Ron and I crossed Clay Street near the row of boarded up townhouses. We stayed on the sidewalk, keeping an eye out for busted bottles or glass as we approached the T-Market, bobbing along to the beat from Ron’s boom box.
It must have weighed thirty pounds, that radio. Duel cassette and a five-band equalizer in the middle. Ron always had the newest tapes, too. His cousin was a DJ in Richmond and made these mixtapes, stuff we otherwise wouldn’t hear for months. The last one had this song called I’m Bad by LL Cool J. I’d never heard anything like it.
Mom made fun of me for liking hip hop. How I liked to stay up late and catch Friday Vids on channel 14. But she didn’t get it, and besides, her music was a drag–Air Supply and Reo Speedwagon, slow whiney stuff that droned on as she got wasted and cried over whatever sorry dude she was seeing. I liked music with a beat. I liked rhymes. I liked how hip hop flowed and snapped along like it was daring you to stay in your seat.
The first time I heard I’m Bad I got chills down my arms. Really. I was in my room, Mom was drinking with some friends and that song hit and I might as well have been inside that tape, running up down that Certron ribbon, the beat and the voice on my heals like a threat. And I all I could do was hope the ride would never end.
I caught up with Ron and we coasted past the abandoned brick factory that wasted an entire block of Clay Street. I checked for new graffiti or tags or any signs of life. Some kids at school were forever claiming to know an uncle or grandfather who’d died some awful death in that building. Said it was haunted. Probably lies, maybe not. Either way, looking through that rusty fence, I wasn’t about go climbing in to find out.
Our corner of Fairview was known for the bricks. That blackened stackhouse stood against the sky as our monument, the teeth-like shards of broken windows served as our warning, and the immovable darkness inside those old walls behind a rusted chain-link fence seemed to live in every man who’d walked into my living room.
The factory was our landmark. A big, tough, ugly, brick trophy we held up to prove how tough our neighborhood was. Bricktown. Enough said.
It was early but hot already. My back was drenched as we hit the hill and raced to the field behind Fairview Middle. Neither of us had a football so we leaned our bikes against the tree waited in the shade.
Ron set up his box and flipped the tape. Big Daddy Kane’s Raw lit up the morning.
I watched the equalizer pulse with the song, bobbing my head, wondering how Ron could keep up with Kane’s rapid delivery.
“…I appear right here, scare and dare, a mere musketeer that would dare to compare, I do declare…”
Ron was built like tackling dummy, but the dude could move. Dancing, football, whatever, he could take on two or three kids at a time throwing his weight around. Not only that, he was the best rapper in the school and the pencil fighting champion two years running. He also possessed the most lethal farts on the street.
And while Big Ron might clown me about my bike and my shoes like everyone else, he was also the one who’d stood up for me when I first started coming down to the field. Back when Kelvin used to call me trash.
I gazed out at our football field, mostly dirt and weeds sitting in the middle of a bumpy track. Two rusted out goal posts looked ready to fall at the end zones. None of it hardly mattered once the games started on Saturday mornings. You had to earn every raggedy inch on that field.
Fairview Middle School had a real football team, mostly eighth graders on the way to play for Stonewall High, but for kids like me—not big, average height, not much to look at—there wasn’t much chance of getting on. But now, with this Cop/Coach rumor about a city league team, there might be a chance to suit up and play some ball.
Ron hit a button killed the music. He pointed up to the hill where I spotted Kelvin and Benny from fifty yards away. They lived on Davis, a street over Ron and me. Kelvin was tall and cool, with that trademark strut to his steps. Benny was more compact, quick, and always ready to jet.
I stood up and waved for the ball. Kelvin saw me and cocked back.
Kelvin Rucker had a cannon for an arm, and throwing from the hill I thought the football might burn up in the atmosphere. I wiped my hands on my shirt, watching him step up and sling it into the sun. My legs shook as he followed through and let it go easy. Still, the ball sailed, and I took off right, then adjusted, but lost the sight of the ball as it whistled through the air and sailed over my head. Laughter hit the bricks.
Crap. I chased down the ball. If there was anyone you wanted to impress it was Cool Kelvin. He hardly ever sweat, even when it was a million degrees outside. Kelvin was that guy, the dude who got all the girls and caught all the breaks. He was always rocking something clean and fresh, like today with his sleeveless Etonic shirt and white windbreaker pants with the green stripe down the legs. Only Kelvin could wear all white to play tackle football.
Benny tore down the hill, leaving a trail of red dust, coming at me with a strut. He nodded my way. “Sup, Sam.” Then to Ron, “Okay, so where’s the police?”
We all glanced back to the hill. News that this new coach was a cop had set off alarms. Kelvin shook his head, clapped his hands for the ball. Ron, the source of all these new coach rumors–supposedly a family friend or something–fiddled with the radio. “He’ll be here.”
Benny snatched the ball from me. “Well, someone better call the cops, because you just got mugged.”
He tossed the ball to Kelvin and took off down the field. I didn’t even try to cover him. Benny was the fastest kid in Bricktown. Maybe only his older brother, an all-district running back at Stonewall High, was faster. Usually, when Benny touched the ball there was a 98 percent chance he’d score. Then he’d do the Skinny Benny, where he’d yank up his mesh shirt and suck in his belly so that it disappeared somewhere behind his ribcage. It was pretty freaky.
Kelvin hit Benny in stride and he tore down the sidelines for the end zone. I thought both these guys could make the middle school team. I couldn’t imagine anyone was faster or stronger.
Lagging behind was Cap Parker, looking ready to bruise someone. Cap was kind of a loner and watched a lot of professional wrestling. He had forearms the size of my legs. A Z-shaped scar just below his right eye. You always picked Cap first, that way you didn’t have to worry about him clobbering you.
Cap’s actual name was Capricorn. But not even Kelvin had the guts to call him that. He was a little bit off, if you get what I’m saying. Cap was a guy you didn’t want to fight, simple as that.
Not that there were a lot of fights down there, but it happened on occasion. Usually some pushing and cussing, and things died down. But let the fists go up and a ring formed as everyone crowded close, looking wild and smelling blood. Once this happened, there was no backing down and nowhere to run.
It was going on nine, and the rest of the crew was showing up. We usually got ten or twelve, maybe fifteen on a good day. We played five on five or six on six with Kelvin at all-time quarterback. But first, we had a routine.
Ron kept us all cracking up, doing the robot and then finishing with the shake-up. It usually took a good half hour of trash talk and your momma jokes before we could get started. But today was different, you could feel it. Everyone was laughing and playing, but everyone kept glancing up to the hill. We knew if this coach guy showed, we might have a pretty decent team.
No sign of him yet though.
The songs blended from one to another, cutting and scratching. Big Daddy Kane into the Juice Crew. I stood close by, knowing I had to get a dub of this tape. Ron fell back, cocking his head with his new moves. Kelvin waved him off. “Man, if you could only block like you breakdance, we might be all right.”
“Mrs. Harvey won’t forget me.”
I glanced around. The first shot had been fired. Ron turned and stepped up to Kelvin. While most of us knew better than to mess with Kelvin, Ron never had any problems mixing it up with him. “Whatever, your Mom’s teeth are so yellow she spits mustard.”
We all oohed. Kelvin looked around, assuming damage control. He rolled his eyes, curling his lip, waving a hand over Ron like a king would a peasant. “Yeah, your Mom’s teeth are so yellow, when she smiles traffic slows down.”
Some scattered laughter, though we’d all heard that one last week. Cracks were like bullets; you couldn’t reuse them. That’s why I always avoided your momma fights to begin with, because I could never remember how to say them or how to say them right. Besides, they didn’t bother me, none of the cracks they could say about my mom could be worse than the truth.
Ron hit back quick. “Your momma’s so ugly she tried to join an ugly contest and they said, ‘sorry, no professionals.’”
Boom. Two seconds while everyone absorbed the assault. MC Shan’s I Ain’t No Joke, thumped against the brick. A second later an explosion of laughter hit.
Kelvin’s face went tight. Someone fell out and rolled on their back. Kelvin, seeing he’d been KO’d, broke into a smile and walked off. You couldn’t beat Ron at this. He knew that.
The laughter died down. Benny nudged me. Up on the hill I saw him, our new Coach, maybe, with a kid hopping along at his side.
He had stride about him, the walk of a man who had somewhere to be but would be glad to talk to you all the same. He wore ball cap and carried a clipboard. I could already tell he was nothing like the men my mom brought home, and I wasn’t sure what to think about that.
Ron hit a button. Mc Shan bounced off the walls one last time and all went quiet. As the man and the boy arrived, I heard them talking about football plays and strategy. The guy sounded like he cared, too.
“That’s him,” Ron said as he started off towards the guy. He looked back again, waving us over. “Told ya’ll.”