Dark Places – A short story about a bad neighborhood
It was robbing season where I worked. Although I didn’t know why, it seemed to me a demonstrable fact that the warmth of summer somehow thawed the laziness of low-level criminals. Cops patrolled more often, random beatings became more frequent, and stick-up men looked for anything that shined with a focus that would be inspiring if it was directed at a book.
I don’t think Doug thought, or knew about, any of that though. In his typically unenergetic voice our manager asked us to work after closing time. The temptation of overtime pay was too much to resist and most of us stayed late, despite the dangers outside.
Me and the two other money-starved employees were told to clear out the sales floor of all merchandise. They were going to be waxed, or buffed, or both, and from what I gathered the flooring company offered a discount if they didn’t have to move anything. The amount they discounted was more than what would be needed to pay us to move stuff. The arithmetic probably took Doug all of three seconds. In accordance with his sound math we pushed carts of sleeping pills and dumped boxes of energy drinks into the gated lot behind the store. Aside from Doug, we all did the work on the cheap for the company – though every one of us thought we were getting over.
Overtime made Jackie stay, though barely. She told me she was a little scared of the neighborhood; she said she wasn’t sure if the gates were high enough to keep out the violence that the prospect of free pharmaceuticals might bring; we wouldn’t be leaving till 2:00 am and she whispered in embarrassed tones that she never liked being around past 10:00 pm. I grew up in the neighborhood though. I knew it like a close relative. And I knew that, at night, the gates would definitely not be high enough to keep out thieves for more than a few hours. Luckily, that was all the time we needed.
We emptied the store of all its unshelved items in under an hour. Doug sat in the manager’s office to organize paperwork and check his Twitter feed. With a box of unpacked cough syrup in my arms I snuck a peek of him looking through a Facebook page called “Big Ol’ Phatty.” He scrolled down its timeline, which was filled with a mix of candid and professional photos of women’s asses. Even in my passing glance I could see Photoshop at work. Someone was using smudge tools, alpha layers, lighting and darkening effects to carve out perfect butts that could never exist in the real world. Though I didn’t like it, I admired the fact that he was able to surf the net for borderline porn while I worked.
Outside, after putting down the last of the products, we waited. In folding chairs we removed from the break room, Jackie, Daryl and I sat around in anticipation. The waxer would soon be there to wax, and afterwards we would undo the last hour of work by putting boxes of product back inside the store. While sitting in the small lot we chit-chatted.
I hated the small talk but Jackie seemed uncomfortable being quiet, so she asked questions and made comments that I felt inclined to respond to. Daryl leaned back in his chair back and pretended to sleep. Though his eyes were closed I could hear Lil Wayne leaking out of his headphones and I could see his hands moving rhythmically in his baggy pants pockets as he drummed the background beat on his thigh. I had no excuse so I answered Jackie when she asked why I worked there.
“We did the work on the cheap for the company – though every one of us thought we were getting over.”
My answer was short, but true. I lived a few blocks away and they were hiring. The hours worked with my school schedule, but that was just a nice bonus. I told her there was no specific reason for me deciding to work there, at least no more than any other place that paid in U.S. dollars. She didn’t seem to understand. Her, all of a sudden, bluer eyes squinted a little bit and she told me that she started working there a few days ago because she had a duel major of pharmacology and business. She was too young for any internships, but since Doug was a second cousin she figured this would be a good substitute. She said some more things, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.
Jackie didn’t notice, and kept our conversation alive with naïve questions about the neighborhood, and what it was like growing up around here. I answered her questions with short sentences that said nothing important. Soon a van from the flooring service arrived.
Doug came out just as I unlocked the gate, letting the van drive in. The one-man crew hopped out of the driver side as soon as the car was in park. His light brown-hair was a tossed mess and his reddish beard was equally unkempt. His eyes shifted slightly from left to right and his uniform was stained in odd places. Judging a book by its cover I guessed that he probably stunk too. Doug was the one walking him inside, so I made a mental note to ask him about the waxer’s smell. These were the stupid things that filled my mind at midnight.
I sat back down and decided to have some fun with Jackie. I told her about the time I was robbed.
My classes finished early that day, but I was coming home late after stopping by a friend’s house to help him improve his shitty math skills. Real shitty. Shitty to the point where you wondered how he functioned in the real world. Had the streetlights been working they would’ve turned on a few minutes before I decided to take a short cut home through a church lot. I passed by three guys who were talking and laughing near a parked car that I assumed was theirs. I didn’t pay them any attention until I noticed, from the corner of my eye, one of them walking towards me from behind. I understood immediately what was going on and I ran. But of course, they caught up to me. One of them punched me in the back of the head and I fell right on the concrete sidewalk in front of the church. The second I was down I felt kicks and punches that I instinctively tried to avoid by curling up in the fetal position – my forehead touching my knees between my bent arms. I felt my book bag being pulled away and my pockets being dug into as they shouted a bunch of angry words. When they were done they walked away, leaving me bloody in front of the church steps. When I was sure that the group was gone I got up and walked home.
Jackie seemed shaken up by the story. In reaction I chuckled and told her that I lived in a dangerous area. She stopped talking and I took the opportunity to relax while the floor was being buffed or waxed.
We were about ten feet away from a gate that faced the sidewalk. Through it’s holes I could see people coming and going. The numbers of passersby were less than they were a few hours before, but the subway exit down the street still let out the occasional group of mainly Black folks. Jackie was scared of them. She didn’t know she was scared of them, and if confronted she would probably deny it, but she was. She was a little scared of me too. If I passed her on any given street or sidewalk, and she didn’t recognize me, her muscles would tense up and her mind would fill itself with the millions of police sketches she’s seen of scary men with dark skin and thick lips.
It was nothing though. I dozed off.
After sleeping for I don’t know how long, I woke up to the sounds of Doug and the floor guy arguing. I turned around to face them and saw Doug standing near the back exit with his head cocked to the side, looking annoyed. The floor guy was flailing his arms around and yelling at Doug about how he didn’t care what discount he was told, he would have to pay the bill. Dismissively, Doug said that it wasn’t his fault that the floor guy’s manager, or whoever, didn’t tell him what was going on. And it wasn’t his fault that the shady company paid commissions and not a salary. He said that in the end though he didn’t care and he wasn’t going to pay anything higher than the number he was quoted earlier.
The floor guy let out a sound like a growl mixed with a scream. He grabbed something from his belt and then stuck it in Doug’s chest, right below his left collarbone. The next second lasted a month and I could see the crazed look on the floor guy’s face. It was covered in sweat and twitching with a chemical rage I’d only seen once before – I was on the floor getting stomped on at the time. Jackie was screaming with shocked, wide-open eyes. Daryl was tucking in his chest with his shoulders heaved forward in a reflexive movement – as if catching an invisible football thrown low. He had his hand near his mouth, oh deep in an oh shit. Doug was silent. He only looked down in disbelief at the thing that was poking out of his chest.
The second after that second went by pretty quickly. After finishing his oh shit Daryl jumped out of his seat and rushed at the floor guy who was focused on the bleeding wound he had made in Doug’s body. With the strength of his whole upper body Daryl threw a quick punch that landed on the floor guy’s face. He fell backwards onto the asphalt and didn’t get up. Doug also began to fall, though a little slower. First he fell to his knees then he collapsed on his right side.
I ran to Doug to see if he was still breathing. He was. I pulled out my cell phone, dialed 911 then frantically looking Doug up and down while waiting for a response. What was sticking out of him was a slightly curved blade with a light brown wooden handle. Doug looked like he was trying to talk, but he just kept mouthing wet noises. Behind me I could hear Daryl call the floor guy a motherfucking dope fiend. I could also hear a crowd that had gathered by our gate, presumably from the train station, and almost certainly attracted by Jackie’s horror movie scream.
Jackie was yelling at me to take whatever it was out of Doug. I was about to when I heard someone from the crowd shouting at me not to. I looked for who that was and as I told the operator where we were I saw a tall man with dreadlocks right out side the gate. He shouted that if I took out the blade I’d cause more bleeding. My brain was overloading and I just fell on my ass. The operator told me to wait, and I did.
The man outside the gate climbed it until he was inside. He ran past Jackie to Doug and while looking at him much less frantically than I did, he told me he was an EMS worker. I just nodded in agreement. He breathed into Doug’s mouth and listened to the gurgling sounds that came up. He asked if anyone had a ballpoint pen or something. I handed him my Bic, which he snapped the ends of. He pulled out his own pocketknife and sliced into Doug’s chest a few inches below the blade. He stuck the hollow pen in the new hole and listened again to Doug’s breathing. He asked Doug if he was all right and Doug just looked at him for a moment or two. In a low whisper he told him no, not really, then smiled a little.
The EMS worker told me that since the wound was above Doug’s heart I should keep him propped up a little so the gash wouldn’t let out so much blood. As I lifted Doug’s back off the ground I could see Jackie walk toward us still scared out of her mind, but a level below screaming banshee.
We both looked at Doug who kept a slight smile on his face. Daryl was massaging his fist as he said that all of this was some crazy shit. Using different words Jackie said the same thing to the EMS worker who was slowly getting off his knees and back to his feet. He nodded in agreement. He said that no matter where you live crazy shit could happen. We could hear an ambulance coming as he sighed and said, “There’re a lot of dark places in this city. The most you can do is just try to your best to light’em up.”
*Images Courtesy Kris Van de Vijver