for John Wideman
GETS DARK, CREST UNPLUGS HIS CHAIR and heads outside. Been charging all day, both him and Brother Sony. Got to, you know? It’s Wednesday, and everyone comes around for Voyager. Captain Janeway and shit. Got that voice like she always got a cold.
“Mr. Tupac,” Bean always used to say, “beam us out of this motherfucker.” Someone chasing them, Bean used to crack Crest up so bad it be killing him to run. Lungs busting like they’re doing nitrous, dizzy whip cream hits. Bunch of one-fifty-nine Krylons dinging in his pack–Penndot red, taxicab yellow, Day-Glo green like a Mountain Dew sno-cone from old Tony the iceball man–some Poindexter pocket protector brother in a lumberyard apron chasing them cause they tagged the back of the fence by the busway. CREST in six foot wildstyle, BEAN and his crazy Egyptian shit waking up the commuters droning in from Penn Hills. Look up from the Post-Gazette and get it right in their sleepy white eye before they can make downtown and pretend East Liberty doesn’t exist. Hoo-hah, I got you all in check. Yeah.
And speaking of sleeping, there’s Pops crashed on the couch in front of some white chick comedy on NBC–Suzie in the City or some shit, where they’re all rich and skinny, which Pops definitely isn’t–all the time smelling like a whole truckload of Nutterbutters and Chips Ahoy, like a timecard and hard work over Nabisco, hands in his pants like he’s trying to hold his pitiful old Jurassic Park jimmy down even in his sleep. Sure ain’t my fucking problem, Crest thinks, and sees Vanessa getting dressed and leaving that last time, hauling on her bra, giving up on him, then can’t stop Moms from breaking in, throwing the spoon from her ice cream at Pops the other night.
“Why are you here?” she said. “Why don’t you just go then?”
And Pops saying nothing, just taking his paper out on the stoop, sitting there smoking his stogie and going through the batting averages till she went to bed. Now she’s out, working at Mellon Bank downtown in the checkroom, counting other people’s money. The place is quiet but it’s a quiet he doesn’t like. It’ll all change when she gets home at eleven. Pops will hang in for a while, then say he’s taking a walk like he’s afraid of her. Crest doesn’t want to think what that means about him and Vanessa. The doctor says there’s nothing physically wrong, that everything should work like it did before. Yeah, well you fucking try it then. He goes out in the hall and rolls sideways up to the elevator so he can reach the button. A lot of being in the chair is just waiting around.
The dude that chased them that time, skinny yellow bucketheaded dude, freckles all over his nose. Was it just bombing or were they on a mission, putting one of their homies up on the wall? NOT FORGOTTEN. They did a big one with everyone from East Liberty: Baconman, T-Pop, Marcus. It’s hard to tell now, Crest so mellow doing his two painkillers three times a day all week long, world without end amen. That’s how the summer got past him so fast–laid back with U’s big fan going over him and Brother Sony bringing all of Hollywood, even free pay-per-view. September now, everyone back in school, the block quiet all day.
That was some running. Old Poindexter boy musta run track at Peabody. Crest kept looking back thinking they were free but that orange apron just kept on coming. Cooking past the old Original Hot Dog with its dead windows soaped, number on it no one ever gonna call, all those famous pictures inside gone–dead John F. Kennedy, dead Dwight D. Eisenhower eating black-and-white all beef weenies, shaking hands with some Greek dude in a suit and a pussy hat like Raymonde used to wear when he worked there. Booking past the post office with its barbwire and its rows of old Jeeps, good target practice on a Friday night, happy after a 40 of Eight-Ball, lobbing up chunks of old Simonton street, not the new four lane expressway they made so whitefolks can get through here before anything bad happen, laughing when metal went cronk or–Kordell looking deep!–glass smashed. Hit the fence where Mo broke out the wire cutters and it rings the way a chain net drains a swish–Steel City, baby, up in some wack Wilkinsburg sucker’s grill come to lose some chedda, make it take it, New York’s the name of the game, I’ll run on you all day long you don’t step up–and finally Mr. Stockboy from over Homewood can’t keep up, doesn’t know the back alleys, the yards and their dogs, sounding like they’re hungry for some brother’s butt. Back on the block Bean be laughing at him. “Crest, dog, you slower than dirt and uglier than Patrick Ewing.” Crest just trying to get his breath, throat like a washboard. Never could run for shit–or bunt; no infield hits, thrown out at home so much he can’t remember how many times. One hop and the catcher stick that mitt up your nose so you smell it all the way home. But Bean, now my boy could scoot.
Not forgotten. That’s right, Crest thinks, ever get a chance I’ma do one for you.
Yeah, boy, right on the bridge. Right there, big as old BooBoo’s up on the Nabisco water tower–stupid big, somewhere everyone gonna peep it.
But just as he’s thinking this the elevator comes and goddamn if it’s not one inch too high–fucking Mr. Linney, I’ll kick his dumb ugly ass he don’t fix this–and he has to try three times before he rolls over the bump, arms burning like he’s been lifting, veins sticking out like highways. Makes him sweat, and he wanted to look good tonight. Voyager, everybody be there, maybe even Vanessa come back to say she’s sorry, she’s wrong. He’d like to see Rashaan. Why lie–he’d like to see Vanessa give him another try, let him forget about the chair a little bit, just for one minute. Be a man. When she put that bra on, there was nowhere to look but the floor, and he felt beaten, he seriously thought about giving it up. He’s still not sure.
But there’s nothing wrong, the doctor says. In your head, that’s where it’s at.
Punches a button. Panel’s all scratched up, spots of gum on the floor. Bean liked grape, used to blow bubbles so the whole bus smelled.
BEAN. Where would he put it up? Kenny already did a piece on the bridge for both of them, like Crest is dead. Weak shit too, an easy hit, belt-high. He ought to get up there and cross the clown out, slash that shit bigtime. I’m alive, that’s what it’d say.
“Shit,” Crest says, alone and going down, the cables singing like knives. “Fucking fly first.”
He looks up at the light, round as an angel’s halo, the halide sun above an operating table. Nothing wrong.
Yeah, Bean, beam me out this motherfucker.
Elevator hits bottom and the door rolls open, but there’s no one to hold it. Never long enough, and he’s got to fight it, rubber part banging against his wheelgrip, door jumping back and then bumping him again, stupid fucking thing.
“Hold up,” U says, “I got you,” and stops it with one hand holding his bible, all dog-eared and full of Post-It notes. He’s got his hearing suit on cause he’s just coming back from his meeting. Shoes with tassels like little leather flowers, handkerchief in his pocket making three sails, clipper ship. Since he’s been out he wants everyone to call him Eugene, like he’s different now. And he is, Crest thinks. He once saw U thump on Nene with an aluminum bat. Put a dent in it so it hit funny, and Nene was one of his boys. It made Crest proud, U being crazy like that; all the way growing up, it kept him protected. When it was just letters, Crest could make fun of the Jesus stuff. Now that U’s out, Crest doesn’t know how to talk to him. It’s like they say, God will fuck a brother up.
“U,” Crest says, and thanks him with a nod.
“S’all right. Voyager tonight, right?” U says it like he’s proud he remembered.
“You coming down?”
“Gotta hit it.” He pats his bible and gets in. “I’ll come down round ten and check out the news.”
“Yeah, all right,” Crest says, busting, cause he never does.
And it’s like being transported, U pushes a button and he’s gone, the motor going in the basement, all that grease covered with dust fuzz. Mr. Linney probably got his door locked, playing his 78s, pretending Mrs. Linney isn’t dead. A couple years ago, he and Bean saw Mr. Linney dancing with himself, shuffling around, one hand in the air, singing Darling this, Baby that. Everyone’s so fucked up around here.
“You ought to know,” Crest says.
Outside a few earlybirds are parked on the stoop, mostly kids, some riding their bikes under the streetlight. Across Spofford, two dudes are leaning against the fence, just hanging, splitting a Kool like a J the way he and Bean used to do. Used to, like U knocking Pops through the screen door that time, calling him a Tom. Crest shakes it off; all this memory shit isn’t good for him, he knows that. It’s been six months, only two since he’s been home. U’s been out three, even got a job over Baierl Chevrolet, detailing. Puts on his jumpsuit every morning like he’s back in the Marines, makes a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, stocks up on the free cookies Pops brings home Friday night. He’s clean, he goes to his meetings. Done is done, Moms always says. Pick it up, clean it up, don’t do it again.
A lighter sparks across Spofford and he can see it’s just Little Nene and Cardell, probably waiting on him, maybe getting wasted before they blast off into space. Warp factor five, Mr. Sulu.
Yeah, it’s a good crowd. He can see a clump of girls in front of Miss Breedlove’s house, turned in a circle so no one can look at them. Not Vanessa, none of them that tall yet. He gets up some speed and hits the door. At least Mr. Linney got the ramp right. Ones down Liberty Center so steep they shoot you out in the middle of traffic.
Everyone’s waiting for him; even the girls turn.
“It’s showtime, baby!” one of the kids calls, doing a screwy Dick Vitale. They stick their bikes against the fence.
“Crest,” they say, “c’mon, man, get that thing on!”
Little Nene and Cardell come wandering across the street like they don’t care if they’re late. Little knuckleheads fronting hard, want to build up some respect. Crest used to kick their nappy asses once a week, not bad, just slap-boxing, give them a taste of what’s waiting. Since the bridge, they still mess with him, but careful like. He used to groove on playing Little Nene, pop him hard and watch his eyes go psycho. Cardell’s always been stronger, but he ain’t half as crazy as Little Nene; he’d take his licks and give some back, but he’ll never thump like his brother. That’s all used to, like eveything else. Now they think they’re being respectful and take it easy on him. “Bring it on, muthafuck,” Crest says, but it’s just sissy taps, then they dance out of range and profile some styling footwork, show him their new moves.
Crowd’s waiting, and Crest backs into the corner so the door can’t hit him. Hooks up Brother Sony to the juice and reaches under the ivy, spiderwebs grabbing at his hand–and there’s the cable, spliced right off the box. He tips the set and sticks the jack in, clicks the knob where he wants it. Brother Sony has a plastic kickstand, and he pulls it out and rests the set on top of the wall so everyone on the steps has a good seat. One last look at everyone looking up at him, and–ignition.
It’s a golf course, late in the day, the kind of light that looks like expensive whiskey. A bunch of old white people are shoving their clubs in the trunk of a huge Buick, all happy like they won something. “Aw, man,” Little Nene says, disgusted, “I don’t want to have to see these Caucasians. I get enough of this shit in real life, you know what I’m saying?” Everyone agrees, an mmm-hmmm like church. There’s a clubhouse behind the old folks, ivy-covered, and Crest thinks of when he used to do dishes at the University Club, the thick plates that held the heat from the machine so you had to wear cotton gloves just to put them away. Used to cash his check Fridays and take Vanessa out to Isaly’s, chip-chop ham and whitehouse ice cream. It looks like fall there, a few leaves on a putting green. It’s a bank commercial, how rich you’ll get if you give them your money. When Moms comes home she’s got a dozen gumbands around her wrist, the rubber dirty with black streaks.
“Pump it up,” Little Nene calls from the back, but Crest waits. Someone has a bag of pretzels–another father working day shift at Nabisco–and they break it out, pass it around, people filling their laps. The commercials are louder, and when Voyager comes on he adjusts it. They go right into the show, no credits, no nothing, and there’s B’Elanna Troi with her old rhinoceros-looking head, and googly old white boy Tom Paris, phasers out, in some cave made of fake rocks; it’s your basic away team thing. Better believe someone’s going to get fucked up.
This spirit thing appears, green and see-through, kind of a ghost, but the music lets you know it isn’t. It circles around them like it’s interested. The two of them don’t move; it’s like a Star Trek rule: just stand there.
“Run!” one of the girls–Janelle French–calls.
“Where they gonna run?” Cardell says.
“I don’t know,” Janelle says, “just run!”
“I’m not picking up any readings,” B’Elanna says, and then–whoosh–the thing shoots into Tom Paris. His face changes, like he ate something he’s not too sure of, like he’s going to throw up. The music gets loud, then goes soft, then ends. All of a sudden Tom’s better.
“Tom!” B’Elanna calls, and runs over to him. She goes to touch him but doesn’t. Everybody knows they’re gonna make it one of these shows; girl just doesn’t know what she wants. Crest always thinks it’s like him and Vanessa, you know, just meant to be, no sense in denying it. But V needs a man. She never says, but Crest understands. The doctor says it makes no sense, he should retain full feeling–that’s the way he says it too, all official, like Crest can’t do this. Fuck, he wanted to say, and make it plain: it doesn’t fucking work. He doesn’t fucking work. Vanessa tried twice. She cried the first time; the second time she just let go and looked at him all cold, like it was his fault.
“Are you okay?” B’Elanna asks.
“I think so,” Tom Paris says, rubbing his head and looking googly as ever, like he doesn’t even know the thing’s in him. B’Elanna calls Captain Janeway to beam them up, and as they’re being transported, you can see the green shape inside Tom’s body.
“Aw, man!” Little Nene says. “Cuz is in for some serious shit.”
“Thing went right down his mouth,” Cardell says, and the two of them act it out, clowning, the girls laughing at them.
Crest has already seen this episode, it’s a repeat. The new season doesn’t start till next week, but no one complains, it’s still fun. The green thing is the last of its species and it won’t leave Tom. The Prime Directive kicks in and The Doctor has to figure something out. Crest sits there watching, laughing when everyone else does, going quiet when The Doctor opens Tom’s lips wide with this steel thing and shines a light. And then, of course, a commercial.
All day he’s been waiting to be with someone, just lying in bed while the buses and rush hour went by, watching talk shows, then getting up and eating lunch with the noon news. Drive-by on The Hill, Pirates still three-and-a-half behind the Astros. All afternoon he let the set charge, listening as the school buses dropped the little kids off, and then the music of cartoons from the other apartments. Moms came home long enough to make supper, then left before Pops and U drove up, both of them too tired to give a shit. They ate at the table but it was just chowing down, pass this, pass that. No one asks, “What did you do today?”
I laid up in my crib and listened to Wu Tang, same tape over and over.
I drank all the red Kool-Aid and then emptied out my bag cause it was getting full.
I watched TV.
No one wants to hear that shit. Fuck, Crest thinks, I don’t want to hear that shit.
“Going to your meeting?” Pops asked like every night, and, like every night, U said, “If that’s all right.”
“It’s fine with me.”
“Me too,” Crest said.
“You oughta come. You’d be surprised, some of the people you meet.”
“Remember Pooh Bear? He comes.”
“That roly-poly motherfucker? I thought he got shot.”
“He did. Now he’s a deacon over St. James in Highland Park.”
“Remember Guy Collins?”
“Now I know you’re frontin’. Guy Collins’ name Malik. I know that cause his cousin Anthony told me.”
“That’s when he was in Western Pen. When he came out he converted back. He’s married to this gal Florence now, they come twice a week. I’m telling you, you’d be surprised; it’s not like Sister Payne’s old biddy prayer circle. It might be just what you need. I know it’s working for me.” He was really selling it, his eyes bright shining, his ham just lying there in its juice. “We got a ramp and everything.”
“That’s all right,” Crest said.
“The door’s always open.” He said it like a reverend, like he owned the whole place and it was his to give, and all Crest could think of was the day U brought home Brother Sony, still in the box. He and Fats had busted into a truck over behind Sears. Used to be like that all the time–full of surprises.
After U went to put on his suit, Pops leaned across and squeezed Crest’s shoulder and said not to take it personal. “He’s just a little excited right now. Remember, he was away a long time.”
“I know,” Crest said, thinking: what about me, how long was I gone?
Now The Doctor leans over Tom Paris’s mouth again, this time with a steel test-tube thing, and one of the girls squeals, “Don’t be doing that, fool!”
There’s a blast of green light–“Here we go, here we go,” Cardell says–and when the picture comes back, The Doctor’s still looking, Tom’s still got his mouth open.
The Doctor straightens up, stiff like always. “I think we’ve succeeded.” He holds up the test tube, all smug. Inside it, a green light shines.
They’re going to try to clone it, see if they can get it to reproduce so it won’t go extinct.
“Now that’s just a plain mistake,” Janelle French says, shaking her head.
But then, in his quarters, Tom Paris gets this headache. It’s killing him. He goes to the mirror, holding his head with both hands, and his eyes are completely green.
“Aw, yeah,” Nene says. “That’s what happens you fuck with that green shit.”
“Show you right,” Crest says, nailing the mute button.
A car cruises by, slides right through the stop sign, and they all watch it hard, thinking it might be B-Mo’s crew from Brushton looking to get some payback on Nene and his fellas, but it’s just some old nutty-looking white dude in a busted-up Oldsmobile, his windows rolled up. Must be lost–or on the pipe, looking to cop some rock. As he passes, Cardell walks out into Spofford to let him know he’s being scoped, then comes back.
“Any of those pretzels left?”
In the middle of the next scene, Little Nene’s beeper goes off, and he and Cardell leave. “Later, C.” Crest watches them down the block, thinking how tight he and Bean were. Dude always had his back, didn’t matter if it was Morningside or North Braddock, Oakland or the North Side, and just like he didn’t want to happen, he sees Bean on the bridge, going over, and he reaches for him and catches his sleeve and then both of them go, the hard white bed of the busway flying up at them like a blank page, a wall of snow. It was only thirty feet, that’s the part he’ll never understand.
No one knows Tom Paris is the alien. He spreads the DNA like a vampire, biting people in the corridors. When his eyes turn green, the test tube glows. Half the ship is walking around like zombies, and now Crest can’t remember how it ends–something with the Holodeck, or maybe a special drug The Doctor cooks up. It doesn’t matter; Bean is here again, and the minutes Crest spent waking up in the hospital, the light above the table, the operating room cold and smelling like ammonia. When the doctor bent down he could see a drop of blood caught in her blond eyebrow. Well hello Miss Anne. There was a saw making the same screaming it did in shop. Wait, he wanted to say, hold up, but her face came down, the drop of blood like a bug, a roach hidden in spaghetti. He tried to talk but the air was sweet, even sugary, a licorice musk of rubber, and then there was nothing but space, floating, no stars, just a dark, bottomless night.
“Mute it,” someone says, and Crest does. He’s already taken his pills; maybe that’s it. This doesn’t happen every night, just some. He always looks for causes but never finds any, like he’s being controlled by some alien force, like googly old Tom Paris. Fuck.
It’s just Bean.
The commercials go on too long, so they know it’s the end. When it comes back on, Crest remembers everything. It’s not The Doctor, it’s B’Elanna who saves everyone. She kisses Tom and his true personality comes back and kicks the alien’s ass right out of his mouth. The Doctor makes up some fancy explanation that the other ones need Tom to keep living, so they all get better, all at once. The green ghosts join up in a blob and go out into space. The special effects are lame, and everyone laughs. Crest is wondering about Vanessa, if a kiss from her would make everything all right. Before, he would have said more than a kiss, but now he thinks: yes. He should call her again. Maybe tomorrow.
Some of the girls stick around for a preview of next week, the new season, then everyone leaves during the credits. It’s a school night, but still he’s disappointed. Janelle French waves. “Catch ya, Crest.”
“Take it easy, baby.”
The ten o’clock news comes on, the drive-by the top story. He knows the street, Highland Terrace. There was a dance there years ago, in spring. It’s another Bean and me story, a fight over a stolen coat, and Crest doesn’t even get into it, just squashes that mad stuff, shoves it back where it goes. What the fuck. Even if he had someone to talk to he wouldn’t say anything. What’s there to say? In the paper they said he was the fourth teenager to die in East Liberty that week, like it was some drug shit. It made it sound like it was Bean’s fault. And then nothing, just a little thing in the obituaries. Crest didn’t even get to go to the funeral. Still hasn’t been to see the stone Miss Fisk bought for him. Soon. Got to, you know?
The door swings open, almost getting him.
“Hey, home,” U says, in some old street clothes, corduroy slippers.
“Just came down to see how you’re doing. Where’s all your little girlfriends?”
“Show’s over,” Crest says. “Pops go to bed yet?”
“Still on the couch.”
They sit there, Crest in his chair, U on the wall, watching the news. Pirates won; Kevin Young plants one in the stands.
“Go ‘head,” U says, and Crest smiles with him. He’s so clean it’s hard to believe. Quit everything, not even beer anymore. Back in the day they’d sit here and pound down Iron Citys. Vitamin I. Had a killer rap with the ladies, fly Impala he used to cruise Highland in, stylin’ threads. That’s all gone, and what’s in its place is something Crest doesn’t understand. And Crest in his chair; it’s the same, he thinks. They’ve changed. Where they’ve been no one can go. It’s like they’ve come back from different planets and they’ve got nothing to say to each other, or maybe they’re speaking a completely different language. Maybe they’re both fucked up. Maybe Bean got off easy.
“What’s up with Moms and Pops?”
“They’re just fighting.”
“Naw, man, it’s different this time.”
“Think so? Well, I prayed for them anyway. I pray for you too, Chris. Every day.”
“Thanks,” Crest says, because there’s nothing else to say.
“I pray for Bean too, you know? For all of us.”
“A’ight, man,” Crest says, and they shake, and it’s almost like it used to be. But it’s not. It’s fine for U to pretend none of this shit happened, but Crest can’t do that. Wouldn’t want to neither.
The weather chick is on, and he looks at U–at this new Eugene–and thinks of Tom Paris, how no one could tell the alien was inside him. And he thinks it’s like the original Star Trek, when there are two Captain Kirks, and one of them’s good and one of them’s evil. They look exactly the same, they talk exactly the same, they’re even wearing the same clothes, just one of them’s evil. You know they’ve got to fight it out, the two of them, and Spock has always got to choose which one is which. And every time–Crest is amazed by this–every single time he made the right choice. But what if, Crest thinks, what if one time Spock made the wrong choice? What if one time by mistake he picked the evil one? How would anyone ever know?