by Matthew C. Funk
Donald had what he needed—his robe, the butcher knife, baby Walter cradled in his arm—everything but a sense of where he was. He just knew why he was here—to buy something orange for Sally. Tide detergent; that was it.
But what he saw around him didn’t add up: A glass door with iron bars over it was behind him. A stainless steel box with a plexiglass porthole to his right was around him. Shelves with Mac ‘N Cheese, Cup ‘O Noodles and other small, bright boxes of snacks were ahead. Was this a convenience store? Was it a bank? It seemed neither.
Donald was sure he should know the answer. He’d almost certainly been here before. But it didn’t add up to one place—just pieces of other places. Things were so much easier when he’d been starting Quarterback at Carver High.
“Hey.” Donald yelled above baby Walter’s wailing and above the sharp edge of the knife. “Is this a bank here? I need to buy some Mac ‘N Cheese.”
Something was wrong about what he’d said. A lot had been going wrong since he’d started smoking all that crack.
“Hey, can I get some help here? This baby needs some Tide.” Donald called. He heard women yelling back, but didn’t see them. Maybe his eyes didn’t work. He could see a metal gate lowering in front of him clearly enough, though. It was cutting him off from the shelves, sealing him in the steel box.
Donald told himself not to panic. He didn’t want to scare baby Walter any more. Walter squirmed like the bags of warm water Donald used to lay under Granma’s feet when her gout got too bad. Much more fragile than a bag of water, though. Much more delicate than a football.
Fragility reminded him this was an emergency—the scaled gate was almost shut ahead. Donald waved the knife around to show he meant business. This was going all wrong.
What did Coach Farris call it when a plan went wrong? A broken play. Yeah, Donald knew, this was a broken play.
He slashed the knife at the steel and it sparked like floodlights. Jesus Wept, crack made life exciting. But Coach had taught Donald not to panic during a broken play. He just had to audible.
Football was so simple. “Rolling right!” Donald yelled to his linemen, though he couldn’t see Sammy or Big George anywhere. He staggered right and banged his shoulder into the steel wall just below the plexiglass porthole. Donald almost fumbled the football.
No, he realized—he’d almost fumbled the baby. Donald gaped down. Who was this baby? Walter, he remembered. His girlfriend Sally’s baby.
“What the fuck you doing on the football field, Walter?” Donald wondered. He wondered why Walter had a spidery strand of drool dripping onto his brow. Was that Donald’s drool? He figured it must be. Uh oh.
“Where’d we end up this time, Walter?” Donald got no answer but raw-throat wails. He hadn’t sworn this time, though. Sally scolded him when he swore around Walter, even though Walter was a baby and didn’t know a fingertip from a titty anyway. And besides, it was hard not to swear, frustrating as life was now.
There was the rent to sweat and the power bill to pay and the dishes to wash and his busted knee to coddle and the crack, of course. More and more crack by the day, and no matter how much Donald smoked, it just didn’t help his knee like it used to.
“Goddamn broken play.” Donald slung the football under his arm and looked around to see what formation Coach Farris was calling from the sidelines. He caught sight of a bass-mouthed white face staring at him through the porthole. Distortion made it look like it was pasted on the glass with a paint roller, but Donald knew it was some real dude’s face.
This was definitely not the Carver High field. It was some steel box with a white dude shaking his head at Donald. His knee ached something terrible—felt like the sack of fluid and splintered bone it’d been since Larry “Razorback” Randall laid him out in the second-to-last game of the senior season. But no, this wasn’t football.
Where was he, really?
He’d gone out for something orange that Sally needed. Probably orange juice. Orange juice and milk. That seemed right. Though it probably wasn’t, really.
Nothing had been right since school nurse Linda and Coach Farris took him into the locker room and checked out Donald’s knee and pronounced it wrecked. He was supposed to go on to a top-ranked football school, scholarship all paid and everything. He was going to be a Miami Dolphin or a Tampa Bay Buc—someplace warm, with banana trees just like his New Orleans home town, but with air that smelled like tanning oil and bikini-clad pussy rather than refinery fumes.
“Where’s my scholarship now, you cheap bastards?” Donald waved the knife around. He had the knife to show he meant business. Nobody took him seriously otherwise. His Carver High teammates had bailed to their colleges, his friends avoided the shame of his company like a rash. Even Sally laughed at Donald, the way he’d wet himself from the pain of his knee or would wake up calling for Granma to turn on the nightlight.
They’d take him dead seriously now that he had a butcher’s knife. Donald would set things right.
Crack made things right. They called it rock, but it felt like a gem to him. So firm but so light in his palm. That kitchen-fresh smell to it before it burned. And the sizzle of it turning to smoke, an electrical noise, making the pull of it into his lungs seem like hooking up to Heaven’s circuit board.
Everything would be alright if he could just get a hit of crack. He smiled at the thought. His happy reverie had a break in it—Walter was wailing himself bloody, foam popping from his tomato-red face.
“What’s wrong, Walter?” Donald couldn’t think of a damn thing that was wrong. Except that he wasn’t high. Not really high. He’d smoked some before he went to the Louisa Mini Mart, but not enough.
That was it—Donald was at the Mini Mart to get some Tide. He looked at the steel gate that barricaded the rest of the store. They must be closed. Oh well, win some lose some—he knew all too well that’s how life worked. Time to go home.
He pushed the barred glass door open. Humidity bathed his eyes in summer’s molasses. Through his squinting, Donald saw a shiny-head dude in a cop’s uniform standing in his way, right where the parking lot sloughed into the busted pavement of Louisa Street.
“A cop in Desire?” Donald chuckled and flashed the grin his Granma always called his Go Fish Grin—the one he’d put on when he knew he was going to win a hand.
The man didn’t grin. He raised a gun at Donald.
“Put your hands down!” The cop yelled.
This was definitely a broken play. Donald drew his arms in, expecting to get hit. The baby socked firm against his chest; the knife lay against the baby. His robe licked his naked waist, reminding Donald he had no padding on. Getting hit would hurt.
“Man, I got to roll right.” Donald explained. He had to holler above the roar of the crowd, or of the baby. Whichever.
“I said put your fucking hands down!”
Donald began to shake. The knife shaved up the pasty pools of puke and grime on Walter’s one-piece. No time to worry about that now—he knew he had to do what the cop said.
“I’m getting some orange juice.” Donald yelled. “Sally needs some orange juice to wash Walter’s clothes, man. He’s dirty as shit.”
“Put your hands down, goddammit, or I will drop you!” The cop sounded afraid and his head creased like a deflating football. What the fuck he was afraid of, Donald couldn’t figure. He was the one with the gun.
“Man…” He worked at the words to express all that, but they felt as spongy and shattered as his knee.
“Hands fucking down!”
Donald wished he could, but that order made no sense—his hands were attached to him. As much as he would like to set them on a table and then go sit back in his Uncle’s recliner, he couldn’t. For all the trouble they’d caused him, he thought he might be better off putting them down at a bus bench for someone else to use, then walking off. But he couldn’t—his wrists held firm and he had no idea how to detach them. He was desperate to comply all the same.
Donald began to cry. That only made the cop more desperate.
“Jesus, man,” Donald explained. “I need to be at Miami Beach. This ain’t right. I’m going to be a Dolphin.”
No sooner did he say it, Donald knew it would never be true.
“Knife down! Just put the fucking knife down.” The cop had tears in his voice too—Donald could hear them, bright noises, like the sequins on Granma’s funeral dress.
“I can’t.” Donald began.
“Put the knife down, Donald!”
Again, he couldn’t. He’d thought this through: Knife down meant driving it into little Walter. The knife had to go sideways.
The spiders crawled sideways, the knife had to go sideways, and this morning, the sun was shining sideways, across the face of the world and burning, chasing Donald down like a fireball after Tom Cruise. And it occurred to him that life went sideways—not forward like people thought, not from point-A to point-B by way of intention. No, life aimed at point B from point A, but then slid sideways, always sideways, into whole other alphabets. And by the time you learned those alphabets, it had already begun sliding into a new one.
“I don’t understand the choice,” Donald whined and hated the sound of it. It sounded awful, echoing in the locker room. And the last thing he wanted was for Coach Farris—his only real father; more than a father than that perfume-smelling pimp locked up in Angola—to hear his star quarterback whine.
But he had to whine—had to have some escape, even if it was through crack. He hadn’t understood the choice. He understood plays—choosing between throwing to one open receiver or another; choosing to run if the defense came at him on an outside blitz; choosing to fall on the ball if he was sacked. Donald could choose between two decisions he knew the outcome of.
“Goddammit you fucking crackhead maniac fuck, put the baby down and put the knife down, or I swear I will put what’s left of your brains through that fucking door.” Coach yelled at him, jabbing with the gun.
It was the outcomes you didn’t choose that really decided your life.
“No, this ain’t going to do, Coach.” Donald moaned and sweat under the floodlight sun and almost dropped the football.
If Donald had been given a choice between a healthy leg and a loose bag of fluid around two matchsticks rubbing their heads together, he knew he’d have answered, “Leg, Lord. Thank you, but I’ll take a leg!”
But he hadn’t been given that choice. He hadn’t chosen Sally and her drug fiend friends. They’d chosen him when all his friends went off to colleges. He hadn’t chosen to need crack so badly—need it more than his teeth, more than emptying his nuts, more than sleep. Crack had chosen him.
“Man, I got to the get the fuck out of here.” Donald started to shuffle away—anywhere else but here, a place he’d never chosen to be.
Donald had chosen to read aloud to Granma from the Reader’s Digest until she could sleep through her gout pain. He’d chosen to strain through two-a-day practices and bust his bones to sawdust in the weight room to become the best quarterback in the history of Carver High. He’d chosen the Dolphins.
But Granma had died of the diabetes and was buried in her sequin dress. Donald couldn’t even run anymore on his knee. Miami was another planet.
Donald had to go.
The cop stepped in his way.
“One more step and I will shoot you!”
And the crowd gasped—a flock of fat women and skinny boys on Louisa Street. Donald knew it was crunch time. This was the fourth quarter. The next inches would decide the whole game.
Donald raised his face to the floodlight sun. Crack buzz clicked down like a dying scoreboard. He sweated. He drooled. His knee wept inside its puckered skin.
“I’m done.” Donald decided.
Fuck football. He wanted out—wanted back; back before football set his dreams up like a good hand of Go Fish, only to rob all his cards in one run; back when Granma was the one who read to him and there were no savage suns like this, only nightlights.
He tossed the football down. It screamed on the way down. The crowd screamed. The baby stopped screaming when he bounced, rolled, swelled and bruised like a busted knee.
Donald would make the crowd stop screaming too. He turned the knife on them. He meant business.
The next thing Donald knew, he was hit—he was down; his ears were ringing. Damn, Larry had put him down hard. He tried to spring back up, but his entire body felt like a bag filled with bad water. And the bag was leaking.
“Shit,” Donald felt blood running from his smile. It smelled orange. Nightlight orange. The buzz in his head felt better—bigger, brighter—than crack. “Miami here I come.”
He couldn’t breathe. That was all right. He needed the buzz more than he needed breath. And the buzz from this hit felt so big that Donald was sure it could last forever.
Matthew C. Funk is a professional marketing copywriter and social media consultant, a writing mentor and the author of several manuscripts that illuminate the beauty of human extremes. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, his online work is featured at sites such as Beat to a Pulp, A Twist of Noir; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; Flash Fiction Offensive; ThugLit; Powder Burn Flash; Pulp Metal Magazine and his Web domain.