Damn, he hated his life.
His hands were cramping like a son of a bitch. He’d been reaching and digging in this dumpster, trying to pull out as many aluminum cans as he could before some sawed-off loudmouth in greasy pajamas yammering something nobody could understand came out and screamed him away. He balanced himself on a row of wooden crates overflowing with fish heads, rotten cabbage leaves, moldy pork skins, and whatever else those funny-talking tiny people decided to throw out after cooking whatever slop they were selling as food in their jive-ass restaurant. He’d heard once that if you were around some strange stink and gulped in air real fast, your nose would overdose and just go numb. You wouldn’t smell it anymore. Well, next time some smart-ass tried to sell him that particular piece of dope, he’d have proof positive it was nothing but bullshit. He’d tell him about the time he mined a dumpster on a hot afternoon, surrounded by Chinese, Japanese, who-the-f***-cares-ese garbage and kept smelling the reek no matter how many deep breaths he gulped.
All to get paid.
Damn, he hated his life. Sometimes he thought no seventeen-year-old should have to work this hard just to put some food in his belly. It should be like in those TV shows. Kids his age talking sassy to their parents. Never getting the back of anybody’s hand for it, either. Wearing the clothes. Eating at a table. Talking about school while a mom fusses and a dad reads the newspaper and looks wise.
But thinking about what the TV had to preach wasn’t going to do him any good. His life was his life. Plain and simple. If he was going to eat, it would be him who got the food. And right now this dumpster was his best bet because eating took money. He couldn’t let stink, cramped hands, or bugs buzzing in his ears get in his way. He kept his mind focused and his eyes open for anything the scrap man would buy. A couple of big sacks of aluminum cans would get him lunch.
He’d made himself a promise when he walked away from his last foster home that it wouldn’t always be like this. Life just had to be more than getting from one meal to the next. Someday he would make it to a place where he could sleep at night, like normal folks. Not have to stay awake like some kind of vampire, waiting to sleep in the library or a gas station bathroom in the middle of the day. He would cook on a stove and make recipes like the ones he saw in those magazines at the checkout counter. Two-Hour Beef Stew! Feed Your Family with Ease. Yeah. He’d get there.
Once he did, he’d go see about talking to LaTonya. She wasn’t like the other girls hanging around these parts. LaTonya kept herself clean. Dressed so that her body parts weren’t hanging out for all the world to see. Wore little red clips in her hair. Held herself like a lady. Went to school every day and even read the books the teachers put on those lists. He’d tried to talk to her before, but she’d paid him no return other than a sweet smile as she walked away. Probably figured a juke like him wasn’t for her.
But she was wrong. He’d have a life real soon. She’d know what it meant to be a queen because he’d treat her like one.
All he needed was for the 97s to give him a chance. Those boys knew how to roll. Wasn’t a member of the 97s who didn’t walk proudly down any street on their turf. Wasn’t a person who didn’t step aside when a 97 wanted to pass. He made himself available to them. Giving any 97 who took the time a chance to get to know the kind of skills he had to offer. All he needed was one good turn of luck and they’d give him a shot.
But that was someday. Today he needed to eat.
He raised his head when the stench threatened to overwhelm him. Caught his breath, watching the neighborhood go about its day. The old men shuffling to the park passed right on by without so much as a care for another teenaged black boy scrounging for his meal. He didn’t mind. Let ’em play their checkers or sit around laughing about whatever good old days they lied about living. Same with the moms. Let the old ladies get on the buses and head on out to clean white people’s houses on the fancy side of town. He even let the bad kitties pass on by. Another day he might have spent some time stealing a look at their tight clothes and their sashaying walks. But not this day. Yesterday all he’d gotten to eat was a nuked-out bean burrito. Today was all about getting enough for a chicken sandwich. Side of fries if he was lucky.
Something caught his eye. Crossing the street in front of him. What the hell was that doing on this block? Didn’t that thing know any better? Dumb-ass Pico didn’t have the sense God gave a goose, walking in broad daylight this close to 97 turf. He stopped digging and watched the thing strut his way, like it didn’t have a care for anything.
Then came the sound everybody in this part of town knew meant it was best to duck or run. He decided to dive, pulling the lid closed over him. The stink didn’t bother him at all this time. He was happy to have the rolled steel of the dumpster standing between him and what was going down out on the street. He peered out the crack just under the lid.
The first shot brought the Pico down. He watched, ignoring the screams of two Beckys across the street. A second shot stopped the Pico’s arms and legs from twitching. He heard the squeal of tires but couldn’t see any car speeding away. He stayed in the dumpster until he was sure the shooting was over.
A voice deep inside him screamed that it was time to act. His big chance had been delivered to him. Less than fifteen feet away. He threw the dumpster lid open, jumped out, and ran to what could be his ticket to the show.
He knelt beside the dead thing on the sidewalk. No tag. He looked around the concrete where the thing lay all bloody and dead. No tag there, either. It might be a long shot, but what the hell. At least it was a shot. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket. Three slices later he had what he needed.
Then he stood.
Then he ran.
He was six blocks away, sitting on a bench in front of a tattoo parlor, when he heard the sirens headed south toward that stinking restaurant.
He wasn’t hungry anymore. He’d never be hungry again.