Dark Places | Fiction
This story was originally published by the literary magazine Foliate Oak in 2014. A full version of this short story appears in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.
It was robbing season where I worked. Although I didn’t know why, it seemed 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 knew or thought about any of that though. In his typically unenergetic voice, our manager asked us to work after closing time on a Friday night. The temptation of overtime pay was too much for our hungry wallets to resist and so most of us stayed late, despite the dangers outside.
Two other money-starved employees and I were told to clear the sales floor of all merchandise. It was 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 so 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. We all did the work on the cheap for the company—though every one of us thought we were getting over.
Overtime pay made Jackie stay, though barely. She told me she was a little scared of the neighborhood. She said that she wasn’t sure if the gates were high enough to keep out the wildness that the prospect of free pharmaceuticals might bring. We wouldn’t leave until two in the morning and she whispered embarrassingly that she never liked being around past 10 p.m. 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 a few hours was all the time we needed.
We emptied the store of all its unshelved items in under an hour while Doug sat in the manager’s office to organize paperwork and check his social media feeds. With a box of unpacked cough syrup in my arms, I snuck a peek of him looking through a Facebook page called “Big Ol’ Booties.” He scrolled down its timeline, which was filled with a mix of candid and professional photos of women’s asses. Even with my passing glance, I could see Photoshop at work. Someone was using smudge tools, alpha layers, lightening 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.
After setting the last of the products outside, 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, and afterwards we would undo the last forty-five minutes 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 and pretended to sleep. Though his eyes were closed, I could hear Dance Hall Reggae leaking out of his headphones, and I could see his hands moving rhythmically in his baggy pants pockets as he drummed the beat on his thigh. I had no excuse so I answered Jackie when she asked why I worked there.
My answer was short, but true. I lived a few blocks away and they were hiring. The hours worked with my hectic college sophomore 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 US dollars. She didn’t seem to understand. Her suddenly bluer eyes squinted a bit, and she told me that she started working there a few weeks ago because she had a dual major of pharmacology and business. She couldn’t get an internship as a freshman, but since Doug was a second cousin and could get her the job 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 East Flatbush and what it was like growing up around here. She lived with her nuclear family in Park Slope, where they owned a brownstone that had probably quadrupled in value since they moved in. Her walks to the grocery on Fifth Avenue for organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, tofu eggs was nothing like walking on Farragut Road.
The differences between the two places weren’t hard to spot, and once robbing season had begun, even Jackie saw it. She wanted me to tell her my thoughts on why things were so unsafe. Why did the people act the way they did? I answered her questions with short sentences that said nothing important. I didn’t feel like being her black friend that day. My empty remarks were peppered with yawns as minutes flew by and I started missing my bed. Soon, though, the 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’s 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 a time I was robbed.
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I began with the fact that I was in high school at the time and coming home late after stopping by a friend’s house to help him improve his shitty math skills. How shitty? Real shitty. Shitty to the point where you wondered how he functioned in the real world without some kind of specially trained math dog to bark at him when it was time to carry the one. Had the streetlights been working, they would’ve turned on a few minutes before I decided to take a shortcut home through a church parking lot.
Guessing what was next Jackie gasped at the unimaginable idea of a crime happening on church grounds. I asked her to stick to nail biting and hold any comments until the end of the story.
A fact that I hadn’t mentioned to her was that it was the church I was baptized in. It was the one my parents praised Jesus in and where they got on their knees on Sundays to beg God for money while putting five dollars in the collection basket. I walked through its parking lot when I passed by three guys who were talking and laughing near a parked car. I didn’t pay them much attention until I noticed, from the corner of my eye, one of them walking towards me from behind. Jackie’s body stiffened when I said that I understood immediately what was going on and ran. Of course they caught up to me.
One of them punched me in the back of the head and I fell onto the concrete sidewalk. 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 angry words at me. 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 its 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. By seeming coincidence they lived in the city’s dark places. And with only coincidence she was forced to draw her own conclusions about why that was the case.
She was a little scared of me too, probably. It was the questions she asked and the tone of her voice that let me know. With a sort of surprised patronization—as if I used the wrong dinner fork—Jackie told me that the people in East Flatbush didn’t live as well as the people of Brooklyn Heights or Downtown Manhattan because of some unspoken flaw. 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’d 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.
*Image based on photo from Courtesy Kris Van de Vijver
A full version of this short story appears in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.