I thought we might have to sneak in but the white guy with the sleepy eyes sitting on a weathered old wooden stool at the door just waved us on when we paused at the bottom step. I’d never been in a bar before let alone a ramshackle juke joint in the hills just outside of Charlotte. I’d come in here with big ideas and wild dreams. I imagined myself striding through the door, coolly tossing back a shot of liquor before making out with some trailer park beauty queen looking for some chocolate as the band played some Marvin Sease or some Willie Clayton, the type of shit my daddy used to play while he sat on the back porch getting drunk.
In reality the bar smelled like piss and vomit. The women had faces like hatchets that had been used to chop down a redwood. My first sip of Jack made me gag and cough like I was having an asthma attack. But I kept drinking it sip by miserable sip. I snuck a glance at Bricks. He had finished his drink in one big gulp. I choked mine down too.
We had a man to kill tonight and I didn’t think I could do it sober.
“How we gonna know who he is?” I leaned over and shouted into Brick’s ear. Instead of a band the music in the bar was supplied by an old jukebox with two speakers mounted in the ceiling. The speakers were attached by some raggedy ass looking wires that hung down in a series of undulating loops.
“We’ll know.” Bricks said. He shook the ice cubes from his glass into his mouth and crunched them into bits. Bricks was only a year older than me but he was twice as big. All rough angles and backyard muscles. Beads of sweat were popping up on his midnight colored skin like new houses on the waterfront. We’d done four years in the same juvie center. He’d gotten out six months before I did. When I’d landed back in Red Hill county my mom wouldn’t let me move back in so I hooked up with Bricks in Richmond. Bricks ran with a crew from the southside that pushed for Luther Walsh and the River City Boys.
“Yeah but how gonna know? You got a picture or something?” I asked. Bricks stared at me. I sipped my drink and studied the table.
“Why the fuck would I have a picture on me? Stop talking stupid man. We’ll know who it is when we see him cuz we know him.” Bricks said. My stomach roiled and not from the sour mash I was drinking. My throat went bone dry.
“Oh, now you ain’t got no questions? “Bricks asked.
“Didn’t know it was gonna be somebody we knew.” I said.
“That’s why he ain’t gonna see it coming.” Bricks said
I guzzled my drink and scanned the room again, this time with new eyes. There were some women standing next to bar wearing Daisy Dukes two sizes too small. Pink and red shirts emblazoned with words like JUICY and SEXY spelled out with glitter. The feeble fluorescent lights in the ceiling gave their outfits an otherworldly glow. Magically trashy with oiled up brown thighs and full breasts that made the J and the Y jut out like a 3D image. My brain searched for a familiar face in the crowd. The known tilt of a head or a recognizable lazy gait. A dead man who thought we were his homies. I made the mistake of letting one of the women at the bar catch my eyes. I looked away but not quickly enough. She sauntered over to our table on wobbly legs. Silky Brazilian hair weaved into her own coarser grade flowed down her back and ran away from her edges. Her outfit said 21 but her face said 45 the hard way.
“Timmy you ain’t gonna speak to me?” She said. Her words slipped out crooked and slurred. Her nipples were hard as bullets under her tight t-shirt. Against my wishes my dick started to get harder than Sudoku with fractions. She slipped one meaty arm around my neck while one of her heavy breasts pressed against my head. She was trying to sit on my lap but I wasn’t giving her much room. She smelled like sweat and bad decisions. A lifetime of them. I couldn’t believe she was making my dick hard. What was wrong with me? She was old enough to be my mama.
“My name ain’t Timmy. It’s Desean.” I said. Bricks kicked under the table hard enough to fracture my tibia. The woman hadn’t heard me or was pretending she hadn’t which amounted to about the same thing.
“What you say Timmy?” She sputtered.
“He said he ain’t Timmy. His name is Slim Red.” A voice said. I turned and saw a tall lean man standing near our table. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with a white Punisher emblem on it. He had thick ropey dreads that fell to his broad shoulders.
“He ain’t Timmy? Shit he got a fat dick like Timmy.” The woman tittered. She reached under the table and gripped my shit like it was the throttle on a Ducati.
“Lawanda go on now. I got to talk to my boys for a minute,” the man in the Punisher shirt said.
“Don’t’ leave without saying goodbye Not Timmy.” Lawanda said. She bent over and gave me a sloppy wet kiss on the cheek. Her greasy lipstick left a stain that felt like she’d spilled glue on my face.
“Bricks, Slim Red what y’all motherfuckers doing in North Cackalacky? You still running with Luther?”
“What up Ennis. Ain’t seen you since juvie. Nah man I ain’t with L anymore. Doing my own thing. Had to drop some shit off and decided to get a drink while we was in town. “Bricks said. He slipped his left hand under the table. His right played with his empty glass. Ennis grabbed a chair spun it around and sat with his arms folded over the back rest. Ennis was a few years older than either of us. He’d graduated from Gatewood to Coldwater State Prison to finish out his sentence. He’d led the cops on a five county high speed chase after robbing a pawn shop with an axe.
“Shit it been what five years? I heard you was moving that big weight for the River City boys. Now you and Slim Red independent operators huh?” “Ennis asked. He grinned and the neon sign above the bar made his gold fronts glow blue like sapphires. The music had been turned up to eleven. It was like a living thing, a monster’s heartbeat. A monster that lived off liquor and lust. Both of those were flowing freely at Billy’s tonight.
“I’m just along for the ride tonight.” I said. Ennis grinned again.
“Man, I remember when you hit the floor at Gatewood. You was scared of every damn thing. You jumped if the hand dryer came on too loud.”
“Yeah. I had to get over that quick. If it won’t for you and Bricks I don’t what would have happened.” As soon as the words entered the air between us I felt a wave of nausea roll over me like combine.
“I know what would’ve happened. Case Mitchells would have fucked you in the ass til your turds rolled out like ball bearings down a funnel.” Ennis said.
He laughed loud and hard. I felt heat working its way up my neck to my face. He was right of course. There was no denying that. Case was a devil in a cage full of demons. Bricks and Ennis and Mofo and the rest of their set took me in and hipped me to the game inside Gatewood. They taught me the ins and outs. Do’s and don’ts. They even gave me the shank I used to slice Case from his neck to his navel. I think it was equal parts pity, piety and a general dislike for Case. I didn’t kill him just gave him a nasty jagged scar and an involuntary hitch in his step whenever he saw me.
Back then I couldn’t kill anybody. Throw knuckles, slice’em up, crack’em in the head with a poker from the wood stove like I did my daddy. Yeah I could do that all day long. The me from back then didn’t have it in him to kill anybody. Now here I was sitting across from a brother who had kept me from being Case Mitchell’s bitch planning to put two in his head.
I joined Ennis in his laughter and soon so did Bricks. We sounded like a bunch of donkeys braying. Bricks kept his hand under the table near the gun in his front pocket. A small .38 with a rubber grip. My gun was in the car. Bricks had passed it to me once we’d gotten on the road. I had stuck it in the glove box. It had a clip and one in the chamber but I couldn’t tell you the name of it if my life depended on it.
A fat brother in a green tank top approached our table but stopped two feet shy of my chair. His eyes darted side to side and his upper lip was slathered in sweat but I didn’t think it was from the heat.
“Hey E- Money can I talk at you at you for a minute,” the man said.
“Hey let me get at you later Hype I’m talking to some of my boys from back home,” Ennis said.
“Aw man I’m sorry I’m just trying to see if you got something,” the fat man said. “Yo Hype I said I’d holla at you in a minute all right? “Ennis said. I felt the menace in those words. Violence radiated from them like the heat from a wood stove. Hype dropped his head and melted back into the crowd.
“Damn you the man like that round here?” Bricks asked. Ennis smiled. Just like that the ferocity around him evaporated.
“I do a little something something. Yo let’s get some shots. For old times’ sake. Y’all want some Jose?”
“Yeah that’s cool.” Bricks said answering for the both of us.
“That’s what’s up! My boys down in the NC! I be right back.” He held out his fists to Bricks then me. We bumped knuckles then watched as Ennis headed for the bar. As soon as I thought he was out of ear shot I whirled on Bricks.
“When was you gonna tell me it was Ennis? “I said.
“I figured you’d find out when he showed up. Luther said this was his spot," Bricks said. His voice was as smooth as a pane of glass.
“Bricks it’s Ennis man. Ennis. We done come all the way down 95 to put somebody in the ground and it’s one of our best friends from Gatewood. Ennis saved me from Case. He took a nightstick to the face when them guards was trying to drown you in that toilet. You knew the whole time it was him and you didn’t say shit." Bricks played with his empty glass. He ran his finger around the rim like it was a dulcimer.
“Here’s the thing cuz. What I knew or didn’t know don’t’ matter. You came to me remember? You said you wanted to run with Luther Walsh and the River City Boys. You the one that wanted to be down. Well this is how the fuck we get down. You trying to run with them big dogs cuz? Then you gotta get your ass off the porch.” Bricks said. My chest felt like I had gargled with barbwire. Tremors ran up and down my esophagus like I was being tickled from the inside out.
“I… I don’t if I can do this. It’s Ennis man.” I said his name again like it was my new mantra. Bricks flat dirty brown eyes lit on me like a fly.
“Nah cuz. It’s you or Ennis. That’s how this rolls. Luther know for a fact he done hit four of his stash house down here. Done took the product and the money. Put three of ours to sleep. So, you ain’t riding? That’s cool. I’ll just go back to the Cap City alone. You feeling me?” He asked.
I didn’t hesitate. I told him of course I was feeling him. Anything less than that was guaranteeing me a bullet to the face. I didn’t really know what I was feeling. The people I’d hurt in the past had hurt me first. That included my daddy and his quick hands. This was different. Could I kill Ennis because he’d ripped off Luther Walsh? People say pulling the trigger is the easiest thing in the world. Right then it felt like climbing a mountain barefoot. Possible but painful as hell.
“Here drink this shit man. It’ll put hair on your chest and your balls.” Ennis said. He slid a couple shot glasses across the table. He held his aloft.
“To getting out of Gatewood!” He yelled. We clinked our glasses together. The tequila was worse than the Jack. It tasted the way gasoline smelled. Ennis gasped, closed his eyes tight then slammed the glass down on the table.
“Hey man since y’all my boys and you in my town I feel like I gotta take you to the real spot man. Like where the dime pieces at not these nickels and pennies here.” Ennis said.
“Where’s that?” Bricks asked.
“Place out on 234. Homemade strip club man. Girls out there so thick they got USDA stamped on their ass.” Ennis said. He smiled and I felt myself smiling back. I couldn’t help it.
“They gonna be cool with us coming out there?” Bricks said.
“Y’all got some ones on you?”
“If I can get some change I’ll have a hundred in ones.” Bricks said. Ennis smiled again.
“Well damn negro they gonna be really cool with you coming out there.” Ennis said. Bricks thought it over for a second.
“All right let’s go.”
A light fog came rolling in as we sailed down the narrow roads that took us out of Raleigh proper and into the countryside. The moonless black sky seemed to meet the dark horizon as we sliced through the night. Ennis was in the back seat while I sat up front with Bricks.
“Hey man you remember that white dude from Red Hill? The one who tried doing a Columbine at his school?” Ennis said.
“The one they called Toddler because his teeth was so big it looked like he had a mouthful of baby shoes?” Bricks said. Ennis tittered.
“Yeah. Man, you know that motherfucker is running for town councilman now? “
“Bullshit.” Bricks said.
“Nope no bullshit. I saw his ass on the news trying to keep them Confederate statues up in Red Hill.”
“So that motherfucker still an asshole.” Bricks said. Ennis guffawed.
“Yeah. Hey man can you pull over for a second. I gotta piss bad as a racehorse.” Ennis said.
“You gonna pee on the side the road?” I asked.
“Yep. How many cars you seen since we got on this road? I could take a shit out here if I had to.” Ennis said. Bricks eased his foot onto the brake and the car coasted to the shoulder. He put it in park and let the engine idle.
“Hey man how much further to this place?” Bricks asked as Ennis climbed out the backseat.
“Like ten minutes man but I can’t hold it bruh. When you gotta go you gotta go.” Ennis said. He climbed out, closed the door and disappeared into the night.
“Get your piece and get in the back seat.” Bricks said. I did as I was told. The gun felt like it weighed five hundred pounds. I almost asked him why I had to get in the back seat. I almost asked him how we would explain the blood if we got stopped. But like they say almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Instead I took the coward's way out and said nothing.
“You ready?” Bricks asked.
“Not really.” I mumbled.
“What the fuck you say?” Bricks said. He turned around in the driver’s seat to glare at me. Before I could drop my eyes and whisper an apology his window exploded in a shower of glass. The top of Bricks’ head disintegrated as the inside of the car was painted in a violent shade of crimson. Bricks slumped to his right leaking vital fluids all over his leather interior. The rear passenger window shattered and I felt something hot slam into my cheek. As I fell back against the seat my mouth began to fill with a warm and coppery liquid. Sharp bits of bone sluiced down my throat. I realized almost absentmindedly that they were pieces of my teeth. My tongue squirmed in my mouth like a scalded dog.
The rear driver side door opened and Ennis leaned inside. He was holding a big ass chrome plated pistol. He wasn’t smiling or laughing.
“I knew y’all was down here for me soon as I laid eyes on y’all. For what it’s worth I wish they hadn’t sent you man. Bricks was always a shady motherfucker but you was always cool. “Ennis said. He put the barrel of his pistol against my temple.
I still had the gun in my left hand. I turned it towards Ennis and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gunshot was everything. It made my ears pop and my remaining teeth ache. Ennis fell backwards and landed on his ass. Blood flowed from his gut and spilled across his lap. It looked oily against his jeans. I fell over on my belly and aimed the gun at him. He tried to raise his pistol but before he could I shot him again. The bullet caught him in the throat and he collapsed onto his side on the cracked asphalt.
From the moment I had seen Ennis walk up to our table in that shitty ass bar I had asked myself a thousand times how hard would it be to pull the trigger? What would it take for me to kill someone I’d once considered a brother? As I lay there bleeding out I realized it wasn’t really hard at all.
All it took was enough whiskey to make you brave and a gun to your fucking head.