3 Double Shift: A Short Blues Story by Bonni McKeown
Around eight, after the street lights came on, Marcus walked the few blocks to the address Lenny gave him. The place was dark. Around the back, he bypassed the wooden fire escape and found an unlocked side door. He climbed a narrow stairway, stepping not too quiet, not too loud. At the top, he sucked in his breath and knocked on a cracked door.
A muffled voice: “Who sent you?”
“Lenny sent me.”
“Oh.” Low gruff voice; bolts slide open. “Someone here for you, Lenny.”
Lenny came to the door with a squatty, rough looking man. “I’m Fatso. Come this way.” The dark hall led to a small room in the back. Thick black curtains covered all the windows. One dim lamp sat in a corner. A heavy medicinal smell hung in the air.
“We package pharmaceuticals,” said Fatso, who wore a stocking cap over his forehead. “We don’t take no squealers up in here. You can’t tell nobody. Everybody work in their underwear. The women are in another room, you can’t go in there. We check everyone when you leave. Don’t want nothin’ goin’ out of this place in yall’s pockets.”
Marcus didn’t want to take anything. He just wanted the money.
His mother’s voice: Leave now, son.
On a bench, at a long table with a small scale in the middle, sat two skinny brownskin guys about his age who returned his cautious gaze. They looked like twins. A fan in the corner whisked sweat from their hands and faces. They cut and filled squares of tin foil with measured scoops of powder. They checked the weight of each on a small scale before folding it up, then dropped it in a small plastic bag.
Every so often, someone would inhale a pinch of the substance. “Cocaine. It’ll keep you coming back. It’s worth it,” said one of the twins, Rayford. “I been working here two years.”
“But you best not snort any of that stuff you already weighed,” Lenny cautioned. “If any customers on the street complain they got shorted, Fatso will beat your head in.”
At 2 a.m. the shift ended. The drug workers re-gathered outside in the alley.
“Plenty time to party,” said Kayford, the other twin.
Marcus realized some people that night would blow all their money on dope and come back to work the next day just to earn another hit. He wasn’t about to do that. He’d take his money home.
“Better watch your money,” said one of the girls, Debra, laughing. She wore a tight red skirt, and smoked a long joint
“He afraid to spend it,” echoed the twins together as he hit the street.
Front pocket stuffed with cash, Marcus kept swiveling his head, eyes searching every possible dark ambush corner. Relieved to reach the single-room hotel, he unlocked the front door and shut it behind him, squinting in the harsh florescent hall lights. He headed to the shower to wash off the grime from Midwest Barrel. He brushed his teeth and tried to spit out the pharmaceutical smell from the night job, but with every breath he still felt it moving in and out of his lungs.
Aloneness stared down from the ceiling. He turned on his radio, not too loud. Sly and the Family Stone’s song came on, pushing him to stand up and bear a cross. Marcus snapped the radio off. He didn’t feel like standing; he already had enough crosses.
Little Brother? You got life. Live for the People.
The voice got louder and spilled into the room. Marcus Jr. pulled the pillow over his head.
My name is Akbar. You saw me at the Black Panther meetings. Just a couple months after Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, I died for the People.
Just barely, Marcus recalled Akbar, a wiry, rough little brown guy sitting at a Panther meeting next to Fred, the Illinois chairman. Powerful muscles bulged from Fred’s white T-shirt. “Akbar. So what happened to you?”
I was in the crew when the Panthers burned down that warehouse full of heroin. Government agents shot me in the back. I fell on the sidewalk and burned up with the damned poison drugs. It didn’t matter. The government just kept on letting that stuff in here to destroy the People.
“God!” Marcus spat, sick to his stomach. “The pigs never stop. Kill all our leaders. What we gonna do now?”
No leader on this earth forever. But the People still here. So you gotta carry it on. That’s what you do.
“Leader? Not me. I just gotta make a dollar and survive.”
At the drug house? That gonna be your future? Angry tears filled Akbar’s voice. Man--I died for nothing!
“What can I do? You ain’t here and I ain’t you.” Marcus threw off his blanket, jumped out of bed and paced barefoot across the room in his T-shirt and boxer shorts. Craving any tangible thing, he decided to write up a grocery list like he would do for his mother. He clicked open her old suitcase, hunting paper and pencil. He hoped neighbors couldn’t hear him fumbling in the wee hours, talking crazy to spirits.
Little brother, you already a leader, Akbar reassured. At Midwest Barrel you called out the Man for ripping off people’s paychecks. Go farther! You could’ve gotten with Catherine and Carlos and raised hell.
“But Akbar, I ain’t that smart. Ain’t that tough. You a Panther. Me, I was just a cub. And you, and Mark and Fred—all gone.”
Don’t mourn we’re not here. Organize with the people that are here. Sometimes you gonna make mistakes. But by tryin’ stuff, you get to see how the system works, and do better next time. Don’t give up. Just keep livin’.
“What choice have I got?” Marcus taped his grocery list on the refrigerator and slammed the suitcase shut.
At a quarter to twelve the next night, the drug crew heard a loud knock on the door. “Open up!”
“Lenny s’posed to answer the door,” Rayford whispered.
“Open up! Police!”
They all ran for the back door. Cops with heavy flashlights blinded them on the fire escape, spotlighting them in their skivvies.