- Pot Smoke Phoenix
Oscar sat down on the stoop, looked out blankly at The Street, lit the joint, inhaled. A little after noon on a Thursday, out in public with a J in his hand, he might have been wary, but he wasn’t. He had grown up on The Street, knew its rhythms, the systole/diastole of its people, its traffic. 5-0 never rolled down The Street.
Three blocks north, now that was the ghetto. The ghetto ghetto. The cops couldn’t get in there fast enough. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough either – come in hard on the heels of another burglary, another mugging, another murder, and then before they’d even got the chalk all the way around the body, a new call would come in and they’d scatter to their cars and zoom away.
But that was three blocks north, not The Street. The Street wasn’t exciting enough for cops.
Oscar took another hit. Beneath his legs, behind him, he could almost feel the brownstone breathe. Inhale: hot summer air, garbage stink, gasoline. Exhale: a floating conversation, a sharp laugh, sweet grease, baseball play-by-play. Félix Millán rounds first on his way to second. The throw comes in and…he’s safe! The cheers of the crowd. Inhale: weed tang at the back of his throat. Exhale: smoke into the clear blue sky, a lazy, unsuccessful attempt at rings.
Grover was late. Cookie, too, but you expected Cookie to be late. Grover, though, that cat was punctual. Except today.
Oscar considered heading to Hooper’s bodega for a Yoo-Hoo but decided against it. Better to just wait and watch.
Under the heavy August haze, inside the bright green fuzz of his high, The Street seemed to move syrup-slow, like a snake coiling itself for sleep. On the other side of The Street, kids had opened a fire hydrant. They danced in the spray. Scraps of water flashed off of them at all angles: shapes like spun glass, rough diamonds. Oscar had woken up in a bad mood, but now the sunny day was chasing his clouds away. He hummed a little, a thing he liked to do when he was in a good place, improvising the lyrics as he went:
Oh these are the people in your neighborhood
In your neighborhood,
In your neighborhood,
Oh these are the people in your neighborhood
The people that you meet each day.
“What up Oscar?” It was Cookie. He flopped his rail-thin body on the stoop next to Oscar and gave him a familiar fist bump. “Sorry me late. Mom said me had to watch Telly till she get back.”
Nobody knew Cookie’s real name. Scratch that. They knew his real name: it was Cookie. So far as the inhabitants of The Street were concerned, he’d been Cookie since day one. Nobody knew where that weird-shaped head of his came from either. Prairie Dawn said it looked sort of Chinese and Cookie probably had some Chinese blood back up in his mother’s side. For a whole year in Middle School she’d called him Fortune Cookie until one day he snapped and tried to fight her. Oscar had to hold him back. That afternoon, Grover went to have a talk with her. Oscar didn’t know what Grover said, but she was nice to Cookie after that.
Oscar himself suspected that the head thing had something to do with Cookie’s brain. Cookie had a lot of half-baked ideas up in there. Sometimes the ideas were trouble, sometimes just funny as hell. Cookie was none too bright, but he was a good friend. He’d always had Oscar’s back.
Oscar held the last third of the joint out to Cookie and nodded like, go ahead brother, take a hit.
“Nah, man. You know that poo poo give me the munchies and me have nothing to eat.”
Oscar let it linger in front of Cookie and waved it back and forth like a hypnotist’s watch. He wiggled his eyebrows conspiratorially. He had thick, expressive brows.
“Alright.” Cookie took the joint and sucked in a huge hit that burnt it down to the roach.
“drat, Cook. Take it easy.”
Holding the smoke in, Cookie said, “That how me am. When me got it, me get it till it gone.” He blew the smoke out slowly through pursed lips, emphasizing how big the hit had been. “Where Grover?”
Oscar shrugged and leaned back against the steps. That was the question. That was always the question. They tried to play, him and Cookie, like they were something without him, like if Grover didn’t come, they’d find something to do, find a way to make the day worthwhile. It just wasn’t true. Without Grover they were just two idiots sitting on the stoop, blazing their youth away until…until what? Oscar had no loving clue.
Grover was the best of them. He was smarter than Oscar, more loyal even than Cookie. For Oscar, The Street was a place to look across, to observe, to live in, but for Grover, it was first stop on a way out. Everybody knew that. Oscar couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t gone already. Any opportunity out there, Grover could take it.
He’d heard The Count was looking for a couple of guys to run some corners. Grover could do that in a heartbeat, work his way up. poo poo, Oscar was thinking about it himself and Oscar was only just clever enough to know he was a dumb motherfucker. That was the problem. There was a saying on The Street: “You gently caress up the count, The Count gonna gently caress you up.” Oscar knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it all straight. He dreamed too much. Got too fuzzy. But Grover knew how to stay sharp.
Oscar’s thoughts were interrupted by someone saying “Excuse me.” Oscar looked up and saw Earnest standing in front of them, waiting for Cookie and him to move out of the way so he could go up the steps and into his apartment.
Earnest was one of the only white guys on The Street. A recent, weird addition. Why the young seminarian had thought The Street would be the place for him, Oscar couldn’t understand. He didn’t talk to most people. Looked ridiculous in his clerical shirt and collar. Mostly, he just seemed to be waiting for someone to say something to him. He had a way of looking at people like he knew something was up. It made Oscar want to punch him.
A lot of things he did made Oscar want to punch him. When he’d first met Earnest, Oscar had thought he would be murdered within a week. Everything he did seemed calculated to give offense. But after observing him, Oscar started to realize that the dude was just seriously inattentive. It was like he had been holding his breath since he was born and most of his energy was being spent just stopping himself from taking that first breath.
This “excuse me” junk was typical. Oscar and Cookie were only taking up half the stoop. Earnest could have just walked around them. The two friends looked at each other meaningfully and scooted the absolute bare minimum to allow Earnest to pass between them.
“Thank you,” the seminarian said, a little too happily, as he went up into the building.
“That guy a human being.” Cookie said when the front door closed.
“He’s all right. He’s a pain in the rear end but I don’t think he can help himself. Don’t give him trouble, ok?” Oscar wished they had some more weed. And he really wished Grover would finally hurry up and get here.
“No, Me mean he a real human being. For real.” Cookie slapped the stoop. “He a fag human being.”
“Man, Cook, how do you know?”
Cookie shrugged. “Me just know.”
“Well what, did you suck his dick, huh? Is that how you know? I bet you did.”
Cookie got up and pushed Oscar, not too hard, but hard enough. “What you trying to say.”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it. I was just loving ar-.”
Oscar couldn’t exactly remember the last time he’d actually seen police on The Street, but all of a sudden, they were there, fast and loud. Three cars blaring. Some of the hydrant kids just barely had a chance to get out of the way. They came screaming down The Street and were gone, leaving behind only the sound of the sirens, growing a bit more distant now but filling the space from all sides like a cloud that wouldn’t lift.
“What do you think that’s about?” Oscar asked.
“Me not know,” Cookie said, “Some poor motherfucker is gonna get it, though. Someone is going to have some big problems.”
“Yeah. At least it’s not us.”
What Oscar didn’t know yet, but was just about to find out, was that it was them. The sirens were beckoning, calling them out of their safety, drawing them on past their daydreams, out into the world and into adulthood, heartbreak, loss, the disappearance and return of everything they’d ever known.
Away from The Street, back to The Street, always The Street.
Three blocks north, Grover lay handcuffed and unconscious in the back of a police van.
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