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May 20, 2024

JC and the Projects Kids

By Frederick Foote

I met him. I did. At least, I think I did. I met him right here in our little hot as hell, Central Valley town. Just listen to me for a minute or two, and you tell me what you think.

So, like, I'm like, down on Railroad Avenue, a block from Willies' Wing joint when I see Fat Black yelling at some little nigger in a white linen suit, white straw stingy brim, and sandals.

Fat was all upset and screamin. Fat was just about to go off on the little man. Shit, I felt sorry for the little guy, but we got our own peace keepers on Railroad Avenue, the Association would take care of that kinda shit better than I could.

I'm just about to ease on by Fat when he yells out my name and tells me to get my ass over there. I don't want to get into it with Fat, but maybe if he messin with me the little guy can get away.

When I get to them, Fat's practically foamin at the mouth.

"Tell him! Tell him! Hector, tell him he can't go around doing that shit. You tell him."

I turn to the little guy. He's as brown as I am with a nose like a light bulb, brown eyes, and big working man's hands.

"You can't do that shit. Whatever that shit is. In fact, you need to get your ass out of here. It's almost closing time."

Fat's vindicated. He starts to calm down. I start to move on. Fat grabs my arm.

Fat turns back to the little man. "So tell me, you ain't gonna do that anymore. You tell me that now."

I hope the little nigger can take a hint. I shake Fat's hand off me.

"Niggers, it's been fun, but I gotta run. The wings are calling me."

The little guy speaks up. He has a nice voice deeper than expected, kinda familiar. "You going to get wings? Turkey wings?"

Short stuff turns back to Fat. "Look if nobody asks; I won't tell. How about that?"

This works for me. "Shit, sounds good to me; let's go get some wings."

That's not good enough for Fat. "No! Don't say that again ever. You might end up like him sooner than you think."

Fat's adamant. His patience's just about gone. And mine's beginnin to ebb too.

Fat turns to me. "You know what he said, right?"

Of course, I've no idea what they're arguing about, but I see the Association Peace Keepers headed directly toward us.

"Fat, he from out of town, look at him, man. He don't know how things is here."

I'm about to jet when the Peace Keepers suddenly turn and start runnin away from us toward Grand Street.

I turn to shake hands with the little nigger and pull him away from Fat at the same time.

There's a brilliant flash like a flare went off in my head. I end up flat on my ass on the sidewalk leanin against a wire fence.

For a moment, I'm blinded. When I can finally see, I see the little guy's fannin me with his hat. He looks worried. I'm not worried. I'm mad as hell.

"Jesus Christ, what the hell was that?"

Suddenly, Fat's roaring in my face. "He ain't Jesus Christ, Owen! He ain't. He just think he is."

I slowly turn to Fat. "What the fuck have you got me into?"

"He ain't Jesus man. You know that. I know that. Shit! That's what I been trying to tell you, Owen; he ain't Jesus."

I guess Fat was going to prove his point by tossing the little man down the road a few hundred feet. Fat barely touches little man and he's sittin on the sidewalk beside me. He's blinkin and wavin his hands around like he can't see.

I sit there on the ground knocked down by somethin I don't understand by a little nigger I could sweep the floor with, with one hand.

Right then-and-there I decide I'm going to kill Fat. I'm going to beat him to death. He done dragged me into some shit that's way over my head. I've a very bad feelin about this.

Fat kinda sense somethin's goin to come down. He tries to scramble to his feet, stumbles and falls. He tries to crawl away. Don't matter to me. He's one dead nigger. I never liked him that much anyway.

I come to my feet easy, in one smooth motion.

And the little guy's right there in front of me, blocking me. He's different somehow, maybe not so small. His eyes are different too, hard, hard as diamonds.

We lock eyes for a moment.

"The wings are on me, Hector."

His voice's different too, something in there raw, mean, steely.

I look over his shoulder. Fat's bookin, makin good time too.

I look back at the little guy. I look him up and down.

"Who the fuck are you?"

"We can talk about it over wings, OK?"

We get a twenty piece party bucket and two bottles of water. I end up payin. All the little deadbeat had was euros. Willie ain't takin no funny money. We walk up to Willow Creek Park. We sat there at a picnic table under the moonlight.

The wings is special. Willie got them right again. For a while there he was off his game for a minute.

The little man's lovin them too.

"Hey, if you is who you say you is. Why did you zap us? You coulda warned us. I mean, you know all and see all, right?"

"Who told you that?"

"You did, in the Bible."

"I didn't write any bibles."

"No, no but your boys, crew ... I mean disciples -- "

"I don't write books. I don't even read that much. I prefer movies and some television."

I'm at a loss for words. I just watch him rip into those turkey wings.

"Ahhh, OK. Well, you must have read the Bible at least once, right? I mean, you know the Bible, right?"

"Hector, there are too many versions. I tried, honest, man, but I didn't like what was being said about me. I never finished one. How do they end?"

Now, I got a little headache.

"You want me to tell you how the Bible ends?"

"If you don't mind."

"How far did you get into the, your Bible?"

"Not very far. Hey, you falling behind on these wings."

"What page did you stop on?"

"I truly don't remember."

"But you know everything, see everything."

"See, that's exactly why I don't read the bibles, way too much exaggeration and outright and shameless misrepresentations. Come on, Hector, I'm not the CIA."

"Wow! All those kids going to Sunday school and all those folks studying the Bible ... aaaa bibles and you ... You ask me how it ends. Wow!"

"Bibles, Hector, a lot of different bibles."

I'm really stumped as to what to say to the wing-eating little nigger. In fact, I'm scared to ask him anything.

I see the three boys comin up the path toward us about the same time they see us. Two good-sized boys walking like they been around and one skinny little fool in front like he leading a parade. Now that ain't right. Why're the streetwise kids letting the punk lead?

"What do you think they want?"

The boys comin up behind little nigger, no way he could have seen them. I ain't surprised and don't ask no questions. I'm clean out of questions for little man.

"They into mischief, hey, I'm gonna let you handle this. Zap em like you did me and Fat Black."

The boys saunter up to the table. Skinny does the talkin.

"What you faggots doin out here? This our park, motherfuckers."

Little man holds out the wing bucket to the boys. "You're welcome to share. They're excellent."

"Faggot, we want your fucking money. We buy our own wings. And you better have some long green, cause we way hungry."

Skinny boy lifts his tee shirt to show us his pistol. So, that's why he's the leader.

The streetwise boys know that this ain't going right. We should at least be showing a little concern.

They exchange looks.

I reach for another wing.

Skinny's startin to realize the shit's not right, but he doesn't know what to do next.

At last, skinny pulls out his old thirty-eight revolver. He points it at me.

"Give me your fuckin wallet."

"Skinny, you got to deal with him." I nod toward my Lord and, hopefully, Savior. "That's The Man. You deal with him."

"Roscoe, you're supposed to be home watching your sister like you promised your mother. You need to go do that." As little man speaks he glances at Roscoe.

Roscoe, the bigger of the big boys, don't say shit. He just holds up his hands indicatin he wants no part of this action anymore. He backs up quick. After that, he's a streak in the wind.

"Walter," little man's talking to the other big boy, "You got fifteen minutes to beat your probation officer to your house."

Walter starts to respond to little man, but little man gives him that look. The boy sprints out of the park like Jessie Owens.

"Hector, I'm falling behind you here. That one's yours." He nods toward Skinny.

Skinny's thoroughly confused. He still has his gun, but it's pointed down at the grass.

Skinny's eyes are all big as he takes a step back and addresses little man. "How did, did you know, know their names and, and stuff?"

I look skinny up and down. "Po-Po. You don't even know Five-O when you see him. Go on home boy."

"Five-O. He's Five-O?"

"No. That's Thurgood Marshal. Fool, he knows everyone on probation or parole. Don't believe me? Ask Roscoe or Walter if you can catch em."

Skinny's a little slow, but he's startin to understand that there's some weird shit going down. He starts to back away real fast.

Little man gives Skinny a serious, skin scorching look as he speaks to him. "Oh, and throw that gun in the lake as you go."

Skinny finally got it. He stutters, "Ye-, ye-, yes sir." To little man's command -- or is it a Commandment?

He tosses the pistol as far as he can out into the lake, scares the shit out of some sleepin ducks.

Little man wipes his mouth, shakes his head in pure delight. "Hector, thanks, man I owe you one. Hey, could I ask you a question; no, could I ask you two questions?"

I look him straight in the eyes. He looks damn serious. I wonder if this is gonna to be a Saint Peter interview, and the wrong answers will doom me for all eternity. What-the-fuck? I'm doomed anyway.

"Ask away."

"Now, Fat Black's a Negro, or African American, or Afro-American or colored or mulatto even I can see that, but he's as white as a virgin snowfall and as skinny as a rail. So, why do you call him Fat Black? I don't understand that."

I'm dumbfounded. I don't understand this dude at all. My mouth's movin, but no words are comin out.

"Hector, are you OK?"

Of course, I'm not OK. I may never be OK again.

"OK, OK I just wasn't expecting that question." I pause a minute to collect my memories. "Melvin and Grant, that's Fat Black to you, and I was chillin on the back porch of my unit in the project. We was eight or nine I think. Some of the little kids was shooting marbles nearby. Grant says somethin, somethin about how dark Melvin's moms is. Melvin tells Grant his skinny pale ass is just a fat-black-wannabe. It wasn't that funny, but it made me laugh. And the little kids starting, laughin and callin Grant Fat Black. Grant got pissed and swung on Melvin and missed. Of course, the little kids laughed at that too. At that point, it would have all ended right there, but Grant turned on the little kids tauntin him. That was a bad move. He caught Jimmy Brown or one of the other little kids and starts shakin him. Melvin and I had to step in. The little kids got their revenge. They spread the word and pretty soon everyone was calling Grant Fat Black. By the end of elementary school, a lot of kids thought Fat Black was his real name."

Little man has stopped eating wings. He's thinking real hard on what I said. I don't know why.

Now, I've a question. "Hey, prayers, do you answer prayers? What happens to prayers?"

"Thank you, Hector, I've one more question."

"What about prayers?

"Sure, I'll explain prayers to you, but just answer my other question first. It's really important to me."

I look at him a minute. I hope this question's more serious than the last one. On second thought, the less serious, the better.

"I know your name is Owen, so why do they call you Hector?

My mind was going numb. At that point, I was thinkin maybe I should withdraw the question about prayers. I'm pretty sure I'm not gona to like the answer.

"That's your question? Really?"

Little man nods yes.

"I was fourteen or fifteen. I had the hots for Gloria Henry. The problem was that her brother was the baddest dude in the projects. John Henry took over the projects' drug trade for all three projects, by the time he was twenty-one. The things he cared most about in the world was his grandmother, who raised them, and his sister Gloria.

"I was over at the Dos Rios Project where the Henrys lived. It was me, Melvin, Spider, and Fat Black. We was a few stoops down from John Henry's stoop. John Henry was sitting on the top step, and his three lieutenants were sitting on the steps below. All of them looking straight ahead as John Henry gave them their instructions.

"After his crew left Gloria came and sat by her brother. This is why I was over here. I wanted a chance to see and maybe even talk to Gloria. I couldn't do that with John Henry there. He had made it real clear what he would do to anyone messin with his sister.

"As it was, Gloria didn't even look down our way.

"After a few minutes, the phone rang in John Henry's unit. He went in to answer it. Gloria was outside alone.

"Fat Black started the shit. He pulled out a ten-dollar bill and told me it was mine if I went up there and kissed Gloria. Even then, Fat Black was in The Game. The last time I had a ten dollars of my own was two birthdays ago.

"Spider said he would be a lookout for a dollar.

"Melvin pulled out a dollar and said he would pay the lookout fee if I did it.

"Shit, that was an irresistible temptation, big money and a hot woman.

"I took a deep breath and sprinted up to Gloria. She heard me running and turned toward me just in time for me plant a big one right on her lips.

"She squealed in delight and surprise. She put her arms around my neck and was kissin me when John Henry bolted out the door and leaped down the steps.

"I had maybe two steps on him. I could hear him breathing like a mad bull and shaking the ground like a freight train. I ran for my life. I ran faster than I could possibly run. I was runnin on spirit and will power. And that big nigger was still right on my ass. I ran all the way around his project building, and still, he wouldn't quit.

"I heard, in the far distance, people yellin and screamin. I didn't understand what they were sayin.

"On the second lap, John Henry started losing ground. By the time we got back to his stoop the nigger was about to collapse. I looked back and saw him stagger to a stop. He was barely standin, swayin and gaspin. He bent over with his hands on his knees. A strong breeze would knock his ass over.

"If I had stopped right there, it would have all worked out. I would have been a project hero for runnin the mighty John Henry into the ground. My name would still ring out even today as a legendary hero like David from David and Goliath. You know who they are, right? I mean, I had kissed Gloria for only the second time. I had ten dollars. And I had vanquished the baddest nigger in the projects. Oh, I was going to get an ass whippin eventually. I knew that, but that would have made me an even bigger hero.

"My moms said my big problem was I didn't have stopping sense. She may have been on to somethin. I walked back to John Henry. I stood in front of him. He was too weak to even glare at me.

"I looked around at all the people hangin out their windows and standin on their stoops, all the kids who were followin our great race, Gloria standin in suspense, all lookin at me.

"I took my right index finger and pushed John Henry over. He fell like a redwood tree.

"All of a sudden, everything went quiet. It was like all the air was sucked out of the world. Everything froze in time and space. And I knew, as much as I know anything in this life, that I had fucked up, fucked-up big time.

"John Henry hit the ground for about two seconds, and he bounced up like a jack-in-the-box. He came up swingin. I hit the ground with the first blow. I didn't bounce up. I covered up.

"He was still weak, and his punches were at a quarter of normal, but he was killin me.

"Normally, someone would have stepped in to keep a man from beating a child to death like that. I think most of the people thought this was a lesson I had comin. I earned this beatin with interest.

"What saved my black ass was my sister Magda. She was visiting friends and heard the commotion. When she figured out who was getting beat, she snatched up a garbage can lid and a garden trowel. She charged John Henry. She knocked him off me with her garbage can shield. She stood over him darin him to lay a hand on me.

"Magda was seventeen or eighteen, but she was for real. Our big sister's always for real.

"John Henry looked up and saw Magda loomin over him with that shield and little shovel. I think he fell in love on the spot.

"End of story."

Little man's smilin. I think he might even laugh.

"You have led an exciting life. Still, how did you get the name Hector from these events?"

"A lot of kids in the projects spent the summer reading. Whole tribes of us would go off to the downtown library every week to return and get library books.

"If one kid found something interesting that interest would spread like a plague. That summer it was Greek and Roman mythology. Get it?"

Now, he's laughing. It's a huge ass laugh that shakes the trees like a stormy wind. Tears are rollin out of his eyes. I really don't think it's that funny.

"Hector, brave Hector at Troy, challenges mighty Hercules. Hercules chases him around the City walls and slays poor heroic and foolish Hector, very apt. Who first saw the similarities between the two events?"

"Shit, Melvin, and Spider at first, I think, but everybody agreed it was right on. Everybody saw it, I guess, even my moms."

We sit there for moment. I have to laugh. I do. We laugh together for a while. But, I don't think we laughin at the same thing. I'm laughin at this little nappy-headed fool claiming to be, you know who, and he know more about Greek and Roman mythology than he know about the Bible or bibles.

After that, we shake hands, no shock at all, and he's off up toward Broadway.

I don't know how this is going to turn out. I don't even know who or what little man is. I just know that I can't avoid him. I know that would be as wrong as pushing John Henry over. I got to face up to him whatever the consequence.

But you know what really worries me and keeps worrying me? And, I ain't told anybody this. Little man told me to leave Fat Black alone. Fat Black didn't get me into this mess. Little man said he was waitin for me all along. He wouldn't say why. He said he would explain it all to me when he came back. He said he wanted to meet Magda when he comes back. He winked when he said that.

So, what do you think? Is he is or is he ain't? I got to split. I need to give Magda a head's up. She may have to save my ass again. But, I'll tell you this much, whoever or whatever he is I hope it's a long ass time before I meet little man again.

Article © Frederick Foote. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-04-24
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
11:34:04 AM
Unexpected, unpredictable, unique -- a well crafted, intriguing tale. I enjoy the writing itself, Mr. Foote, but it is your vision that I find so compelling. As with your other works, this story presents a vignette that is both alien and utterly believable. I am uprooted and transported by your writing, and thoroughly entertained.
Patti Santucci
08:04:32 PM
Love the distinct voice Mr. Foote weaves so easily into the story. Read this one out loud and you will HEAR it. John Henry, a folk hero racing against a steam-powered hammer and coming out victorious is a parallel to his confrontation, in the story, with the antagonist. Mr. Foote is also great at presenting a compelling setting in few words. Great read!!
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