The young man sat holding the .357 Smith and Wesson revolver, polishing its stainless
steel with his mama's scarf until he could see in it his distorted reflection. He
turned up the four-inch barrel and spun the cylinder, emptying all six shells on his
bed. Staring blankly, he carefully reinserted one round.
He took out a bag of crack cocaine already packaged for the next day's delivery.
He picked up one of the crusty rocks, smelled it, touched it with his tongue,
debated whether to smoke it. Maybe it could make him forget what he could never
tell his homeboys.
"They played me. Fools got it all wrong. Ain't their hood. Ain't their set. Can't
tell my little homie, that's sure. What'm I gonna do now?"
He pointed the gun toward the pictures on the wall, setting his sights on people
in the newspaper clippings, on one in particular. He slowly rotated his wrist, brushing
the muzzle against the bridge of his nose, then pulling it back three inches. He
peered deep into the seductive barrel, holding it so the light shone just far enough
into the darkness to make him wonder what lay beyond. His trembling index finger
fondled the trigger.
* * *
The barrel-chested man moved through the Gresham Fred Meyer supermarket aisle
with surprising agility. He negotiated the aisles purposefully, pushing his shopping
cart in and around the late Friday afternoon amblers, who seemed to have all the
time in the world and nothing to accomplish.
His black tailored Givenchy suit and Cole-Haan dress shoes suggested he
might be a CEO or corporate attorney. In fact, he was a columnist for the Oregon
Tribune, where most of his colleagues dressed informally. But Clarence Abernathy calculated
his dress for image.
Geneva had called him on his car phone and asked him to pick up a few things
on the way home. He headed to the produce section to get the Granny Smith apples.
"Granny Smiths are the green ones," she'd reminded him. As if he didn't know.
He headed toward the checkstand, bobbing and weaving just far enough down
an aisle to snag a large box of Cheerios, when a loud angry voice invaded his private
"Shuddup! You hear me? I said shuddup! Keep your hands off!" The words
spewed as if from a geyser.
A wiry man in his forties, about Clarence's age, stood fifty feet away at the far
end of the aisle. He wore a tattered red-and-white Budweiser T-shirt. Clarence
watched the man grab hold of the ear of a boy who couldn't be more than six years
old. The boy's legs momentarily left the ground, his eyes dancing wildly.
The bloodcurdling scream pierced the store like a fire alarm. As the boy's tears
flowed, the man pulled harder on his ear, then slapped his head.
"Shuddup, I said!" He cocked back his hand again, like a tennis racquet poised
to serve. The arm came down powerfully but stopped just inches above the child's
clinched eyes, stopped as if hitting a concrete wall.
The man in the Budweiser shirt looked at the big hand clutching his arm like
a vise grip. The intruder had strewn five cereal boxes behind him in the moments it
took to run the fifty feet.
"What the heck do you .?" The wiry man whirled to stare down the meddler,
but he stared not into eyes but at an Adam's apple. The intruder was tall and thick,
built like a redwood stump. He was the kind of man you'd grab hold of in a windstorm
and run from in a dark alley.
"You're hurting the boy," he said, in a calm measured voice, deep and resonant.
The wiry man glanced to the side, suddenly aware of the gaping supermarket
"Who do you think you are, you ." he sputtered, as if unsure what to say next.
"Doesn't matter who I am. Just matters you stop hurting the boy." He smiled
broadly at the little man. But he didn't release his arm. "This your son?"
"Then treat him like a daddy ought to treat his boy."
"It's none of your business."
"It's everybody's business. Now, tell me you won't hurt the boy again."
"I don't have to tell you nothin', you-"
"That's not the right answer," Clarence whispered, clamping his fingers harder,
twisting the wedge on the vise grip. The man's arm throbbed, his eyes watered.
"Try again." The smile appeared nonchalant and unthreatening. The grip suggested
"Okay," the man gasped.
"I won't hurt the boy."
Clarence loosened his grip, removing his hand without the slightest twitch of
uneasiness. He put the same big hand down on the little boy's head, covering it like
a wool cap.
"Take care of yourself, son." The boy nodded, eyes big. Clarence turned to the
father. "Have a nice day," he said, as if they'd just had a discussion about whether the
economy size Cheerios was really the better deal.
As he walked back to his shopping cart, Clarence smiled reassuringly to the
onlookers, some of whom nodded their approval, some of whom weren't so sure.
Clarence reached unconsciously to the two-inch scar just beneath his right ear.
It was a thirty-two-year-old scar, compliments of some teenage boys in Mississippi
who'd pummeled ten-year-old Clarence and his six-year-old sister with a dozen beer
bottles, most of them broken before being thrown. One of the jagged missiles cut the
gaping wound that became the scar he now fingered.
He headed for the checkstand, still smiling pleasantly, the outward calm masking
a raging storm within. Everyone gave him a wide berth.
* * *
The next morning was the second day of September, a sunny Oregon Saturday, the
air fresh and exhilarating, suggesting an early fall. It was the kind of day people who
live elsewhere think Oregon never has, just as Oregonians want them to think.
Clarence Abernathy rose early, grateful for the weekend. After reading a few
chapters of Biblical Keys to Health and Prosperity, he put in two hours work on the
yard, mowing and trimming and edging, getting it all just right. He always managed
to have the best looking lawn on the block.
"Give Daddy a hug," he said to eight-year-old Keisha, proudly wearing her
tights. She wrapped herself around him unreservedly. "Have a nice ballet lesson,
Clarence playfully punched eleven-year-old Jonah in the stomach. "And you
have a good soccer practice. Use those Abernathy genes and fake 'em out of their
"Okay, Dad. Later."
Clarence grabbed a worn children's book from the shelf and put his tools in the
car. Geneva came out by the car and hugged him. "Love you, baby," she said.
"You too. Have fun being the kids' taxi."
"What time you comin' home tonight?"
"Well, Jake and I won't be done tearing out Dani's carpet till late in the afternoon.
Then playin' with the kids and dinner and hangin' awhile. Maybe ten or so?"
"Just make sure you're home by eleven, okay? I know how you and Dani get
to talkin'." Geneva smiled. "I'll be waiting for you, but you know I can't stay up much
"All right." Clarence said. "Maybe this time I'll bring you home some Granny
"That's okay. The Golden Delicious are good eating. We didn't need a pie anyway."
Clarence took off in his bright red metallic 1997 Bonneville SSE, settling back
in the plush champagne leather. He drove through the tidy suburbs toward the city,
listening to oldies and dreaming about moving farther out to the country, which they
planned to do in just another three weeks.
He pulled into a visitor's space outside the apartment of his friend and fellowTribune columnist, Jake Woods, who walked out the door as soon as Clarence came
to a stop.
"Jake! How's my man?"
"Hey, Clabern." Jake called Clarence by his computer ID at the Tribune, a short
form of Clarence Abernathy. "Beautiful Saturday morning, huh?"
The men talked shop as they drove toward Dani's, everything from the Trib's
changing editorial policy to the latest exploits of the multiculturalism committee to
ideas for upcoming columns.
"Looking forward to finally meeting your sister," Jake said. "Tell me more about
"Dani's four years younger than I am. Thirty-eight now."
"Not married, right?"
"Not any more. Husband left her five years ago. He took to drinking and doing
drugs, freebasin', did some selling. Dani didn't tell me for the longest time. Finally
she came to me when Roy was snortin' coke in front of the kids."
"So what'd you do?"
"I came over and flushed the crud down the toilet."
"Yeah." Clarence didn't mention Roy's head had spent some time in the toilet
too. "Next day he took off. Never heard a word from him since. Finally she admitted
he'd hit her. We're close, really close, but she didn't tell me while it was going on.
Said, 'If you go to the joint for killin' somebody, Antsy, make it for somebody more
"Just a nickname."
Jake raised his eyebrows.
Clarence sighed. "When I was a kid, Mama would call us in from playin' ball.
Of course, we never came after the first call. About the third time she'd yell, 'Clar-ants.'
Dani was only three or four when she started thinking that was my name. She
just turned it into Antsy."
"Thanks for sharing that with me, Antsy."
"Only Dani calls me that. And don't go telling anybody. I'd never hear the end
"Your secret's safe with me, Antsy."
Clarence turned north off the Banfield Freeway toward Dani's house. After a
few miles he saw a car with four flats, tires slit, windows broken, and insides
stripped. He saw small businesses that had invested months of profit in steel bars so
their merchandise would be there in the morning. They passed Sojourner Truth
Middle School, with its heavy wrought iron fence surrounding the schoolyard. They
had a metal detector there now to screen out weapons. He saw two teenage boys
wearing T-shirts, both of which he'd seen in the suburbs. One said, "No Fear"; the
other, "Life is short. And then you die."
"More gangbangers all the time," he said to Jake, looking at a young Crip strutting
like a peacock and flashing his handsign, daring a Blood set to take on him and
his homeboys. He watched obvious drug deals happening on two street corners.
"Where are the cops when you need them?"
Clarence looked at the kids with baseball caps worn backwards, some tipped
to one side, some to another, some with colorful bandannas. He knew it all had
meaning, but he was a suburb dweller and tried not to think much about that sort
He saw boys dressed in gray oversized Dickeys and khaki beige work pants,
sagging low. He noticed several black stretch belts with chrome or silver gang initials
forming the belt buckle. White tennis shoes with black laces and black tennis shoes
with white laces. Gold chains and black woven crosses around the neck.
Clarence looked at Jake out of the corner of his eye. His friend seemed to be
studying the surroundings as a man would study the far side of the moon.
Clarence inhaled the smell of North Portland, the musty scent of aged buildings
freshly baked in the last few weeks of summer sun. It wasn't the clean urban
showpiece of Portland's renovated downtown, a stretch and tuck job done on the
face of an aging movie star. This lacked even the appearance of a facelift. It had its
highlights, its nice storefronts and well-preserved homes, but as a whole it seemed
to Clarence a forsaken boneyard.
He glanced down the side streets at broken-down houses and lawns the size of
pocket handkerchiefs. There on his right stood the rotting carcass of Zolar's shopping
center, one of the last old-time mid-sized stores. Abandoned for at least fifteen years,
the building still advertised bargains on faded colorless signs in the window.
"Thirty-nine cents a pound?" Jake asked. "Wonder what that was."
The numbers on the sun-bleached yellow tagboard were barely visible, the
name of the product having long ago disappeared. Petroglyphs on glass, the remains
of a civilization that once prospered, but now lay in ruins.
Clarence turned right on Jackson Street. About every fourth house was well
kept, with flower gardens looking to Clarence like oases in the desert. But most of
the houses on this street had sagging roofs, peeling paint, and weed-choked lawns.
Some of the driveways were littered with junk-rusted sheet metal, rotting plywood,
abandoned appliances. Clarence pulled up to number 920. He scanned his sister's
house, noticing the dull gray duct tape on her bedroom window facing the street.
Something else I need to fix.
Felicia and Celeste, Dani's twin five-year-olds, ran out in synchronized fashion,
yelling "Uncle Antsy, Uncle Antsy." Both forty inches tall and forty pounds soaking wet,
they jumped into his extended arms and he curled them like dumbbells, holding one
in each arm effortlessly. He lifted them up high like a shoulder press, while they
clutched his arms, giggling hilariously. He proudly displayed the girls for Jake, who
smiled broadly, nodding his approval.
Clarence waved to Dani, who was working on the left side of the house, tending
her little rose garden, a stark contrast to her neighbor's, ramshackle and grown
over with weeds. Though they'd reached their peak two months ago, under Dani's
watchful eye the last of summer's roses still barely held on.
"Hey, little sister!" Eyes on Dani, Clarence passed the girls to Jake like two sacks
of potatoes. Surprised, Jake grinned, and they touched his face with immediate
familiarity. Any friend of Uncle Antsy's was a friend of theirs. Clarence made a beeline
"Hey, big brother!" Dani's girlish smile spread like a wave across her round
moist face. Her skin was smooth except for one blemish on the right side of her
throat, a discolored scar left by another jagged beer bottle that same Mississippi
Jake watched as Clarence lifted Dani off her feet, him laughing, her giggling.
He envied Clarence for having this kind of relationship with his sister.
"Jesus is my best friend," Felicia announced to Jake, as if this was the most
important thing he could know about her. It seemed to Jake only yesterday his own
daughter Carly, now nineteen, was just this size.
When Clarence introduced Dani to Jake, she reached out her hand. "I've heard
all about you," she said with a toothy grin.
"Not as much as I've heard about you."
They went in and sat at the kitchen table. Clarence wondered if she'd ever get
a new one. He'd offered to buy her one many times, but she'd always refused. She
poured them both a berry-red glass of Kool-Aid. The ice clanked against the glasses
as they talked.
"Where's Ty?" Clarence asked.
"Who knows? I'm havin' trouble with that boy, Antsy. I know he loves me, but
he's fourteen and he just won't listen to his mama. The boy needs a daddy."
"I've put an ad in the Trib lookin' for one," Dani glanced at Jake with a deadpan
expression. "Course, maybe I shouldn't have included my picture." A low squeal
of a laugh came out of Dani, rising to a crescendo. Jake smiled. He liked her already.
"You look great, Sis," Clarence said, despite the rapid aging of her face, the gray
hairs and extra pounds.
Tyrone, wearing a blue durag, swaggered in the front door. His teenage sensors
detected the presence of adults, and he made a quick turn toward his room.
"Ty, get over here-it's your Uncle Antsy," Dani called. "And his friend Jake
Woods. From the newspaper."
Ty came out mumbling something under his breath, maintaining steady eye
contact with the floor. An eighteen-year-old independence rose out of this fourteen-year-old
boy, who disappeared immediately after his command performance.
Clarence noticed the distinctive blue of his bandanna.
"What's he doin' wearin' Crip colors?"
"That's what I been tellin' you, Antsy. I just don't know. He says those colors
aren't a gang thing any more. Some people say it's so and others say it ain't. Truth is,
I'm losin' him to the hood. He's startin' to run with bangers. I think he's a wannabe.
He's losin' his straight A's. Studies are slippin'. Boy needs a daddy, or at least a man
he can look up to. Don't know what to do, how to stop it."