a short story about young boys growing up in a gang.
We talk about it like it was yesterday…
The blood hadn’t yet begun to dry on the sidewalk, but we knew there would be more. It was necessary. The concrete craved blood the way a cactus craves water on the only rainy day of the year; never sated. As we looked from one to the other, we wondered aloud who would be next.
We were all warned not to go down there, but as was his way, Champ didn’t listen. He was one of those guys that needed to smooth his own way along the jagged blades of life. If he had to get cut, he preferred to grab the serrated edge himself rather than wait for someone to bring it to him. Well, he needn’t worry about that anymore. It came and would come no more; nor would he. We didn’t expect him to live.
Of darkness color me,
My life is now done with chance.
Amongst the night I linger still,
For I know how to dance.
No sadness as my body goes,
For I have lived a life.
Real or not real, not a care,
I stood and now I lie.
A nightmare is now within my reach.
No need to ask for air.
For surely death is obvious,
If not, don’t give a care.
And though there is no more to teach,
A fool gives all and weeps.
The ground is cold and oh so deep.
Dark comforts as I sleep.
I’m not sure any of us really knew Champ. Sure, we knew where he lived and what his pops did for a living. We gathered his mom served food in the cafeteria in the morning and returned at noon to serve lunch. We heard his sister was dating this guy nobody liked and that she’d likely try to run off before she started to show and we knew his brother was grasping straws in a drug rehab. All this was known, but we didn’t know Champ.
We didn’t know Champ went to school early each morning to do special tutoring or that he was much better at jazz than the music he played in the school band. None of us felt that with each passing day and each new gift discovered, Champ was that much closer to his grave. How could we? We were just kids with faint hopes of going out in a blaze of glory rather than admit that living we were useless and in death--- worth less than that. We expected to die at any moment.
A righteous man,
Standing giddy in his madness,
He’s celebrated for nothing.
And celebrated for badness
He wakes a sleeping innocent.
He wipes away their smile.
He holds out for a dollar.
He walks an endless mile.
No water for the thirsty man.
It’s mere whisky for the blind.
We’re doing penance for doing nothing,
And doing nothing but, doing time,
We were actually a little surprised when Champ wandered into our turf that odd Sunday; a real religious Sunday where you went to church or hid out in shame. He was so far off our path that our first instinct was to beat him up, so we did. He didn’t swing back. He didn’t even cry, but as soon as we got tired and thought we were through with him, he took down the biggest and the meanest amongst us, without even breaking a sweat. It was beautiful. But when we were ready to lay down our oaths to our new messenger, even as young as he was, he pointed over to me and said, “You run with this.” I was the youngest in my family and the youngest in this club up until then, and I hadn’t run a thing.
Even as you could feel guys taking in a breath to object, the air just as harshly left their bodies as his gaze shifted from one to the next. He’d take off his glasses and give you a special look that cooled your blood. The guys knew they’d probably have to fight for their objections and just didn’t feel it was worth it at the time. So, I was now the leader of a gang with no purpose other than taking up the time between one minute and the next; one gangster stroll no different from the one before.
Earlier today, as I sat around pondering the immediate future of our gang, the guys were jerking my chain for our revenge song. I hadn’t even made up the words, but I knew the tune. We’d snatch some poor sucker heading out for a pizza or a keg of beer. We’d probably knife him and decide later if we wanted him to live to tell or die to tell. Up until then, we’d done none of it. As the words gathered in my mind, I wanted to sing a song of repentance, but I kept hitting sour notes.
Champ was wrong to have gone where he left his blood. He definitely shouldn’t have gone alone. It was suicidal.
“Suicidal,” there was that word I kept tripping over. Champ tried to commit suicide. I knew it. It rang truer than anything else I’d heard. I knew it just as I knew one of these thugs would be trying to take me down really soon. I was no leader. I was a stand-in and now the real leader was dying. Champ told me I had another story in me and I just had to find out what it was. I thought he was nuts; smart, but nuts. What was he talking about?
I grabbed my hoodie to leave. I was going home and I’d have to chart another course to get there. It wasn’t safe for me or anyone who looked like me. It was less safe to cover up, so a fool was sandwiched between dying with his head up amongst strangers or dying with his head down amongst friends; a sick life.
There are no friends,
Only enemies you haven’t met.
Some will take your memories.
The others will forget.
Pull a line or smoke a toke.
In either case you lose.
A mistake today awoke in you,
But that’s not really news.
Dreams could cost you more or less,
Tomorrow or today?
There’s someone’s face on newspaper.
Nothing left to say.
I hugged the corners and miraculously made it to Champ’s house. I had no idea why I was there. I didn’t really know these people, but somehow I felt I needed to introduce myself. As I stood there contemplating what to say, the door opened. It was Champ’s mom. She smiled at me, hugged me, and beckoned me inside as though I was a member of the family. I started to cry, and she hugged me again. She let me bawl for a while and then she handed me an enveloped letter. It had my name on it. I was stunned with disbelief. It was from Champ.
I’m dead, dude. It’s alright. I lived longer than I should have. I stayed as long as I could stand it, but I needed to see the other side. We played a beautiful tune together, but now you have to play alone. Take a few words from me and work it. You know how.
Love you man,
None of this made any sense to me. Champ wasn’t dead---close, but not dead. Knowing this, I wondered why his mom handed me the letter. It was meant to be read upon his demise, and as far as I knew, he wasn’t dead yet.
As I’m sitting there thinking about this letter, his mom’s cell phone rings. She picks it up and motions for me to wait while she takes the call. She barely says anything and her face was a complete blank, then she hung up. She asks if I would drive with her to the hospital. I was fully prepared to say no, but then I figured it was safer than walking, so I agreed. She handed me the keys and off we went.
On the way there, she said Champ might need more surgery, but before they start, they want to collect more blood. Champ has a rare blood type and since she’s O-negative, she can donate blood for him. I asked if any of the others match and was told they didn’t. She said it with such finality. After that exchange, it was a long quiet drive to the hospital.
Once I parked the car, I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went in with her. I’d never been in the hospital and I was scared. I must have been white as a ghost because she took my hand and held it, like I was a five-year-old going in for shots. I didn’t even try to shake loose; I knew when I was whipped.
At the blood bank, she told them who she was and for whom she wanted to donate blood. They looked at her, looked at their records, and told her they couldn’t accept any more blood from her. It was against the rules and would put her in physical danger. She tried to insist, but you know hospitals; protocol is protocol. I thought she was going to faint when it finally sunk in. I grabbed a chair for her to sit down. I didn’t know what else to do.
I wanted to throw something. Instead, I asked them to check me. Could I donate? They just grabbed me and grabbed my arm, but they only drew one tube. I was about to object when they said they needed to check my blood type and run some other tests first. Champ’s mom looked at me with this queer look on her face. I assumed she was shocked that I offered and so I tried to blow it off like it was nothing. In reality, I was surprised at myself. It was the bravest thing I had ever done. I’d never done anything so important and with so much risk. Suppose I didn’t match?
It seemed like hours went by and all the time, his mom stared at me. It was as though she wanted to say something. As it was, she opened her mouth to speak several times, but then said nothing. I figured she was trying to figure out a way to thank me or ask me something about Champ that she knew I would never tell her. When they finally called my name to return to the window, they were wide-eyed and smiling. I was a complete match. I could donate. They just needed my mom to consent and were waving over Champ’s mom. I then realized they thought Champ’s mom was my mom. I told them that I was a friend of Champ and they would have to call my mom. My dad didn’t live with us.
As I was giving them the phone number, Champ’s mom touched me on the shoulder and told me to wait. She had something to tell me first. When she finished, I slowly went back up to the window and told them to call my Dad. I spoke to him and consented over the phone. I then donated a unit of blood to my kid brother. I’m also going to be his transplant bone marrow donor---whether he wants it or not.