The ambulance men dropped Easy on the sidewalk near the roundball courts and cracked what was left of his head on the concrete. Didn't surprise Buddha one bit. They looked like cops to him—white shirts, grey pants, shiny black belts and shoes. Only difference was that the ambulance crackers didn't have guns, and they were scared. Both of them kept looking over their shoulders while they tried to pick Easy up and get him back on the stretcher.
Buddha leaned over him. The little hole in Easy's chest whistled when he breathed. "Unnah," he said, "die."
"You ain't," Buddha told him.
Easy's little brother, Will, was sitting cross-legged at the foul line. Had his face in his hands.
It was the middle of the morning, and they had all been playing twenty-one. There were plenty of them for a real game, but they were just playing around. To Buddha's way of thinking, twenty-one was not even a game—no teams, no out of bounds, no fouls, no zone. It was just everybody for his own self.
Only Joey was taking it serious. Six foot five. All muscle. Didn't matter what the game was, Joey wanted to win. That was the main reason they weren't playing a real game. Joey would shout and complain and get in people's faces. His team would win, but he'd turn the whole deal into a sad, bad job.
So they just played around, not putting up any real defense when Joey had the ball. His pretty jumper went in most of the time, but it was no big deal, nothing to brag about. It was all jaw jacking and laughing. Just play, not a game.
Joey was headed off to some college in the Midwest to play basketball. He wasn't going to make it, though. Everybody knew that. His sister had to take the ACT's for him. No, in the long run, he'd be out on the corner with the rest of them. Then they'd see what kind of game he had.
At first, Easy was playing too—standing under the basket, waiting for the easy rebound. He was almost as tall as Joey, but skinny and better dressed. He used to make fun of Joey, said hard work never got nobody he knew anything except old and tired.
Easy was all smiles. He'd let you have a rock on credit once, and if you didn't pay, he didn't get mad. But that was the last rock you got from him. Easy took it easy. "I get money the same way I play twenty-one," he said. "Off y'all's bad shots. I'll drive a nice car while I still got some place to go, and I'll have a fine women before I'm too weak to beat her. Yes sir. I'm grabbing life by the throat. I'm going to get old faster than you, and I'm going to win. You watch me. I'll beat myself to death winning. Life is good if you didn't take it serious," E. said. And he'd smile that big-toothed smile and fumble in his pocket where he kept his easy living. He stayed with his mother, who was glad for the money he brought in. And he talked to June, who worked on the side to make her own easy money and didn't expect much from Easy but a rock or two every week.
When the two strange brothers walked up courtside, E. slide out from under the basket to talk. They were smaller than he was and all business. They did not laugh, and they did not play. Everybody else kept shouting out about "Oh that was easy," when somebody got a rebound that would have been his.
With Easy gone, Buddha stepped into the middle, filling the zone. He was only six feet tall, but he weighed 350 pounds. In a game that went to the tall, Buddha made his way by being wide.
Joey got the ball and came at him, trying to back him down, but Buddha did not give ground. It had been a help in the Projects. Buddha did not push, and nobody pushed him. Brothers rubbed his belly for luck. Weekends he was bouncer at the strip bar. It was a fine job for a young man. Good money and short hours. Sometimes he had to make drunks go home, but they were usually too far out of it to remember the next day. Besides, Buddha wouldn't be there forever. Something else would come along. He wasn't about to go around gunning like Joey, though, humping for a shot, a chance, a spot on some job that would use him and then lose him. No, Buddha was happy to let the week go by and then watch fools waste money on the weekends until he had to tap them on the shoulders and remind them that they could not do that forever, and it was time to go home.
Joey jumped and turned in mid air, his second best shot. His stomach was in Buddha's face, and the ball arced high and dropped through the basket, making the chain net jingle like change. Joey landed so light on his feet that it seemed like he didn't have to come down at all. He grinned at Buddha. "You mighty small for a big man."
"Man!" Easy said, and Buddha turned to see him push one of the strange brothers. The brother had an ugly smile and a diamond in his tooth. He was a head shorter than Easy, but he was running the show. The other brother had Easy by the sleeve and was pulling him toward the fence. "Man," Easy said, "Man, get the fuck out. I am not playing with you. I ain't yours."
Will was watching. Smiling. This was his big brother. It was his Easy Money big brother with bling and rocks and women. He was proud. Nobody pushed Easy around. You could see.
That was when the brothers shot him. They shot E. in the face and in the chest, and they pointed at him when he was rolling on the ground. "You ain't whose?" the brother said. "I just threw you away, mother fucker, and that means you was mine."
Everybody hit the ground as soon as the shots went off. Everybody but Joey, who was in the middle of a move. He rose up, his back arched, his hands cocked above his head. The ball went in the basket like it was trained, and Joey landed, his hand still holding his follow-through. He looked at the brothers with the guns. Then he jogged off the court, headed home or somewhere. Buddha lay under the basket and watched him disappear.
"Do not," one of the brothers said, "fuck with me." Then the gate squeaked, the car doors closed, and they were gone.
Will ran to Easy, but when he saw his brother's face, he slumped back against the fence and wouldn't look. He sat there on the blacktop, head in his hands.
It took twenty minutes for the ambulance to get there. Everybody but Buddha and Will was gone by then. The ambulance fools were scared of Buddha. You could see. They were in a hurry to get Easy loaded up and out of there and that was why they dropped him. Easy groaned when he hit the sidewalk, and the paramedics looked down at him for a second with what-do-we-do-now? looks on their faces.
"Die," was all Buddha could make of the stuff coming out of E.'s mouth.
"You ain't," Buddha said. "Let's go!" he shouted at the men.
"Calm down," the older one said, backing away. The young one jogged back to the ambulance and got on the radio.
Easy groaned. He was lying there in the gutter bleeding and moaning, and something seemed to jolt through Will. He stood up like he'd been shocked. He was tall for thirteen, and he was mad and scared. He took a few steps toward the older guy, but the man kept backing up all the way to the ambulance. Both men got inside and locked the doors.
The cop car was there in three minutes. Two cops piled out with guns drawn.
They put Buddha and Will against the fence. "Which of you shot him?"
Buddha told them they didn't shoot anybody. It was two strangers.
"Oh yeah. Got witnesses?"
"Lots of 'em."
"Home, probably, or someplace."
"Nice guys," the cop said. "Somebody gets shot and everybody scatters?"
The cops cuffed them and patted them down. The ambulance men got E. back on the gurney, but he wasn't moving. He was going to die. Buddha knew it. They wouldn't hurry, and they didn't care. To them, Easy was just some rock-rolling pimp who probably deserved what he got.
At the station, they sat Buddha in a room and put Will in another. Two hours later a detective came in and took a statement. Buddha told them what had happened, that they were all just playing, not paying much attention when all of a sudden the two brothers shot E.
"Some game," the detective said.
"It wasn't even a game," Buddha said.
When they released him, Buddha sat in the lobby. Will came out a little later. His eyes were red and he could seem to make them focus. Buddha walked home with him. He didn't tell Will what the cops had told him—that E. was dead. It might not have been true, anyhow. "I got to go to work," Buddha said. "If you find out what's going on with E., come on by and let me know."
At work, Buddha never watched the stage. His stool faced the door. He'd seen it all a thousand times, anyhow—men drinking their money away or sticking it places where they thought it might get them something.
Just after midnight, Will showed up. He told Buddha that E had died. Will stood there, and it seemed to Buddha that something was up with his eyes. They were hard and wrong, especially wrong for a kid. "E. died," Will said, "And I need a drink."
Buddha folded his arms across his chest. He nodded at the second stool by the door. "Sit down," he said. "You can stay till close. Don't watch the girls, though. They got nothing to teach you. Watch the fools."
Even after midnight men were still coming into the bar with hungry, hopeful faces. Buddha made sure Will saw how they left, though—drunk and broke and alone. "They didn't get what they wanted," he told Will. "They just got a chance to want it harder."
"What was he into?" Will said.
Buddha wasn't sure what had gotten E. into trouble, but if you dealt with those kinds of brothers, there were no rules except for just whatever they felt like. "He wasn't into enough to get shot for," Buddha said.
Behind them, he heard the crowd shout, and he knew that Loletta must have come on stage.
Will looked over his shoulder. His fists clenched in his lap.
Loletta was the crowd favorite. She could make every fool there feel sure that he was the one she danced for. Buddha didn't turn around. He just stared out the open door to the sidewalk beyond. He could sense Will inching around on his stool. Buddha knew what he was watching—Loletta, half dressed, leaning toward the men. To them, she was a way different thing from a way better place and time.
Buddha should have made Will turn around and go home, but he figured the boy was going to have to find out for himself what he needed to get through the day. Everybody had to. And besides, it was none of Buddha's business.
He looked down over his belly. His shoes and the shoes of the other bouncers over the years had worn the varnish off the tops of the rungs on his stool. He could have told Will that the secret to happiness is not wanting too much, but he didn't. He didn't like it when his momma pushed him about what he was going to do with himself. "Who you suppose is going to bounce who," she had asked him the other day, "when you're fifty?"
"Fifty?" Buddha said. His mother, herself, was not yet fifty, and it seemed a ridiculous sort of question. "What you suppose you're going to do?"
"I'm going to clean them restaurants like I been doing," his mother would say. "You can't bounce forever no more than you can whore, smoke, or deal forever."
"But you can clean restaurants forever."
"That's right," she said, "and you can make a living."
"Some living," Buddha said.
"Listen mister part-time bounce pushing fools out of places they shouldn't be at in the first place...," she said. It was the build-up to a lot of things she had to say about what Buddha was going to do with his life. She wanted to help him go to school, or get some skills, or find a hotel job uptown. Something. When she got onto all that, Buddha just left the apartment. He'd hang around with his friends. They all knew what they were doing—laying one day over the next like a deck of cards that would never run out—but at least his friends had enough sense not to talk about it. Instead, they played twenty-one, where it was just you against the world. No teammates, nobody counting on you, nobody you could count on—a game that was not even a game. Something made in and for the Projects.
So Buddha let Will watch. At least the boy wasn't talking about Easy anymore. Something got most everybody through their days. At two in the morning, the music shut off and lights came on. Buddha stood up. The nastiness of the place showed—the stains, the spills, the burn holes, the raggedy furniture and carpet. The smell of stale beer and piss was somehow stronger with the lights on, too. A few fools had passed out at tables. Buddha got them up, walked them outside, and left them sitting on the sidewalk blinking like infants.
By then the girls were leaving. They were in their street clothes, and their make-up was off. Buddha saw the same sour tiredness on their faces that he saw on the waitresses when they clocked out.
The manager gave him his night's wages and his share of the tips. "Good job tonight," he said. "No fights. You are one talented son of a bitch when it comes to being big."
Usually, the money woke him up some, and he'd head out to buy himself breakfast at some all night place. But tonight he was tired.
Will was waiting for him on the sidewalk, pacing in front of the drunks who were slumped against the building. Buddha didn't know what to do with the kid.
"Loletta told me she was going to Derry's for breakfast," Will said. He was proud. He, a young man, had managed to talk to the famous Loletta, and she had actually said something back to him.
They walked to Joe Derry's diner and sat in a booth next to the one that held Loletta and two other strippers. Will sat closest to Loletta. She smiled at him over the seat back.
What did she want with this kid? Buddha wondered. Will sure didn't have any money.
"Will's brother got killed today," Loletta told the other two girls. "And Will needs to get his mind off things."
The youngest-looking stripper was smiling at Will. "Have you ever gotten your mind off things before?" she said.
Will grinned and looked down. He shook his head.
"I can show you some places to put that mind," she said. "Fine places."
Buddha could not believe it. These girl were taking this boy on as a sort of project, a public service.
Loletta leaned over the back of the seat and stroked Will's neck. "I can get your mind off just about everything," she said.
Will rolled his cheek toward her.
It maybe wasn't right, this young boy in these girls' hands, but it wasn't Buddha's business.
Loletta's lips moved toward they boy's ear. "How come," she said, and her tongue flicked his earlobe.
The boy turtled his head and smiled.
"How come," she said, "you ain't home?"
Will's forehead wrinkled.
"Didn't your momma just lose a son?" Loletta's voice was all breath and sex. "And I'll bet she don't know where you're at, neither, does she?" She pulled away and took Will's chin in her hand. She made him look her in the eye.
"I'm going to grab my life," he said.
"What you want to eat?" Buddha asked him.
Will shook his head. His eyes were locked on Loletta. "I want..."
"Let me tell you something, honey child," Loletta whispered. "I ain't the way to nowhere. What I am is the way away from just about everywhere." She turned back around in her seat and all three girls folded their hands and looked down at the table like they were saying grace.
"But...I need to grab..."
"Go home," Loletta said. "Take care of your momma. Make a funeral for your brother." She stole a glance at Buddha and winked. "It's dawn," she said. "Time to wake up."
She was right. People talked their sad selves into night things that daytime would never let them do. And this child, this boy...well, he did not even know the difference between night and day, not really. It wasn't Buddha's problem, of course. Buddha didn't have problems. But something made him stand up, there in the restaurant. "Let's go," he said.
"But I'm hungry," Will said.
"Your momma's got something for that." Buddha put a hand on Will's shoulder and squeezed his bouncer squeeze. Will rose.
Buddha did not know why he pulled the boy to his side and gave him a hug. He had never gotten a hug like that when he was a boy coming up. Will was stiff. He wanted food. He wanted Loletta. But Buddha kept squeezing. He wanted something, too, but he couldn't say just what it was. It felt uncomfortable, though, this wanting.
When Will finally relaxed and let himself be hugged, Buddha swung him toward the door.
"Yo," said Loletta, "fat boy."
Buddha looked back.
She was grinning. "Get a job."
Desire welled up in Buddha. He wanted to squeeze Loletta and thank her. He wanted to talk to Easy's mom. He wanted to get together with their friends and tell Easy stories. He wanted Will to learn the right things, whatever that was, from what had happened.
They headed up the sidewalk. "She's right, you know?" Buddha said.
Will looked up. His eyes were wet. He shook his head, and Buddha thought it was a good sign when what he said was, "Who?"