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Excerpt from Down for the Count: 'Big George and the all night Arab store...' --By D. Eminizer
“Come on Mom. He doesn’t have nowhere else to go.”
Betty eyed me warily. She wasn’t wary of me. She was wary of this situation. Betty dealt drugs. She sold them, and on a number of occasions, I bought them. She had three kids to support and no job. She was a plain woman. She was city worn and hard. In another day and age in another place she might have been a farmer or a factory worker, but it was Baltimore in the projects of Brooklyn in 1990, so she was a drug dealer. Betty was always square with me. She knew I was an earner and she knew I was largely honest. I’d passed out in her house numerous times with her boys and nothing ever came up missing. It was the pro-wrestling thing she was nervous about. Would I hurt her boy?
“Thirty bucks a week, room and board.” she said. “You can room with George or sleep on the couch.”
I dug in my pocket, handed her a few crumpled bills.
“Here’s six weeks in advance.”
Betty smiled. It might’ve been the only time I ever saw her smile.
“I always liked you Donnie. You’re a good kid.”
“Let’s eat.” George bellowed, towering in the kitchen.
Fuck he was big.
George’s Doberman growled in the dark. I could feel her hair rising on her neck. I could see white teeth in the shadows and that evil mad grin, but she wasn’t mad at me. She was used to me. Besides, I fed her Doritos and macaroni and cheese and hot dogs whenever I ate. We slept on the couch together. I was her buddy.
No, she was mad at something else entirely, something outside. The room was dark, cold, with brick walls and cracked concrete floors, bits of aged linoleum left in clumps here and there. It connected to a small open kitchen that had little else other than a table and chairs, rotting walls, and a fridge with acid in the freezer. It was too dark to see. There was no remote for the television. I’d have to get up and find the light.
Then it happened.
The glass shattered and the dog freaked the fuck out. She leapt over me trying to get at whoever had broken the window. She was snapping and barking, even whining. She wanted to devour the person or thing that had tried to break into our little nowhere world. Clamp onto it and shake the stuffing out of it like she did her little Pooh bear rag doll until it stopped struggling or the stuffing came out.
George came thundering down the stairs. I shrugged and sat up. I never got scared for some reason. There were chills and my hair stood up but I wasn’t frightened, it was excitement. I picked glass from my rumpled sofa, which was basically coils and tattered fabric covered with an old carpet. I wiped some blood off of my forehead. George and I watched some little black kid run down the street. He was probably shitting his pants more than we were. I don’t know if he wanted the acid or some food or what. If he had just asked I probably would have given it to him, but I bet it never occurred to him to ask, and it certainly never occurred to me to offer. Betty was screaming in the background but she was upstairs in the bedroom with her sometime boyfriend Joe for their weekly meeting, so they weren’t coming out.
“It was nothing mom. Somebody tried to break in.”
We cleaned the shit up. Duct taped some cardboard over the hole. The dog circled itself menacingly for awhile then fell into a pile of fur and growls, eventually drifting off to sleep. I went upstairs and cleaned myself up, picking little shards of glass out of my hair. I listened to Joe and Betty as they argued about everything. They had been set off by the broken window.
For some reason I cried. I didn’t bawl, but tears streamed down my face. After a minute it stopped. I felt nothing.
I came down stairs and George was watching television.
There was a slight patter of rain outside as both wind and water whipped through the crack in the window and overpowered the cardboard. The water formed in pools along with lead based paint chips, gathering on the soft decaying wood of the window sill. Little shards of glass lay scattered across the buck frame.
I heard a small pattern of explosions off in the distance, Bam-Bam—Kabam, like caffeinated firecrackers. It was the sound of a .22 caliber domestic dispute. It’s always amazed me how people that couldn’t afford food managed to afford weapons. They had to, I suppose, if they ever wanted to get any food.
“Someone just took some lead in the ass at a card game.” George said flatly.
I heard my stomach rumble and thought of food. Somewhere off in the distance politicians discussed contracts while dining on seven course meals made of braised lamb shank, getting drunk on meaningless conversations. Poor fuckheads even had to suffer through sales pitches with dessert. "We must fix the roads. We must fix the schools. We must spend the tax $$$$$ before someone catches on." The only thing they'll fix is a plate full of puff pastry and salmon mousse, and maybe an election or two. Man what I wouldn't have given for a bag of Cheeto's, but it was the end of the month. No cash, no food stamps, no choice. It was time to go hustling. Big George was laughing at an infomercial. It was all that was on. Big George was nearing four hundred pounds. I've seen him move cars with two hands and a grunt, no shit, I once saw him get hit with a shovel. It pissed him off and the outcome was sick, but George staid healthy.
Luckily I knew George's weak spots. A: He liked smoke. B: If you got behind him and kicked his knees out, then jumped on his back as soon as he went down and wrapped your arms around his esophagus and squeezed for dear life until you heard your groin go 'POP' as it separated from the bone, you had him, had to do it once, it sucked, it was like grappling with a mean and angry Grizzly bear. But George and I were good friends, so I chose option A and we smoked a roach, then we bundled up in layers of clothing because we didn’t have coats and we trudged out into the night, off to the store, amidst pools of stale beer breath that dangled in the mist.
"Want some smoke, G?" A faceless voice cried out. It’s downright funny how very few street lights actually work in the projects. Honestly, very little if anything works in the projects. That included me and George.
"Front me till Friday..." George grumbled.
"Fuck you. come see me Friday, bwah..."
One shot, a .40 caliber bull’s-eye from a Glock. That was no amateur dispute, no, that was a professional ghetto arbitration right there. Judgment and sentence passed together in one instant. Someone just escaped the projects with a simple pop. We pushed forward lest judgment be passed on us. We passed boarded up row-homes and buildings covered head to toe with vile graffiti. We strolled through the serenity and bliss of arguments, screams, the occasional cry for help, even a wayward siren. Finally it dawned on George, the futility of it all. I could see it in his eyes.
"Why are we going to the store? We don't have any money."
At long last we made the highway extension and saw the beat neon sign that signified the Arab's store.
O en 24 ours d y - 7 ays a w k
There was a stall in the bathroom of that putrid place that rented out for ten minute intervals. Smelled like urinal soap and pre-paid strawberry flavored sex.
I hung out front like a pitch man. George filtered back into a dark that was too dark for shadows, back by the dumpster. He probably fished around in the dumpster too. George had to remain hidden in the darkness like a shiv, you couldn’t expose him unless you needed him and were willing to use him. Even then, you had to keep him hidden until he was up inside your would be assailant, re-arranging its insides.
Besides, he was way too big, he'd scare off potential business.
After a bit, sure enough, a car full of white-bred suburban kids pulled up, eyes darting around. They watchd me warily for a minute, and then they went into the store. After a brief argument with the Arab they came out empty handed.
After some haggling, I set a three dollar fee to buy a case of Milwaukee's Best. The Beast from the East, fucking amateurs, it was almost like selling a .22 to some drunken asshole before he goes off half-cocked to a card game. George went in and did the deed, and they threw in two beers as a tip. I was the closer but George was the collector. We did this kind of shit for about an hour, found dope for folks or bought beer for kids, till we had enough cash to get some loot.
George and I made it back to our hole in the universe, opened our plastic treasure chest full of cupcakes, nachos, and chips, Cheeto's for me, a couple 40's and a bottle of MD 20/20, grape puke flavor for George. Mmm- mmm good.
"What do you want to do next?" Big George asked, a spit full of cake spilling from his jowls. I looked at the soggy bag of Cheeto's. I lost my appetite and gave them to George who attacked them like the federal government assaulting a paycheck. I opened the bottle of mad dog and took a slug.
"Escape!" I answered. "What else is there to do?