Before Devin got his picture in the paper for knocking out that Mexican boy in the fifth round, there was Antoine and his double-double average. He was all-city our freshman year. Started varsity and everything. Dunking before the rest of us could touch the net. Had a way of gliding to the basket that flowed like water. A hard dribble to his right … one, two steps … and he was there.
Antoine had always been a pain in the ass. Mixed it up with all of us at one time or another. Hell, he and I had gone at it a bunch of times through the years, going back to the fifth grade when he whipped me in the street with a chain like some dog. Over a girl, no less. So it was no surprise that Coach hated his guts, too. Kicked him out of practice every other day, it seemed. But he kept bringing Antoine back because the scouts were starting to show up to our games. Coaches, too. Famous ones. Ones you’d see on TV and everything. The papers loved him, throwing around his name in bold, and everyone in Broketown was packing that little gym. People who hadn’t come to a game in years.
It was like, for a moment, everyone forgot about the way things were.
But Antoine never had a chance. His brother, who wasn’t half the player Antoine was, had given up a partial to MU to sell crack around Broketown. And so no one thought anything about it when Antoine just up and disappeared one day. Stopped showing up for practice. Became a ghost in the halls. Every once in a while, someone would say, What the hell happened to that guy? And the rest of us would shake our heads and say, You know how it is. We would see him around Broketown every now and again, the top down on his ’72 Cutlass, gold rims spinning. But no one ever saw him take a shot again. Not that I ever heard.
Before Antoine fell off the face of the earth, there was Dante. He wasn’t the fastest on the football field, but shit, he had moves. Breaking ankles, people called it. I used to wake up on Saturday mornings and go right for the paper, just to read the box scores from the night before, see Dante’s name beside a shit-ton of yardage. When the smaller schools from around the state came sniffing around, I thought one of us was finally going to make it out.
But then Dante went and got both Courtney Sims and Annie Fortson pregnant at the same time—some said Brandy Watkins’ kid was also his, but no one could prove it beyond the obvious fact that the father was black—and that was that. He quit school and got a job as a butcher at the Broketown Save-Mart. Last I heard, he’s still cutting meat for peanuts.
Before Dante threw it all away for a piece of ass, there was nothing. Just us, a bunch of snot-nosed kids, running around the streets of Broketown like we owned the fucking place. Running down the back alleys, barking at each other like mongrel dogs. Gathering down in Jones Park, taking up the court from dawn to dusk, new ones showing up all the time, yelling “I got next” as they stood behind the concrete benches. The homeless men watching us from the shade of the walnut trees with dead eyes and sallow skin, like warnings from the future. Like ghosts of what might be. Us throwing up wobbly shots and calling out “Jordan” or “Magic” or “Reggie” as the ball clanged off the side of the rim. Us thinking that, had the shot gone in, we would have it fucking made. That we would grow up, play ball for Central High, get noticed, and get the hell out of Broketown.
Before Devin and Antoine and Dante, we were all fools. We just didn’t know any better.
* * * * *
Before Devin won that belt and the school built that display in his honor in the first-floor trophy case, there were others who had tried to go straight.
Seth stuck it out even after having a kid and getting kicked off the football team for selling a little weed. He stopped running around with the rest of us, which we all knew ate at his damn guts. We’d see him pushing his little boy around the hallways in between classes, barely able to look us in the eyes.
But this thing had a way of finding those who tried to walk away.
Just a couple of months shy of graduation, he took an axe to the head, right in the middle of the damn street, after mixing it up with the Morrison twins. Something that had been hanging around since forever, going back to the eighth grade when they got the drop on him during track practice and damn near put a bullet in his chest. He never was the same after that shot to his head, and the last time I saw him, he still had that bald spot where the stitches had been.
Before Seth became a shell of his former self, wandering around the edges of our lives like a damn omen, there was Billy. He’d dropped out when all the others had, the moment he hit sixteen, but he’d stayed clean and came back to get his diploma, fighting the good fight at the alternative school down the street. I used to run into him now and then, usually at the video store near my house, and he kept telling me that he was going to walk with the rest of us, come graduation day.
Billy was a good guy. One of the best I knew. Always funny, always had our backs. But then he ended up in a pool hall with Brad Nichols, of all people, who got into it with a couple of loudmouth rednecks from the boonies. That bottle was meant for them, but it got Billy in the face instead. Forehead to chin, it was all cut to shreds, and he never spoke right again.
* * * * *
Before Devin found a way to make boxing his ticket out, there was the exodus. People getting out while the getting was good. My junior year, I got a job in the office that handled all of the drop-out cases. Every day, I was handed these little white cards bearing the names of those who were leaving us, those who had hit sixteen and said, Fuck this, I’m out of here. I was supposed to take these little cards around to the different teachers to let them know not to expect these kids in their classes anymore. Sometimes, the teacher would get a pained, sorrowful look on their face whenI held up a card, showing them the name. Most of the time, they seemed relieved.
Every day, I walked those cards around the building. Every day, I recognized the names printed on them. I don’t remember who jumped first—maybe Corey, because he was older than the rest of us, having been held back a couple of times—but once the first one went, it was like the rest went out on a damn wave. So many people I’d come up with. Some I’d known my whole life. Gone without a trace. Gone. Just like that.
Before everyone started dropping out, there were those who left against their wishes.
Ricky Weems took a bullet in his sleep from his crazy mother, just before she stuck the barrel in her own mouth and pulled the trigger. Seventh grade. Dead before he finished dreaming.
Amber Rooney got snatched up by the authorities for being molested. They came and took her out of class like she was being arrested, all because her stepfather couldn’t keep his hands to himself.
Bobbi Helms was in the backseat of Larry Crews’ car when it got T-boned by a cop responding to a call. A few weeks later, they took her off life support. Died a year to the day after her mother OD’d on coke. Sometimes this thing devoured whole families.
Before all of these kids disappeared, there were the fathers. All of them leaving, sooner or later. Tommy never knew his, the asshole cutting out before his mom even went into labor. Corey’s dad was doing a nickel’s worth for dealing crank, but he was an asshole anyway, thinking he knew karate and shit, always trying to use it on us, so no one missed him. Billy’s old man got sent up for kiddie porn, though Billy swore up and down the pervert never touched him. Mark’s father got shipped overseas—Germany, he was pretty sure—but a letter came floating back, telling his mom, Thanks, but no thanks. Ramone’s dad had played some semi-pro ball back in the day, which we all thought was cool, but now he could only score with a bottle of Old Crow, his fat ass sitting on some corner in Broketown for all the world to see. The others were long gone, their stories either forgotten or never told. There were stepfathers, sure, but most were bastards who got loose with their hands, either feeling up or knocking out. They’d be gone soon enough, too.
* * * * *
Before Devin did what he did, there were the older brothers. The older boys. The ones we used to hide from in the schoolyards and run from in the streets. The ones who used to steal our bikes out of our garages and then leave them wrecked and broken in the drainage ditch behind the tire shop, just because. The ones who got kicked out of fifth grade for smoking, who got busted by the Save-Mart for shoplifting candy bars, who got arrested for leaving shit all up and down the railroad tracks that ran alongside Market Street, trying to derail one of the trains that came storming through the neighborhood night and day.
Before our time, there was Rickie’s older brother, Aaron. A real bastard, that one. He set a girl’s hair on fire in the middle of class with a lighter and her own hairspray because she wouldn’t go out with him, no matter how many times he asked. No matter how many times he showed her his dick while he had her cornered in the shadows of the first-floor hallway, back near the boiler room. The school kicked him out the rest of the year for that one.
Before Aaron took it too far, there was J.C.’s cousin, Shawn, who seemed to have it all. Got good grades, looked like Zack-fucking-Morris, of all people, and the girls he ran with said he had a big dick. Then he went and pulled a drive-by in the 7-Eleven parking lot. Shot a man in the ass while he was talking on the payphone. Some said it was payback for getting screwed on a dimebag. Some said it was some poor asshole in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever it was, the cops grabbed him the next morning, dragged him out of bed before he’d had his Cheerios, and we never saw him again.
Before Shawn pulled that trigger, there were the Morrison twins, Mikey and Marvin. They were the worst of all. I always knew they had it in them, going back to junior high when I saw Mikey pull that gun on Seth. If it wasn’t for that coach coming around the corner, Seth would have bought it for sure. Later on, I saw Marvin getting hauled away in handcuffs on the evening news for raping a girl and throwing her off a bridge. She somehow survived the fall, or else they would have given him the needle. Just a few months later, I saw Mikey’s mugshot in the paper. He’d learned how to finish the job, I guess. Put two slugs in some guy’s chest for no reason that anyone knew.
* * * * *
Before Devin left the little boxing gym on Market Street that night, he had spent every afternoon in that place. He used to run the eight blocks from school, lace on the gloves, and work the heavy bag until the old guy who ran the place turned out the lights and put him out on the street. He used to avoid going home as long as he could, hanging out by the Fina station near the stockyards until they chased him off the property or called the police on him because they thought he was casing the joint. He used to come up on his house from the back way, hiding behind the bushes that lined the alleyway until his stepfather left for work. He used to count the empty shopping carts that people had stashed back there, the used hypos the junkies had tossed aside, while he waited. He used to live for the sound of his stepfather’s old pickup rumbling down the road, signaling that the coast was clear, giving him an opening to sneak in through the back door and crash in the basement for the night.
Before Devin found himself walking down Market Street alone that night, he had swung by his place, seen that his stepfather wasn’t going anywhere, and walked back the way he came under the hovering lights of the feed mill. Before he kept walking, he stopped at the boxing gym, stared in at the ring sitting in the middle of the one big room, its outline barely visible in the heavy darkness. Before he turned away, he read the article that the old man had taped to the inside of the glass, for the hundredth time. He studied the photo, remembering being told to smile but not remembering the camera itself, the flash erasing it from his mind instantly. He felt in his back pocket for the copy he carried around, its edges frayed from all the times he’d unfolded and refolded it whenever he was sure no one was looking. Before he moved on, he heard the angry horn of the train rumbling by in the darkness, somewhere just beyond his reach. He thought about Antoine and his Cutlass. He thought about Seth and that ugly bald spot of his. He thought about his old man—his real old man—who was supposed to be a boxer, too. A good one, a southpaw. He thought about this man being out there somewhere, trying to imagine what he looked like, sounded like.
Before Devin noticed the old bum slouched against the wall, he had seen the man around a few times. Seen him begging for change down where Market merged with Franklin, out of sight of the shelters there on Market. Seen him wander into the Catholic mission across from the boxing gym, looking for a hot meal and dry cot, the priest who ran the place slipping his arm around the man’s shoulders and pulling him into his flock. Seen him wandering around drunk, getting his hands on some booze somehow, yelling at the cars that rolled on by and ignored him, cutting out when the police came cruising down the street.
Before Devin snuck up on the sleeping man, he didn’t know what he was going to do. Before he picked up the cinder block that he spotted underneath the bushes, he braced himself for its unexpected weight. Before he raised the cinder block over his head, he felt the exhaustion in his arms and shoulders from having worked the heavy bag so long that day. Before he brought the cinder block down onto the man’s skull, his mind went blank, having no more use for common thoughts.