Otis Elevates

We approached the sand-colored projects on Imperial Highway, a sea of two-story cinder block buildings. The Ferris wheel in my head stopped on a huge blue sign with white letters I’d never noticed before:

          Housing Authority
            City of Los Angeles
       The Courts
  …a place where new and fertile
  social habits can crystallize.

Booker wedged himself into the soft corner on the edge of the Olds seat, his back against the door armrest, forearm rested over a headrest, lap belt unbuckled. Psychedelic Shack played through radio static; he turned slightly to raise the volume. He fine-tuned and bobbed his head. I reached above the radio, hit the antenna-up switch, squinted from sunlight reflected off the glove compartment door, eyes still moist from I Want You Back. SHIT. I braked hard, and the checkered front-end grill dove into the rear of a Coupe de Ville stopped before us.

“Owww,” Booker bellowed. His body slammed the dashboard sideways, my face smashing the steering wheel horn. I spit blood, Chiclets, and straight front teeth, onto the goldenrod tranny hump. The horn screamed like a red fox in the L.A. zoo. A mid-aged woman in collard-green hot pants spilled from the Coupe and shouted, "Whiplash—whiplash," held her neck, and lay down in the left turn lane into The Courts. Drivers from oncoming traffic stopped to assist her.

I spat gunk onto the instrument panel and said, "Let's go, Booker."

“I can’t move,” Booker moaned, groggy. “I can’t feel my leg.”

I staggered around the rear of the Olds, forced open the door, grabbed Booker’s arm, and pulled. “Fuck,” Booker agonized but managed to turn and hobble up on his left leg since the right one was bent away from his body at the calf. His eyes glazed over like he’d just read text from math his worst school subject.

“You go on, Otis—I can’t make it...” Booker’s barely conscious voice trailed away.

Booker was too heavy, we were too high, but I wasn’t too mescaline infected to forget street code my dead uncle had taught me. My uncle’s tired open-casket face came into view; his gravelly voice penetrated the vast empty areas of my mind, come back home with the ones you left with.

"Hold up!" a diminutive woman in a long denim dress shouted from housing projects curbside. She held up her palm like a stop sign, the other hand raised her hem when she floated through heavy traffic toward us.

“I’m Harriet.” A keloid from what looked like pink pigskin was raised between her eyebrows. Tight gray curls squeezed from underneath her lavender head kerchief, her face was angelic, darker than a brown paper bag, and leathery like shoes. She was wearing heavy looking, terribly soiled ankle-high un-tanned brogans, legs unshaven.

I picked another thought from the Ferris wheel in my brain. “Harriet Tubman—from third grade? I know you.”

“Let me help you,” she said. She lifted Booker’s other arm around her shoulder. “We’ve got to stay ahead of the catchers,” she said. “They must be on the way by now.”

The woman looked to be all of ninety years but was as nimble as a cat, and I whiffed a scent of pine freshener on her as we crossed the street into The Courts with Booker limp between us. "Can't let them take your freedom, she said."

Booker dangled between us past the chain link onto public housing project grounds, over sidewalk pathways crowded with groups of crapshooters, along dirt trails, he howled in pain like a South Carolina slave under the master’s lash in Harriet’s time.

"Keep going," the old woman shouted. "I hear the hoofbeats of patter-roller nags."

I’d really fucked up. Booker was broken up like Tinker Toy pieces. Why'd we stolen the white guy's car? I took two breaths. Harriet vanished. Where'd she go? She reappeared seconds later. Why didn't I let Booker drive? My belly knotted up. For a moment, I squeezed eyes shut and considered what Connie had told me from the Kama Sutra about release, liberation: An intelligent and knowing person without becoming the slave of his passions, will obtain success in everything that he may do...



Ron L. Dowell

Ron L. Dowell holds two Master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. In June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. His short stories or poems have appeared in Oyster Rivers Pages, Rain on Rooftops Review, Writers Resist, Stories Through The Ages Baby Boomers Plus 2018 and in The Poeming Pidgeon. He is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a current member of the Community Literature Initiative Poetry Publishing Class. Ron recommends the Teen Intervention Program.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 21:40