FRED MILLER - BEST FRIEND
Fred Miller is a California writer. Forty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories appear in his current blog:https://pookah1943.wordpress. com.
He was my best friend, Rosco Ace Mays III, by name, but everyone in the 'hood except his ole man called him Trey. Because Trey was the third "Ace" in the family, his dad had decided to call him "Lucky." He was a wiry little kid who was antsy and had an unforgettable steel blue gaze, and that might not seem unusual elsewhere, but as far as I know, he was the only kid on the south side without chocolate brown eyes. What I remember most about him was his ability to lie better than any other soul I'd ever encountered, and with a straight face, too. Trey was a true artist.
One particular incident I recall involved a baseball bat I'd left it at his place following a pick-up game in a vacant lot near the projects. The next day when I remembered where I'd left it, I confronted him. He swore that a gang of street toughs had snatched it out of his hands and had told him they intended to use it in a bank heist downtown. If he ratted them out, they said, he could consider himself dead meat. Besides, he added, if he'd complained about the bat publicly, sooner or later the cops would trace it back, to him and then me and we'd both end up behind bars. Think of it: two nine-year-olds shipped off to prison. And I did think about it for about a minute and never breathed another word to anyone.
That is, until I strolled over to the high-rise where Trey stayed and saw his old man hitting line drives and pop-ups to him with my bat. But what could I do? The rules of our turf were clear and inviolate. If I squealed now, his dad would whale the tar out of him for stealing and then me for ratting him out. This was the social order of our society, and it brooked no dissention. I said nothing, but revenge percolated through my mind…until he dropped a bomb.
According to him the heist had been pulled off the afternoon before and the bat, covered with blood, had been dropped on his porch during the night. When Trey discovered it, he cleaned it and left it outside to dry. And he confessed that he'd planned to hide it until the heat blew over and then return it to me, but his old man had seen it outside and Trey was forced to say he'd found the bat in a park. Bull. I just stared at him. And was about to punch him out, not so much for the theft as for his outrageous tales. But then he used a tactic no kid in our sphere of influence could challenge.
'If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'," he avowed with saucer eyes. It was finished. Done. I'd been pinned, and we were best friends again.
We continued to grow as a dynamic duo no other kid on the block would have dared to breach. We ran together, played together, and stole candy together from old Mr. Lee's bodega down the street. And we set traps for humongous wharf rats that prowled the alleys of our city. We never caught one, but the candy and cupcakes we lifted from Lee's grocery to bait the traps somehow always seemed to disappear. I had my ideas about what had happened, but Trey swore on a stack of imaginary holy books that a horde of rats had run off with the bait. Too many for him to intervene and escape with his life. To my knowledge Trey was never confronted with a situation that didn't allow him to weave a vivid, credible story on the spur of the moment, I mean.
The next time our friendship approached a level of violent rupture was about the middle of the eighth grade. And by now the two of us had a thriving business in the cigarette trade; twenty-five cents apiece or a dime if that's all a kid could scrape up. The dividing line of our friendship had been drawn over just the most beautiful angel in our school: Delores.
I gave her candy. I offered her cigarettes. Trey shelled out candy, cookies, lace handkerchiefs, barrettes, or anything else he could lift that he thought she might like. The better gifts, he confessed, had come from his sister, Daphne, who'd received them from a boy she no longer liked. She just didn't want any reminders of him around her room. Never mind that Trey didn't have a sister. Delores didn't know that.
In fairness, Delores was one sly fox, and she could reel us in on a moment's notice, her lashes fluttering like semaphores. She'd play up to one of us until she sensed the other's interest waning. Then she'd shift gears and make eyes at the other. She kept us hustling down to Mr. Lee's on a regular basis. Now, we'd always pony up and pay for some penny candy down here, because we didn't want the old grocer to become suspicious of our daily visits to his place of business. By my calculations, once we'd reached our senior year in high school, Delores had enough stash she'd collected from the two of us to go into competition with Macy's downtown, I mean.
By now our business acumen was so honed we figured it was time to launch ourselves into the big time. After five minutes of serious deliberations we concluded that the best contribution we could make to the vast growth of the economy in our ward would be with automobile hubcaps. Our task was to remove old caps from the marketplace, thus, allowing the original auto parts manufacturers to thrive. And like in most poor areas in the city, we had our choice of fences. The best, we'd heard, was a cat named Willie Joe down near Five Points. And we'd been told he could move anything at any time, no questions asked. Willie Joe had one cardinal rule: Needs could be fulfilled only between ten at night and two in the morning. And sometimes a dude had to wait in line in the alley by Willie Joe's because the trade was so strong. We quickly surmised that the two cops on the late-night beat in our 'hood were also on Willie Joe's payroll, and I've never wavered on this idea because as far as I know, Willie Joe still runs a booming business.
Because of our industrious natures, however, the two of us soon became solely responsible for altering one of Willie Joe's rules. We'd so thoroughly flooded the market with used hubcaps, our fence threw up a roadblock and said, "No more." Not even for a pack of cigarettes in trade. Nyet. Nada. Nothin' doin'.
Thus, once again we were forced to graduate into a more sophisticated venture: auto parts unlimited. To move up to a full array of merchandise, we were sure that two initiatives had to be successfully undertaken. First, someone had to be drafted to sharpen our skills in the efficient art of auto theft, and then we had to secure a chop shop wizard we could trust. We knew those challenges would take time and patience to develop, and they did—one whole week. Once we were in gear, an epiphany was born in my heart and soul and saved my sorry butt from a life of crime and punishment. Enter Momma, stage right.
Now, I'd never say Trey's momma didn't love him, she did. But the unreserved love tinged with iron-fisted determination that was my momma had long been legend in the 'hood. Momma had raised five boys, me the youngest, and nobody, I mean nobody in our family had done hard time. That wasn't unusual in our part of the world, it was unique. And Momma wasn't about to have her record tarnished by a sorry excuse of a son like me.
Trey and I had been caught in the act of hot wiring a new Cadillac when two cops appeared out of nowhere and cuffed us right there in the middle of the street before God and everybody else. And as far as I could tell, those cops had to have been hiding in the trunk of that car.
We ended up before a judge in criminal court, and because of our sterling record of achievement, the idea of being tried as juveniles was never discussed. But Momma had gathered her forces.
She had engaged the services of a high-rent attorney downtown to represent both of us, something she could ill afford to do; but nothing could stop her. This was about her blood kin and that meant war. She even had my four brothers prepped to testify that I'd never been in trouble with the law before. Only Trey and I understood the reasons for this. Old Mr. Lee down at the corner grocery was blind as a bat, and our former fence, Willie Joe, had people downtown on his payroll. We'd also learned to keep our mouths shut.
With grace from above (I found out later) and Momma's resolve, we got off with probation, or I should say, Trey did. Between Momma and my brothers, what ensued in my young life could have been what the Most Reverend Jones down at the Bethel AME Church would have called "a come to Jesus meeting." I got on my knees. I prayed. I swore on a Bible. And testified trembling in church. And if Momma had demanded it, I'd have pledged allegiance to the flag down at Times Square. And why was she so tough on me? Momma had told that judge in no uncertain terms that his eyes would never gaze on my young face in his courtroom ever again. He asked her how she could be so sure.
Without pause Momma declared that if I ever stepped out of line again, she'd deal the final blow herself. Everyone in the courtroom laughed except Momma, my brothers, and me. Momma's decrees were never to be taken lightly. That is, if one wished to continue to breathe the unpredictable air in our borough.
Strange as it may sound, I soon became comfortable within a church setting on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Bible study after dinner on Wednesdays. The cats on the block who weren't privy to what was happening in my young life probably wondered how a teen who'd pined to make the scene with the street smart dudes on the corner could feel this way. In my case, it was easy. Delores and her family also belonged to the Bethel AME Church and, wonder of wonders, she showed up there every time I did. Why? I'm ninety-nine percent sure Momma paid Delores's mom a visit on the sly and painted a picture of what might become of the two of us if those ladies didn't form a coalition and swear to a blood pact then and there. I can just hear Momma's scratchy voice now: "We'll kill two birds with one stone, Vera. You just watch." Momma was nobody's fool, I mean.
My relationship with Trey cooled somewhat after that court appearance. But not because we wanted it that way. His folks had decided I was the bad seed and Momma and my brothers had warned me to keep some space between Trey and me…or else.
The last time I recall rapping with Trey was around the week of our senior prom. I'd weaseled a promise of a borrowed car from one of my brothers to take Delores to the prom. The costs for this transaction amounted to a car wax once a month for six months. The price was high, but I thought it'd be worth it; after all, it was for my beauty queen. But I was a day late. Trey had already asked her to be his date. And besides, he had come into possession of a late model Dodge Charger with flashy mud guards and big daddy mufflers.
I was heartbroken. Trey had bested me yet again. But I was equally curious how he'd gotten the car. There was little doubt in my mind that he was itching to tell me.
"I suppose you're wondering where I got these bad wheels, aren't you?" he said.
"Um, no, it hadn't really crossed my mind," I said.
"Uh huh. Well, it will, so you best listen up now," he said. "It came from a distant uncle of mine for whom I'm named. He died suddenly last week and left the car to me in his will. I gotta tell you, I loved that old man, I really did." His eyes rolled and his hands and arms moved about in theatrical assistance to his newest tale.
"Hadn't seen him in years, but he was always in my prayers. Folks at the funeral said I even looked like him." His eyes widened, and he waited.
My eyes narrowed. I wanted to punch his eyes out. I knew Trey was named for his old man and I was confident that a car from a distant uncle wouldn't appear miraculously a week after the man's sudden demise. But I was also aware of what Momma had told me about getting into trouble again. Besides, if I disputed his facts, he'd just make up new ones out of thin air. I just nodded. End of story.
Following high school graduation I went right into the Marine Corps. Now, nobody in my crowd was anxious to face the discipline and risks entailed in the military, and that included me, but Momma had other ideas.
Most mothers would fret over the physical perils their children might face in a military setting, but Momma was concerned about financing my college education once I survived the Marine Corps. And she had every confidence I would survive it, she just knew. And it'd be useful to mention that Momma also knew just how much money the military provided for vets who wished to attend college. She was one of a kind.
All of my brothers had attended college, but none had finished. I was her last hope. And it'd be proper to note here that I was never consulted on the project. As far as Momma was concerned, it was a done deal. Either I'd complete a college education or I'd die trying. Momma never considered an alternative course of action.
By midsummer I was off to Parris Island, South Carolina, a small piece of land one step from hell. But that didn't faze me. I knew I'd die before I completed basic training, and I wasn't alone. Most of us sensed that our days were numbered. And we suspected that our drill sergeant had already started planning our last rites.
What saved me from utter destruction came from the social aspects within my military unit. A Hispanic from Texas name Chico bunked on one side of me and a redneck from Georgia, who went by the tag L. C., was on the other. The three of us had one thing in common: we instantly hated one another. Unfortunately for us, our D.I. spotted our enmity and had a catharsis in mind for this minor interruption to his program: none of the three of us could do anything without the assistance of the other two. In the mess hall we were forced to spoon feed each other. In the field we had to carry each other's back pack. Hell, we couldn't even go to the can without the other two standing over and guarding the third member of the triad. In short order our hatred coalesced into a single focus: our passionate dislike of our D.I. and, before it was over, Chico, L.C. and I had become one mean fighting machine. And we became friends for life. We still keep in touch. And I could now tell the Most Reverend Jones at the Bethel AME Church I had a clear vision of what the good Samaritan story was all about.
So I survived the Corps and returned to the place where I'd grown up, and signed the college applications Momma had waiting for me. She told me that Trey had found religion and was on a faith healing tour of the Old South. Well, I couldn't believe it. Momma said I had time to visit Trey on the road in rural Alabama before I started to college. And she said it'd be good for both of us. I had to admit I was more than idly curious how my best friend had morphed into a holy roller. Trey had never done anything I could recall that didn't end up with money in his pocket. I caught the bus south the next day.
What a shock. People on crutches and in wheel chairs were slowly making their way down toward the front of the revival tent, while others stood about in the aisles waving their arms, prancing around, and shouting "Amen" and "you tell 'em, brother." It was quite a sight.
Trey stood tall on the stage in a slick red sports coat with the glitter of gold around his neck and hands. He raised his arms to quiet the crowd and I heard a prayerful plea from him that would have brought the devil himself to tears. I couldn't believe it. Trey had found the path to eternal life ahead of me. He must have, I whispered to myself, still realizing a grain of doubt floated about somewhere in my soul.
Yet I saw folks drop their crutches, raise their arms and shout. And people on the stage in wheelchairs rise once Trey had placed his hands on their heads and prayed. Trey had a tongue for mesmerizing phrases, slick as glass he was. I was speechless.
And just before the "Right Reverend" R. A. Mays III pronounced a benediction, he made one last plea for disabled, lost souls.
"In my mind's eye I can see one more sister who needs the holy healing touch. She's shy, I know, but this may be her last chance," he said, his hand raised high, his eyes shut tight. The congregation was still.
"I know you're out there, sister. Have faith, the Holy touch is waiting."
Again stillness. And then I heard a murmur toward the back of the tent. And then louder conversations as one lone wheelchair eased down the aisle. Over the heads of others I could barely see her, but once I did, I realized she had the biggest head of hair I'd ever seen. An usher had rolled her up the ramp onto the stage and the crowd settled down.
"What's your name, sister?" Trey said.
"Eudora Mae Smith."
"And what's your problem?" he said.
"Why, I can't walk, Reverend."
"And why can't you walk, Eudora?" he said.
"I don't know, Reverend. Nobody does."
"And how long have you been like this?"
"Since I was a tiny tot, Reverend."
"Have doctors ever examined you?"
"Yes, Reverend, and they're stumped too."
"Do you believe, Sister Eudora?" His voice rose.
"Why, yes, Reverend, I do believe."
"Couldn't hear that, Sister Eudora!"
"Yes, Reverend, I do believe!"
He placed his hands on her big head of hair and said the longest, most passionate prayer I'd ever heard. Reverend Trey and Sister Eudora had their eyes shut, but no one else in the tent would have dared to miss the unfolding drama.
"Stand," he said. And slowly she attempted to lift herself out of the wheelchair. But then, after great effort and wincing pain, she slipped back down in her seat. An audible sigh echoed through the crowd.
Again, Trey placed his hands on her head, and said a few choice words followed by "Stand." She tried again. And failed. I could feel the tension in the audience laced with fervent whispers.
Reverend Trey looked at her and then at the audience. "This one's in the tight grip of the Devil. It's too much for me to handle alone."
I heard a lone shout of "fake" from the back of the crowd. Then a jeer. Then wholesale booing all across the congregation. The Reverend R. A. Mays III raised both arms with the glitter of gold flashing in the lights. "Silence," he shouted.
"What we need up here are four pure as snow believers to assist me. Can I have four believers down here on stage with me right now." Several people around me hesitated, then stood, but before they could move, two men and two women rushed from the side curtains to Reverend Trey's side.
"Place your hands on Sister Eudora," he said, and they did. Then he added his hands. By now I was wondering how I could get out of there alive if this failed. I had little doubt a riot would soon ensue if that woman failed to stand on her own two feet.
"Come outta there, Satan. You hear me? Come out!" All of the hands on her big hair shook and I wondered if this poor soul would be too dizzy to try to stand. I heard wails and shouts. A lady on the front row fainted. Then Sister Eudora stood. The crowd gasped and went wild with joyful shouts and praises of "God Almighty" and "Bless me, Sweet Jesus." Unfettered applause followed.
After the service I threaded my way through the ebbing crowd, but my friend had ducked out the back of the tent before I could get there. I asked several fellows taking a smoke out back where I could find the good Reverend. They pointed toward a trailer, so I wandered over and knocked on the door.
"Come on in, honey, door's open," I heard from within and opened the door. "I ain't yo' honey, Trey," I said.
We laughed and hugged, but before we could initiate any conversation the woman with big hair stepped up into the trailer, took off her wig, and said, "How big was the take tonight?" It was Delores.
"Why, Darrell, you sorry rascal, when did you get in?" she said.
Before I could reply, three serious-faced uniformed officers stepped in behind her.
Forget about the fact that I'd just arrived and was only a visitor. And ignore the pleas I made that I knew nothing about the eight grand the Reverend Trey had stashed under the table. Nothing seemed to go right after those unannounced men in blue placed the three of us under arrest.
And here I remain watching the sun rise through Alabama county jail bars. Wait till Momma finds out about this and hotfoots it down here, I mused. I don't care if he is my best friend, this fella's days are numbered, I mean.