The following short story is based on actual events. The story was submitted to my Short Story class, English 405, in the Fall of 2021 at California State University, Long Beach. It has been edited for clarity.
The complete version of this fictionalize account can be found at Chacho and the Five Dollar Bag (Part 1) and Chacho and the Five Dollar Bag (Part 2).
It seemed simple enough. Be the lookout for Carlito at the corner of 142nd and Willis Avenue. Hector’s Barber Shop is two doors down, where Hector himself would give me a razor cut every two weeks on any Saturday. Sitting in that chair as if I was on a throne listening to Doble-OOO radio station and traditional Puerto Rican music and Spanish-language chatter oozing out like milk from momma’s breast. Next door is Sammy’s Pizza, where, on a good day, Sammy would give us small paper cups of water for free instead of filled with the Italian Ice they were meant for. He knew why we wanted them: to drop clean water through an eyedropper into a bottle cap filled with a small blob of cotton and a five-dollar bag of smack in the belief that we could purify the death created in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost.
At least the water is clean. We would buy a slice for fifty cents to say thanks. “Bless you” is all Sammy would say as if it was his last goodbye. Just in case the water drops into the bottle cap full of smack and a small blob of cotton heated over an open flame turned out to be the final act in our dangerous and tragic play titled The End.
It’s winter. I’m cold and shivering. Seven o’clock in the evening, and people are shuffling home from bus stops and train stations and dead-end jobs that paid the rent for rundown apartments in rundown apartment buildings where they have to step over the deadbeat bodies of junkies during the dope epidemic of 1968. Hands in my coat pocket wrapped around my works (eyedropper- check, bottle cap-check, needle safely sheathed, so we don’t stab ourselves-check, a recycled blob of cotton that will not purify anything-check) bundled together with a brown rubber band in a decaying brown bag. A matchbook with 4–5 matches left with the hidden message written across the inside cover “Use wisely, sucker. This is all that is left.”
I’m standing guard looking up and down Willis Avenue and 142nd Street and up to the 14th floor across the street to make sure my fiancé, Chicky, is not looking out the window where she could see me and wonder, ‘Why is that fool standing out on that corner in this cold weather without a hat on and probably doesn’t have any gloves on?” Yeah, that’s not what she’s thinking! I’m sure she’s probably thinking “he’s looking for dope again. I’m done with him.” And she be right. She and I should be done with me because I can’t believe I’m standing on the corner of Willis Avenue and 142nd Street in this damn cold ass weather on the lookout for la Jara as Carlito stalks an elderly woman up 142nd Street toward Willis Avenue while eyeing her black purse with the determination of a beast stalking its prey.
All we need is ten bucks to split two five-dollar bags of dope, smack, skag, and the white horse. Carlito told me that he’s done this before. “Plenty of times. I grab the purse and run. They ain’t going to stop me. If I have to, I push them down. Not hard. I ain’t no animal.” Yeah, but I’ve never done this before. I don’t want to do this now or ever. But the call of the main vein, the road to a good feeling, is just too strong. Stronger than the guilt I would feel if Carlito had to push some old lady down on the ground because she refused to let go of the goddamn purse. Let it go, damn it.
Suddenly, I hear a shout and a scream shooting up 142nd Street, landing in front of me, shutting out the Willis Avenue noise of buses, cabs, and folks just trying to get home before the threatened snow piles up on the streets. They don’t have any boots because they just got here from Puerto Rico or República Dominicana and they ain’t got no snow down there.
Damn Carlito, why you have to push that woman down? She’s screaming madness in Spanish, and I can’t quite make out what the fuck she’s saying as I scope Carlito running up 142nd street towards Willis Avenue. I pray (not really pray) that he’s got that woman’s purse when I see this guy in a doorway of a rundown apartment building on 142nd street. He’s just standing there, hands in his coat pocket, looking down the street. He’s gotta see Carlito running and hear that old lady screaming mad as hell shit in Spanish. I may not speak Spanish, but I know enough that she’s talking stuff like, “Stop him, please!” and “He robbed me!” Damn it, shut up, I scream to myself. I’m freaking out looking for a way outta here. I scramble to run down Willis toward 149th Street and home but I realize I’m not running. Why ain’t I running? Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see the guy in the doorway step down and lunge at Carlito. I figured he was trying to grab him, but his arm was swinging like he missed, and Carlito let out a scream stronger than the woman’s, “Motherfucker, why you stab me?” Carlito is running but tripping, holding his left arm. Now, the guy in the doorway is joined by other men from down the street running after Carlito.
Carlito ain’t waiting for the light to change as he races across Willis Avenue dodging cars and people toward the projects. To this day, I don’t know why I joined the procession of chasers across the Avenue as they were screaming, “Stop that Motherfucker!” I know where Carlito lives, and when I catch up with them, I tell the men that I saw him cut behind the 242 building to run up 141st. They turn the corner and haul ass while I pretend to look exhausted and when they’re out of sight, I run into 242, take the elevator up the 12th floor, and knock on 12B. I see blood on the door.
Carlito’s mother can be heard screaming from inside. His sister opens the door, and she’s crying. I push my way in, rapping some shit about, “I saw some guys try to rob Carlito, and they chased him to the building, but I told them that he ran up 141st street,” and I wanted to make sure that Carlito was okay. I probably didn’t do a good job convincing them because Momma was looking at this black purse on the floor in front of Carlito, screaming at him, asking what did he do now and who did he rob? The whole scene went downhill from there.
Momma is still screaming. Sister is still crying. Carlito has his coat and his shirt off, holding a towel against his left arm, blood dripping down onto the black purse on the floor that he had taken from the old woman. It was open, and I could see that there was a bible inside. Carlito was huffing and puffing. He looked at me and then looked down at the purse with the Bible book peeking through the unzippered opening and back to me, and I’m like, What the fuck? His mother is on the phone calling someone to come over and take Carlito to the hospital, and I grab the purse swearing I’m going to return it to its rightfull owner and Carlito should be ashamed of himself but no one cares because they’re too busy screaming at each other in Spanish and English with a little Spanglish thrown in.
I step out into the hallway, find the stairs, and slowly make my way down 12 floors, hoping not to run into those guys chasing Carlito, my girlfriend, anyone from her family, or anyone who knew her. When I get to the first floor, I turn to look into the purse. The Bible falls out and down on the ground, opening up as it hits the dull gray concrete. An envelope scatters across the floor, and damn if there ain’t money flying out of it. I stoop down and grab the bills and count them. 1-2-3-4-5. There they are, five five-dollar bills. All that drama for twenty-five bucks. Oh well, I guess I’ll be getting high tonight.
I go out the back into the playground, where I walk across the project complex to St. Ann’s Avenue, Third Avenue to Westchester Avenue, and take the number 26 bus to 156th and Westchester and home.
My nose is now running, my body aching and shivering from more than the winter cold. I’m not high and will get high until maybe the next day. Carlito is the one that had the connection. I’m going to be left with keeping the twenty-five bucks warm in my pocket instead of the dope in my veins.
But, I learned two lessons: one, I’m a terrible lookout that is never going to be good at committing a crime, and two, from now until the day I die, I will respect all old ladies that I see walking down the streets with their bibles and purses and ask that they forgive me even as they look at me and wonder, “What’s wrong, boy?” Nothing, I’ll tell them, I just need your forgiveness forever.