If the driver had looked, even for a moment, L.T. would have waved him off, said it was the wrong bus, he was waiting for the No. 44 to Queens. And no doubt about it, one glance would have convinced the driver that L.T. was right and to snap the doors shut. Better to keep trouble off than to let it on. But the man didn’t look. He just opened the doors, muttered something about the No. 9 to South Bronx, and then glanced off to the left, his head doing a bob-and-weave, checking the traffic in the side mirror.
Satisfied, L.T. reached for the rail with his clean hand, pulled up. A sharp pain bit into his side, and a fresh layer of sweat broke out across his forehead. He blinked his eyes clear, took a deep breath, and climbed up the stairs, his jaw clenching with each labored step. From his jacket, he fished out a Metro Card and dipped it into the fare box, careful not to touch anything else. The sight of blood, whether on his hand or smeared against the equipment, would have raised questions—it might even have stopped the bus—and and right now all he wanted was to get home.
Of course, once home Mama would probably give him the business, say how she knew it would happen sooner or later. And like always, he’d tell her to shut up. He didn’t start it. That part of his life was over now.
Stuffing the card back into his pocket, L.T. turned to the aisle and froze as the strident cry of a siren wailed a few blocks away. Reaching inside the other pocket, L.T palmed the Browning .380 pistol. He didn’t want to shoot anyone else tonight but would if it came down that way. The gun was another thing Mama would yammer on about. Why was he carrying? He forget the law? And again, he’d tell her to shut up. What did she know? The past behind him or not, the street still carried its own set of rules. And besides, it wasn’t like the law did him any favors. At twenty-three, he’d already spent four months in jail, then two years in prison. At Rikers, it was bad enough listening to the jets taking off from La Guardia—the sound of freedom; but then the stuff they did to him at Sing Sing, and not just the convicts either, was enough to know he didn’t want to go back. He would just as soon jack the bus, drive it off the Whitestone Bridge and down into the East River. Either way he’d be dead, and that seemed more appealing than wasting away inside a cell, becoming somebody’s lockup whore.
A few seconds later, a police cruiser rushed by, its lights bathing everything in bursts of reds and blues. As the car sped away, beyond 178th and on toward East Tremont, L.T. released his breath and almost laughed. Hearing the siren, he’d forgotten that the Browning no longer had any bullets. Just who was he going to shoot with an unloaded gun?
Stepping forward, he passed a woman who sat alone. Deep lines plowed through the rich earth of her forehead and hair the color of asphalt and snow curled tight against her head. She glanced up, and he said, “What’re you looking at?” the tone as hard as a brick. The last thing he needed was an old broad getting nosy. She quickly looked away.
Walking the aisle, his pace slowed, his feet feeling heavier with each step. Five rows beyond the old lady, he finally spotted an empty seat. He sucked in air and held it, easing down, but it did no good. The pain sliced at his side again like razor blade cuts.
The bus powered up and pulled away from the curb.
L.T. leaned his head back, closed his eyes. All he wanted after work was to spend a little time with Laqesha. Which, when he thought about it, were two more things that he could point out to his mother. If a girl and a new job didn’t prove he had changed his ways, then what would? Mama would care less, though. In fact, she would probably say, “Uh-huh, a new job doing what?”
“A short order cook at Big Lou’s Bar and Grill.”
She would grunt then. “That’s what you get.” For wasting your life, she would mean.
Mama wouldn’t much like Laquesha either. What kind of woman goes shopping for a man inside the joint? Weren’t there other ways to find a husband? He admitted there probably were; but hey, he wasn’t going to turn a girl away just because she found him in a cell instead of the church.
The message Laquesha left on Mama’s answering machine said to stop by her place at eight. Like usual, they would grab some burgers, a couple of beers, and maybe watch something on the tube. That was a great idea, except she never showed. An hour later, Laquesha still not home, he decided to take a walk. And that’s when he ran into the two dudes. They drove by in a low-riding Bonneville, the spoke wheels as gold as the rising sun. Instead of going on, though, they pulled over to the curb and stopped. The blue bandanas told him all he needed to know.
The first one climbed out of the passenger’s seat. “Where you think you going, Blood?”
L.T. reached into his jacket. “I’m just walking here. I don’t do that stuff no more.”
The second one stepped around the front of the car, all confidence and attitude. “Yeah?” he said. “Then why you showing the tat on your neck like you still do?” And before L.T. could react, the punk pulled a gun.
L.T. jumped back. He jerked the .380 out and fired. He pulled the trigger again and again until nothing else came out. When it was over, the two gang bangers were on the ground and L.T. was on his feet, running. It took three blocks to realize he’d been hit, a couple more to feel the blood creeping down his leg.
The No. 9 slowed down and made a left turn. His insides screamed, the pain feeling like somebody stabbing him repeatedly. He squeezed his eyes tight and saw sparks of white light. Just then, a cough seized him. His hand shot up, and sparks of white light jumped before his eyes. The world tilted then, and everything came up. He wasn’t sure what exactly—he hadn’t eaten anything since lunch—but something came up anyway. A strange taste covered his tongue. Like the days when he used to stick pennies in his mouth so he wouldn’t lose them. He pulled the hand away and found it wet and sticky. Confused, he looked at both hands and then tried to wipe them off on his shirt, only they came back more wet and sticky than before. In fact, he was covered in it.
He grabbed at the seat in front of him and pulled up, but his hand slipped on the seat and L.T. fell into the aisle.
Somebody said, “You okay, man?” the voice sounding far away.
Tears welled up in L.T.’s eyes as he thought about what Mama would say, him falling down, messing up his clothes. Didn’t she raise her boy better than that?
Again, he heard her voice. He could do whatever he wanted—change his clothes, even grow out his hair; there was no going back to normal, though. He’d always be what he was, and that was trouble.