City Street Corner

by Aaron Schepps

City Street Corners

Chapter 1: A Stoop

Marcus and Demarius crouched low beside the old stoop that led up to a house that hadn't been lived in for decades. The sheer silence was almost pensive in itself. The contemplative expression of lofty disengagement plastered on each young face suggested that that they might be enduring a moment of nostalgia. Perhaps Demarius was imagining the myriad of children that had used this stoop as home base when playing hide and seek through the decaying and empty buildings of this neighborhood. He might be positing a more potent hypothetical that would place some shivering teen on this stoop during a lonely night when he didn't want to see his father shooting up. An envisioned home base rendered simply a home in the theoretical world of this forlorn boy.

It is unlikely that all this imagination and dreaming was taking place. It would be downright unbefitting of two up and coming soldiers of Baltimore to be conjuring up fiction in this sort of moment. Still the silence proceeded mightily, putting its callused head down and thrusting forward into each consequent moment. Marcus might have been thinking of something much more real in this hushed instant. It is possible he was remembering the day that old "gentleman" took a stroll down their sidewalk while they were still emerging as apprentice runners for Straight John and Baker as the two teens operated the corner. He and Demarius were only seven and eight years old when that aging, grey top hat took the time to show itself on their corner. That famous old namer took a look at the two friends and christened them "Mayday and Dee" almost immediately. Now, you scarcely hear their nicknames separately; let alone the fact that their given names do not grace the air whatsoever.

Marcus could have been recollecting the day Baker was killed by Big Bay. The shotgun shell had rolled up next to the bloodstain left by Baker's torn stomach. Straight John sat next to that shell and that stain with his forever-unchanging stare for three days after the murder. At midnight on the third day, John stood up and left. He left Baltimore and never returned. He left the shotgun shell sitting dignified on the pavement.

Marcus was fixated on the shell and the fading stain. Undoubtedly, he was considering the possibility that he might be no more than a stain on the sidewalk in a few minutes. Perhaps Demarius would have to be that noiseless and stern mourner for the next three days. Maybe they would both be stains. They had also discussed dying at the same time. The two agreed that it would be best to have company to travel that unknown path with.

It is most likely that both Marcus and Demarius had the events they were soon to incur at the front of their minds. In just two days, the paths of their lives had been transformed. Violence becomes a necessity when an outside crew from a rival organization moves in on an occupied corner. This entire intersection had remained under the exclusive control of the Barksdale organization for eight years. Mayday and Dee weren't about to let that tradition be abolished.

Finally, for the first time in minutes, the individual gazes of Marcus and Demarius intersected. They both instinctually and immediately ventured a calm and probing inhale. It didn't help. They simultaneously shifted their glances down to ensure their respective magnums were fully prepared. Then, Marcus and Demarius stood up.

Chapter 2: By the Docks

Keith O' Connor had a beard that often led him to be mistaken for Santa Claus by young children around Christmastime. He wasn't fat enough to be comprehensively construed as that kindly elf. In fact, he was in remarkable shape for a sixty-two year old man that sold hot dogs every day for nearly three decades. As a rigid Catholic Irishman, Keith was an overly punctual being. A stranger might find him to be amiable until the moment any slight fear of lateness crept into his consciousness. In that instant, Keith O' Connor would transform into a fire breathing demon that could eradicate the existence of anything or anyone standing in between him and being on time. He flicked on the dimly lit "open" sign that cowered in the top left corner of the hot dog stand's menu every morning at exactly six fifty-nine.

By the time Richard rolled up in the morning, Keith had sold coffee to every Irish dockworker in Boston. Richard constantly joked that the only reason Keith dragged himself out of bed so early every morning was that he would never be satisfied in life until selling a fifty cent cup to every human in the city that had some roots in the land of the lucky. Keith would always retort that Richard was fortunate young black kids had such a collective sweet tooth. Richard would add that the real luck was that the kids didn't wake up early. He made his morning wage supplying the young African Americans of Boston with cinnamon buns and candy. Keith couldn't help but make a comment every morning about the stipend that Richard ought to receive from the good dentists of Massachusetts.

Richard Brice was a curious man. Making blues music in New York City and throughout the country during most his early adulthood had prevented him from settling down and starting a family. But now, he was as settled as any aging man that had been set in his ways for a century. Every morning he made himself two eggs for breakfast. He would always be Keith's final morning customer, purchasing the last fifty cent cup of the last pot Mr. O' Connor would make. Richard had a hot dog with ketchup for lunch and a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise for dinner every day. He always wore a blue or white button down shirt. In fact, he so preferred those colors, that he painted them on his hot dog stand.

Business was a predictable thing for Misters O'Connor and Brice. Richard, being black himself, received every single dollar of business from those that shared his skin colour. Keith was granted the universal patronization of those that did not. As explained, this had a clear effect on morning business. It continued to show its impact during the goings on of the remainder of the day. Richard would have customers wander in throughout the day. Most unexpected visitors would end up at his stand. Keith waited happily for the daily lunch rush of dockworkers that occurred each morning at about eleven thirty. The only inter-racial business either Keith or Richard ever received was from their counterpart. After the last Colin or Mickey returned to the docks, Keith would click off his tiny "open" light and walk across the street from his corner to Richard's corner. He would order a hot dog with sauerkraut and a can of sprite. Richard would already have his order ready and waiting. Keith would take his spoils and make his way back to his stand to eat his lunch. No sooner would Keith swallow his final bite than Richard would appear at his stand. Richard ordered a hot dog with ketchup, a bag of potato chips, and a diet coke every day. Keith never failed to listen intently to the order before setting about preparing the food. Richard would always laugh at the seriousness on the face of the Irishman. Keith said it was simply good service: the best, in fact. This bantering lifestyle kept the men curious and interested in life.

Unfortunately, today has to be different. It is already nine thirty and there is not a drop of repartee in the air. Richard has not even arrived. He's missed every ounce of morning business. A few of his regulars even came over to Keith to purchase a morning soda. Keith is generally incredulous. It is now ten and there is no sign of Richard. His corner lies there empty and alone.

Oh! Colour seeps into Keith's eyes and cheeks. He gives an elated sigh of relief to the solemn air of the fading morning. Richard rolls up his stand with a noticeable new ornamentation- the first observable occurrence of change in Richard in fifteen years. Today, he has brought a record player to work. There it sits like a crusty, warted toad among the swan beauty that is the flowing blue and white of Richard's hot dog stand. Richard offers no greeting to Keith. Instead, he begins to play the raw and rough sounds and songs of the blues on his record player. Every few minutes he hums along to the current song. Hours elapse. The lunch rush comes and goes. Neither Richard nor Keith pays a visit to the stand of their counterpart. Finally, Keith inquires, "What gives?" There is no answer. In the place of spoken word, Richard puts in a new album. There is only clapping and voice on this track. A careful and wise tongue drones a solemn command, "Don't you mii-iind"people grinnin'"in your face." The track ends. Richard stops the record player.

"That was his favorite song."

"Who's?"

"My father. He was shot dead yesterday. He was eighty-two."

"How old are you anyway?"

"Fifty-five."

"Whipper snapper."

"Will you go with me to his funeral this weekend?"

"Absolutely."

There are no more words exchanged between the two. Only the sounds of the city and the sweet indulgent songs of the blues grace the polluted air until evening descends.

Chapter 3: That Old Namer

He removed his grey top hat for only a moment. He hastily dusted the very top and then placed it right back on his head. This day was a name day. He had to be looking his best.

For twenty-three years, Henry had been nicknaming the street kids for Baltimore. Of course there were some nicknames given out before he had the chance to step in with his inerrant wisdom. For the most part though, there wasn't a corner in West Baltimore being worked without at least one of his masterpiece titles. Henry himself had become known as "The Top Hat," or more simply, "that old namer." There was no citizen of the street that enjoyed more universal reverence than Henry. The older ones would shake his hand when he chanced to pass their corner. The youngsters either stopped to stare or giddily approached to say "hi" and then run off. Henry was famous in his own sort of way and capacity.

Henry had a so-called son and a daughter of his own. However, divorce and consequent alienation caused him to barely know his biological children. In their stead, he had the kids of West Baltimore. They could be unruly at times, but the mutual love between Henry and his adopted children was a never failing well of joy for the elderly man. Today, there were two more birth certificates that would cease to be necessary. This day was a name day!

Henry's sources had informed him that the given names of the newcomers were Robert and Omar. Henry straightened his matching grey jacket that he donned for the sole purpose of the gravity that this occasion was accompanied with. He turned the corner onto the street Robert and Omar were said to have been working on. Oddly, Henry found no faces that he did not recognize on this street. The wife and children of Cecil Johnson were pushing a shopping cart back to their apartment. With a sweeping glance he could see Sockit, Zeebee, Three Strings, and Addy: three boys and a girl he had already granted nicknames to. Those supposed Robert and Omar characters were nowhere to be found.

Henry decided to continue on and try the next street over. It seemed impossible that his informants had failed him. They never had before. He also knew for a fact that there was already a crew on the next corner he would encounter. There was something unmistakably amiss with these unusual happenings. He might as well pay a visit to a pair of his adopted young ones in the process. Perhaps Mayday and Dee knew about Robert and Omar and their whereabouts.

As Henry made his way around the orange painted stoop of the Walker residence and onto the corner belonging to Mayday and Dee, gunshots echoed in the air. Eighteen sequential piercing blows to the eardrum sprang forth into the previously peaceful atmosphere. Henry looked down. There were Robert and Omar, sprawled out on the pavement with bodies riddled by scalding lead. Their respective guns lay helpless beside them.

Henry collapsed to his knees. He folded neither from sorrow nor pity, but from pain. Two of those of those flaming bullets now made their residence inside of Henry. One sank into his chest and the other lodged its way into his throat. Henry knew he had been felled. His left shoulder slipped down to the concrete and he lay motionless, eyes still wide, thoughts still in action. He had been slain by two of his own progeny. Mayday and Dee stood shocked in their position of retreat up the block. Henry knew this would begin hell for them. The paths of their lives had been permanently transformed. Henry's only dying regrets were for them; and for the fact that he was not able to speak his final pair of nicknames out loud to their bearers: Slim Rob and Scamp.

Chapter 4: An Epilogue

One bloodless body among a gathered multitude of humans kept warm and living by the thick liquid coasting through their veins. That cold body and taut face does not attest well to the personage called Henry Brice while he walked. He would not have like being construed as stern and rigid. Those in the sober audience that know him understand how unbefitting their final glimpse of this man is. There are many crying throughout the ranks of devoted kin. Only one observer is family by blood. He has never been able to know his own father well enough to understand that this departing expression is anything but a just testament.

Four men cry more powerfully than the rest. Two sons weep because they murdered their father. They destroyed the life of the one shining and constant figure set before their eyes and the eyes of their peers. The shame and agony that fills their minds and life is more intense than anyone cares to experience in a lifetime. They look forward with and to only misery. One son looks back with grief. He looks around tormented. These fellow sons had more a chance to see his father for the great man under the top hat. Each passing testimony twists the stinging needle deeper into the wound left bare for the public to assail. A final man looks to his side and is in despair at the torture he sees in the eyes of a sacred friend.

A blues band takes the stage to offer a tribute to Henry Brice using his own words. The lead singer howls out the lyrics amidst persevering tears:

"Sometimes I can just look at her eyes-

Sometimes I can just look at her eyes-

Sometimes I can just stare at her eyes-

She is my true love.

Some days She is the city-

Some days She is my wife-

Some days She is my black guitar-

But I can always trust in Her eyes."

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