I learned to juggle from the white hippie-looking motherfucker who worked weekends in front of Hotel Agapeh. He didn’t have dreadlocks or a beard but he looked like one of those guys who’d consider everything in the world before he decided everything was worth nothing. He looked six years older than I was. Hardly a hair on his face. He had braces on his teeth and his lips stuck way out like they hurt. I walked in the gutter because he was helping a bunch of fancy-looking white guys load their luggage onto a brass cart. When I looked at them I squeezed my fists tight around the crinkly paper packages inside my pockets. He looked at me and winked. And a suitcase nearly fell. And he caught it while looking at me.
If someone made eye contact I was supposed to remember who and where and did they look like a cop and did I do something to make them watch me. I didn’t think I did anything to make the doorman watch me as I walked past. When I got back to Beezy’s—I had to take Arroyo to avoid the hotel—the first thing Yo-yo did before even asking about the money was ask me did anyone follow. I told him no but that the white doorman stared at me and dropped a suitcase.
“He dropped a bag? He didn’t say nothing?”
“No. He just stared.”
“He do anything else?”
“No. He winked.”
“I said did he do anything else? Did he wink or not?”
“Fag. That’s all. Not a cop. Don’t go by there again unless you want to lose it to a white queer.”
“Like you did?”
“Fuck you, kid.”
Beezy leaned over from the couch and snatched the money out of my windbreaker. He tossed fifty dollars at me. “Yo-yo, shut your goddamn mouth talking to my cousin. Cousin go home.”
I picked up the bills from the floor and folded them neatly into a small triangle. Yo-yo pretended to grab for it, but I swung my hands away and kicked him in the leg. I left when Beez started laughing and Yo-yo started yelling.
Hotel Agapeh was not on my way home, but I went by there to see if the white guy was still out front. It was already getting dark and I guess he went home for the day. I looked at myself in the grimy windows. Then I looked through myself and into the bar. The fancy looking guys from before were drinking beer. Their mugs hazy with sliding foam. They only came to buy something. A building. A factory. You saw it in the papers all the time, these old fat guys with smiles like they were getting away with something.
I practiced watching everyone on my way home. Checking if anyone was following the way Beez showed me. I’d find something to look at and crane my head around as I passed. Or I’d jump and spin and pretend to be a normal kid goofing off down the sidewalk. No one was following me. I had done maybe a dozen jump-and-turns and I was sweating. It gets so hot in the city in the evening. And the dust starts to smell funny. Like cardboard boxes and salt. And sweat. My sweat. It dripped down into my eye and burned and I stopped jumping around. Instead, I looked at the street and pretended the asphalt cracks were snakes that were coming after me. Or running away. I was the snake wrangler. They ran in fear into the blood light that scattered across buildings and the bubbly graffiti at their trunks. For years, I made it a point to rub my hand on the runny spray paint as I passed. Some of my brother’s friends made those tags. And some of my brother’s friends were dead. Arrested. No one knew. All we knew was we didn’t see them around anymore.
When I got to my neighborhood it was dark. The barbed wire stretched between the palms in my backyard had been bent over and trampled since I could remember. I hopped the fence and lifted my toes because if the fence was going to get you it would get your toes. And then you’d probably fall over on your face. No one wants to limp around with a busted face. I landed safely but lost my shoe. I grabbed the shoe from behind me as I stumbled forward and saw in the milky light next door that Maria was putting her brother’s mouth to Pit Bull’s teat.
Pit Bull didn’t have a name. It wandered around the neighborhood and ate the grease or the corn or the diapers we threw out. She came around when she got pregnant and Maria felt sorry for her. Made her a bed from brush in the alley. Pit Bull gave birth in the bed to four puppies. All marbled brown and black except the red one that looked exactly like her mother. One of the marbled ones lived. The rest died. Maria would nurse the puppy and her baby brother on the bitch’s teats at the same time. I asked her once did her brother shit dog hair. She made a face and went to tell her mother.
I snuck in the back door because Horatio was there. His scooter was parked in the yard. They spent a lot of time in the kitchen, sitting and frowning. They danced around the silence carefully. They didn’t waste breath talking. They fumed. I thought watching them would make me turn into them when I got old.
After they ate in silence and stared blankly in silence and argued in silence they went to bed. And they made noise. “I don’t understand why you have to be so quiet.” I was never sure if Teresa or Horatio said it. But they said it over and over. They replaced quiet with upset and upset with angry as they raised their voices. And only after they screamed the words that made no sense and slammed the bed against the wall and fell asleep—I could never tell who snored—I would go into the kitchen and eat the leftovers.
That night was no different. A blur and a pain and a fear. A bowl of cold rice.
The next morning I was out before Teresa and Horatio awoke. I headed for Hotel Agapeh. I had been angry at the doorman all night. All night he winked at me and all night he caught the falling suitcase. And though I headed for the hotel and though I knew my anger and confusion I did not know what I wanted from the white guy. Barely older than I was. Barely taller. Barely more of a man.
He was standing outside wearing a top hat and entertaining a father and his daughter. As he moved his hands he made the whirring sounds of a robot, like his joints were made of servos and his skin some kind of thin plastic. He pulled a flag out of his nostril and stuffed it in the other and then pulled it from behind the girl’s ear. I stood on the corner thirty feet away and laughed so hard I snorted. I held my mouth when the three standing in front of the hotel turned toward me. But I could not stop laughing. The doorman waved me over and made the robot noise as fast as he moved his hand.
As I went to him on the sidewalk, the father gave him several bills and the doorman bowed to him and buzzed and the man walked away with his daughter pinching his finger. He turned his head towards me as I approached and he righted himself and took a small metal device out of his mouth. He waved normally and I felt the smile on my face shrink down to a slight smirk.
“You remember me?”
“Of course. You hurried by here yesterday. Walking in the dirt. You sent your powers out to my suitcases and made one fall.”
“I don’t have any powers.”
“Well it wasn’t an earthquake.”
“I don’t have any powers.”
That was when he took out an oddly shaped ball from under the top hat and tossed it to me. I caught the lumpy mass and examined it in my palm. I pressed my finger into it and the indentation stayed until I rolled the ball between my hands.
“It’s a balloon. Filled with sand.”
I saw where he had cut the balloon with scissors to fit over the other balloon that it swallowed. He produced three more balls from the maroon jacket and began swirling them in front of his face. Juggling. One hand to the other.
“Throw that ball to me whenever you want. I’ll catch it,” he smiled.
I threw the ball like I threw rocks at cars on the strip from behind the bus benches, trying to hit him in the face. The balls flew into the air with no direction. He caught mine in his left and tossed it up as the other balls came back to him. And they began the organic swirling around his face again. He never took his eyes off the sky, not even to catch my ball.
“I bet you can juggle.”
“Have you tried?”
“Then you haven’t done it. But you can. Like a baby that can’t walk yet. You have to learn.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“Clearly. What are you, twelve?”
He threw a ball at me and I caught it. “Exactly.”
“I have a cousin your age. You can do so much at that age.”
“You can do a lot at any age.” I held the sand balloon in my palm. “I can’t juggle just one.” He threw another and I caught it with my other hand.
He began juggling the two he had with one hand. I tried to mimic him but one flew over my shoulder and the other landed on my toe. He stopped and tossed me another while I was bent over and it landed on my head. I shook it to the ground and picked it up.
“Two is much harder than three.”
We stood on the sidewalk for three hours as I threw the balls everywhere except the beautiful circular path that the doorman made. Every forty minutes his manager would come out and watch me. And every so often he would hold the door open for someone and I would drop the balls at their feet. By the third hour I was making about twenty catches at a time. A couple of people threw coins at our feet and the doorman would pick them up and put them in my pocket. And then he produced more balls from the oversized jacket and we began to juggle together. He threw me one of his balls when I dropped mine. And he knelt to the sidewalk and picked up the stray. Always with the balls suspended midair. As he stooped for the last time, I looked through the dusty glass door and noticed the large grandfather clock in the lobby. I panicked and dropped all the balls.
“What time is it?”
“It should be eleven or so. Almost time for my lunch.”
“Shit.” I picked up the stuffed balloons and held them out to him.
“You have to go? Keep them. I can make more.”
I dropped the balloons on the sidewalk in front of him and ran to Beezy’s until I was out of breath and my side pinched and I ran the last half-mile with sweat stinging my eyes and flying from my body.
Beezy’s girlfriend did not have a name because one week she was one girl and the next week she was another. She sat at the counter powderizing the dried coke that came out of the oven. Every once in a while she took some for herself even though Beezy made it clear to everyone that no one should touch it except to sell it. I waved and she ignored me and went back to powderizing and sniffing.
I was half an hour late but Beezy wasn’t even home. I sat on the couch and looked over everything within reach that I thought I might be able to juggle. The only things that looked manageable were the packages in the brown paper he left out on the table. I picked up three and gingerly tossed them into the air. I counted fifteen and twenty and twenty-five. My pride peaked at fifty-nine, the same time Beez decided to come home. I heard the screen door slam in the kitchen and I dropped one of the packages. I set the two on the table gently and as I picked up the third I noticed a small dusting of powder on the floor. I licked my finger and wiped it up. As soon as I set the package on the table Beez walked in the room.
“What the fuck Cousin? Don’t I pay you enough?”
“I dropped it. I mean I put my feet up on the table and knocked it off.”
“Be more fucking careful. Did you spill any?”
My heart went cold when he asked. Teresa said if I worked for Beez I could never lie to him. And she also said never to act like a kid. My hands nearly dripped they were so wet.
“I did.” My voice cracked. “Only a little. Not even something you could sell. Not even to a junkie.”
He moved like a bull into his bedroom. His girlfriend stood in the doorway wiping her nose and raising her eyebrows.
“The fuck you do, Kid?”
Beez came back with a glass scale, slammed it on the table. He put the package on top and pressed a button. Numbers flashed on the small display. He put his hands up like he was talking to someone he couldn’t really understand. Something he did when he talked to his girlfriend or the angry guys on the phone.
He smacked his lips. “You’re lucky Cousin.”
My heart still raced though my chest was frozen and my lips trembled.
“I can add a piece of tape.”
“Won’t someone notice an extra piece of tape? I mean there’s only two on that thing.” His girlfriend put one hand on her hip and stared at me. I pointed at her and opened my mouth. But Beez had already put the tape on the package and wasn’t paying any attention to her.
“These go to the same place as yesterday. You won’t get as much because you were late. And you spilled.”
“That’s okay.” I jiggled the coins in my pocket as if they’d cover what I lost.
“Where’s your jacket, Cousin?”
I had been so focused on meeting the doorman again I forgot my windbreaker. I looked up at Beez with my mouth open.
“Forgot it? Cousin, I have to pay you less if you borrow one of mine.”
“That’s okay.” Again I jiggled the coins. I’d have made more juggling with the doorman.
The problem with Beezy’s jackets was he only bought them if they weighed as much as a large dog and were two sizes too big. His smallest jacket looked like a trench coat on me. Another problem with the jackets was they were necessary. Everyone wore shorts and went barefoot and hardly wore shirts. There was no place to hide anything. With a windbreaker you’d look goofy but not stupid. But I looked fucking stupid in the monstrous jacket with the red and gold logo of some basketball team I’d never heard of.
I was already sweating by the time I reached the end of the street. I tried fanning the jacket but the hot putrid air only made me lightheaded. As I walked I made the motions with my hands like I was throwing the balloons and catching them. Flicking my wrists and pretending the weight of the sand fell into my palms. After another block I could barely breathe and decided to ditch the jacket under an orange construction barrel. I took the packages out of the jacket pockets and carried them quickly to the alley across the street next to the beer market. As I held the crumpled packages my hands began to shake. I never saw the packages in the daylight. I never saw them anywhere but the dusty yellow of apartments. They fit perfectly into the downspout that was bolted into the concrete block. I left them there and went into the beer store.
The guy at the counter was the same guy that ran after Yo-yo for stealing malt liquor back when he was my age. His shirt was always tucked in and his pants always pressed. He leaned against the counter brushing back the sides of his short hair every few minutes. A guy like that you hate to steal from. A guy running a business and waiting on people like your parents all day and not messing with anyone. I searched all through the aisles for some party balloons but he only had a shelf full of candy and notebooks.
“You got balloons? Like for a birthday?”
The man looked up from the register and smiled. “Sure don’t.”
Behind the counter I noticed the shelf of cigars and condoms. I pointed to the ones that smelled like generic fruit and candles. “Can I get six of the fruit punch? The rubbers?”
“You aren’t old enough for those are you?” He tossed them on the counter.
I stared at the condoms in my hand. The wrapper dwarfed my palm.
The packages were still shoved up the downspout when I got back to the alley. I carefully opened the condoms and stuffed each brown paper package into the slick sheaths. When each package was wrapped in two condoms they looked almost like the balloons the doorman had. But they made my hands greasy and though I wiped them on my legs repeatedly the shine never went away.
I began juggling the packages right out of the alley. Walking and juggling is a bit harder than standing still but I managed to get the hang of it quickly. I got to walking and throwing with great rhythm. My right hand threw to my left shoulder and my left hand to my right shoulder. Each throw wound up at my belly as I stepped into it. Ten blocks I walked and juggled. I smiled for little kids and kids my age and the teenagers who would have stabbed me in the chest to get a hold of what was in the packages so they could sell it themselves. But they had no idea. Even at the cantina—which was still fire-scorched and soot-covered from when the Vatos firebombed it a couple weeks before—I put on a small show for the two officers who stood outside. I twirled and winked at the guards as I tried to juggle two like the doorman and dropped one. They put down their rifles and clapped for me. I bowed and collected my package. The officers gave me a couple of dollars apiece and I danced away from them. I threw the packages higher. I whistled and tilted my head back in the sun.
When the cop started to yell at me I only waved to him. I hadn’t noticed the package leaking since I had dropped it so much. The coke had turned into a dirty sludge on its condom skin and I was leaving a white trail behind me. As I turned I saw the cop heading for me down the sidewalk with his gun swinging at his hip. I took off down the nearest alley like Beez told me to.
Cops are fat and lazy. Beezy’s voice echoed in my head. Jump the fence. Find a ladder. A door. Go down an alley and then cross the next street. Don’t stop running even for the buses.
And I sprinted for the chain link fence at the end of the alley. I heard the cop come clomping up behind me. I tossed two of the packages over the fence and clutched the other in my palm. As I scaled the fence the package snagged on a piece of wire and ripped open and the coke swirled down the sidewalk. I dropped the condom and picked up the other packages and kept running. I ran into the street as I heard the cop reach the fence. A bus whipped by my back. Taxis squealed to a halt as I slid over their bumpers on my ass. It’d be a lie to say it wasn’t a rush. That I flew across the cars without a smile on my face. I disappeared into the city. The cop would never see me again. I was like everyone else he had seen that day. Only I had made him sweaty and run out of breath.
When I got to the delivery I stood cross-eyed with only two-thirds of what I was supposed to bring. I took them out of the condoms to examine them and found the paper torn and stressed. Grainy clouds fell from the seams. I hesitated outside of the building for twenty minutes trying to rub away all the powder. More came. More fell. I shoved the packages into my pockets and shuffled around looking like my fists were the size of potatoes. Pacing back and forth I considered all my options. But twelve year-olds don’t have options. You can’t run. They’ll find you. Always.
When I thought this, I saw the cop again. He came onto the sidewalk a little confused, his face bright red. Determined. When he turned for me I ran to the building and pressed the button for 202. As soon as I heard the door buzz the officer saw me and I threw my body inside. The packages bounced around in my shorts as my feet pumped desperately up the stairs. As I entered the top hallway I heard the door slam below me. I spun my feet faster. I nearly toppled over when I stopped outside the apartment. I beat the door with my fists and heard shouting inside. Someone cursed at me from behind the door. I shrieked and pleaded with them to open the door. The fat man finally opened the door and I ran straight into the shirtless belly. I thrust the two packages into him. He took them and tossed them to the floor. Men yelled behind him. A woman scrambled to the floor and picked up the packages.
“He’s a fucking spaz.” The fat man said.
I pressed my face into his flesh and hid from the boot steps that thundered toward us from the hallway. I felt his hand on my chest pushing me away. He shoved me hard and I fell backwards. Nearly to the door.
“Where’s number three?” I looked up and with blurry vision I saw his pistol pointed at me. I saw another man pull one out. I saw the fat man kick the woman who was crawling on the floor for the spilt coke.
I winced. Beez said nothing would ever stop the pain that has to come when someone points a gun at you. All that speed behind the little bullet has to hurt. Even if it travels a million miles an hour. For one-trillionth of a second it hurts. You’ll never hide from it. His voice sounded like the clearness of glass shattering. When some piece of shit pulls his gun on you, smile. Stare him in the eyes and know that in his hand is the mercy and grace of God. But I could not smile. My fingers clutched the carpet and all the sharp debris within. My eyes were shut so tight I saw the universe. It spun out of control. I felt like vomiting.
And the footsteps stopped behind me. The thunder that followed opened up the apartment building. I felt something sting only once. Something that opened my eyes and flooded them with light. As I grabbed at the warmth on the side of my head I slid down into the carpet. I sniffled like the woman whose face I saw very close to mine. We stared at each other and listened to the storm but she did not blink. I remember while I blinked I thought about the graffiti and how if I never blinked again I wouldn’t even have a miserable chunk of painted concrete to be remembered by. And so I kept blinking to make sure that I could do it. And I blinked until the thunder stopped.
Joseph Love is a Pushcart nominated author whose fiction has appeared in numerous publications, many now defunct. He is proud to have seen his work in Happy, Timber Creek Review, Pindeldyboz, GUD, McSweeneys.net, Aethlon, Pif, West Branch, and Raritan. He is the author of the zombie novella, Kill Town, USA, which is based on unconfirmed actual events he “observed” while living in North Carolina. He currently lives and writes in Tennessee.