Into the City through a blizzard to a ballgame. The locals will steer you right, right?
Thunderstick by Anthony Moretta
“So, where you taking me?” Jerry asks, slouched in the passenger seat and thumbing his seat belt.
They’d been driving a cool hour by now. Radio said snow just stopped falling in Bedminster. That’s where Jerry lives. One huge house after one huge house after another. Power’s been out at his palace since yesterday morning. Storms are always worse in New Jersey.
Reception craps out heading east, passing every blown out apartment window while the last sheet of white blankets the City. Traffic is light. Danger picks up.
Gene steals a look off the snow-caked road at Jerry.
“Stop worrying so much. We’re going to a basketball game. Is that so horrible?”
“I watch enough basketball.”
“Not like this you don’t.”
“Why, are they playing on Mars?”
“Might as well be.”
“Seriously, why are we driving into deep Brooklyn? That’s where we are, right?”
“Your guess good as mine. I can’t see shit.”
“Relax. I know exactly where I’m going.”
Off 278, Gene hooks a sharp right onto Nassau Street then spins his red Land Cruiser, darting down Flushing Ave. He slows at each corner, speeds when it’s not the corner he needs.
“So, who is he?” Jerry asks.
“No way we’re doing our best Han Solo out here for nothing. I was nice and warm at home. Fireplace, Karen,candlelight.”
“You’ll see. This is something special.”
“You know him?”
“Only to say hello. I got a piece coming out next month. I hope to get his ear tonight.”
“What’s his name?”
“Ben Anima. They call him Thunderstick.”
“Ain’t like that.”
“How come I haven’t heard of him?”
“He’s not on the radar.”
“Nah. Nothing. Good kid. Bad school.”
“I’ve seen this before. Has he picked a college?”
“He’s a junior.”
Snow lets up. The streets are dotted with brown faces made glowing by the neon greens and blues of the bodegas. Runny noses and chapped lips. Hands pushed through coat pockets and sweat pants, reaching as far in as possible to snag the warmth of depth.
Jerry twitches as they pass corner fourteen, but he’s not really counting. “I guess we’re not the only idiots out in this.”
“It’s worth it.”
“You’re talking this up too much. These places are full of guys with talent. Most end up in jail.”
“This kid’s of a different color.”
Jerry straightens. “Are we close? What time’s the game?”
Gene pulls a u-turn at the next intersection. Broken traffic light flickers faintly. It’s an all-way stop or hope nobody else tries to outrun you. Tonight, there is nobody else.
“It’s gotta be one of these streets up here,” Gene says.
Jerry spots a small crowd gathered in front of a Church of Christ or something as close as he can make out. The standpipe doubles as a bar. No light in or out of the place. Some plywood is hung together by chicken wire resting against the entrance. He notices one of the shorter guys peel back the wood and duck inside. The others pass around a pack of smokes. They’re all dressed alike too. It’s seventeen layers before you get to their skin. A breeze knocks some of the snow off the sign. He can read it all now. Church of Christ, And His Devils in orange paint.
Gene moves on. “Six-three two-guard. He’s got the body to play the three. Squared off on top. Big hands. Strong bastard. Quick as a fox. And jumps with trampoline legs. Throws it down like nothing I’ve seen before at his size.”
“Are we almost there?”
“The game didn’t start yet. Some music?”
Gene punches the FM button with his stocky forefinger and clocks the tune dial. His shirt cuff inches up his stretched out arm and Jerry notices the watch he’d given him for Christmas five years ago. It was to smooth a rough spot they hit over some leaked press that nearly cost Gene his job. The watch looks great. Shows he cares for it. He knows its value.
They find each other now and again. Not like before, but now and again. There is no proof. Maybe there’ll never be. Gene didn’t offer anything like that watch.
Jerry sometimes thinks that’s enough to let it go. Gene’s not fishing for favor with some trinket or deed or confession. But they keep circling to find this golden boy amidst a snowstorm and sketchy faces.
Jerry can’t stop nagging himself about it. Is this Gene’s watch to him? Sorry for sneaking a slippery night or two with your wife. It was as much Karen’s fault he kicks his head into believing. Blame nothing he decides. If this baller is the baller of all ballers.
Gene keeps clocking until the radio grabs hold of “Tearz” by Wu-Tang Clan.
He bounces to the beat and leans back. “Ahh, this is the shit right here. Crazy hot joint.”
Jerry stares at Gene’s three heads.
Gene quits. “Laugh a little you miserable bum.”
“They got coffee there?”
“First cup’s on you.”
Gene ups his scouring hoping to calm Jerry down. He’s got to make good on this one. Jerry talks big about home and Karen. Jerry’s wayward attention starts to burn his efforts.
Gene slows the 4x4 as if for the first time. Jerry scans the new block. Nothing resembles a school.
“Quit screwing around, Gene. You haven’t been here.”
“So, now I’m lying?”
Jerry’s annoyance grows as Gene drops the pedal to the corner and hooks a left. Still no sign. The cabin seems to be closing in. The doors wanting to move further away from the outside. The truck is scared.
Jerry absorbs the glare from spliffs and freshly emptied bottles reflecting light from the few street lamps that are working. Those glassy eyes taking measure of these lost fish. And there’s Jesus’ devil church again. The plywood getting a workout from the wind and winos.
They hit the nearest corner.
Gene angles his lips for some other thing to say. “We gotta one block more north. Now, I remember.”
There’s a panicked knuckle knock at Gene’s window. They jump turn to their left. A masked man is pressed up against the door, his arms up, bent at the elbows at the top of the glass. His skin blends into the color of his face wear. A plastic and mesh covering with rubber outlay and no visible opening. Looks something scuba or the like. His eggshell ski jacket hugs a bulky build, the fur-trimmed hood planted on his head. He hammers the window again.
“You better roll down and see,” Jerry says.
Gene pauses the window about halfway, letting a small drift of snow in from the roof, and squares his face to the masked man. “Can I help you?”
The mask doesn’t respond. He stands and listens to the last moments of the rap still audible on Gene’s radio.
He finally breaks his silence. “What are you listening to that for? Turn that shit off!”
It’s a muffled greeting. Gene barely understands with an excuse me look. Mask repeats in a raised voice and a chin wag towards the dial’s direction. Gene obliges and asks the initial question again with a raise of his brow. Mask finally joins the discussion with a gentle invite of his semiautomatic 9mm Browning that he slides across the opened window, pointing it at Gene’s nose.
Another wasted effort to speak on the Mask’s part.
“You’re wearing the wrong mask for this,” Gene says.
Before the last syllable is out, Mask clocks a jab to Gene’s jaw with his gun hand, scraping the top of the barrel against the upper door sill as he pulls it back to position.
Mask peels his mouth guard. “Dumb ass bitch! I got a gun in your face. What’s the matter with you?”
Jerry studies the drama unfolding a foot away. The outside that crushed the confined space is now a spacious planetary starburst a million moons from here. The lone masked man on this white road in this dark town. The weightlessness of the pistol in the bandit’s hand. The empty pop of the punch to Gene’s mouth. He could do a hell of a lot more damage all on his own when he’s got the chance. And then the kicker. The chipped paint at the edge of the barrel. The bright yellow plastic underneath. Gene flinches to notice anything.
Mask stiffens his stance. “Money, wallet, jewelry,and whatever the fuck else you got that’s worth a shit in this thing.”
“You don’t want the truck?”
“I gotta repeat myself now? It’s cold as hell out here. Hurry the fuck up you inconsiderate motherfucker.”
Gene empties his coat pockets. Some loose cash and a tri-fold wallet. Keeps his license. Shows he has no necklace or the sort. The watch comes in view.
“You best be giving up that tricked out clock on your wrist.”
Gene bows and whispers to Jerry, “You gave me this.”
“I’ll get you another,” Jerry says, eyes down.
Gene unlatches the watch, palms it a moment and surrenders it. All good wishes bought out by a marauder braving the winter’s wraith. Jerry steams a little as he follows Gene’s lead and adds to the Mask’s bounty. Jerry’s wearing an eighteen-karat chain gifted non-eventfully by his loving wife five years ago. The same five that passed up he and Gene. The same five that feel not so long ago now. Five older. Five more married and five more with his growing family. Five more of Gene unchanged. Of Gene flailing his youth that escaped some time back. He beats it out of the new things he finds.
“That’s everything,” Gene says.
He then stutters and starts towards to the glove compartment. Jerry spreads his knees. Gene feels the barrel’s nipple pressed into his spine through his coat.
Gene recoils. “I was gonna check it for you.”
Mask pockets the loot. “Not bad for a night like this. Where the fuck were a couple of clown pussies like you going ‘round here?”
“Does it matter?” Jerry asks. “Banneker.”
Mask chuckles and his breath dissipates. “You goin’ to the game? Checkin’ out that white kid. Thunder-shit or some shit.”
“The body and blood of,” Jerry says, cracking the tiniest smile. Mask skips away.
The Land Cruiser idles. Gene’s foot never off the brake. Gear never moved from “D”. He lets off and they move forward again.
“I’m sorry, Jerr. That was fuckin’ insane. You okay?”
“I still think we should go. We’ll call the cops from there. You still wanna go, right? Even he knows about the kid.”
Gene goes on about how he’s sorry, again, head hanging like a duck strung up in the window of a Chinese take out joint. Too taken by his own apologies to notice that Jerry isn’t listening. Nothing worth talking about now.
Jerry ignores and watches their thief grow smaller in the side mirror. Mask reaches the sidewalk fronting the Church across the way. A compatriot meets him out from under the plywood. He doesn’t move much. Just talks a lot. The greeting lasts long enough to smack the toy weapon out of Mask’s hand. Mask back pedals. Slips once or twice on the slushy curb. That devil follows like a starved lynx. That cat pulls a Browning 9mm from the waist of his jeans tucked under his heavy red sports coat. It’s got the looks of the same gun used on them. Almost the same.
Two squeezes of the trigger through the mask and the plastic and rubber shard and splinter through projectile masses of blood, flesh and bone splattered across and through the wet white of the street. Mask drops pushing a snow plume over his matching jacket now staining. The watch and chain ripped away from their assailant and now made offerings to the Church.
Gene whips his shoulders at the muted crack of the gunshots. “What the hell was that?”
“Just get us to the game.”
They race north.