“In the middle of the night, she shook me woke. I opened my eyes and seen a light floating ’round the room. It was like a little candlelight. ’Round and ’round it went, then out the door. Hettie said, ‘That’s God’s light. I got to fetch some moonflowers out the harbor.’ She put on her coat and followed it outside.”
Clemens was the New Breed of colored in the Cause. Deems wasn’t some poor colored boy from down south or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible and a dream […] Deems didn’t give a shit about white people, or education, or sugarcane, or cotton, or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at. None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of Cause, young, smart, and making money hand over fist slinging dope at a level never before seen in the Cause Houses. He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens, and any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.
Rather it was the memory, not long ago, of Sportcoat shagging fly balls with him at the baseball field on warm spring afternoons; it was Sportcoat who taught him how to pivot and zing a throw to home plate from 350 feet out […] Sportcoat made him a star in baseball. He was the envy of the white boys on the John Jay High School baseball team, who marveled at the college scouts who risked life and limb to venture to the funky, dirty Cause Houses baseball field to watch him pitch. But that was another time, when he was a boy and his grandpa was living. He was a man now, nineteen, a man who needed money. And Sportcoat was a pain in the ass.
“Church is a good thing. A great thing, really. Building up our community. Thank God.” He lowered his head to Earl’s ear. “We ain’t tearing down our community, brother. We’re building it up. Look at all the businesses I got. The jobs we’re providing. The help we give people. Is the white man opening car washes? Is he running car-rental places? Restaurants? Is he giving us jobs?” He pointed to the window, the filthy street, the abandoned cars, the dead brownstones. “What’s the white man doing for us out here, Earl? Where’s he at?”
Sister Gee snorted. “Things got unstable ’round here four years ago when that new drug come in. This new stuff—I don’t know what they call it —you smoke it, you put it in your veins with needles . . . however you do it, once you do it a few times you is stuck with it. Never seen nothing like it around here before, and I seen a lot. This projects was safe till this new drug come in. Now the old folks is getting clubbed coming home from work every night, getting robbed outta their little payday money so these junkies can buy more of Deems’s poison. He ought to be ashamed of hisself. His grandfather would kill him if he was living.”
Like most of Sportcoat’s team, Soup disappeared from adult radar at the Cause when he entered the labyrinth of his teenage years. One minute he was striking out to the guffaws of the opposing team, the Watch Houses, the next minute word got out that Soup was in jail—adult jail—at seventeen. What put him there, no one seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Everybody went to jail in the Cause eventually. You could be the tiniest ant able to slip into a crack in the sidewalk, or a rocket ship that flew fast enough to break the speed of sound, it didn’t matter. When society dropped its hammer on your head, well, there it is. Soup got seven years. It didn’t matter what it was for.
He scanned the East River, checking the line of barges moving along. Some of them he knew. A few were run by honest captains who refused hot items. They wouldn’t move a stolen tire if you paid them a thousand bucks. Others were captained by blithering idiots who would kick their scruples out the window for the price of a cup of coffee. The first type were honest to a fault. They just couldn’t help it. The second type were born crooks.
Which one am I? he wondered.
“Soon as they started whipping on him, Deems ran off the roof. He run off soon as they started cutting Bumps up. The minute them Jamaicans left Bumps laying in the alley, Deems came out the back door of Building Nine and ran over to Bumps holding a steaming pot of rice and beans. He must’ve had it cooking in his house. He said, ‘Here’s your rice and beans, Bumps.’ He poured that whole pot on him.
“That Christmas Club money is all we can control. We can’t stop these drug dealers from selling poison in front of our houses. Or make the city stop sending our kids to lousy schools. We can’t stop folks from blaming us for everything gone wrong in New York, or stop the army from calling our sons to Vietnam after them Vietcong done cut the white soldiers’ toenails too short to walk. But the little nickels and dimes we saved up so we can give our kids ten minutes of love at Christmastime, that’s ours to control.”
Elefante shrugged, pocketed his money, and leaned against the wall of his house. “I used to see her come and go from church,” he said. “She’d say good morning. People don’t do that no more.”
“No they don’t.”
“Seen ’em all,” Sportcoat said proudly. “Even barnstormed a little myself, but I had to make money. That ain’t gonna be Deems’s problem. He’ll make plenty money in the bigs. He got the fire and the talent. You can’t take the love of ball out of a ballplayer, Sausage. Can’t be done. There’s a baseball player in that boy.”
The waiting didn’t bother Deems, but the uncertainty of strategy did. Everything to him was about strategy. That’s how he’d survived. He heard that other big-time dealers called him a boy genius. He liked that. It pleased him that his crew, his rivals, and even at times Mr. Bunch marveled at how someone so young managed to figure things out on his own and keep ahead of older men, some of whom were vicious and clawing to get his business.
Deems loved baseball. He’d pitched all the way through high school and could have gone further had not his cousin Rooster lured him into the fast money of the heroin game. He still kept track of the game, the teams, the squads, the statistics, the hitters, the Miracle Mets, who, miraculously, might be in the World Series that year, and most of all, the strategy.
Sister Gee looked at the people staring at her: Dominic, Bum-Bum, Miss Izi, Joaquin, Nanette, and the rest, at least fifteen people in all. She’d known most of them her whole life. They stared at her with that look, that projects look: the sadness, the suspicion, the weariness, the knowledge that comes from living a special misery in a world of misery. Four of their numbers were down—gone, changed forever, dead or not, it didn’t matter. And there would be more. The drugs, big drugs, heroin, were here. Nothing could stop it. They knew that now. Someone else had already taken over Deems’s bench at the flagpole. Nothing here would change. Life in the Cause would lurch forward as it always did.
“The man who come here to New York wasn’t the man I knowed in South Carolina. In all the years we been here, ain’t been a plant in that house of ours. Not a green thing hung from the ceiling nor the wall, other than what I brung in from time to time.”
They were horrible sons of bitches—men who set upon one another with welding torches, scorched each other with hot irons, and poured Clorox into one another’s eyes for the sake of dope; men who made their girlfriends do horrible things, servicing four or five or eight men a night, who made their women do push-ups over piles of dogshit for a hit of heroin until, exhausted, the girls dropped into the shit so the men could get a laugh. These were the men her mother allowed in her life.
And from there, so close, he saw in the old man’s face what he had felt down in the darkness of the harbor when the old man had yanked him to safety: the strength, the love, the resilience, the peace, the patience, and this time, something new, something he’d never seen in all the years he’d known old Sportcoat, the happy-go-lucky drunk of the Cause Houses: absolute, indestructible rage.
Until then he’d always believed a partner brought worry, fear, and weakness to a man, especially one in his business. But Melissa brought courage and humility and humor to places he’d never known existed. He’d never partnered with a woman before, if you didn’t include his mother, but Melissa’s quiet sincerity was a weapon of a new kind. It drew people in, disarmed them. It made them friends—and that was a weapon too.
“I think I can handle that, Mr. Sportcoat.”
“Come again? Mister?”
Sportcoat pawed at his forehead with a wrinkled hand. There was a clarity to the world now that felt new, not uncomfortable, but at times the newness of it felt odd, like the feeling of breaking in a new suit of clothing. The constant headaches and nausea that had been his companions after leaving the swigfest for decades had lifted. He felt like a radio tuning in to a new channel, one that was beginning to fuzz into range, slowly coming in clear, proper, the way his Hettie had always wanted him to be. The new feeling humbled him. It made him feel religious, it made him feel closer to God, and to man, God’s honored child. “I ain’t never been called Mr. Sportcoat by nobody.”
As the ferry pulled away from the dock and arced into New York Harbor, heading due southwest, it offered her a clear view of the redbrick Cause housing projects on one side, and the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island on the other. One side represented the certainty of the past. The other side the uncertainty of the future. She felt suddenly nervous. All she had was an address. And a letter. And a promise.
Then he patted me on the back and said, “Look after them moonflowers behind the church for my Hettie.” Then he walked into the water. Walked right into the harbor holding that bottle of King Kong. I said, “Wait a minute, Sport, that water’s cold.” But he went on ahead.
First it come up to his hips, then to his waist, then to the top of his arms, then to his neck. When it got to his neck he turned around to me and said, “Sausage, the water is so warm! It’s beautiful.”