Freddie Burnett died some time past midnight. He was cool in life, but dead was dead; nothing about that kept him alive. Cool didn't mean shit once somebody wanted him gone.
His death was violent and brutal but it didn't rate much space in the late editions of the Press. Just three paragraphs in Section Four, halfway down the page, near the quarter page ads for Storybook Land and Brigantine Castle. Back then, in the summer of '77, there were more important stories than the death of a nobody black kid and his whore. Even before the first casino opened there had been a buzz in town; Atlantic City was going to be the Las Vegas of the East. Maybe bigger. Freddie's death was nothing. Even in his own neighborhood his death would soon be forgotten.
The only person who might remember it in detail was the first cop on the scene – but only because he was left to file the incident report long after everyone else had packed up.
"Only gonna' get worse," one of the detectives said on his way out the door. "Ain't seen nothing yet. Not once the casinos come around."
The cop poked a shoe into one of the rigid corpses and shook his head.
The killer had walked in, surprising Freddie and shooting him three times in the neck and throat. Death was immediate and without negotiation. His whore had tried running but barely made it out of bed before more bullets cut her down. Tall and thin, her face was streaked with blood from a small hole in her cheek. Probably caught one of the bullet fragments that had torn into Freddie, the cops figured. Another slug caught her in the back of the shoulder, spinning her around, and the next shot blew apart her chest, leaving only a gaping hole and a flap of white skin covering it. Freddie's dark hands clutched what remained of the flesh, bone, and tissue where his chin met his throat. His eyes were opened wide and his body was slumped backwards, dried blood splattered around him and smeared across the wall.
The cop wiped a hand across his forehead and took a hard drag on his Marlboro, pissed about being left alone.
"Always knew there'd be trouble," a lady in curlers was saying at the door. "Boy like that - always coming and going - just a matter of time before it happened."
Her elderly neighbor nodded. "Boy was trouble."
"Just a matter of time," the first one repeated.
The uniform paid little attention to either of them. His eyes were cold and emotionless, as lifeless as the naked corpses on the floor. Veteran beat cops talked about the detachment that came with the job and how you'd get used to anything, no matter what it was, but it wasn't until his fourth summer in the neighborhood that he found a handle on what that meant. Now it was just another day and another body. Another shift that would go on too long. More hours that needed to be filled.
He moved through the hallway shadows, wondering how he could stretch another hour out of the crime scene.
"Ain't nothing to see in there," he told the crowd gathered on the downstairs steps.
Calvin Dunn watched from a cool spot on the front steps across the street as Freddie's body was taken away in the black coroner's wagon. It was morning and the neighborhood was alive with sound. Disco blasted from radios in apartment windows and from cars parked at the curb, bus engines whined as gears ground and clashed together, and a dozen voices talked trash up and down the street. Passer-bys slowed, taking quick glances through the open doorway, then continued about their business. Calvin crushed a Camel under the toe of a Converse sneaker and leaned back to watch kids dancing in the spray of an open fire hydrant.
Booker took a hard swallow from his bottle. Tired, bloodshot eyes looked down the street. "I liked that kid, you know?"
Calvin stared a hole into his Cons.
"I know you and him were close. Kind of like brothers, huh?"
Whatever Calvin could say about their friendship was kept inside. He stayed quiet.
"Ain't no surprise, though," Booker said. "Kind of expected it."
After a while Booker said, "Things different around here. Can't get used to how this neighborhood's changed."
You got used to anything, Calvin was thinking. It only took time.
Every neighborhood had somebody like Booker. The mayor of the street corner – an old guy who had been around forever and had something to say about everything. He had watched the neighborhood change. Knew your mom when she was a kid and could tell you something about your daddy if you had one. Hit you up for a cigarette and loose change to help pay for the bottle he pulled on throughout the day. Hadn't held a job in twenty years and didn't know what was going on outside the neighborhood, but he was an authority on all things up and down the street.
"A man got enemies and a price on his head, but it still takes someone to pull the trigger, don't it?" he wondered. "Who you think gonna' do that to Freddie?"
"Enemies don't mean nothing," Calvin answered.
There was no conviction and no emotion in his voice. "Money makes you do things you don't got the balls to do."
Hot July nights in Atlantic City were the worst. Tempers were short, tension heavy, and the heat put everyone on edge. Your face was wet with sweat, the stench of two days' worth of garbage collecting on the curb was overpowering, and there was too much time to fill. When the breeze off the ocean died the heat became unbearable. Freddie and Calvin would sit on the steps and talk, trying to hold on to the cool air when it blew down the street. Calvin never had enough money to do more than dream about what it would be like if his neighborhood was a Philadelphia suburb instead of an Atlantic City skeleton. All he could talk about was what it would be like to live someplace else.
"You got to do more than dream and talk about what you want," Freddie used to say.
"If you don't got dreams all you got is nightmares," Calvin answered.
Freddie just stared at him. "You some kind of street corner philosopher?"
"Dreams give you something," Calvin said, "if you ain't got nothing else."
"So get a plan," Freddie said. "Make something happen."
"What good is that?"
"You don't go nowhere without a plan," he said. "And if you don't go nowhere, you just another part of the street. Be twenty years later and you still be talking about your dreams."
Freddie Burnett shook another cigarette out of his pack. "Dreams don't do no good if you can't leave."
Freddie's plan was always about an easy score. Two, sometimes three other guys would jack a car from one of the Boardwalk parking lots, clip on a set of forged plates, and cross the bridge to the mainland. Calvin would slip behind the wheel while the others jockeyed for spots in the back seat. Always in the front, Freddie would spark a joint with one hand, talking and rapping along with whatever was on the radio. The ride up the Black Horse Pike was fueled by a handful of joints, a quart of Jack Daniels, and scattered lines of coke laid out in fat lines across a mirror in the back seat.
The whiskey was usually too warm and the coke too weak, but it was enough to crank up their courage.
"These highways like a yellow brick road," Freddie once said, "and the suburbs be like fucking Oz."
"And I guess we supposed to be the fucking Munchkins or those goddamned flying monkeys?" Calvin asked.
Freddie shook his head. "Be like that lion. Just need to find your heart."
"Thought it was courage?"
"Whatever. You missing the point."
Freddie's scores were always more profitable than rolling senior citizens walking the boardwalk late at night with their pockets full of change. Safer than hitting liquor stores in Ventnor or 7-11's in Margate. Driven with determination and sometimes desperation, targets were chosen randomly. Many times Freddie would steer them off the street for reasons that mattered only to him. Armed with joints and coke, thirty-eights and twenty-two's, they peeled off the road when the feeling was right.
"Easy money," Freddie always said.
And never any trouble, Calvin remembered.
It got cash to buy new jewelry for their women, bottles for the guys on the street, and Cons and Nikes for the basketball courts.
Freddie spread his take around the neighborhood. There were always a few dollars for the guy at the pool hall on Baltic Avenue, a couple of bucks for the two room apartment he called home, and the rest to spend at the liquor store. He'd leave some money with Fat Tony, placing bets and playing the dice in one of the after hours games behind Snake Alley – just pushing his luck a little while looking for a smile. Then gave his baby's momma what he could to make sure the boy he barely knew had what was needed. And sometimes Freddie would find a decent whore to spend the night with, then give her a couple of extra bucks - just because he could and not because she asked.
"Just supporting people," he told Calvin. "You know they too proud to take charity."
"Noticed they ain't too proud to take your fucking money with no hesitation."
"Things like that even out in the end," Freddie said. "Got to help however you can."
Calvin would just shrug. The man played by his own set of rules that he could never quite understand.
The night time raids had become routine, like the walk to the Korean deli down the street or a two on two game at the courts for ten dollars a point. You knew what you wanted and there was never any second thoughts about what you were doing or how you were going to do it – you just did it. Freddie had done it more often than anyone else and that experience gave him something nobody else had. It gave him importance and made him special, especially to somebody like Calvin.
"You guys look at him like some kind of hero," Booker once said. "Make him something different."
Calvin thought about that for a while. "He ain't no hero who runs into a burning building and saves peoples," he finally said. "But he's got something we all want. He's cool in ways we want to be-"
Barely out of his teens, a few years younger than Freddie, Calvin needed something and someone to believe in. There were no certainties and no guarantees but in Calvin's world Freddie was close to a sure thing.
Tall and thin, almost gaunt, Freddie spoke in a quiet, evenly tempered voice that sometimes got lost in the sounds of the street. His afro would sway and bob as he pushed the bottle to his lips, swallowing hard. With his long braids water falling past his shoulders, swaying with vivid gestures, Freddie dominated the stairs. He didn't look out of the ordinary with the thick stubble on his chin, dark glasses hiding bloodshot eyes, or the tan, weathered chinos tucked into high top Timberland boots.
"Conviction and belief – that's what he's got," Booker said. "Life ain't just surviving from day to day for him. It's about pushing ahead and making things better."
Calvin popped open a Bud. "Making everything better, huh?"
"That's what it's all about. Finding a way to make things better –"
"All you can do is believe in yourself," Freddie once told him on the steps. "That's the most important thing in life."
"How do I believe in myself," Calvin replied, "when I ain't done nothing yet?"
There was a long silence.
For a moment Calvin thought Freddie was going to backhand him across the sidewalk. There was a look in his expression – like contempt or disgust. "You're here, right?" Freddie finally spit back.
“I ain’t never left here. Where else would I be?"
"In a morgue," Freddie snapped. "You made it this far, didn't you? It takes a lot of effort to stay alive in this place – that's something to build on."
But Calvin knew there was a big difference between staying alive and getting ahead. The neighborhood was filled with people who stayed alive but had nothing else. He wanted more than that. Wanted to find a way to get ahead and matter.
"First person you got to believe in is you," Freddie told him. "Nobody else matters but you and what you need."
There was a lesson there. Calvin tried to remember that.
It was a neighborhood of liars, braggers, and thieves – nothing that different from any other part of town. And only Boo Pittman got the same kind of respect as Freddie, although it was an uneasy respect that came from fear.
If it was narcotics, Boo Pittman was in the middle between the Philly mobs and the local gangs who put it on the street. After hours gambling got his personal touch, just like loan sharking and numbers did. He'd give you two points less than the Guinea mobsters would, but he'd chop off your thumbs quicker then they would when you fell too far behind. If somebody wound up on a mattress in a brownstone basement with a cheap Pacific Avenue hooker, Boo figured to take twenty five out of the fifty stuffed in her panties. There were rumors that he owned a chunk of real estate near the inlet and was trying to ransom the land parcels to Harrah's for one of the first casino projects.
The kids in the neighborhood watched from fire escapes as Boo slowly made his rounds, walking the streets fearlessly. Bulging neck, thick hands, and meaty fingers encased in gold rings that covered skin up to each knuckle. Nobody messed with Boo - not the gangs, the pimps and hustlers, or the junkies shooting smack on the corners. He had a gold capped smile that could make a dozen hearts stop beating when he looked in that direction.
"Man got power," Booker said. "Power let's you do whatever the fuck you want. Let's you call the shots."
It was on this last night of Freddie Burnett's life that he was with Boo Pittman's sixteen year old nephew, Sammy. Except for the new forty-five tucked in the waistband of his jeans, nothing else was different. It wasn't by choice. Freddie's prominence in the neighborhood hadn't escaped Boo's attention. With no time to teach his sister's son about life, he decided Freddie could do it for him.
"Teach him a thing or two," Boo said. "The kid ain't never been nowhere the bus didn't take him. Show him stuff."
"What am I supposed to show him?" Freddie wondered.
"It don't matter," Boo shrugged. "Just give him an education."
"I ain't much of a teacher – "
Boo shrugged but his smile never wavered. "Teach him what you know."
"What I know is that a sixteen year old kid shouldn't be tagging along with us," Freddie grumbled. "Ain't no place for a cherry."
What they did took patience, timing, and a world of cool to pull off successfully. There was a certain amount of risk just cruising in the car – the word around the street was that the Boo's nephew was an animal; hot and uncontrollable. "Bringing a kid into this is asking for trouble," Freddie told Boo.
"I know you'll do what's right," were the big man's parting words.
The sun was setting slowly over the bay as Freddie, Calvin, Boo Pittman's nephew, and another hot-headed neighborhood kid named Trolly Long slid into a Caddy. "Feeling like a babysitter," Freddie muttered, bearing a weary smile to Calvin.
"This ain't no fucking joyride-"
"He wants him to see beyond Atlantic City. Guess with the casinos coming in here he thinks this'll help."
"Everybody's out to make a score."
"The man thinks it'll teach the kid character," Freddie said with a laugh, shaking his head as Calvin edged behind the wheel. "This tough little shit ain't gonna' learn enough tonight to help him cross the street."
Freddie checked the clip in his forty-five, swept the braids from his eyes, and pulled a crumpled joint from his pocket. A blast of Tina Turner on the stereo greeted him as he slammed the car door shut. He tipped the Ray Bans off his nose and immediately lost himself in thought. Booker sat on the steps and watched the Caddy disappeared down the street, melting into a wall of tail lights and traffic signals.
The Old Duck Inn was a crumbling cinderblock and brick building on the White Horse Pike, the last oasis in a desert of strip malls, motels, and all night gas stations. Weeds cracked through the parking lot, paint flaked off walls, cardboard covered a few broken window panes, and rust had eaten away chunks of the metal sign over the doorway. A succession of owners had done little to stimulate business, and it was only a matter of time before the Old Duck would be sold to make way for an industrial park, car lot, or another motel. The blinking neon sign still brought in a weekend customer on their way to AC, but customers were limited to a few hardcore regulars.
"Neon. That's the problem," a guy was muttering over a bourbon. "It ain't like the old billboards. Can't tell no story with neon-"
"Been around for thirty years. You see neon all over the place."
"That don't mean it works," he sneered. "Know what I mean?"
Joyce Howard nodded and sipped a Dewar's and water from her bar stool. An ex-husband had bought the Old Duck Inn years earlier and it was all she got from the divorce. Twenty miles west of Atlantic City on the outskirts of Hammonton, it was nothing more than a beer and a shot place. It didn't bring in as much anymore, but the bills got paid, and that was all that mattered to Joyce.
"They're too bright. And they block the view. You can't see nothing with those signs cluttering the road."
"What the hell do you want to see?" one of the other customers asked. "Ain't nothing to see but ten miles of nothing."
"That ain't the point."
"What can you do?" Joyce shrugged. "It's technology."
It had been a quiet evening. She had picked up her daughter after school, gone to a ceramics class, then shared a quick meal at Burger King with a friend from class. There were only a handful of people in the bar: a young couple at the other end of the bar, two middle-aged county road workers who'd been there since four, and a long haired kid pondering life over a flat Schlitz. Barbara McCauley was her lone employee, pouring an occasional beer and flirting with the road crew guys between songs on the juke box.
Joyce would have flirted too if she were twenty-six and needed both the tips and the thrills. But flirting didn't work for her. She was twice Barbara's age, and each morning brought new wrinkles and unexpected gray hairs. Nobody was buying her a drink and the tips didn't go as far as they once did. Not anymore.
It was around eight when the young Black kid entered the bar, cautiously eyeing his surroundings. He was too clean shaven and too youthful, and Barbara pulled herself away from the Phillies game on TV and the idle conversation with the road crew.
"Bud?" the kid asked. "Got Bud?"
Barbara nodded slowly.
"Make it a six to go," he said more confidently.
Barbara flipped a wave of blonde hair from her eyes. "Need some ID."
The kid placed both palms squarely on the countertop and leaned forward. "I ain't got none. I lost it."
"I can't serve you without it."
"I can't help it. That's the law."
"I said I ain't got it."
Joyce Howard sized up the kid from head to toe, taking in the high top Converse, faded Levi's, and sleeveless yellow t-shirt.
"Get out of here, boy," she ordered. "Go find your ID."
Sammy Pittman maintained a hard stare as he backed to the door while the people turned slowly on their stools. With the cool of a professional he stopped, using the time to measure the crowd like Freddie had instructed. Only the guys hunched over their beers at the bar looked mildly threatening. Nothing to worry about from any of them.
A cinch, he told himself. In and out, just like Freddie said.
He drew a cigarette from his pocket and lit it with a shaky hand that signaled the gang in the Caddie.
"Hey boy," one of the road crew started. "You hear the lady?"
"I ain't deaf-"
"Then get the fuck out."
"This don't concern you, white man."
Joyce Howard rose off her stool. "Out of here! Go some place else, nigger, to get your six pack!"
Whatever else she could have said was lost when Trolly stormed into the bar behind Sammy, waving his twenty-two. Sammy pulled out his own piece and pointed it at Joyce Howard's head, stopping her in mid-sentence. In that split second she felt her heart skip a beat. Seeing both kids aiming guns, side by side in the doorway, Barbara McCauley panicked and dove for protection behind the bar. Trolly was across the room in three steps, leaping on top of the bar and pointing the gun at her.
"Off that floor, bitch!" he yelled, baring a mouthful of yellowed, cigarette-stained teeth. "Off that fucking floor or I'll blow your brains out."
"There's not much money," Joyce said from across the bar, shaking as she lifted her glass to her lips. "But –"
Sammy came across the floor quickly and easily. A cruel smile crossed his face as he slapped the glass out of her hands with the butt of his gun. "Won't serve niggers, huh? Let's not serve nobody," he sneered. "Let's just kill you-"
"Please," Joyce begged, feeling sweat on her forehead and a dryness in her mouth. "There's not much, but it's yours-"
"Do the bitch!" Trolly yelled.
Sammy laughed and waved the gun in her face. "You fucking right, it's mine!"
The road worker edged off his seat. "Why don't you just haul ass out of here?"
Trolly spun around on the bar and rammed his foot into the man's jaw, sending him reeling to the floor, while freezing the man's buddy in place with his twenty-two. The man rolled to his knees, holding a hand to his mouth while the blood spilled between his lips and broken teeth.
"Shut the fuck up," he said.
It was then that Freddie strode into the bar. He glanced at the couple wrapped in each other's arms, shook some braids to one side, and kept his forty-five leveled at the room. The neighborhood kids were tense and edgy, their fingers fidgeting on triggers while music pulsated from a corner juke box and the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the third inning on a silent TV screen.
"Let's do this quick," he said.
"Off that fucking floor," Trolly hollered at Barbara.
Freddie moved behind the bar, helping Barbara McCauley to her feet and said, "We ain't gonna hurt you. We only want your money."
Her words stuck in her throat.
"You're okay," he said reassuringly. "Don't be stupid."
Joyce was forced to the floor, face down with her hands spread eagle on the cold linoleum. The floor was cold and dirty and smelled like stale beer and grime. She was terrified and frightened, and she could feel her heart pounding heavily in her throat as tears inched down her cheeks, streaking her mascara. I don't want to die, she was thinking. Not here and not like this.
In that instant it all came at her. She thought about her daughter and the things she had always meant to say to her and do with her. Dreams that had died. Hope and ambition that had faded away.
So much life unfinished.
Sammy's voice rang out. "How's that feel, motherfucker?"
She saw a foot lash out at the man who had been next to her, kicking his ribs twice before a pair of tan boots hurried over and pushed the high tops away. A pair of ebony hands took the wallet from the man's pocket, then his watch and rings, along with a gold cross from his neck. The boots came near, pausing for a moment at the body of the road worker who was still twitching on the floor. The man groaned, rasping out mumbled words, only to be quieted by a hand clamping loosely across his mouth.
"You'll be fine," Freddie said matter-of-factly.
Freddie stepped around the bodies. He took two gold rings from Joyce's fingers, a watch from one wrist and a bracelet from another, and then yanked off the heart chain she wore around her neck. As he turned away Sammy buried a foot in her ribs this time.
"Boy, huh?" he sneered as the bolts of pain ripped through her side. "Ain't no boy does this-"
"No!" Freddie barked. "That's not the way it's done."
Sammy shot Freddie a stare.
"You heard me," Freddie said, this time stronger.
"She called me 'boy'. And 'nigger'. Ain't nobody calling me that -"
"You gonna be called worse," Freddie said firmly. "Ain't the time or the place to deal with it."
"I'm gonna' blow the bitch's brains out!" Sammy said, cocking his twenty-two and aiming it at Joyce.
"Plug her," Trolly echoed from across the bar. "Do her."
"Shut up," Freddie said to him. "Get the money from the register and keep your mouth shut."
Freddie shook his head. "You ain't doing shit I don't tell you to do."
Freddie shot him a glare and shook his head again.
"Don't push me. I said no."
Sammy's mouth was open, but Freddie's ice cold stare snuffed out his response and the words died in silence. On the floor Joyce Howard started shaking uncontrollably.
As Freddie rifled the pockets of the couple across the bar then opened the cash register and Trolly ransacked the liquor shelves for bottles he could share with his basketball buddies, Sammy stormed around the bar. He found Barbara McCauley trembling on the floor and yanked her up. She was shaking so badly she could barely stand alone. Sammy steadied her with the butt of his gun, then dragged her into a hallway leading to the kitchen.
"Don't hurt me," she sobbed. "Please don't."
"Shut up. Just shut up and move!"
He was going to make someone pay for that, he swore, grabbing a handful of Barbara's hair and yanking her through the darkness.
He shoved her forward, thinking that maybe he needed to flex a little muscle with Freddie Burnett when this was done. Show him that he wasn't no kid like Trolly or some of those other basketball boys from the neighborhood. Make him understand that he deserved respect. Make him see that, he thought. Get him to remember that it was his uncle who put him with Freddie, and that it was his uncle who called the shots and made things happen. Freddie was just the hired help, Sammy thought.
Barbara's voice cracked as tears rolled down her cheeks. "Please don't hurt me."
Sammy slammed the barrel of the gun into her temple with lightning speed. "I said, shut up, bitch," he growled.
The blow knocked Barbara off balance. Sammy jerked her upright, this time banging the gun hard against her ear. Her knees stiffened as she lurched sideways against the wall, trying to dig her fingers into plaster and sheetrock for support. There was a gash across her forehead and the blood ran into her eyes and trickled down her face.
"You don't want to do this," she tried again, trying to find her feet beneath her.
"Talking won't do you no good."
Sammy pulled her into the kitchen, using the cold steel of the gun to guide her. He shoved her against the refrigerator with a quick thrust and Barbara bounced into it and fell backwards to the floor. Sammy caught her by an elbow, spun her around, and rammed her face into the white enamel of the refrigerator again. He tried working his hand inside her blouse but she pulled away at his touch. He was clumsy and awkward and his fingers ripped through the fabric, and his nails left bloody scratches across her chest.
"Don't say nothing," he said.
Still holding her arm he threw her to the floor, tearing again at her blouse and then yanking at his own zipper. Barbara landed on her back. She looked up for only a second to see him straddling her, and then turned her gaze sideways to the floor. She felt him reaching beneath her skirt and grabbing for her panties, and instinctively she struggled to get free. She tried squirming away through a puddle of soapy water, thinking that if she could get out of the kitchen and make it to the parking lot she had a chance. There were cars passing on the White Horse Pike. Someone would stop if they saw her, and someone could come to help – she was sure of it.
There was a loud snap that sounded like the kid's belt buckle unclasping and the sudden, sickening realization that she wasn't going to escape set in.
Her body trembled and quaked. "Oh God," she wailed.
The moment erupted in an explosion of sound.
There were screams in the bar, and a sudden loud thud in the soapy water beside her. There was absolutely no pain; she'd always thought there would be pain but there was nothing to fill the silence from the explosion. Nothing but a numbing chill that swept quickly through her body. Trembling, she turned after a moment, slowly propping herself up on one elbow to see the crumpled body of Sammy Pittman on his knees. Behind him a solitary figure was slowly lowering a forty-five through haze of blue smoke.
"Kid should've listened," Freddie Burnett said. His voice offered no emotion and no trace of remorse.
The bullet had ripped through the small of Sammy's back, dropping him quickly to his knees. His pants were wrapped around his ankles, the shirt tail tangling from beneath the windbreaker in the puddle as he stared expressionlessly at Barbara. There was none of the pain that she would have expected to see etched in his expression. Just surprise. He clawed at the burning pain in his chest as the back of his shirt reddened. He opened his mouth to speak but could only manage to spit out a thick, dark clot of blood that drooled over his bottom lip.
There were no final words and no last gasp for life. Just a look of surprise as his hands dropped away and Sammy fell into a crumpled heap on the floor.
Later, Barbara would remember Freddie's expression. There was little difference between his face and the resigned looks of the road crew workers when they came in every afternoon. She searched the Ray Bans for some sign of feeling but there was nothing. He paused for a moment, looking first at Sammy Pittman's body shuddering one final time and then at Barbara.
Calvin was still in the Caddie, nervously gunning the engine, getting edgier as the minutes ticked away. With a tired, reluctant sigh, Freddie Burnett turned and went back to finishing the rest of his business.
"Nothing to talk about," Freddie had said during the quiet ride home. "It's done."
"Shit," Trolly muttered. "Wasn't no big deal. He just having fun. Besides, he's just a kid, just like me."
"He was man enough to know what he was doing."
"What about his uncle?"
Freddie Burnett offered a quiet shrug and said nothing else the rest of the ride home.
Word spread quickly about what had happened even before the Caddie's engine had cooled. As Freddie and Calvin sat quietly on the steps later that night, blood specking Freddie's tan boots, he seemed tired and resigned.
"I did what I thought was right," he said softly. "Somebody else gonna' judge it differently. Can't change that."
"You can try."
"Some times it don't matter."
"Gonna' be issues about this-"
Freddie nodded. "Gonna' need to explain myself," he said. "Boo gonna' want answers. Even when he gets them, ain't gonna' be no guarantees about what happens next."
"He ain't gonna' like what you got to say."
"I'll tell him the truth," Freddie said. "That's the only thing I know. Only thing I got."
"No time for excuses," he added. "What Boo does with it is up to him."
"It's tough, huh?" Calvin noted grimly.
Freddie nodded again. "You want to be a man, you got to make choices. Do what you think is the right thing," he said. "Do that, you can expect to get judged by your actions and face the consequences if someone else don't like what you did."
"Unless you just do what you're told," Calvin said.
Freddie looked off into the night and shrugged. "Don't think I can live like that."
"I guess not," Calvin agreed solemnly, looking away. "Not everybody can."
It might have been fitting if Freddie had been killed for something others might have understood, Calvin thought the next morning. But Freddie's death was meaningless, just like his principles. He was dead, and it wouldn't mean anything more or less, no matter what his intentions were or what value he tried to place on his actions.
Freddie screwed up and it cost him. Dead was dead. Boo Pittman didn't even give him a chance to come up with answers or explanations before sending the shooter to his apartment.
There was a finality in death that made all the answers meaningless any way, Calvin thought. He knew some day it might happen to him, no matter how hard he tried covering the angles so he could get ahead.
"Calvin!" a voice called from down the block. "You playing?"
"In a minute," he returned with a wave. "Got plenty of time."
Calvin picked up the basketball from the stoop, tied the red bandanna a little tighter around his head, and headed towards the basketball courts to finish yesterday's game of one on one. Double E. was playing him for a dollar a point – spotting his three to start. Everything had a price, Calvin thought. His had been one thousand dollars and a thirty-eight that Calvin made sure to wipe clean before dropping it down a sewer when he came out of Freddie's apartment that morning, just like Boo told him. He was about seven dollars behind to Double E, but he was going to play the game through to the end because you never know how it would end if you don't go all the way.
Even if you couldn't win, you take what they give you and you go with it as far as you can. Get what you need.
Freddie had said that once, Calvin remembered as he trotted off towards the courts with the basketball tucked under his arm.
It was a good lesson to remember.
BIO: Kevin Michaels is everything New Jersey (attitude -edginess - Bruce Springsteen - Tony Soprano but not Bon Jovi). He is a writer and a surfer who lives at the Jersey Shore when he's not in California. He has been previously published in Word Riot, Six Sentences, The Literary Review, and Dogzplot.com, and I can be contacted at email@example.com.