An Occurrence at 5th and Broadway
By Ken Goldstein
A man stands at the corner of 5th and Broadway, out of breath from the chase, and turns to face his grinning executioner. He falls to his knees begging, "Can I just say a prayer before you kill me?" He doesn't know if the question comes from true faith or an attempt to buy time; it just comes out.
He looks up and meets the executioner's eyes while trying to form the right words tell God that he's sorry for how he's fucked everything up. He closes his eyes again and wonders if this one moment of rest was enough. He sees the faces of his mother and his son. Could he sprint up and get away without getting shot?
He hears the crack of the gun and springs to his feet, pushing his head into the stomach of his executioner, plowing through and knocking him over. In a moment he's in the alley, traveling south, towards home. He hears more shots echoing behind him as the executioner tries to get back on his trail.
He's not sure if he's been hit. The ringing in his ears is deafening and is making him light-headed. He feels as if he's floating more than running. But he moves on, trying to decide where to go, where to hide.
He finds the apartment complex, but he's all turned around and can't figure out where his family's unit is. He sees his old friend, Eddie, through a window. Eddie, who introduced him to drugs. Eddie, who sponsored his entry into the right gang. Eddie, who warned him what would happen if he tried to leave that gang.
Still, Eddie would not be the one to kill him. He taps on the window just loud enough to be heard inside, but not draw the attention of any neighbors.
Eddie comes to the window and opens it. "Well, look what we've got here, a dead man at my window! What the hell do you want?"
He looks up at Eddie, but can't speak. He thinks of Eddie as a boy, remembers playing cops and robbers, toy guys turning to real guns, Eddie losing his beautiful smile. He wants to remind Eddie of all that but he's been running so long that he has no wind left to get anything out but gasping.
"You better get out of here, man. I could get myself killed just for talking to you. They know we were tight, they're watching this place. Just go, get the hell out of here. Go pick out a coffin, man."
He nods, he doesn't want to get Eddie killed any more than he wants to be shot himself. Again, he runs off, but he can still hear Eddie at the window, "Dead man walking here! We got a dead man walking!"
Who else could he run to? What other friends were street-wise enough to know where to hide him? Emanuel? Dead. Paul? Dead. Joyce? Dead. Donte? Dead. The list went on, and was growing every week. The list of dead friends was getting longer than the list of live ones, and he was only 21. Twenty-one was a good old age around here.
Outside of the apartment complex again, he heads for the community center, a building he hadn't entered between the ages of nine and nineteen, but where he'd spent the better part of the last year.
He and Kevin had printed their posters there. They were a different kind of wanted poster. Rather than feature the faces of the murderers, they featured the faces of the dead, the people they wanted back. The first poster had the names of twelve of their friends from the neighborhood, all of whom had been killed in the last two years, all between the ages of fifteen and twenty.
They presented the posters to the mothers and to the girlfriends of those left behind. The posters wound up all over the neighborhood. On trees, in storefronts, in apartment windows. And for a magical three month period, the message the posters got across worked. There were no killings for three months. Then, of course, there were more.
At first, he and Kevin tried to keep up, printing new editions of the poster with the new names and pictures. But soon it was obvious that they'd never be able to stay on top of it; to stay ahead of the killers.
He gets to the community center and runs through the door. He finds Kevin back at their screen press, making a new poster. At the top is his own picture, with his name in bold letters beneath it.
Before he can speak, Kevin starts talking without looking at him, "I'm sorry, man. I should never have gotten you involved in my fight. Me, they just laugh at. They know I can't really hurt them. But you, shit. You knew the whole operation; you knew who was behind half of these hits. You, on the other side, could do them some real harm."
Kevin turns from the press and finally looks him in the eye. "Don't you see? I killed you. I'm just as guilty as whoever pulls the trigger. You're dead and it's all my fault."
He backs away from Kevin, not sure what to say. He wants to reach out, to tell Kevin that everything will be all right. But the pounding in his brain is unbearable. He feels drenched and is afraid to find out if it's his sweat or his blood making his clothing so heavy. He turns and runs once again.
Back in the apartment complex he finds Mattie's place. He thinks about meeting her when they were 16. About the fights they'd had, and the love they'd made when making up. He remembers the other people they each dated, and how he hated the other guys who touched her. More fights, more lovemaking, and three months ago, the birth of their son.
Mattie's also the one who told him it wasn't his responsibility to admit to the cops that he'd witnessed the latest killings and agree to testify. Whose responsibility was it, then, he had asked her. She called him self-righteous, she accused him of going too far, not knowing his place, not being happy with life the way it was.
But it was she who was unhappy. She was the one who was scared to take a stand, scared to make a change, scared to accept responsibility for her own future. He'd found the pipe and the scales and knew that she'd turned back to the drugs. He took his son and went back to his mother's place, and she didn't even seem to care. The expression on her face as he left was almost one of relief.
He's back at the door to her place for the first time since that night. He'd vowed to not let her drag him back down, but now he needed her help to survive this night. He opens the door to her apartment and sees her passed out on the couch. The television is on, but there's only white noise. A crack pipe sits on the couch next to her, still smoldering, dangerously close to the pillow. He picks up the pipe, moves it to a table a safe distance from anything combustible and, just like before, he leaves her there.
She was wrong. He did have a responsibility to tell the truth about what was happening in their community. He had a responsibility to his son to make it a better place. That's who he had done it all for: his son.
Kevin was wrong, too. It wasn't Kevin's fault that he was being hunted down. Or even Eddie's, for that matter. He had freely chosen to get involved in gangs. Considering where he was, that was the easy option, the one that required the least thought, but it wasn't the only option. He had again made the choice to try and straighten out.
He had also freely chosen to go to the police. He was no child; he knew what was at risk. The only person who truly supported this latest decision was his mother. When he had told her what he was going to do, she told him she was proud of him, and hugged him through her tears. That made him feel good for the first time that he could remember.
Now, in a daze, he heads out again to find his mother's apartment. He sees the number on the door across the way. He's running towards it, he's seven years old and just got beaten up by a neighborhood bully. Slowly the door comes towards him, fifteen and now he's the tough kid who just won the fight. The door overwhelming his view, blocking out the vision of the boy he shot at seventeen. The knob turns in his hand, the boy lives and a week later he's forgotten his vows to change his life. He pushes on the door as if it weighs a thousand pounds, taking on the burden of his troubled past. The door opens, as light as his son's innocent smile.
He finally enters the apartment and sees his mother holding his infant son, each of them looking at him as if they don't recognize him. He tries to shut the door, to enter the apartment, to run to them, but he's frozen to the ground. His feet are immobile and in trying to free them he falls to his knees. He looks up at his mother, not saying a word, but pleading with his eyes; for savior, for succor, for forgiveness.
A loud crack. He blinks, and when his eyes reopen he sees the muzzle flash of the gun pointed in his face. The executioner runs off leaving one more victim dead at the corner of 5th and Broadway.
Copyright 2000 Ken Goldstein
Ken Goldstein is the publisher and editor of The 13th Story, a monthly journal of short fiction. He is also a writer, musician, film buff, policy wonk, wine snob, web master, husband and uncle. He thanks you for reading his articles and stories.
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