"What you doin' there, boy?"
It was six a.m. Socrates Fortlow had come out to the alley, to see what was wrong with Billy. He hadn't heard him crow that morning and was worried about his old friend.
The sun was just coming up. The alley was almost pretty with the trash and broken asphalt covered in half-light. Discarded wine bottles shone like murky emeralds in the sludge. In the dawn shadows Socrates didn't even notice the boy until he moved. He was standing in front of a small cardboard box, across the alley -- next to Billy's wire fence.
"What bidness is it to you, old man?" the boy answered. He couldn't have been more than twelve but he had that hard convict stare.
Socrates knew convicts, knew them inside and out.
"I asked you a question, boy. Ain't yo' momma told you t'be civil?"
"Shit!" The boy turned away, ready to leave. He wore baggy jeans with a blooming blue T-shirt over his bony arms and chest. His hair was cut close to the scalp.
The boy bent down to pick up the box.
"What they call you?" Socrates asked the skinny butt stuck up in the air.
"What's it to you?"
Socrates pushed open the wooden fence and leapt. If the boy hadn't had his back turned he would have been able to dodge the stiff lunge. As it was he heard something and moved quickly to the side.
Quickly. But not quickly enough.
Socrates grabbed the skinny arms with his big hands -- the rock breakers, as Joe Benz used to call them.
Socrates shook the boy until the serrated steak knife, which had appeared from nowhere, fell from his hand.
The old brown rooster was dead in the box. His head slashed so badly that half of the beak was gone.
"Let me loose, man." The boy kicked, but Socrates held him at arm's length.
"Don't make me hurt you, boy," he warned. He let go of one arm and said, "Pick up that box. Pick it up!" When the boy obeyed, Socrates pulled him by the arm -- dragged him through the gate, past the tomato plants and string bean vines, into the two rooms where he'd stayed since they'd let him out of prison.
The kitchen was only big enough for a man and a half. The floor was pitted linoleum; maroon where it had kept its color, gray where it had worn through. There was a card table for dining and a fold-up plastic chair for a seat. There was a sink with a hot plate on the drainboard and shelves that were once cabinets -- before the doors were torn off.
The light fixture above the sink had a sixty-watt bulb burning in it. The room smelled of coffee. A newspaper was spread across the table.
Socrates shoved the boy into the chair, not gently.
There was a mass of webbing next to the weak lightbulb. A red spider picked its way slowly through the strands.
"What's your name, boy?" Socrates asked again.
There was a photograph of a painting tacked underneath the light. It was the image of a black woman in the doorway of a house. She wore a red dress and a red hat to protect her eyes from the sun. She had her arms crossed under her breasts and looked angry. Darryl stared at the painting while the spider danced above.
"Why you kill my friend, asshole?"
"What?" Darryl asked. There was fear in his voice.
"You heard me."
"I-I-I din't kill nobody." Darryl gulped and opened his eyes wider than seemed possible. "Who told you that?"
When Socrates didn't say anything, Darryl jumped up to run, but the man socked him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him, pushing him back down in the chair.
Socrates squatted down and scooped the rooster up out of the box. He held the limp old bird up in front of Darryl's face.
"Why you kill Billy, boy?"
"That's a bird." Darryl pointed. There was relief mixed with panic in his eyes.
"That's my friend."
"You crazy, old man. That's a bird. Bird cain't be nobody's friend." Darryl's words were still wild. Socrates knew the guilty look on his face.
He wondered at the boy and at the rooster that had gotten him out of his bed every day for the past eight years. A rage went through him and he crushed the rooster's neck in his fist.
"You crazy," Darryl said.
A large truck made its way down the alley just then. The heavy vibrations went through the small kitchen, making plates and tinware rattle loudly.
Socrates shoved the corpse into the boy's lap. "Get ovah there to the sink an' pluck it."
"You don't have to do it..."
"You better believe I ain't gonna..."
"...but I will kick holy shit outta you if you don't."
"Pluck what? What you mean, pluck it?"
"I mean go ovah t'that sink an' pull out the feathers. What you kill it for if you ain't gonna pluck it?"
"I'as gonna sell it."
"Yeah," Darryl said. "Sell it to some old lady wanna make some chicken."
Copyright © 1998 by Walter Mosley
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
"I either committed a crime or had a crime done to me every day I was in jail. Once you go to prison you belong there." Socrates Fortlow has done his time: twenty-seven years for murder and rape, acts forged by his huge, rock-breaking hands. Now, he has come home to a new kind of prison: two battered rooms in an abandoned building in Watts. Working for the Bounty supermarket, and moving perilously close to invisibility, it is Socrates who throws a lifeline to a drowning man: young Darryl, whose shaky path is already bloodstained and fearsome. In a place of violence and hopelessness, Socrates offers up his own battle-scarred wisdom that can turn the world around.
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