place, Westfield?" I asked.

......."Yeah."

......."Live in a nice house there, in Westfield?"

......."It's okay."

......."Okay? You got your own room? You eat there, shower there, watch tv ­ all that kind of thing?" I asked.

......."Yeah."

......."Your mom use drugs? Your dad beat you - back in Westfield?"

......."Na."

......."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 ago."

......."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 about.

.......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 a jerk-off."

.......I opened my hand and held out the keys to his car.

......."Go home," I said.

.......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 yards.

.......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 changed anything.

.......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 site."

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