“SIDEWALK PENTAGRAMS” by JAMES NULICK

We only leave the house late at night and wear hoodies when we do go out so none of our neighbors will notice as our numbers diminish.* The house I live in is small and dark, a four bedroom ranch, desert cookie cutter, windows aluminum foiled against the heat. A small yard with a few anonymous plants and two saguaros watered by a drip system I never see, and dying twin palms on either side of the cracked, oil stained driveway. All the windows are dark except the slivered window near the door, illuminated by a small orange light glowing through the curtains. I’m on my Free Agent Chronik, a smooth three hundred dollar ride in matte black. I follow behind Mouse, Peanut and Baby J as we push ourselves through the dark abandoned streets. The asphalt is singing under my tires, a constant low hum that reminds me of an air conditioner. Mouse pivots his butt and kicks his rear tire out and to the right, splashing gutter water on a car sitting in someone’s drive. He’s in front so he’s directing traffic. The houses on the block are all dark, save for a few frightened porch lights. I hover above the seat and work my legs, two pistons whirring above the crank as we roll toward the unknown. We cross the street, cut through a break in the median, headed for a convenience store on 23rd Avenue, on asphalt, crossing sidewalks, passing under streetlights, gliding along the smooth concrete slab, propping our bikes against the glass wall of the store, our wheels silent as Mouse opens the door on a startled clerk.

 

***

 

I have my own bedroom. The other three have theirs, my roomies. Mouse, Peanut and Baby J. All about the same age. Most of us work. Well, Baby J is between jobs right now. That good economy that gets nobody nowhere. But I don’t mind it; I don’t pay attention to it. My mama worked all her life and she don’t complain. She’s alone now, now that granny died. I know she wants me back in her house but a young buck has to be free, I tell her. Child you’re still a child, she says, which is what mama always says to me. I should call her more often but she doesn’t know when to cut loose. I’m still here, mama. You too.

 

***

 

The clerk looks nervous. We’re too young, we’re all too young, and he’s working alone. He gives us a nervous nod, like I got this, but it’s more about convincing himself. I don’t want anything from you, brother – just calm your ass down. I open the walk in, grab a can of Monster.  I strut toward the candy aisle and palm a box of grape and strawberry Nerds. I can feel the clerk’s eyes on us, but there are too many of us – his scanning is wide but shallow. You’re casting your net too wide, brother. I wait behind Peanut, who is shorter than me. I watch the clerk carefully. He wears a battered pair of glasses and has a carefully trimmed moustache – who wears a moustache these days? I audibly laugh. Come on man, you sewing a blanket, I say to Peanut, but not really, it’s more for the clerk’s benefit. He has a middle-aged nervousness about him, a sadness that seems to say how did I end up here, doing this? Unlike his moustache, his uniform is slightly unkempt – I’m guessing he lives alone. I lay my goods out before him. You need a bag, the clerk asks. Yeah man, I’m on a bike. Don’t touch the rim, I’m projecting, don’t touch the rim with your dirty hands, but when he scans the can of course he touches the rim. You should be more careful when you scan those things, I say – don’t put your hand where people are going to place their mouth. He carefully places my drink and my box of Nerds in a thin white plastic bag. I sense his nervousness, the coiled heat in his chest. I have half a notion to say I can see the hate in your eyes, man, but I don’t, he’s already having a bad night – why make it worse? Instead I say later man, and bounce a little nod toward him. Thank you, he says. I open the door and wait on the slab beside Peanut. We’re waiting for Mouse and Baby J to finish their business inside the store. Man I hope Mouse don’t steal nothing, I don’t need no trouble tonight, Peanut says, more an open-aired wish than a statement. That boy’s always acting a fool, I say – something I’d never say in Mouse’s presence, but I know Peanut would never divulge a secret uttered between us – he’s weak, and he’s afraid of me, though I don’t know why. I like him, like one likes a favorite chair in the living room, but it’s all table dressing, man – I stand alone.

 

***

 

We work our way through the door by force. The plastic alarm sign in the window is only a ruse. Dust falls from the ceiling, hangs in the air, is gathered in a light blanket on the dead blinds. How long has that sign been out there, I ask. I don’t know, Mouse says. Maybe six months, Peanut offers, only because he wants to remind us he’s there. Don’t worry man, you worry too much. I don’t worry enough, I say. I tug on Peanut’s hoodie – Don’t be flipping no switches on, brother. I’m not stupid, Peanut says. I place my nearly-empty can of Monster on an island in the kitchen. I head toward the refrigerator, open the door. A soft cool light glows in the corner. There are a few bottled waters, an expensive brand I would never buy. The agent must offer them to potential buyers, but who would buy a house in this neighborhood? No food on any shelves, only the bottled water. I open the freezer door expecting to find nothing, but there are half a dozen Häagen-Dazs mini cups sitting on a plastic-coated rack. Score, I say. Hey Mouse – Mouse pivots his head to look at me. I toss him a mini cup, which he catches expertly. I toss one to Baby J, and finally to Peanut. Hey man, any steaks in there? Ha ha –

 

I sit on the tile near the refrigerator. There is no furniture in the house. I peel the lid back, break the plastic spoon off the underside of the lid. It’s good but it is vanilla, my least favorite flavor. The world is already too vanilla. Vanilla job, vanilla girls – and stuck in a house with three dimwit gorillas. I like my boys, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, as mama would say. Baby J comes into the kitchen and sits across from me, his back against an island. He’s wearing a silvery velour track suit and anytime he moves, he crinkles. They would’ve already sold this house if they had pistachio, I tell him. No doubt, he says. If Baby J and I were puzzles pieces, he would be the one I’d most likely be a match with, but still we don’t quite fit – a smaller, younger brother one is forced to tolerate, a brother one takes to the movies, shares a bedroom with. He leans toward me… Mouse is up to no good, he says. When isn’t he, I say. He should just chill out, Baby J continues. There’s no need for destruction. Hey you wanna hit this? Before I can answer he turns his hand over and a blunt appears between his fingers. Like magic, he says. Thanks, brother. I take the offered blunt, put it between my lips, dig in my hoodie for a lighter, find one in my front pocket. Aren’t you hot in that getup, I ask. I bump my head toward him and laugh. It ain’t about heat, it’s about style. You’re ridiculous, I say, and he laughs. I take the smoke into my lungs, let it slowly finger its way around my brain. Another puff, deeper this time. There are no clocks in this house, Baby J says. What do you need time for? I ask. I like to wrap my head around things, he says. There’s a clock on the stove, I tell him. Baby J makes like he wants to get up, but he doesn’t. He just wants to hear himself talk, same as Peanut. Neither one of them are comfortable with silence. Mouse is different; sometimes I can barely get three words out of him, which is good because the things that come out of his mouth are usually stupid, anyway. He tries to come off hard but he’s a scared little boy, and scared little boys are always dangerous. But Mouse’s silence is better than Baby J’s useless talk, noise made to fill up an empty kitchen. I finish the mini cup, get up off my butt and open the cabinet door underneath the sink. A garbage can sits in the darkness, an expensive one that opens when you depress a lever with your foot. It would look good in my room. Make sure you throw your garbage away, I tell Baby J. We don’t want to leave no traces.

 

***

 

I’m thinking of mama’s house. There was a photograph of me on the piano. It wasn’t a school pic, it was more personal, more professional, like the photographer got right up on me, an incredible invasion of personal space. Ten years old. My eyes slightly dazed, as if under all that hair I’d been trepanned. I was wise, but without knowledge. The world was mysterious, and full of color, and I was that walking eyeball I’d seen in textbooks in sixth hour English class, the eyeball wearing the top hat. Not The Residents, Emerson. To wander without purpose, to play in the eternal backyard of my mother’s house, which was my grandmother’s house – to be lost for hours on a small scrap of land where time was meaningless. Mama had an old car in the backyard, the grey shell of an old Volkswagen Beetle. It was my fort, my spaceship – I ruled over my domain with a small iron fist. Sometimes my friends Andre and DeJuan would come over after school and we’d play video games, Super Mario Bros. But mostly I was just in the backyard while mama was at work, because she rarely let me have friends over while she was at work. She knew the trouble I could get into, knew what was best to keep my head straight. The only thing that makes me a transparent eyeball now is my music, my music and my bike. Not even girls, there’s always time for that. But to forget yourself, which is God’s greatest gift, that takes practice. Whether it’s 61 keys or 88, I am only truly lost when I am playing my music, carving new notes, creating things, or when my black star is singing beneath my feet, my boys in front, behind or beside me, cutting through warm summer asphalt like black butter.

 

***

 

Mouse and Peanut come into the kitchen, giggling like a couple of girls. What did you do, man? Mouse looks at me as if my question were a personal challenge. I pissed in a closet, he says. I thought we were just in and out, like you said? Mouse straightens his back, pulls his hood tight over his head. Peanut looks at him, waiting for something. Man you’ll never get through life acting like that, Mouse says. Like what? I ask. What do I need, Mouse? Fill me in, brother. Hey you two, we should get going, Baby J says, attempting to break up the ugliness in the kitchen. Mouse continues staring at me but I don’t move. I’m quickly losing my high. Let’s get out of here, he says, as if he were speaking to Congress. Peanut falls in behind him, then Baby J. I trail behind Baby – I don’t turn my back on any of these fools. As we head toward the broken door Mouse suddenly turns and drives his foot through the living room wall. There is a loud crash as an anonymous hotel room painting drops to the floor. Mouse pulls his foot from the wall, his shoe half hanging off his foot, his black sock whitened by drywall dust. I don’t say anything, just shake my head. Peanut starts giggling until Mouse slaps him hard on the face. I’m burning now – Peanut’s embarrassment, his hot anger, neatly folded and tucked into a dark closet, is too painful to watch. I carefully open the front door, just a crack, and see my bike behind a hedge, waiting for me. I hop on my bike and push off the sidewalk, Baby J trailing behind me, Mouse and Peanut eventually catching up. I don’t look behind me, yet I sense they are there, these three fools, my what – my friends? My brothers?  The freedom my bike offers feels good, the wind against my face a relief, the street shimmering in the heat. I cut through the asphalt hovering above a black star, my bike chain whispering reassuring notes only I can hear.  The city is dead silent, people tucked safely in their beds, a few lonely screens illuminating sad windows caked with dust – a bachelor? A widower? Someone who has no one, just pixels framed in black plastic until a picture slowly forms, a coalescing nothingness, a shield against loneliness. I hover above the sidewalk and cut through the heat as if it were nothing, the voices behind me subsiding yet slowly gathering power in their low-drone oneness. We are a machine, a violence.

 

*First line cribbed from Dennis Cooper’s blog DC’s