by Reese Simmons
Center City Philadelphia on a sunny Friday morning: the roar of a rushing Septa pride, the smelly, black bus fumes, the ceaseless scream from a hundred screeching two door sedans, the grinning myriad speeding by en route to nowhere, the crisp, proud, healthy strut of a hundred pale faces with briefcases, the casual kiss of a thousand mysterious eyes, a hundred thousand pheromonic exchanges, stiff, filthy creatures lying in the shade, the lonely wait in a dark, underground trainstation tasting piss—Race and Vine, Spring Garden, Girard Ave, Fairmont, Cecil B. Moore, Susquehanna, and, finally, North Philadelphia—all of this brings Edward a peculiar, warm comfort. The stench of urine momentarily takes him back to his high school days: a skinny young brown-skinned boy with a nappy, thick head of hair, standing, waiting for this very same northbound express in a worm-like manner, a half-empty knapsack on his back, the hardened scowl of a lifelong struggle against poverty masking his innocence.
“It’s good to be back,” Edward thinks, his brown eyes pulling his head to the right, stretching his neck as he squints down into the depths of the black tunnel, looking for his train. He’s sporting relaxed fit Khakis, fresh off the hanger, a Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt, and Reebok basketball shoes; a rather clean, conservative outfit compared to his younger days of big baggy jeans, dirty boots and bandanas.
Gone are his days as a reckless high schooler stalking the streets with Jamal and Decker, riding the Orangeline express all day looking for prey, some unsuspecting weakling carrying anything of value, anything that could provide food and party money for a couple of days. Gone are his days of boldly invading enemy turf, stealing, seducing their most beautiful and coveted women. Gone are the days when he was tough, when the night wasn’t over until a bloody scuffle ensued. Those were the days of blind rage, his hungry days, the days when the kitchen, the pockets and the bellies of everyone in the house, in the neighborhood, were empty, the days when the easiest way to get a substantial amount of cash was to go downtown and—as they would say back in the eighties—‘catch a body.’
But again, those days are gone, two years in the past, forgotten. Edward is twenty years old now. Skated his way through a mediocre high school, a predominately black and violent high school, where a frustrated male student might offer up a suckerpunch to one of his teachers; and he may even shoot the teacher, depending upon the severity of the teacher’s interference. Full scale brawls break out in the school cafeteria. Drug traffic is dense; the blood in the halls is thick. Study is limited. And still, due to that certain deficiency that is his skin color, that certain pigment that immediately transforms him into a patient for the sociological clinic, Edward is now in college, buried deep in a different stench, the sweet stench of vanity and self-importance. College has instantly transformed a life of suffering and hunger into leisure class comfort. The Great White Father has him set up in a one bedroom apartment, complete with a balcony, hardwood floors, washer and dryer, a dishwasher, and a complimentary nineteen inch television. He’s got money in the bank, credit cards, cash in his pockets. He’s living better than his parents! Nowadays he spends a thousand dollars a semester on fancy wears, eats out everyday, and spends two hundred dollars keeping his hair in tight, neat and thin dreadlock twists. He never studies, the importance of being a good student having evaporated with the relative ease in which he was accepted to the university; that is to say, having had no struggle to attain such a position, he can’t possibly see the value of such a position. Plus, there is no need to study. After a lengthy investigation (two minutes in actual time), Edward has concluded that he knows everything there is to know. What can a Ph.D. teach him?
He’s dating three women now, college women, sophisticated, decent, thoughtful women, and good fortune has even brought him a new woman, a sweeter woman, a prude light-almost-white female, uniquely built, a dancer with a rich family. Ah yes, life for young Edward is nothing shorter than superb now.
“The city hasn’t changed much, in two years you’d think it would change at least a little,” Edward thinks, staring at the words ‘North Philly Hustlers’ painted in graffiti on the stained subway platform, putting on his headphones, drowning out all sound, the ground rumbling. A plump gray rat disappears beneath the tracks. Across on the southbound platform strolling in unison through a hazy subway mist are two men. One is a short, stocky dark skinned male with large, tinted bifocal lenses, his face and head covered with black, bushy hair; and the other is a lighter skinned man, sand colored, and thin with short black hair tinged with gray. Their eyes briefly brush against Edward’s, and then suddenly the bright orange southbound express bursts out of the darkness, roaring and shaking the entire platform.
Edward can hear nothing, the headphones he bought being top of the line, being the type of headphones that tightly cup around the ear, sealing off outside disturbances, the type of headphones that come equipped with a balancing dial, so that if one wishes one can control the amount of music penetrating each ear, the type of headphones that could turn an ordinary tune into a vast, private universe—this is the state Edward finds himself submerged in as the concrete platform rumbles beneath his feet.
“The northbound must be on its way,” he thinks, assessing his financial situation, counting out four crisp, new bills—a ten, a five, and two ones—while in his ear, the rapper Sherlock Holmz rhythmically chants rhetorical warnings: ‘don’t sleep, cause even in broad daylight niggers creep….’ The green bills, strikingly visible, glowing in the dim subway filth, seem to float in his hands with each count. “Good, I can make it til dinner,” he assures himself, shoving the crisp bills back into his pocket. The two men are on the northbound side of the platform now, strolling slowly toward him on the right with small black, conspicuous devices in their hands. Edward meets their eyes once again, noticing the wrinkled face of the lighter skinned man, and he can now see that the darker, bigger man’s glasses are tinted red. Edward nods his head as a friendly gesture. They nod back passing him quietly.
Back in his younger days such cordiality from Edward was never offered, except on that rare occasion when he was trying to lure someone into a false sense of security. His father taught him early in his childhood that his people weren’t to be trusted, that his people were killing each other in the streets, that a wrong look could make the difference between lying snug in bed, and lying stiff in an alleyway.
“Niggers are hungry,” his father would warn with bloodshot alcoholic eyes, his hands trembling, “and you don’t wanna turn your back on a man who’s hungry.”
But again that’s Philadelphia. Back at school, Edward found that a brown face stuck out like dung in the snow, that Black folks were far more kind to each other, that no black person crossed another’s path without a warm greeting and a smile. Back at school, the squirrels were fat and friendly, they came up to you and accepted peanuts right from your fingers. The college and the Great White Father provided a decent life for everyone; the assumption being that one must concentrate on studying, not the toils of living. Consequently, after two years of choice eating, clean air, and a perpetual flux of cash, the hardened, angry predator that was once Edward Rex—the high schooler—soon disappears, and in its place emerges the comfortable and full Edward Rex—the soon to be college graduate—standing on this dirty subway platform, blocking out the wails of the city with his one hundred dollar headphones, singing happily to himself, completely submerged in materialism, in a cesspit of hapless spending, elaborate meals and beautiful young women; now oblivious to the suffering of his brethren, now oblivious to the suffering he, himself, once endured, oblivious to the hungry stare of a desperate hunter, that cramped belly stare that once lurked behind his own eyes.
Shocks! Electricity! Pain! Searing heat crashing through his veins, the darker skinned male wraps his right arm around Edward’s throat, and presses something into the back of his neck, sending electric currents through his body.
“Huuhighhhhhhhhhh!” Edward screams high-pitched, throwing his hands into the air, tearing out of his shirt, breaking the man’s grip, forsaking headphones and all, scurrying down into the dark subway tunnel, shirtless, and in a frenzied panic. The lighter skinned man chases him, tackles him onto the tracks, and jams the electric device into his neck.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Edward screams again.
“Unhun,” whispers the lighter skinned man calmly, stroking Edward’s hair, licking his ear, feeling around his crotch, reaching into his pockets, “unhun, don’t worry family, everything’s gonna be alright. Imma show you love as long as you cooperate. I like your hair. You look so cute with your hair all cornrolled like this.” The man finishes in a whisper, occasionally kissing Edward’s earlobe, while running his fingers through his dreadlocks, breathing heavily. In some vague manner, through pain, fear, dizziness and confusion, Edward can feel the stiff prod of an erection pressing against his right buttock.
“Now I’m gonna let you stand up, Imma show you love if you don’t run.”
“C’mon nigger,” shouts the dark-skinned man from atop the platform, dumping out the contents of Edward’s knapsack, tucking the portable CD player and headphones underneath his arm. “Let’s git the fuck outta here, fuck dat nigger!”
“Now Imma let you up, is everything gonna be alright?”
“Yeah,” Edward says in a high pitched voice, weak, frightened. They stand up, the lighter skinned man sticking close by Edward, clutching his elbow, the electric device touching his neck.
“Walk,” he says calmly, leading Edward back upon the platform.
“C’mon nigger,” shouts the darker skinned man, running up the subway stairs, his head spinning back and forth.
“Go head,” his partner returns, waving his hand, as the darker man disappears.
Edward is led up the subway stairs, and out onto a small street that turns into an alleyway. The smiling sun is reflecting off of the parked cars. People walk by staring, quiet, speeding up their pace. Cars are on the road, pale faces turn briefly as they zoom by.
“You got my money, what else do you want,” Edward says, debilitated, his vision blurred.
“Walk,” whispers the light skinned man, “just walk. Imma show you love.” Broken glass crumbles beneath their feet as they move swiftly into a small, trashy neighborhood full of decrepit homes. A few more cars drive by. There are some folks—old women with darkened faces and nappy bushes on their heads, and black, bare-chested old men, sitting on porches, staring down at Edward with gray, starving eyes, some even appear to be laughing. “Don’t worry about them, they don’t care, they ain’t got love for nobody. Jus keep walkin,” he says, pulling Edward toward the back door of an abandoned building, commanding him to step inside.
It is a house overtaken by graffiti and trash. Electrical wires hang from gigantic holes in the ceilings and the wallpaper, with its faded colors and archaic patterns, is peeling down to the baseboards. Edward can feel his strength coming back slowly as the man leads him up three flights of stairs, down a long dim hallway, into an empty bedroom with a broken out window. In the right hand corner sits a small pillow-like bundle of dirty clothing and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. Sky-blue light cuts the room in half.
“Stand over there,” he says, surveying Edward’s bare chest, clipping his stinging device on his belt. “Unhun. Take off your pants.”
“Huh, I’m not taking off my pants,” Edward says, standing motionless, looking down at the floor. The man unclips his stinging device.
“Don’t let me have to sting ya’ again.”
“Man,” Edward says shaking his head, “you gon’ be stingin’ me all night cause I ain’t takin’ off my pants.”
Creaking stairs tear at Edward’s heart; someone is slowly walking toward the room. The darker man appears suddenly in the doorway.
“Pussy take off your pants,” he grumbles with a threatening red bi-focaled glare.
Edward looks up at the two men, a savage lust clawing out from each one of their eyes, a look that few tongues dare frame into words. Edward looks down at his pants, puts his finger on his button, and then, takes off through the doorway, sharply elbowing the bigger man in his throat, knocking him to the floor.
“Catch that mutherfucker,” the man says hoarsely to his partner as he falls to the floor holding his neck.
His life threatened, Edward stomps down the dim corridor, screaming, kicking through trash, touching his way toward the stairs, the sandy colored man fast on his heels, breathing hot air on the back of his neck. The house is a dark labyrinth, Edward is clueless as to where he is going, but his eyes are shifting quickly, hoping to catch a doorway to the outside. Rumbling, rapid footsteps echo through the abandoned home, bouncing off the corridor walls, down the three flights, and into the cellar, where they meet, face to face, panting, a scarce blue beam creeping in through the open cellar window. Tall heaps of trash surround them.
“Unhun, you tried to run. Imma have to sting ya again, knock you out,” the man says, gradually stepping closer. Cornered, frightened, his fate thrust solely upon his own shoulders, Edward throws up his fists and demands to be set free.
“Man,” he says reluctantly, “I don’t wanna fight you. So just let me go my way.”
“Fuck it,” says the lighter skinned man, sucking his teeth, “I don’t need this,” and he shoves the stinging gun in his pocket, claps his hands together and throws up his fists, advancing, sliding and shuffling his feet through the cellar dust. Edward does the same, dancing about, preparing himself for an attack. But suddenly the man stops dancing, and instead looks about the trashy, dusty cellar. He picks up a big red brick and hurls it at Edward’s head. Edward ducks the brick, and rushes at the man, tackling him by the waist, shoving him into a pile of green trash bags, clouds of gray dust fill the damp air.
Edward picks up the red brick from the floor, and for a split second, settles upon crushing this man’s face with it; but, still guided by fear, somehow incapable of drawing on the merciless instinct he once possessed, the prospect of the other, bigger guy coming back to check on his buddy, Edward instead leaps to his feet, stumbles his way to the cellar window, and squeezes out of it, escaping.
Outside, with the indifferent sun glaring down upon his scarred and welt-ridden body, Edward gives the sunken edifice, the black cellar window, one last brief glance with a smile, and then slowly starts to jog down the warm concrete, cars zooming by him, curious eyes touching his skin. He is shirtless, penniless, humiliated—but still a man.