Harriet and I humped with Booker for what seemed like miles to the other side of The Courts, which was, in reality, only several hundred yards from the car crash to a closed-door, unit #313, Connie's apartment. I cupped my hand over my mouth and shouted to the open second-story window, "Open the door, Connie." Harriet kicked the door, Booker whimpered in a daze.
“Can’t let them take your freedom now,” the old woman said and kicked again.
Door locks, latches, and chains clanged undone inside her unit. Sirens wailed not far away and seemed closer before she scootched open the heavy metal door and stood there in a yellow peignoir with tiny blue flowers that kept flying open. She was barefooted, ready for me. She’s short, maybe five-three, small bust, medium waist, a good match for my slight frame. She was average, no Dorothy Dandridge, but then who was? But those lips like Gladys Knight’s, smooth dark brown skin, and short pressed hair that smelled like Dixie Peach. When the Ferris wheel stopped, she looked better than I'd ever seen before. Lord have mercy.
"What the fuck…?" she said and moved over to turn off Bonanza, which was on the muted T.V. screen when Hoss Cartwright shot at a rustler. “Your mouth looks like shit.”
I felt for Harriet, but she was gone. My brain raced for answers. The springs screamed like hungry alley cats when me and Connie drug Booker inside and dropped him on her rickety sleeper bed. It was the same sleeper where I’d received an advanced lesson in kissing when she had pecked my ear, neck, lips. Where she’d forced open my mouth with hers and sucked my tongue damn near out of my head. Not wanting to cum in my pants, I had thrust my hips back and away from her slow, deliberate grinds.
Booker slumped. My Ferris wheel stopped on an Ebony magazine on the gray shag rug. On its cover was a collage of black people inside an outline of the United States captioned, Which Way, Black America? Frankincense and Connie’s sacrament, weed cut with oregano, attacked my nose, burned my eyes, and boosted my high a little bit. On the sofa was a plaid paper tray of Churches Chicken wishbones and half-eaten coleslaw. Edwin Starr’s “War,” fought through two tinny speakers from a record player that straddled brick and board shelves populated with cheap knickknacks and pictures of the two small children Connie made a home for.
I was bent over gasping when Harriet’s vision reappeared, turned, and said, “Only the righteous shall enter into the gates.”
I was in no mood for Christian rigmarole, besides I hadn’t read the Bible recently and had long ago given up my gate key by doing most of the things the Lord hated like when I lied, devised wicked schemes, and stirred up conflict in the community, all in service of drugs. Nor had I attended Baptist church recently. Exactly how long it’d been, I couldn't remember. I did know that my latest drug run had been about three months of constant scuffle and hustle, beg, borrow, or steal. It’s what I did to maintain.
I snapped at Harriet, “My name’s already in the book.”
“What?” Connie said. “What the fuck you sayin’?”
I looked again, but Harriet was gone. I rolled my shoulders and said, "But, but…"
“But shit. You need to focus.” Connie’s pitch raised a level. “How much shit you take today?”
Booker’s breaths were shallow, eyes closed; he grabbed at his hip and groaned.
I stood with hands in pockets head down.
Connie pulled delicately on her gown, “You’d better get your shit together—get Booker over to Killer Kane.” Kane was the county hospital and the only emergency room for miles around. Maybe Connie had a clue about the seriousness of Booker’s injury. She turned to her guests. “Do you have transportation?”
“No vehicle,” I said. “It crashed.”
The old woman reappeared, eyeballed me, raised her hem, and pointed at her brogans, "I have the best transportation," she said.
I shook my head side to side and traced red, black, and green stripes along the lines of Connie’s forehead, face, and hairline.
Connie rubbed her brow as if to ward off a headache and lit a Virginia Slim. She didn't want to draw attention with an ambulance, so she called a taxi for Booker.
It'd been a long morning, and my high was leveling off. I opened the wrapped mescaline button and gold pill, swallowed them, and washed them down with blood from my bleeding mouth.
We dragged Booker out and hoisted him into the backseat of a bright blue and yellow Checker Cab parked curbside near to Connie’s place. The driver, a Mexican in a sleeveless Bolero jacket that was open to puffs of black hair on his chest, punched the meter buttons, and Connie pushed him five bucks.
I sat up front, strapped my lap belt, and peered over the headrest to Booker, whose forehead Harriet stroked on her lap. His eyes were closed. She started to moan what sounded like an old Negro spiritual I’d heard in church. “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy,” she said.
I reached something buried in the depths of third-grade memory and finished her line for her when the Ferris wheel stopped on it, "The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart." The cab driver glanced into his rearview, turned his head backward, then squished his eyebrows together.
Booker tried to raise his right leg, maybe to stretch his hamstring, but his whole body seemed to collapse.
X-rays in Kane’s emergency room showed Booker’s leg was broken; he had head and hip damage. He needed immediate surgery. How was I to know that the fucking Cadillac would stop in front of me like that? Soon, Booker would use a wheelchair. A few hours later, in post-op, I was at Booker’s bedside when the anesthesia wore off a bit.
“What happened, Otis? I remember Psychedelic Shack playing on the radio, then…" Booker said.
“Oh, we had a little fender-bender—an accident, Booker.”
Booker gripped the handrail tight, his knuckles turned white, blood spots appeared through the gauze from the IV needle stuck in the back of his hand. "I can't feel my legs, my feet——my brain's jumping out of my skull."
“Oh—that. The doctor says you'll be fine," I said. "With a bit of rehab, you'll be back in the Soul Train line in no time." I rubbed the back of my neck. “Tell ém Harriet—what the doctor said.”
"Harriet? Who're you talking to, Otis?"
I surveyed the surgery recovery area, but there was no one else there inside the curtains besides Booker.
“Harriet, dude. The old woman, her scarred face? She helped me carry you to Connie’s place. She rode with us in the cab. Remember?”
“Probably the mescaline, Otis.” Booker grimaced in post-op pain. "Get me to the audition."
I glanced around the recovery room again, tapped a fist against my snaggletoothed lips, sweated, and nodded. Then Booker’s face went blank before he fell asleep.
I stretched out on a mattress-less gurney next to Booker, closed my eyes, but they popped back open. Turpentine, alcohol, and other hospital shit stifled the air. Booker’s IV bag was attached to a pole next to him. The morgue-like cold hospital air chilled me under gray fluorescent lights. The day was halfway over, and I’d gone from semi-sober to stupid, no roundtrip ticket was available, and had had a train wreck along the way.
The curtain spread, a lion’s head changed to Harriet’s face and waved at me, and then her image turned around and disappeared like when the Night Train Express leaves Sobriety Station.
Booker’s snores were weighted down by intravenous pain solution. Shit knocked Booker’s ass right out. Maybe I could get a hit, slide the needle out of Booker, spike my own vein. He wouldn’t mind. Naw—I was too afraid of needles. Besides, I didn’t want to become a junkie.
I’d made bad choices and wished the day had never happened. The Ferris wheel slowed, you’ll kill or get killed Otis is what Connie had said in my dream. I had to get back to The Courts where I could reload on drugs, to Connie, to her sofa bed.
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.