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One for the Money

1:30 p.m. At the top right corner of Marlena’s picture window, the men’s feet appear next to the wheels parked on the embankment. Great-looking sneakers, Nike, Reebok. You can see from the feet that some of the men are gathered in small groups, and more are walking down the path that snakes from the upper right corner of the window to the lower left. Somewhere out of sight the path stops at the back door of the apartment building. During the next two hours, four or five of the couple of dozen men who walk down the path in their sport sweats, Rolex watches glinting on their wrists, will knock at Marlena’s door. While at certain hours Marlena and the two young women who live with her are careful whom they let in, the door is unlocked in the early afternoon when the worker bees visit the hive. It’s a peaceful domestic time. Men are checking in at all the apartments with fists full of money and hugs for their babies.

“Give me some of that. I need it,” Marlena says to Leroy. He fingers out two 20s from the fan of bills in his hand, while his story goes on with laughter and hype. “I’m a house boy, not a corner boy,” he’s saying.

“We need to talk,” Marlena says to the elegant older man who enters next. They retreat to the kitchen, he calmly questioning, Marlena intensely explaining. As they emerge, Marlena slips some bills into the pocket of her slacks. “It’s hard,” she says. She’s looking at the kidlings who bounce on piles of clothes to be laundered, heaped by the door. The little ones weep and push and play, and are kissed and whirled by the men who are their fathers. Sternly, the women hand them crackers and cheese and soda pop and shout midcourse corrections.

The thin young man who next comes through the door opens the cage with the ferret in it, the ferret he calls Marlena in honor of the lady of the house. He strokes the ferret’s head, putting it into a furry trance. He changes the water. A merry little girl, braids bouncing, hugs his leg. He swings her up on his shoulders. He looks warily sideways at the other men. It’s a full house.

Marlena touches his arm: “Got something for us?”

Two for the Show

Russ has just hit town. Wakes up in the morning in his boardinghouse room, plaster dust drifting down. Not for long. Catch some work. He’s out of here next week. He’s a working fool, never been more than a day and a half without a job. He’ll do anything: heave trash, repair motors, construct sidewalks, clean carpets…always with an eye for the next better thing.

Russ is slim and hard, with a face that makes you whip around and stare a little. He seems ready to leap. His glance measures your height, weight, intelligence, and probable reaction time. One eye is hazel, the other turquoise. He is fully alive, on high alert. It is his shift.

Russ always comes back to D.C. from the Army, from Chicago, from Lorton. On any return, by Day 2 he has a job. By Week 2 he has a vivid, dark-eyed woman to walk with…always different women, but sisters in grace and beauty. By Week 5 he has a car and dough to show.

Then the terrible, driving anger comes, fights that turn into assaults that turn into standoffs and escapes, loss and arrests. So the wheel goes ’round again, and he disappears into Philly or Miami or Vegas or jail.

Three to Get Ready

Pearl, hollering, is crouched on the fire escape of an old brick building, a group home for the mentally ill. It seems that she’s been hollering a long time. Drawing close, I can tell that she’s hollering my name. “I was waiting for you,” she explains.

As we drive off together, Pearl leans across the hand brake and gear shift and looks deeply into my eyes. I try to keep the car on the right side of the road and to not lock into The Gaze. After some moments, she withdraws a few inches and makes the sign of the cross on my right hand.

Confused, I break the silence. “By the way, did you join that job training crew?”

“I got a job.”

“Good! Doing what?”

“I work for God.”

The car wobbles a little as I think about this. “What do you do for God?”

“I help choose who gets in, who stays out.”

I look at my right hand. “Did I get in, then?”

“Uh-huh.”

Hey! Good work!CP