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Your uncle Paulie told you never carry a knife unless you know how to use it, right? That advice kept you alive for years. Even if it didn’t stop that kid from shooting you tonight, goddamnit. You’re flat on your back trying to hold your own blood in with your bare hands, wondering why it doesn’t hurt like hell.
You don’t even know this block. You’re staring over at this run-down blue house with the steps missing and wishing it was someplace you knew so you could bang on the door.
You took Paulie’s advice about carrying a blade as soon as you heard it because of your uncle Cox. Cox got himself killed carrying a blade around in your neighborhood, like if there was some kind of trouble, he was gonna cut a man. It didn’t go the way he expected, though, because it wasn’t like in a movie. There he was lying dead on Walnut Street, with his wife waiting at home, like your wife’s waiting at home, while you’re here about to die too. You took Paulie’s advice because Paulie acted like he was gonna live forever.
Paulie’s got ten years on you and you’re not too young yourself anymore. A lot of his rules sound like bullshit to you now. Like something that couldn’t keep you alive in the suburbs. Though the suburbs, they got their own problems, don’t they, every fucking Trevor and Ashley packing a Nine – and that’s what they call it, too. Too much Hip-Hop and all that. But you learned Paulie’s rules because you had to learn something to get you home every night. It wasn’t gonna be K through 12 that was gonna do it. Man, that knife rule shit sounds archaic now, doesn’t it, with everybody firing bullets. So even if you are the best knife fighter, it doesn’t do you any good, because right now you’re trying to get home to that wife and your kid, but instead you’re bleeding to death on the sidewalk. That’s what happens, and that’s what’s happened to you.
Once he found out what you were up to, Paulie took over. He taught you in the basement of his place—that he bought with his own money. People came in wanting to know how many years he had left, and they found out by testing him—all the time. He taught you all the things you didn’t know about already. I mean, you figured out how to hide a knife in the sleeve of your jacket. You figured out how to hit to get the guts out. You figured out that it’s not about intimidation—it’s about cutting fast and then cutting again. There’s no time for that intimidation shit.
It’s not like the fucking movies, man, he said, and you don’t carry around six or seven knives and you don’t worry about you got a butterfly knife and a bowie and a switch and a shiv. You’re not no goddamn knife enthusiast, okay, you’re just a guy carrying a big knife and a little knife—that’s all you need.
He taught you to think about the person’s arms, how if they’re carrying something, that’s where it’ll be. If you give that last push on a backhanded slash, you can get tendons or enough muscle that you’ve got one guy who won’t be cutting you back. That’s a rule, too – you lose if they cut you back. Stay away from that. You lost tonight, because that bullet cut right through you and you never even got in one slash. You don’t even know where you are right now.
You were so serious about learning, too. Clear-headed even—you jumped right off weed and gave up coke because Paulie said that you always want to be sure—sure, dammit, that the other guy’s more fucked up than you. If you’re sure about that, you’ve got a lot.
You believed him. A man like this knows what he’s talking about. He has a house with a den on the second floor where another bedroom used to be, three television sets, that’s nothing now, but back then it was a lot. And he owns something, dammit, a whole thing. You never saw anybody own anything, except the way your mom owned your sister, the same way she would own a dog, maybe. Or like your father owned two damn pairs of shoes. But Paulie, he has that whole bar and people love that damn place and even the cops leave it alone, no matter when he stops serving, or what under-age kid stumbles out of that place drunk after having maybe scored something at a table in the back. Your uncle Paulie is blind in both eyes if that’s what it takes, and you’re going to question him? No fucking way.
You had to practice on your own, mostly, but first there were a couple fights. Some things you just couldn’t help. Like when there were four kids and you’re not even fourteen and it’s so late that everybody needs something to happen. Punks, you say looking back, but at the time you knew they meant business—four kids walk out of some all-night sub shop smelling like onions and take your back to the wall. You don’t flash anything, try to scare anybody—though now you think maybe that would have worked on these punk kids. You just take that one kid in the gut and pull your knife across hara-kiri like—a ritual homicide. Kids scattered like superballs.
That’s how you ended up practicing alone. A few episodes like that and people know who you are, even if you’re not fourteen yet. You’re fast, and if you corner yourself right no more than two guys can get an angle on you at once and you can handle any two guys at once, easy. And now that people avoid you, now that even your parents and the local cops know who you are, you just hang in your basement shadowboxing with steel in your fist. You’re so fucking serious about yourself that once out on the street you cut your own goddamn face, deep across the cheek—did you feel teeth when you did that?—so that the scar would tell everyone you’re serious. You’re saying, couldn’t nobody get this close to me, but me.
How fast did you get used to watching your own back? Your parents just dropped you. They’ve got your sister and she’s gonna be taking care of those motherfuckers for like the rest of her life, and she’s starting to pale out from not seeing the sun. Does she even have a window in her room? Did they even name her so she could some way get into the world? Maybe you don’t even have a name anymore.
You wish you had some of those drugs you gave up now, don’t you? Bleeding like everything in you got blown loose. And maybe it even feels like drugs, like the blood that’s leaving you is the stuff from your head. Head first, right? That sounds funny to you? You’re a long way from home and getting dizzier every second. This is no time to be finding shit amusing.
Aren’t you supposed to be respectable, now? You look down and what do you see next to that spreading red? You see buttons on your shirt. You’re grown. It’s like you look down at that bullet hole—is it really that fucking bad?—and you see time passing out of you. You see fourteen through twenty go, you see yourself become a legend, even though maybe that was never really how it was. People avoid people on the street for a lot of reasons, not always because they are dangerous. There was a crazy man with a stump wrist and a wool hat, on 67th Street. Were people afraid of him, or was he bad luck? Maybe that was why people avoided you too, because you had some kind of bad luck around you.
How long has it even been since you’ve seen your parents? You lived with that uncle the whole time, didn’t you? This is no time to lie to yourself. You just made up things about your parents, your sister, because you barely remember them. Is that it? Or maybe it even seems like Paulie was made up, too—or why didn’t he have any advice when you left tonight? No words at all.
Respectable or not, tending bar or not, it seems that you’re passing out on the street, unless you’re just overreacting. But it’s not like you never seen blood before. You have, you have. It’s coming crazy, now—the street sign doesn’t read just one name out when you look at it. It looked like Cedar but it’s blurring. Now it’s Race or Chestnut—you can’t tell. You haven’t moved except to stand up. But is it the streets that are changing because you’re making progress, getting somewhere, or are the street signs changing names just to fuck with you. They’ve got to stay still, because then you’ll know if you’re almost home. Your kid’s just born but your wife will know something about what to do. Right now those street signs are spinning like they’re fucking slot machines. Maybe they’ll come up with the name of your block or maybe they’ll come up all lemons next time. You can’t stand to watch.
You’re about to lose your grip and die.
That young punk who looked like he stepped right out of your own history, shot you for not having any money. Of course, you did have money, didn’t you? You still have it in your goddamn pocket. But you said you didn’t, and under the streetlamps out in the open he didn’t flash anything, he just shot you. Kids are unbelievable now. They will kill you so fast even they don’t know what happened.
You’ve got to get home. The street sign looks like yours. Your wife—you even sure you’ve got a wife?—will know what to do. You saw those, what, nature specials about snakes and where the man has to suck the poison out of the bite. That’s what you need. You need her to suck the poison out of you before it gets all the way in from out. You’ve got to get to your wife. If you have one. There’s no time to turn back.
This old house with the missing steps is your house now. You’re pounding on the door like you never seen a doorbell in your life. It’s all just leaching out of you. You can feel yourself pouring out onto the porch. Onto the wood, onto the doormat—you are everywhere at once. It’s starting to seem like the last place you are is in that body you’re staring out of. There’s no time. But you’re pounding on the door until all the lights come on and the screaming starts. If you had a wife, she wouldn’t sound like that. How could you marry a woman who would sound like that? It isn’t her. You can’t see a damn thing even with all the lights. But you can hear it. Even before you drop that body that hardly holds you anymore, you take one last shot and push towards her. Maybe if you show her this scar on your face, she can make time out of no time. Maybe she can be your wife and take that poison out of you. Maybe she will even know you.A Philadelphia native, David Harris
Ebenbach was once featured as the "Philadelphia Poetry Provider" on
the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer and on the WB-17 evening
news, after he’d been caught scattering poems across the city for
unsuspecting locals to find. Ebenbach’s first collection of stories,
Between Camelots, winner of the 2005 Drue Heinz Literature Prize,
will be published in November 2005 (University of Pittsburgh Press).
He also wrote the chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for
Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury,
USA, 2003). Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University
of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.
Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.