by James Valvis
Big Alabama smokes Kools on the Danforth Avenue street corner with three black girls, a Puerto Rican girl, and five or six teenaged boys. She keeps her pack in the top pocket of her Led Zep jacket and blows smoke around her face and into the night air. Those boys are not interested in my sister, but they’re too afraid to tell her to leave. And these are boys who do not fear much. Bullies all, most have kicked my ass at one time or another.
I’m supposed to tell Big Alabama she must come home. My mother and father sent me to collect her. They want Alabama home because she punched a remedial math teacher in his teeth and knocked off his toupee, sent it skittering across two desks like a jumping shaggy rodent. Principal Morelli ordered my sister home and then called our parents to make sure she went there. She hadn’t. Principal Morelli told my parents the remedial math teacher has a loose tooth and fat lip and will miss at least three work days because of trauma. I heard my mother trying to convince the principal not to press charges. She successfully fended off legal action, at least for now, but was unable to keep Big Alabama from being suspended. She’ll probably be expelled. If not for this, then something else. Big Alabama won’t finish tenth grade. Everyone knows that. Everyone has given up on her. People are merely going through the motions; Principal Morelli, teachers, my parents, and Big Alabama herself.
I found her and now I wait across Danforth Avenue behind a van, watching my sister smoke. Big Alabama hasn’t yet noticed me. I’m small and quiet. It takes a lot to notice me. She’s laughing with those ugly street girls by a telephone pole that looks ready to topple, but these girls aren’t Big Alabama’s friends. Most of my sister’s friends were driven off when Alabama stole from them or she beat them up. Those teenaged boys lean against the wall of a small corner store where I used to buy our bread and milk. I don’t shop there anymore. No one does since it became a hangout. Every so often, an Iranian storeowner comes out and tries to chase everyone away with a baseball bat, threatening to call the cops, but the teens just dodge him and laugh and return to their places when he retreats into his store. Everyone knows the police won’t show. No law against standing around smoking. If this makes the storeowner go bankrupt, it’s his problem.
I decide there isn’t any good way to do this. If I go demand she come home for supper, she will be embarrassed and tell me no. If I tell her she has to leave to face the consequences of her actions, it will be worse. She’ll turn on me. She might throw me to those wolves she calls friends. She wouldn’t let them kill me, but ever since she decided she’s a communist, she’s changed from being manipulative and a little mean, to uncreatively blunt and sadistic.
I lean against the van. Big Alabama makes me tired. I understand why everyone has quit on her. She’s always in trouble, and those people wear you out, sap your energy, send you to bed exhausted but unable to sleep because your mind keeps racing. You could be doing other things, reading, studying, watching television, playing backgammon, but instead you’re hunting Big Alabama on the streets, you’re hiding money and medication so she won’t steal it, you’re bailing her out of jail.
Night falls like dirty snow on the street. Down Danforth Avenue, away from my sister and the gang, cars are parked one after another, packed so tightly they might never move again. I don’t yet have a plan to convince her to leave with me, and I’m considering returning home alone to tell my parents I couldn’t find her, when two guys step around both sides of the van and grab me.
I try to move to where Big Alabama can see me, but they yank me back between the van and an adjacent car. I attempt to shout but I can’t cough out a full syllable before one named Bobby throws a hand over my mouth and drags me to the ground.
“Look what we got,” the other one says. I don’t know who he is. I’ve never seen him before and I‘ve seen everyone before. His arms sport sinister amateurish tattoos like someone who has spent time in prison. He might be older than Bobby. Twenty-five or so. “If you want to live, you better keep your fucking mouth shut.”
All those words are spit through his yellow teeth.
Bobby presses his hand tighter over my mouth, hard enough I have difficulty breathing, and the other guy holds my legs. They each outweigh me by about fifty pounds. I struggle against their ropy, powerful arms, but I know it’s useless. I look at their faces, painted piss yellow in streetlamp light. They look waxy, demonic. I can smell motor oil on Bobby’s hand. I suddenly have to pee.
“What do you want?” I try to say through Bobby’s hand.
If Bobby hears, he doesn’t answer. Instead, he says, “Strip him.”
As soon as I hear this I go nuts. I start to turn and twist, kicking wildly. I try to bite at Bobby’s hand. Hard as it is to believe, I wiggle loose an arm and am able to free my mouth, take in a big gulp of air, and choke out a scream. Bobby’s hand is back on my face immediately, and I go limp. Two grown men are two grown men, and one skinny thirteen-year-old boy is one skinny thirteen-year-old boy. All my efforts feel like punching a tsunami.
After I’m subdued again, Bobby says, “He’s tough as his fat ass bitch sister. Let’s get the shirt.”
I don’t know why they want to strip me. My clothes are too small for them and they aren’t worth anything. Kids in my school, ghetto kids who cannot afford to visit a dentist, wear expensive bomber jackets or Kangol hats or Nike sneakers, but all I have are cheap jeans, a plain navy blue T-shirt, and a pair of hand-me-down imitation Pro-Keds with soles so worn out my socks get soaked when it rains.
They practically rip off my shirt. I let Bobby take it because I don’t want it around my neck. I’m too afraid they’ll strangle me with my own shirt. I’d seen this done before—by Alabama. My sister let go before that boy choked to death. There is no guarantee Bobby will be as charitable.
My shoes come off next. They leave my socks alone and go after my pants.
It’s then I go nuts again. I cannot let them take off my pants. I don’t know why they’re doing this, but I don’t think they mean to rape me. Not here. Not between two cars. Maybe it’s a joke. Maybe they just want to take my clothes and leave me in my underwear in the ghetto. It’s a mean joke, but it’s a cruel city. I’m nine blocks from home. Already I’m thinking about that walk, in my underwear, slipping from car to tree. The shame. The cold of still frosty March air. And ringing our doorbell and my father, already angry about Alabama, seeing me walk in nearly nude.
I can’t lose my pants, I tell myself.
But I do. A button snaps and my jeans, also hand-me-downs and a size too big, slide right off my scrawny legs. My kicking only slows their progress, makes that unnamed man angrier. Now I’m in my underwear. All right, I’m thinking. They’ll stop now. They’ve had their fun. They’ll stand up and let me collect my clothes and embarrass me in front of those nasty girls. They’ll primp and hoot and everyone will laugh, including Big Alabama, because these days friends matter more than family, than anything, really, even herself.
That’s when Bobby says, “Take off his underwear.”
I can’t allow this. Walking home in my underwear would be bad enough. Running home nude is impossible to imagine. I try twisting again but I’m all fought out. I have no energy and I’m starting to cry, lessening my reserves and sapping my spirit. The nameless one backs off and I’m able to cross my knees.
“Come on, come on,” Bobby says.
It makes no sense to loosen his grip on my knees, letting me push them together. Why would he back away? He’s on his knees himself.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Bobby says. “We ain’t got forever.”
Two things then happen at once. First the guy in front slides a hand to his pants. He pops open the top button on his blue jeans and grabs hold of his zipper. His eyes are crazy, not those wild eyes actors make in TV melodramas, but animal eyes, eyes you would see in a zoo on a lion or crocodile, eyes that on an animal are normal but on a person are misplaced. I realize something about crazy I never had before: crazy in a human being isn’t having too much emotion; not excess anger or sadness or hate, but absence of emotion. It’s indifference to everything except what the animal part of you hungers for. That’s crazy, I think, and this guy is crazy.
The second thing that happens is Bobby, who is holding me down, is lifted from behind by his hair and swung screaming across Danforth Avenue’s yellow line. I fall back and slam my head against concrete, sending bright fireflies across my vision. I feel Big Alabama step over me and rush the other guy.
He’s backing up and fumbling with his pants, his crazy blank stare gone and replaced with normal human fear. He manages to snap his button and hold up his hands before Alabama karate chops his throat. As he falls, she grabs his head and bashes it three times against the van’s fender. She’s going to bash it a fourth time but he’s out cold and so she drops his head like a rotted melon in the gutter.
I’m pulling up my underwear, gathering my other clothes, and trying to squirm out of the way.
By now others are watching Big Alabama do what my sister does best. When she finishes with the unnamed guy, she goes after Bobby again, who’s made it to his feet and backs away holding forward a badly scraped palm and screaming they were screwing around. They didn’t want me spying. They were afraid I would narc them out. They were teaching me a lesson.
Big Alabama doesn’t believe a word. She’s too smart, and she knows her brother too well. I don’t spy on people and I’ve never ratted on anyone, especially not her. I’ve had a million chances over years to turn her in, betray her for my own advantage, but never have.
A couple of boys, probably those holding illegal narcotics, stride away, mumbling, scanning Danforth for police lights. But those girls start yelling, gesturing wildly, vulgarly, calling Big Alabama horrendous names. At first I think one calls Alabama a fat crack whore and my heart sinks, but then I realize they’re saying she’s a fat cracker whore. I try to shut them out. It’s hard to hear anyway with ringing in my ears. A bump is growing on my head where I hit the concrete. Bobby runs off, fits his lithe body between two tightly parked cars, and sprints for a side street. No way Big Alabama could run him down, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to watch him go.
“Get dressed,” Alabama says. I’m already doing it. My sister is the toughest person anyone knows, but there are a lot of them and only one Big Alabama. I’m not sticking around to find out if she can take them all out. She isn’t either.
Before I can slip on my shoes we’re walking away, that Danforth gang hurling more fat slurs at my sister, calling me a little faggot. None possesses the nerve to do this when alone, but in their pack they feel safe. Regardless, they keep a respectful distance and any step Alabama takes toward one causes them all to jump back two. When it comes down to it, most people are cowards.
We walk away. We don’t say anything. It’s three blocks before we slow our pace, secure we’re not being followed. My sister doesn’t ask what happened, why I was hiding or what’s waiting back home. She doesn’t care. I don’t tell her thanks for saving me yet again. She already knows. Streetlamps are our only light and hardly illuminate the ground, leaving the decrepit stone houses and boarded-up businesses in full darkness. Big Alabama is still breathing heavily. She has made another jump in weight. She’s over 350 pounds now. Her once pretty young face has turned jowly and piggish. I’ve stayed skinny, my grades are good, and I’ve been accepted into the best Jesuit high school in New Jersey. After that I have my eye on Ivy League schools, Princeton or Columbia. If it turns out I like the brothers at Prep, I might settle for Fordham. I’ve heard they have a good pre-law program.
Every day my sister and I grow more distant, more estranged. I know someday the gulf between us will be so large it can no longer be bridged. Where she’s going is no place good, no place I’d want to follow. But I’m not ready to give up on her. Maybe everyone else is, but not me, not tonight, not yet. If nothing else we have this walk home. For these few remaining steps, last of our wretched childhoods, I will let myself believe Big Alabama and I are enough to beat back the world.