Walter’s kitchen was small but cozy, and he used every awkward traffic jam as an opportunity to grab Sharon by the waist and pull her close. When Wally caught them necking from his highchair, his eyes got real big and he’d start laughing and flailing about. Sharon would get embarrassed and go back to cooking, but Walter would pick the boy up and tell him he should be so lucky, then take him out on the porch and let him play with the dog while daddy smoked a cigar.
They lived in a quiet neighborhood, a small house on Hart Avenue in the West End. It had a slate foundation and green siding, with a newly shingled roof as of this summer. Walter was only twenty-four and almost done with the mortgage, thanks to Sharon’s inheritance when old Mr. Bill died. He had been the first black cop in the city and worked magic with the horses. Walter didn’t gamble himself, but he’d joined the police force because of Mr. Bill. He had his own dreams of becoming Washington’s first black deputy sheriff, or at least a captain.
Wally wrestled Ringo for a stick at his feet. The German shepherd was gentle with the child and a good test of his growing strength. Just the other day, Wally wrenched a chicken bone clean out the dog’s mouth and held it up to Walter like a trophy. He was going to make a fine linebacker.
Walter leaned over the rail and puffed smoke towards the night sky. One of his neighbors sat drinking a beer on his porch up the street, but other than that all was still. He heard Sharon finishing the dishes in the kitchen, giggling at one of her talk shows on their new TV.
He couldn’t imagine her being with someone else, not even her ex Teddy Williams who tried to break up their engagement. Not having Wally stumbling around at his heels, to have to drive back and forth and pick him up for visitations from some other nigger’s house? He could already see himself killing Teddy, sending a big copper-jacketed bullet straight through his brain.
Walt peeked through the window at Sharon. She was deep in her show. He set his cigar on the rail and stepped over the baby gate, leaving both Wally and Ringo poking up their heads with quizzical looks. He got in the passenger side of his Gran Fury and shut the door.
The interior smelled of old leather and coffee, from a spill he’d forgotten to clean up after chasing a drunk driver the other night. That asshole was lucky to be alive. Walt opened the glove box and withdrew Reggie’s revolver, a nickel .357 magnum with the rubber grip. The moonlight made it gleam like new.
He snapped open the cylinder and let it spin. These horsekickers were a hell of a lot bigger than the standard .38 snubs the department issued. It reminded him of the gun his grandfather had taught him to shoot with. This ain’t no toy, the old man told him. And just once, It’s meant to kill.
After Reggie had crashed Lonnie’s party up at the park the other day, Walt thought he ought to take his gun until the Theresa thing blew over. He just wanted to keep the fool out of jail. Walter understood how a couple more beers impaired your judgment, how one bad decision could change the course of a man’s life.
Wally started crying from the porch, and Walt heard Sharon call his name from inside. He stuffed the pistol back in the glove box and locked it.
The kid had tripped and scraped his elbow, and Ringo sat next to him, ears bent, licking the wound. Walter scooped his son up and began patting his back.
“You’re alright,” he said. “I got you.”
Reggie did his best not to call her—at least not until after the sun rose. Light had started to flood his beer-strewn apartment, over the half-finished lines of coke on the glass coffee table. He climbed off the couch and took the phone from the wall. The clock read six oh three, which meant he had twenty-seven minutes to get down to the construction site before Chuck fired his ass.
The entire apartment had her marks on it. Pictures of the pair of them, drinking in the bed of his truck or riding the Ferris wheel at the county fair; those blackwood carvings of little angels she liked to put up all over the place; the Chinese-looking rug she’d found at K-Mart for twenty dollars; the Michael Jackson calendar she had to have from the gas station. Theresa had grown into this place over the past year, like a weed shooting up from beneath the porch that he couldn’t get to.
Reggie pressed his head against the wall. He hadn’t seen her since he drove out to the park all loaded and broke Lonnie’s smile. It was some type of miracle that the police were on patrol, even more so that it was Walter. Without Walter, that nigger would be dead.
Reggie hadn’t known she’d been creeping out on him, not at first. He thought she left because he hit her after Cal Oates’s party. He had been drunk and he promised he’d never do it again, just don’t stand so close to no other man when you’re talking to him. She came back from Darlene’s a week later and they found their groove. Everything was going fine, he told himself. But after that pregnancy test she disappeared again.
Reggie lit another cigarette. The nicotine did little to calm his nerves, but it was something. He just needed to apologize again, to let Theresa know that he forgave her. They’d make a good family, he knew, and he was certain that the baby was his. He dialed the number.
“Hello?” Theresa’s mother answered. “Who is it?”
“Miss Jones, hey,” he said. “It’s me. Reggie.”
The second hand of his clock ticked on uninterrupted.
“Why you calling, boy? I told you she wasn’t here.”
“I just want to talk to her, Miss Jones. I just want to—”
She hung up. Reggie couldn’t even slam the phone. He just left it there, hanging by the cord as he left for work.
Theresa only wanted another half hour on the couch, fifteen minutes even, but her mother stormed into the kitchen banging cabinet doors and cussing beneath her breath. Theresa tried to sit up, but the bulge in her stomach ached. She felt like she might throw up again.
“Who was it, Mama?” she asked, acting like she wasn’t annoyed.
“Who was it,” Mama repeated. “Who do you think?”
Theresa sat up and looked into the kitchen. She could only see the top half of her mother over the counter, her fake dashiki headscarf and purple robe. She was shaped like a pot of coffee, skin brown and grooved like an almond.
Mama thrust a slice of bread in the toaster and got the coffee ready.
“Yeah, Reggie. I told you yesterday to file a restraining order or take your ass back to Darlene’s,” she said. “You ain’t bringing all that mess up to my house.”
The living room walls were mucky brown, covered with pictures of Theresa and her younger siblings, crosses, and quotes from the Bible on chipped wooden plaques. From the mantle above the small brick fireplace, her father smiled at her, a young man dressed all in white for his wedding day. Theresa dug a cigarette from her purse.
“I’ma go today, Mama.”
Reggie was unsafe. She thought back to that day in the park, how none of Lonnie’s friends could pull Reg off him. If it weren’t for that baby in her belly, he probably would have beat her ass, too.
Junior came out of the hallway, carrying his shirt in his hands and picking out his afro. He had a runner’s build and their daddy’s soft grey eyes. He kissed their mother on the cheek while she was frying some eggs.
“Are the twins ready?” Mama asked.
“Almost,” he said, drinking apple juice from the bottle. “How’d you sleep?”
Junior had taken Theresa’s room when she moved in with Reggie, and he refused to give it up when she came back pregnant. She flipped him the bird.
“Will you drop me off today?” he asked, smiling. “I’ll give you two dollars.”
He checked to see if Mama was looking and then mocked smoking a joint with his fingers.
“The police station is right there,” Mama said. “You might as well get it out the way.”
“Yeah, okay Flash,” said Theresa.
Mama served eggs and toast, but Theresa could only pick at it. She took a quick shower while the twins ate, threw her hair in a ponytail and loaded Junior into her dad’s old Buick. They circled around the West End while he rolled the joint, finally parking atop a forested hill that overlooked a sweep of terraced houses. Theresa turned the radio on low while Diana Ross sang about getting touched in the morning.
“How you supposed to play football when all you do is smoke?” Theresa asked.
“Them white boys can’t catch me, man.”
“Whatever you say, kid. You’ve been warned.”
It was quiet at the top of the hill. Theresa watched people leaving their homes for work or school or whatever else there was to do at seven-thirty in the morning. Going to the police station, maybe.
“Muncy’s brother was at Lonnie’s party the other day,” Junior said. “He told me what Reggie did.”
Theresa hit the joint, its smoky tendrils curling around her neck.
“You don’t need to worry ‘bout Reggie,” she said.
“Yeah. ‘Cause Lonnie will take care of him, right?”
“I’ll take care of myself,” Theresa snapped. Junior sat quietly for a moment, staring out the window.
“Is the baby even his, Reese?”
“I don’t know.”
Theresa dropped him off at the high school, an institutional slate building with few windows and pale white paint where graffiti had been effaced. She hadn’t been inside since she graduated last year and she didn’t miss it. Everything about that place felt like a prison.
Junior climbed out of the car, leaning into the open window after he shut the door. “You can have the bed tonight,” he said. “I’m probably going to stay at Muncy’s.”
Theresa drove down Jefferson, past the post office and the projects. She turned up the little alley that hid the back entrance to the police station. Uptown Washington was a cluster of red brick buildings and narrow alleys, department stores and small businesses. She’d walked past the station countless times on her way to the movies or clothes shopping with friends, but she’d never gone inside. It looked like a fort without walls, a half-buried Tetris block rising and falling from the concrete at ninety-degree angles. Two big glass doors were set in sandstone walls around front, but around back, where she was, stood a single steel-framed door with a tiny, bulletproof window.
Theresa parked a little ways up the road, in an empty lot meant for the tenants of a small apartment building. She lit a cigarette. A pair of officers in uniform strolled past her car towards the county jail, which lie hidden behind a row of buildings on the next street over. She imagined Reggie up there in handcuffs, eating half-frozen slop off a plastic tray.
The first time he put his hands on her, something on the inside of Theresa’s chest shut off. She remembered the hardness of his fingers gripping her jaw, the helpless feeling of being trapped in a bathroom where no one could see. He always got a little rowdy with his liquor, but that night his eyes turned wolfish, his words like scorpion stings.
He’d asked forgiveness the next morning, begged for it, but she couldn’t find it. He knew what her last man used to do to her. Reggie was the one that sent him to the hospital for it. Yet once those hard, scarred hands began to choke her, Theresa could no more picture them holding her heart than a meat grinder—let alone cradling a baby. Lonnie was just collateral damage, a cock-strong buffer with a lot of friends to shield her while she picked up the pulp.
Walter stood in the alley, his big square figure framed in her windshield like a movie scene. Theresa leaned out the window as he approached.
“You here to file a report?” he asked. He held a steaming cup of coffee in his wedding-ringed hand.
“Just having a smoke,” she said.
Walter nodded. She remembered watching him play during her freshman year of high school, the way he bowled defenders over so Reggie’s brother could slip through. Bad knee or not, the way he bulldozed that crowd to yank Reggie off Lonnie was like something out of one of Junior’s comics.
“I talked to Reggie the other day,” Walter said. “He’s thinking ‘bout enlisting, once they’re done building that tower down the college. Told him it wouldn’t be a bad idea, with the war ending.”
Theresa didn’t reply. Sometimes silence made a man get on with it.
“Anyhow,” Walter said slowly, “Let me know if you want to file that report.”
Theresa watched him walk to the station, broad-backed and confident. What type of shit is that, she thought. She drove off as the steel-framed door shut behind him.
Reggie got off work around seven, a twelve-hour shift laying bricks in the humid press of mid-September. The new wing of the college library was almost complete. Something about seeing it grow over time, brick by brick, brought a certain satisfaction to Reggie. His hands were cut and calloused and caked in mud, but all he had to do was look at the sweeping tower for proof that they could build, not just destroy. Reggie’s hands had been destroying things his whole life.
He thought back to the night of the crash, leaving Pete Muncy’s house in his brother’s new Mustang. Robert was sitting shotgun, and big Walter Curry took up the whole backseat with his hulking frame. They’d got good and drunk at the party, and Reggie convinced his brother that he was the most sober, so he should drive. Reggie only had his license two weeks, but he was dying to get behind the wheel of that red stallion. Robert wasn’t with it at first, but Walt said he damn sure wasn’t riding with him behind the wheel, all stumbled and staggered.
Truth be told, Reggie only had one beer. It was the speed of the motherfucker that got him. Muncy lived way out in Wolfdale, so they had a long strip of road to fly through on their way back to the West End, once they cleared those curvy hills. He was going a hundred miles an hour when the deer leapt out.
Reggie swerved, flew up over the curb and head-oned a telephone pole. Robert died on impact. Walt shattered his knee, fractured a hip, and took some nasty cuts and bruises. But Reggie flew through the windshield and got up, completely unscathed.
He lit a smoke now, cruising down Main Street in his big truck. He’d run two deer over in this beast and kept driving. Most of the shops and businesses were closed or closing, but cars had already begun lining the block near Jose’s and the Fifty-Fifty. Reggie drove past and turned on Jefferson, headed towards Chicken Chuck’s instead.
The tiny beer stop sat beside a gas station in a little plaza. It had long glass windows through which cases of beer stacked in pyramids called out, and a mucus green paint job dripping off the roof. Reggie parked and was about to get out, but heard a familiar voice in the car beside him.
Peering out the driver side window, he saw Flash in the passenger seat of a grey sedan. Another young boy drove, and two pretty white girls sat in the back. Reggie waited patiently, to see if he’d go unnoticed, but the bum they must’ve hired to buy their brews was taking his sweet time in the coolers.
“You’re crazy,” Flash was saying. “Black Panther would beat Luke Cage’s ass.”
He turned to spit out the window, and when he caught sight of the big black truck he looked up. Once he made eye contact with Reggie, Flash spit on his front tire instead.
Reggie got out of the truck. He stood just as tall as Walter, though not as wide, so he towered over the small car. He tried to think how he’d feel if someone smacked his sister and got her pregnant. He tried to think of what he’d do to him.
Reggie walked into Chicken Chuck’s as the homeless man walked out. Cool air filled the store like a fog, radiating from the coolers in the back and glass fridges lining the wall. White tile covered the floor, and the old, grizzled clerk stood behind the grimy but snack-laden counter.
Reggie grabbed two six-packs of Budweiser and a pack of gum, checking over his shoulder to make sure Flash didn’t do anything stupid. The kids were gone. Reggie paid and cracked one open right there. He had it finished before he started the engine. After downing the first six-pack in the alley behind the plaza—a little ways down from the bum and his new forty-ounce—Reggie popped a stick of Juicy Fruit and found himself driving to Lonnie’s.
Walter got the call at eight-thirty, just after he’d laid Wally down to bed. He sped across town in his house clothes—an old police academy shirt and a pair of red gym shorts. Sharon had asked if he was sure before he flew out the door.
I hope so, he thought, only flashing his lights when he sped through intersections. He prayed silent prayers as the night whistled past him, all rushing wind and blurry stars. God ought not save a man like Reggie to have him shot down like a dog.
Walter pulled into Lonnie’s yard, stopping just shy of the porch, and when he emerged from the car he held Reggie’s revolver in his hand, instead of his own pistol. The house hung over Harding Avenue, facing a narrow alley from the front and a steep, grassy slope to the back. The stone porch was tiny, a pyramid of empty beer cans stacked to one side, a rusty bench swing to the other. The screen door was shut, but the heavy wooden one behind it was wide open. Walter slipped inside quiet as he could, shutting the door behind him with his foot.
The living room looked every bit the bachelor pad, with a Charlie’s Angels poster plastered opposite a painting of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon on the walls, a collection of half-drank liquor bottles lining the mantle, and a tall glass bong atop the rugged wooden coffee table. “All Along the Watchtower” haunted the vinyl, and one of the cartoons Wally watched ran silent across a big TV.
The struggle hadn’t happened here, but in the kitchen.
A tall bookshelf, transformed from rectangle to rhombus, leaned against the wall with all its guts spilling out. The dinner-for-two dining table was upended, and one of the carved wooden chairs had been broken into kindling. Lonnie lay face down on the floor in a pile of shattered glass, the back of his head red and matted.
Walter flipped him over to check the pulse, gentle with his neck as a newborn. Lonnie groaned. His breath came shallow, rasping. His face looked worse than the chair.
“This is Officer Raymond,” Walter whispered into his radio. “Requesting an EMT and additional units at 451 Harding Avenue.”
Lonnie began to murmur as Walter sat him upright against the wall.
“You’re alright,” he promised. Warm blood stuck to his hands. “Help is on the way.”
Walter muted his radio and walked through a short, narrow hallway towards the stairs, pistol out in front of him like in the movies. The walls were undecorated, musty like a locker room after practice. As he ascended the carpeted steps, Walter began to hear a tap-tap-tapping sound ahead of him at irregular intervals. He climbed just high enough to get a clear view of the wide hallway, his eyes a little taller than the floor.
Reggie sat outside the bathroom, eyes red, hands bloody, shoulders slumped and heavy. He wore work boots, old jeans, and a cut off Steelers T-shirt. An empty whiskey bottle lay sideways next to him, and it looked like he’d been stabbed in the leg.
In almost a trance, Reggie raised his right hand to the bathroom door and tap-tap-tapped with his fore and middle fingers. Several red marks dotted the area, like one of those scatter-plot graphs Walter had hated from science class.
Reggie looked up, confused, clutching the empty bottle to his side. Walter climbed a little higher, gun still hidden from his friend’s point of view.
“Walter,” he said.
“Walter?” Theresa called from inside the bathroom. Her muffled voice came hoarse and panicked. “He killed him, Walter! He fucking killed Lonnie.”
“Stupid slut,” Reggie spat, rattling the doorknob. “That’s my baby.”
Theresa began cursing him, but Walter’s voice boomed over the ruckus.
“Enough,” he shouted. Reggie’s hand fell from the door. He looked at Walter as if seeing him for the first time.
“Lonnie ain’t dead,” said Walter. He could hear Theresa crying. “But he’s hurt real bad.” Reggie tried the bottle, but found it empty. “You’re going to jail, Reg.”
Walter rose to the top step and saw the truth of Reggie’s wound. Pink flesh showed through the tear in his jeans like ground beef. When he recognized his revolver, a sad smile spread across Reggie’s face.
“You remember that game against Aliquippa,” Reggie asked. “When Rob jumped clean over that little safety for the touchdown?”
“Yeah,” Walter said. He heard the faint cry of sirens above the record on repeat downstairs. “I remember.”
“Why he ain’t fly like that?” Reggie asked. “I flew.”
Walter cuffed a sleeping man, passed out from blood loss and drunkenness. Lonnie got life-flighted to Pittsburgh, jaw broken in twelve places, but Reggie they stuffed in an ambulance and rushed towards the Washington Hospital. Walter sat with him the whole time, holding his hard, black hands in his own.