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Thursday, June 07, 2012

A Song of the Past: Eighteen

(Previous installment.)
Thursday, 10:00 AM
Deirdre drove slowly past the La Fortuna grocery store. She turned the corner on which it sat and drove along the street marking the northern edge of the projects. A pair of Rastas, passing a spliff on the front stoop, eyed her with mild suspicion. In a small lawn area, using as goal posts two pairs of slender, young trees that had been planted as part of a recent initiative seeking to make the city’s public housing less of an eyesore, a group of teens was playing soccer.

She spotted her quarry on the steps leading up to the front door of apartment 13-F, holding court for his posse. The hand gestures and poses accompanying Alvin’s monologue were exaggerated as if he was on a stage, and it was obvious that he had the full attention of the others in the group. Deirdre parked alongside the curb and focused on the drama’s leading man.

After a moment, someone noticed her presence and pointed her out to his peeps. When Alvin realized who their observer was, Deirdre thought she fleetingly glimpsed a flinch, perhaps indicating that her unexpected appearance had disquieted him, but his usual demeanor, which boasted that nothing could disturb his cool, returned so swiftly that she wondered if she merely had imagined the chink in his armor. Alvin looked away from her and nonchalantly, making clear that he would deal with their visitor on his own schedule, talked to his boys for another minute or two. Although she couldn’t decipher much of what he was saying, Deirdre was able to lip-read several repetitions of “my bitch,” each accompanied by a nod toward her car.


Apparently satisfied that he had kept her waiting long enough to show who was in charge, Alvin moseyed across the twenty or so yards of patchy grass that lay between the stoop where he had been pontificating and the curb where Deirdre was parked. He traversed his turf with an attitude not unlike the pride with which the owner of a grand estate would tour his grounds.

When he finally halted by the passenger door of her car and lowered his head to look at her through its open window, she immediately asked him, “Were you actually claiming that I’m your bitch?”

“Look”—Alvin suddenly transformed into the boy she had interrogated at the station, restless, uncomfortable—“I gots to say that shit, to give some explanation why this strange woman out here givin’ me the once over. You think I’m gonna tell them you a cop?” He looked at her as though wondering if she might be a little slow on the uptake.

“Well, Alvin, your bitch is here to let you know that a couple of things, maybe important, have come up, and I hope that you can help me to understand them. Can you come for a ride with me so we can talk privately?”

“Sure, I could ride you.”

Deirdre was flustered for a second, even as she tried to assure herself that she must have misheard him. Had she just missed the ‘with’? She searched his face for a sign that he was deliberately trying to rattle her, but she only could detect his habitual expression of having only a jaded self-interest in the banal happenings composing his world. He turned away and gazed distractedly back toward his cohorts. She decided he could not have intended to convey the brazen message she had read into his words, for surely, if he had, then he would have tipped his hand by yielding, however briefly, to the compelling urge to gauge what effect his maneuver had produced in her.

Alvin, while nodding knowingly towards his posse, climbed into the passenger seat and dutifully buckled his seatbelt. Strange what social conventions lie beyond questioning! Deirdre pulled a u-turn and headed back toward Chapel Street, launching into her inquiry as soon as she was headed in the proper direction.

Her opening move was to ask, “Alvin, can you tell me how Ben was doing for cash the past year?”

He stared at her vacantly. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Deirdre suspected.

“Did he have a lot more money than usual at any time recently?”

Alvin fell into a deep meditation. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “Around last fall—maybe September, October. All of a sudden he was buying shit-loads of jewelry and coke to get some pussy from bitches who wouldn’t have even talk with him before, even though they was just laughing at him behind his back, thinking he’s an ass they could take advantage of.”

“Did he suggest where the money was coming from?”

“Yeah. Said he couldn’t tell me too much, because that was part of the deal, but I gleaned he was working for some rich white dude, doin’ some dirty work the man wouldn’t touch hisself. I wondered if he was selling his ass to this old faggot whose Mercedes I seen Ben in once or twice. Wouldn’t put it past him. My boy do anything if you pay him enough.”

They had arrived at the I-91 overpass that spanned Chapel Street. Deirdre pulled over onto the shoulder, a little worried about puncturing a tire on one of the multitudinous glass shards littering the edge of the pavement.  After she put the car in park, she paused, puzzled for a moment: it occurred to her that there was something very odd in what Alvin had just said… but, unable to put her finger on it, she asked Alvin carefully to look over the different bits of graffiti covering the concrete bridge support that was now to her left.

“Alvin, does anything painted on that wall look to you like it was done by Ben?”

“Shit, he gone to the great beyond. Whachoo gonna do, dig him up and stick his dead nigger ass in the big house for graffiti?”

“Alvin, this might be a clue as to who his murderer is.” She looked at him while allowing her eyes to softly welcome any effort on the part of this troubled youth to place trust in another human being. “Is any of that Ben’s work?”

To the floor of the car he replied sullenly, “Yeah, I’s pretty sure that blue and yellow one, with the stars and that antique clock shit in the middle, that’s Ben. One thing my boy always had was his own style with a paint can, and that biz got him written all over it.”

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