Only kids keep neighborhood secrets

Only kids keep neighborhood secrets

The neighborhood

My feet are soaked from the rain. My socks are no protection from the hole in the sole of my shoe. I should have had it fixed. A bearded figure in a long overcoat is sloped crossing the street ahead of me, walking with an awkward gait that sways him in my direction.

The man’s gloved hand reaches out at me, “Buddy you got a quarter?”

His coat has the name Franklin sewn onto the breast.

“Is that all you want?” I ask him back. “A quarter?”

He coughs into his fist. “See,” he says, “if I ask for a quarter people usually gimme a dollar. And if I ask for a dollar they don’t give me nothing at all. So I ask for a quarter and I see what happens.” 

“Why not ask for five?”

“Shit,” he coughs again. The coat doesn’t fit right. Franklin. “Shit. Nobody carries cash around anyway. All I can do to buy a sandwich. So you got a quarter or what?”

I have a quarter. A tip. Running an errand for Mama Yea. I dig into my pocket and drop the silver coin into his hand. I keep walking down the sidewalk, and his voice follows me through the rain. He says, “Hey buddy!” Says, “You got a dollar?”

My neighborhood is an old neighborhood. Storefronts sit vacant with For Sale signs in broken windows. Buildings that once housed business and industry alive are hollowed out now, dead and empty. Looming over dusty lots and streets so potholed they look like Swiss cheese.

The ghost of Old Man Tate haunts this block of Empire Street.

We would hang out at his store, the Corner Store, with the neighborhood kids still running the streets barefoot. It was the only store we didn’t steal from. He always sold us beer before we were old enough to buy it. He was a funny old man, always telling jokes he’d find on the wooden sticks of popsicles.

“What is the best kind of fish to fall asleep with?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Tate.”

“The cuttlefish! Cuddle fish? Get it? Cuddle. Fish. Get it?” And he would laugh and hold his chest.

We were outside smoking weed one day when a man in a black suit went into the store. All black like the Grim Reaper. There was a chill in the air. He walked straight up like he had something in his asshole. He was on important business when he went in, but he when he came out not ten minutes later he was running, sweating and with his hair all messed up… Tate was chasing behind him, yelling and swinging the baseball bat he kept behind the counter.

Tate loved baseball. He wasn’t scared of the Grim Reaper.

We laughed and we cheered. We didn’t think anything of the man in black. But we should have. Tate set fire to his store that night and it burned right to the ground. You could see the smoke for miles. We never thought he would do something like that. Might’ve been he was senile, like our parents said he was. But I don’t think so. Police found his body in the ashes. The story was that Community Bank was taking the store and he couldn’t take the news.

Firefighters worked all night to put out the fire, but it spread anyway and took out the pawn shop next door. Smiley’s Cash and Pawn. We were up all night watching, eating snacks and drinking soda, watching as if it were on the silver screen.

There’s a gray char on the sidewalk still.

The rain bites through my coat and makes me shiver. A few cars roll past me on the street, tires squealing in the cold air. This is my neighborhood.

 

The funeral

Old Man Tate’s funeral was held in a cemetery near the last block of Empire Street at Washington. It’s an old graveyard like the neighborhood, called Canlis after a military general who was born here. Lined with gray headstones and willow trees. We used to sneak into this graveyard, daring each other to summon spirits and piss on headstones.

A group of black suits and funeral-proper dresses press together for solace, for the comfort that comes from being close to people you love. Friends and family hold onto each other so tight their knuckles turn white. Huddled close even though the day is hot and sweaty. A few willow trees shrug and sway in the breeze but they don’t block the sun.

The graveyard caretaker sits in his house near the entrance. Air conditioned, away from the heat. I could see him through the window, leaned back in his armchair with his feet propped up on the coffee table. Watching TV that makes him laugh. He would say, “TV used to be good. Something you kids don’t know nothing about.”

All the while a pack of dogs moves toward the funeral. No one notices feral dogs from the street. Growling between graves. A group of mangy dogs with rib cages showing through their matted fur. Everyone is so preoccupied with their grief that nobody sees them until they burst forward, suddenly, toward Old Man Tate’s casket.

“Oh my god!”

You could hear the people scream, “Oh my god!”

The dogs pounce. At least a dozen of them, snarling through yellow teeth wet and drooling. The casket wobbles and tips to the side and then crashes to the ground. Old Man Tate tumbles back out onto the grass in his powder blue suit. The powder makeup on his face melting in the heat. His head nearly rolls off his shoulders. He lies in the grass like a dropped marionette, awkward, still dead. His eyes open and glossy and staring up at the sky.

But only for a moment.

The dogs snatch Tate’s body up from the ground and drag him off and away between them. Disappearing as quickly as they came. Only his shoe and a diamond cuff link left behind. Followed by gasps and screams and yells.

Tate’s daughter, a woman named Mae, let out a sob you could probably hear in Kansas.

The caretaker watches television in his living room, calm and content and completely unaware. Seinfeld on the screen says, “Whaddyamean?” while the caretaker laughs and holds his stomach.

It’s interesting to watch people’s faces. When people are sad, afraid, stunned. Angry.

My girl Manda and I snuck away and made out in the back of an unlocked Cadillac while men with angry faces pounded on the caretaker’s door. Old Man Tate’s daughter collapsed onto the ground at the hole where her father was supposed to be buried, holding her face in her hands.

And the dogs running down the street with Old Man Tate in pieces between them.

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Only kids keep neighborhood secrets