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Chapter 2

Squid handled the soiled paper gingerly as if it were on fire. One last time he looked at what was written on it. Then with the tips of his fingers, he quickly folded it up and dropped it in the envelope, as though to keep it from burning his skin. The envelope was creased and smudged from being handled. It had a faded red border and green writing on it. Next he placed the envelope into the hole in the exposed wall of bricks a few feet above the floor. His wiry body was crouched next to the window, and he swayed a bit as he made sure the edges of the envelope were parallel to the edges of the brick.

He looked over at Unc swaddled in dirty blankets, making sure he was still asleep. It was not too hot yet. Even in the summer, the inside of the abandoned building smelled damp. In the early morning, it almost felt as though he had air-conditioning. It was as cool as a doctor’s office. And much more peaceful. No one was going to take him out of this place. Squid reached out to an old radiator pipe and squeezed it until his fingers hurt, just to prove his point to himself. Then he looked back at the hole in the wall and placed the brick back into its place with slow, quiet concentration. Except for the slight noise of brick on brick, he hardly made a sound.

Glancing out the window for a moment, Squid then looked around for the little chip of brick that was on the floor. He found the red flake, smaller than a dime. Carefully, as if he were setting bait on a spring-loaded trap, Squid placed the sliver of red clay upon the top ridge of the brick he had just placed in the wall. He made sure the chip was in the exact center of the length of the brick. This way he could easily check if anyone had tampered with his hiding place. For someone to read that paper would be blasphemy in Squid’s eyes. That person should be struck by fire and roasted. “Roasted on a stick like a hot dog,” he whispered out loud through clenched teeth. Squid became very still and looked around again. All he could hear was the hoarse whisper of Unc’s steady breathing from the other side of the room.

Then, as he did every morning, he touched the top of the brick, the left side, and the right side, saying, “One, two, three,” as he did so. He did it three times quickly: “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.” Again: “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.” Again: “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.” There. He felt better. Twenty-seven times. Three times three times three. He was ready.

Squid looked out the window again. He could squat down comfortably and rest on his heels. With his teeth, he tore the shreds of skin on the side of his thumb. He squinted his eyes to see more clearly. Shafts of morning light were just visible between the buildings. For a moment, Squid noticed that the light reflected red in the windows to the left of him. Red as hot dogs.

Soon Saw would pass by, unaware that his head was about to be cracked open like a cantaloupe dropped on the sidewalk. Squid had to do it. He had no choice. He grabbed the little bat as he crouched. It was an old souvenir bat, given out at some Yankees game. Squid had found it in a garbage can on the street. Its size was diminutive, much smaller than a regulation bat. Still, it was made of wood and had a certain heft and weight. Squid could swing it at frightening speed and to good effect. He was small and wiry, but at twenty years of age, he knew he could hold his own against anybody. His back tightened as he thought about swinging that bat.

Squid was able to look out this back window and see a three-foot space of sidewalk on the next street behind his building. Everything else was blocked by old tenement structures. Squid stared at that three-foot gap with the concentration of a batter watching a pitcher. Soon Saw would pass by on the street, becoming visible for an instant as he returned home from prowling through the night. Squid had seen him pass by at dawn a dozen times. Any minute now. In a flash, Squid’s muscles tensed, as if an electric jolt had gone through him. He held himself back. It was just a couple passing by, finishing up their night on the town. Squid could hear the echo of the woman’s laughter and the click of her high heels on the sidewalk.

Without moving from his crouched position, Squid stared for a long time at the space. The night had been very humid, but for this brief moment, the air felt almost fresh on Squid’s cheeks. He could hear birds singing in the distance at the first light of day. A few sparrows came and landed on the rusted fire escape outside his window. They chattered at Squid like hungry pets. Squid looked hard at the sparrows. They seemed so small and weak. But they were always feisty, always talking, no matter how hot or how cold it was.

Unc said that the male sparrows had a little beard, and the females didn’t. When he had it, Squid liked to put some bread out for them and give them a chance to eat before all the pigeons came and took their food away. But today, Squid wouldn’t move. He felt like a big cat, ready to pounce. “Get out of my face,” he whispered through clenched teeth, trying to sound like a gangster. The sparrows tilted their heads at him for a moment then flew off.

For an instant, Squid looked at the faded white lettering on the little blue bat. He bounced the bat up and down in his hand to test its weight. The Yankee logo was faded but still clear. Squid loved every single Yankee. Someday when he worked up enough courage, he would go to a game. He would wait for Don Mattingly after the game and shake his hand. “I’m your biggest fan!” he’d say, just like that, without any hesitation, without wrapping his hands in his shirt. As he thought about it, Squid put the bat in his left hand and held his right hand out firmly, so that Don would know that he was a regular guy.

He looked back to the three-foot space that showed the street behind him, just as Saw was passing. Almost missed him. But it was Saw, no doubt—the camouflage pants he always wore, the black leather vest with no shirt underneath, the sunglasses. His dark muscular arms blended with the color of the leather. Even in the heat, the black scarf was wrapped around his head. The light flashed on the highly polished army boots, the knife strapped in a sheath to the outside of the calf of his right leg. Squid saw him for just a flicker of a moment. Saw was gone in a flash, but Squid saw him.

Every muscle in his small body tightened for an instant, and then he charged for the door. Like a runner stealing second, he streaked along the hallway to the front section of his own floor, past Unc, past the exposed wood beams with nails sticking out and piles of old bricks. With no electricity in the building, the light was dim, but Squid knew every step. He picked up speed, taking three stairs at a time to the second floor, past the row of dirty mattresses and filthy people lying on them, pieces of paper and lint stuck to their matted hair. Even as he ran, the smell of unwashed bodies and moldy mattresses hit him. Streaking down the first flight of stairs, he stopped for a moment to straddle the banister, to pass the place on the stairway where five steps were gone like missing teeth.

Squid reached out to put his foot on the next slate step that was still there. He missed. His foot went into the empty space, so Squid rolled forward. Turning over once, his feet hit the broken slate of the main floor. The sound of the bat against the stairs made an echo all the way down the empty hall, but in a flash Squid was standing again.

Squid raced down the darkened hallway on the main floor, jumping over a crumpled body extending into the hall from a doorway. Squid sprinted to the front door. A chain extended out from the hole where the lock used to be. The hallway echoed with the sound of his hands slapping against the door to stop his motion. The chain was padlocked, so he turned to the room to the right, where a portion of the concrete brick had been knocked out of a sealed-up window. Protecting the bat, he scrambled through the opening, rage roaring through his body like a subway train. Saw was much bigger than he was, but that didn’t matter now.

When his feet hit the sidewalk, he balanced his bat like a weapon and charged toward the corner. Saw would have made a right turn at the corner a block away to return home. When Squid turned this corner, he should run right into him. One swift whack to the head, maybe two, before Saw could reach his knife, and it would be all over. Saw would never be fast enough to lift that knife to strike. Everything would be all right again. Squid had to do it. He turned the corner and raised his bat in the air.

Nothing. No one was there. Squid stood on the sidewalk and stared at an empty street. No one was watching. This would have been perfect. Even if someone were looking out the window of one of these abandoned buildings, chances were they weren’t the type to call the police. Squid stood alone on the sidewalk with his little blue bat, ready to strike.

Where could Saw have gone? He must have been going home. He should have turned left at the corner. Squid wanted to sprint to the next corner to look down the street, but his legs wouldn’t move. Squid waited a moment. Surely Saw had enough time to get to the corner by now. Still nothing. What could Saw be doing? Maybe he went to the store. Or maybe he stopped to make some last unknown visit. Was he working on some attack plan related to Squid? Did Squid just dream that he saw him for that fraction of a second between two buildings? Or perhaps Saw was crouched next to the corner building right now, waiting for Squid to walk by, so that Saw could ambush him before the light was full. Squid knew he should race to the corner right now, but fear bolted his feet to the street. Saw was no fool. Squid could almost see Saw, knife in hand, crouched beside the wall of the building; he could almost sense him with that big knife balanced easily in his hand.

Squid stood in the middle of the street, the avenging blue bat dangling at his side. He felt paralyzed. In a rush, two strong arms grabbed him in a bear hug from behind and squeezed like a python.

A current of fear jolted through Squid’s body and constricted his throat. Squid opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. The arms lifted Squid off the ground, squeezing harder and harder. Squid couldn’t breathe and began to feel a light-headed despair. His little bat hit the sidewalk. He was on the verge of blacking out. Squid’s life did not pass before his eyes. But his last weak thought, sifting into his consciousness as if from a radio with the volume turned down very low, was Now I will never go to a Yankees game with her.

The arms dropped him to the ground, released him, and pushed him away in one quick motion. Squid staggered and spun around, reaching for his bat. “Ahh man, ahh man.” Squid sucked in air. “Bonehead, you scared the life out of me. I can’t breathe. I gotta sit down. I need to see a doctor.”

Bonehead held his ample stomach and bent over laughing. He clapped his dirty hands and rubbed them through his white hair, looking very pleased. “Whadja think, whadja think,” he chuckled in a hoarse, slurred voice. Squid couldn’t understand what Bonehead said half the time, but he endured him in the park because Squid knew he was a bonehead, slow or retarded or something.

“Leave me alone, Bonehead. I’ve got big problems today. Big problems.”

Bonehead just kept laughing and said, “Whadja think,” one more time.

“What happened to your belt, Bonehead?” Bonehead had a rope tied around his waist to hold up his pants. Bonehead’s pants were once blue, but now they looked black and shiny, as if covered with grease.

Bonehead mumbled, “Haddachangewhatyagothere,” but Squid couldn’t understand. Bonehead was still laughing.

“Bonehead, you don’t even have a belt anymore. You look like something out of the funny papers.” Squid began to feel a little stronger. Squid held his bat with one hand and grabbed Bonehead’s shirt and twisted it with his other hand. He yanked Bonehead toward him. “If you ever scare me like that again, I’m going to break your fingers with this bat,” Squid snarled.

He pushed Bonehead away and rolled his own hand up into his shirt. He could never understand how Bonehead lived. He couldn’t figure how in the world Bonehead took care of himself.

“When did you last eat, you idiot?” Squid reached in his pocket and found three quarters. “Here, Bonehead, buy yourself a bagel or something. You should be proud of yourself. You’ve already given me a total heart attack. You’ve made me lose my appetite for a month. Go ahead and take this—I can’t use it. I can’t eat now. I’ll probably starve to death.” Bonehead took the money, still chuckling.

Squid looked around one more time for Saw. “I’ve got to talk to Unc,” Squid said to no one. “Now don’t follow me, Bonehead.” He left Bonehead wheezing and chuckling in the middle of the street.

Squid retraced his steps back to the abandoned building he called home. He walked gingerly around a stoop and then a pile of trash where someone could be hiding. It was going to be a hot day. The trash smelled like urine and rotten eggs and already had some fat flies hovering over it. Squid took the bottom of his shirt and wiped the sweat off his stomach. He looked up and saw a haze around the streetlights that had not been turned off yet. It was still early in the morning, but already it was getting hard to breathe.

Water poured in a steady stream out of the fire hydrant on the street. Someone Squid did not know was washing his underwear in the flow. He had nothing on. “What do you want me to do, call the police?” Squid muttered under his breath as he passed the naked man. But people didn’t call the police when they got robbed or beat up here. If something happened in their squat, they took care of it themselves. That’s what the
Lower East Side is like now, Squid mused. Things had changed. The old Ukrainian guys who drink in the park would tell Squid that things were really nice here once. But not now, not in the late eighties, especially for people who “squatted” in an empty building.

Every squatter is illegally trespassing. Squatters are living on city-owned property without permission, so calling the police is out of the question. The exposed man crouched next to the stream and twisted the water out of his shorts. He didn’t even look at Squid. Squid passed by suspiciously and said under his breath, “One, two, three.”

He looked up at his own building. Some of the windows were covered with old plywood. The windows on the main floor were sealed with concrete blocks. Old wood beams stuck out from an open upper window. Squid’s building looked like a homeless person who had put his outfit together from all kinds of patches and sources.

Sometime before Squid had moved into the building, someone had taken a sledgehammer and smashed open the cement blocks the city had used to seal up the front-door opening. A door frame and metal door had been salvaged from a dumpster somewhere and installed, inaugurating one more “squat,” another building taken over by force from the city.

Squats were all over the place in this neighborhood. Some streets seemed like they were just a whole row of squats. The industrious person who installed the door at Squid’s place was long gone. Squid knew of no one in the building now who was capable of doing such a thing. Yet the chain that looped through a hole next to the frame and through the hole in the door was sometimes locked by somebody, as it was now. The building was covered with graffiti. A new message in red spray paint was on the door: Death to Yuppies.

Squid climbed through the opening in the window next to the door, clenching his bat. The hallway was still cool and damp. He stopped for a moment to enjoy the coolness on his skin. He stepped much more quietly over the motionless body still extending out of the doorway into the hall. It was just a junkie who was sleeping. Squid didn’t know who it was. Slowly he climbed the stairs then straddled the banister where the missing steps were.

Several times he stopped, just to listen. The people on the dirty mattresses had not moved. He could hear the faint snores and regular breathing. Squid snorted at the body odor and moldy bedding and dirty clothes. A sewage smell lurked in the background. Everybody was supposed to use a bucket with a top for a toilet—that was a rule for the squat. But some of these people on the second floor were so far gone they didn’t care what they did.

He remembered when he was eleven years old and had a clean toilet that flushed, a shower, and a washer and dryer. Even if his car didn’t have air-conditioning, the houses he stayed in often did. He remembered clean clothes and his mom patting down his combed hair and singing to him. Things that seemed so familiar then—a phone, a refrigerator, a television—seemed impossible now. Now he lived in a place with no electricity, no plumbing, and in some places, no windows. “So what,” he said under his breath.

On the third floor, Unc hadn’t moved. Fifteen blankets and sheets swirled around Unc’s body like waves. Books and clothes and papers were scattered all over Unc’s side of the room. Nothing was scattered on Squid’s side of the room. The mattress, his old suitcase, his other pair of sneakers were all placed in symmetrical positions, each thing parallel to the rest of the items on his side. His extra pair of sneakers was centered perfectly in the middle of his space.

“Wake up, Unc, wake up.” Squid pulled a dirty sheet out from under him. Unc rolled over involuntarily. “Wake up, Unc. How can you breathe with all these blankets around? Unc, I am in deep, deep trouble. You got to talk to me, Unc. You got to talk to me right away.”

Squid pulled the blanket up until Unc rolled all the way over to the wall. Unc sighed, rubbed his big hands over his moustache, and slowly tried to sit up. “Please bring me a bottle,” Unc croaked. Unc’s thinning hair was standing straight up. With slow care, he ran his fingers through the thickest part.

“There’s nothing left to drink, Unc, I’ve checked. Please, please talk to me—I am in so, so much trouble.” Squid was squatting next to Unc now. Unc, as big as a walrus, succeeded in sitting up.

“Fortitude, fortitude,” Unc intoned. “Fortitude will always lead to pulchritude.” He was much older than Squid, but it was hard to tell how much older. His skin had that dark, creased, leathery look of someone who had drunk a lot, smoked a lot, and slept outside a lot. Slowly Unc pulled a yellowed bed sheet around his body. He almost always had a blanket or sheet wrapped around him, even in the hottest parts of summer. He wore it when he was sitting inside, reading and drinking, or when he was sitting outside reading, drinking, and begging.

Unc sat up cross-legged, robed in the sheet. He had missed a whole section of his hair, which was still sticking straight up. Squid rubbed his eyes and waited. He looked at Unc’s lopsided Mohawk and decided not to mention it. He knew it would take awhile for Unc to wake up entirely.

“So, what is happening?” Unc finally asked in his bass voice. “You look as calm and relaxed as someone awaiting a lobotomy.” He rubbed his eyes and felt around in the blankets for a bottle.

“Oh, Unc, I did such a stupid, stupid thing.” Squid bit again at the shreds of skin on the side of his thumb. Then he hid his hands under his shirt. Unc sat as still as a tribal chief and didn’t speak. Squid plunged ahead. “You see, I met Saw on the street yesterday.”

Unc rubbed his scalp, missing the sticking-up hair. “You’re hanging out with Saw now?”

“No, no, but anyway, I said I had this great weed, which I did. But you see I’d smoked it all—it really calmed me down—and I didn’t have any left. But I said I had some left. I don’t know why I said that—Saw makes me nervous. I guess I wanted to impress him. I guess I wanted him to think I had connections. I guess I wanted him to think I could score drugs like he could. I don’t know. I have no idea what I was thinking, really. Then Saw gets up real close and all intimidating and says he wants some. You probably know what happened to me then. I couldn’t speak. My throat froze up. Saw gave me a hundred dollars to get him some. And I just took the money.”

At this point, Unc groaned and rubbed his hands through his hair again, but Squid kept talking. “I was supposed to bring it to him yesterday afternoon. Now he’s attacking me in the neighborhood. He’s saying I robbed and cheated him. How dare he disrespect me, Unc. My good name is all I have left among my friends.” Squid’s body stiffened and he tried to sneer like a gangster. “I should kill Saw for that. Or at least give him a concussion. Oh, Unc, I’m in such big trouble.” Squid unwrapped his hand from his shirt and bit down hard on the side of his thumb. “I don’t get my disability check until next week.”

Unc squinted at the sunlight. “This is not a sickness unto death. Have you got his money with you?” Unc’s gravity-defying hair glowed in the sunlight now coming through the window.

“Now don’t go crazy on me, Unc, I can’t handle it. You see, well . . . I don’t have it anymore.”

Unc groaned again and rubbed his bushy moustache.

“I bought a gift for someone—a Yankees Deluxe Album for $89.50. It was very important.”

“Who in Gehenna, and I do mean in Gehenna, did you buy a book for?” Squid looked at Unc with a startled expression. He guessed that Gehenna must mean hell. Unc did not approve of cursing unless you could make it sound like Shakespeare or some poet from hundreds of years ago. He didn’t allow Squid or Bonehead to curse in his presence.

“Just somebody.” Squid shifted his weight.

Unc searched Squid’s face. Squid sat there defensively and said nothing. He could talk nonstop, but he never talked about his family or where he came from. Not with anybody. In an unguarded moment once, he told Unc his mother was white and he had no idea who his father was. Squid’s skin was dark.

He looked so tightly wired there in front of Unc, so pleading, like a squirrel or a chipmunk, hungry for any protection or help.

“I know I messed up, Unc, but it was really, really important and I just had to do it and it didn’t matter to me what happened later. Haven’t you ever had a time when something inside your chest kept getting bigger and bigger and you just had to do something, even if it wasn’t smart, and besides it was something good anyway? That’s all I know and that’s all I can say right now.”

Unc sighed and looked at the ceiling. “Ah, man is a giddy thing . . . that’s how Shakespeare said it. How could anyone explain the reason we do things? The heart has reasons that reason will never know. Look, grandson.” Unc used grandson when he was feeling most protective. “There are many people in the park that talk trash. They will threaten you, act like they are going to fight, posture, pull a knife out, even a gun. But they will do nothing. It’s just a pose. Still, it’s wise to avoid them.”

Squid looked at Unc hopefully. “I know that, Unc.”

“On the other hand,” Unc continued hoarsely, “Saw . . . is usually in jail. When he’s out, he’s doing something crazy. He doesn’t care. As much as I hate incarceration, this neighborhood is a better place when he is a resident of our wonderful penal system. Remember that guy in the park with the scar from the bottom of his neck up to his forehead? Saw did that, or at least he said he did it.” Unc’s voice got lower and lower as he talked, until Squid had to lean forward on his haunches to hear him. “Saw just wanted to scare him. You can’t predict what Saw might do.”

Squid dropped his head and sprawled out on the floor. He knocked over a pile of books. Unc had those books everywhere. Squid put his head in his arms and moaned. “I’m dead. This is the end.” Squid writhed around on the floor, pushing books and blankets around with his arms and legs. “Look at my thumbs, Unc, I’m a mess. I belong under a doctor’s care, Unc, not out here on the street. Do you think I could go to a hospital or a clinic or something and hide in the waiting room all day?”

“I doubt that our esteemed medical profession could handle the exigencies of your challenge today, grandson. People on the street try to find protection in a waiting room all the time. In your state, you’d be asked to leave within ten minutes.” Unc pulled a book out of the chaos and wiped the smudges off the cover.

Squid rolled his hands up into his shirt. “Someone’s going to die today. Either I’m going to kill myself or get killed or I’ll kill him. Saw doesn’t know how crazy I can get. I’ll take him out. Oh, this is the worst day of my life.”

“All is not lost, grandson. This is what you need to do. You see, Saw is going to have to do something bad to you. Even if he were a nice gentleman, he would have to do something bad to you. Saw isn’t really stupid. He’s criminally psychotic, but he’s not stupid. He’s like a lot of other people around here. He works just as hard to achieve his goals as an investment banker downtown. Saw just uses different means to do it.”

Unc rubbed his moustache and looked out the window. “You’ve got to look at this from Saw’s perspective. You have to think like a sociologist. His good name, or rather bad name, is the only tool of his business, whatever business that may be this week. If someone has cheated him—and believe me, Squid, you have cheated him—he has to hurt you. His reputation is his essence. If you can cheat him and get away with it, then anyone can cheat him. And, you see, Saw is not a nice gentleman. You are like a little tree branch to him. He is like,” and Unc was relishing his words, “he is like the grinder in a lumber yard.”

Squid sat up on the floor and wove his legs together. “So what do I do, Unc?”

Unc put his hands together, fingertips to fingertips, like a lawyer advising his client. “It’s easy. You leave. You get on a subway and go anywhere. You take a PATH train. You go to the bus station. You go to Jones Beach and sleep under a bridge. You just get out of here as fast as you can. Come back in a week and I will tell you what is going on.”

Squid unwrapped his legs and rolled his hands in his shirt very tightly. “I’m not doing that, Unc.”

Unc was silent, awaiting an explanation.

“I’m not leaving until after tomorrow morning. I’ve got to be here at four in the morning.”

Unc took a deep breath and let out a sigh. “Look, Squid, life decisions have never been your strong point, nor mine. But this is not a game. What have you got to do at four in the morning that is worth your shredded flesh?”

Squid bit his thumb and said through his teeth, “Just something important.”

Unc looked at Squid with a bemused smile. Then he looked out the window at the morning light. “I hope you change your mind. The sooner, the better. At any rate, I would call this a big day for you. It may be the most significant day of your short life.”

“Unc, I don’t want a long life. But I just don’t want to get cut up in some empty lot somewhere. Won’t you help me? Won’t you stay with me through this day?”

Unc finished wiping off the dirty paperback he had pulled from the scattered books. It had a faded picture of a Chinese warrior on the front. “Twenty-five-hundred years ago Sun Tzu said that all warfare is based on deception. You’ll have to think like a warrior today.”

“What does that mean?” Squid leaned on his side and screwed up his face at Unc.

“Act as a warrior would act. Do the unexpected. Attack when he thinks you’ll run. Run when he thinks you’ll attack. Move when he thinks you’ll sleep. Sleep when he thinks you’ll move. No problem. Does he know where you live?” The building suddenly seemed very quiet.

“Yes, he knows where I live. Everyone knows where
I live, Unc. I told him where I live yesterday after he gave me the money. I don’t know why I did that. After Saw gave me the money, I found my voice again, but I don’t know what I was talking about. He was just standing closer and closer to me, and I got freakier and freakier and started talking as fast as I could. You know how I get when I’m nervous. Either I can’t talk at all or I talk like a maniac.”

Unc jerked like a fish on a hook. He bolted to his feet with astonishing speed. His Mohawk stood at attention. “I think it’s time for us to go.” He looked around for his shoes. With surprising speed, he scooped up a small bottle under a blanket and started shuffling rapidly through his paperbacks.

A sharp crack rang out from the top of the stairs and reverberated through the room like an explosion. In the spirit of the warrior, Squid did the unexpected. He curled up in a fetal position and counted to three rapidly. Nine times in a row.

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