by Dwight Geddes
Times have certainly changed around here. Fifteen, even ten years ago, the sight of a short, muscular black man like Bruce Bruno, especially one like Bruce who exuded menace would have attracted considerable attention in the small community of Marshalls Creek. You know what I mean; nobody would have made it obvious, but most of the people from around here would scrutinize his face quickly, making a mental note of his features, the direction he was headed and any other characteristics that the police might want later.
Just in case.
I certainly do that often, not only with people like Bruce; it just comes with being a cab driver. It was second nature to me at this point, and even though I have been a cab driver for over seven years and never been robbed, there’s a first time for everything and one has to be prepared.
This night my Caravan was parked in front of the Crescent Moon Lodge, as I listened to an old mix tape. I was very big on old school hip-hop, partially because being in my mid thirties I grew up on that stuff and partially because there was a lot less use of the ‘n’ word in those recordings.
When discussing rap music with anyone I usually try to establish that point as the difference between new and old school. The old school guys who rapped in the 80’s and up to around 1991 used the ‘N’ word very sparingly if at all. These younger guys use it as everything from a term of endearment to a slur to a badge of honor.
So there I was sitting in my cab, watching Bruce Bruno at his worst, listening to the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Jazz’ coming out of my speakers. Bruce Bruno was walking towards my cab, pulling Shay by the arm. In the moment that I sat there watching them approach, I felt a sense of epiphany; one of those life transforming moments that you look back on and say that’s when things changed. Or as my old man, god rest his soul, used to say ‘Sometimes life gives you a lemon. You just have to decide if you’re gonna suck on it or make lemonade.’
Before I get too much ahead of myself, let me go back to the beginning. More specifically, the beginning of that evening.
I picked up a fare going to the Crescent Moon coming off the 7:20 from New York. The Crescent Moon was the newest lodge in the Pocono Mountains, a brightly lit semi-circular row of attached cottages nestled in a small valley in the hills. In the middle of the cottages was a huge tri-level entertainment complex. I had never been inside, but on my regular stop at Weary Willie’s tavern, I had many casual conversations with people that worked there. Apparently, the Moon attracted a lot of ritzy visitors, Wall Street types, athletes, rappers, musicians and their assorted entourages.
The fare that I had picked up was a pair of young black girls, probably not older than twenty-three, dressed in the tightest jeans I had ever seen anyone wear. As they slid into the back seat of my cab, assaulting my nose and tear ducts with overpowering perfume, they asked to be taken to the Crescent Moon. We drove along the country roads in silence for a good fifteen minutes, heading deeper and higher into the swirling fog that had descended on the hilly terrain with the convergence of nightfall. I was not paying attention to their conversation, reciting in my head the lyrics of ‘I know you got soul’ from my most treasured tape, Eric B and Rakim’s first album, Paid In Full.
“You like that New York old school shit, huh?’
My eyes lifted to the rearview, meeting the beautiful hazel eyes of the girl I had heard called ‘Shay’ by her companion.
She was a pretty, petite redbone with the sweetest, sexiest voice I had heard in a long time. There was just a hint of a drawl, kinda like down south by way of LA. She looked like a Brooklyn homegirl, but her eyes sparkled with intelligence as she met my look in the rear view. Trouble in high heels.
“Yeah. I grew up in Hempstead, then my mom moved us to Bed-Stuy. That was all everyone listened to.”
“You from Do or Die Bed-Stuy? Say word! We live in Queens. You know where Lefrak City is?”
“Yeah, that’s over near Rego Park, right?
“Yeah, we both live over there. This is my roommate Millara. I’m Shay. What’s your name?”
“I’m Kenneth Mcbean. Pleased to meet you both.”
Millara barely smiled. She was the color of dark chocolate, dark brown eyes, small upturned nose in a smooth, dimpled face. The edges of her mouth were hard and turned down, giving her a look of perpetual meanness. She was in her own way attractive but certainly not as sociable as Shay.
Shay continued talking.
“Your name sounds like a drink or something. ‘Kenneth McBean whiskey.’ What else you got up there Mr. McBean?”
I aint gonna lie, when she said my name like that I met her gaze in the rearview mirror and almost immediately felt a stirring in my groin and a dryness in my mouth. A feeling I hadn’t had in a while. A long while. Its not that I don’t get much dates. It’s not that i’m ugly or anything either. It’s just that a lifetime spent working long hours and long days makes a man hard in a lot of ways. I wasn’t no refined beauty or no chiseled hardbody, but in my own way certain women have always found me appealing.
“I got some other stuff. I got BDP, Public Enemy, ah, the House Party soundtrack. Oh sorry, House Party 2.What do you want to hear?”
“Oooh, let me hear that House Party 2. But hold up a sec, let me hear this song first.”
The opening bars of ‘Paid in Full’ was coming out of my front speakers, and Shay leaned forward to hear better.
Her perfume stung my eyes again, but there was an underlying scent that I detected when she leaned forward, a familiar scent I hadn’t come in contact with since my last serious relationship several years ago-the subtle fragrant smell of soap and shampoo on a woman, something minor but oh so potently alluring to me. It took all of my willpower to keep my eyes on the road as we drove along the main thoroughfare. I turned up the volume, trying to ignore the images conjured in my head by her voice. ‘Mr. McBean.’
“So who do you think’s gonna be at this party, Millara?” That came from Shay as she studied her makeup in a compact mirror.
Millara leaned back in her seat and looked out of the window before replying.
“It’s probably going to be some of his regular clients. You know, the usual juiceheads throwing money around. I don’t really care, they’re all the same.”
“Yeah, probably. Assholes united.”
“Exactly. Whatever, nigga, just give me my money!”
They both laughed at this, but I sensed a moment of forced gaiety on Shay’s part. I looked in the rear view again, and her eyes met mine for a fraction of a second and then were gone.
I fought the instinct to say something, knowing that the twin pools of hazel were searching for my reaction. I showed none on the outside, but inside I felt something again. Something different this time. Something like pity. Why should I fell sorry for a total stranger who will probably make more money tonight than I will all week? I focused on the song playing from my radio, trying harder not to hear anymore of their conversation.
Rain had begun to fall, a steady downpour poking a million miniscule holes through the thick fabric of fog. I swung the car into a left turn, grateful that the locals had scattered cedar chips on the dirt roads after the last storm. The tires slid, then gripped the slick terrain as I powered the minivan out of the turn.
“Do you mind if we smoke?”
My eyes shifted to the rearview again and met those of Millara. Her look was smug. I started to really not care for her.
“Depends on what you’re smoking.” Came my nonchalant reply.
Shay’s laughter tickled my ears, more genuine this time, a light resonance that could only be described as cute. She was such a contrast to Millara, I started to wonder how they could be friends. Or, I thought to myself wryly, were they ‘friends?’
Millara wasn’t amused. She held up a tightly rolled blunt for my approval.
“Any objection to this?”
I shrugged my shoulders and held her look.
“Just don’t leave anything back there. It’s too cold to be cleaning tonight.”
“Alright Mr. McBean.”
I knew she was baiting, teasing me. And sometimes I’m slow but I think I had finally caught on. This was some sort of stupid competition she had concocted in her mind. Okay, well it wasn’t all her, but nonetheless, I wasn’t getting into a pissing match with no dyke.
“Call me Kenny. Or Ken if you want.”
I saw a flicker of a smile cross Shay’s face. Millara just smirked as she proceeded to spark up with a silver lighter that appeared from her pocket.
“Okay, Kenny. Want some?”
“What are we talking about now?” Again, I couldn’t resist it. Millara left it open.
“I was talking about this here Chocolate Thai. I can’t speak for this ho next to me however.”
I shook my head.
“Naw, makes me sleepy.”
Millara, exhaled, letting a small cloud hang over our heads as the intoxicating odor of the weed filled the car.
“Yeah we don’t need you sleepy right now up on these little ass dirt roads, for real.”
There wasn’t much conversation the rest of the trip, and by the time we pulled into the circular driveway of the Crescent Moon, my mind had already wandered off onto several other topics of more immediate concern to me. Like my rent payment that was already a week late, and all of my other bills piling up. It had been a slow summer in the Poconos, and it was just now, in late October, beginning to pick up.
That’s when I first saw Bruce.
He stepped outside the entrance foyer, a tightly wound ball of anger and movement. He grabbed the rear door and immediately started berating the two women in the back.
“Where the fuck you been? You bitches costing me money. This shit was supposed to jump off an hour ago!”
I had halfway turned around as he opened the door, and I caught the look of uninhibited terror on Shay’s face as he reached into the backseat and grabbed her upper arm. Millara was unfazed as she reached into her handbag and handed me a twenty.
I took the twenty, my eyes still looking at Shay and Bruce. I saw Bruce’s grip tighten as he yanked her arm. Her arm turned white where his fingers grasped her and her pain filled eyes searched and found mine for a brief instant before she averted her look.
“Get out of this fucking van, bitch! Time is money, and you can’t afford it.”
Shay slid out of the van wordlessly and I realized that Millara hadn’t followed her out. I turned to her and saw her examining my reaction, her smug exterior firmly in place.
“My change, Kenny?”
I reached into my inside coat and handed her a five and two singles, placing them into her upturned, extended palm.
She wasn’t going without a parting shot though.
“Don’t worry about Shay, Kenny. It’s only her second job, she’s not used to Bruce yet. Give her a couple of drinks and she’ll open right up.”
The look in my eyes at that comment was guarded, but inside I was seething.
“Have a good night, Mr. Mc Bean.” This was said in a mocking imitation of Shay’s drawl as she slid across the seat and followed the others inside the Crescent Moon.
I did two more trips to the Moon that night, the last one two frat brothers from Allentown who couldn’t wait to see ‘Bruce’s bitches.’ From their conversation, I pieced together enough to realize that Bruce held these invitation only parties all over the place; Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York. And the party got started when the clothes came off.
I hung around the Crescent Moon after dropping off the frat guys. Johnny Sandoval worked nights in the parking lot there, and even though me and Johnny weren’t very good friends, we were social-like. I sat down on the cement edge of the shrubbery next to the parking lot and we started talking. I had a lot of things on my mind then; money problems mainly. I had toyed with the idea of moving to Las Vegas, and I mentioned it to Johnny. He nodded in agreement, his watery eyes brightening briefly. “That’s a good place to go and start over, Ken. Nobody cares. You do your thing and you can make a decent living. Unlike this shithole on the side of a mountain.”
I reflected on that. I had no ties to the community here; no kids, no wife, and I was a cab driver. Why not? We were still sitting right outside the lobby off to the side two hours later, shooting shit and exchanging local talk when Bruce came out with Shay.
Bruce or one of his guests had done some work on her. Both of her eyes were puffy and bruised, her left one completely shut. As he pulled her towards where we sat they passed under the lobby lights. I saw crusted blood on the side of her mouth and what looked like bruises on her neck. My eyes searched for hers as she was half dragged, half pushed towards me, but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, look in my direction.
Bruce waved his free hand once, impatiently, in my direction. Slowly and with pronounced deliberation I rose to my feet, rubbed both gloved hands on the side of my jeans and walked over to where they had stopped next to my Caravan. In the ten or so seconds that elapsed, I knew this was going to be unpleasant. Bruce’s free hand was now jammed into the pocket of his coat and his grip on Shay had tightened. As I got closer, I could see that Shay had changed into her professional outfit, silver bra and matching panties were all that covered her toned, petite body, and I had to catch myself from staring.
“Hurry the fuck up, man!” barked Bruce in my direction.
“Where you wanna go?” I asked in an even tone.
“New York, nigga. I ain’t got time to waste either.”
“Neither do I, sir. New York is going to be a lot of money. Where in New York?”
“Lenox & 135th. Harlem. I got money. You want this job or not?”
The hand in his pocket had reemerged holding a fat roll of twenties and fifties. He peeled off several bills and tossed them on the hood of my vehicle. I slowly picked them up and opened the doors for them to get in. I hadn’t noticed till then, but Millara had joined them. She slid in last, eyeballing me the entire time. I ignored her look and walked around to the driver side, a mix of emotions stirring inside my head.
The ride was quiet for the first mile or so as I zipped the Caravan along the filling the interior with the smell of Newports and the chill of the cold October night. The only sounds were Shay’s quiet sobs and Bruce’s constant stream of curses. I managed to decipher from his rants what happened. Bruce had one particular client named Shawn who was known to enjoy the rough stuff. Apparently Shawn, who played for an NFL team in New York, had taken a liking to Shay while she was giving him a lap dance. Shay had heard about his temper and refused him the ‘VIP” treatment. Shawn didn’t like rejection and complained to Bruce. Shay still wasn’t willing to play and Bruce had to teach her a lesson. The lesson called “I’m the boss, bitch.”
My mind was full of thoughts regarding what was going to happen. And my mind kept coming back to Shay. As we approached a service station I put on my indicator to enter. Bruce looked up and leaned forward.
“What’re you doing?” He demanded.
“Getting gas. It’s a long trip and I’m half empty.” Came my reply.
Millara interjected. “Yeah, Bruce. I need to freshen up anyway, and so does old girl here.”
Shay was still quiet with her head bowed, but Bruce gave her a long sideways look and scowled. “Nah this bitch stays here with me. We got shit to handle, me and her.”
I parked my van next to the pump, woke up the sleeping clerk, a young Indian guy and proceeded to begin pumping gas. I watched out of the corner of my eye as Millara walked around the corner to the restroom. I stood there for a few seconds silently, my mind churning over the events of the evening. The same thought kept popping in my mind, the same question I kept asking myself-how is this going to end, Kenny? I could not come up with an answer.
My thoughts were interrupted by a loud, violent thump against the rear window of the van. I jumped back startled, and to my horror saw that Shay’s face was pressed against the window. As I watched in stunned amazement, her head snapped back and came thudding against the glass again. Blood trickled from the side of her mouth, smearing the glass. Her entire face was swollen and puffy. I honestly could not explain what happened next, or why I did what I did. Maybe it was Bruce’s fingers wrapped around Shays neck. The blank expression in her eyes. Maybe the way I felt as I saw the look of utter hopelessness; the detached expectation of imminent death that spurred me into reacting. Even as her head snapped back again I had opened the rear door of the van and grabbed her shoulder. I pulled her towards me, out of the van, my other hand reaching behind her back to grab Bruce. I felt cold metal in my grip, and realized I was holding on to a set of brass knuckles on Bruce’s hand. Shay fell forward onto my legs, knocking me backwards a step. As soon as that happened I felt a punch from Bruce go whizzing by my face. I pushed Shay to the side and grabbed Bruce’s arm. I could see him fumbling in his pocket, and cold fear gripped me. Spurred by adrenalin, I twisted his arm back and yanked him forward. He yelled in pain and fell out of the van onto the floor next to my feet. In a flash I was on him, punching him repeatedly in his face with one hand while trying to keep his other arm in his pocket. I had no doubt he had a gun, and I had no doubt too that both Shay and myself would be dead in seconds if he got to draw it.
I saw metal flash from the overhead lights, and the left side of my face exploded in searing pain and twinkling lights. I slumped sideways briefly, thinking I had been shot. I saw Bruce’s arm coming at me again, saw the metal knuckles and frantically reached out to grab his wrist. I hadn’t been shot, but the brass knuckles made my teeth feel as if they were floating in a sea of blood. He was strong and fast. I was barely able to twist away from his fist as another punch grazed my neck. Even with that glancing blow the pain was incredible, and a wave of red washed over my eyes as the pain pulsated in every part of my body. Even as I struggled to get a hold of him I realized that I was losing this battle badly. Another fist hit me in the small of my back, and my grip on his arm loosened. I was immediately hit by another crushing blow to the side of my head. I gasped in pain and rolled backwards.
He was on me quickly, straddling my chest and hitting me repeatedly. I am going to be killed. I am going to die at the hands of some low budget pimp right here on the ground outside this gas stop. I struggled to defend myself, feeling the energy oozing out of my body with each fist that crashed against me face and head. The blood in my mouth was choking me, and I realized that my head had come to rest against the adjoining gas pumps. I thrashed around trying to squirm free, desperation spurring my movements. A fist gripped my neck, holding my head in place as another fist pounded against my cheek. And again. A black curtain descended like the final scene in a stage play and I lapsed into unconsciousness.
I don’t know how long I was out, but I came to in a state of panic. I staggered to my feet, stumbled and got up again, leaning heavily against the minivan.
I could see blood splattered on the ground where we had been fighting and I realized most of it was probably mine.
I looked around frantically. I didn’t see Millara or Shay. Bruce lay prone on the ground, face up. Blood smeared his nose and around his mouth. There was also a widening pool of blood around his head, kinda like a grotesque halo. Faintly I heard voices. Arguing. They grew louder as I slowly walked around to the other side of the van.
“Jesus Christ, Millara, he was going to kill him! And me!”
“I don’t give a fuck, Shay! Bruce was paying our bills, bitch! All because you think you’re too good to fuck some nigga, we gotta go through this! Sorry girl, you’re wrong. We’re stuck in the middle of East Bubble Fuck, PA, with no money and no way home. And this dead motherfucka here. Think about that!”
I looked around, and on the other side of the vehicle, I could see Millara’s back as she argued with Shay. Millara was clearly agitated, and even through my swollen eyes I could see Shay trembling as she stood holding her face in her hands. I looked around the gas stop. The young Indian clerk was still sleeping comfortably behind his bulletproof window. I made my decision then.
“Shay.” I managed in a hoarse voice.
Two heads turned to look at me. One pair of eyes were relieved, the other pair guarded and suspicious.
“Shay, lets get out of here. Now. The attendant is going to see us and call the cops. Were all going to jail then. I got everything I need in my van. I’m going to Las Vegas. You can come with me.” I sighed and took a long deep breath. “I want you to come with me.”
Her eyes held mine for a long moment, and there was complete silence.
Silently she walked towards me, brushing past a surprised Millara. As she stood in front of me she reached out and touched my face.
“Look what he did to you.” She said softly.
I shook my head. “It’ll heal. We gotta get out of here, right now.”
She turned to look at Millara, who still hadn’t moved.
“What about her?”
I had already thought about Millara.
“She can come with us.”
Shays eyes flashed a look of surprise and what I took to be a little fear. I ignored it.
We all got in the van silently, and I drove off, looking to see if the service station attendant had moved. He was still asleep, and I could only imagine what his reaction would be when he awoke to a dead man stretched out next to the gas pumps.
We had driven in silence for about two hours when I saw what I was looking for. It was a bus station. I recalled that a couple of interstate lines stopped here heading eastbound. I pulled up next to it. There wasn’t much to it besides a signpost and a few feet away an automated newspaper cubicle. I reached into my glove box, took out my .40 Smith & Wesson and pointed it square at Millara’s forehead.
Her eyes revealed nothing of what she was thinking. But I could tell she was angry. It was in every inch of her body.
“You can’t leave me here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yes I can and it ain't the middle of nowhere. The Blue line to New York comes in at 6:30. Catch that and you’ll be in Manhattan by 9:00. Use your money from tonight. Now get out.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she started to say something. I cut her off.
“I don’t wanna hear it girl. I don’t like you, and while I don’t like hurting females, I won't think twice about shooting your ass.”
She slid across the seat and exited in the curbside. My gun followed her every move.
As she stepped out she couldn’t resist herself. She turned slightly to sneer first at Shay and then me.
“Bruce’s friends will find you, you know. And when they do, they’ll run a train on your bitch here and make you watch. Then they kill both of your punk asses.”
I shot her between the eyes, the booming echo of the handgun reverberating for several seconds in the vehicle. Shay jumped violently and then started to cry uncontrollably. I got out of the vehicle, dragged Millara’s body into the bushes next to the bus stop and got back in my minivan.
Shay was still crying. I pulled her close to me. She didn’t resist. After a few minutes she calmed down and started sobbing quietly.
“I had to do it, Shay.”
She nodded between sniffles.
“I know. I-I just…I have no one else Kenneth.”
“You have me, Shay. We got each other. You saved my life when I was trying to help you. I’m gonna spend the rest of my life thanking you for that.”
She looked at me, her eyes searching mine for a long moment before she spoke.
“I knew. When I got into your car I knew. There was something about you that just drawed me in.”
It was my turn to be silent and contemplative. My fathers saying flashed into my head again.
“Lemons or lemonade.” I said softly, almost to myself.
“Huh?” she asked, her head raised slightly. Even with the beating she had taken tonight, Shay was a beautiful woman. Did I deserve someone like her? I thought to myself. I thought back to Millara and Bruce. What that must have been like for her. Yes I do, I told myself. Time to change life’s lemons to lemonade.
“Nothing, just thinking out loud. Buckle up, we got a long ride”