Marcellus Pearson counted out three thousand dollars, wrapped the short stack of cash with a rubber band and handed the money to Oleta Phillips, a narrow-shouldered woman with razor lips. He covered her hand with his, her hard knuckles like pitted marbles against his palm; rolling her arm over, studying the needle tracks running from the crook of her elbow like drunken sutures stitched into her coffee-colored skin.
“You stayin’ clean, Oleta?” he asked.
“Tryin’ to,” she said, pulling her hand away.
“That’s good, real good. Sorry ‘bout your boy. He was family.”
Oleta looked at him, opening her mouth then thought better of it, not asking him what kind of family put a fifteen-year old boy on a corner, his pockets full of crack, so he could get killed over just whose corner was it anyway. She was afraid to ask Marcellus, the way he watched her with his own dead eyes. And she was flush with shame, knowing that she might have saved her boy if she had cared more about him than her next fix. It was too late by the time she did.
“Funeral costs and a little somethin’ extra, this being a hard time and all.”
Oleta nodded, knowing Marcellus was paying for her son’s funeral and her silence, damning herself for taking the money, taking it anyway.
Marcellus’ girlfriend, Jalise Williams, came down the stairs into the front room where he did his business, wobbling on four-inch heels. Barely out of her teens, she carried their son, Keyshon, on her hip, the boy old enough to walk but glad to be in his mother’s arms. A short-legged honey-colored dog followed after her.
“Put him down,” Marcellus told her. “Boy can’t spend his life bein’ carried around by his momma. Ask Oleta, here. She know. She raised her boy right.”
Oleta looked at Jalise; the crack dealer’s whore, she thought. Girl’s ass hanging out of shorts that was too short, her tits squeezed out of a tube top wouldn’t cover nothin’ if nothin’ was all the girl had, wearing enough bling to buy a house. They the ones somebody ought to be collecting death benefits on, she thought, saying nothing.
“He be walkin’ enough,” Jalise said, ignoring Oleta. “I’m goin’ out.”
Marcellus didn’t argue. Jalise took better care of the boy than he would have, changing diapers he wouldn’t touch, keeping herself and the kid out of the way and out of his business. Girl had a fine ass. That was enough.
“You go on,” he told Oleta. “Put that money away, hear. And stay clean.”
Marcellus smiled to himself as Oleta opened the screen door, letting herself out, knowing that she wouldn’t stay clean, not now, not after burying her boy. She’d be high by the time it got dark, broke a week later, selling her ass again, the money he’d handed her back in his pocket.
It was Monday, late September, a few days still warm like today, the nights going cold. Not much color in the trees, the leaves mostly brown and blowing up and down the street like they was lost, same as Oleta.
Her family gathered around her on the front porch like it was Christmas, whispering to her, wuhju you get? Oleta, her head down, answering in a quiet voice, flies buzzing around them. Her brother, a heavyset man yanked at his pants, shooing away the flies with the back of his hand, telling the others it was more than Condre Smith got when his boy got hisself killed last year, saying that Marcellus sure knows what it costs to live and die.
Rondell and DeMarcus Winston leaned against the porch rail, tipping their heads at Marcellus letting him know that the family was satisfied. They were Marcellus’ enforcers; hard muscled, cold blooded brothers, seventeen and eighteen years old, three killings between them. If Marcellus decided to hit back for the boy’s death, the Winston brothers would do the hitting.
He was twenty-three, a high school drop out running the crack trade in Quindaro, a rundown quadrant in northeast Kansas City, Kansas. Of all the money Marcellus paid out to run his business, funeral benefits were the smartest. It sent a message. We take care of our own. His people understood that. They needed to feel valued and he set the price.
A fan hanging from the ceiling in the front room stirred heavy air stale with Chinese takeout left to rot in open boxes on the kitchen table, the dog stealing one, racing into the front room, its snout deep in the container, wrestling for crumbs. Marcellus cursed the dog, kicking the box out of its mouth, the dog scampering out of the room, out of his reach.
An old 27-inch television sat in the corner, rabbit ears antenna making the picture scratch. He kept the plasma screen with its high definition cable in the upstairs bedroom.
His mother lived across the street, cooking the crack. He stored his inventory in the basement of the one room church next door to his mother’s house, the pastor renting the space to Marcellus, the rent paid in protection.
For thirty years, Kansas City, Kansas had been the disrespected punch line to jokes told by people living south in Johnson County or east, across the state line in Kansas City, Missouri. Now, the city had turned the corner, merging with Wyandotte County into a unified government, landing a NASCAR track that triggered an economic boon, the city shedding its stepchild image, the conversation changing from getting out to getting in.
But nothing had changed in Quindaro. Too many people didn’t have jobs and a lot of those that did still couldn’t pay the rent. Boys joined gangs and quit school. Girls got pregnant and followed the boys into the street. Their economy ran on drugs, not NASCAR, not strip malls and subdivisions with walkout basements, not anything, Marcellus bragged to his people, that wouldn’t kill you or thrill you.
Marcellus stuck to crack despite the growing competition from meth on top of the heat he got from Javy Ordonez and his bunch, pushing out of Argentine and into Quindaro. Rondell Winston warned him that they were losing money, giving him a hard time a couple of days ago.
“That cracker, Bodie – what’s his name?” Rondell had said.
“Name of Bodie Grant. I know who he is. White boy over in Raytown. Got so many tats, hardly see any white on the boy.”
“He peddlin’ meth in our territory,” Rondell had told Marcellus. “It’s bad for biddness. We gotta git in it or git they asses outta here. Mebbe both.”
“That shit is a real mess,” Marcellus said. “People all the time blowin’ their own selves up just cookin’ the shit. No way my momma gonna jack wit no fuckin’ meth.”
“Shit, man,” Rondell said. “Javy Ordonez picking us off our street corners and Bodie Grant bringin’ his shit into our motherfuckin’ backyard. Things gonna get real tight around here we don’t do somethin’.”
Marcellus had already talked to his supplier about it, the supplier tellin’ him nothing lasts forever like he don’t already know that. Marcellus said how he busted his nuts everyday keeping the lid on, the supplier saying keep on busting while he could.
Marcellus told his supplier that if Javy Ordonez and Bodie Grant took him down, the supplier could kiss goodbye the money Marcellus been paying for his product and the extra to keep the cops off his back. The supplier said competition was good for everybody, said get back to the street while he was still walking on the green side instead of layin’ under the brown side, letting Marcellus know he on his own.
“I know what I know,” Marcellus said. “Ain’t gonna do no fuckin’ meth.”
“Can’t keep pretendin’ Javy and Bodie Grant ain’t squeezin’ our ass. Wuhju gonna do ‘bout it?” Rondell asked, stepping up in Marcellus’ face.
The way Rondell asked the question was more important to Marcellus than the question, Rondell telling Marcellus maybe he’d do somethin’ ‘bout it if Marcellus didn’t. That’s the way it always was, Marcellus thought to himself. Somebody always watchin, askin’ wuhju gonna do ‘bout some shit; waitin’ for his turn to make hisself head nigga. Best way to cool that shit was to give Rondell someone else to take a few swings at, calm his ass down.
“You and DeMarcus go see mister tattoos-up-his-ass Bodie Grant, mess wit his mind a little bit, tellum peddle his shit some other place.”
“What about Javy?”
Marcellus gave Rondell a flat, street stare. “Let him know what’s what. I don’t care what shit he puts on the street long as he keep it out of Quindaro. Tell him take his shit back to Argentine.”
“I’m all about that,” Rondell said, satisfied for the moment, coming back that night, his chest puffed up like he’d gotten laid for the first time, telling Marcellus he and DeMarcus done delivered the messages.
Marcellus had started out like Oleta’s son, standing on a corner, selling rocks. He made a name for himself when he killed a soldier from a rival Hispanic gang. The soldier had thirty pounds on Marcellus and a gun under his shirt. One day he shoved the gun in Marcellus eye and grabbed him by the balls, telling Marcellus it was his corner and to take his skinny black ass home.
Marcellus waited until it was dark before he came back, hiding in an alley with a baseball bat. When the soldier walked past, Marcellus stepped out behind him, swinging the bat like he was in a slow pitch cage. The soldier was dead when he hit the ground, Marcellus’ gang calling him Barry motherfuckin’ Bonds. That was six years ago, a couple of lifetimes in the crack business. He’d survived by taking care of his own and doing business with the right people.
His strategy had paid off when the cops came crashing through the front door of his house two weeks ago. He was ready, watching TV in bed with Jalise and Keyshon, the only shit in the house belonging to the dog. The cops kicked them out while they searched, saying they had a fugitive warrant for some cat named Darrell. The next day, the Winston brothers asked what had happened, Marcellus telling them it waddn’t no thing.
Then Oleta’s boy got hisself shot the day after Rondell and DeMarcus delivered their messages. He suspected the shooting was either Javy’s or Bodie’s way of answering back though in some ways, it didn’t matter who did it.
What mattered was what his people thought happened and what he was going to do about it. If he didn’t hit back at someone, they would think he was weak or afraid. Worse, they would think he didn’t value them. As soon as that happened, they’d want someone else to tell them what to do. Marcellus shook his head, knowing he had to do something even if it was wrong. He walked to the screen door, tapping on the wire mesh.
“Gitcho asses inna house,” he told the Winston brothers.