Hank Silvera, my next-door neighbor who worked at the barber shop, was rambling to us from the rolled-down window of a fourth generation Honda Civic about his “glory days” and how he’d sock anybody with a left hook to the chin. We listened, not out of interest, but out of respect. Hanky was a quick-tempered man. He was an upright cigarette smoker in his late 50s, with the beard of a rabbi and the mind of a wizard. He always had a story to tell. He never ratted us out. It was a mutual agreement that went unspoken; we were fond of him because of it. He was one of us.

“I’m tellin’ you all the truth. I swear — this punk tried to give me the business while I was drinking a Pina Colada — who the hell gives you the business while you’re drinking a goddamn Pina Colada?” He ranted behind a burning cigar, eyes widening with conviction as if he were a Baptist preacher.

We each knew the story very well. But we laughed until our stomachs ached. He continued, eyes still wide. 

“You people are laughing — I’m tellin’ you all the truth! I swear on Jesus Christ of…of…Narnia. He got tough with me, and you know what I did? I socked him right in the chin, that’s what! And he never woke up again. I swear.”

Sometimes, the drug business is confused. That day, it was. We were supposed to meet a mister Jenkins on the corner of the school building, by its back exit. He was a regular patron – a burly black man in a tank top, with creased dress pants transfixed to his waist by a tight leather belt, and a plump abdomen that made his shiny metal belt buckle less visible over time. I saw mister Jenkins for about as long as I was in the business. I observed him when he was a thin, suit-clad briefcase-toter who talked speedily and ceaselessly had a phone pressed to his ear; I observed him when he held a shaky palm towards me with a crumpled twenty dollar bill enclosed, then curled back to the front of the school building some time later, and grasped his son’s hand with the same trembling fingers that had just stuffed ounces of marijuana into his back pocket. I also observed him on the day that his son was no longer his. His wife took him away, he said. He was crying loud that afternoon. He was asking God why it happened, but God did not seem to hear him – we did not hear God say anything ourselves, at least. He originally began meeting with us so that he could be “the good guy in me” – the version of him his boy liked to see when he picked him up from school. His job made that difficult, he said. He said he hated to get angry at the boy, and he hated it even more to see him cry. We were there when he lost the job, then when he lost the boy, then when he lost that fast-talking habit of his, then when we were all that he had. We were there all the way up to when he himself was the boy crying. 

On the day that Hank was rambling about, mister Jenkins was back at the school building after some years. It had been the first day of his being there since his son was taken away from him a long while ago.

“Good afternoon boys,” he beckoned to us, crossing the street.

If you put lipstick on a pig, it remains a pig. Mister Jenkins was still a pig today. He had on a lavish pinstriped suit jacket, with a long black tie peeking out from beneath the bottom button, which he had left open, and a set of pointy handkerchiefs protruding from a compartment somewhere high up on his coat. He also had on a black bowler cap. It became clear that he had returned to some form of his old speech – as fast as he could possibly make it; rapid fire like the days when his phone was always pressed to his ear. But again, mister Jenkins was still a pig. No matter how much lipstick he had on. Several things about him were still the same – his stomach still flopped over the belt buckle meant to contain it; his rapid speech of olden days was minimized by constant stammering; his eyes were red and drowsy. Several things about mister Jenkins had also gotten worse. He walked – waddled – with a wooden cane. The few teeth still in his mouth were loose, crooked. He often delved into intense coughing fits, choking up blood and then spitting thick phlegm – fwap – onto the pavement below. 

He hastened to offer me his hand. “What brings you back here?” I asked him, my own hand still fastened on the six-hundred dollars in my pocket.

“My son graduates from elementary school today,” he said, still trying to speed-talk, still stuttering. “I think I want to see hi- I think I am ready to see him now. I did rehab at the center . . . I think he will be excited to see me again.” 

Mister Jenkins smiled nervously, interrogating us with his eyes – are you happy for me? He told us he was scared to go inside, because he would have to sign a parental attendance form – his wife was the boy’s official guardian, he said, and she would cause a fuss. So he figured he would wait outside with us until he could see his boy exit through the front door. Then he would greet him, he said. 

There was quite some time to chat before the ceremony would end. He asked us how we had been since he was gone. We told him that we were more interested in his own answer to the question. The first time I did business with mister Jenkins, he was nervous – convulsing, and constantly looking over both shoulders. Today, as much as he did not have the vocal capacity he displayed as a young man, he was effusive like a small child. It had been no more than three seconds after we prompted him, that he began to speak of a Missus Krauss that he had stayed with for some years. When he spoke of her, his hands moved up and down; they circled his face, resting on his gut when he laughed. 

“When the lady took the boy from me, she wanted me outta the house as well,” he recounted, seldom making any eye contact. “So I stayed with a Missus Krauss. She lived right down the street; not too far a walk from home. She was an old white woman with a big tall house . . . she turned me away at first. But just as I am about to walk away and find someone else, she tells me she may have some work for me to do and welcomes me on inside.”

He paused to cough something up. Mister Jenkins coughed in a manner that was peculiar. Noisily, he held two gruff arms out over his stomach, bending over to wheeze, lurching back up again; gobbling like a turkey in the slaughterhouse. His neck expanded, then regressed. One heard slimy fluids gurgle about in his throat, and one saw some oozing down his chin. He used his tie to wipe his face; not the handkerchiefs from his pocket. And alas, after some time, it came – he let out one thunderous final hack, and there it was: a thick, syrupy, blood-flecked coat of white phlegm upon the pavement. FWAP!

“What was that?” I asked. 

“Don’t worry about it,” mister Jenkins replied, between dabs with the necktie. “They say I am not well. I know I got to pay the price for how I used to be. Doctor says I’m not gonna be here forever, but I known that already. So I had to change myself. At least for the boy. See?”

He stepped back and flashed a wide, proud grin, arms extended outwards, offering us a glimpse of the brand new mister Jenkins. The phlegm was now trickling from his necktie. The shoelaces on his left foot were messily untied, and the ones on his right were haphazardly tucked in. Both his suit and his skin had succumbed to wrinkling. When we remained silent, he looked down at himself, and his smile began to fade. 

Quickly plastering an upward curl back onto his lips, he returned to his story about Missus Krauss. 

“But yes! Missus Krauss. She had orange hair — bright orange hair. And skinny glasses. She made me serve her grandsons when they came to the house . . . sometimes their parents would come, too. They were not allowed to speak to me. I was only allowed to eat cereal while I was living at Missus Krauss’ house.” 

“You could have just come back here to us,” I said. “We could have gotten you a little something to make it better.”

“Nah, I couldn’t have. Missus Krauss didn’t permit me to go outside the front gate – she said she would scream real loud if I ever tried to leave. But then after a while, you know, I realized something: if I ever want to see my boy again – ever want to see my boy again – I got to play by the rules. Lived my whole life avoiding them. I feels like me following Missus Krauss’ rules was a part of the price I had to pay. Sometimes her husban’ would come home and beat me real bad – it’s those kinds of beatings I been avoiding my whole life! My boy didn’t deserve to see me go like I saw my dad go. I been escaping punishment my whole life. I have to pay my dues for who I used to be. You know?”

“So how long did you go without any bang?”

“About three years. Three years, I was living at Miss Krauss’ house.”

The longest I had ever gone without any green was two days. My mother told me to stop it, then. My father had passed away when I was eleven years old; he was the one who gave me relentless blows to my stomach when he knew what I had done. But my mother was weak, with wiry arms and dainty hands. When my father died, and I reached a point where I found that I could light up as I pleased indoors, with no repercussions, my mother gradually stopped trying to fight it. She began to cry, now. Her cries pierced the walls – reverberated off of the ceilings – ricocheted back into her throat; resurrected into louder versions of themselves, like microphone feedback, by the second. After she told me to stop, it was the wails that kept me up at night. And for two days, they were enough to make me put down my habit. But after the two days, I could not take it any longer. Your body is a barking dog when you deprive it of something it is so fond of. It barks a tad when you don’t give it a bone. Then it turns rabid; it foams at the mouth. Then it growls at you. Soon, it begins ripping away at your flesh. Then nothing but bone remains. When I learned that I loved being high more than I loved my mother, at the end of the two days, I began to regularly stand at the back of the school building with the group of boys who gave me my first taste. To this day, they understand me. I wonder if my mother misses me sometimes. I do not think she misses me. I do not miss her.

“So how did you leave Missus Krauss’ house?” I asked Jenkins.

“Well one day she is sleeping, and I just jump out the bedroom window. I was not allowed downstairs in the night-time, on account of her being scared that I would sneak through the back door. I knew I had desired to get out that night- I do not know exactly why, but it was just my time to go. The stairs were real creaky . . . so I made sure Missus Kraus was ‘sleep, an I opened the window and stuck my feet out. The air was real cold.” He paused to cough up some more bloody phlegm. “Then I leaped out. She woke up when I hit- When I fell down, she was awake. And I heard her hollering loud. And I saw all the neighbors’ inside lights turn on. I chose a direction and I ran. It’s only when I stop, I realize that there is a big shooting pain in my foot. I ha- I have to walk with a cane now.”

Mister Jenkins lifted his cane a small amount off of the ground, motioning towards us with it as if to present an artifact of sorts. He asked us if we wanted to hold it. We said no. He lost his balance a bit, set his cane back firmly down beside him, and continued talking; his eyes widened some, and his throat rattled with mucus as he spoke. 

“But I deserve it! At the end of the day . . . When all is said and done . . . I deserve every bit of it. My boy grew up without a father to teach him how to be a man. I messed up my leg. Which one do you think is better off?”

His eyes reddened. He asked us again. “Which one do you think is better off?”

When we did not answer him, he brought a pair of hulking hands up to his head, making a circular rubbing motion, covering every square inch. His face was moist when he brought his hands back down. The sun bore down on his cheeks. They were brown and glossy in the daylight; steady streams of fat teardrops oozed from his eye sockets as the globular organs within looked up at God, just as they did years ago, for some form of resolution. God did not seem to hear him – we did not hear God say anything ourselves, at least.

It stayed like that for some time. We watched at the man, he watched at God; neither watched back at the other. All was silent. We could hear the auditorium. There was a big orchestra playing inside, and there was mass applause that did not cease. When mister Jenkins stopped looking at the sky, he wiped his eyes one last time, and stared up at us. He was a sloppy, sniffling chunk of flesh – not a man, as hard as he was trying to be. He asked us whether we had wanted to know anything else. We told him that he had already mentioned rehab. But he said they didn’t fix him all the way. When we asked how he managed to have gotten out, then, he took a pause, and recited for us the center’s policy – you had to have a caretaker check you out if you were leaving early.

“I only had one person to call,” he said now. He had completely done away with the fast-talking ways of his youth. His speech was slurred, broken-up, and groggy. He took a deep breath. “When I arrived back to Missus Krauss’ house, she was dragging me hard by my wrist. Her husban’ was standing in the doorway . . . he had something shiny in his hand. I take off runnin’ towards the school. He begins to fight with me. He cuffs me in my face real hard- I’ve been coughing out blood all day. We begin to wrestle in the driveway for some time. Misuss Krauss goes to retrieve something from inside the house. Then, I see her standing in the same window I jumped from. There is a big bang, and her husban’ is not moving anymore, an’ she is hollering loud. I see all the neighbors lights turning on, and I begin to run.”

He let out a sigh. “But I’m here now. Here on time for graduation. Here on time to see my boy.” A great smile covered his face. When he bent down to tuck in a shoelace that had gone astray, we saw a bloody imprint on his lower back. 

 The front door of the school swung open soon after. He limped his way to the entrance; there was a sea of children, balloons, camera flashes, happy families. We followed behind him. He lifted his head up and down, as if to search for his boy. He found him after about thirty seconds. The boy was a lean, nappy-haired, smiling young soul. He descended the front steps holding his mother’s hand. 

Mister Jenkins waved as frantically as he could. The boy looked at him after some time. He squinted. Then he began to weep hysterically. His mother snatched him along, covering his eyes as they descended down the staircase.

We returned to the back of the school building. Hank fastly approached from down the opposite block. Sprinting, he wore a ripped-up skin-tight muscle shirt, with red flesh discernible where holes in his top made it visible. A pina colada was in his right hand. 

“Who has my six-hundred dollars,” he yelled, quickly nearing us.

When we did not say anything, he reached his unoccupied hand into his pocket. The object glimmered in the sunlight as it emerged: first, a leather handle, then a glistening chrome barrel, then a pitch-black mouth.

Mister Jenkins stood by the front entrance, looking up at God. God did not hear him – we did not hear God say anything ourselves, at least.

Who has my six-hundred dollars!?”

We remained silent. Hank grabbed me by the neck. He put the object against my head, and told me not to make him ask again. 

I pointed at mister Jenkins. 

We ran. From a distance, we saw the two quarrel. We saw mister Jenkins shove Hank. We saw the pina colada fly out of Hank’s hand. We saw Hank lay mister Jenkins out with a swift left hook to the chin. Then we saw Hank reach into his pocket. 


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