Monday, December 07, 2009
Carried By Six, a novel
By Allen Ballard
OBIE BULLOCK PULLED HIS BATTERED OLD CHEVY SEDAN in front of the Joseph E. Hill projects, checked the sign, and double-parked. He got out of the car and mopped the sweat from his brow with a big red handkerchief. It was only eight in the morning, but the pavements in North Philly were already warming up, just like every other day this week. He began the short walk to his building, past the graffitied concrete tables. The old men were already out playing cards.
One looked up. "Just getting in from the job?"
"You know it. Any of you see Dora Lee yet this morning?"
"Heading towards the bus about fifteen minutes ago,” another player said. “Looking good, too, man. Go figure. Prettiest woman in the place and married to somebody ugly as you."
Obie laughed and aimed an air punch at him.
The older man stood and threw up his arms. "Come on if you dare. These the fists `destroyed Bucky Jackson."
"Man, I know I can't stand against the mighty Tyrone Waters."
With that, Obie took off at a run towards the building entrance. The entire table collapsed in laughter, the other men clapping their hands and encouraging Tyrone, a bent-over senior citizen.
"Go get him. You know Obie ain't nothing for you."
"Show him, Tyrone. Do your bad thing on him."
Tyrone stood and shouted after his disappearing foe. "Don't mess with me, man, thunderbolts in these fists."
Still laughing, something he hadn’t done a lot of lately, Obie entered the lobby. He looked up and down the corridor for Roy, who was away from his desk. Damn, the house committee had met with the police just three nights ago and agreed that two officers would be assigned to the building--and that one would always be on duty at the front desk, no matter what.
You’d think the rape and murder of little Shakeisha a month ago would be enough to make them keep their promise. And it wasn’t like Roy to leave the desk unattended. When he had to take a break, he'd go ask one of the men outside to take over for a few minutes. Obie sighed. This was no way to help make this place safe for the kids and the old folks, much less stop Son Teagle’s gang from taking over the building.
He walked to the desk. A copy of Ebony lay half opened on it, like Roy had been interrupted while he was reading. He pulled out the chair and sat down, ready to stay there until he came back. Probably had just gone into the recreation room to take a leak.
“Morning to you, Miss Taylor, that dress fits you just right, ought to knock them out in the office today.” Obie smiled up at a tall, graceful woman whose body was snugly wrapped in a yellow dress speckled with Yoruba symbols. “Yes, ma’am, you’ll surely be the queen of Chestnut Street this beautiful day the Lord has sent.”
She grinned and blew him a kiss on the way out the door. “Oughta be ’shamed of yourself, Obie, way you be sweet-talking us all the time.”
He had a snappy comeback ready, but just then four kids, followed by their twenty-six-year-old mother, burst out of the elevator and were all over him before he could even say hello.
“Where’s the candy?”
“When you going to ride me piggy-back again?”
“He promised me first, didn’t you, Obie?”
Their mother, Serena, quickly reined them in. “Obie, you spoil them rotten, one day I’m going to leave them with you for good.”
Obie laughed. “I wouldn’t mind, one bit.” He looked at the kids. “We’d have us a ball, wouldn’t we?” They nodded unanimously, thinking perhaps of the homemade oatmeal raisin cookies and fruit punch that always awaited them when they stopped in at the Bullocks’ apartment. Then they were off, propelled through the door by Serena.
Obie turned back to Ebony, where Roy had apparently been reading an article about the 50 leading eligible bachelors of the year. Maybe his good buddy, stationed in the Hill project for the past four years, had been hoping he’d make the list some day. Obie didn’t get a chance to look at much of the article, what with the elevator banks constantly disgorging folks. All of them had something to say to Obie, who by this point was hurting for sleep.
Around eight-thirty, the elevator traffic slowed down. The building had just about emptied itself out, leaving only the old, the unemployed, and three or four of Son’s gang members, embedded in the apartments of decent folk. They’d come back from prison—most of them—settled in with their mothers or grandmothers, and proceeded to sell drugs. That’s what the meeting the other night had been all about.
ROY STILL HADN’T COME BACK, and Obie was worried. Given all the problems with security lately, he hadn’t wanted to leave the desk unoccupied and go off looking for him. But freed now of the distraction caused by the comings and goings of the residents, he took a careful look at the recreation room door and saw that it was slightly ajar. And wait a minute--Roy's key ring was still in the lock. Yet the room was dark.
Something wrong here.
Writer Allen Ballard, who lives in Albany, New York, grew up in Philadelphia. His first novel, Where I’m Bound, won the First Novelist Prize of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post. Dr. Ballard, a professor of History and Africana Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, has a website at http://allenballard.com/index.htm