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P.J. Jason

Faux Pas

"Turkey, you pissing me off."

The junkie who sat with his twin brother kept slamming the pawn up and down on the concrete chess board in the park.

"Don't chip that piece," said Smiley. He had a high pitched voice, like a girl, which didn't go right with his big body.

The junkies scratched themselves like they needed flea collars. It was quinine in the heroin that turned them flaky and brown. The only way to tell the twins apart was by their wounds. One had a bullet in his head. Everybody called him "Slug." I figured Slug was already high, his eyeballs dripping and wet like his nose. Slug slammed the clock again, leaving Smiley only seconds to move. Smiley tried to concentrate but he couldn't. Slug kept sucking phlegm around his throat, and spitting under the chess table.

"Man, why you gotta be so noisy and nasty and shit," said Smiley with disgust. "I can't think."

He opened a pawn, two spaces, and took a knight on the adjacent space, sideways. He punched the clock, seconds now for Slug. Slug punched the clock back to Smiley.

"Yo, slow down," said Slug. "You can't do that. Pawns can take on the slant, not the side."

"Man," said Smiley punching the seconds back to Slug. "I just did a Foe-Pah on your ass."

"Four-what?" said Slug, punching the clock back to Smiley. "You just making up shit so you can win."

Could Slug be that stupid? If you played chess in the park, if you laid down a bet, you better know the rules because the suckers that played here learned their shit in the jail house, played to get extra cigarettes and dinner forks shaved into shivs, played to survive a throwdown. This was serious.

Smiley tossed his chess book at Slug and told him to look up "foe-pah".

"I can't read," said Slug. "You do it."

The book was in my lap, the clock running. I found faux pas and after the third reading, Slug said I spoke too fast. He yanked the book from my hand and threw it to the ground. Smiley shook his head.

"Fuck four-pah," said Slug. His brother laughed his head off.

"Your time's run out," said Smiley.

"No," said Slug, "I think your ass is checked, motherfucker." He lifted his castle from behind the pawns and jumped it across the board slamming it too hard on top of Smiley's king.

"Castle-pah!" said Slug, grinning. "We win, you pay."

"That's bullshit," I said.

"What," said Slug. "Look in the book. Can't you read?"

"Castles don't fly," said Smiley.

"Fuck," said Slug. "I say it's in the book."

Slug now laughed so hard he choked and coughed on his spit. Smiley sat back and calmly collected his chessmen.

"We're at that point, boys," he said.

"What?" said Slug, looking at me "What's the nigger saying?"

Smiley leaned over the chess board like he was grabbing for a piece only I saw that he came back across the table with a handful of Slug's hair, and Slug's body. Then he proceeded to use a full fisted jab and full range of motion to punch out Slug's mouth. One whack at a time, like Smiley was doing the sand bag, nothing making a sound except the blood squishing from Slug's head. I watched the whole thing and I noticed that the more Smiley punched the more calm he got. He spoke more slowly after each blow.

"You got to learn," said Smiley. "When you get to a point."

I felt, like, honored to witness this because it wasn't exactly brutal. Every blow to Slug's face was measured and snapped at the right angle, the right spot. Like, you could see that this was something that took Smiley years of hard work and dedication, hours and hours of practice and focus.

In fact, there was something in Smiley's girl voice, something like a parent. He said he was sorry more than once. Then he dropped Slug, and grabbed his brother and smashed his face, too. But when it was over, Smiley didn't leave them on the ground. He stacked them on the table. carefully. He wrapped their arms around one another. It all felt and somehow looked like affection -- to me.

I scooped up the chess pieces that had fallen under the bench while Smiley wiped his bloody hands on a lunch napkin. When I got up, Smiley leaned over and kissed me on the top of my head. He did it like when I was a kid and I visited him at the farm.

It was always around the holidays. My Mom rushed me out of bed on Sunday mornings. I was 9 years old and rubbing my eyes and complaining about missing my cartoons. But if we missed the bus, my Mom said, Smiley would be up there alone in the mountains with nothing but gray fields and haystacks, the deep snow all around. Usually I went back asleep on the bus and woke up to find myself on a dirt road that was nothing but trees to the sky and the bus smoking a white trail as it turned a sharp bend leaving my Mom and me to walk to the gate where a man let us in.

I always knew I was a pest because while I kept asking to see the barn and the cows all I could see was the steel fence on the windows and Smiley and Mom laughing. For hours and hours we all sat in this big cafeteria room. Now and then Smiley pointed to the window and yelled, "There, there, you just missed it . A big cow just passed. Go watch. Go on." Then my Mom always laughed and promised I'd get to milk one. But every Sunday time just ran out and Smiley said the cows were put back to pasture. Next time, they promised.

But I was a little kid and when I got older I finally got to hip to what was up: When Smiley got back from Vietnam, he was the undefeated boxing champ of the armed forces. An Army grunt himself, Smiley whipped the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard. Everybody said Smiley might be near as good as Mohammed Ali himself. Smiley was the chosen one until he got home from the war. Then he had no job and no high school diploma. Then he did like the other boxers. He trained in the day and worked as a bouncer at night in clubs and bars. He was paid good money to handle the big mouths.

But the judge didn't care that Smiley was just doing his job when he caught this punk with his hand in the register. Smiley didn't mean to hit the guy so hard that he bled in his brain. Still, Smiley went to the farm, to prison for 20 years. But he should've been my Dad and not just my Uncle (since my Mom never remembered who got her pregnant in the first place).

Before jail, Smiley was the man who took me fishing in the Bronx River at night. He dressed in his old commando gear. He said "FUCK YOU" to the No Trespassing signs and he snapped my first fishing rod in two.

"That ain't a way to fish," he said. He lit a cigar and opened a bag. He pulled out piles of Fourth of July ash cans, M-80's.

"We do it Nam style."

He lit the M-80's and dropped them into the water. The explosion came up in mud and muffled bubbles. Live things also came up, looking stunned. We got Sun Fish and Carp and baby eels. All we had to do was net them into a pail. The ones that flopped around too much were stepped on or stabbed in the head with Smiley's Army knife.

***

I was glad that Smiley was back. When I got to my building, the Davidson Crew was on my stoop, as always. They drank 40's and smoked blunts and acted stupid. I realized that when I finally started community college it would be tough passing them without getting my books tossed around. They'd call me school boy and shit. But they were still the ones that kept an eye on the crack heads. They made sure that the street was safe for people like my Mom who worked hard until it was dark.

"Anyone see my Mom?" I asked. I had to tell her about Smiley and Slug. It didn't take a genius to know that what he did violated parole and my Mom would be pissed that after all she'd done for him (like paying his rooming house) this was his thanks.

"Nah, nah, " said Marv. "We ain't seen her but we heard about Smiley."

"What?" I said. "It's bullshit what you heard."

"What," said the Toad. "It 's no shit. I saw it myself. The other day I was crossing Fordham Road and there was this crowd and Smiley standing over this guy who was like pinned on his steering wheel, his eyes closed, and his horn honking."

"So," I said.

"It was Smiley," said Toad. " I saw what happened myself. Smiley was in the middle of this street when this sucker in the car bopped his horn. This sucker told Smiley to move his black ass. And then--"

"Tell him," said Marv.

"There was this fucking hole clean through the windshield, a round, a perfect hole. The thing was, after that guy honked at Smiley, you know, Smiley just walked up to the windshield and just ran his fist through it, through the fucking glass... He connected square on that sucker's jaw."

"And you saw it?" I said.

"I saw it and I still don't believe it. Smiley didn't even have a cut, not a scratch on his fucking hand. That's how fast and hard that nigger can punch--right through glass!"

I wasn't happy about this. This wasn't supposed to happen. My Mom waited too long. All those years Smiley was in Nam and then jail, all she wanted was to get back her little brother. Now it was supposed to be good. Smiley was making some money boxing guys in small gyms, even if he was old. I told the boys what I saw...what happened to Slug, just a few minutes ago. Marv said what I was thinking.

"Shit, the nigga's coming apart."

"Probably too many knots in the head. You know them jail house boxers," said Toad.

"Oh yeah," said Marv. "And I also know that Smiley's ass is going back to jail when them cops find out."

"Fuck the cops," said Toad. "Slug and his double ugly brother will be strapped as soon as they can walk. Then they'll put a cap in Smiley's ass, you hear what I'm saying?"

"You better talk to Smiley. Warn him real fast," said Marv. "We'll tell your Mom you had something to do for us. She'll understand. Don't worry."

I appreciated that. These guys knew the streets. They knew Slug better than me. I had to save Smiley. But if I wasn't home when it was dark my Mom would get worried. Then she'd get mad.

***

Everybody said it was a miracle. When the Vietnamese took Dien Bien Phu Smiley shared a piece of jungle with a bunch of guys. They got mutilated by land mines and mortars and torn to bits by snipers, but not Smiley. He walked out still smooth as a baby. My Mom kept track of those battles but even she didn't know how bad they were until the 1980's when people began calling Vietnam Vets heroes and people started making documentaries about places where Smiley fought. She watched these, shocked by the images of men dripping with blood. After that, she realized, it was only fair that God let Smiley get himself hurt at least once while overseas .

At that time, there was this bad ass Marine who wanted to fight Smiley since Smiley was known as such a bad ass himself. So all the officers got together and arranged to have these two warriors pulled from the jungle by helicopter and sent to a boxing mat in Saigon. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. Betting went wild and even some people close to the President of the United States (so went the rumor) laid down their chips. If Smiley won, his commander promised, he would have a non combat assignment, something in supply where Smiley could kick back in the afternoon, have a few beers and a prostitute.

Everything Smiley heard turned out to be true. This Marine was a hard puncher with fast feet. He could jab with his right or left. The change up disoriented Smiley in the opening rounds. And that's what finally got him laid out and left him walking around with double vision, vomiting like a drunk. After that, my mother said, Smiley was never right. But he kept on fighting. His officers sent him back to the jungle on the same helicopter that brought him out.

***

When I found Smiley his buddies were watching and Smiley was trying to make a good show for them while betting dollars were dumped into a brown paper bag. As soon as the referee in the middle of this run down arena clapped his hands Smiley went back to his corner, one eye cut and already bleeding. His opponent, a young man greased like a body builder, never sat down. He poured water over his head and danced the Macarena in his corner. Then the referee clapped and the fighters met again, the young man doing a bull charge on Smiley. The two were at it immediately, exchanging body blows. They battled each other with the fury of children, not bothering to protect their faces. People hollered, thrilled that they were getting their money's worth.

But this was the first time I saw Smiley in a ring. This couldn't be his style? My Mom always said Smiley was a submarine fighter. He'd go down and take punches, keeping his hands over his head. He'd crouch and stay low, sit on his thighs, almost squat. But if he came up periscope, my mom said, he came up in time to catch his enemy off guard, like a torpedo. They never saw it coming. It was something he brought from the bottom, from the dark, that hurt the fighters.

But now, Smiley was dripping blood and his hands must've felt like hammers. He hardly lifted them as the other fighter worked his face, stick and jab.

Luckily the referee's clap gave Smiley a break, and Smiley was back in his corner, looking done, his mouth too wide and sucking air.

Still when Smiley looked over his shoulder and saw me and his buddies he smirked. And it was a look I'd only seen in my Mom's picture frame, in the photo he sent us from Saigon when he was young and proud in his new uniform, his rifle pointed toward the camera.

Round 3, I think, and Smiley took another bull charge which slowed him down again and got him taking blows to the back of his head. But at least this time Smiley went submarine. He was crouching and everybody was yelling in their loudest and cruelest voice: KILL THAT FUCK. RIP HIS HEART OUT.

Then Smiley did it, just like my Mom said. Up periscope, from a dark place, down below the heavy punches, the young man couldn't even appreciate what happened. It was amazing to watch. "The only other fighter who could do that," someone said, "was Jack Dempsey."

Up from a crouch, Smiley's left foot began to lead while he extended his left jab. Then, at the same time , he suddenly launched a straight right, which was the amazing part, his right foot was now moving and it was devastating. This was a fighter with both feet off the floor, landing a two fisted punch, a smart bomb.

Fans jumped into the ring, stepping over the boxer who was on his back, eyes rolling in his head like rubber. Everybody helped Smiley raise his gloves over his head in victory.

Mom always said that Smiley didn't look good after a fight; but when I saw him in the locker room slumped in a chair with his trainer wrapping Smiley's fists in plastic bags filled with ice, dried blood caked down his face and chest, I understood the awful price he paid. He opened his eyes, barely, his eyelids puffy, and nothing registered. It was as if he was looking through me, as if he were asleep. Bob, the trainer, told me that Smiley put his winnings in an envelope for me. Bob said I should give the money to my Mom. It was pay back time.

I still found it odd that Smiley kept staring off into the distance, as if he'd lost something in the dark and he was trying to remember what it was. Bob said it was just a passing thing and he'd snap out of it. He also said that Smiley would surprise me. He'd remember everything we said, even if it looked like he was just sitting there dead.

"Ain't that true, Smiley, my boy? " said Bob. "You shake it off." He kneaded ice chips into the base of Smiley's neck.

Then I let it out...about Slug and what the Toad said, about punching out the windshield on Fordham Road, about parole violations and breaking my Mom's heart. If Slug didn't kill him, my Mom would.

"You have to do something," I said. "Wake up, man."

Then Bob put a foot in my ass. He kicked me in the butt.

"You joking me, nigger?" he said. "You come in here to bother my man about some stupid ass junky!?"

"I only--" I said.

"Only nothing," said Bob. "You know who this man is? You just seen what he done? Don't you know, this man walked out of the fucking jungles without a scratch. This man catches bullets. I saw the shit myself. And you think some punk, some slug is bringing him down? Shit, this man danced through land mines. He slapped VC bombs out of the air. Shit, you piss ass, you come in here, you got nerve to talk to this man, this MAN! Shit, you better get out of face before I throw you an ass whipping."

"Bob," said Smiley. His voice was weak. "It's cool."

I think Smiley winked at me.

"Take the money," he said. "I'll check you in the park."

"Stupid nigga," said Bob, pushing me out the door with the envelope in my hand.

***

"SNAP THE FUCKING BULLET OUT OF THE AIR. SNAP A BULLET?"

Marv was talking too loud, as if everybody on the street had to know my business. "That brotha is fucked up," he said.

"Those double uglies don't play," said Toad. "I already heard they got some semi-automatics and they're gunning for Smiley. Word's on the ding dong."

"And I talked to Slug," said Marv. "He was by the park with wires all sticking in and out of his face. And the thing is, he said he was looking for you."

"For me?" I said.

"Fucking right," said Toad. "So you better listen up. If Smiley ain't getting the double uglies, you better get some heat and get them before they get you--and fast."

"Thing is," said Marv, "now you got us in this shit too. Being you part of our crew, if anything goes down, we gotta be soldiers for your ass."

"Thing is," said Toad. "We don't really wanna save your ass that much."

"But you guys got the guns?" I said.

Just like they thought. I was so stupid. Everybody fell off the stoop, laughing at me and shaking their heads. To them, I was pathetic.

"You don't use any gun to kill someone," said Toad. "You need a special one, not easy to trace, unregistered and other shit gun."

What the fuck did I know?

***

"So, pay attention," said Marv. "Now you'll learn something."

All the blacks on the bus got off at this stop, the last one between their neighborhood and ours. We crossed Southern Boulevard into the Little Italy of the Bronx. Gone were the record stores screaming 2Pac rap music into the street. Gone were the Cuchi-Frito shops. Now we passed windows hung with salami and sidewalk cafes with Frank Sinatra posters and fat white guys smoking cigars outside social clubs called Italian American Knights or Italian American Alliance. Lots of clubs, I noticed.

And of course, why did the bus stop in front of these guys? I hesitated at the back door and felt Marv whispering in my ear, "Hey sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Move, sucker."

I didn't know Marv had friends in these parts. Before his Dad left home, Marv was bused to a Catholic school around here. He said he met these Italian guys who "dug" him because he was like their favorite basketball star. He showed the white boys the moves. Marv had the hoop dreams. Still, even Marv knew that the golden rule around here was, "Nigger don't let the sun set on your black ass." And since Bensonhurst, that was no secret to even chumps like me.

But Marv's old friend, Cookie, was connected. He always told Marv he had a good selection of guns, dumped from Las Vegas to places like this, the weapons of choice for mob hit men. Cookie's crew made sure the Knights of Italy respected them too. On the walls outside the Italian club they sprayed their tag, the White Angels. When Marv asked for the Angels, the white guys laughed and spoke in Italian. One guy pointed down an alley while another guy started punching numbers into a cell phone. Great!

The sun was blazing and peering into the glare Marv went blindly down the alley. I tried to stay as close as possible to the wall, trying not to be seen. But then I realized I'd been holding it in and my dick hurt and my balls too. I had to take a piss.

Marv told me to keep my colored ass moving. The longer we hung out, the more risk we took of being misunderstood. Once we were in Cookies turf everything would be cool.

"I know what I'm doing," said Marv. "Just follow me."

But no matter how may times we read Cookie's address and looked up at the street signs, we still found ourselves in the wrong place, walking in circles. Finally, Marv asked a white guy who was out mowing a lawn. The guy read the address and gave us detailed directions. Left and right, down a staircase by the fire house and up...Suddenly Marv was mad at me because after a few turns I forgot the details myself. Everything was my fault. The heat, the sun, the fact that I got everybody into this shit. But all I knew was I had to take a bad leak and I complained and whined about it.

"My dick hurts."

Marv pointed me to some garbage cans at the side of a private house which had a nice rose garden out front. I pissed into a can while Marv sat on the street corner. He took off his bubble Nikes and massaged his toes. He leaned against a lamp post and closed his eyes. It seemed like I peed forever. I noticed that the sky seemed immense and filled with changing clouds. It was real clear to me: If we got caught by some crazy Italians they'd kill us for sure. So I decided that I was backing out of this shit and fast. I snuck away and hid from Marv. Soon after that, he began pacing the corner and calling my name.

I could tell he was freaked. I wasn't behind the cans anymore. Marv ran up and down the street. I saw someone watching me from a house, peeking from behind the curtains. Then I glanced up and saw Marv turn a corner, only he ran smack into a white lady.

That lady fell back on her butt, her grocery bag flying into the air and Marv was down too. Then that lady let out a scream and Marv knew what time it was. He stood up and began collecting her groceries, apologizing like a pro. But as soon as that lady saw a group of white men come from a garage she started saying stuff like, "He grabbed my bag. He knocked me."

Marv was going like, "Nah, nah. Please lady, come on, chill out, don't say that."

Another white lady suddenly opened her window and screamed.

"There's another one. I saw him. Over there. He's trying to sneak into that house, near the cans!"

One man pulled out a well thumbed baseball bat.

"I say we teach this boy a lesson, like that Al Sharpton."

One man gave Marv a kick in the backside and Marv side stepped a slap to the face.

"Now stand still," said a white guy. "We don't want to hurt you. You just want to teach you something."

Marv tried to talk fast.

"Come on boys. I gotta friend around here, Cookie, man, the WA crew. I went to St. Mary's."

"No, shit," said a white guy. "Well, we've been looking for Cookie too. One of his boys stole my car. So, I guess you're a lucky fella today."

Just then that white lady in the window screamed again. She saw me trying to get myself around the corner and back to the bus. She pointed at me and I found myself being looked at by everybody, including Marv.

"Wait! Wait," Marv yelled as I ran away from the crowd. And I don't know how I did it, but I found myself at the bus stop near that social club. I was under some trees. It was almost dark and I waited... Like a dummy, I forgot. I didn't have any bus money. And I wasn't about to walk out of this place. But finally, Marv showed up. He looked real tired and his face was marked up pretty bad.

What could I say to him ? Why did he bring me here? It was his fault. He should've known better.

"It's your fault, " I kept saying and my chin began to tremble and shake. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

Marv grabbed me by the throat and said he was trying hard, real hard, to imagine what it was like being a punk like me. He wanted to bust my ass, he said. He wanted to beat me down. But he also said he wasn't stupid. If Smiley wasn't killed by now, he knew that beating me would only get him into deeper shit. I was lucky I had an Uncle with a rep.

Marv let me go and I followed him onto the bus. I was surprised that he paid my fare, though he didn't look at me. We sat together in the empty bus staring straight ahead. Then I did something I wished I never did, proving once and for all what I was: I laid my head in Marv's lap and said, "I can't make it. I'm too scared."

Then I felt Marv rub the back of my head. I opened his zipper. He must've known about me all along.

"Don't worry," he whispered. He was soft. "We're not done yet."

***

He slammed the clock.

"You better be teaching me," said Marv.

Suddenly Marv wanted to learn chess and play with Smiley and me. I told him not to hit the clock too hard. If he broke it, I'd have to tell Smiley the truth when he showed up. But I was glad Marv sat with me. With Slug on the hunt, I was afraid to be alone, especially in the park. But now that Marv was packing (he got a gun for Smiley), I wasn't worried one bit. I was having fun.

"Let me show you the faux pas," I told Marv, taking his Horse with my pawn.

"You shitting me?" he said. "A pawn can do that?"

"It can," I said. "Now I'm teaching you. I like that."

"Well, I don't like that move," said Marv, knocking my pawn off the board. Just then, cutting through the park from the avenue, moving too fast for anything good, I saw my Mom.

"She's crying," I said.

Marv slipped his hand under my shirt and put his gun to my ribs.

"You know nothing," he said. "Now I'm looking out for you, remember."

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