Chapter 1 from "Church Boy"
by Connie Barrett
His mind raced as he maneuvered his way behind Charlie’s store – past the dumpsters, the broken crates, over the scrap heap. He had to think fast. Thickets grabbed at his legs as he propelled forward into the land mine of rubble and aimlessly scattered, abandoned vehicles. Sharp, jagged, weaving movements allowed him to clear the field, distancing the gap between them. Full force and head down, he skid over the dismantled concrete slab into the alley. He shot past the vacant houses that stood along each side. The house with the rottweiler was coming into view. Running with all his might, hoping that no one was behind him yet, he leaned forward, almost stumbling, and barely grasped the empty bottle that lie in his path. As he sped past the opening leading to the backyard, he hurled it, hitting the back of the house – an old game of his that suddenly came in handy. The bottle shattered. Without hesitation, up jumped the rottweiler, barking wildly at the commotion that disturbed his sleep. There was another opening on the opposite side – the next house up – hedged in with wooden fences throughout. If he could only make it to that, they might think he had escaped past the angered beast that wanted so desperately to break free.
The tightness of his calves threatened shin splits, but panic forced each deliberate step to be even swifter than the last. He scarcely made it through the opening when Ivan and his friends came bolting around the corner. His plan had worked but he was not about to turn back to find out. Before he realized it, he was at the intersection – several blocks away from where it all began.
He had managed to get out of their sight, but where were they? He stopped running only because he wanted to save his strength. And besides, there was no sense in running now if he was only going to run straight into them. Maybe Patrick was at home, but he would have to turn back to see – there was no time for that. Now in a hurried walk, panting and sweating profusely, he looked frantically to his left and then his right. Now what? he asked himself, gasping for breath, not knowing what his next move would be. He had no idea where they were and by now they had more than likely split up.
Then he heard it. He didn’t bother looking over his shoulder because he would have recognized it anywhere. It was a familiar sound, one that on any other day would have been nothing more than a nuisance that he through the years had learned to unconsciously block from his mind.
It was Thursday night and the Ferguson’s house was on the corner. Jasmine and her brother, James, were making their way slowly up the sidewalk. Normally he would try to avoid them, but not today. Just as they made it to the curve, he had stopped along side them. His heart was racing heavily and he still had not caught his breath. Neither Jasmine nor James knew what to make of the disheveled spectacle that stood before them.
Before anyone could utter a word, up pulled Brother Stevens driving the church van. Pastor Wilkinson bought it from another church several years ago. The paint was a worn, dull navy blue. The church’s name, Greater Deliverance Tabernacle of the Last Days End Time Ministry Revival, was in big hand painted print on both sides of the van along with the pastor’s name, the church’s address and the telephone number, everything except the church’s hours. Twice a week and on some occasions even more, if not Brother Stevens, someone else would be parked outside of his house, waiting for his mother and at times his baby brother and younger sister to come out.
The silence was broken when he pushed his way in front of them onto the van. Then came the snide remarks.
“Oh, must be in trouble because that’s when people come runnin’ to the church,” uttered Jasmine in contempt.
James disapprovingly echoed, “Lord, have mercy.”
Before he could take another step, Brother Stevens stopped him in his tracks. “You know this bus is for goin’ to church only. Don’t expect me to make no stops and don’t think you jumpin’ off as soon as you get to where you goin’. This bus is for the Lord’s work. You should know that, uh, uh. . . . What’s yo’ name? . . . Sister Melissa’s son?”
“That’s Cordell,” responded several of the passengers.
Still catching his breath, he anxiously shook his head in agreement and made his way to an empty seat. He had called Brother Stevens in the past to be picked up but got off the van before reaching the church. He should have known that even after all this time he still wasn’t about to let him live it down.
“I ain’t seen you in so long, I done plain forgot ya name.”
Laughter came from around the van. He slumped into a seat and gazed out the window for any sign of Ivan and his friends. He had no intentions of going to church, but on the other hand, no one would look for him there. As the van pulled off, he let out a sigh of relief.
Somehow he had managed to get out of Ivan’s reach, but maybe that’s where he made his mistake. Maybe he should have never run, but if he didn’t, then what? The scene played over and over in his head. He had known Ivan most of his life. He didn’t consider him to be a friend, then again, he didn’t quite consider him to be an enemy, either. They just happened to know each other. That was it. Their interactions were as brief and pointless as any casual acquaintance. But there was this one time though, their freshmen year, when Cordell was minding his own business, walking through the hallway of East of St. Louis Missouri High, and Ivan slammed his head into a wall. Cordell never saw it coming but he was able to hold his own. The fight was quickly broken up. Cordell never found out what his problem was, but it gave them a mutual respect for each other, and that was to leave each other alone. It didn’t go any further than that.
Cordell knew that Ivan stayed in trouble. He grew up having to look out for himself. It was Ivan, two older brothers and two younger sisters. His mother was a mean drunk who had lost her handle on life. Growing up, he couldn’t count the nights he and his siblings went to bed hungry. Living in the confinements of poverty and drug infestation with no support system to speak of, he didn’t stand much of a chance. Following in his older brothers’ footsteps, shortly into the tenth grade, he dropped out of school.
Life in East St. Louis in many ways resembled being stranded in the middle of nowhere during the kind of blistering Arctic blast that sweeps over northern states in the dead of winter. With gusts of wind that literally knock the breath right out of a soul, these storms blindside their victims so that it is impossible to even see a hand right before a face. But unlike the storms that reside over these areas, the storm that engrossed East St. Louis began brewing generations back with no relief in sight, leaving a forecast that remained dismal.
Ivan was trying to survive the only way he knew how. He wanted easy money because money meant power and respect, but for the most part it meant being able to get by. In search of safe haven and surrounded by images that had been impressed upon him since an early age, it wasn’t hard for him to take the first shelter that offered him even the barest of protection from the elements – such was the world of drugs that welcomed him with open arms.
But the problem wasn’t Ivan, it was Ivan’s new associate, Tyrone. Mayfield, a key figure in area drug activity, had been tipped off that he was under the surveillance of outside law enforcement. His presence had been significant in suppressing rival gang expansion. Ivan, small time yet with no criminal record and in many ways naive, was to serve as a front for Mayfield while he took a leave of absence. It would not only throw off the authorities, but it would also strengthen Mayfield’s alliance with the Chicago based set that sent Tyrone there to maintain order after his departure. Tyrone’s agenda included enforcing loyalty amongst gang members as well as demanding it from the locals who profited from use of their name. Tyrone’s first order of business was having Ivan to walk the straight and narrow; if he walked it like a man, he was in – only fifteen feet of vicious attacks to his unprotected body at the hands of Tyrone and four other outraged members who would have gladly taken Ivan’s place for the privileged position that had been bestowed upon him.
Cordell couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened, it happened so fast. Bad reception was what caused him to deviate from his normal routine of spending his entire afternoon watching TV only after first spending his morning sleeping in. Upon leaving the house, he ran into Ronald and several of Ronald’s friends who were also looking for something to pass the time on their unexcused day away from school. Curious about the buzz he felt from the second hand smoke of the blunt that was being passed around, and with Ronald’s persuasion of, If I try it, then you next, Cordell gave in. Only neither of them took his turn. Making sure they didn’t get another chance to back out, Cordell was put in charge of buying the marijuana and bringing it with him to Ronald’s place. Sunday night Ivan sold him some on credit only as a business tactic, hoping it would keep him obligated to buying from him; and since he was a new customer, he was also hoping that it would lead to an addiction and the need to graduate to bigger and better highs like it had for so many others.
It wasn’t more than half an hour ago that Cordell was on his way to Charlie’s, the corner party store. Ivan, Tyrone and Cedric, who had accompanied Tyrone from Chicago’s west side, happened to be parked outside. Tyrone noted the nervousness on Ivan’s face as a patrol car drove past. “Man, you can’t be worried about no cop. You can’t afford to be afraid of no man – it’s either you or it’s them. You know what I’m sayin’? It’s time ta do business. See, Demetrius, that mutha fucka knows something done went down. He pullin’ people in from all over. You done lived here yo’ whole life. I know you got mo’ folks than what you sayin’. Man, see, yo’ customers don’t like to be approached by no stranger. They don’t know if it’s undercover or what that shit is. They trust you ‘cause they already know you. And if they don’t know yo’ boys, they sure as hell done seen ‘em ‘round. It’s time for you to step up.”
“Ya damn straight,” replied Ivan as he spotted Cordell heading towards the store. “I see one of mine now.” Ivan got out of the car from the passenger’s side in time to block Cordell before he could go into the store. “Wassup, man? You got my money?” Cordell reached into his back pocket and pulled out ten dollars and handed it to Ivan. “Was that some good stuff?”
With a pleased smirk on his face Cordell nodded.
“Good, glad I could help a brother out.”
Tyrone and Cedric had gotten out of the car. Cordell began to feel uneasy about them approaching him, especially Tyrone. Cordell took a step back, trying not to be obvious.
“Who’s this punk?” asked Tyrone as he looked Cordell over.
“This Cordell, we was just takin’ care of some business. See, I done him a favor and now he owe me a favor,” replied Ivan as he stepped even closer to Cordell.
Cordell had a lump in his throat and could feel the adrenaline beginning to flow. Something was not right.
“I got a business proposition fo’ you,” said Ivan as he pulled a small packet of crack out of his pocket. “I need for you to get rid of this for me and I’ll give you a nice cut when you done.”
Cordell tried to laugh it off. “Hey, n-now . . . uh . . . w-wait . . .”
Before he could finish, in a fit of anger, Tyrone punched him dead in his chest. “I don’t think you heard the man, mutha fucka. He said you owe him and he come to collect,” he breathed as he punched him a second time, not allowing him to recover from the piercing sting of the first blow. “Let’s try this one mo’ time. Now what was you tryin’ to tell this sorry ass bitch?”
Tyrone stepped back to let Ivan take over. It was just the break Cordell needed. Before anyone could say another word or make another move, and not even thinking it through, he ran.
“Cordell . . . Cordell.” His concentration was broken. “I’m talkin’ to you, son. How ya been doin’? It’s good to see ya,” said Mother Reeves from across the seat. He nodded in her direction, hoping it would be enough for her. “What’s wrong? Can’t you speak?”
His temporary relief was immediately replaced with agitation. This was one of the main reasons he stopped going to church in the first place. One thing he had learned well over the years was not to say one solitary word unless he had no other choice. The van instantly grew silent. The tape that was playing had just ended. All that could be heard was the monotone roar of the engine in the background. The words swelled in his throat. “I-I’m d-d-doin’ . . . f-f-fine, m-ma’am.”
Then came the laughter. He felt his chest tighten with embarrassment.
“How ya doin’, son?”
“I-I-I’m d-d-d-d-do-in’ . . . f-f-fine,” came from two younger children in the back of the van who found it to be the perfect opportunity for a reenactment. The laughter grew louder.
“You kids know better than that!” shouted Mother Reeves as she and a few of the other adults corrected them. “Don’t pay them no never mind, son. Just glad to see ya,” she said in an encouraging tone. He pulled his T-shirt over his face to wipe away the sweat, then turned back towards the window.
The laughter turned to chuckles. He had learned to take the abuse that came with his silence, but the mocking, he could never seem to get past it. Brother Stevens still had a few stops to make, then they would be there. He wondered how he would get home. I might as well stay, he told himself. It didn’t take long for him to convince himself that his safest bet would be to ride the van home and just lay low for a while.