You’re rigged, the Converses, the Levis, the fresh Polo. None of them own Polo like you. A little gold on the wrist. A little gold on the neck. A little gold hoop earring she gave you. The SF Giants hat. SF being exotic to the local know nothings.
“Sup,” you say. You are on your game and those no pony boys do not have it.
Two of them circle Diggity Douglas as if D2 is something. As usual, they’re on The Corner in front of the Royal Farms store.
“Keith, where my fries?” Diggity Douglas says. He named himself Diggity. He thinks it sounds ghetto. Those two anteater looking boys snort, them with pants pulled low, white mommy washed undies. That’s all right. McD’s is keeping you in Polos.
“You the man of men,” you say. He doesn’t understand you’re corkscrewing it. You read D2’s mind: he thinks, Everybody knows I’m a pony. But he’s a no pony. No ponies need two chuckleheads saying all the time, You the man, D2.
“What you up to now, Keith?” he says to you.
“Up to the market, D2. You know, chillin.”
“Naw, man, we got a thing. You in?” D2’s always trying to act black.
Grinning no ponies look at me.
“What’s that?” you ask.
“I got that part,” you say. Last time they had a thing, you nearly got busted for a B&E.
One of the no ponies says to you, “Naw, man, you just got to come along with it.” His black is worse than D2’s. He pounds five with his knucklehead sidekick no pony. Grinning like they think they’re Scarface twins.
But you’re thinking, the world is your no pony, you two saltshaker no counts.
“I got to go,” you say.
D2 starts talking behind his hand at the two slurping ninny no’s, but you gallop away with the clippity-clop stride you got going, right leg in front, holding onto the reins. You hear them behind you while you cross in front of the fire station.
D2 and the twin zeros are laughing, grabbing their package, yelling out, “Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump.”
You don’t do no running, though. You gallop.
Thick neck sitting on a lawn chair in the fire station says, “Wrong with you, boy?”
“Nothing officer, I got a distress call, which I’m tending to right now.”
Thick neck turns to fellow fireman laughing, mashing up a Subway sandwich with bonus mayonnaise in his big open mouth.
That clippidy-clop starts to pressure up your legs, so right at the market you walk like a cowboy pony, open the doors, and step in.
Always happens that the Korean guy at the first counter puts an eyeball bullet through you. You didn’t mean nothing stealing, borrowing, an orange from him last winter. You give him a wave. He reaches down and picks up a sawed off baseball bat and taps the end into his cupped hand. He’s got some gold in them teeth. Wife doesn’t like you either, always bundled up in a puffy coat, looking at you like she got her foot caught in a bear trap. You give her a wave, too. You don’t carry hard feelings.
You cowboy walk up and down. You saw Tina in here last week. She got all jealous of Marnette and the SF hat. You want to pony on that, see what comes up.
For show, you stop and do a feet planted white man’s boogaloo dance right in the middle of the aisle. Shimmy up and down, poke butt out doggy like, reach for the stars, throw out some peace signs, do some standing swim moves. For all the customers. You can’t help it. If you’re white, you’re white. Some son takes a picture. Two brothers off to the side laugh, hold onto each other. “Yo, let’s bring him to the club, yo.”
You go up to the meat guy, big angry volcano head. Apron splashed with meat drips.
“Um, I want one of those. I like my pork chops thick.”
He doesn’t like you either. You heard him call you a little shit last week to the flower lady next stall over. He doesn’t recognize you. You’re just a little shit to him. He wraps up the chop. Writes on the white paper. He flops it on the counter. “A half-pound cut of baloney,” you say. Repeat of the same wrapping up business. He flops it harder. “A pound of that salami there. Don’t bother to cut.” He starts talking to himself. Then your last order you say, “Quarter pound masserella cheese thin sliced.” You say masserella. By this time he’s sniffing and cursing at you in Greek. Finished, he rings it up. You say, “Put it on my tab.” He starts to step around the counter and you bolt up the aisle, coursing through the Dawn of the Deads who’re eyeballing foods and flowers, knowing he can’t leave his station because a buzzard might step back there and steal his prime beef.
You chill at the right angle of the market, see his bald head retreat back to Meats, and over near Candies you hunt for Marnette who gave you the SF hat which you make sure to cock off center just right, not lip it all the way to the side like no ponies, but right smart teetering it just enough.
You see her with Dragon. The one with the eye make-up, hiding behind a veil of straight black hair, wearing black fingernail polish and tie up boot shoes. That little vampire, she hates everyone, especially ponies.
You do your clippity-clop over to them where they’re sitting at a table. The owner guy offers a deal called the Grand Finale: fill up a cross-sectioned dish with ten kinds of candy. She chose all the number ones: peanut clusters, M&Ms, Goobers, turtles, corn candy, Reese’s. Bunch of others.
You slide down in a seat. You take a turtle. You try for an angle.
“You got my favorite kinds right here. How’d you know I was coming over?”
There’s some wrong air pressure. Dragon cocks her head. Marnette cocks her head. You see that Dragon took lead spot. Last week Marnette had it.
Dragon says, “What’s up with you?”
I touch my SF cap. “What’s up with you?”
“Marnette, what’s up with you?”
“Nothing, Keith. Why do you keep asking me that?”
Well for one damn thing you’re my hook. If you and her didn’t have this Dragon thing between you.
“Saw D2,” you say. Why girls think anything of him escapes me.
“What’s he up to?” says Marnette.
Dragon rolls her eyes left.
“Not much. What are you two up to today?”
“Not much,” says Marnette.
Dragon rolls eyes right.
You realize this is a science project that stopped working. You decide to blow it up.
“So I was wondering Marnette, if you wanted to go to the senior prom with me.”
Both of them bug eyes at you.
“Keith. Senior prom? What grade are you in now?”
Dragon says knife cool: “I don’t see you getting your high school diploma.”
“I don’t see Marnette and me inviting you over to our house when I’m barbecuing chicken leg and thigh pieces,” you say. “When we’re both finding her noodle salad extra delicious because she made her own vinegar sauce.” You’re an Indian seeing trails invisible to the white man. You’re remembering a noodle salad from the family reunion four years ago.
Marnette’s eyes lock into yours for a mad second and leave Dragon drifting in the clouds, but girl power pulls hard.
“Wanker,” says Dragon.
“And for a minute,” you say, grabbing up another turtle, “I was going to name our first baby after you, but I don’t think it would do well in the world with the name Hater. And Marnette, now that you and Dragon are a couple…”
“It’s not like that Keith.”
“Now that you two are a thing together, every time I look into the eyes of another woman I’ll see you. ‘Cause you were my first, Marnette, and you were the best.”
Dragon slides her eyes to Marnette, wondering if in fact you broke the cherry together because Dragon, she still has hers. She wants to be Big Chief Medicine Woman bringing news to everybody. You still have yours, too, but she doesn’t need to know that.
“First what, Keith?” says Marnette breaking the spell.
You bow your head then bring up some sad eyes and look at the Dragon then Marnette. “First person who tore this right here up from the root,” you say pounding your chest twice with your fist. “You broke my heart, baby,” you say.
“I did?” she says.
Marnette loves you, man. It’s deep.
“It’s never going to be the same for me.” You drop your head. You manage to say, “I’m giving up on girls till I can heal.” You wait maybe five seconds then you turn to Dragon and say, “Can I get your number? I’ve always had a thing for you.”
Dragon is alpine cool. She lives above the tree line. She turns to Marnette real slow like she’s memorized her lines. Like she knows the scene already. She says, “I told you he was a Johnson.”
Up you go, snatch one last turtle, and clippity-clop away. Pony boy, pony boy. You’re thinking that was supposed to be fun, riding the goof wave, saluting to the no ponies. But it doesn’t have any traction.
You clippity-clop south on Falls Road. You got that weird no pony feeling. What’s your new grip going to be? You’ve been searching for a grip. Skateboarding? No. Guitar? No. Chess master? No.
On the way down Falls Road, you think about all them feet around you. Your father grew toenail fungus all his life. Followed him into the coffin. You wonder about the corns, the ingrown nails, the plantar’s warts. You wonder about cracked heels and flat feet. You wonder about foot bruises and bone breaks and picture in your mind people walking with pain spiking up their legs, people wheezing into cloth couches at night crying because their feet hurt so bad, but they can’t quit because they’re taking care of Alzheimer parents or little kids. You’re thinking, every one of these old ponies was once upon a time your age. It hits you like a bird in the face. Every single one of these fat, ugly, sour-ass, sagging flesh, mumbling-to-themselves humpty-dumpties rolled at your age.
You never thought of it before. You can’t stop seeing all those feet in your mind hiding their ugly monkey faces inside of shoes and sandals. You shift over, look left and right, and toss it into the curb.
You get away quick as possible. Last week D2 got snagged by some cops for puking his nasty because of vodka. He got all smart-ass up on them, and they made him sit right down in it till he stopped yapping.
Where did your pony go?
You get to 3rd and Falls Road and look all the way down to The Corner, and of course D2 is there with his satellites and all the other members of the beehive. You think about clippity-clopping over there to laugh and watch the world with them, but you aren’t feeling it. You circle down the road one more block, go up the alley off of Falls, turn at the T, go down one block, then slip in through the back door where your cousin Mike told you you could crash whenever and forever.
In the basement, go to the left, and there’s your rollaway cot in the little slot off the furnace, near the washer and dryer. You got a mobile rack where you hang your Polos; you got your child’s dresser where you store your Levis; you got your boxes turned open end sideways where you line up your shoes.
You lie down. You realize that the turtles didn’t actually make you full. You know you got burgers galore when you show up for work tonight at McD’s but right now you need to forage. Up the stairs and there she is, Auntie. Smoking at the table staring into the back yard.
“You got any money?” she asks you. You work it with Mike. You give her thirty a week and she’s cool, Mike says.
“I paid you already,” you say.
“You got any money?” she asks again. “Food don’t grow on trees.”
You want to remind her that some food actually does grow on trees, but, you know, you got a cot downstairs. You’re not on the street anymore.
You lay a fiver by her milk filled teacup on a saucer, and retaliate by making a bigger than usual double decker sandwich. Turkey, mayo, yellow cheese, bologna, tomatoes, salami. You pour yourself some orange soda. You pile potato chips in a bowl. You retreat to the basement, sit on your cot, and stare to your right where their cat lies on the washer looking at you.
You done get done and then take a power nap. You grab your McD’s uniform shirt, tuck in into your backpack, and hit the streets.
Up near the Royal Farms is the center of the hurricane. The Corner.
You start clippity-clopping. You can see Diggity D still hanging, must have been up there for eight, nine hours. Where else is he going to go? You walk the line, glance in a couple of stores.
Before you go too far you step into 7-Eleven. You’re trying to work coffee into your schedule. Mike tells you to drink it black, that way you keep it simple. It’s part of staying on point. It’s walking the tightrope.
You look at all the pots on all the burners. All the people over there snap-shaking little colored packets of sweeteners, staring into space. All of them pouring milk or cream or dairy flavored something into their coffees. Meantime, you get yourself a small cup, pour from a topped off pot, walk over to the counter, pay. You’re out the door. You’re a pony. You walk with the wind. You try to tell Mike about being a pony. He tells you, you say one more word about ponies, your cot is gone.
You walk up to the corner Royal Farms. Cars gliding by on the Strip, what 3rd Street is called. Crosswise from north, too.
You don’t feel like talking to D2, but of course he feels like talking to you. You keep nodding at him. He finally drifts off, turns his attention to a couple of zero ponies come up to him like he’s the Man, so now he’s got something to do with himself.
You lean against the corner of the building, watching. You hear background back of the background. You’re sipping coffee. Two girls go by and puncture your world with their eyes. But you’re inside the zone, watching.
Birdbrain with a homemade tattoo on his neck comes up and smacks you on your back.
“Keith,” he says.
The zone goes away. You land back outside the Royal Farms store looking at Birdbrain with his hand out, wearing that filthy sailor hat he’s had on his head for a year.
You give him a oner.
“That all you got?”
“Birdbrain,” you say. You look at him from a place he can read so he walks off. You been giving him oners almost every day. They know you have a job. They come up to you.
You think to yourself, what’s the new grip? What’s it going to be?
You hang for a while, take the #27 up to McD’s. Work your shift. You’re back at the cot about 11:30 p.m., and you’re still thinking about the next grip, but you’re not in synch.
It’s Saturday and you pop awake about 4:30 in the a.m. You can’t wrestle it to the ground. It’s eating you. It’s a termite boring through a tree stump. You have nothing. She threw you out and you hear D2 and his no ponies laughing in your head because for a month you had to sleep down near Falls River underneath the overpass. Then you had to shift it up into the woods because two simpletons come up on you middle of the night to kick the shit out of you, no doubt tipped by D2, for laughs. You remember when D2 thought it was the funniest when you couldn’t find a place to wash your clothes.
Mike came back from a construction job in Pennsylvania, found out you were in orbit, told you you got a cot long as whenever. One condition: pay Auntie $30 a week and stay out of her way best you can. No telling about her.
You got it farking bad this morning. You get up, but it’s eating your chest, right behind the bone. You go into the bathroom, wash your face, fold a towel, and cry into it like a no pony. You get your key and slip out the back door and wander around till there’s nothing left in your legs. You come back and manage to crash on the cot after checking to make sure Mike got back. He told you you and him would hang today.
“You still sleeping,” he says from across the basement.
You must have dozed hard. You check your watch. It’s 9:30.
“No,” you say, but you were. “No, just laying out here, you know, up since dawn, waiting for you to get up so we can start the day.”
“Hah,” he says.
You hear him settling in.
“Get out here,” he says. He’s in the finished part of the basement, watching TV, no doubt eating a bowl of cornflakes. He stacked a refrigerator with breakfast food for him and you downstairs so you can avoid Auntie in the morning. His room is down here too, across the floor from your cubbyhole near the washer and dryer.
You go out. The light bothers your eyes.
“Fill up,” he says. You pour yourself some cereal with milk. He’s got an old coffee percolator plugged in. Must be from last century.
You and him watch ESPN.
“What you got going today? You working?”
“No,” you say. You don’t tell him, but you switched shifts with a girl making eyes at you so you could have the day. Promised her you’d take her out. It’s a one-timer for you. “I’m free. We’re hanging out. Unless you know, you’re so PW’d you got to get going somewhere.”
“Hah,” he says. His girlfriend’s a nightmare. You hope he sheds her. Soon. “She don’t know I’m back.” He cuts his eyes over to you. You just been asked to promise. That woman, she’s got radar all over. She’ll find out he’s home. Give him hell about it. You know he’s cogitating on it, but he’s giving you the day.
“Naw,” he says, “I feel like hanging out. How old are you anyway?”
“Hah,” you say, imitating him. “Old enough.”
He scratches his head. “You finishing high school, right?”
“Maybe,” you say.
“Don’t bullshit me,” he says.
“Of course,” you say. You try to keep it in your pocket, but you get A’s and B’s. You got a teacher told you he could help you get into UMBC. You got dreams. You don’t let anybody know that, though. Imagine D2 finding out you got UMBC in your headlights?
“That G.E.D.,” he says. “I’m glad I picked it up, but it don’t have the same git of a high school diploma. Just not the same.”
“So I heard,” you say, wanting him to keep talking. He looks all tired and beat up. Old.
“I’m going to be thirty-one next month,” he shakes his head. “I stand around with a bunch of other morons on highways with cars gunning past us at 75 miles an hour. Grit spraying my face all day. Clothes stink. Listening to fat ass bosses tell me how to flatten gravel.” He pulls his hat off and scratches his head. “I need another gig, Keith. This one’ll kill me.”
“You’re going to start those electrician classes, I thought,” you say.
“She’s been giving me hell. Telling me we need a house.”
“You’ll get a house for her,” you say. “You need your electrician’s license. Then the house.”
He sniffs, crosses his legs at the ankles. “You know, that’s right. That’s right.”
You helped him line up the classes at a good trade school last semester. He didn’t pull the trigger.
“How long’s it going to take you?” you ask. “You got it in your pocket in a year.”
“That’s right,” he says.
You can hear that dehumidifier humming. You go over, switch it off, pull the pan out, take it over to the laundry sink and dump the water. You put it back and fire the machine up again.
“I’m not complaining,” he says.
“Yes you are,” you say.
He laughs. “I’ll tell you, I’m going to be an electrician this time next year. I’ll tell you what. That’s in the books.”
“That’s right,” you say. You’re feeling hollow inside. It makes no sense. You think, Mike can’t give up the tiger. That can’t happen.
You watch ESPN a while. Auntie is upstairs walking back and forth from the front window to the back door. Once in a while you can hear her talking to herself. She used to have a dog follow her around, Mike tells you. Died four or five years ago. She still talks to him.
“Seriously,” he says. He looks over at you. He’s sitting in a La-Z-Boy he got third-hand from a Salvation Army store. Buddy of his works there. They hauled it out the back door an hour after somebody brought it in. “Electrician in a year. That will happen.” He sniffs. “Damn right it will.”
You’re getting the willies. Your heart is pounding. You’re looking for a day of hanging out, slicing the wind. You’re hoping for some laughs.
You watch TV. Drink coffee like he likes to. You’re riding the cloth couch, slunk down, wondering if you and Mike ever going to make it out the door. You want a day outside. You were hoping to get Mike to take you down to Annapolis. Never been there before. It’s thirty or forty miles away, which sounds like a winning ticket to you. Get the hell down the road somewhere. Or maybe you could talk him into going to D.C. Maybe you could see some different girls for a change. You wouldn’t mind going up into the Washington Monument. Last time you went to D.C. was in elementary school.
He sees you squirming around, itching to get going. He’s giving you eye slides. Finally, when you’re ready to call it a day and get on out of here yourself, he says, “Damned, Keith, I nearly forgot. Stay here a minute.”
He goes into a back storage room right off the TV den and wheels out a blue stunt bike. Goes in and gets another, this one green. Both brand new.
You sit there. The room spins in a carnival ride upside down then back right again. You grip the armrest.
“I figured you and me, we need to do some riding.”
Your mother told you she threw your bike in a green dumpster – nothing but spite – then told you to get the hell gone. Mike knew that bike of yours was the thing got you up in the morning.
“Which one you like?” he asks.
You can’t talk. You stand up. You swallow and you try, but it’s a zero moment.
“I think the blue one’s yours,” he says.
They’re both leaning against the beam down there. You go over to him and hug him hard as you can. You wipe your eyes with your wrist.
“Come on,” he says. “Help me haul them up to the pickup. Let’s go on over to that park in Catonsville we went to last fall.”
All the structures in that park are made out of old tires and wood. Crazy slides and towers. Little forts kids run in and out of. Heaven for stunt riding.
We go outside and he makes a few adjustments on the seats, and you never touched such a perfect bike. He says, “Let’s get going.”
But you take off for a minute, pop a wheelie down near Nelson’s where the alley ends and gets wide so people can swing around in their cars. You jump up on a tree stump, bounce on the back wheel, jump down, and do front wheelie. He’s up there near the pickup truck laughing his ass off. You never felt the wind up in your hair like you do this minute. You never heard the world hum in your ears like a tuning fork.
You and Mike go over to the park. There’s even an off-road path that heads down a half mile into the woods, loops back and puts you in the park again. You get a few kids stop their bikes and watch you take picnic tables in one bounce. You turn over a wire trashcan and go from table to can to tire slide to fort roof without touching the ground. You ride up the side of a tree trunk, turn one-eighty, and head down. Mike, he puts on a show himself. You stop and watch him a while. When he rides down the path that heads into the woods, comes barreling back out of it with a smile on his face, laying back in a wheelie, you wish you could thank him.
That’s your new grip. The Share. That’s what you can do. It comes into your head like over a loudspeaker. The Share. Just like he did.
You ride until late, near dark. After you haul the bikes back into the house and order a pizza, sit and watch TV a while, you stretch out on the couch. You watch him look at his phone when it rings, but he turns it off before answering her. He gives you a wink, stretches his legs out on the coffee table and closes his eyes. It breaks your heart. You know his green bike’s still going to look new a year from now. But not yours.