Phaedra Byrd, or Faye, likes to get high on PCP. She picks up from Cowboy, who spends nights hanging near the Carver Terrace stairs. Sometimes when she gets high, she looks at pictures of herself and her younger half-sister as children. Now, attempting to text a man with a black SUV who lives in the suburbs, Faye accidentally sends a video message of herself mumbling “You like it, babe?” to her half-sister.
She pockets the vial of PCP and stumbles back home.
Across the city, Becca tells Alex she can’t move in with him right now, because it might destabilize and then ruin the relationship she claims to value so highly. Alex decides to break it off with Becca, and moves to a cheap dump in a bad neighborhood all by himself.
When Alex walks home from the bus, he passes an eight-by-three-foot plastic banner strung up on a porch: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. On Alex's walk to the Safeway, in the other direction, there's a small crack house next to a liquor store; next to that is a domestic violence shelter; next to that is Mr. Chong’s Convenience, and, across the street, a storefront church.
The stationary blues of a parked police van have been lighting up Alex's street all night. He reads a blog and learns of the neighborhood police checkpoints in summer 2009. The drug- related shootings got out of control, and so the police searched every car coming into and out of the neighborhood until the court shut it down. So, when Darrell rings Alex’s doorbell in that first weekend of April, and introduces himself as a neighbor, they start talking about the police and Alex asks him about the checkpoints.
Darrell tells Alex, instead, about selling crack on the dead ends and alleys.
"We was ten deep on the block, because everybody buy drugs here back then. Out of state license plates, limos with professional drivers, all type of stuff. Police wasn’t sweatin, til the shootings. See, whoever designed this hood twisted: streets only a block long, or else stopping at one cross-street and picking up at another cross-street down the way. One up-aways double back on itself. Before the ambulance and police and everybody on GPS, been hard to find anythin down here that don’t want findin. Real hard to find the right address in a hurry unless you know the block numbers and done grow up here. You'd hear a whistle,”—he freezes, hunches his shoulders—“to say a cop comin, and you'd swagger up your favorite back way and pop out near the Diner.”
“Denny’s? On Eastonberg?”
“No. Cops be eatin at Denny’s. But the Diner went out of business after the streets went quiet. I’m tellin you, before the raid in September ’09, I mean, you see that? That’s my old corner. Everybody know me round here.”
“Cops came and scoop all us up, right off the street.”
Darrell nods. "Uh-huh. Before that, you wouldn't believe what I could tell you.”
“What about the checkpoints?”
Darrell shrugs. “I don’t know. Guess they wasn’t workin.”
While Alex and Darrell are introducing themselves, Faye comes out of the apartment next door to Alex's with a full fifth of vodka and introduces herself, too. While Faye and Darrell seem to be on good terms, she warns Alex: "Darrell can't move in, and he can’t store his stuff inside yo place. He gettin his life together by hisself.” Darrell just sits sipping beer out of his Styrofoam cup. "But he can't get his life together!" She's yelling directly at Darrell now, bending over with her hands on her hips. "He need a place to live! He in and out of prison! He need a real job! Look at me,” she says, straightening up a little, “I'm survivin by my own self, and never gone to prison!"
Darrell just looks at her sideways.
On Alex's second Friday in his new apartment, he gets drunk with Darrell again, who tells him about Faye. Her real name is Phaedra Byrd. Darrell and Faye grew up near each other and went to the same elementary school.
“We wasn’t friends, though. We just knew each other families.”
After a pause, he adds, “Last year, I been keepin my stuff in her apartment. One day all of my things out with the trash, like, on the curb. She crazy, man. She say she married, but I don’t know where he at. She talk about kids, but I ain’t never seen ‘em.”
"Whose car is that?" Alex asks after an uncomfortable interlude. It’s a dark blue Pontiac GTO from the seventies, mint-condition, parked in the vacant lot next door to Alex’s, on the opposite side from Faye’s.
"Rick's. He own the club cross the street. He, you know, uh, he’s white."
"Yeah, right over there. You ain’t been? Two-dollar beers on Sunday nights, I heard. I’m thinkin a buyin one sometime. Hey man, we should go to Rick’s sometime."
A pack of eight young men sidle by. They lean up against Rick's GTO for a bit, talking and watching Darrell and Alex out of the corners of their eyes. Finally, they move down the alley, talking louder; one kid breaks ahead, followed up by another. The heaviest kid carries a sweatshirt, and he stops in the middle of the alley under a streetlight. Somebody whistles. He follows, slowly, around the corner and out of sight.
Alex asks, "So where do you stay, Darrell?”
"I like sleeping outside, mostly, when it’s warm and not rainin.”
“But you have to go to the shelters in the winter?”
“Them shelters is worse than prison, man. You don't know when you gon wake up with some crazy fool standing over you. They still ex-Vietnam war lunatics in there, man. Seriously.”
Darrell takes a swig.
“Plus, I can't keep things at the shelter. Just need a place to keep my boxes and such."
Alex doesn’t know anyone in the hood yet but Darrell and Faye. He is rarely home because he works long hours on the other side of the city. With Darrell guarding the back yard from intruders, and Faye keeping an eye on Darrell, Alex would have a very effective security system. And the basis of any effective security system, in an unfamiliar setting, is an ethical one.
"Well, I’ve got a yard," Alex says. "If you want to just put your stuff here for awhile. I can't guarantee nobody's going to steal your stuff and if anybody asks I don’t know anything about it...but I'm just saying. You can use my grill and shit, too, if you want to."
"Yeah? Nobody even gon find out. That would work real well. I'll keep it clean and tidy."
The heaviest kid comes back, barreling around the corner, tilting forward over his stomach. He slows down to a rushed walk when he hits the streetlight's cone of illumination right behind Alex's house. When he looks over his shoulder both men notice the metal rod poking out of the wrapped-up sweatshirt. He drops the package in the uncut grass behind Rick's car in full sight of Darrell and Alex, and then he walks away.
"What the fuck was that?"
“Sawed-off,” Darrell says. “He comin back for it later, if he remembers where the gun at.”
“But he doesn’t care that we’re here?”
“He knows we ain’t gonna do shit. You just live here.” After a minute of silence, Darrell clears his throat and says, "You gon be fine. Just don't be a lick. Know what a lick is, right?”
“Don't make it easy for people to take advantage a you. Don't slink round like you guilty or afraid of something, and don't be a sucker. Make it difficult—look everybody in the eye, chin up, say hello—and that, plus you's white, and nobody round here gon hurt you.”
Alex lights a cigarette, offers one to Darrell, and sits watching the tall grass where the kid dropped the gun.
Peeking through the blinds the next morning, Alex sees Darrell sitting on a milk crate.
There's also an open cooler with a bag of ice, a wooden dresser, a couple of black plastic bags and a baby carriage. Alex wonders if he's being a lick. Knowing he has all day to fuck around, Alex calls his weed dealer, who picks up ounces sometimes from Cowboy, who also sells PCP to the old heads around Carver Terrace.
Darrell starts talking about children. He says he gives them things off the shelves at Mr. Chong’s—the grocery store on the corner, where he works under the table—so they don't steal it. He doesn't have any children of his own. Alex doesn't ask him about the baby carriage. “My little brother live four houses down,” he tells Alex, “but I can't stay there. My sister-in-law ain't havin it. It's good like that, though. I don't want my niece askin too many questions. She so young, but she smart. We do this thing, ready? I ask her what two plus two is, then three plus three…at four plus four, if she make it, I'll give her a high five – you know, like one-two-three-four-high-five? And I feel like, if I only see her when I'm comin around to do lessons and hand out high fives..."
That night, when Alex is alone, he calls Becca for the first time, to tell her about Darrell.
“I’m so glad to hear from you,” she says.
Two days later, Faye is aghast. "So you actually lettin him stay? What you doin that for?" "He needs somewhere to leave his stuff. What're you so upset about? I wouldn’t let him
stay inside, obviously. And I'm letting you in my house right now.”
“Alex. You can't compare me to him. When I leave here, I'm just going back to my 'partment, have a drink, maybe play with Ginger a little bit, enjoy the air conditioning. I got a home."
Faye has quickly developed a habit of knocking on Alex's door every other night, really late. She'd be high and dancing on his doorstep, or blackout drunk and angry, or she'd be crying. Alex might invite her in, and Faye would talk about her long career as a prostitute. Then she'd either jump up from the couch and run off into the night, paranoid; or she'd just bum one last cigarette, one last drink, then a couple more, and head home to bed. Alex realizes that Faye’s approach to friendship clearly fits a pattern: for just about twenty dollars a week, Alex could have the pleasure of regularly saving someone from an abnormally convoluted but urgent quagmire. Every other time he sees her, she asks for five or ten or fifteen dollars. He has stopped loaning her money, but she hasn’t stopped asking yet.
This Monday night Alex is just finishing the dinner dishes when she knocks and offers a few Newports, saying she wants to talk about Darrell, so Alex sits and they talk.
“It’s important to support people when they’re making positive changes, Faye.”
"You know, he hit me."
"He didn't hit you, Faye."
“You think I’m an idiot?”
“Now I know you an idiot,” Faye says. “What he tell you, then? That we done grow up down the street from each other? What I remember, Alex, what I remember is I met him on the last Fourth of July, and we had a nice time. We watch fireworks from the backyard; we could just barely see over that buildin right there. He even had some of his own. Firecrackers, I’m sayin."
"OK. I believe you. He told me that too. He also told me you let him stay with you for a little bit."
"He tell you how he end up on the streets again?"
"He said he'd been keeping things in your house, and one day he walked by and all his stuff was outside, with the trash.”
"Yeah, well. That's true. I threaten to call the cops, too. So Darrell stop comin around, stop talkin to me when I went to the store. But he's still workin at Chong's, and now y'all are friends, so it looks like I'm just stuck lookin at his face when I don't ever want to. Not ever."
"Because he hit me!"
"Where'd he hit you, Faye?"
Faye's mouth falls open, and she doesn't respond immediately. Then, she rubs her thighs like she’s cold and lets her head drop; in a low voice, she says, "All over the damn place."
Alex tells Becca about Faye and Darrell over a glass of wine and some Bolognese. It’s their first dinner since he moved. After Alex explains the difference between Darrell’s version of events and Faye’s, Becca nods and says, "I believe Faye.”
"You don’t think she's lying about getting hit?" Alex asks.
"Why would she make something like that up?"
Becca holds her tongue, sipping wine instead. Finally, after a pause, she says, softly:
“Seriously, why would she make it up?”
Alex, fuming, pushes the table to stand up and knocks his chair over. “Shut the fuck up. You don’t fucking know anything aboutthese people.”
She brings her stemless glass down hard on the wooden table. “I bet she’s terrified, that’s why it sounds right.” Becca has found a teaching moment. “It’s just believable, for her to be scared like that.”
After dinner Becca asks him to leave. They don’t see each other for a few days. But Becca calls him to see how he’s doing. He says he’s doing better, and he apologizes. He’s seeing Darrell and Faye’s relationship in a different way now, and he thanks Becca for that.
On the second to last Sunday morning in July, after avoiding Darrell and his own backyard for nearly two months, Alex goes out to see him.
The small lawn is cut short, even in the awkward corners around the air conditioning unit. All the dirt is grey with ash, from Darrell’s grilling.
"Yeah, well, see, Faye's godfather—he got a lawnmower, so I ask him to come down and cut it. Been gettin pretty natural back here.”
"How much do I owe you?"
"I can't let you cut my yard for free."
Darrell, taking the lid off the grill, waves his hand to clear the billowing smoke and looks sideways at Alex.
“Gotta pay rent somehow,” Darrell says.
That Sunday night, though, Alex leaves for dinner at Becca’s again, and Darrell goes out to Rick's bar alone, to see what it’s like.
Most of Rick’s customers are young, white, front-of-house staff working in the “revitalized” entertainment district five blocks south. It's a narrow space lit up all red. Darrell pushes through the bodies between the DJ stand and the tiny dance floor. And then he's standing behind two tall guys with tucked in plaids and beards, who are leaning up against the bar and blocking him out.
When Darrell finds out that there are no two-dollar Sunday beer specials, he walks down to the other Korean store—not Mr. Chong's but Rosie’s—and purchases two forties of malt.
Stumbling back to Alex's yard, he flips open his knife, leans into Rick’s dark blue vintage GTO and runs the knife along the length of the car. One deep cut about waist height. He walks the baby carriage down the alley to his little brother Edgar's house and leaves it with the mattress and the broken mirror leaning up against a chain-link fence.
Darrell knocks on Faye's door. She’s banging around in the kitchen, losing her way to the back door from the bedroom; after he knocks again she opens the back door, her silhouette weaving. Darrell tries to tell her, through the iron bars of the security door, that he’s sorry. She unlocks the security door and invites him inside.
For two days they smoke cigarettes dipped in PCP fluid. When they run out of PCP she walks up the hill to the Carver Terrace projects to buy more, using some of Darrell's cash from Mr. Chong’s.
The last time this happened, Darrell stayed until all his cash was gone. At which point, Faye called her younger half-sister to tell her that there was a man threatening her. Darrell grabbed the phone and calmly asked to speak to the half-sister’s husband; he told the husband that he and Faye had been smoking drugs for days. Then, he hung up, kicked the shit out of Faye until he was pretty sure she wouldn’t try to get up, and went out to the liquor store. When he came back, all of his belongings had been turned out onto the street. The cops were parked on the corner.
This time, though, while Faye is on her way to Carver Terrace to re-up, Darrell leaves with the rest of his cash. He sleeps the night out in the vacant lot behind the laundromat.
When Darrell strolls in the next morning, after two full days, Mr. Chong fires him, and he spends a week sleeping at the shelter.
After a week, Darrell goes back to Alex’s yard. He tells Alex that sometime during his absence Rick’s GTO has been vandalized. When he packs up a trash bag and strolls down the alley, Alex calls Becca.
"Let me just tell you this one thing and then you tell me what you think, okay?"
"So Darrell hasn't been around all week. Last time I saw him was last Sunday. Which is fine, totally fine with me, but you know I thought maybe he was gone for good—the baby carriage was gone, I checked, but his tub was still there and everything... Anyways, he was back today. And the only thing he had to tell me was ‘somebody messed up Rick's car.’ He said he’s been gone all week and he noticed it just now.” Alex takes a deep breath and realizes that's the end of his story. "So what do you think?"
"What do you mean?"
"I think maybe he did it."
"Because… I think the scratch on the car is why he disappeared all week; it was the first and only thing he had to tell me about, and now he's gone again. If he didn’t do it, what’s he running from?"
"So you're saying he didn't do it?"
"I have no idea what he did and didn't do. Neither do you."
Becca asks him to come over the next night. After she hangs up the phone, she just sits for a few minutes on her bed. It would be difficult for anyone else to notice the positive changes in Alex since the spring. But on the list of reasons why she should stop seeing Alex, Becca erases "violent temper," then writes it in again, then erases it again.
After talking to Alex about Rick's car, Darrell walks four houses down, with the black trash bag over his shoulder, to Edgar’s house.
"Look at yourself! You can't be comin round here like this, in front of folks.”
"Now, I got just a little throat cold. Listen; I done bring you all a baby carriage.”
"What you think we need a baby carriage for? No, never mind. Just go on. You can’t come round here, Darrell, til you stop going on vacation."
Edgar is two inches shorter and fifty pounds chubbier than his older brother. He looks down at the doorsill. Darrell stares at Edgar's bald dome.
After he closes the door, Edgar calls Darrell's parole officer, who plans to call Darrell in for urinalysis, and then, to file a motion to arrest with the court. Calling the PO causes Edgar a little pain.
Alex gets home from work in the late afternoon the following Monday and plops down on his back porch for a beer with Darrell. Darrell lifts open the recycling container lid just enough for a can to fit in, and a dozen flies buzz out into the hot, empty August air. The only thing Darrell is drinking today is beer, and he has no ice. Even though Alex has a working freezer and running water and those little ice cube trays inside his home, he doesn’t have ice for Darrell, and Darrell doesn’t want to ask. Darrell doesn’t want to go beg for a cup of ice from the liquor store. Alex’s cheery stories make Darrell feel even worse. So Darrell wills himself away from his current state of mind, and drifts off in his thoughts.
They both look up at the same time when a car door slams in the alley. Two white cops approach. One of them stands back, legs spread and a little bent.
Darrell says, "What you want?"
The younger cop, up against the fence, says, "Talk to you a minute, please." He points to Alex. “You.”
Alex walks up but looks back at Darrell, who shakes his head. Both of the cops are in good shape. The older cop walks up to join his partner at the fence, and says, "Kid, we're arresting Darrell. He violated his probation, so he's going back to jail."
"How do you know he violated it?" Alex demands, thinking about Rick’s GTO.
"Because we have his urinalysis report. You wanna see, we got it right here.”
"Darrell tested positive for PCP. Do you know anything about that?"
"No. I don't."
"OK then. His PO got a call from his brother. The PO called Darrell in for a urine sample. Now we have to take him in."
Darrell sees the cops, but they are at a distance. Seeing them doesn’t make him feel the way it usually does. He’s thinking about his former customers and colleagues, who still come out sometimes to wander. They are silent and barely getting by, keeping their heads down out of fear and shame. He’s thinking about how he recently discovered his little brother’s grade school friend smoking something in the dark alleyway between Faye’s apartment and the next building. He’s thinking about how, the other night, he found an old crack-slinging associate—they got picked up during the same raid—peeing on Alex’s wall, concealed from the street by the GTO. They both have criminal records, and lack the skills for real work; they are too old and out of touch to compete on the street corner with the young ones. It's really no trouble at all to go back to jail.
The cops step up to the gate. Alex blocks them. They step back in unison, reaching right hands to their holsters. Alex moves aside again, saying, “Fine, fine, I’m letting you in. I’m choosing to let you in.”
The older cop now assumes his bent leg defense in front of Darrell; the younger cop is lifting up crates and peering into bags.
"So," the younger cop says, uncertain.
Darrell squints. "Y’all ain’t even know when it happen, I know!" he yells. "I’m the one who told Rick that shit even happen. Now why would I do that if I scratch his car?”
The younger cop furrows his brow. The older cop shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose. Then, they lay Darrell out on the ground.
That Saturday Alex gets on the bus and goes to see Becca, who is volunteering at the dog shelter.
Becca has a grey pit-bull on a leash and is talking to a couple of older men about the shelter's adoption process. Becca sees Alex, smiles with all her teeth, and puts up a finger to tell him to wait because he is ten minutes early. He wants very much for her to move in with him, into a new apartment in some other neighborhood.
He asks her, and she agrees.
The night before the move, Alex decides to do something about Darrell’s stuff. It’s been almost a month. Faye claims he’s in jail. Alex opens up the blue tub in his backyard. He takes out a red file folder. Inside are flyers from vocational training programs, the serenity prayer, and probation forms, which have his name down as Darrell Byrd.
Faye’s last name is also Byrd.
The next night, surrounded by unopened boxes in a ninth floor one-bedroom—in a new building, blocks from the subway station in another “revitalized” neighborhood farther uptown—Alex and Becca look up the Byrds’ marriage records and arrest records online.
Darrell and Faye have been married for fifteen years, following each other in and out of prison. Faye’s record stretches back to ’91. There’s a big gap between ’94 and ’01, and then there’s a rash of offenses between ‘01 and ‘11, including class II felony. Darrell Byrd’s record has a similar timeline, ending in ’09 instead of ’11, but most of his convictions are possession with intent.
Sometimes Alex goes back, but he’s not looking to see anyone. He bums cigarettes to the teenagers who hang out in Darrell’s brother’s front yard and then he walks the long way out. He takes Darrell’s advice: looking strangers in the eye with his chin up, saying hello to folks, showing neither fear nor disrespect. At least he’s not giving people the wrong idea.