READ AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM "RAGE IS BACK," WRITTEN BY NEW YORK TIMES #1 BEST-SELLING AUTHOR, ADAM MANSBACH.
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According to The Ambassador – who, when he’s out of glue, has been known to deliver impromptu lectures of considerable scholarship – the underground has not always inspired fear. In ancient times it was safer than topside: the site of mankind’s early, womb-like dwellings and the haven to which death would return him. Mining was considered a dirty business when it started, a kind of rape; special rites of absolution were performed at the outset of any expedition. With the rise of science the metaphor changed, and the nurturing mother became a vast brain from whose recesses knowledge had to be extracted in the name of progress. That dovetailed nicely with the needs of industry, and soon the planet was being hollowed out and re-stocked with sewers and trains, water mains and electrical lines.
The modern city required a level of coordination between its visible and submerged halves that made idea of people living underground plausible again. But who would populate it, now that the subterrain was so tainted by both the ascendant heaven-and-hell cosmology and the fact that it was full of things we didn’t want to see? Laborers and slaves, naturally. And thus the underground came to symbolize the silent oppressed, always threatening to breach the bright surface. Your boy H.G. Wells imagined a future in which mine workers degenerated into a depraved new race; Chuck Dickens and Vic Hugo envisioned sewer-dwelling classes totally severed from the world above, their very existence un-guessed-at.
The mythic journey to the underworld is typically embarked upon alone, but there are exceptions. Like the drunken Athenian duo of Theseus and Pirithous, whose idiotic plan to kidnap Persephone ended in tears. Or my man Odysseus, who brought all his sailors on a roadtrip to the Kingdom of Hades that was more an excuse for Homer to relate the fates of the Greek heroes after Troy than a portrait of hell.
Or me, Billy and Dengue, whose Sunday morning began with a cab ride to the meatpacking district, and continued with a squeeze through a chain-link flap cut from a razor-wire-topped fence. From there, we clambered through a trash-strewn lot, into the alley alongside an abandoned brick building. A wooden door with a dangling padlock opened into a small room. A man slept loudly in one corner, atop a swirl of newspapers and clothes. In another was a jagged hole, chopped through the cement floor. The top rungs of a rusty ladder breached the opening.
We climbed down into a stagnant, pissy near-darkness, and started walking: along the ledge of one train tunnel, then through a service door and down a spiraling flight of metal stairs, into another. Then up to the catwalk.
Billy led the way and I led Dengue, who managed to keep up surprisingly well. What light there was fell in narrow beams, and seemed exhausted from the journey. I’d been forbidden to bring a flashlight. “Cops carry flashlights,” the Ambassador had said, and that was that.
Tunnel is one of those concepts you think you understand, but don’t ¬– not until you walk through one. We’re talking about a goddamn cylinder hollowed out of the rock and dirt that is our planet, and New York City sits atop hundreds of miles’ worth, eighteen stories deep in some places and three or four in most. You know what an ant farm looks like? That’s what all our apartment buildings and museums and shit are built on. Forgive me if this is all obvious to you, or if it sounds like stoner wisdom. If you’ve never been down there, you only think you know what I’m talking about. Whatever, forget it.
Another ladder, me spotting Dengue from below and imagining the Ambassador losing his footing, taking me down with him, the two of us shishkabobbed atop a railroad spike for all eternity. And then we were trodding through a deeper tunnel, tar black and echoing with the drip of water so that if you weren’t too busy waving your hands in front of you and being terrified, you might imagine you were in a cave.
“Couldn’t we have done this at a Starbucks?” I asked.
Billy was too far ahead to hear me, Dengue too focused on drawing breath to respond.
“Or at Fizz’s crib. Fizz’s office. A church. A synagogue. A mosque. Maybe not a mosque. Those probably are under surveillance.”
“Almost there,” my father called. I heard him take off running, then a grunt and a beat of silence and the slap of both his sneakers hitting the ground at once. “Wait til you see this,” he called, sounding like nothing so much as a kid showing off a new Christmas toy.
He was acting pretty goddamn close to normal, and it seemed clear to me that the idea of revenge was what had nudged him those final, crucial degrees. Which worried me, a lot: revenge was what had taken him away, and I knew it could snatch him up again. And not for nothing? The same obsessive streak or justice-lust or impulse for self-sabotage ran in my veins, too – had ruled my thoughts of Billy all those years he was gone, even if I hadn’t recognized it as such until now.
“Keep going straight?” I called.
“Hold on, hold on.” A tinkling sound, like a wind chime, and then light flooded the tunnel. Billy stood above us, beneath an ornate, soot-covered chandelier.
“Voila. The Parlor.”
Four feet up from the tracks, just like a regular subway station, was a huge, semi-circular space – not technically a hall, but it felt like one. The ceiling was domed, the fixture suspended precisely in the middle. It was meant to hang much higher off the ground, but the electrical wiring had been yanked loose, presumably so that one might screw in a bulb, as Billy had.
Inlaid mirrors covered the walls, so sixty watts went a long way. There were benches on one side, rows of them lined up like church pews, angled inward so that anyone seated there would have a perfect view of the piano positioned opposite. It was a grand.
Billy’s eyes sparkled as he watched me climb up and take in the space. At my expression, I suppose, or the memory of his own first visit. Or the fact that he was sharing this place – hell, sharing anything – with his son.
“Piano still here?” asked the Ambassador, scrabbling over the ledge and brushing himself off.
“Where would it go?” Billy took his arm, just above the elbow. “This way.”
“That’s all right, I can get there.” Billy let go and Dengue beelined to it, pulled out the bench, sat down. He fished a tube of airplane glue out of his pocket, rubbed some on the collar of his T-shirt, and treated himself to a big exhilarating-sunrise-on-the-mountaintop breath. “Any requests?”
“Since when do you play the piano?” I asked.
“Shit, if a blind black man can’t tinkle the ivories, who can?”
“It’s tickle, not tinkle.”
“‘Straight, No Chaser,’” said Billy. He was seated on a bench, legs crossed at the ankles, smiling wide and calm like all was right with the world.
“Excellent choice.” Dengue made claws of his hands, cracking the upper joints of his fingers. “I only know one song,” he explained. “But I play the fuck out of it.”
The piano was so monstrously out of tune that evaluating the performance was impossible. I walked over and sat behind Billy.
“What is this place?”
He leaned back, spoke over his shoulder. “It was supposed to be the central station of a private train line they built in the thirties. Company went bankrupt. It was never even used.”
Dengue murdered Monk for awhile, notes ricocheting off the tunnel walls. He’d located an octave in which the keys weren’t even connected to their wires. Hitting them produced a thwack that the Ambassador seemed to believe he could employ as percussion.
Billy listened like he was sitting in Symphony Space. I wanted to ask him how he could be so comfortable in one tunnel, and so convinced that a nexus of evil energy dwelled in another. Weren’t they all connected? Couldn’t this demon move around?
Dengue built to a horrific crescendo, pounding the busted keyboard with iron hands, and then it was over. Billy clapped; I did the same.
I stopped. He stopped. The clapping didn’t.
We stood up. Dengue too, so fast he knocked over the piano bench.
Into the light strolled a reedy black man, head-to-toed in camouflage like he’d just stepped off a troop transport from Tikrit, patchy beard and all. Only he was pushing fifty: a first generation writer, a graffiti grandpa. The fact that he was rocking wraparound sunglasses in total blackness confirmed it. All those dudes were bonkers.
“Me.” His voice was hoarse, but strong.
“What up, Drum?” from Billy.
Dude swung himself up into the parlor like a gymnast mounting the parallel bars.
“Kill that, kill that. The handle’s Supreme Chemistry now. I take that Drum shit as a diss, you know what I’m sayin’?” He gave Billy a pound. “Welcome home, kid. Dengue, what’s good, my ninja?”
“Supreme Chem, how you livin’?”
“Yo, ninjas is on some bullshit, B, but what else is new? I been beefin’ with this one sucker ninja all week on some message board stupidness. Ninja talkin’ greazy ‘bout how he invented bubble letters. I’m like, ‘ninja, I been doin’ this since ’69, where you was at? How come I ain’t see no trains with your name on ‘em ‘til spring ’72? If you was at the Writers’ Bench so much, why true school ninjas don’t even recognize your face?’ Not to mention, they ain’t even bubble letters, the name is softies. Yo B, I had to break down how much of what the world been jockin’ for like the last thirty bullets is just ninjas bitin’ Supreme Chem’s formulas, from softies to three-Ds to the way I dropped my R behind my D when ninjas was off eatin’ Watermelon Now and Laters with Miss Lucy and shit. But let me stop running my mouth. Meanwhile, here come this other ninja, out the woodwork behind the woodwork, ain’t been heard from in ten, twelve years and now he claimin’ he kinged the BMTs in like ’77-’78. Shit is crazy, B. Ninjas wanna act all wild west on the interwebs, like they can’t get mashed in the face when they step out they little no-windows basement apartment. I call ‘em lie-oneers, you know what I’m saying? Origihaters. But let me stop running my mouth. What’s the science on this meeting, B? I hope y’all ain’t bringin’ no ninjas I got beef with.”
“That would be practically impossible,” said Dengue, giving Supreme Chemistry a pound.
Until the dude smiled, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. “True, true. How they say, B? Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
“So that’s why I got a headache.” Cackles in the darkness, from a direction I hadn’t even noticed, and then Nick Fizz and two other dudes emerged.
You know that thing I said earlier about pink-fur-Kangol gay Puerto Rican b-boy flair? I meant it as a figure of speech. But goddamn it if Nick Fizz wasn’t rocking an actual pink fur Kangol. Funny thing is, it didn’t even look that gay. He had one of those beards you’ve gotta touch up three times a week at la barberia, same as half of all Boriquan males between fifteen and fifty-five, and the hat was cocked at the classic diddy-bop degree. It matched one of his polo shirt’s stripes, sat atop a pair of chunky old-school eyeglasses. By the time you got done looking at him, it seemed totally hetero-plausible.
Cloud and Dengue had squabbled about whether to invite him, Cloud arguing that Fizz had too much to lose to be trusted, and that his old crew, the one he’d have to reunite, was even more scattered than most. Dengue said Nick was solid as ever, and asked Cloud how the fuck he thought he knew anything about anybody after sixteen in the hoosegow, and in this way the matter was resolved.
I gave Fizz a hug and shook hands with the infamous Sambo CFC ¬¬– who indeed had curly hair, though I’d imagine it had covered far more of his head when he took his nom de plume – and a guy who introduced himself as Stoon BMS, then stepped back a full pace as if expecting me to fall forward onto my face at the thrill of meeting him.
Every few minutes after that, a pair of writers or a trio would step into the light, until I felt like I was watching a kind of reverse play, me standing on stage and the various characters entering from the wings, the aisles. There were twelve people there, plus me, when Dengue sounded a chord on the piano and called the meeting to order. Everybody sprawled on the pews except Supreme Chemistry, who stood behind us like a sentry.
What happened next reminds me of the most boring scene in all of Homer. Just when the action’s heating up, my man takes a ten page time-out to run down every vessel that sailed to Troy, who its captain was, how many battalions of troops he brought, and for what heroic attributes and agricultural products motherfuckers from that particular region of Greece were known. A little later, he provides an equally stupefying catalog of armies on the Trojan side.
How long do you figure it should take a dozen guys who all know each other anyway to introduce themselves? Three minutes, maybe? I’m going to skip the play-by-play – don’t say I never did anything for you – but this is how it manages to take fifteen:
“Whaddup, whaddup, good to be here, good to be here, Stoon BMS representing Castle Hill, na’mean, BMS President, na’mean, Bronx Most Shocking, Beat Mad Suckers, Best Motherfuckin’ Style, Boogiedown Meets Shaolin, whatever whatever. Original members was myself, Dash 7, who was Vice President, um, Ty-Ty 99, Javelin – R.I.P. ¬– and Maser. Then, lemme see, Xerxes and Asap got down in’79, and then Blaze One, Mug, Swag 3, Phast, and Skizz. I also represent 12 Angry Monkeys, 12AM Crew, that’s me, Lord Ock, Fed 125…”
And so on. They were a haggard bunch, even taking the dress-down nature of the occasion into account. There was something in their faces, the hang of their skin. They had outlived what they’d invented, and this doomed them to live in the past, and fear the present. That’s my half-assed take, anyway.
When it was over, Dengue came around and stood in front of the piano. “I’ll get right to it. Y’all speak for the illest subway crews of all time, and we called you here for one reason: because it’s time to take back these trains.”
His dramatic pause played like an awkward silence. That was punctured by a pudgy, babyfaced Puerto Rican, name of Species, the founder of a comparatively new-jack crew from Queens. They’d come late to the party, squeezed in two or three years of intense mayhem as the subway era was winding down. Another contested invite, despite the fact that his squad was the most active on the docket.
“Yo, Dengue, no disrespect? Your man Rage called this meeting, all mysterious, back from the dead and shit. So first things first, a’ight? How we know he ain’t 5-0?”
All heads turned to Billy, but before he could respond, the dull thump of a body hitting the ground refocused the collective attention.
Supreme Chemistry stood over Species, blackjack in hand. And I don’t mean a face card and an ace.
“No disrespect to you either,” he rasped, and raised his eyes – assuming he had some, behind those shades – to the rest of us. “Those who don’t study their history are doomed to be fuckin’ stupid forever.” He crouched, slipped the blackjack into one of the pockets lining his fatigues, and cracked some smelling salts under his victim’s nose. “Rise and shine, ninja.” Species twitched and woke. “While you was ‘sleep we agreed that Billy ain’t no po-po,” Supreme Chemistry informed him. “Next time you feel like talking, count to ten first, and then shut the fuck up.”
I was beginning to like this guy.
Species rubbed the back of his head, scowled, arranged his limbs to stand. “Yo, what the¬¬–“
Supreme Chem pressed four fingertips to Species’ chest. “What I just say, B? Check this out: I already forgot your name, but if you on some graffiti shit, then I’m your daddy. You livin’ under my roof, ninja. Now show some manners and apologize to Rage.”
Species looked around, incredulous that no one was interceding on his behalf. We all waited.
“Okay. I’m sorry.” Without a sound, Supreme Chem drifted back to his position in the rear. “I apologize. It’s just” ¬– Species looked over both shoulders – “I mean, shit is crazy right now. Vandal Squad is laying fools out. Y’all heard what happened to Hades?” Yes-nods, no-nods. “They ran up in his crib last week with search warrants, took his computer. He’s got six thousand photos on there, and they’re using them as evidence, charging him in four different boroughs. Seven to ten years each.”
“If he gets convicted, we’re all fucked,” said Fizz. “That shit will set a precedent.”
“What’s his defense?” I asked.
Fizz shrugged. “That he stopped writing when his daughter was born, in ’93, and anything more recent is copycats. And that of course he has pictures of graffiti on his computer, he publishes books about graffiti, he’s a historian.”
“Which is why they want him in the first place,” said Stoon. “Anybody getting paid off this, Bracken is gunning for.”
Another patch of dead air, this one more ruminative than awkward. Gradually the attention drifted back to Billy, who didn’t notice. I once saw a clip of Ronald Reagan standing motionless behind a podium for five minutes, looking like a wax statue. Then somebody shouts, “rolling,” and he launches right into a speech. It’s chilling. I nudged Billy’s foot with mine and he reanimated, Gipper-style.
“Um, so basically, the plan is to bomb every train in the system, all at once. Start Saturday night and work through Monday morning. One crew to a yard. For security reasons, only you guys, the crew presidents, will know the big picture. Everybody else is gonna think they’re just taking out a line.” He glanced over at Dengue. “There’s, you know, a lot of specifics to go over, but we’ve figured most of it out already. We’ve got some money, or we’re gonna have some money, for supplies and–“
“They watch the paint stores now, Billy.” It was a guy called Vexer, a lightskinned Dominicano. His voice was gentle, like your favorite grade school teacher breaking a piece of bad news. “I don’t know if you knew that, seeing as you been away. Buying more than five cans is probable cause. They be doin’ stop-and-searches.”
“I didn’t know that. But I wasn’t talking about paint. I meant night vision goggles, trip wires, smoke bombs, tranquilizer rifles. Bail bonds. Any information we might have to pay for.” With each item Billy ran down, the silence deepened. Words like these breathed life into the enterprise. “We’re good on paint already. Cloud 9 is covering that.”
Snickers around the Parlor.
“Picking up where he left off, huh?”
“This is an old stash. A truck he jacked back in the day, and put on ice.” The Ambassador paused. “Any of y’all happen to attend Cloud’s homecoming party?”
A few guys mumbled that they had.
“Then you know the stakes. We’re the Committee to Not Elect Anastacio Bracken by Fucking Up His Trains.”
“He’s ten points behind in the polls,” said Fizz.
“Yeah, but he’s raised the most dough,” countered Stoon. “That’s all that counts in politics, watch.”
“You crazy, man. In this city, it’s union endorsements. Bracken-“
“Fuckin’ McNeil and Lehrer over here,” said the Ambassador. “So what’s up? Everybody ready to rustle up their people and make history, or do I have to give my big inspirational speech?”
“I know I need to be inspired, dog. I was at Cloud’s party. Billy ripped his name out of my blackbook and ate it. You saw it, Vex. So did you.”
He pointed at me. I guess I forgot to mention that Dregs was in the house.
“Yo, mega, mega-respect, Billy, man, but are you sure you’re up to this? I mean, you been off in the jungle, just got back, probably haven’t, like, totally readjusted yet…”
“Painting that creepy juju shit in the tunnels…” Sambo added, under his breath.
“Yeah, yeah, right. I know if it was me, I’d need a year just to get my head straight. I damn sure wouldn’t be ready to organize no Mission Impossible shit.”
My father smiled indulgently. “I wanted to learn how to defend myself. For when I came home. Those symbols in the tunnels were for spiritual protection – if they’re what I think they are, anyway. I, uh… don’t remember painting them.”
The silence this time was tender.
“I heard the shamen taught you how to throw hex,” Blam 2 tossed into the void.
“Shamans, ninja. Not shamen. Read a fuckin’ book one time in your life.”
“Word?” said Vexer. “You on some Obi-Wan Kenobi Gandalf Merlin shit now, Billy?” Grateful laughs. Dregs’ was the loudest.
Billy stared into the darkness. “I learned some things,” he said. “But this city’s no rainforest.”
Supreme Chem’s throaty voice rose from the back. “Ayo, B, you bring any bazaguanco back with you? I been trying to get my hands on some, but ninjas won’t send me any; they all say you gotta come to it, it doesn’t come to you.”
Billy looked startled. “That’s kind of the rule.”
Sambo raised his hand, waved it around. “Uh, hello? Hi. What the fuck are we talking about here?”
Supreme Chemistry turned toward him. “Whatchu wanna talk about, Sambo? How your man Shamrock went over me on the 1 train with his little bullshit straight letters and you ain’t stop him? ‘Cause Kimza told me you was there, ninja.”
“I don’t give a fuck what Kimza told you, dude. Ask that nigga why he started putting up CFC, when he was never even down for one second.”
“Cuz Shamrock’s a fuckin’ basehead, that’s why,” called Klutch One, from across the room. “He’ll put anybody down who gets him high. Should call that shit the Crack Fiend Crew.”
“Yo,” said Vexer, rising, “it’s kings or better in here, man. Chill. Put it aside.”
“Shit, if these ninjas is kings, I know I’m an Or Better. I carried the cross on my back for decades, and now these little pisswater ninjas–“
“Fuck this,” said Blam 2. “I didn’t come down here to reheat twenty-year-old beef.”
“Yo, it is what it is, B. Certain shit gotta get rectified, you feel me?”
“No,” said Billy, loud enough to turn heads. “I don’t feel you. I don’t feel any of you.”
He walked to the front of the room, paused for a second as if about to speak, and then changed his mind. Stepped down from the Parlor into the gaping nohingness, and was gone.
“Billy!” His name echoed in the tunnel. “Come back, man!”
Dengue pointed after him. “There goes the readiest, downest, uppest dude in history. You goddamn… children!”
He roared the word, and banged his walking stick against the floor for emphasis. Poseidon couldn’t have done it any better; I half-expected a river to gush forth where wood met ground. “We come to you with a plan that can redeem all your sorry old asses, make it all mean something. But you don’t even see that, because you don’t know what you are.”
He turned on his heel and walked away, behind the piano, only to double back. “This should be a New York City thing, strictly. But it’s gonna happen, with or without you petty motherfuckers. I got Germans who are down. Niggas from Brazil who wreck shit. If you want it to be them who take your trains back, fine.” He spun away again. For a couple of seconds, all you could hear was the scuttle of rats.
“Was that your big inspirational speech?” asked Fizz.
Dengue spoke without turning around. “Give or take.”
“Not bad. You got it in your pocket in Braille or something?”
“Go suck some dick, you fuckin’ corporate sellout.” But the Ambassador was trying not to smile.
“You know, Fev,” said Vexer, “none of us said no.”
“Far from it,” added Stoon.
“And no doubt, it’s gotta be an NYC exclusive,” Sambo said. “I think even me and ‘Preme can agree on that. Am I right?” He raised his fist into the air, behind his head. Supreme Chemistry came forward, bumped it with his own.
“Yeah, ninja. You right about that, if nothing else.”
“Awww. Now hug.”
“Fuck you, Fizz,” ‘Preme and Sambo said together.
Blam 2 tapped me on the knee. “Little Rage, go see if you can catch up with your old man.”
Billy stepped into the light. “I’m right here. Let’s get down to business.”
* * *
“Yo, ninja, lemme bark at you right quick.” Supreme Chemistry loped over, threw an arm around my father’s shoulders, glanced over both his own as if to make sure nobody was eavesdropping. Only Dengue, Vexer and I were left; the other writers had melted back into the blackness when the meeting wrapped, minutes before.
He rubbed his thumb against his nose, sniffed, cracked his neck. “Check the flavor, my ninja. Long as you down here, you best to go see Lou. You know she gonna hear about this, if she ain’t already, and you don’t need homegirl throwin’ salt in the game, on some ol’ ‘how Billy gon’ be in my neighborhood and not pay his respects?’ type shit.” His arm swung up again, and Supreme Chemistry pushed his shades flush to his cheekbones. “I’m saying, Vex Boogie can take Little Rage and Fever topside, and me and you can dap her up real quick, you feel me?”
Billy goggled at him for what felt like an epoch.
“Lou, ninja. Don’t tell me you don’t remember Lou. Who you think kept you alive in these tunnels, gave you paint and fed you track rabbits and shit?”
“The Mole People,” said Dengue, strolling over. “Of course.” He brightened. “Hey, maybe they’d help. You all could ask.”
“Come on,” I said. “There’s no Mole People. You guys are fucking with me. I saw C.H.U.D. That shit was bullshit.”
“Rats?” Billy blinked at Supreme Chem. “You’re saying I ate rats?”
‘Preme turned his head and hocked a snotwad into the abyss. We all watched its majestic arc.
“Time’s a-wastin’, B, and Lou’s camp is a hike. We going or what?”
“I guess so,” said Billy, slow. “If you guys think I should.”
“Yo, Lou got mad people,” Vex put in. “If she wanted to help niggas, she could help niggas.” He spit through his front teeth, a sleek bullet of saliva that landed without a sound. “Not that she’s gonna help niggas.”
“I’ll go too,” I said. “Maybe I can help convince her.”
The Ambassador smiled. “Getting a taste for downstairs, huh?”
I shrugged it off, but he was right. Being underground touched some vigorous, neglected part of me that had never stopped wanting to have adventures and explore new lands – the part graffiti channeled when my parents were my age, and nothing channels today, to my generation’s great misfortune. No options for a city kid who likes scrabbling up stuff and outgrows jungle gyms, unless you want to go balls-to-the-wall and do that Parkour shit and break your skull. You could join one of those rock-climbing gyms, I guess, but it always smells like farts in there. Besides, scaling some fake wall while a harness hugs your nuts might be good exercise, but it’s got nothing to do with freedom.
We said goodbye to Vex and Fever, and got moving. Half an hour of winding, forking tunnel brought us to a flight of metal stairs, and then we were trudging through a series of cavernous rooms separated by grated doors. The ground was littered with lean-tos, sleeping bags, mattresses, fresh human shit – like a foul, Mole version of Central Park during the Great Depression.
“Night camps,” Supreme Chemistry explained, covering his nose with his shirt. “Fuckin’ trailer parks of the tunnels. You want a ten dollar suck-off from a foster-care runaway with trackmarks, come back through here in about six hours.”
“Thanks, I’ll set my watch.”
“Oh, Rage-ito got jokes, huh? Let me guess. You’re the funny black dude up at that hincty-ass school.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Where is everybody?” Billy asked.
“Upstairs hustling. We still close to the surface. These mufuckers come downstairs to crash, but they don’t live here. Cops bust this up like once a week. The real camps are deeper. Harder to find.”
“How do you know where?”
“I’m Supreme Chemistry, B. The world is my living room. Here, have a granola bar. I got Peanut Butter Chocolate or Cookies and Cream.”
We stopped before a cement wall. “First the doggie door,” ‘Preme said, and dropped flat to arch himself through a sledgehammered opening. Billy and I followed. On the other side was a narrow ridge, overlooking an abyss, though I use overlooking loosely. I couldn’t see a thing.
“Now the monkey vine.” He reached into the blackness and grabbed a thick cable, like a magician pulling a card out of thin air. Wrapped his legs around it. Vanished.
I went next, and came down a three-count later, atop a layer of trash bags stuffed with clothes – to cushion the drop, Supreme Chem said, but also to make the floor invisible, so that if
somebody uninvited made it to the ledge and looked down, he wouldn’t risk a jump.
The eyes tricked the brain all kinds of ways down here. You’d catch a flash of light in your periphery, whirl toward it and find nothing, only the darkness spinning itself up around you as punishment for turning your head too fast. Sounds echoed above, in the cubbyholes hollowed from the walls, and you’d look up and see vampiric silhouettes swoop toward you, only to disintegrate an instant before fang found neck. Or your eyes picked out a shape that seemed impossible, and you dismissed it, told yourself no rat could be that big – and then whoosh, the figment brushed against your leg and trundled past like the sale at Macy’s was ending in fifteen minutes and you were just one more street-clogging imbecile.
Twenty minutes later light breached the horizon, cold and pale like it was coming from one of those lamps set toward the bottom of a swimming pool, with none of the flicker or heat of the few campfires we’d passed. I looked away and my eyes seared a bright square blotch onto a charred wall: my own personal Rothko.
“Hold up.” Supreme Chemistry stopped short, and I walked into his forearm like it was a turnstile bar.
“Good guests don’t show up unannounced.” He leaned past me, grabbed a stick propped up against the tunnel wall, and thwanged a pipe running just below the ceiling. A few seconds later, someone on the other end tapped back.
We rounded a final bend, and stepped into an enormous natural cavern, so high and wide that for a moment it seemed we weren’t underground at all. Light trickled in through a street grate, bounced off the craggy walls and reached the dwellings speckling the flat ground stripped of warmth, more like moonbeams than sunshine.
Cardboard and bedsheets and black plastic were the primary building materials, plus the occasional beam of salvaged wood. Sounds humble, but some of these structures wound on and on, like the pillow-fort a rich kid with mad couches would build in his living room. There were a few proper tents, too, and as I looked up I saw that every suitable nook and hollow in the high rock walls served as a domicile. Candles threw skittish light on bedding and bookcases; clotheslines sagged with wash. From one of those aeries, a radio wheezed a Bob Dylan song. I’m not sure which one, but Kid Capri wasn’t DJing, so it wasn’t “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” though that is by far the man’s best work. Or at least the only joint I found listenable on the Greatest Hits CD The Uptown Girl gave me as part of the Advanced Whiteness Studies curriculum that dating her required me to master.
Billy and I just stood there, at the mouth, trying to absorb it all. In front of me, a swarm of kids chased a soccer ball. Behind them, two women cooked over a waist-high metal trashcan, pots balanced on chickenwire, flames oranging their faces.
A sense of peace, of stillness, seemed to permeate the place. That lasted for about thirty seconds, at which point the largest female human being I had ever seen walked straight up to my father, reared back her oven-mitt-szed hand, and slapped Billy across the jaw so hard she turned his head.
“You got a lot of balls, showing up here. And you got a lot bringing him, Drum.”
I waited for Supreme Chemistry to tell her his new name.
Billy rubbed his cheek. “You must be Lou.” If it sounds like a funny thing to say, it wasn’t.
She looked him over. “Heard you were gonna be downstairs. Heard you got your life together.”
“You hear a lot,” I said.
She snapped a look at me, the kind the pitcher gives the runner on first base, then stepped in close to Billy. “Half these people think you cursed us, man. Come on, before the whole world sees you.”
Off she loped. We jogged to keep up. It was like crossing the set of a Civil War movie – you know, the scene where you see the whole bustling battlefield tent-city laid out, and then come to the general’s quarters, full of crystal decanters and elaborate furniture some battalion of assholes had to lug across four states. Lou’s residence was a deep natural recess, a cave within the cave. Cinderblock bookcases lined one wall. The other was a pantry, stocked with cans. Near the entrance, two wooden park benches faced off over a milkcrate coffeetable draped with a piece of coarse African-patterned fabric, the kind you can buy at any street fair. It matched the curtain she’d slapped aside to admit us, and the one obscuring whatever lay farther in.
Billy, Supreme Chemistry and I squeezed onto one bench. Our hostess took up most of the other.
“I didn’t curse anyone,” my father said. “That wasn’t in my training.”
“I don’t mean you threw a curse, Billy. I mean you are one.” Lou leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and used one dreadlock to fasten the rest into a ponytail. “Last week, some real nasty cops started fucking with my people. Asking questions about you.”
“Bracken? The one running for mayor?”
“You think I’m living in a goddamn cave so I can follow politics? No pig yet knows how to find my camp, and I don’t leave but once a month. A white cop who likes to hurt people, that’s all I know. Him and his boys. They been grabbing our runners on the way down. Making threats, and making good on those threats. Look.”
Lou pointed halfway up the cavern wall. I squinted and saw a thick pipe jutting from the bedrock. Below it, on the ground, was a toppled stack of white plastic buckets, the kind painters use.
“He made the Tears of Buddha dry up,” she said. “Without a water source, this place can’t last.”
“Maybe the city fixed the leak,” I suggested.
“After ten years?” Lou’s bench creaked as she sat down. “’Bring him to me, or you’ll be drinking each other’s piss,’ that’s what he told my guy. Next morning, dry.”
We took that in.
“All your work’s been painted over, Billy. You probably wouldn’t know where to look, but if you did, you’d see.”
“Who?” I asked. “How?”
“The same way your old man had everybody bringing him paint to ‘defend’ us against demons to begin with.” She turned to Supreme Chemistry. “He staggers in a few weeks ago, smelling like year-old ass. No fucking grasp on reality whatsoever, even for down here. Ranting and raving about all type of evil spirits and shit – when he was strong enough to speak at all, which was about an hour a day before these good-hearted, gullible motherfuckers started forcing whatever food they could spare down his throat.” She spread her arms across the top slat of the bench, and glowered. “Belief is destiny down here. Folks scare easy, and they do what they think they have to. They listened when he told them he needed paint to make us safe from the fuckin’ boogeyman, and they listened when the cop said get rid of it or get their legs broke. Busted their tails until everything was gone.”
“Wait a sec,” I said. “The guy defending you leaves, and you get attacked? You ought to be glad he’s back.”
“That’s some faulty-ass logic.”
My father stood. “I’m sorry, Lou. I never meant to cause you any trouble. Is there anything we can do to help?”
She eyed Billy from her bench. “Why don’t you just tell me what you want, man? I know you didn’t drop by to thank me for saving your life, because you haven’t.”
“No, no, I…” My father clasped his hands behind his back, but they only stayed that way a second. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.” Lou raised her eyebrows and treated him to several theatrical blinks.
“We, uh, we were hoping you might…”
“Let me guess. Y’all got some fuckin’ scheme to paint them trains, and you want my people’s help.”
“I hear a lot.”
“Yeah, you sure do, girl,” Supreme Chemistry chimed in. “That’s what I always tell ninjas: Don’t nothing get by my honey Lou. She the boss of the tunnels and shit, like Don Corleone meets fuckin’… fuckin’…”
“Save it.” She rose, bent, threw a finger in his face. “Don’t try to play me, Drum.”
He shut his mouth. She wheeled toward Billy.
“You’re asking me to put this community at risk, when we’re already in crisis. It’d be out of line coming from anybody, but from you it’s, I don’t know. Preposterous. I’ve got half a mind to hand you over to that cop myself.”
“See, now that’s an interesting choice of words,” Supreme Chemistry said, and without so much as uncrossing his legs, he extracted from one of his innumerable pockets what I can only describe as a very large, chromey, decidedly modern-looking handgun. He didn’t point or cock it, just tapped the barrel against his thigh and kept on talking, mad conversational.
“Half a mind’s what Nina here would leave you with, if I was to squeeze her off. It’s all gravy though, Lou, I know you just voicing some frustration and shit – speaking, how you say, rhetorically right now. Even though I bet fuckin’ Eggy and Sikilianos and whatever other hard bodies you keep around these days is sitting right behind that curtain, waiting on your say-so.”
For a moment, nobody spoke. ‘Preme jiggled his leg against the ground, real nonchalant, like he was waiting for a bus. Lou tried out four or five different scowls before settling on one she liked, sitting down across from him, and leaning in.
“You ever bring a burner into my home again, I’ll shove it up your narrow ass and squeeze the trigger.”
They nearly knocked knees, rushing to stand.
“I’m here with love in my heart, girl,” ‘Preme said, into her neck. The nine still dangled from his hand. “You the one who brought up cops.”
“Go!” Lou pushed him as she said it, and ‘Preme stumbled back a pace, off-balance and off-guard. Billy darted into the emptiness between them, and raised his arms like a tightrope-walker.
“We’re outta here. In peace.” He grabbed ‘Preme by the elbow, turned him, splayed a hand across his back. ‘Preme didn’t resist. I scrambled to follow.
“Yeah, peace,” Lou shouted, the word practically visible as she spit it.
Billy called over his shoulder, without slowing down.
“You’ll get your water back, Lou. I promise. We’re gonna take him down.”
She hipped her hands, rocked on her heels. “Get the fuck on, Billy. Everything you touch turns to shit, you know that? Do you?”
“Yeah,” he said through gritted teeth, eyes on the ground before him. “Yeah. I know.”
We stepped into the tunnel. It felt like sanctuary. Supreme Chemistry stashed the gun, removed his sunglasses, and pressed a knuckle to each eye.
“I can’t believe I used to date that bitch,” he muttered, and handed each of us a juice box.
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