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GUPPIES

The intercom's blast, big and commanding, woke up Natty and his first irritated thought was, "You'd think there's a fucking fire. . ."

The alarm had startled him from his sweet sleep spot on the sofa in the living-room. "Damn," he ranted at the intercom, "somebody'll haveta fix that fucking bell! Shit's nuff to . . ."

He shook his upset head as something horrible enough failed to come forward and fast across the room to the speaker, he jammed his thumb hard on the TALK toggle, bawled into it, "WHAT?"

He released the toggle and listened, glaring at the intercom like it was a drooling fool. He shook his head grimly, well suspecting who it was downstairs bothering him so early in the morning. For he'd bet his balls it was Swooney, the early man of the crew he'd recently got down with.

Swooney's folks - unlike Natty's father - had no idea that he scrambled. They were strict church-going people; he had to show them school report cards with aces. If not, from the way Swooney acted, they'd probably sell him as a slave or something.

Because of this complex lifestyle, Swooney had to be out in the street every morning by six, six-thirty supplying the early dope fiends. His folks, meantime, thought he was in training with an athletic club.

And all this was cool with Natty - except that he had noticed that since he began scrambling with the crew, Swooney had been fucking him up like a two-dollar pussy. As if he planned on improving his bad boy reputation by messing with Natty's sleep and waking him up long before . . .

Natty couldn't finish the thought as Swooney's impatient voice came loud through the raspy speaker, "Yow, Natty. Come on down, Man! I gotta go!"

Like the rush of a familiar high, Natty's irritation swelled to anger. He jammed TALK again and screamed, "Okay! Okay! Just get off the fucking bell. You fucking asshole!"

As he replied though, the edge of the nozzle caught painfully into his thumb's ball and forced him to release it too soon. So even as he was finishing his response, he heard the hollow click of the intercom returning to neutral and nullifying it. His anger wanted him to jam it again and repeat, but the sudden pain was wicked and sharp and surrendered him to sticking it in his mouth and suck it away as he turned, sore and ugly, to get ready and go down.

As Natty went to bathroom, his father's voice, hollow and hoarse like the horn of a Charlie Chaplin jalopy, warned, "Tell them motherfucker friends o' yours 'A man needs his rest.' Yuh hearing me!"

Natty sucked derisive teeth and grumbled impatiently, "Yeah, Pa. Right!." He slapped a dismissing wave at the closed bedroom door thinking, "What the fuck're you fussing at? As always just talking for wolfing sake. You'll be here chilling all fucking day."

He turned the frown in his mind to speculating about hot water in the faucet. The cold flow confirmed his expectation: the super was probably drunk again. Natty muttered, "Business as fucking usual," spat his disgust into the bathtub and left without bothering to wash.

* * *

As he rounded the corner he connected on, the first person he saw was Black, the crew's lieutenant. In his usual robot-motion manner, he was leaning on the light pole, staring past Natty, up the far end of the street. He must have, but gave no sign he noticed Natty's approach.

Natty greeted him, "What's up, Black?"

As if he had to plan it, Black turned slow and stiff towards him and stuck his palm out. Natty exchanged a casual touch. Still without a word, Black resumed his pose; leaning stiffly against the light pole as if thawing arthritic joints.

Natty knew the attitude was only Black's play. When on the street, he moved slowly and didn't talk much. In his dark clothes that he wore night and day, he looked on at everything from behind his wraparound sunshades, keeping his mind behind that mystery-fence like the killer-monster in some cut-'em-up horror movie. This was because on the street he was the man in charge. But you get him on a basketball court, don't think 'sneakers' because that quick, he'd dribble past and lay you up.

Even so, Black's street mean wasn't all play. He had become lieutenant after Freddie Dingle, the big time dealer, had got busted and Black took the possession rap for him. Being only fourteen at the time, he was in Juvenile Detention for only five, six months. While locked up, Black never had to give up his sneakers, or his ass, or suck nobody's dick either. That was because he didn't drop no dime on Dingle, or make no turn for the 'Man'. And Freddie Dingle had weight. Nobody fucked with his business. That was why Black could be cool. He had proved. He had 'people'. They had his back.

Natty stood around thinking and looking around for a few minutes. Then he asked Black for his dope, "So wha'y'got?"

Deep breathing as if lifting a chest to say it, Black replied, "Quarters."

"Lemme hold a deuce," said Natty.

Black sauntered across the sidewalk away from the building and looked up at a second floor apartment. "Yo, B's," he called.

Immediately a girl's head poked out a window. She listened attentively to Black, went back in to return a minute later. A packet fell down. Black picked it up like it weighed a bus, handed it to Natty. "Quarters, each twenty J's at a dime, awright?" he drawled.

"Yeah," Natty said, "you got it." He stashed the dope in his inner clothes and broke out for his safe place, 'Pepito's.'

* * *

Pepito's was a candy store up the block from where they did their main scrambling. A older Puerto Rican they called Senor P ran it. Natty's crew had an arrangement with Senor P that he held their daily working stash for them. When they made a sale, they went and got the J's from the candy store. For this, each of them, Black, Swooney, and himself, gave Senor P a twenty a day. It was a good deal all around since Senor P was dependable. The few times the bulls busted his store they never even found an aspirin.

Tall and athletic in dark grey designer warm-ups, Swooney was already there. As soon as he saw him Natty went off again. Two school girls from the nearby Junior High were at the counter buying from Senor P. But Natty's rage was a train taking him past his stop; he was helpless within it. Right on throw-down distance from Swooney he stopped and arms wide and aggressive, said, "Why the fuck you always leaning on mih bell? Huh?"

He got everyone's attention and an excitement from their notice fanned his anger. He felt flushed from the tension that charged the store. He was about ready to do anything at all and release his power when Swooney backed out of his own fighting stance, and eyeing Natty warily, went out the store.

Natty watched him with no relief. Instead he now felt strained and queer, and that he had gained nothing at all. One of the schoolgirls tittered and he was about to go after Swooney when Senor P got in front him and began shouting the new excitement away, "Hey! Hey! Take it easy, my friend. Let 'im off this time. Don' bother 'im no more, amigo. Let it go."

He spoke as though he exactly knew Natty that could've and would've destroyed Swooney's ass. Natty took to the manner and quit as if reluctant.

Immediately the girls left he did his business with Senor P. Throughout their little talking, Natty played the mean avenger calmed by Senor P's peace-making. All the time though, Natty suspected the quick-eyed, smooth-faced old man knew the real deal: knew whose ass had been saved.

At a spare five-feet-ten in sneakers, Natty knew he couldn't tangle with Swooney. Although same age at fifteen, Swooney had cleared six feet and was still growing. He was also built solid like a longtime Cadillac. But even more than all that, Swooney, with his straight A's and handsomeness, liked hurting. And this is what Natty feared in truth. Because he himself didn't have that in him.

Natty called to mind one late spring night when a gang of them had gone blockbusting over in the Flagg projects. About nine or ten of them went; two carloads, with everyone carrying weight. Cool-Blood George was one of the older guys. He was sort of in charge. Del, Natty's cousin from uptown, went along because Natty asked him. They had come up on some Flagg project guys hanging out near a fire pump; about six of them. The cars had pulled over really slow, one behind the other.

Soon as the Flagg project guys noticed the slowdown action, they figured something was wrong. They might've thought it was the Man, so they tensed up to watch. Then as the lead car stopped, suddenly out of it jumped someone wearing a white ski-mask pulled down over his eyes to his nose. And he was covering them with a glinting sawed-off shotgun held braced against his hips.

In his car, next to Natty, someone sighed, "Ssshhiiittt. . ." drawling it out long and slow, as now a few other of our guys stepped out of both cars, backing up Ski-mask by pointing their guns at the Flagg project dudes. Natty himself remained in the car loosely pointing his .25. Like everybody else though, he was really watching Ski-mask. In the half-dark and the excitement he hadn't yet made out who it was. Then he heard the crazy sniggering in between Swooney's voice taunting the Flagg project guys, "Sooo... who'll start the races? Huh?"

The night went quiet. Until Swooney was telling them, ". . .at the count. . . okay? Here we go. And a one. . . and a two. . . and. . ."

But by then the Flagg project guys were off; gone WHOOSH! like a crowd in a Flintstone cartoon. Then as Swooney counted ". . .three!" he shot a blast behind them. BOOM! Natty was certain some of them got pellets in their rear-ends. And that was really just funny, for if they hadn't jumped the gun and had been ten yards closer, someone would have definitely been blown away.

When the Flagg project guys set off fast away, Natty and some others, just for the waste and noise, shot off a few rounds at them. Then they shot out a few upper-floor windows and some street lights before driving away. They were all still charged up though, so they went to a party and got stoned. Except Swooney. He had them first drop him off - shotgun in a sports bag - near his house. It had been close to midnight.

"Y'all know my hours," he laughed as he stepped out the car.

As they drove off Natty looked back and found Swooney waving at them. He looked the perfect TV image of a bright, college-bound kid just dropped off. Then Natty thought of what was in the sports bag and could only shake his head and grin. Swooney was brave, or crazy, or something. Whatever it was though, he wasn't really all right. And Natty never wanted to suffer of it.

* * *

Back out Pepito's the street was becoming nine o'clock busy. Droves of school children were coming out the subway shafts and buses on their way to either the Junior High, or the Elementary schools close by. More important to Natty were the many dope fiends standing about in small groups waiting for their Methadone Maintenance Clinic to open doors. They reminded Natty of hungry vultures in Black-and-White westerns. Except that the vultures in this case were the rotten food he and his crew scrambled on.

Swooney was talking to a regular customer - a temporarily outside prison-yard queen; an ugly person. His hormone treatments had grown him sudden bumps of breasts and larger, blotchy lumps on his right cheek and neck. Today, despite the cool, he wore a short coat and a thin shiny dress over skinny, mannish knees. Yet he still managed to bare some of the chemical breasts. He was complaining in high falsetto backed with heavy hand movement, "Listen darling, I have to say it. This product ain't quality. I mean, I don't know, but it doesn't do it. I could tell you personally that, like, what I get from those nice fellows across the Park is, like definitely nearer the mark."

"Well go across the Park," said Swooney.

"Who? Moi? Go across the Park alone?"

"You afraid of rape?" said Swooney.

His sarcastic tone seemed to convince the fiend to stop bullshitting. He slipped into a regular man's voice and asked, "Come on, tell me what ya got, huh?"

They put bodies together and was halfway private. Although Natty could see the dope-head palming over money and Swooney checking the bills. Then Swooney said, "Yo Home! There's only nine here!"

The fiend went back female, conducting air with his fingers again, "Gotta gimme a break, darling. Yu'know I'll take care that that little thing. I mean, is a dollar."

Swooney sucked his teeth and started to hand back the cash, just as the fiend added, "I'll bring you by some business with it later."

Swooney abruptly put the cash in his pocket. He told the fiend "Wait here!" and went down the block to Pepito's.

The transvestite leaned against the building preening debris from his short coat. Some school children passed by. One quick-faced kid commented deliberately loud, "Look at that he-she faggit with a beard and a bust line!"

The fiend cursed "Fuck all y'all!" and made a ladylike lunge at them as the group raced off charged by fear and laughter. Then Swooney was back, warning as he handed over the dope, "I don't see you later with some business and you get a fuckin' sneakers up your ass, you feeling me."

The dope in his hand, nothing frightened him, so the fiend was walking away shaking his ass like two bricks in a bag and talking feminine again. "You worry too much, darling."

Then he split for his morning methadone looking so weird and funny, Natty couldn't help remarking "Fucker'd prob'ly enjoy that."

Swooney burst out his strange giggle and slapped palms with him. Natty was even further relieved than his grinning. For the unspoken understanding was that their earlier hassle was done with. The least of all was Natty could now concentrate fully on business.

Once the clinic opened the fiends came for their dope and Natty's quarter moved fast. Then after about half an hour, Swooney handed him a dime bag. "That's all I got left and I've got a ten o'clock class. A seminar thing. Do me a big favor. Handle it and hold the bank until later. I'd really appreciate it."

Glad for the opportunity, Natty said, "Bet," and Swooney split for school. As he watched him go Natty had an urge to laugh. Not because he was funny, but because it was funny that Swooney did what he did - the very idea, the notion of being an ace scholar who scrambled part-time.

It was like shitting in heaven. Nobody did that.

* * *

A little way down the street, Black was also doing business. Being lieutenant, he could never leave the street while his crew scrambled. He did his own dealing by having one of his girls - Tira Jemson - fetch for him from Pepito's. Tira was one of the several freaks and younger guys who hung around the crew happy to do whatever. Until a few months ago when Black put him down, Natty himself was one. Other than fetching, Tira also kept on the lookout for rollers (in patrol cars), and DT's (in unmarked ones). As a girl, she sometimes stashed weight for the crew (in her drawers or wherever) during emergencies like narco raids and such. Before Natty was really down his job was to walk with the music - a state-of-the-art retro boom box with equalizer and 'automatic repeat' CDs sponsored by Black.

Margo, the dick-wit now doing this chore, joined Black and Tira then motioned Natty to come talk. She wanted to find out what light dope he preferred for their coming lunch-break as Black was about sending Tira to connect. Natty gave up ten dollars for some budder.

By one o'clock lunchtime Natty had sold all the dope he held. After putting aside the ten he did for Swooney, he had four hundred and ninety four dollars. Six short of two quarters worth, because of some breaks he'd given regulars. He gave the money over to Black, who returned him the ninety four as his own. Then business settled, they went to a Chinese restaurant for take-out. After that they headed to the Park to get high and gamble some.

* * *

They met Del and Tomas there playing ball and got them high on the smoke Tira had brought back. Then someone suggested craps.

After a while of playing, Natty was holding the bank and rolling his point as if Lady Luck was living with him when a politician-looking man walked into the Park leading a group of well-dressed people.

A few local senior ladies in heavy coats were sitting around airing their faces, watching autumn happen. It was these elder folks the politician approached and, no questions asked, began speechifying.

When Natty paid close attention, he found the man was criticizing the location of the methadone maintenance clinic, ". . . is a bad policy, from a cruel politics. A cold politics. A politics of selfishness and bigotry. A system in which we are used up and consumed by abuse. A system that's callous, dishonest, and short-fall in humane aims. These opposition politicians who allow this dumping of methadone clinics in despairing communities such as this, they are profiteers from narcotics. They are criminal when they convert our already trying communities into magnets for criminal elements. They corrupt our Hope with the trash. They organize the crimes against us . . ."

His little crowd of followers and the bunched-up ladies agreed, "Yes, yes. It's a shame."

The senior ladies however, since they lived around the area, knew the crew as scramblers and were sending informed eyes and heads-ups towards the speaker that the crew grouped near the hoop was listening.

Missing all the body language, the politician continued spouting his opinions.

After a bit more of it, Tomas raised his voice and suggested, "Maybe someone oughta burn tha' motherfucker down. Huh?"

At this, the politician, either from misunderstanding the ladies' nervousness or interest in the simple solution, led his well-behaved crowd over to the crew. A couple of the seniors followed.

In his same speechifying volume and tone, he greeted them, "Hullo, young fellows."

Tomas answered for the crew, "Yeah, man. How yu'doin'? I think yu'got it right."

The politician started right in, "We're with the Community Task Force seeking to close these methadone clinics. We think they represent a corrupting influence on our young people. . ." He had everyone's attention and continued by asking, "So do any of you have views on this matter?"

Tomas, grinning hugely, repeated, "Yeah man. I say give the shit a light."

Dell chimed in, "That's right. Them firemen shit around all day waiting for they pension. They need some work, man."

Natty added, "That's right. White dudes playing ping-pong and chess. I seen them."

Now everyone in the crew, even Black, seemed ready to bullshit with the guy a little. But then a serious-looking man behind the politician asked, "What do you fellows do?" and after glancing at his watch, "shouldn't you all be in school?"

Tomas was spokesman again, "You be blind, mih man? Can't you be seeing it? Look Mister, I am in school and this is break-time. Uh-huh. I'm studying to be a war-monger in big government."

Natty offered, "And I'm going to be a physicist so I could laser up crooked millionaires, especially politicians."

The uneasy expressions on the faces of the main speaker and his proper little crowd settled into determined 'Let's-get-outa-here' looks as they began to leave.

Meanwhile Del had thought up his ambition and shouted it after their receding backs, "I'm goin' be an IRS explorer so I could discover you shitheads' accounts."

By now the crew was laughing outright. Tomas had changed his mind and was screaming that he now intended to be a 'Task Force Asshole Designer' as the man and crowd got into their cars and escaped.

By then even the senior ladies were giggling.

Then Black, becoming serious again, suggested it was time to get back to business. Natty didn't mind at all. It'd been a fun lunch and had left his pocket winning.

* * *

It was about eight o'clock and the whole crew was out: there was Black, Swooney, Natty, Del, Tomas, Tira, Margo-with-the-music, Dee, her younger sister, and Fat Noleen. Business was sporadic at that time of evening and Black, Swooney, and Natty were standing apart talking, while the others attended to the entertainment and the occasional junky copping.

Between his scrambling and gambling, Natty had cleared about seven hundred dollars, his own money. Swooney too, was flush, and Black had just proposed they go see the latest horror movie downtown. He would take Tira so he'd have some pussy afterwards. Dee, the younger sister, liked Swooney, so he was fixed up. Natty however, with neither Black's cool command or Swooney's good looks, had no one. So Swooney was on his case, teasing Natty to take Fat Noleen, "You'd definitely get some pussy once you find it between them monster legs."

Trying to laugh it off, Natty replied, "Man, I don't fuck with frogs."

At this point Margo-with-the-music joined them. She was high and Tomas was boldly fondling her breasts and ass as if he was searching for cancer lumps. She was acting uninterested as if she was one. Lowering the volume, she explained that she wanted to leave the music. She had something to do, she told Black. Tomas grinned and elaborated, "She's got a nut to crack."

Immediately Swooney upsed with, "Let Natty hold the box. He don't have nothing else to hold."

Sensing the point, Tomas suggested, "Why don't he go 'n fuck Fat Noleen. Del swears she sucks bone like a vacuum-cleaner hose."

He and Swooney began laughing and slapping palms. Natty seeing it getting out of hand, began blustering, "All right, all right. Stop fucking with me. Okay?"

Between howls, Swooney said, "But who? Who's fucking with you? Nobody's fucking with you, not even the frogs."

Everyone was dying with laughter.

A rage beginning, Natty shouted, "All right, Swooney. You'd better stop right now, okay? Before I really fuck your shit up."

He was so hard and serious that suddenly as if a tape had ended, all the laughter ceased.

Swooney's voice came softly and too friendly for its quiet. "How're you going to fuck my shit up, Natty-Nat?"

Still angry and vengeful, Natty challenged him, "How about if your fuckin' people find out you're a fuckin' dope dealer, huh?"

As if he'd just said the secret of Life and Death, Natty felt everyone staring at him. A glance showed even stoned-eye Margo-with-the-music was blinking for a better view.

Swooney, muttering "Shit-faced motherfucker. . !" through his grin, moved fast, his fist poised to throw down before Natty could react. But Black had flashed in between them and shielded him, saying slowly as ever, "Yu' can't do that, Swooney."

So Swooney stopped as he had to. If not, he'd have been punching Black.

He tried getting around Black. But shaking his head 'No', Black shifted to deny him.

"Get out mih face, Black." Swooney warned him, "I ain't bullshitting."

Black didn't budge. "Yu' can't do that," he repeated. "All week you been fucking with mi' man. And you won't be hitting nobody while I'm around."

Swooney let out his crazy giggle. He said, "So that's how it's gonna be, huh?"

Firm as a sentencing judge, Black answered, "That's how it's gotta be!"

Throughout all this fast action, Natty was more confused than anything else. Although he felt safe as if surrounded by a solid wall just about his height and wearing black clothes, he knew he was also seeming wimpy and protected from Swooney. And now the commotion had attracted the rest of the crew and brought Dee running excitedly to Swooney's side - she grabbing him and pulling him away possessively as if he was the last man on earth. Tomas and Margo joined to help drag him away. Then after advising Natty to go home and cool out, Black and Tira went off, leaving Del, his cousin, and Fat Noleen to console with Natty.

Uncomfortable with them and still slightly confused about what had happened, Natty started away alone. But they hurried to catch up and walk with him. Del asked, "So what's goin' down, Cuz?"

Before Natty could respond, Fat Noleen asked, "Why you want to be fighting that crazy fool for?" Then with heavy distaste, she added, "Yu'know how he wants 'a be trying to bully-over everybody?"

Her point-of-view, with the sympathy in her voice, was just what Natty needed. He didn't feel so much in the coward's shadow of Black's big wall anymore. He answered them both with a determination he was uncertain of, "Well, I ain't taking no more shit from him."

They all stopped and both of them looked at him. He shook his head decidedly at them, "I just ain't. That's all. See y'all tomorrow."

Then he went home.

* * *

Next morning Natty was dozing on his sofa bed vaguely expectant in his half sleep when he rose up abruptly as he remembered the hassle with Swooney and realized that his bell wouldn't be ringing. Before his relief could settle down he became anxious about how Swooney would react to their beef. He speculated on this as he prepared to leave and finally decided to carry along his .25 to work today. He took it from its house-spot and stuck it next to his skin in his pants' waist. The moment before leaving the apartment he thought of talking to his father about it. But earlier on he had heard a double set of snores through the bedroom door. So there was a woman in there. She would be a stranger, and this was a family matter.

* * *

Over at the spot, Black told him Swooney wasn't down with them anymore. Natty asked, "Who told you?"

Black looked at him blankly.

Natty asked, "Dee?"

Black looked at him, Maybe.

Natty asked, "Yu' hear anything 'bout what he goin' do?"

Black shook his head, No.

Natty nodded as if he agreed, said, "You worried?"

Black gave him a cold look, then changed his mind and said, "Look, man. Swooney ain't stupid. This is Dingle's business 'n he don't fuck around. Swooney's hip."

Natty nodded agreeably to every word. "Yeah," he said, "true dat."

Black said, "Maybe you should double up for a few days, huh? Them early dope fiends should be going wild over in his spot. If you want to handle them."

With the weight of the .25 in his waist and his resolve not to take any bullshit, Natty felt serious and able. He said, "Yeah, give it up. I can handle." He collected the dope and headed for Pepito's.

Senor P had heard about the trouble and had advice for Natty, "Hey, my friend. You must try to fix this thing up. What you say? You nice guys. Why spoil it with the fighting and the trouble. You have a good lil' business. No? Don't foul your nest, mi amigo. Huh?"

Natty never looked at him or answered. Back to the counter, he kept his eyes on the door as Senor P spoke to the back of his ear. He wondered why the old man was so concerned. Maybe it was his twenties every evening. Maybe Swooney had asked him to quiet and cool down the trouble. Think of the Devil, Senor P was just saying his name, ". . .that Swooney fella. Now he's not really a bad fella. Maybe a little, you know how they say, loco, maybe. But he's mostly mischief. That's all. He's a good amigo to have. You must try with him."

A group of school children trouped in for their junk, interrupting Senor P. Natty saw it as a good chance to break out. But just in case chatty Senor P was playing peacemaker, he said, "Hey, I don't want no hassles either, Senor P. But yu'know how it goes. Right?"

Then he went to work.

* * *

A Gulf-Vet junkie was giving him a hard time about some dope bought earlier in the week, "Yo, listen up. Listen here. Your shit ain't shit. This is the worst dope I ever, ever got next to. It ain't worth shit. And the bags too small anyhow. It's like, a fuckin' rip-off, man."

Natty, hardly listening to him, said, "Don't know 'bout it, man. Can't help you."

The junkie went on, "an' how the fuck y'all can call this shit 'Devil high'. Devil shit, I say. An' what the fuck you mother-fuckers cutting the shit with, huh? Last bag put a hurting on me. Cramps and shit and everything. Man, I was like sick as a motherfucker."

Natty knew the junkie as Onezy. He had lost his right arm at the elbow in Iraq and was a dependable booster. He worked the nicer Fifth avenue stores and usually paid for his dope with fine clothes or shoes. But he was a complainer - always dissatisfied, always grumbling, always threatening. Natty was trying, but he had things on his mind this morning and no patience for the fiend's usual bullshit. He cut him short, "Look here, Onezy. I never sold you nothing, okay. I don't know nothing about your gripe, okay. So quit yuh fucking crying in my face, okay."

The junkie walked about fifteen feet away and from that range continued his whining.

It being near nine o'clock, the street was busy with school children, folks going to work or the Laundromat, fiends and regular people, and so forth. So Onezy's loud complaining was drawing attention. Two fiends made purchases from Natty, then as they went away, paused to listen better to Onezy. After a bit, one returned to Natty saying, 'He didn't want the dope because he felt it might be bad.' Onezy just told him it was cut with something dangerous.

At that, Natty went off.

He took the pistol from his waist and holding it concealed in his pocket rushed up to Onezy and collared him and shoved him against the wall.

"What you doing, sucker?" he bawled into Onezy's face. "What the fuck you trying, huh?"

From in his pocket he rammed the pistol barrel hard into Onezy's stomach and felt the fiend's thinness surrender away from the jab. Then Onezy's whine changed into a frightened pleading, "I ain't serious, man. I'm cool, baby. I'll split. I'll go. Please."

Something offensive about the junkie's smell, and his attitude, and his flinching frailness combined to disgust Natty. He wished to rid himself of this nasty pest. In his pocket a finger squeezed the trigger hard. Then deliberately again in surprise at the mere muffled clicks he heard instead of blasts of gunfire.

Onezy too, must've felt or heard the misfires. He began screaming, "Don't shoot me, man. Don't kill me!"

And the curious folks who had so quickly gathered around them began scattering every which way like roaches busted by sudden light.

Next thing Natty knew was Black dragging him off the junkie and stumbling him away, asking angrily, "What the fuck is wrong with you, man? We can't have no trouble. You know that!"

Natty still wanted to get off, but was a bit bewildered as well. In a rush he began explaining, "You wasn't here to see. But I was right. Onezy was in front me bad-mouthing the product to the other fiends, making them return it. I couldn't deal with that. And then the fucking gun won't fire. Yu'know what I mean. And fucking Onezy there fucking around. That's too much shit and I ain't taking shit no more."

Black said, "Okay, man, okay. But you got to cool out. Cool out. You her me! It's all right. This guy ain't nothing but a heroin hero wanting to be all he can be. You can't get fucked-up over him."

How Black spoke suggested a special looking-out between the two of them. So Natty was willing and wanted to be contrite and pacified. He listened to his main man's advice and took a walk while Black went back to take care of Onezy.

* * *

He had just rounded the corner away from the fracas when he met Fat Noleen coming his way. Maybe the look on his face, she blocked his way and asked excitedly, "What's up, Natty?"

Then looking at him more closely, she held his coat's sleeve and asked, "Something's going down on the block?"

Still stimulated by the hassle with Onezy, Natty fattened his answer, "Nearly popped a fucking dope-head was fucking with me."

Her eyes widened with thrills and concern. She held on to his other arm and crooning it like she was applauding a mischievous baby, cried, "Natty, how you so always getting in trouble, huh?"

Then she said specially, more closely, "Where you going?"

"Just chilling."

"Why not come up to my house, huh? Yu'know you should be getting off the street."

Natty hesitated. He took a sly glance around and as he met her eyes she turned away slightly saying, "Nobody's home . . . and no one'll be seeing you."

Realizing that she'd understood his situation, he said, "Bet!" and went up to her house.

* * *

She had her own bedroom. The main thing in it, bigger than even her dresser, was a wall unit of three shelves with many large fish bowls set along them. The fish in the bowls were tiny things with oversized fantails of blues, and greens, with spots of silver, or black, and any color at all. So impressed he was, Natty instantly forgot his uneasiness about being seen. He realized she'd arranged the bowls in rainbow order of fantail colors: the whatever variety of reds, then oranges, then yellows, and so on. The fish were totally happy and spry, darting in between water plants, parading their pretty spots, or rays, or stripes of color on their outrageous tails. Natty sneaked a glance at Fat Noleen as he checked them out. He found it hard to fit the two sights in the same room: lumbering Fat Noleen and these skimpy flashes of color. She caught him looking at her. He said, "Hey, this is really the joint, Noleen. These shits're stupid pretty."

Her eyes popped as she flushed. "Lemme get a jay," she said and went to a cupboard.

Natty could see the big blush forming all over the soft brown skin of her fat neck and shoulders giving it a raw look. He grinned to himself and asked the bulging sacks of her backside, "So what kinda fish is they?"

"Guppies," she answered, "that's what they call them in some books. But their real name is Million-fish. . . they's from the Caribbean, Trinidad, I think."

Natty, half-listening, studied her sitting at the table cleaning the ganja, talking fancy fish. It was the first time he'd heard her even talk that long in one burst. Suddenly he felt compelled to show that he also knew something about fish. He couldn't think of anything but began talking anyhow, "Tropical fish is something else. . ."

But she had continued, ". . . a pastor, an Island guy named Guppy, he saw them as a special type and sent them to England to find out, and the white people in England named the fish Guppies. But he had called them Million-fish because was so much a' them. Is what the local people call them anyhow."

She stopped and concentrated on lighting the joint. She dragged deeply and passed it over. "They look real pretty," Natty said before he pulled on the sweet-smelling budda jay. He held in long and sighed it out slowly. He passed the joint and said, "Different kinds in each bowl, uh?"

"Only the males pretty," she explained, "all the fancy-tailed ones're male. The females're plain. I only put them together to breed."

The budda had given him an enormous rush of clear-headed cool. He became precisely aware of everything about him: the spot of bright sunshine on the crystal fishbowl; the soot-soft lines of the different levels of water in each bowl; the flicking darts and frilling pauses of the male million-fish; and Fat Noleen's smooth voice, deep and charged like the rich flush that had re-colored her. He had to laugh. "Yow, Noleen," he said, "You got some good shit here."

Natty had the joint again. He toked and passed it back. She hadn't answered. Just sat looking fat and soft at him. He figured that the chiba must be getting to her and recalled what Tomas's said about Del's comment about her vacuum-cleaner snake head. Abruptly turned on, he became interested in finding out.

Noleen began talking fish again. "The females make babies every month. Makes it easy to experiment with them, if you feel like it."

"So they easy to breed, uh?" Natty followed up, trying to get her attention. Her eyes only fluttered at him and fled back to the fish bowls and Natty realized she was shy about looking at him in the way that said he could have her.

She had replied, "Uh huh, and bold too. You see how they always come up to the bowl face begging. And they'd eat anything. . . even their own babies. The store guy sez that in Trinidad, in the countryside, they eat wigglers and keep the mosquitoes under control. . ."

Her voice got softer and softer as she talked away. Natty kept his eyes hard on her face but she wouldn't look at him. Just sat there soft and flush and fat like he could piss on her and she wouldn't move, staring at the gulping fish as if they were sending code signals to her. He went up to her smooth, fat face and pulled out his dick. He shook and rubbed it about on her soft cheeks. Then he held her head steady and shoved it at her mouth. Her take-me lips were still shaping on how "guppies can live with little oxygen" when his dick slid in and she was forced to turn to slippery sucking.

* * *

It was a morning about two weeks after that when Natty's bell rang sudden again. When he answered it however, no one was there. He figured some one had made a mistake downstairs. About half hour later, seven-ish, he rounded the corner to Black's block and saw a small crowd milling. Mostly junkies and younger street people, they gathered around someone laid-out on the street. As Natty got closer someone at the crowd's edge recognized him and shouted, "Natty! Natty! They jus' done fucked up yuh man!"

And hearing that, Natty broke to the middle.

Black was lying on his back with his face twisted one side and spit drooling from his mouth, pass his ear, and into his naps. From that side of his face, other than the spit, he could've been sleeping. But as Natty stepped around and peered closely around the ear resting on the street, he could see the sunk-in part where Black's head had been crushed and the blood was leaking out slowly onto the asphalt. From that view Black looked like he was dead.

A fiend had seen it all. Nothing to say to the police, but he had seen this guy creep out from the corner of the building where he'd been hiding. He ambushed Black with a baseball bat when Black came out to lean on his lamp-pole. When asked who the guy was, the junkie said he didn't recognize him. But from how he said 'recognize' Natty knew he could clear up the fiend's mind with a jay bag.

It took two bags, and as he had expected, it was Swooney. He had worn the same white ski-mask and had giggled while batting Black a second and a third time after he fell. That's mainly why the junkie spoke up at all. "The mutha didn't haveta be dog mean on mih man, see?" he said. "'E'd crunched his head firs' strike. Ah heard it clear crost the fuckin' street. Y'un'rstan'?"

Natty didn't fuck around with the news. He knew exactly what he had to do and hailed a gypsy to Freddie Dingle's place. All the ride he thanked his luck that he had such a rich chance to see the 'Man' himself. Depending on how he showed right now, he might get a big play.

* * *

Natty left Freddie Dingle's place feeling very good about himself. One of Dingle's crew had called the news to Freddie. Then the guy had called Natty to the phone. He said into it, "Hullo. . ."

"Lemme hear it."

"Is about Black, Mr. Dingle. A guy, usta be with the crew, Swooney's his name. Well he batted Black this morning. Black looks real bad."

"Swooney?"

"Yes sir, Swooney. A fiend seen it all an' he told me."

"Hmmn."

"He had a beef wif Black, sir, and me too."

"I know. You did good coming right away, Natty. We'll take care of it. You did good."

"Thanks, sir."

"I'll be in touch, but you should get off the street now, Natty."

Natty hung up in a triumphant daze. He'd hit a final second three-point-play winner: Freddie Dingle said he'd done good. Freddie Dingle knew him by name, had said it twice. And Freddie Dingle'd be keeping in touch! As he left the lounge, Freddie's man handed him a bill: Natty blinked at two zeros, heard the man say, "Go to the movies, Champ." He stepped out the door into bright sunshine. A service car was waiting, engine running, at the curb. The driver stepped out and asked, "You Natty?" in a way that said, his ride where ever was compliments of Freddie Dingle.

* * *

Now, it nearing eleven, Natty eased into Fat Noleen's building and rang her apartment's bell. As usual it was no problem. She buzzed him in. They had worked out this rendezvous since the million-fish day. Now he had her every day around lunch-time. On the street they acted distant as usual.

When he was inside and they had talked about the million-fish, and that he was cooling out for the day, he asked her for a joint.

She said, "Maybe yuh shouldn't be smoking, Natty. Can't do nothing today, yu'know."

Natty didn't get her meaning. He looked at her.

"Friend's here," she said, apologizing.

He didn't let on his relief. She being so big around and heavy, fucking her was clumsy and awkward. He much preferred her to just suck him off. That he couldn't complain about.

She was standing near the cupboard with the chiba when there was the sound of heavy boots landing on the floor somewhere else in the apartment. Noleen said, "Ma's bedroom. . ." and Natty knew instantly what had happened. Someone had entered the house through the fire-escape ladder. Then before he could even get up off her bed, Swooney and two other guys had filled up Noleen's bedroom.

Natty didn't know the two guys. The shorter, dark-skinned one looked older, maybe twenty. The other was skinny, kid-faced. All three of them looked blank-happy high. Swooney was giggling and talking crazy-friendly, "My man, Natty-Nat. My main man! Now my man's getting the pussy big-time. Fatty-Froggy Noleen piggy-pussy. An' it all belongs to Natty-Nat, my main man."

The long, light-skinned interrupted, "Come on, Swooney. We goin' to fuck 'im up or what?"

Natty measured the skinny shit and decided to try and kick his balls in. Then he noticed the stocky guy and Noleen staring dead at each other. She with her mouth trembling open and close like one of her silly fish in the bowls. The stocky guy said abruptly, "Let's fuck her!"

Right away the skinny dust head said, "Bet!"

Swooney agreed, "Yeah, let's run a train up the fat cunt."

A rush of closeness from being with her reminded Natty of how Noleen had just been embarrassed about her period. Feeling protective, he put it to Swooney, "Hey man, she's bleeding. . ."

The stocky guy cut over him, "Shit, I don't care."

Natty caught her eye. He shrugged. He had tried. Noleen just stood there springing tears from her big, soft, empty face as they went at her.

* * *

They made Natty sit in a chair while each rode her three, four times until they got fed-up. Then they shoved make-up bottles and other stuff up her. The room became stink with a stale, rotten smell from her blood. Once, when Natty tried to sneak away, they pushed him to the floor and wiped her dirty pad all over his arms and clothes, and baby dreads. Swooney and the stocky guy punched him around some while the skinny one pissed in some of the fish bowls, and hawked and spat in others. Then he joined in and tried to kick the shit out of Natty who rolled himself in a ball and minded to protect his head and nuts. They didn't seem at all tired out from their raping, and only stopped when Noleen began screaming and swearing that her Moms was due back any moment. Then Swooney and his boys called it and left through Fat Noleen's front door.

After they'd gone, Natty was so hurting he just lay down on the bed while Noleen, crying and sniffling, did all the cleaning up; even of his own body, hair, and clothes. Every time she found a new daub of blood on the floor or the wall, she started sobbing anew. "O God, if Ma sees this mess I'm dead. She'd be crazy mad," she bawled.

Partly to distract her, Natty said, "Them fish're fucked up, girl. Look at them at the top. They're like, gasping."

"I don't care, Natty. I can breed guppies," she almost screamed. Then it was back to her clean-up moaning, "Ma sees this shit 'n I'm dead . . ."

* * *

It was more than a month before the doctors were allowing anyone but family to visit Black. As soon as Natty heard this he went to the hospital, and wanting to avoid the rest of the crew, he went morning hours. Black was in a private room decorated prettily in blue. But he himself looked fucked-up among all the flowers and nice sheets and so on. His head was like a cloth egg from bandages. His eyes were swollen tight-lidded and running pus. In a hoarse grandfather whisper he said, "Yo! Natty."

The sight of him brought back afresh to Natty that Swooney had done this and that Black had got into it by protecting him. It made him feel so bad tears were burning up his eyes. He abruptly stepped up to the head of the bed where the bottles and tubes hung, and where Black couldn't turn his crippled head to see. There he quickly dried himself. To cover the time, he asked, "So how yu' feeling, man? When yu' comin' out?"

"When I could move . . . mi' hands again." Black forced the words one at a time, more paralyzed than in his slow, slow way. With his two-toned whispers, only sounding sadder longer.

They talked around. Natty brought him up-to-date about this and that: Swooney being nowhere to be seen; Senor P sending flowers; Tira bugging out because Black was hurt; how he, Natty, was carrying his careful .25 ever since; that the dope fiends were going off all day by the clinic now that they didn't have dope; in response, DT's were covering their former scrambling corner, standing out like pork in a drugstore.

The cop story made Black laugh. But laughing hurt him somewhere to tears. After the pain passed, he went tired and motioned Natty nearer to croak a number into his ear. "Freddie Dingle sez you should call him," Black whispered, "they found Swooney."

* * *

At about eight o'clock the intercom sounded three short blasts. Natty, already dressed, was up and off his sofa-bed by the time the third blast had ended. He went in the kitchen and reached in the oven to take out a .38 Special. He'd got it yesterday from Freddie Dingle as the job was lined out. Natty was careful to remember and now loaded the gun with the special bullets Freddie Dingle had given him. That done, he shoved in the safety and stuck the gun deep in his waist. Then he went downstairs.

As planned, the car waited a little up the block with the engine running. Natty went to it and got in the back seat. The driver didn't look around; only raised the music loud and bassy as soon as Natty slammed the door. The driver wore extra-big warm-ups with the hood pulled low over his forehead. All Natty could see of his face was a side of jaw. Driver tossed a parcel over to the backseat. "Put it on, man," he said, "like mine."

It was another warm-ups top, monster-sized. Natty put it on just like Driver, with the hood pulled low down. Then Driver rolled the tinted windows completely up as they sped away.

It was a high school in a nice area, in another borough. With the engine running, they had been waiting near twenty minutes when they saw Swooney walking across the playground. Immediately Driver geared up and cruised slowly towards the blind corner. Natty shifted nearer to his door, took the .38 out his clothes and put it on the seat next to him. Driver spoke in a calm, reminding voice, "Wait 'til he's alongside the fence so's he can't run in no where. Move in quiet. He might be carryon'."

Natty sensed Driver checking him out through the rearview mirror. So he didn't swallow the spit leaking into his mouth. He said, "I got it, man. I'm aright."

For that's how he felt in truth. The action coming down was set in his mind like a learned play, simple as a pick and roll, easy. Especially so as Driver stopped the purring car a fifteen foot jump shot blindside from where Swooney would come out the playground. Then Driver switched off the engine and the jamming music went silent. And the play was set waiting for Natty to make his move.

Swooney walked onto the sidewalk and seemed to look directly at the silent, tinted-glass car. Then he continued up the street carrying some schoolbooks in one hand and a small shopping bag in the other. Natty, right hand on the gun in his pocket, opened the car door without a sound. He was quickly out the car and alongside the school building's wall. Then he sneakered up to Swooney at a fast walk. As Dingle'd made him practice over and over, in his pocket he gently released the safety. When he was close enough, he took the gun out his pocket and putting it near behind Swooney's head, he called softly, "No school today. . ."

Then as Swooney turned around Natty blew his surprised face away.

The kick from the gun jerked back his hand, hurting his wrist sharply. But Natty sucked in the pain, followed Swooney's flailing body down and hand-to-wrist police style, put another jolting shot into the head.

The car horn blasted close beside him. Driver was shouting, "Homey. Call it! Now! We outta here!"

Natty ran back and was swift in through his still opened door. Before he could shut it they were revving up the street, tires screeching and powerful around the corner, flying.

Which was same way as Natty felt when he met Driver's eyes in the mirror. Driver's shifted away with him saying, "You fucked 'im up real!"

"Said I would," said Natty.

* * *

Two weeks later, up at his place, Freddie put Natty down with his main crew. He handed Natty a handful of fifties and some quarters of dope and told him the set up. Bottom line was, Black might never make it back so Natty was now lieutenant. He'd get so much dope and had to bring back so much basic bank. He mustn't mess with the supply. What he got, he sold. Prices on his block was whatever his business could make it. He made eight Bens a day basic, plus whatever. Natty thanked Mr. Dingle and assured that he wouldn't disappoint.

Afterwards, sitting in his cab home, he thought of Del, Tomas, Margo-with-the-music, and the others, and tried to select his crew. When he came to considering Fat Noleen, what he remembered was the train Swooney had organized on her. It made him feel soft for her and he decided the one thing he'd do for certain. Tomorrow he'd give her some money for a brand new crop of guppies.

* * *

(c) Kelvin Christopher James