The night was cold. Team-O still remembers that. They walked through Patterson Park, up the hill, and the grass was frozen. The sound, a crunch, crunch underneath their feet. Each step felt like he was breaking something very fragile. They knew where the house was, on top of the hill, on the far side of the park. There wasn’t any warmth in the sinking orange that was dying behind the buildings, merging with the water—no warmth that reached them, anyways.
Team-O’s jacket wasn’t very warm. But it was big, puffy, so it didn’t look funny with him holding a knife in his right pocket. Pop-Pop had one too. Once they got to the top of the hill, they stopped by a bench, and they stood there for a while.
Pop-Pop was talking, saying some shit in whispers. He kicked the frozen dirt, dug a little hole with the toe of his boot. Team-O looked over his shoulder: Two white women that looked pretty much the same except one had dark brown hair, one blonde. Both wearing big, hoop earrings, dark leather boots up to their knees, both with clinking jewelry hanging off their wrists and necks. The dark haired woman had her hair tightly pulled back, the blonde one with it loose around her face. They walked along the cracked sidewalk toward them.
Team-O felt a little panicked, like they knew. They had to.
They had a dog with them, a black one, all muscle, a pit. The kind Team-O used to have. When they walked by, Team-O kept looking down at the dog. Then the dog jumped up on him, and they said sorry, real fast. He said, Oh it’s aight, ladies. Team-O crouched down, kept his right hand on the knife in his pocket, pulled his left out, scratched the dog behind his ears and the dog turned around, so Team-O would scratch his ass. Just like Team-O’s old dog used to. It made him remember, laugh, and he told the dog he was a good dog.
Then Pop-Pop said, Hey. Your dog wanna have babies with my dog. She a pit too.
Oh, said one of the white ladies, the dark haired one, who when she crouched down to pet the dog, Team-O noticed had a tattoo on the back of her neck. He liked that, that chinese symbol that meant something he didn’t understand. He can’t have puppies, she said. He’s neutered.
Oh aight, said Pop-Pop, looking back at the house on Ellwood Avenue, starting to get mad again. The house was all brick except for the oriel window, covered with off-white wood siding, paint chipped, flaking. Three windows on three angled panels of the oriel, one with an air conditioner sticking out. Everything else was brick: the steps up to the front porch, the pillars holding up the second floor that extended over the front porch, the wall around the porch. There were lights on inside.
The women left with their dog and the two boys went back to looking at the house. Pop-Pop said that the women were probably dykes, and he laughed and Team-O forced out a laugh but he didn’t feel like laughing. Then Pop-Pop went back to being angry.
This wasn’t Team-O’s or Pop-Pop’s idea. Not really, but they both knew the whole time that the plan was to kill the old woman who lived in this house on Ellwood Avenue. Pop-Pop, had broke into that lady’s house about six months earlier; she called the police, and Pop-Pop probably would have forgiven that, but then she testified against him and he went to jail. Not jail, actually, because Pop-Pop was thirteen when she snitched; he went to juvie for a few months, and as soon as he got out, he went to his older cousin Team-O, to the house they were staying at, the room they were sharing, told him to get his knife, and they knew they had to kill that white lady.
They walked away from the house, down to the corner of Gough and Ellwood, down the block and into the alley. Rats were already out, tearing through the alley, running away from the boys’ steps, afraid. The house was seventh from the corner and they walked down the alley, counting the houses as they went. The cracked slab behind her house was surrounded by a cinder-block fence, which came up to Team-O’s chest, Pop-Pop’s neck; he still had some growing to do. She had one of those old bathtubs sitting in the yard, filled with brown dirt, some plants or something. There were a couple of chairs, too, and they weren’t even locked up. Coming off the second floor, a porch sticking out over the yard supported by two posts.
Shit, said Pop-Pop. What? said Team-O. Them chairs still here. Yo’ those chairs be over in McElderry Park, some fiend a fuckin’ yank that shit like that. Pop-Pop played up the shakes, moving down the sidewalk. They laughed, they remembered. Pop-Pop came back. Let’s climb up to the deck, he said. Team-O said, Shit, Pop. Don’t be so fuckin’ stupid. No way we can make it up there. Don’t call me stupid. I ain’t stupid. Aight, aight. I know you ain’t stupid. I’m sorry, Pop. They were standing side by side, looking up at her house, and they leaned, bumped shoulders against each other, and everything was okay. But we can’t make it up there. And that ol’ lady gonna hear us if we clanging about. And then she’ll have time to call the police. How you get in last time? Pop-Pop laughed. Nigga’, I climbed up the fuckin’ deck. Team-O looked down to Pop-Pop. And how did that work for you? They laughed. Oh ‘aight. You right, you right. So what we goin’ to do? I got an idea, said Team-O, walking back out of the alley.
They moved back around to the front of the house, and it was almost all the way dark by then, and they walked to the front of her house, up the steps, onto her porch.
Years later, Team-O still doesn’t remember who knocked first, but he remembers the sound: light, sharp, slow, a clack…clack…clack. Nothing happened, so one of them knocked again, a little faster, harder, more a rapid succession of dead thuds.
Then it all happened slow: They heard the deadbolt slide into the door, heard the doorknob turn and the door creak open. As soon as Team-O could see space between the door and the door jamb, he threw his shoulder into it, hard, popping the little chain off the wall and knocking the woman to the ground. Pop-Pop came in after him, grabbed her by her armpits and dragged her into the middle of the front room while Team-O kicked shut the door.
The woman was in a frayed bathrobe. Team-O saw where it had opened after she had been thrown on the ground, her skin, old, pale, wrinkled stomach, sagging. Her chest rose and fell. She pissed on the floor, and Pop-Pop shouted, Why the fuck you getting piss on my boots? and he kicked her. He turned to Team-O, said, Come on. Team-O grabbed his knife, held the handle hard, still in his pocket, looked at the lady again, and tried to look at her eyes, but she wouldn’t let him. She turned from him, covering herself up, holding that bathrobe around her nakedness.
Team-O was still, couldn’t move, like that time he was at swim-team practice, and one of those African kids with some weird name sank to the bottom of the pool. The mother fucker couldn’t swim and he just sank and Team-O saw him and froze, unable to move or say anything until the swim coach noticed, dove in, brought the African kid up to the surface.
Pop-Pop told him to get the fuck out of there if he wasn’t going to do anything, and Team-O went onto the porch, closed the door behind him, squeezed his eyes shut, held his cold, cracked hands against his cold ears, bent over, crouched down. He only moved when he was about to get sick, and he did that over the railing into the bushes. Then he bent over again. He stayed like that ‘til Pop-Pop came out a little later. He closed the door behind him, quietly, and tapped Team-O on the back. He looked at Pop-Pop, looking for something different on his face. Pop-Pop looked the same, though. They walked away quickly. It was dark. They didn’t say anything and then they split up a few blocks north.
Walking along Jefferson Street the next day, there were all kinds of police out. Not just Smalls and Simmons and Jordan Sir; there were uniformed officers Team-O had never seen before. From Hopkins all the way down to Ellwood Park. Team-O was scared. He wanted to talk to someone about what had happened. There was no one to talk to, and Pop-Pop didn’t seem to want to talk about it all that much, so Team-O didn’t say anything. Then the next day, police came to their house on Jefferson and Rose. Early, too, right when the sun came up. Not the usual police, either, that Team-O was used to in McElderry Park. These were the police only around when there was a body. A black police and a Mexican one. Up to their grandma’s house with a bunch of other police. They smashed in the door, knocked grandma over as they ran up the stairs, but Simmons helped her up and apologized for them being so rude. They shouldered into Team-O’s and Pop-Pop’s room, and it was real loud and there was the sound of breaking and both of them were put in handcuffs, walked down stairs, and it wasn’t until they were outside that the police figured out which one they wanted: Paul Cooper. They had found his prints all over the white lady and the door.
But Pop-Pop was good; he didn’t say shit, didn’t rat out his cousin or nothing. Since the police knew she had testified against him before, they figured pretty easy that he had planned to do it beforehand. First degree murder. They tried him as an adult. Found him guilty. It all happened fast.
People all over the city were real angry about the murder, a white woman, living south of Fayette, shit, south of Baltimore street, murdered. It got everyone worked up for about a month. Police were all over the blocks, all the time, making it a real pain for anyone to work.
But nothing changed. Before the weather started to warm up, things quieted down and the police left them alone again and things went pretty much back to normal.
When McElderry Park was quiet again, Team-O moved down Jefferson Street, over to Streeper, past Johnny B.’s house. A little tri-color row house, formstone front, rotting cornice, cracked concrete steps up to the steel door. His grandma still had the poster in her window from the rally after Johnny B. got shot up: Safe Streets. Stop Shooting. Start Living. Her white lace curtains were pulled shut and the windows inside were dark. It had always been quiet on this little, alley street.
Team-O thinks about that woman in her dirty bathrobe now, sometimes, when he’s holding his baby, and the baby’s crying and crying at night, and can’t sleep, so Team-O walks him around the apartment, bouncing him up and down. His wife’s Korean, and their baby boy has a light, bronze color—like sand that’s just a little wet, or copper. And when he’s bouncing his boy up and down, he forces himself to think of that woman and of her begging. And when he does, he wishes that he had never had a baby. Because the world is a terrible, terrible place, and he knows that awful things will happen to his baby. And when his baby is grown, he’ll probably do things like that himself. The world will make you do unforgivable things you don’t think you’re capable of, and after, it doesn’t let you go.
When Team-O walked home that night, he gave Pop-Pop dap and went the last few blocks alone. He kept thinking that when he went to bed, he’d see that woman’s face, he’d hear her begging them not to do it, I’ll smell her piss mixing in the air with that fruity smell of her shampoo, he thought. But you know what? That night he fell right asleep. He got up the next day. He went to school, even. When the police came and picked up Pop-Pop that morning, he went to school that day, kept working that day, too. And the next. And once the police cleared out, he worked after that, too.
He was sad, though, because he wasn’t different from anyone else. He thought—hoped, really, though he wouldn’t admit that to himself—that he was different. But he was capable of all of those things that people thought when they looked at him. He was sad because he wanted so badly to believe that he wasn’t the same.