I had since learned otherwise. You always have a choice, but are you willing to pursue it? Are you willing to die trying? Or do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering what if? But it was too late. Too late to contemplate otherwise, too late to try to make things right because some things simply cannot be made right. There might be a time for everything but sometimes it’s the timing that isn’t right. And in times of need what do you do? You do what you can and screw the rest. Welcome to the story of my life.
“Whadaya say Drift?” Eddie asked me, “Are you up to robbing a corner store with me today? We need some cash.”
“Sure,” I blandly replied, “whatever man.”
And what happened to people giving you exorbitant amounts of money so you can “take care” of things?
Nobody spoke a word after that. Nobody could speak a word. Nothing new for us. Eddie, in his constant pine green coveralls sat silently looking outside the window while I held on to Byron’s arm, just like I did the first time I laid eyes on him, the frightened thirteen-year-old boy from the alley. My mind had never really left that place, not even after all these years of sharing my existence with Byron. When it came to him our guilt-ridden consciouses all fell silent. I had given an innocent boy a death sentence by letting him live, and I had given myself one even worst by living the life. What is the justice in trying to be just? Sometimes I found myself wondering if it simply would have been easier if I had let him be killed and lived with regret for my whole life. I couldn’t understand the full scope of the politics of justice in my life, but I imagined that you just get lucky sometimes.
I laid my head on Byron’s shoulder as he stared out the window just like Eddie did. Byron’s parents had no body to bury, no son to mourn. They didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. I knew Jeff was with God, out of this miserable life, but Byron’s parents didn’t have that sense of comfort. I could see Ricardo’s eyes as deep as black holes starting right at me in the rearview mirror. Still wearing his torn jeans and his favorite Kenny Rogers shirt, he drove right through the city, still remaining silent but always peering back in my direction. He knew too well that I blamed him. Sometimes I caught myself wondering if that guy could feel guilt, or if I could even feel it myself or if making myself believe that I had a guilty conscience made me feel better about everything. Moot point anyway, nothing changes anything.
Ricardo pulled into Dobbs without incident and drove to Lennie’s. Once there, he hid the car in the nearby bush as we made the rest of the way to the factory on foot. As usual. Ricardo’s presence was again uneasy. Nothing was easy for me. Not anymore. Not a single minute went by that I didn’t want to scream and shout and rip apart my entire being from the inside out. Go back to where I came from. Dust to dust. I sighed and walked awkwardly with my head down all the way to the factory a few miles away. Byron walked faithfully by my side while Ricardo took the lead and Eddie trailed behind us as usual. Always as usual.
Surprisingly Robby was there waiting for us. Rob. Robin. Soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Remington. Soon-to-be something fancy. Soon-to-be somebody. The twenty-six-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin came to Brooklyn to study and get a university degree in God knows what a few years back. At 5’10” and 141 pounds he was the perfect candidate to break the law. Oval brown eyes and short brown hair, fluent French speaker, lady charmer. I didn’t even know his fiancé’s name. If she had one at all. Rob and Ricardo were a lot alike apart from their skin color. Not much was known about Rob, but he had money, and he had brains. He didn’t look like a criminal. He didn’t look like us. And unlike us, he could get away with robberies in broad daylight. Sweet little Robby. If there was something about life that I couldn’t understand, it was guys like him. When you have money, power and brains, why do you even bother to straddle the line of the criminal life? But then again life was never fair, and there were only a few people that I hated more than Robin Remington. Jerk.
He was just standing there, leaning against the metal building. It was a little hard not to stare. Only true crooks wear fancy suits. Dark brown suited him well. Sitting next to him on a crate, little Shany who was just a little taller than I was. Standing at only 5’5” and 123 pounds, long blond hair, blue eyes, nineteen years old, she could’ve been my sister. Her skin didn’t wear the scars and her soul didn’t carry the burden, though. Shannon Poirier was my favorite little French girl. I addressed her in broken street French, but she wasn’t interested. Instead she just shot a look at Robby and greeted the rest of us. Rob didn’t dare open his mouth. Such smalltalk didn’t do with him. Egoist and always on top of his game, you needed more than that to have a conversation with the bear. It wasn’t like I was stupid. Yes, I had dropped out of school in the ninth grade, but I fluently spoke two languages and managed to survive on my own despite that. I had adjusted to the street life well, for a lack of anything better to say.
“I can’t stay for long,” Rob finally spoke, “only until noon.”
“Don’t worry about it Rob,” Ricardo replied, “it’s only just passed six so we have plenty of time.”
“I need to get my butt back in gear if I want to graduate. Things aren’t going to well with my classes.”
“Can’t you just, take them online or something?”
Rob pondered the idea without speaking. Egoist. Yeah, maybe I did like him. I liked Rob. But I didn’t like Rob’s personality. I never really liked Shannon either. Another one from Brooklyn fumbling down into a pit of darkness called street life. No matter how many times I wanted to shake her and scream to her face telling to smarten the hell up and to get a higher education for herself, I never had the courage to do it. Because I still had the chance too. I had the chance but did I have the choice? Did I maybe want to rot in hell for the rest of my life? Maybe there was once upon a time a hope for my, a faint chance for me out there, but I made the choice to rob a corner store that day instead of getting down on my knees and lifting my arms up towards heaven.
And so I sat down on some industrial metal vat and let my head pound against the metal building behind. Good old metal building. I wish I knew what was inside of you. What if I was someone else? What if I was anybody else? I closed my eyes and sighed loudly, making sure everyone on the lot heard it. Who was I to take the blame? Byron sat next to me as usual and Ricardo awkwardly sat on the opposite side next to me as well, like he usually did after Jeffrey died. After Jeffrey was, murdered. Sun was rising, shined on my face. I tilted my head and it warm my skin. Sun heads west and comes from east. It never goes north, it never comes to me. It had never occurred to me that I could have gotten myself a better life, because anything more than the current moment sounded so surreal, so superficial. So far away, somewhere never to be attained. Search for the answers I knew all along, I was never going to get out alive.
He was different, Ricardo, since then. I guess maybe it was partly my fault too. I always held him accountable. I needed someone to blame. I needed someplace to run away. Balance. Solace. Two things I desperately needed. Two things nobody had provided. Not since Jeffrey died. There’s nothing left to lose, the inner war never ends. No more and no less, I couldn’t forget but I couldn’t bear to face the truth either. There were never any secrets between this gang, what was yours was mine and what was mine was yours. Down to the most intimate of details, but I could never manage to speak to anyone about Jeffrey. Nobody dared to speak his name. And then there was Rob, secret was his middle name. My hands shook and my bones trembled. Why? I guess they had never really stopped. The factory. The factory. Oh, the factory. It’s a hard life, hard life to live. I couldn’t remember his last words. Did I want to? If only things hadn’t always been so blur and grainy. There wasn’t a single day that went by where I didn’t think of Jeffrey. Everything reminded me of him. Almost three years to the day, the memories didn’t fade away. The resentment I felt, and the guilt, always asking myself why.
Why Jeffrey? Why did it have to be him and not me?
“So, how much money do we have left?” Shany asked in her little French accent, interrupting my crazy train of unsolicited thoughts.
“Enough for the weekend, but we might as well get some more now.” Ritchie replied. “Are you in Rob? Ana and Eddie are already in for today.”
“Tomorrow night, okay?” he proposed.
And so it was. Tomorrow night. Saturday night. Despite the harsh economic times people were always out on Saturday nights. It would be too easy to break in, ransack and leave. Perfect. In the corner of my eye I swore I caught Rob staring in my direction but did nothing about it. Did nothing but dismiss it. Rob was a master thief, already having killed multiple people in the line of duty he was also a master murderer. Especially good at covering up the tracks. The perfect soldier.
“Why don’t we just pick up one of them hookers, steal her money and deposit her back on the street?” I proposed, “It’ll be quick, painless for everyone and I mean, seriously, they make thousands every day.”
Nobody replied, so I continued.
“Nobody cares about them, at least I don’t.”
Byron shot a sympathetic look at me. The kid had some insane ideology that I was depressed but they truth was that it was nothing but apathy. Apathy for everything around me, especially the hookers on the streets of New York.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe they are just like us?” Byron spoke softly to me.
“Say that again?” I wasn’t following.
“And what about them?”
“Did it ever cross your mind that maybe they sell their bodies to make it by? Just to survive one more day? Like we have to steal in order to live through one more night?”
“What are you getting at by telling me this?”
“That maybe they put their lives on the line and worked just as hard as we do to get that money.”
“Nobody said you needed to participate good Christian boy.”
Byron’s eyes were full of sympathy but I had none. I need to live. I need to survive. I need to make it through yet another night just as much as they did.
“You know that I do this because I love you Drift,” Byron’s gentle voice was only audible to me.
“And how the hell does you preaching about how Jesus is the savior and all that crap and turning your back around and robbing people at gunpoint make you the person to look over me?” I angrily snapped back at him who was taken aback by my outburst. “There is no love in crime and murder Byron, none!”
“You don’t understand!”
“What is there to understand Byron? If you’re such a man of God then why don’t you turn yourself into the police and make sure all of our sorry asses get the life sentences we so justly deserve?
“It’s because I love you Ana! I am sacrificing myself, my life and my convictions so you can still have a chance at life. I know I am living in sin, we all are, but you still have a chance and I want to give it to you!”
“I have a choice Byron, and it’s a choice I made a long time ago.”
I had lost faith in humanity a long time ago. Or maybe it wasn’t so long ago? Jeff was human, and Byron was human, but apart from them I could only see monstrous shadows on metal walls. Eddie appeared to be decent, but none of us really knew him that well. And looks are very deceiving. Ricardo was a cold-hearted son of a bitch and so was Rob. Nick wasn’t too different apart that he was a little more easygoing than the rest of us. Shannon, well, she just blended in… like grains of sand on the beach, they are all the same… just a grain of sand on the beach. Another drop of water in an endless sea. None of them really matter in the scope of all of them but it’s each individual molecule steaming from them all that make them all.
As I pondered my solitude and dark brown eyes faced me from each direction, Fred and Ebony arrived to break the cycle. Ebony’s company didn’t really bother me, but I hated Fred. Always did and probably always will. He was too much like Rob, minus the egoist trait. Little Ebony — or not-so-little Ebony — wasn’t such a bad person. The 5’8” green-eyed eighteen-year-old from Layton, Utah had only been with us for a year. At 130 pounds with shoulder-length caramel brown hair, she could be a successful businesswoman. We were pressuring her to attend college in the fall but she was unsure of what she wanted to be. So we let her be. As for Freddy Babineaux, the twenty-two-year-old Yonkers resident reminded me a little too much of Rob. At 5’10” and 145 pounds with blue eyes and medium black hair, he could’ve had it all. But oh no, had to get into all of this crap to protect his poor little sister. Go to hell.
“What’s hanging?” Fred asked as he sat down with us.
“A noose?” I snapped back.
“C’mon soldier! We’re all supposed to be brothers and sisters here!” Fred rambled on trying to make conversation with someone, anyone.
“I am not your sister and you can go screw yourself!” I snapped back again.
“You moody little snot!” Nick grunted.
For a fraction of a second I thought of getting up and slugging him in the face but I wasn’t in the mood for a brawl. I was hungry and I wanted food more than a fight.
“We’re gonna head out to find some money tomorrow night, and might as well find some tonight too,” Ricardo told him, “as for today, we’ll probably just screw around and sleep.”
“Why can’t we just sleep at normal hours like normal people do?” I interrogated.
“Do we look like normal people to you Anastasia?” Ritchie snapped back.
“Maybe you’re not but—” I continued before being interrupted.
“Okay guys,” Rob jumped in, “let’s just get this over with and so something while we’re all here.”
It only took a few minutes for Deanna Jane to arrive on her electric bike. Seriously, electric bikes? Defeats the damn purpose. The nineteen year old 5’4” and 119 pound African-American girl from Honolulu was Nick’s sugar baby. The boys liked her enough to bring her in. She looked relatively normal, and maybe that’s why they brought her in. The long-time Harlem resident had beautiful long black hair put into braids that were probably Nick’s favorite feature on his mistress. She was beautiful, she could have been a diva. And she was another one who made the choice to live a life not meant for her for some momentary gain, yet it was the only one she really could look forward to. Maybe once upon a time I enjoyed being a soldier but that enjoyment was no longer. Not like we were ever actual soldiers to begin with.
I sighed as I got up and walked around the lot, following the rails, until I reached the area where multiple storage containers were lined up. The vaults of various kinds were scattered here and there all over the property, like they had just fallen from the sky. An old truck was even on top of one of the containers. A rusty green — probably a Ford — from the 50s just sat on top of a container. It had been there since we hung out in the area, and nobody really knew how it go up there but it was probably the only vehicle left on the lot. At least I had never seen another one, apart from the few abandoned train cars here and there on the trails but there were mostly useless without a locomotive and they were all nicely latched up so we couldn’t break into them.
“I wonder how the truck got all the way up there on top of the container,” I whispered to myself.
I pressed my back against a big orange container and let myself slide to the ground. I grabbed some dirt and let it slip through my fingers. That day was coming too soon for me. I sighed again as I saw Rob approaching, walking by himself. What the hell did he want? I didn’t owe him anything. Don’t think I ever did. Then, behind him in the distance, I saw Eddie. Also walking by himself in my direction. Rob was over to the container in no time. He leaned against the container, supporting himself with one hand against it. He wore some black pants a a simple brown dressy shirt like he did most of the time. His small, circular face clean-shaven. His hair combed back neatly, looking like a lawyer.
“You know,” he began, “sometimes I wonder if you’re related to someone like Adolf Hitler or—”
“Am not!” I angrily snapped back, “but sometimes I wish I was just so I could go on a rampage and feel no mercy!”
“Hey! Calm yo tits Drift! You know it’s just a joke! It doesn’t mean anything!”
“Did you come all the way here just to annoy me about mass murderers and serial killers? Oh, I forgot, you’re one too.”
“Don’t get all revved up there, Jeff killed a lot of people in the line of duty too.”
In the line of duty.
“You open your mouth again and speak another word of Jeff,” I whispered through my tightly clenched teeth, “I swear I’m gonna break it.”
“Can’t you have a little fun sometimes girl?” His voice was sympathetic.
“Apparently not,” I whispered, looking away.
“You need to take it easy sometimes kid! We are soldiers!”
“You and your stupid Nazi Aryan Brotherhood gang ideologies, I am not part of it! I’m not racist. Byron, my only friend in life is of ethnic Jewish heritage.”
“You say you aren’t but I bet you enjoy it just as much as we do!”
I slugged him in the face. Matter settled. Eddie arrived before any other punches could be handed out.
“You guys okay?” Eddie asked.
I didn’t speak.
“Why don’t you ask Anastasia that question?” Rob proposed.
All eyes shifted to look at me.
“Yeah, I suppose,” I whispered.
“Suppose?” Eddie quizzed, “C’mon let’s join the others.”
Eddie had reached us at just the right time, he was probably able to hear us talking in the distance so he hurried up. He arrived at just the right moment because I was about to kick or punch or slap or just do something to Rob again that were would have both regretted. Eddie sat down quietly next to me, something he occasionally did when that was the only space available. Oddly enough, he seemed to have done it by choice, maybe just to get in between Rob and I. Since the crooked lawyer was leaning on the container on the opposite side, I supposed that’s what he had done. I assumed Rob didn’t mean to do me any harm but he sure never did any good either.
“By the way,” I spoke harshly to Rob, “you outdid Jeff twofold and going on three.”
“You’ll get there someday kid.”
And I walked away.
Jeff had only murdered four people, and not because he necessarily wanted to. Being such a small gang there had to be bloodshed. You had to prove to them other punks out in the streets that you were not to be messed with. Rob was at six victims and counting. Jeff hadn’t lived on the street because he wanted to. He hadn’t adopted the factory because he liked it or because he wanted to expose me to that kind of life. He did it because he had no choice.
In the streets of New York, if you didn’t belong to a gang you had a 100% chance of getting shanked, or worst. People got mugged, raped, murdered, kidnapped, and God only knows what else daily. It was just normal. Out in the streets there was no such thing as safety, not even the idea of safe to comfort you. You make your own safety, you defend your own turf. That’s just the way it was and if you wanna survive you’re just gonna have to put up with it.
In the harsh conditions of the godless streets of New York, you did what you had to do to survive, no questions asked.