—You’re going to want to hang a right here…. Yeah.
We both reached for the volume knob at the same time. My car stereo actually still had a big fat volume knob. I pulled back and let him turn it way way up.
—OKAY, AFTER THIS LIGHT RIGHT HERE—THE ONE COMING UP—I’LL TELL YOU WHERE TO TURN.
He had to shout over the noise. My back speakers—the ones that were supposed to produce all the bass—had blown out a long time ago, so all music was punctuated by rattles and buzzing.
We’d been driving for an hour and a half, two hours from country to city. It was summer, so the sun still pulled shadows down whole blocks at seven thirty. My AC hadn’t worked for two summers. Wind through open windows had integrated dust, road grime and trace amounts of motor oil and insects into my sweat. And with the sun only now letting us simmer, I imagined our two bodies delicately breaded and fried to a tar-stained brown. It did not feel good.
He’d shaved his head a few weeks ago, but he wasn’t tending to it. Stubble pushed through his scalp, catching and holding perspiration. Every couple minutes, he’d zip a hand through it and spray sweat everywhere. That did not feel good either.
—THAT WAS IT—THAT WAS THE LIQUOR STORE. IT’S COMING RIGHT UP.
We: me and Chris. We were friends. Both photography students. We’d drive around like this and just talk, but today we were on assignment. Coasting by at 20 miles per hour, I saw the bench we were sitting on—the same bench where we were last week when we met the guy. Chris had done all the talking.
– – –
—Yeah dog, y’got fo quotas I cou’hold?
—Uhh, lemmie see man.
—Yeah, man, y’know I gotta geddit fo m’little girl see. She back at home, so it’s not fo me’a nuthin.
—I think I might have some change…
—Hey man, you talk?
—Do you talk?
—You, dog. You don’t like me, do ya?
—Uhh…here man, I got a couple bucks, here.
—Go’ bless ya man. Hey…
—Thanks man, you’re welcome.
—Hey, check this out. My ol’lady an’ I’re thowin a party fo th’little girl an y’all’re invited.
—Yeah, it’s m’ birthday. Hey…
—Hey, yeah, y’all come. My name’s Lil Tim an’ I’ma party Friday. I need this money fo m’ol’lady cos she be drivin me roun.
—Lil Tim be havin a birfday. An y’all can come. Even you man. Hey man…you talkin?
—Yeah man, what’s up?
—Hey man, since yo frien gave me some money fo my ol’lady…
—I thought it was for your little girl.
—Yeah dog. Fo bothavem.
—Since m’man here gimmie money, I’ma rap fo y’all two. I’ma rapper, you know that?
—No man, you didn’t say.
—Y’all ain’t neva heard Lil Tim?
—I’ma blow it up, check it out-
I’m Lil Tim, gon’ lay it down
Alla ladies wan’ me when’ey come aroun
Ass me Lil Tim, wanna play my game…
Hey, you gon’ come to m’party aight?
– – –
—HEY MAN, JUST GO AHEAD AND PULL OVER, I NEED A DRINK.
The front bumper scraped the curb as I parked. I shut off the ignition, ratcheted the key out of its slot in one motion and the blaring radio stopped dead. The last traces of rock music echoed back from down the empty block. We both reached for our camera bags in the back seat. His, the bastard, was a beautiful Hasselblad that he refused to say where he’d gotten and how much was paid for it. Nestled beside it was a wide angle lens and a half dozen filters that I’d never seen him use for anything but to turn his subjects green. Also, his camera bag was huge. I never touched the thing.
Mine was an old Canon I’d found in a pawn shop.
Except for the neon OPEN sign buzzing between sales posters and twelve pack boxes, the package store looked closed. There was no activity in the street this late in the day and I was sure we’d be the only ones in the store.
I was right. There was one guy behind the Plexiglas watching a football game on one of those long portable TVs. He barely looked up at us when we walked in. The place was living room-sized, the walls lined with boxes and built in coolers glowing fluorescent. Five aisles, mostly composed of similar boxes and black wire endcaps holding beef jerky: original, extra spicy and teriyaki. Chris headed straight for the chip aisle.
—I thought you needed a drink.
—I do, but I wanted to see if they had ’em here.
—Had…the old ones? I don’t think so man.
—This place looks old.
—Yeah, but chips go stale. It’s been years since anyone’s had those things.
—It’s been a while since you’ve seen these though, right?
He waved a bag of Kruncher potato chips in front of me.
—Yeah, it has, but… Those bastards broke one of my teeth once.
—Yeah, I was eating ’em and had a semi-loose tooth. It came out and I like bit it in half and swallowed it. I haven’t eaten those things since.
—Shut up. See, they don’t have ’em. What did you want to drink?
—I dunno. Gimmie a sec.
I went to the wall of coolers in the back. Only one door was devoted to soft drinks and I gripped its cool, slender handle for a while, scanning over the green and red and blue and silver cans and bottles. Chris called from two aisles over.
—Grab me a Pepsi, yo.
—Can or bottle?
I pulled the door open, the magnetic pads cracking apart and freezer fog spilling at my feet. I could have stood there all day. I grabbed a can and a bottle of Pepsi. 76 cents and a buck twenty. I walked back over and Chris was rooting around behind the chips, his arms buried in Doritos.
—They’re not gonna fucking have ’em man.
—It’s just so stupid to have Cooler Ranch without still having Cool Ranch.
—Whatever. Are you getting chips?
—Yeah…no, no, fuck ’em.
– – –
—Hey man, turn the radio down, check it out…
—It’s Tim…walking in front of the…
—Yeah, there. By the liquor store, right?
—Pull up a block and park.
– – –
The street was a wide berth between three story brick-and-mortar puzzle pieces. The lowering sun frosted the red facades blond, illuminating metal shutters and windows like bullion. Our shoes scraped along cigarette filter chalk dust. The shuffles were louder than I was comfortable with. Dumpsters huddled in alleys, spilling their guts, tending to flies, cockroaches, rats.
Chris studied the scarred line of peeling movie posters on a boarded up storefront.
—Is this the right street?
—Yeah, I pulled up and parked by that shoe store there.
—Oh yeah. Wow, check those ones out.
—The red and black ones?
—Yeah, I didn’t know they still made ’em with the lights in the heel.
—They do, I see little kids wearing ’em all the time.
—Yeah, but those are like, size tens.
He took a swig from his bottle and recapped it immediately, stuffing it into the camera bag on his shoulder. I wiped my unopened can across my forehead before popping the top. The crack of aluminum sounded like a .22 echoing down the block. Chris whirled around and stared at me, then at the can in my hands. I had jumped, and there was Pepsi fizzing on my fists. He chuckled at me like he was clearing his throat and kept walking.
– – –
—Where’s he going?
—He probably lives here.
—Alright, which house?
—I don’t know, he prob… that one.
—What about it?
– – –
The plan, the plan, the plan… This was all about our assignment. We were supposed to photograph a subject we did not know personally. It was obviously a ploy by our professor to get us off campus, but class discussion was mainly about the camera’s power to connect people. I mentioned that many primitive peoples still hold the belief that photographs capture a person’s soul. My professor, his hair pulled back, legs crossed as he sat on his desk, laughed. He said that if I was planning a trip to the outback, I should have gotten plane tickets for everyone.
At 243 7th Street, I stopped. Chris tipped the last of his drink into his mouth and just let the bottle drop away like a spent rocket. The plastic missile skittered nose to tail across the pavement and settled into the gutter. Remains of a pigeon or a rat or a cat’s paw lay next to it, swarming with ants. The bottle had interrupted their line, forcing them to reroute. I was staring at this when Chris thumped me on the arm.
—I can hear something coming from that house
He pointed to 249. I toed the bottle away from the line of ants and muttered a yeah.
—I just don’t know if I want to do this.
—You can wait in the car. I’ll let you know how it works…
I could hear it too—a blaring television with its blue-yellow projection flickering through the shutters. 249 was a carbon copy of all the other houses up and down the block: ancient two story deals whose attics were probably condemned. The brickwork was chipped—no, there were full holes in some of them. Something about 249 though went beyond the simple decay of its neighbors. I wasn’t sure if Chris saw it, but I couldn’t see his face. All I was looking at were the shutters that had long forgotten paint—at the anemic light filling the cracks. I was conscious of my line of sight shifting upward and crashing back down with each step. There were no more weeds fighting through the cracks in the front walk than those leading to 247 or 251, but these in front of us, these that Chris was now raking and flattening with his sneakers, were somehow fighting harder. I still couldn’t see his face. He sighed.
—My dad used to live in a place kinda like this.
We tread lightly up the brick steps. We approached the door. The pale TV light flickered. Whoever was home was watching a sit-com. It was a rerun.
Chris knocked on the door.
The TV snapped off. The hairs on my neck bristled. Scientists say that goosebumps are a vestigial reaction to fear; when we were still covered with hair, goosebumps made us appear larger. I didn’t feel any bigger. I felt much much smaller in front of that door. There was a spray of sweat from Chris’ hand and head and another knock. I thought I heard breathing inside.
When the door finally creaked open and stuttered a couple inches in as the chain caught, both of us took a quick step back. There was no figure in the gap. But there was a voice.
I looked at Chris, expecting him to be looking back with a similar terrified face, but he was in the moment.
That one word shot out as though it could physically hurt us.
—Tim, it’s us man. It’s your birthday.
—Bitch, I ain’t nev’seen you fore, neva. Ge’th’fuck outta here.
—Tim, you invited us. We paid you.
—What? Y’all mu’fuckas bes’step off my do’step.
—Lil Tim, you rapped for us. We wanted more. We can pay you more.
The door slammed shut. Air surged back into my lungs. A chain rattled and the door swung open wide this time. His arm clutched his side of the doorknob and he shouldered the frame, blocking our entrance. This was indeed Lil Tim. He was even wearing the same shirt he had on last weekend. He looked at us for a long time, glaring as if something else was using his eyes to examine us. Not a hint of recognition there. Behind him was the television we’d heard, surrounded by dented beer cans. There were little blue bulls printed on them, their horns aimed at us.
—You boys her’me rap?
—Yeah, can we come in?
—Cuss I’ma rap. You boys go’money, I rap fo’y’all.
—Sure man. David, give him some money.
It was a shock to hear him address me. I dug into my pocket for the change from the store and handed over whatever was in there. A couple pennies dropped to the porch, pinging on the bare brick and spinning around at our feet. Lil Tim took the crumpled, sweaty bills I gave him, and for a second we made eye contact. Bloodshot. The circles of brown to black nearly indiscernible. The examining glare gone, the circles, bags, wrinkles around the eyes apparent now. As he took the money, his eyes communicated nothing. His face read neutrality—vacancy. Maybe, I thought, we were both operating automatically now, just reacting to Chris.
Tim took a step back and Chris stepped in. I followed. The door shut. Tim fingered the cans resting on top of the television and, finding one with some heft, lifted it to his lips and downed the contents.
—Y’all know I’ma rap.
The smell of the place was foul and stale, like no one was actually living there. It was very dark and all the walls were wood-paneled. The television was plugged into a ragged orange extension cord that snaked out of a crack in the side window. There was cardboard and duct tape over what I could see of the kitchen windows down the hall, and our shoes scraping against the floor sounded like rocks on wood.
—I’ma rap. I’ma ge’summo’da drink.
He shuffled down the hall and we heard him open the fridge. There was no clinking of bottles or shifting around, just the pop of aluminum. Chris pulled his camera out and turned it on, getting a quick shot of the TV. I watched Tim shuffle back down the hall, lifting another beer to his face. Lowering the can to his knees, he looked up and grinned.
At my left, Chris had his lens pointed at Tim, framed in the hallway, beer in hand. Chris detached and held the flash way out to his left and when it popped, shadows shot all the way up to the ceiling. Lil Tim chuckled like he was sneezing and made for the television chair. Chris backed off and gave him room to move, never taking his aim away. The chair was just a metal frame and a seat. The backrest was gone. It sat in the middle of the room with its back to the front window. Tim sat down and stared at the TV.
—Tim, we’re going to take some pictures of you while you rap for us.
Chris motioned for me to take pictures and I rummaged into my camera bag without taking my eyes off the master of the house.
—Maybe you could stand against that wall there.
Tim cleared his throat and stood fully erect for the first time that we’d seen. He raised his beer to us and walked to the wall. Chris and I both snapped pictures of him as he did this and I felt myself relax a little.
Tim shuffled through a series of poses that mostly involved cocking his shoulders in different directions and not spilling his drink. Chris took most of the shots.
—You boys wan’ sommin’a drink?
I piped up sure and left the two in the front room.
The kitchen was dark. By now, there was no fading daylight to stream through the cracks in the boarded up windows. There was the cracking of warped linoleum underfoot and the skittering of unsavory insects. I swung the refrigerator door wide, but no light came on. I stood for a moment and let my eyes adjust. There was no humming of appliance motors. The cans of beer that I gripped were warm. I followed laughter back down the hall.
—I knew you boys was good.
—Damn right we are.
Chris snapped two shots as Tim finished off his drink and took the one I proffered him. I set the second one down next to him.
—Naw, I mean like they wanna me t’talk t’ya.
—They wanted you to talk to us?
The flash stripped his face of shadows for one blinding second.
—Yeah, they w’li’, hep those boys, they all beat up.
—So you were gonna kick our asses, but someone got to us first?
—I dunno ‘bout all’at, bu’ they showed me. They showed yo skin all black an’ blue.
Chris fiddled with one of his filters, arching his eyebrows toward Tim.
I looked down at my hands clutching the old Canon. It occurred to me what the name implied. I wasn’t sure I liked that. I felt my palms clam around the camera.
—I saw you sittin’ere all black an’ blue an’ey tol’ me t’go over talk t’ya.
—Man, who told you?
—They always be aroun. I cou’hep you.
Tim moved from his pose against the wall and took two heavy steps toward Chris.
—I don’t need any help Tim.
Chris stepped back, crushing a can underfoot. The bull gripped his heel and he had to scrape and stomp it off. He flailed his camera around his head and Tim turned to me.
—You too. You all black an’ blue too. You boys is hurt. I’m’a hep you like a—like a good Samaritan.
—I’m not hurt. What are you talking about?
I felt like I was screaming.
—He doesn’t know.
I looked over Tim’s shoulder and Chris wasn’t holding a camera anymore. I hadn’t seen him draw it. I didn’t know he’d had it. Lil Tim and I turned toward Chris and put our hands up.
—You gotta gun.
Tim said it as if Chris didn’t know. Like it was something he’d had to repeat in his head a few times. Tim took a sip of the beer that was still pinched between the thumb and middle finger of one of his half-raised arms.
—Yeah I do, don’t I?
Spit was caught in my throat. It gurgled as I tried to breathe.
—Man, you boys ain’hurt. You jes black an’ blue all ova.
Chris’ arm shook.
—We don’t want any more of your shit. Now give David his money back and back away from the door.
—Ged’oudda my house.
Chris straightened up, his arm taut.
—SHUT UP AND DO IT.
—BITCH… Lil Tim’s shoulders rolled back,
—I SAID… he threw his arms out, fountaining beer,
—GED’OUDDA MY HOUSE. and knocked Chris’ hand toward the ceiling. The gun fired a shot through the front wall. I saw the wood panel explode a few feet above the window and the blast was the only thing in my ears, replaying endlessly as I ripped open the front door and ran and Chris ran and the explosion rang as my feet missed all six brick steps to hit the weeds in the pavement and chase me down the block to the liquor store—destroying all sound as I clutched my keys and Chris’ knee slammed into the front fender as my heart beat gunshots and unlocked the doors and fell inside and Chris squeezed the gun and his knee in the shotgun seat and the engine and music detonated to life and Chris tossed the gun into the glove box and clutched the bruising knee in his hands, grimaced a tear through his closed eyes, and curled the pain to his face.