We called him Moochy. He was always darting around the cafeteria, shouldering up to somebody, feigning lack and then taking their milk or their HoHo's or anything he could get. Mostly it was chips because he loved salt. He would sneak under the bleachers at the ball field during the seventh inning stretch and lick the discarded peanut shells that had fallen down onto the short grasses.
"Leave that shit alone, fool!" my older sister, Tamika, told him.
Moochy paid no mind, just grinned with the shells mashed into his tongue and his teeth white against his dark skin like pearls in ink. Even as a goofy kid, the way he dropped one hip and lowered his jaw when he looked at you, made him fine in that bad way where you blush and tingle and want to get away because there is something dangerous and desirous in one single person.
When Moochy hit puberty, he grew tall and his voice got deep. He started to wear his hair short and seemed to know he had appeal. He wore white T-shirts and pressed jeans. After school, he'd show us how to "moon walk" and pretend he was slicking back his hair as he slid along the pavement on the top of his toes, knees bent and glorious in the way he glided backwards against the chill.
In those days, when music spilled out onto the sidewalk and boys leaned into girls at dusk, we kids of Denker Avenue saw the future big and wide. It wasn't something to contemplate but something guaranteed, certain as shit, so long as you saw yourself wrapped up in a big Someday, all glossy like the edge of the sea where it kisses the sun. I began to love Moochy. The way he could sit on a stoop, legs wide, elbows bent, his head to the side and that laughter that warbled out of him, deep and pocketed in cloudy spurts, his eyes squinted, his chin wagging.
Mama told me we were related in some vague way. Something about his daddy having shacked up with my auntie Tina when she was running the streets and had a little place in the avenues where she entertained her men friends and stayed drunk on Boone's Farm and Schlitz. Tina was my cousin Jamaica's mama—a pretty girl with those pearly teeth just like Moochy's. Me and him weren't blood relatives so it was okay for me to imagine myself all dope with his babies crawling around my feet. All I could do was imagine because Moochy had no idea I was even alive let alone planning our wedding, and all the pretty white-teethed kids we would have. He called me "Cuz" and patted me on the head. Sometimes he'd pull on my ponytail and look around real quick like somebody else had done it. I hated him calling me "Cuz." I wanted him to call me baby, or sugar, or baby girl. Yeah, baby girl sounded right.
He went to high school before I did and we sort of lost touch. I saw him in the neighborhood, but you would have thought I was only a shadow the way he looked right through me, pumpfisting his homies all manly and swaggered up. I told my sister Tamika I thought he was all that and she just laughed hard like a hyena, gripping her tummy and brushing back faint tears with the back of her hand.
"Girl, Moochy ain't about nothing. He know he fine and he be messin' around wit all them girls at high school. I seen him up there talkin' to one, then talkin' to another one, all like he's some kinda playa!"
"But I think he's so—"
"Leave that boy alone, Lulu. He ain't nothin' but trouble."
I stuck my bottom lip out and folded my arms across my chest; all my buoyant love dreams punctured like a balloon by my sister who seemed to relish taking my hopes away from me like a mother taking a piece of hard candy from a toddler.
I was almost set to start high school when a dark cloud seemed to hang in the air on Denker Avenue pressing down on us as if it held doom itself. The summer was hot and everybody seemed a little restless.
Cops were driving by at night, slow and deliberate, their white faces like stone, hard and without life. Moochy didn't press his jeans all that much anymore, and he let the shoelaces hang from his shoes. He got to wearing a "do" rag, and skipping school. Mama said it was all a sign that we should be getting out of that neighborhood. But I did not want to leave Moochy. Even watching Moochy standing under the streetlamp play- fighting with his friends, elbows up, and heads jerking and twisting, I still was fascinated.
One day four of us girls and a boy named Tariq twisted off the nut on the fireplug with a wrench the Indian dude had let us borrow. We were having a good old time letting that rush of water push us into the street, the cool jet already shortening the summer by degrees. Moochy came walking up and by this time I was wet all over—hair, legs, clothes, everything—and I was smiling because it felt so good to get out that heat for a while.
"Well, what's going on here?" Moochy said.
Tariq spoke first, "Old Turbanhead gave us a wrench 'cuz we told him the water heater pipe was loose in the basement."
"He gave you little suckers that big wrench?"
"Tariq told him the pipe was giant on account of it once going to a boiler," I said.
I began to shiver; my knees began to knock. Moochy looked at me. He smiled and then he looked at me again—wet, shivering and cold.
"Is that you, Aunt Gracie's lil' girl? Lulu right?"
"Unh-huh," I said.
"Damn'you all grown-up ain't you, Miss-little-cold-wet-titties?"
I felt a rush a blood run through me; my face grew hot with embarrassment. I lowered my gaze, raising my shoulders to shutter my breasts from his eyes.
"Moochy! Chill man; She ain't but a little girl, don't be messin' wit her like that," Tariq said.
"Aw man, you're right. Damn, she's almost my cousin."
I shivered more as if the embarrassment alone of Moochy reacting to me made me even colder. I started to cry. Tamika knitted her brows together and grabbed me by the arm. "C'mon, let's get away from these fools," she said. Moochy stood in front of me, blocking my way slightly.
"Hey, baby girl, look here. Don't go cryin' on me, I didn't mean nothin' by it. Just you all grown up and lookin' so fly. Look at you, you're shakin' like a whore in church. Hold on, let me give you my sweatshirt."
Moochy pulled his sweatshirt off and took a few steps toward me. He wrapped it around my shoulders, saying, "Put it on, go head. Aight?"
I pulled his sweatshirt on, the sleeves dragging at the sidewalk. I folded my arms, resigned to just let the sleeves dangle at my side. I slid the hood over my head and closed my eyes for a moment thinking to myself, baby girl.
Tariq used the big wrench to twist the nut tight again on the fireplug and only a puddle of water remained in the street. Quickly it heated up and waves began to rise from the puddle, reflecting us kids just standing in the street.
A boy from up the street hollered at Moochy.
"I'm comin' niggah," Moochy answered.
I started to peel off his sweatshirt.
"Ah just keep it baby, bring it by my mom's later."
He started a slow jog toward his friend. It was getting dark, and Tamika told me we had to get home. I followed behind her as we walked up the hill on Denker to our apartment.
"Did you hear Moochy call me baby girl?"
"He didn't call you shit, and besides, if he did you're only the one thousandth girl he's said that to."
"Naw ah, that ain't true. How'd you know, besides? You ain't there for his every move."
"No I ain't, but I know boys like him. He want to get as many girls as he can. It's a game—he ain't serious. Trust me."
"Whatever, but will you come with me to take him his sweatshirt later?"
"No, I ain't going over there where he stay. Them niggahs is crazy over there."
"It's just around the corner, Tamika."
"Yeah, but it's a long walk down to that corner and when you turn it you got to pass Riley's liquor store, and there's always a bunch of winos hanging out there trying to bum change, and get you buy 'em some cigarettes or them airplane bottles of whiskey. I ain't going over there."
"Aw, c'mon Tamika, please? I don't want to go by myself."
"I have homework."
When we got home, we both did homework and folded laundry with Mama. There was no convincing Tamika to go with me to return the sweatshirt. I waited until Mama went to bed before I put Moochy's sweatshirt in a paper bag, and took off towards his house.
Outside the air was still and heavy with humidity; for a moment a breeze seemed to pass, a sign that summer was soon going to end. The neighborhood was quiet too, as if the earlier doom had passed and moved onto another street to trouble other people. Moochy's house was only around the corner but it was like Tamika had said, a long way down the hill on Denker until I reached Riley's. When I started walking I could see the fluorescents from Riley's lighting up the whole corner.
A couple of old neighborhood dudes stood under the lamppost outside the store. A woman walked out and got into a car carrying a baby on her hip and a boxed wine dangling from her arm. The men hollered after her. I was almost at the corner when a car came down the street. It came close to the curb and a voice in the back whispered to me.
"Go home, baby girl. Right now."
I looked, but I couldn't see any faces, just shadows of boys becoming men, the car driving them fast to manhood and all its complications.
I kept walking because I was going to get to Moochy's no matter what. I slowed down a bit and let the car pass. It stopped at the corner and three boys got out and went into Riley's. The men on the corner walked across the street, and then walked faster turning back every time they picked up their pace. I was in front of the last brownstone before Riley's when I heard crashing and falling, as if a violent monster was tossing the shelves of soup, baby formula, and motor oil. I stopped walking when I heard voices.
"Open it, motherfucker!"
"No key—no key."
"Look motherfucker, I am going to blow your fucking ass away, hear? Open that fucking drawer, NOW!"
I peered around the corner and saw the boys dragging the clerk over the counter. One boy kicked him in the head and I saw the blood spurt out of him dark and slow. I started to turn back to run home when I saw Moochy in the store, stomping on the clerk, his hands spread out and high, his face twisted with anger.
"Give me the money!" and then he stomped on him.
I froze. I wanted to look away—I wanted to run.
I wanted to tell all those boys to stop. I wanted to drag the clerk to safety. I wanted to hate Moochy. I wanted to love him, too.
Some women came running from around the corner, hollering and screaming, brushing past me.
"Call the police, call the police, they're going to kill that man, they're killing him!"
I put the bag with Moochy's sweatshirt in the bushes and ran home, my heart racing, tears drying in the hot wind, whispering to myself as if it were a prayer—baby girl, baby girl, baby girl.