I feel my spirit lifting, ascending out of my body; ready to spread its wings into eternity. There are people frantically moving around me. I see them, but I cannot respond. I hear their voices —I hear them saying I've lost a lot of blood. I see the doctors digging into the back of my body with their sharp instruments, probing. They say they're searching for the bullet that is killing me. God, I'm losing blood — losing life. I feel nothing.
That's strange. There's a clock on the wall. Right next to the calendar. The hands on the clock are moving backward: 5:20...5:19. The calendar says it's Sunday, June 30th, 1968. Yeah, it's '68 all right. That's when all the trouble started.
Time—to some it's a blessing, to others a curse. It looks like my time has run out.
What happened to me? Why am I lying on this operating table, dying? I'm only seventeen. I'm still a kid. Why am I losing my life? Who shot me? Why? I need to think; to remember.
Momma! Where are you? There are two buzzards flying over my head; waiting to pick my bones clean. I'm naked and alone. I need you! I need to be in your womb again.
Help! A nurse is pushing a long needle into my arm. I hate needles. They remind me of those horrible polio vaccinations I got when I was a kid. Help! Help!
I'm drowning! I'm sinking into an ocean of light; falling deeper and deeper. My mother is holding me in her arms. I'm a year old. We're in church and a man in robes with a cross around his neck is pouring cold water on my head. I'm being baptized.
In the name of The Father, and of The Son...and of The Son...and of his son.
I'm six years old and riding the Bergen Street bus with Mom; headed to my school downtown. We are sitting and she is looking into my spelling book. "Spell love," she says.
"L-o-v-e," I answer.
"Good, David. Now spell like."
"L-i — " Damn! Why can't I remember? Who shot me? Why?
I hear a nurse shout, "His blood pressure's dropping!"
One of the doctors screams, "He's stopped breathing!"
Sunny Sunny! I always loved you. I'll always love you! Before I die, I need to see your face again I need to hold you in my arms one last time. Oh, God! I must remember — Imust remember!
Who shot me? Why?
I am walking through a dark tunnel; moving neither fast nor slowly. The tunnel bends and turns and slithers, snakelike. I walk steadily, neither fast nor slowly. At the edge of the darkness, I see a bright prismatic light. I pass through, and come upon a tall bridge. On the other side, I can see Brooklyn, the Albany projects — home!
A voice commands me: Run!
The closer I got to the projects, the more signs I saw that I was back around 'the way'. A group of young girls were in the "little park" jumping Double-Dutch and singing out, "…a nickel and a dime and be on time, and a one, two, three..."
On the corner, the soulfully magnetic, 'My Baby Loves Me' by Martha And The Vandellas was jamming from Bobby's Record Shop and a group of kids from Wingate High partied out in front; dancing the new Hustle and the Afro-Twist.
I crossed Saint Marks Avenue, and saw lazy-eyed Junebug and his main boy, Booker T., shooting dice with some other cats next to the Sugar Bowl candy store. Then right in front of the "big park", I scoped fast little Pinky Rollins, leaning into the car window of her building's porter, Mr. Jenkins. Looking down on them from the seemingly permanent perch of her second-story window, and paying close, gossipy attention was Mrs. Gumbs —AKA Big Parrot. Ten to one she would have them in the car kissing by the time she told the story.
As soon as I reached my building, I smelled the unmistakable, bittersweet aroma of blood. There was a body, covered by a sheet, lying on the corner of Bergen and Troy. I was no stranger to death, as a matter of fact, Mom said I was almost dead when I was born — she called it stillborn. She said if a quick thinking doctor hadn't breathed into my tiny lungs after I didn't respond to my behind being slapped, I probably wouldn't have made it because I was already turning blue.
When I was thirteen, me and my boys were hitching a ride on the back of ,a bus and one of them, Pooka, got smashed when it got too close to a truck. Another time, we were on a rooftop on Utica Avenue, building model airplanes, when crazy Gilbert decided to sniff some of the glue and wound up falling off.
So I guess you could say me and death had been tight from the beginning.
But there was something different abouth this one. The crowd that had gathered on the block was excited and animated. I saw this cat, Dinky, who lived in the building next to mine. "What's going on, Dinky?" I asked. "Who got killed?"
"Panama Hector," he said. "Got shot about twenty minutes ago."
Damn, I thought. Panama Hector was the main numbers man in Bedford-Stuyvesant; all of uptown Brooklyn really. He was the first guy I ever saw in a mink coat. I wondered how they had gotten to him because he always had his two bodyguards, Flat Top and Baldy sticking to him like a twenty-nine dollar suit from Robert Hall's.
I lingered around until they put the body in the M.E. wagon, then went home.
When I walked into my building, I saw two men in the lobby who reeked detective. Wow, I thought, they didn't waste any time. The cops, a salt and pepper, Mutt and Jeff team, were reading names on mailboxes. The White one, tall, redheaded, and square jawed caught my eye. "C'mere kid."
I walked over. "Yeah?"
"We're looking for Milton Gibbs. We heard he lives in this building."
Diamond! I thought.
"Do you know him?" Asked the shorter Black cop. He was older than his partner, with a thin mustache and a small, jagged scar on his left cheek.
"Nope. Never heard of him "
"What's your name?"
"Kevin Spencer," I replied, remembering Diamond said never give 'the man' your real name unless you had to.
The cops looked at me like they knew I was shamming, then turned their attention to Mr. Thompson, who was stepping out of the elevator. I bet he's gonna say the same thing. Very few people in the projects trust the po-lice.
I raced up the stairs and banged on the door of apartment 7H. After checking the peephole, a grey haired, brown-skinned woman, Diamond's mother, quickly opened it. "Boy, what's wrong with you? Why you knocking so hard for?"
"Is Diamond home?" I asked, out of breath.
"Yeah. He's in his room."
I ran to the back and found Diamond lying on his bed, watching television; wearing a pair of green shorts and a Tee shirt. Diamond stood 6'3", and was rock-solid muscle. He had renamed himself when he was a skinny, ten year old after growing tired of the fights over his given name, Milton. He chose the moniker after watching a movie about Diamond Jim Brady, the old New York tycoon.
His skin was the color of cream soda and his head, resembling a lion's mane, had an abundance of brown, curly hair. "What's happening, Davey?" His voice was deep and rich.
I couldn't get the words out fast enough. "Panama Hector's dead and two bulls are downstairs looking for you!"
Diamond stayed cool, but moved quickly. Like a sleek impala, he sprung over to his dresser and opened the top drawer. I watched him closely, like I always did; especially his eyes. "The suckers asked me if I knew you, but I said, `Hell, no. Never heard of him'."
Diamond yanked out an old, black leather briefcase — he told me once it was the only thing his father left him — and swiftly unlocked it. He scooped up a bunch of Baggies; each one full of dark marijuana. "The rollers are probably gonna try to pin it on me," he said, pulling out a dark, metallic object partially covered by his huge hand. "I'm gonna flush down this reefer, but I need you to hold onto this "
I froze as he showed me a silver pistol.
"Here, man!" Diamond said. "Take it."
I forced my right arm to extend and grab the gun. "That's a thirty-eight Smith And Wesson, Davey — and it's loaded."
I stared at the weapon as I held it in my hand, feeling a sudden frenetic combination of power, terror, and invincibility.
"Stick it in your closet," he said. "Or under your mattress."
"For how long?"
"Until this blows over!"
Diamond darted into the bathroom and I heard a series of long flushes. When he returned, I was still staring at the gun. "Put that away and get outta here," he ordered. "And be careful. That rod could put a big hole in a little nigger!"
Against my better judgement, I agreed. Although the last thing I wanted was trouble with Tank, because it was my ace boy Diamond, I agreed to sneak the gun into my house. "But only for a few days," I told him, still feeling shaky about the whole thing. "If my Pops found this piece on me, he'd flip."
I stuck the thirty-eight in my belt and put my shirt over it. Before leaving the room, I turned back to Diamond, who was getting dressed. "Good luck, partner." We both knew it was only a matter of time before somebody cracked and gave him up.
"You going already?" Diamond's mother asked as I hurried past her.
"Yeah, I gotta run." I self-consciously put my arm over the gun, then looked over at the couch and saw their next-door neighbor, Pamela Butler, for the first time, sitting with this wide grin on her face.
"Can't speak, Davey?" She asked.
I nodded. "Hey, Pam "
"Pamela just found out she's gonna have a baby," Mrs. Gibbs said, turning to the younger girl. "When are you due?"
"On my twentieth birthday, May first. Darnell said he's gonna try to get leave so he can be here for the birth." She laughed. "All I do all day, now is sing 'Baby Love' over and over. I can't seem to get that song outta my head...I'm so excited."
Mrs. Gibbs nodded. "I felt the same way when I carried Milton." Then she asked, "Is Darnell still in Vietnam?" "Yeah. His tour won't be up until next July."
I opened the front door, then said, "Congratulations, Pam. I'll see ya'll later."
I walked down to my apartment on the third floor, a careful step at a time; afraid the gun might suddenly fire and castrate me. Then, I supposed, they would start calling me Daisy instead of Davey. I tried to laugh, but thought better of it. It really wasn't funny
When I opened the stairway door, I was once again amazed how you could tell the nationality of a family by the smell of food coming from their apartment. Out of 3J came curry goat from the McClains, from 3C came bacalao from the Maldonados, and out of 3F, I smelled black-eyed peas from the Sweetings. The ten apartments on my floor were so cramped together, it was like we all lived in the same house —just in different rooms. I guess you could say there wasn't too much "apart" in our project's apartments.
But living that close together had its good points, too. Our nine buildings were fourteen stories high, and exuded a fortress-like appearance. Everybody in the projects looked out for each other, and if a little kid fell and cried for his mother, at least five women would run over to comfort him. And if your mom needed a cup of sugar, all she had to do was knock on the door of her neighbor.
But if one of the mothers in the building saw anybody else's kid do something bad, she'd smack him on the head and tell his mother. Then he'd get another smack on the head when he got home.
And fathers were around; going to work everyday, and taking care of their families. Many of them donated their time and were coaches in Little League, or leaders in the Boy Scouts. A lot of men were not only fathers, they were dads, too.
Yeah, living in the projects in the sixties was like living in a tight-knit community; like a real village.
Smelling all that food made me hungry. I wondered what my Moms had cooked as I entered my apartment, 3G; a small two bedroom, cut-out box — standard projects issue.
The first thing I saw was my 'never-a-dad' father, Tank, bare-chested, and sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. I looked up at the calendar, frayed and yellowed with cooking grease and ebbing time. It said Monday, September 18th, 1967.
It didn't take me long to find out what kind of mood Tank was in. I once heard Peg Leg Mrs. Cromartie say a long time ago that a boy's first rival is his father.
"It's almost seven-thirty," Tank snarled. "Where've you been?"
"At The Center, Dad. There was a basketball game." I started for my room.
"Wait a minute!"
Oh, man! I thought. What do you want now? My left arm hung tight over the thirty-eight. I wondered if it was giving me away.
"Number one, I want you home at dinner time We're a family and a family eats dinner together." Tank's black-blue skin glistened like a coat of glossy paint on his body. "Number two, I don't want you running the streets while this school strike is on. If the schools stay closed, I'll find things for you to do."
I felt the cold gun press up against my hot skin. "Tomorrow," my father continued. "I want you to wash all the windows and mop the floors."
"What do you mean, okay?" Tank said, moving toward me; hand raised. He was shorter than me, but he was bullnecked and weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. Even my mother called him Tank. "Answer me right, boy!"
God, I never understood Tank Lee. To me, he acted like he always thought my mother cheated on him while he was in The Marines, and I really wasn't his son. And he would sadistically spend the rest of his life never letting me forget it. "Yes, Dad," I answered meekly.
"Why can't you be more like Diego?" He said. "I bet he's always home on time."
I shook my head sadly and walked into the living room, seeing my mother, Delia, and two younger sisters intently watching television. "Mira, David," Mom said, pointing to the screen. "The teacher's strike is all over the news."
I nodded with little interest. "What's for dinner, Ma?"
I scowled, then walked into my bedroom —well not just mine because I had to share it with my sisters — shut the door, then removed the gun from my belt. I looked it over carefully. Wow, a real gun — right in the palm of my hand.
Ever since I played cops-and-robbers when I was a little kid, I had always dreamt about having a gun. Now, here it was; the power of life and death.
I gripped the trigger with my index finger and pointed it; pretending to be James Bond. "Bang!" I whispered. "Eat lead, Goldfinger." Then I put the nozzle up to my lips and blew away the imaginary smoke.
"Ha, ha!" I laughed. "I could kill Tank right now if I wanted to." I shook my head, thinking: He's always saying I ain't good enough...and I should be like this boy or that boy...why can't I just be like who I am?
I threw the gun up in the air and caught it with my right hand.
"Yeah, boy...I could shoot my father right now!"
I laughed again and twirled the gun around like a cowboy.
Man, I really wanted to shoot it — just to see how it would feel. Hey! What about Russian Roulette? That might be fun. How do you do that again? You take out all the bullets and leave only...what? What am I saying? Am I crazy? I could get killed!
I realized someone could walk in and catch me, so I bent down and slipped it under my mattress. Then I turned on my small, back and white television, finding the strike report on Channel Nine.
Albert Shanker, the president of the New York City Teacher's Union, was giving an interview. He explained that the Public School teachers needed higher salaries and were prepared for a long strike. He added that even though schools were staffed with skeleton crews, consisting of supervisors and volunteers, he still advised parents to keep their children home because of the threat of violence.
Then the news anchor appeared. "In another story, North Vietnamese soldiers executed —"
"Later for that," I whispered. The daily dose of dismal Vietnam television coverage bored me. I hoped the war would be over by the time I got my draft card. Wasn't no way I was going to Vietnam.
I clicked off the T.V. and fell on my bed, thinking about Cookie Jardine. It had been three weeks since we broke up and she still hadn't called. I guess it was really over. Although I was hoping against hope that it wasn't. I knew I still had feelings for her.
My mind u-turned to Diamond's thirty-eight, wondering if it could go off by accident. Maybe I should've taken the bullets out. I reached under the mattress, then changed my mind; pulling my arm back. Nah, it'll be okay.
I stretched out on my single bed, beaming with satisfaction over the favor I did for Diamond. Man, I'd do almost anything for him. He was my hero.
You see, when you're a male child growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, you have to be `Iceberg Slim' at all times, because a long line of legendary bonafied players had already set the table. The good guys —the doctors, lawyers and cops — received little attention from the boys on the Avenue. But the pimps, hustlers and numbers men were shamelessly glorified. They were the gods of the projects. The big cars, fine women and flashy clothes — that's what we noticed. That's what we looked up to and wanted because it was closer and more personal. We could see it; feel it — taste it.
And of all the players around the way, Diamond Gibbs was the coolest and the baddest.
Everybody knew Diamond sold reefer and ran numbers, and it was whispered that he was real tight with one of the Brooklyn Families. That explained how, at twenty-two years old, he had such a lucrative hustle, and never walked around with a bodyguard. The legend of Diamond from the Albany projects was known throughout Brooklyn, and just about all of New York City. His giant rep went way back to the zip gun and switchblade days.
Diamond and I were real tight, sort of the big and little brothers we never had. It began when I was trying out for the Youth Service League baseball team in '63. Diamond, an all-star pitcher, took me out to the park everyday and helped me improve my game. He did something my father never did. He gave me confidence.
I quickly excelled, and going into my junior year of high school, my name was frequently in the newspapers, noting that I was one of the best Junior Varsity prospects in the Tri-State area.
Man, I thought Diamond was so smooth, and I emulated him every chance I could. After a while, I started walking and talking like him, and had all of his mannerisms down pat. I even started smoking, just so I could hold my cigarette as cool as he did.
And I listened to his gospel carefully when he preached about the streets. I remembered he always said: "Davey, there are two kinds of people in this world, The Players and The Played —The Predators and The Prey. Always be The Hunter and never The Game."
Then he would school me on the ladies. He would tell me: "Remember, Davey, every woman has a price — every single one. With some, the price is as high as the sky, and with others, it's as little as your smile. Always remember that!"
He told me early on that Cookie was too fast for me, and I would eventually blow her. "Probably to a guy like me," he said, chuckling.
At the time, I didn't find it funny, and was irritated by his candor. But it didn't take me long to realize he was right. I guess I was a little intimidated by Cookie's beauty and self-assurance. I always felt I had to be someone other than who I was around her.
That night in August, when we were alone in her house and tongue kissing harder and harder, I could tell she wanted me to do it to her. I could feel the heat all through her body. But I had to be home by nine o'clock or Tank would've put his foot in my ass. So I left her hanging.
Cookie's fiery passion rapidly turned into bland indifference, and that was definitely the turning point in our relationship. I couldn't tell her I was a virgin, and had no idea what to
"But that's okay," Diamond assured me. "No rhythm, no blues. It's better to get hurt now, than later. Remember, women see things that men don't. Men see trees, but women see the branches and the leaves. Let Cookie be a good lesson by making sure she's the only babe that ever burns you. Let the rest love you more than you love them."
Yeah. That's how it's gonna be with my next girlfriend, I decided before pulling off my clothes. I'm gonna make her love me — more.
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