We didn’t know we were being followed. We passed under the El and a Septa train rattled overhead, driving on into Center City across the Schuylkill River. Graffiti decorated the bridge supports, mostly crowded scrawling that would be washed away in the coming storm. I could only make out one line, written in white curving letters:
Philly Fucked the Robin. She didn’t fly.
The passing train caused rust clouds to waft off the decaying tracks and slowly fall onto the avenue below. The wind roared and several of the old brick buildings trembled. Some had already collapsed, leaving heaps of shattered stone, probably burying a few bums. Frigid wind blew off the Delaware River, dropping the temperature in the city. Streetlights swayed from its force.
The streets were empty. The denizens holed up in apartments and houses, preparing for the Nor’easter. Except for the occasional city plow or truck starting its salt dump down the major highways, it was eerily silent.
The rain chilled to sleet and spit slivers at my face. It matted down my spiked hair and gel ran down my forehead. I rushed ahead, worried my black leather jacket would stain. My jeans were already soaked. Louie, my business partner, was beside me. He didn’t seem to feel the weather. He wore no hat despite being cueball bald. He glared ahead, walking into the wind, eyes narrowed. I had to half-run to keep up.
I glimpsed motion, saw shapes from the corner of my eye, and finally caught sight of them. A couple of punks moved toward us from an alley. I didn’t turn to alert them. I said, “Louie,” and he nodded. His jacket was plastered to his tiny frame, and he put his hand in his right pocket, reaching, I knew, for the heavy steel rod he kept there. I slipped my hand into my jeans and grabbed my Luger, looking around at the dark clubs and bars of South Street. Only the adult bookstore remained open. I gestured to a closed newspaper stall and Louie nodded again.
Shit like this always happened. Some new punks wanted our territory and would kill us for it. They didn’t understand how things worked. It wasn’t theirs to take or ours to give. This shit had to be worked out with Dominic. He controlled the market and awarded territories like a king to his vassal lords.
My heart pounded and my mouth tasted bitter from adrenaline. We stood our ground as the three young men approached. The wind flapped their loose clothes. “Yo dudes,” the large black one yelled as they drew close. His gold chain reflected the streetlight. I looked at Louie.
“Yo what?” Louie yelled back in his grating, high voice. A few days’ stubble darkened his lower face. The top of his head gleamed as if waxed and polished. He squared his shoulders and straightened his back as the punks closed the distance. I remained ready and kept an eye on the street. A city truck roared by, pouring salt.
“Can you hook us up?” their spokesman said. He was about six-four, a dark-skinned black kid with a stocking cap pulled down to his eyebrows. His mouth bore three gold teeth that sparked occasionally in the dim light. I recognized him from University High School where we sold a lot of our shit.
Louie had to tilt his head back to look the kid in the eye. I saw my partner’s homely face twist in a mirthless smirk. “All out of pills for ugly,” he said.
“Fuck you!” one of the trio said, reaching into his jacket.
The spokesman held out a dinner plate-sized hand toward his friend. Louie found the eyes of the young man who had spoken and grinned.
“How much are we talking about?” I asked. I knew Louie usually carried some Percosets so he could price-gouge the random junkie.
The spokesman leaned in and said something to Louie in a low voice. The wind had picked up and I missed it.
“You got the money?” Louie asked.
“I can cover you tomorrow, man.”
Louie shook his head and smiled again. “Do we look like fucking Capital One?”
“We’ll pay extra tomorrow,” the spokesman said. “We need the product.”
I relaxed. If they were going to rob us, one of us would be dead by now. They knew us, knew we were under Dominic, and Dominic would police the situation. If they managed to get the better of us there’d be nowhere in Philly they could hide.
I could see Louie had relaxed as well. He said, “Get some cash and come find me. Go roll some bums at Penn’s Park. Sometimes bums got good shit on them—jewelry, money for booze.”
The spokesman nodded at Louie, smiling, the light glinting off his teeth. “A’ight,” he said. “Peace.” They headed west on South Street, soon disappearing into the storm.
Louie and I started walking again and I felt myself getting pissed. “Did it have to be fucking bums?” I said. “Why not tell them to break into some offices in Center City?”
“Fuck yourself, Vincent.”
“It wasn’t cool, dude,” I said, yelling over the wind. “You just condemned some poor homeless fuckers to beatings and having the little shit they own taken from them.”
Louie stopped in the street, wiping freezing rain out of his eyes, and smiled at me so his crooked front teeth showed. His high-pitched voice had a mocking note. “Why don’t you become a fucking nun and get it over with? Till then, go fuck yourself.”
He turned away and continued down South Street along the river, heading to Cicero’s, I figured, where he liked to down whiskey sours and, if he felt like it, offer a junkie some pills for a blowjob. Any kind of confrontation always gave Louie a hard-on.
We moved along. I hunched over against the bitch cold. Louie walked as if he wanted to personally take on the storm. Junkies hung out on the benches at Penn’s Landing, the city park on the Delaware off South Street where the city held concerts. They lay out in threadbare clothing, hiding their stashes in their pants. I stared at a black dude who was losing his hair. A ringworm circle oozed on his face. “What the fuck you looking at?” he said. I looked away. He didn’t give a shit about the storm and would probably find some hole to crawl into until it blew through. He had his hate to keep him hot.
I threw Louie a glance and said, “I’ll see you around,” then broke off, heading for the stop where I could catch a bus to Wharton Street. I couldn’t go home to see my mom tonight. Maybe I’d do a quick job in the blizzard, look for an easy house to rob, keep my mind off shit.
“Dude, where you going?” Louie yelled. “Come with me to Cicero’s. We’ll score some crack whores.”
“Naw,” I said, retreating. “I got shit to do.”
He scowled. “You heading to that bitch Mary’s place? Get your dick walked on with her high heels?”
I gave him the finger over my shoulder and called, “I’m going to church, you dick.”
“Where you belong, sister.”
Copyright © 2013 by T. Fox Dunham