It's cold tonight. So cold that if you listen hard enough, you can hear the ice that's wedged in the cracks in the street expand and make greater fissures. Dante is the only soul on the lifeless avenue. He draws his shoulders against his skinny neck in a vain attempt to ward off the howling wind that whips up his back. The sharp winter chill has little regard for his dingy New Jersey Devils coat. He shudders, quickens his pace, and focuses on the glowing O that floats above the frozen sidewalk two blocks ahead. He considers the number of times he's been to the police station at this hour, and he's surprised that he never noticed that every letter in POLICE is blown out except for the circular, glowing vowel. He balls up an ashy fist and wipes the dribble from his nose before it crystallizes. He smiles. Easiest job I ever had.
Andre yawns and maneuvers his empty bus onto Bergen Avenue. Fortunately, there are no squad cars parked in front of the police station, so he's able to comfortably clear the curb without blackening it with tire rubber. The lighted O on the sign affixed to the brick police fortress captures Andre's attention as it flickers its last and goes dark. He announces to empty passenger seats, ―On your left, ladies and gentlemen, all of police is officially on the blink.‖ He eases on the brakes and brings the full weight of the mechanized beast to a graceful stop at the light. A deserted intersection. The light turns green.
Since Andre has become a bus driver, he's gotten used to being his own audience. Not many people ride the bus after midnight in Greenville. Those who do, make him nervous. But what are you going to do? It's a gig, and a good one.
Occasionally Andre gets a talkative soul who parks in the first seat to his right and tells him more than he's comfortable hearing. But most midnight riders are the drunk and disheveled, stumbling to the back of the bus to sleep off life's malaise until Andre chases them off at the end of the route.
―Watch the cars. The lights ain't never killed nobody!‖ Andre is pleased with his Moms Mabley imitation as he looks both ways, presses the gas, and passes through the intersection.
Up ahead he sees a man dressed in black arguing with a skinny man in a New Jersey Devils coat. The skinny man punches the man in black in the face and takes off running. The man in black is bigger and easily gains on the slimmer man. Andre is almost upon them and, intrigued by the late-night spectacle, remarks, "Ain't this some -"
The skinny man lunges into the street and into the path of the bus. Andre slams on the brakes, but not before clipping the man with his right front bumper. The man rolls, springs up, and runs onto the sidewalk. The man in black almost smacks into Andre's driver's side window. Andre notices his weaselly eyes floating around inside the darkness of a black hoodie. Fear creeps down Andre's back and burrows in his stomach.
The man in black peels his beady eyes off of Andre, steps onto the sidewalk, and watches the skinny man escape.
As he flees, he looks over his shoulder just as the man in black aims and lets off multiple orange blasts from his weapon. The skinny man wildly alters his flight pattern—bobbing and weaving, avoiding getting hit—until he drops. The weasel-eyed gunman looks back at Andre before he disappears into a crease between two buildings.
Andre pulls up to the rumpled mass splayed in the street. He kills the engine. When he depresses the air brake, the familiar psst! rips through the night silence and startles him. He slips off the bus and gawks at the motionless body.
He's... like... dead.
A glacial shudder swashes through Andre's veins.
The black hole between buildings that swallowed up the shooter stands empty. Looking up the three blocks to the police station, Andre notices that the O has found new life and is burning brightly.
Sandra's block is no walk in the park. The unemployment rate is easily 20 percent, and the other people are either retired, too young to have a job, or on work release. Andre feels guilty anytime he's over here, so he makes it a point to stay away as much as possible. However, tonight he can't think of any better place to go. Once upon a time when he and Sandra were a happy couple, 64 Martin Luther King Drive, Apartment 2F, was his address. That was before Sandra locked him out one too many times for him to feel comfortable in his own home.
Mr. Dibiasi, the landlord, let Sandra and Andre swap names on the lease after he left for the last time. That was a year ago, and the front door that leads to the cold, dark hallway still dangles from the same rusted hinges. The buzzer has been broken for years, but even when it worked, the quickest way to get inside the building was to holler up at whoever you came to visit. Andre skips the fourth and ninth step on the way to the second floor without even thinking. It's too dark to tell, and not worth the gamble, to see if the steps were repaired. Mr. Burrell still bumps Bobby "Blue" Bland until the wee hours of the morning. "Ain't no love in the heart of the city. Ain't no love in the heart of town."Some things never change.
When Andre reaches the second-floor landing, the sun is just starting to peek over the neighborhood's ornery skyline. Greenville is the other Jersey City, the part unspoiled by the trappings of urban renewal and gentrification.
The dirty hallway window lets in just enough light for Andre to see his face in the mirror that Sandra keeps posted on the front door below the peephole. The mirror allows her to monitor her makeup one last time before she steps out. What's interesting is that people in the building steal anything not nailed down, but no one has ever laid a finger on the oval looking glass.
On more than one occasion, Andre and Sandra caught neighbors, and even strangers, checking themselves out in the mirror. People's responses were always the same: "My fault" or "Pardon me." Andre shakes his head. Not even poverty and urban blight can blot out people’s fixation with looking just right.
The man in the mirror staring back at Andre could easily pass for thirty- five even though he won't reach that milestone for another eight years. Andre sighs. He is not aging gracefully. His finely trimmed goatee is seasoned with seven gray hairs. He got his first one at twenty, so he's averaging one a year. His cheeks are fuller than they once were, and the bags beneath his light brown eyes book-end a broad nose with flaring nostrils. An encroaching shadow of scrappy hairs has overtaken his head in places where permanent baldness hasn't set in. What Andre wouldn't give for those hairs to be gone. Then he would have the luxury of a shiny, maintenance-free dome.
He taps out his signature knock on the front door. Tap-tap, tap-TAP.
No answer. He pulls out his cell phone and dials Sandra's number. He hears it ring inside the apartment.
"Hello?" Sandra whispers.
Hearing her voice through the door and on the phone at the same time is disconcerting.
She must be sleeping on the couch.
"Hello?" she says, this time a little louder.
"Hey, it's me. I'm in the hallway."
"Do you know what time it is?"
Andre looks at his phone. "Five twenty-seven."
"I'm not letting you in," Sandra says.
"You have somebody in there?"
"I don't have to answer your questions, Andre."
"If you have somebody in there, just tell me."
Little Dre's cry roars through the house.
"See! You woke up the baby!"
She hangs up. Andre hears feet pattering through the apartment and back, and then the click-clack of four locks being released. When Sandra cracks the door, Little Dre stops howling instantly. He bumps through the opening and reaches for Andre, cupping his tiny fingers to his palms like a baby lobster. His smile beams behind a pacifier locked in place between two teeth on the bottom and gums on top. Sandra sighs and passes the baby to his father.
"What's up, little man? You need a haircut as bad as me."
Andre moves past Sandra and into the living room as he runs his fingers through Little Dre's tangled 'fro. He ignores Sandra's slamming the door and dotes on his son.
"Daddy missed his little man! How're you doing, sonny boy?"
Andre senses a cold stare and turns around. Sandra is watching him with her arms folded and a scowl fixed on her face. She enunciates each word as if to ensure that they don't come out as sour as she looks.
"I-have-somewhere-to-be-in-a-few-hours. Is-there-some-special-reason- you're-showing-up-here-at-five-o'clock-in-the-morning?"
The skinny man's lifeless face flashes in Andre's head. The image sends the creeps skittering across his torso like a host of tiny, biting mites.
"I saw a man get killed."
Sandra clutches one hand to her chest and twirls one of her long braids with the other. "What were you doing?"
"Driving my route," Andre says, put off by her accusatory tone.
Sandra sits and so does he. Little Dre looks up at Andre and gives him a big ol' cheese grin. Andre doesn't pay attention, so Little Dre grabs his bottom lip. Andre removes the tiny fingers from his mouth and says, "I was driving down Bergen and I saw these two guys fighting. One of them started running, and I guess he was trying to use the bus to separate himself from the other guy, so he ran in front of me."
Andre stops and looks Sandra in the eye. "The guy doing the chasing pulled out a gun and started shooting. The guy running was doing alright until he got popped."
"What'd you do then?" "What could I do? I'm sitting in a lighted box for the whole world to see."
"He saw you? What did he look like?"
"It was dark and he had on a black hoodie, so I couldn't see his face."
Sandra grabs Little Dre and presses him against her chest. "How do you know he won't come looking for you?"
Andre gets up and looks out of the window onto the street. "I guess I don't know."
"Did you call the police?"
Andre rests his forehead against the chilly pane. "Yes."
"What did they say?"
"I didn't hang around to find out."
"Why not?" "I'd rather not be involved like that."
"Involved like what?"
Andre turns and faces her. "Look. I saw his eyes. That's it. There was nothing else for me to say."
Clops is not sure how he feels. Although he's carried a gun off and on since he was fifteen, he's never had an occasion to fire one.
After the first two rounds went off into space, he firmed up his grip to accommodate for the Glock's recoil. That's when Dante dropped—instantly. Not like the movies where people slink to the ground in slow motion.
Boom and then boom, Dante was down.
What sticks in Clops's mind the most is that after Dante collapsed, he squeezed off three more rounds.
He feels the touchy strains of sickness rapidly advancing up his digestive track. He curls over the kitchen sink and heaves. As his body attempts to forcefully expel every ounce of juice from his belly, he chokes on a dry, violent retch.
She must be sleep on the couch.
"I'm okay, Grammy Lee!" he hacks. He battles his breathing in an attempt to force it through his nose instead of his mouth.
He stores the .40 caliber Glock pistol with olive drab frame in a hole cut out of the wall behind the sink basin. He cups his hands, runs water in them, and for the first time notices that they're shaking. He splashes water on his hot face.
Clops tramps into the living room and into a flickering light that paints the room in extraordinary bursts of flash and shadow. Grammy Lee is reclined in her favorite chair in front of the television. He adjusts the blanket that covers her feet.
"You okay, Grammy?"
"Am I okay? You‘re the one in there spitting up the dickens. Have you been drinking?"
"I‘ve told you about keeping these late hours. Nothing good happens in Greenville after midnight."
"I don‘t want sorry, I want change. You‘re twenty-five years old. I shouldn‘t have to talk to you this way."
"I‘m gonna change, Grammy. I promise."
He kisses her on the cheek, and she swats him on the back of the head. "Good night, Claymont."
"Good night, Grammy."
He climbs the stairs and stops at the top, draped in panic.
That bus driver looked right at me.
He gets breathless as if he just might go to pieces.
But I ain’t going to jail.
Clops considers the funk of a concrete cage populated with musty gangsters doing life with no parole. He shakes his head violently.
That ain’t gonna happen.