Continued from yesterday's "Blue Jays, Part One"
Having personally smoked about a gram of crack cocaine within the last few hours, Dave was having a hard time keeping his thoughts in order; JT was berating him with questions, and while Dave could comprehend the questions, he could not sort them within his mind so that he might critically analyze them. JT barked and the noise filled Dave’s ears and a rumbling built within his throat; he suddenly threw the car door open and stuck his head to the pavement, projecting the contents of his stomach upon the street.
“Damn, nigga,” JT scowled. “You better slow down with that for you smoke up all our shit and give your dumb ass a fucking aneurysm. Give me the pipe, nigga; stop hitting it all and think: who you know that grow weed?”
Ultimately, Dave was prompted to supply his information–the house of which he spoke belonged to an acquaintance from school; one might even call him a friend, though Dave, coked-up and shifty-eyed, seemed to have no qualms about robbing him. JT was satisfied; he liked the sound of the house, and he either assumed that Dave was on board with his plan or he simply did not care one way or the other. At the very least, the reluctant divulgence of Dave’s knowledge was sufficient affirmation for JT to carry out his impulses.
Prior to this day, Clifton had not actually known JT for a very long time. He had first met him a few months earlier; Clifton remembered the day to be the twentieth of April, and every pothead in the world knows why he remembered that exact date. He had abandoned his hapless Biology lab-partner–a country white boy from Lansing, the next town over–to get high under the bridge behind school grounds. He came upon JT on the bridge and he was with the very same unnamed friend who would become an accomplice. The anonymous one smoked a cigarette and stared invasively at passing pedestrians while JT stared into the river’s waters below the bridge; as it so happened, JT and his friend were also hoping to smoke, but they had only a blunt wrap with nothing to fill it. Clifton conversely had some weed but nothing out of which to smoke it. “We like Method Man and Redman!” JT had joked. “You ever seen How High?”
That day, they talked and laughed as they smoked. JT was older, but Clifton felt that he treated him with the respect of an equal; he seemed to listen with genuine interest to the things Clifton had to say, while also relaying what he believed to be bits of wisdom, as he thought an elder ought to do. JT relished the chance to “school a young’n” though whether he genuinely wished to guide Clifton or to simply use the boy as a means to hear himself speak was a subject of some debate among the families and the gossips of the South Side projects. Whatever JT’s motives, Clifton hung onto his every word.
Back then, those few months ago which felt like such long stretches of time to a young person, JT had been a fairly level-headed individual, albeit his abusive consumption of marijuana and alcohol and many other drugs had already frazzled his synapses somewhat. Clifton recalled a story JT had told on that first day they met: “I ate a whole sheet of acid once; like a hundred hits.” Clifton’s eyes went wide. “Shit was crazy. I was in space, man, fucking floating in the stratosphere, looking down on all you oblivious motherfuckers, and then I crashed back down to Earth and I splatted right on the fucking pavement. My body just exploded, man, and then reassembled itself, and I felt the whole thing!” He basked in the light of Clifton’s eyes which looked up to meet his.
On that day in April, they bonded, and that bond would last. But in the weeks following their first smoking session together, Clifton could not help but notice gradual changes in JT’s behavior; he grew more and more desultory, more importunate, and, to Clifton’s utter disbelief, more pathetic. Once, several weeks after their first encounter, he had met JT at night by chance, wandering the streets, and JT had looked dazed and claimed that “some random hippie” had thrown a vial of liquid LSD at him like a monkey hurling feces and that, because LSD can be absorbed through skin, he was now “tripping face.”
“Tripping acid ain’t even that shit, though, man,” he had slurred. “It ain’t that shit; it ain’t what I’m about. You know, what I’m about is dusting, man; I love that shit. You know what dusting is?” Clifton shook his head. JT grinned. “PCP, nigga.”
Clifton followed JT’s aimless steps and tried to grasp at his incoherent rambling speech, perhaps for lack of anything better to do, or perhaps because he still longed to see the young man as a role model, as the friend and mentor he had never had growing up in so-called government housing–housing totally neglected by the government. Later that same night, JT, still lost in his acid stupor, had demanded that Clifton fetch him a can that he saw lying on the ground across the street. It was dirty and half-submerged in a leaf-filled puddle.
“Why can’t you get it?”
“Nigga, get the fucking can!”
“What you want with it?”
“Nigga, I said get the motherfucking can!”
After Clifton had retrieved it for him, JT carried the can with him for some time, fidgeting with it and turning it over in his hands without really paying it much mind, before he carelessly threw it back into the street like the tiny garbage that it was–the same kind of aluminum garbage that he might, on some other night, fashion into a pipe with the creative ingenuity of a ghetto MacGyver.
Neither the young man’s apparently-developing drug addiction nor his subsequent strange capriciousness went unnoticed, but the boy showed loyalty. JT claimed to respect loyalty, which is why Clifton had given him ten dollars in the early hours of the present day when he had asked for it; he had then spent the borrowed money on a dime bag, which he bought from a black man who stood on a corner and knew JT by name. Crack cocaine looked less menacing in person than Clifton had been led to believe by D.A.R.E. and CNN; it was but an assortment of white sparkling stones that jostled about within a small plastic bag. And yet it seemed to make JT and Dave anxiously excited as they took turns preparing and smoking blasts and filling the hatchback with an oddly synthetic smell. Distanced from one another by the thick veil of the smoke, each person’s eyes lit up wide with equal parts fear and wonder as their de facto leader encouraged them to rob a house with him.
JT pressed them with encouragement, but often their reckless behavior was spurred by and chalked up to their simply having been “with the homies,” as if being in the company of friends was sufficient explanation for reckless and violent criminal acts. Clifton watched Dave as he suggested with timid enthusiasm–his mouth twisting into a half-cocked smile as his eyebrows twitched–that they hit a lick on a house familiar to him in Ulysses, New York, the next town over from their own.“I don’t know, man,” Clifton had stuttered. “I just got off probation…”
Indeed, Clifton had been arrested several months prior to this day on charges of petty larceny and possession of a controlled substance (luckily for him, it was only marijuana). His mother had come with him to court on the day that he was sentenced to six months of probation; she had worn all black, as if she were going to a funeral, and she had spoken little, though her stone-faced expression had betrayed a dignified concern for and disappointment in her only son. The judge had also ordered that Clifton submit to weekly drug tests, and while he had failed or skipped at least half of them, and had supplied other people’s urine for some of the tests that he had passed, his probation had eventually been lifted; Clifton had told the judge that he would improve his grades, that he sincerely wished to go to college–that he could become a healthy, productive member of society if only the justice system would not imprison him.
“Yo, Clif, listen,” JT cut in suddenly in his assured and patronizing tone. He waved his right hand in Clifton’s face. “Soon as you overthink the situation, and you don’t move with confidence is when shit goes wrong–soon as you falter, that’s when shit go bad. Understand?”
“Yeah. I’m saying though–”
“Ain’t nothing else to be said, man. We ain’t got herb so we gonna go get some. And we ain’t even got to pay for it.” Clifton furrowed his brow and looked down at the floor of the car, at the butt of the seat in front of him. JT sighed emphatically, tactfully. “I’m tryna give you power, man. Do you understand that? I’m tryna give you the power…” He made elaborate and reverent gestures with his hands. He stared into the distance and smoked danced around his face.
“Everything around you is yours, my nigga; you are a child of God and everything before you is there for you if you want it. If a nigga got something you want, you can take that shit; you just got to be strong enough to handle the consequences, and it’s on him if he want that shit back to fight you for it. If that nigga do come back on you and confront you: you fucking right hook him, man.” He acted out the motion of the punch and Clifton smiled. JT noticed his amusement. “You see a bad bitch walk by you on the street and you feeling horny, you stop in your fucking tracks, turn around, walk right up to her and let her know and nine times outta ten a smooth nigga like you gonna get that girl.” Clifton laughed and even blushed, but JT’s face suddenly betrayed the utmost grave sincerity. He pointed to the hilltops above them in the valley.
“You see them towers? You know how they live up there in them fucking towers?” He turned around to look at Clifton. “You seen all the old mansions with ivies and shit, right? Looking like some medieval European shit?”
“You know what they do up there in them towers?”
The smile had faded from Clifton’s face. He nodded again. JT chuckled, his right eyebrow raised and his left sunk in condescension, and looked down on the boy.
“You do, huh? What they do, then?”
“You know, go to class, study…”
"Yeah, they do do that. But you know what else they do?”
“I don’t know; teach and shit.”
“Yeah, they do that, too.” He grinned. “But that ain’t all that’s going on up in them towers, my nigga. Yeah, they going to classes and lectures and hitting the books, their professors teaching them and doing research for their magazine articles that don’t nobody but themselves ever read; they all enjoying the perks of their hallowed ivory halls. They got more books about more shit than you could read in your life and that ain’t no joke. But listen, my nigga. There’s a hypocrisy in their game; there’s opulence, man, and there’s a lie.”
Clifton furrowed his brow, bit his lip, and cast his gaze down. JT went on.
“These people with doctorates in motherfucking Philosophy of Philosophizing and shit talk about what they do like they’re the world’s saving grace. They sit around tables with their obscure texts and their Macbooks out and they coffees, and they discuss Freedom and Justice and Truth while they got a nigga out in the hall with a mop and a bucket and a security camera over his shoulder. They sit around a table and feast on they knowledge, eat they fucking books right up, and then they bring the niggas in to sweep up the crumbs. Then they digest that shit, that knowledge they ate, and they turn that shit into a degree, and that degree get them a job, and that job get them a future.
"Meanwhile, niggas like you and me out here on the corner, hustling and motherfucking struggling just to survive.” He became more animated as he spoke. “This white boy with the weed, he got a mother and father who love him and care for him and take care of his every need. I ain’t never seen my father; I ain’t know for sure who he is and, if I did, I wouldn’t want to meet him, man. Fuck him. And I miss my momma every goddamn day, man; that pain ain’t going away ever. And nobody give a fuck. None of them ivory tower motherfuckers going to do nothing for you, man; their world ain’t accessible to a nigga like you or me. They got us trapped at the bottom of the system, living in the fucking concrete boxes of the South Side ‘Stab Sucka’ projects; the penal system, the prison system, the war on drugs–they got us at the bottom, my nigga, like untouchables in motherfucking India. A nigga out here can’t even legally sell drugs; he can’t even do the one thing accessible to him that could make him a living.
"We living a real motherfucking life down in these streets and them bitches up in the towers talk about ‘What’s real?’ It’s hypocrisy, my nigga; fuck them. Some of them ivory motherfuckers is more crooked than the niggas in these streets, man, but they don’t see no jail time. They cheat on their wives, they fuck their students, and them politicians and traders and developers them towers produce is even worse; you ain’t even know. But ain’t none of them ever serve no time.”
He paused for a moment to let Clifton absorb what had already been said. When he resumed his voice was quiet and steady. “My nigga, they got a system designed to keep you down. Understand? They tryna lock you up inside your own mind, on some philosophical oppression shit. Treat you like an animal your whole goddamn life–they tryna keep you in chains. But me? Man, fuck that. I’m-a give you the power to break those fucking chains.”
Clifton remained silent; he looked unconvinced. JT looked into his eyes. “This white boy Dave was talking about, he a product of them towers. So we’re going to take his fucking product.” Dave, who was also white, glanced at JT for a second before turning his head back to his lap, shrugging, and then taking another hit from the cylindrical glass pipe.
Clifton felt apprehensive and the tension built a lump in his throat; he could not voice his misgivings, and so they were not communicated, save for by the downcast warp in his brow. He looked at Dave and at the boy he did not really know; Dave was even paler than normal, and he hid his eyes beneath the shadow of his flat-brimmed Yankees baseball cap as he looked down at his feet. The other one’s light-brown complexion was unchanged, and he met Clifton’s eyes with aloof ambivalence–as if to say: “The fuck else we gonna do?” Then he spit through his teeth and looked away from Clifton toward the horizon.
“C’mon, man,” JT hounded. “We get in, we get out. That’s it.”
Clifton wandered about the first floor of the house, making his way to a room on the end opposite the front door, a room where the family had presumably watched television together and where the “white boy” had played video games for hours at a time; the trappings of a home theater were present, save for the television and any accompanying video game systems or DVD players. Several coiled wires jutted from the empty TV stand onto the floor, strewn naked on the lonesome bodies violated and deserted off the side of the road somewhere. A few old discs and their cases and a shattered picture frame also lay scattered, and a half-smoked Newport burned a little hole in the corner of the carpet with its last dying embers.
He left the room and ascended the stairs by the vestibule. On the second floor too, the dwindling afternoon sunlight was present and glorious; it flickered quickly and erratically around and across the shadows of the trees which also spilled in through the windows and supplied color to the ever-flowing cloud of dust, both light and shadow in contention for display in the air and on the hardwood floor. Clifton stepped into what appeared to be the master bedroom. Beyond a king-sized bed, he saw a dresser made of soft untreated wood which stood about chest-high; he went to it. He glanced briefly at a family photograph on top of the dresser; it was a picture of a middle-aged mother and father and their son, who was about Clifton’s age. Posing together at the edge of a cliff overlooking a tropical island chain apparently much warmer and more brilliant than upstate New York, they smiled brightly in each other’s arm.
Various items were scattered around the picture of the white family which sat atop the dresser within their lavish home, but almost anything of value seemed to be gone. There was, however, an unopened jewelry box which sat on the dresser opposite the photograph; JT and company must have missed it. He opened it and found inside that there were plentiful rings and bracelets and earrings. Some of the pieces were so meretricious that even a teen-aged boy could recognize them as such, but others looked to be tasteful and–more importantly–valuable; there was even gold and silver within the box, and as he sifted through the loot, a handful of jewelry accumulated in Clifton’s palm and when it was full, he pocketed the lot of it. He left the box open, empty but for a glass ring here and there, and stray beaded necklaces which hung loosely from the little walls. Next, he rummaged through the dresser drawers, but within he found only outdated clothes and a bottle of erectile dysfunction pills hidden under countless pairs of underwear. The Schadenfreude made him chuckle.
Across from the bed, there was a bookshelf which stood untouched, in this way distinct from the rest of the house. Clifton looked at the many shelves of books, but few of the titles of the novels and scholarly works meant anything to him; the words upon their bindings did not register within his mind, as if the letters that spelt them were of a foreign alphabet. But one book stood apart from the others, resting against the inside wall of the dresser on the top shelf. Standing on his tip-toes, Clifton pulled the book down to examine it. It was a birdwatcher’s guide, and it appeared to be quite old, for its pages were brittle and yellowed and pungent. Flipping through it, he came upon a passage that caught his eye.
It was a story of African-American folk origin: a myth passed from one slave to another in their quarters or over a fire in the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning, after their masters had gone to bed and they could live as people until morning. In the hushed darkness, old men with crusted fingertips told the young and each other about the day of Christ’s Passion, the only bird to sing while his avian relatives watched in respectful silence was the Blue Jay; while, in Golgotha, the Messiah bled out in agony upon the cross, the ignorant little North American bird chirped away in bemused contentment. For his effrontery, God condemned the Blue Jay to a laborious damnation: his sentence demanded that he plunge down into Hell each day, over the clouds of wasps at the banks of Acheron and through the gusty winds which hurl Achilles to and fro and still further into the pit of the Malebolge, all but for the menial purpose of collecting sticks to be brought back to Earth. But the Lord was merciful in that he granted the Blue Jay a single day of rest at the end of each week, after the bones in his wings had worn down from constant use and his ragged feathers had been plucked from his skin. Now Blue Jays sing boldly only on their days of rest, their indulgence in life monitored and restricted like a virus to be quarantined, and still they are haunted by their work which is a reminder of their ultimate fate.
Clifton furrowed his brow and closed the book abruptly and threw it on the floor, its pages crumpling irreversibly under its weight. He stared at it and it looked vulnerable and dejected and he jolted towards the door.
He went back down the stairs. The sun was setting now, but it still churned and belched and burned unceasingly and emitted some final hot waves, crashing in through the windows to combat the inevitably encroaching shadows. The once-excitable dog now lay on a sofa in the front hallway adjacent to the vestibule; it looked in Clifton’s direction with a listless glaze in its eyes, and then it sighed, licked its lips, and went to sleep. There was nothing left in the house worth taking; there was no reason to stay any longer. Clifton walked back into the room with the gutted home theater system, making sure not to step on the scattered wires and discs and bits of glass as if out of respect, and he picked up the half-smoked Newport which had finally burned out about halfway down its length, leaving a black little crater in the carpet, ash scattered around it like debris.
Outside, he lit the cigarette and the smoke twirled and rose into the air above him and around his face. He walked down the driveway, and he came upon a bird struggling in a dwindling pool of sunlight with a stick much too large for it to carry. It was not a Blue Jay but some unremarkable sparrow; small and brown like so many others in the upstate environment, it still made Clifton smile to see such a relevant event, and he laughed as he scared the little bird off and snatched away its stick–fairly small in the boy’s hand. He dexterously twirled the stick through his fingers as walked towards the highway which led back home. He felt his outdated phone buzzing in the pocket of his baggy blue jeans. It was an old flip-phone he had bought at a pawn shop; he bought pre-paid minutes whenever he could afford to do so. He answered it.
“Yo, you still at the house?”
“Nigga, get the fuck outta there! Fuck you thinking?!”
“Alright, man,” he said unenthusiastically.
There was a pause.
“You okay, Clif?”
“We on Third Street; the house on the corner.”
Clifton knew the house; everyone around the Southside Terraces knew it and they spoke candidly of it amongst each other with sighs and forlorn mile-long stares. It was once a fine house, built by a black man and his team generations ago, back when the Southside Terraces and the area surrounding had still been a good place to raise a family–not an affluent neighborhood, but respectable and safe and welcoming. It was well-built, with old-growth lumber framed with care and thick coats of paint; it had once radiated dignity and pride. Children had been conceived and raised in that house many times over, and they had played in the hearty front lawn which had since been bleached and dried up by the sun.
But the house’s architect died many years ago, his descendants long since moved away and dispersed, and now the house’s lumber slouched against its frame, devoured by termites and growing moss, and the paint peeled off the walls and gave way to rainwater, mold, and graffiti, and the grass was dried-out and dying slowly as it was left unattended, becoming thinner and sparser with every passing season. To step inside the dilapidated shelter for it could be called little else at this point, certainly not a home–was to be enveloped by an awful smell, like a soiled carcass stuffed in a sock and left out in the heat.
But despite its deteriorating state, some intrepid folks still slept within the walls. Though none of them technically owned the house, a small group of subdued men and women who broke down with their sizzling skin and hazy eyes lost in smoke, who leaned listlessly against the dirtied walls of the hallways and collapsed lifelessly on the stained and bug-infested sofas and mattresses with their veins and nostrils all swollen and bleeding, they squatted in the house together long enough to call it their own. They struggled together like a family come on hard times, all infected by addiction. They shared many moments together–sometimes warm moments of kindness and joy. Other times they soiled themselves or vomited on themselves and did not notice but just dozed off and went to sleep in their own filth. The vacancy of their stares and the incoherence of their speech might lead one to liken them to the zombies, but there are no zombies in the real world; they called them “fiends” in the ghetto. Weaving between the throngs of the addicted undead, stopping by whenever they saw fit (whenever they felt their pockets thinning), were the opportunistic succubae that possessed them, accepting their offers of money and televisions and other (usually stolen) goods in exchange for their elixirs and their toxins: the drugs with which they captured the souls of their pitiful customers.
Apparently, JT was now frequenting this house and he was bringing along with him those he knew, perhaps for the pleasure of their company, or perhaps for moral support. Clifton took a deep drag from his cigarette and let the smoke tarry in his lungs for a long time. His scalp tingled again; the orchestra played low, but suddenly his ear rang with the high pitch of a birdsong, and the ringing was persistent. He imagined the scene that must have played out in Dave’s hatchback following their departure from the house they had robbed; JT and Dave both agitated as they crashed from their highs, bickering over the allotment of their spoils while the other boy still stared quietly out the window onto the streets which flew by in his vision, trying to ignore the territorial squabbles of his companions. Clifton figured that Dave, skinny and demure and obsequious, would eventually bend to JT’s bold and domineering extroversion. He spit and walked down the driveway to the highway.
At the end of the driveway, the little swallow whose stick he had taken (which he still held in one hand) stood motionless in the gravel in front of him. It cocked its little head to and fro, surveying the boy which each eye in succession, though it avoided direct eye contact with him in that unconscious manner only exhibited by wild animals. Clifton suddenly rammed his hand into his pocket and clutched the jewelry within, and he took another drag on the Newport before throwing it into the road where the wind hurled its embers into the air and out of sight, though he never took his eyes off the swallow. He lurched forward and the bird flew into the branches of the trees overhead. He threw the stick up in its direction, unsure of whether or not he really hoped to hit it, and when the stick fell back to the ground he spit and picked it up again and carried it with him to the highway. The bark was dry and rough like sandpaper, but Clifton felt he ought to hold onto the stick; he might have need of it at some point, though he knew not for what reason.
About a hundred yards down the road he saw a sign that read “City of Ithaca” and he looked back; he turned around just in time to see a golden sedan pull into the driveway, its lights on and projecting an expression of obliviousness on the face of the car. Clifton immediately whipped back around, hoping desperately that he had not been seen, and he tightened his grip on the jewelry within his pocket, his hand now greasing it all with sweat. His heart beat faster and his pace quickened. The Sun was nearly beneath the horizon and it was dark. Clifton walked down the two-lane highway flanked by fields and barns and silos on either side; he walked towards Ithaca, towards the South Side projects, towards home. He did not look back again.
Phillip DeVries was born in Brooklyn, New York, and currently resides in New Orleans, where he works construction with Habitat for Humanity, writes fiction, and plays his electric guitar. He loves the pride of New York City, the vibe in Philadelphia, Austin’s music, and New Orleans’s gritty soul, but he spent his formative years in the little city of Ithaca, New York, and he would like to dedicate this story to the place he calls home; its many eccentricities have been a continuing source of inspiration to him throughout his life. He pays his respects to Phil Gunn, Chris Dennis, Justin Johnson, and all the Ithaca boys who have died. May they rest in peace.