At the telephone booth, Connie's words about do no harm to others floated like stop signs into my brain, but Angel Dust's contact had me drive through them. I forced the looped hanger into the twenty-five cent slot and jiggled it up and down. Coins poured into the return cup like a Vegas slot machine.
Poochie gave the Texaco attendant three dollars and seventy-five cents for gas. The guy was slow, a lazy-ass who didn’t wipe the windows or check the fluids. The Chevy engine wheezed toward Compton.
Skillet grinned and finally passed the shit over. I licked on the Angel Dust joint. Lanky Lonnie tossed over the seat to me red devils and yellow pills that I picked off the floor and dry-dropped without thinking twice. My heart raced like The Spirit of America over salt flats.
Poochie drove to 135th Street, Compton's west side, and parked in a residential area of small well kept bungalows with manicured lawns. It sweltered, and the only light came from his dim headlamps, dull street lights, and the full moon.
He parked in the middle of the street, exited the Tank, and shouted, “I’m back mothafuckas.” He posed in front of the Tank’s headlights, fighting position like he was Joe Frazier; shadowboxed, jabbed and hooked the air. "Bring ya’ll’s punk-assess out. I know you hear me." For effect, he blasted the eight-track, James Brown’s Super Bad. Sometimes I feels so nice, good God——I jump back, I wanna kiss myself.
I grabbed a baseball bat from the Tank's bed. House doors to the north of us swung open, followed by voices, "Let’s fuck em’ up.” Then bullets hailed in our direction like news clips of Vietnam firefights I'd seen on T.V.
Me and Lanky Lonnie jumped behind hedges, Poochie the Tank. Bullets ricocheted off the Tank, others whizzed by my head and cracked into stucco walls behind me or zipped off sidewalks.
Plumes of smoke rose in the distance where the enemy advanced, zigzagging behind trees, cars, and trash cans. I was dizzy, legs too weak to stand. There was a good reason I considered Poochie lousy news, but my need for dope overruled what little sense I had. I was caught in the middle of the OK Corral shootout with five bullets. Worse, I had a thirty-three-ounce baseball bat and no gun. I gulped down breaths to stay quiet. I was going to die.
A gopher scurried by, stopped, gawked at me, shook his head from side to side, and scuttled on. Harriet appeared on the gravel beside me behind the hedges. “Blood runs fastest from those whipped the longest,” she said to me. I threw up a prayer but didn’t really expect an answer. What if I got killed? Poochie and Lonnie would go to my funeral, high no doubt, pour liquor libation on my grave, and within the hour, continue their life of crime. My heart nearly exploded in my chest.
Lonnie fired back twice from the hedges. Poochie, next to the Tank, turned his body to shield himself. Skillet stood in front of the Tank like he was Charles Bronson, exaggerating his gait. “Fuck all y’all—I’m Superman.” He took a shoulder hit that knocked him back into the hood. “You can’t hurt me.” He regrouped and squeezed off three rounds before Poochie hoisted him into the Tank. Lonnie and I scrambled over; Poochie burned into a driveway and over a lawn, sideswiped a palm tree, and turned around. Bullets pinged off the Tank’s body, shattering the driver's side-view mirror, and its engine whined away.
In the back seat, Skillet bawled like a child, "Mama, I'm dying!" blood spotting his white t-shirt. That could have been me, all behind some bullshit. I shut down.
At Kane Hospital, we lied and said that Skillet was ambushed at Cressy Park. His was a flesh wound.
I was still shaking when I got to Booker's hospital room. Booker slept to the beep, beep, beep of blood pressure, and vital sign machines. An IV solution ran into the back of his hand. His face was peaceful in a way that I'd never seen before, even in all of the drug states I'd witnessed Booker in. He probably saw himself on T.V., next to Don Cornelius, doing the Jerk, cha-cha, or the Hop, camera up close on him. He'd make a spin move, then a split, girls tossed panties his way.
Two yellow pills were in a small paper cup on the bedside table next to Booker. I didn’t even know what they were, but the force of habit had me pick them up and bring the small cup to my mouth, where I paused. Connie had told me about moksha, self-knowledge, and freedom from an endless cycle of ignorance. I'd nearly been killed hanging with Poochie and Lanky Lonnie.
To liberate myself, all I had to do was keep my mouth shut. My heartbeat in my ears; fingers were sensitive to the feel of the cup, it's content odorless. Harriet stamped her brogans and said, "There are two things you have a right to, liberty, or death."
Freedom I’d given up long ago but must take it back.
There was such a glory over everything at that moment, the sun came like gold through a hospital window, palm trees swaying in the distance, the Compton Courthouse clogging the skyline over the low slung houses. The way my heart jumped, I might've even had a heart attack or worse, overdosed like a stupid fuck.
If the drugs didn't kill me, the shit I did while on them would. I balled up the cup, pills inside, and lobbed it back onto the bedside table. Booker might need them. I'd follow up on the Texaco job application, apply at Shell.
Maybe, just maybe, I could get back to Connie’s beauty, her sofa, reload on her wisdom.
I cut my gaze to Booker, covered my face with my hands. I lay on the clean, cool floor tiles to the scent of disinfectant. Harriet kneeled beside me and said, her tone stern, “I freed hundreds of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if only they knew they were slaves.”
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.