Gangster (copyright 2005)

The sun is September bright, the shadows of the brick school building and the flagpole crisp and hard edged. The small kids are orderly as they parade behind two adults down the path from their exit to the sidewalk; they’re careful to not step on the sharp yellow grass, as if on orders, and they walk smartly, briskly. They’re cute in their colorful beginning of the year duds and their little backpacks, and they pass without hesitation the two older boys standing on the sidewalk; some of them even chirp a greeting like fragile sngbirds, and they continue until they reach a bus stop halfway down the block. The older kids follow in order and the boys among them, seeing the suspicious strangers, cluster together and as they pass they cast wary sidelong glances at them. Some follow the younger kids and some go the other way. Some engage in group small talk, but not close to the strangers. A few stragglers leave the building separately.

Let’s get this next kid, Jesse says, nodding his head sideways toward a pudgy boy with a stubbled head walking alone. Fucking marine.

They approach him, hands in pockets.

Hey, says Chris. Lend me a buck.

The boy stops. He dips his head a bit, thickens his neck, frowns. He’s taller than Jesse, whom he seems to recognize as he twitches his brow and widens his eyes, but he has to look up to see those of Chris. As soon as he catches sight of them, their coldness, he drops his head again, shifts his gaze back to Jesse.

I ain’t got a buck, he says.

Jesse looks up to Chris and his mouth contorts into an ugly sneer. He returns to the boy, whose head is tilted, eyes diected away, to the side.

He says he wants a fucking dollar. Give him a fucking dollar.

The boy looks from Jesse to Chris and sees his scowl, too hard for a twelve year old, and hears his breathing. He dips his eyelids, his mouth twitches slightly, his shoulders sag almost imperceptibly, but Chris picks up on it and spits. The boy’s right hand reaches into a pocket and fumbles in there and then it slips back out. He holds a wadded up dollar in his open palm and Chris snatches it.

The rest too, he orders. His voice is still pre-adolescent but it’s husky and dim and flat, tough to a younger kid.

That’s all I got, the boy protests.

Jesse extracts a knife from his pocket but doesn’t switch open its six inch blade. The boy’s eyes move toward it and then jump to Chris’s face, as if seeking protection. Chris stares silently at him. In an instant the boy’s hand disappears into his pocket again and reappears with two bills folded into small tight squares which Chris takes with mocking delicacy.

Good boy. He pats a round pink cheek rubs the stubbled head. See you tomorrow.

They turn and walk away and the boy stands there like a pathetic carved toy. A couple of other kids approach him, but no one calls an adult. Chris and Jesse walk on and cross the street, where they’re joined by two others. We hit the jackpot, says one of them, Ronnie, whose voice is changing. Six and a half bucks. Two kids.

And we got, what? Three, adds Jesse.

That’s a start, says Chris.

They walk in the streets of their neighborhood past its neat frame houses from the Depression era, with their screened in porches and painted shutters shaded by blue spruces and oaks. At the edge of their turf they enter a small shopping district and buy sodas at one of the small diners, then tramp through a nearby weedlot approaching a steep railroad bed. At the foot of the overgrown bed, hidden beneath scrub brush and sumacs, is a depression several feet deep that looks like a mass grave abandoned before any interment. Blackened two by six planks, four to six feet long, lie on narrow edges shaped by the hands and haunches of more than one generation of the disaffected and the wandering. Jesse raises a plank and finds a couple of magazines. Hey, a new one, he squeals. He holds one up to show the others the cover photo of a woman squeezing her oversized breasts. Ronnie snatches it from him, takes a seat and opens it, leaving Jesse with the older one. Chris passes around cigarettes and they smoke. Jesse looks up from his magazine.

You see that kid’s face when I pulled the knife? he asks Chris.

You had to pull a knife? Ronnie says. He giving you trouble?

Nah. I just thought I’d let him see it. I didn’t open it. But did you see his face?

He was scared shitless, said Chris. He was playing with a leaf, folding it, running his nails along its veins. His cigarette was dangling from his lips and the smoke was bothering his eyes, so he dropped the butt on the dirt and stamped it out. The look of fear all over his face. Nice to have power, ain’t it.

Damn straight, Jesse says, pleased with himself. He pulls out the knife, swishes it open, tests the blade, admires it.

That could make quite a slice, couldn’t it, the fourth boy, Mickey, observes.

A slice? Jesse slashes the air. Then he penetrates it with a thrust. A fucking puncture.

A puncture? Ronnie laughs.

This blade would have let the air out of that fat little prick back there just like in a fucking cartoon.

Chris’s face changes, his eyes glare. The pudgy boy’s face materializes before them, the fear that tightened up his facial muscles, the slight twitching of his mout, the almost imperceptible slumping of his shoulders, the subtle twinge in his eyebrows that bespoke submission, the deflation of spirit, the sag of defeat.

When we gonna use the blade for something serious? asks Ronnie.

We got plenty of time, man. No hurry, Chris says.

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