Hunny was five years younger than me and probably all the rest ofthe Dragons. That made him eleven years old. He'd been asking me about our little club, where we go every Friday night, and who we see and what we do, and finally I got so sick of him yapping at me, I just said, “You really want to know so bad?" and Hunny said, “Yeah," and I said, “Well then, you're coming with me this weekend. You'll see." It was time for him to go anyway. I knew it. He was at the point where somebody had to teach him what it means to handle yourself and how to earn respect.
When Friday night rolled around, there was no dinner, which was no surprise. Mama hadn't come home. That was no surprise either. Matter of fact, that had become standard procedure for her on the weekends, but it wasn't always that way. Years ago, she used to come home every night. But then, as me and Hunny got a little older, here and there she'd miss a Friday night or maybe she'd come home on a Saturday really late, maybe on into Sunday morning. I know it had to do with the men, the ones that dressed in suits and gave me and Hunny big, gold-toothed smiles and then fucked Mama in her bedroom, sometimes with the door open. I'd have to grab Hunny and hold him to stop him from running in there and pounding those guys. Hunny thought they were hurting Mama, but he was still too young to know about the birds and the bees and the pimps and the whores yet.
Once, back when Mama first started coming home late, Hunny said, “Mama, where have you been?"
“Makin' money, Hunny," Mama said, “Your mama been out makin' money."
She had a black eye that was purple and starting to swell. She tried to hide it from Hunny, but it's hard to hide something from him and he said, “What happened to your eye, Mama?"
“I fell down, Hunny. Tripped on the sidewalk. Your mama is clumsy sometimes." Mama touched it with her finger tips, just lightly, and she sucked in her breath a little.
“It's gonna be okay, Mama," he said. “Come up in Mama's lap."
“You're gonna be okay, Mama."
And he climbed up on her lap and she cuddled him and she turned her head a little, so the ugly eye was facing the wall. Mama had eyes the color of nickels. I think her Pop was a white man. With her good eye, she looked at him without blinking. There he sat, meeting her gaze like he just came down from heaven. I could barely stand to watch it. Mama slouched really, I wouldn't call it sitting, and she was breathing hard, and me and Hunny both just stared at her for a couple ofminutes, but I stared at her the way I stare at the hippo at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
“Get me some water," she said.
“Bullshit." The word just shot out of my mouth. “What did you say to me?"
“If you're out makin' money, where the hell's it at?"
I never talked back before like that. Mama didn't say a word. Hunny was looking at me now. His eyes were wide as a cat's. They darted from me to Mama, Mama to me. He didn't know what to think. I thought Mama was going to get up and hit me and I braced myself, but instead, she started to cry. Tears seeped out ofthat swelled up mound where I know she got hit. I took o f for me and Hunny's bedroom and slammed the door behind me and by the time I fell asleep, I think she was gone again. That night, Hunny crawled into bed with me. We didn't see Mama for days.
So, there we were Friday night, Hunny and me, sitting around the kitchen, killing time because we weren't supposed to meet Charlie and everybody else for a while yet. But Hunny couldn't sit still. He paced around the house and slumped into a kitchen chair, then paced around a little more, then plopped down into a di ferent chair.
“You're making me nervous," I said. “When are we gonna go, Cal" Hunny said.
“Hold your horses, Hunny."
“I wanna go."
It was real still outside and I looked out the window at the leaves just hanging there in the walnut tree out back. It was humid and they hung there, dead. said, “We got to find something to eat first, Hunny."
“Quit calling me Hunny."
“What should I call you then?"
“I want to be called Bill."
“Too bad. Bill ain't your name. Your name is Hunny, Hunny."
“It ain't my real name. It's just a nickname."
He folded up his arms and dropped his skinny body back in the chair. He had gotten tall and his lankiness barely fit in that little wicker chair of his at the end of the table. I looked at him and suddenly I had this vision, beyond any shadow of doubt, of exactly what he'd look like when he was a grown up man. Broad- shouldered. Towering. I kind of shook my head and smiled to myself. Hunny-boy. That's one hell of a name for a grown up man.
“What" he said.
“Nothing," I said, “You."
I scrounged around a little and came up with an apple that was worth eating and tossed it to him. The rest was just bags of rice or a little bit of flour or sugar or butter or co fee. We didn't have any meat. There was the heel of the bread loaf left. That would do for me, I guessed. Mama needed to go to the supermarket, but given the direction things were going for her, a trip to the supermarket might as well have been a trip to the
I sat back down across the table from Hunny. He held that apple in his hands like he was a little squirrel, but he didn't bite it.
“So when's it all get going tonight?" he said. “Eat your apple."
He took a bite out of it, all the while looking over the top of it right at me.
“We're going to meet up with Charlie and everybody else, first of all. We got to meet them over on Damen in a little while," I said.
“Then we're gonna fight."
“Who we gonna fight?"
“You ask way too many questions, Hunny. I'm liable to make you stay at home."
“Don't do that."
I wouldn't really make him stay at home. To tell the truth, I was glad he wanted to go so bad. It's hard to show somebody how to make it out there if they don't want to learn. He wrinkled up his forehead and when he did that, it made his ears move a little. Those giant, stick-out ears of his that, someday, the rest of his head would catch up to.
“Why?" he asked.
“Why do we fight 'em?"
“So they'll stay off our turf."
“What's our turf?"
“Where we live, Hunny."
“Why do them boys want to come on our turf?"
“Hell if I know, Hunny. They're chumps, that's why. Chumps with nothing better to do than cause trouble."
“Are they big boys?"
“Some of them."
“They ever hurt you, Cal?"
“Look, why are you asking all these questions?"
“I'm just trying to know."
“Do you want to come or not?"
“Then knock off the questions."
I shoved the bread into my mouth. I poured tall glasses of water for us and made sure Hunny drank all ofhis. Then I refilled them and we drank them down again. We sat in silence for a little bit. The sky was starting to fade to pink out through the walnut tree branches, out in the canyons of the projects.
“You ready?" I said.
“'Course I'm ready."
“Okay, then. Let's go."
First, we went around back behind our building, where there was an old tool shed. Shingles were slipping o f the roof, and there was no glass where there was supposed to be windows. Nobody ever went inside it. It probably had another winter or two before the weight of the snow that piled up on the roof finally forced it all the way down to the ground.
I jimmied the lock on the door and me and Hunny slipped inside. It smelled like gas and mildew and the air was hot and thick. We tiptoed around a big pile of twisted up drain pipes, old cans, rags and rotten lawn clippings. Behind that, nailed to the back wall, there were a few old shelves made of moldy press board, propped up against the wall of the shed with some rusty nails. I reached up to the highest one and found my knife. I shoved it into my hip pocket. In the corner back where the light barely reached, I knew there was a baseball bat. An Ernie Banks model. I said, “Hunny, get the bat."
“In the corner."
“There's spiders back there."
“Do it quick, then."
I heard him stumbling around, tripping over a watering can, and then muttering under his breath, but I finally heard him say, “Got it."
“Come on, let's go," I said.
We stepped back outside. Hunny rested the bat on his shoulder. When we used to play ball in the school parking lot down the street, back when it was still a school, that old bat was like a telephone pole in Hunny's hands. But now, he lugged it like Banks himself. Of course, he didn't know he looked any more grown up now than he had back then.
We started walking to meet the boys over on Damen, but I got this really funny feeling after a block or so. I stopped in my tracks and turned around. Hunny was loping close behind me. I looked at him up and down for a second. Right there, this picture came to me of Hunny's face, beaten to a bloody mess, staring up at me from the asphalt. What would it be like if I had to save his life tonight? If I had to peel two or three of their boys o f him? What if he couldn't hack it? That thought scared me. If he couldn't hack it out there tonight, it'd be better o f if they killed him. I knew it. Hunny stood there looking at me, his face scrunched up into a surprised expression. For a second or two, I just looked back at him. His long legs, his lanky arms, that big bat over his shoulder. He looked like a natural brawler, I told myself. At least more now than he ever did in his life.
“Why are we stopping?" he asked.
“You know something, I don't think you know how to fight," I said, “Maybe you better go back."
“What do you mean? Sure I do."
“You ever been in a fight before, like with any of the kids at the schoolyard?"
“Lots of times."
“Oh yeah? Well, show me."
He dropped the bat and it hit the ground with a hollow 'bonk.' Then, he jumped at me and wrapped his arms around my waist and started hammer-fisting me in the back.
“No, no, Hunny. I mean like a real fight." I pushed him off me.
“Not with anybody besides you," He almost whispered it.
“Well, this is different."
“We're gonna be late. I know how to fight," he said.
“Listen to me. Now you're gonna start out swinging with that bat. Just swing away, like you were hitting the ball when I pitch to you. But, after a few minutes, you might lose that bat. Things'll get hot and heavy and you don't always know what you're doing. I'm serious, pay attention. It's okay if you lose it. Now, put your hands up like this," I said, balling up my fists.
“When you take a swing at one of them boys, go for the jaw. It's the softest part of the head and you won't break your hand. Watch your temples, watch your jaw. Keep an eye on his middle. Watch his hands out of the corner of your eyes. Don't back up. Every time you want to back up, move in on him instead. Don't stop swinging until he's down. You hear me?"
“Yeah," said Hunny.
“Listen, if anything happens, or if you get scared, I want you to run back home as fast as you can and get underneath your bed. I'll be by in a little while," I said.
“I ain't a baby."
I looked at him. He wasn't a baby, that was for sure. “You hear me?" I said.
We were late, but just by a couple of minutes. There were seven of us, seven Dragons, and Hunny made eight. The boys were all standing around cracking their knuckles and waiting. Their shadows were long smudges across the sidewalk and on into the street. Freddy and Mark-O and Action Jackson and Mickey and Too Tall Jones and Charlie. Charlie stood away from everybody else a little bit. He had a hanky tied around his head and he was wearing the shirt he always wore when we went out, the one with the sleeves torn o f. It showed o f his huge arms and the white scars that crisscrossed his dark skin. He was the baddest brawler in the neighborhood. I got a charge out ofseeing all them there waiting for us. Waiting for some action. When Charlie saw me and Hunny, he came over to us.
“This your baby brother?" he said. “Hunny, meet Charlie,"I said.
“What kind of name is Hunny?" he asked. “My name," said Hunny.
“Your name, huh? Can you fight?"
“Fight like hell," he said.
“You're just a kid."
“No, I ain't."
“He's just a kid, Cal."
“He begged me. He'll be alright."
“I didn't beg!"
“Shut your mouth, Hunny."
“He wants to come, fine. He comes. But, if anything happens to him, it's on you, Cal. I ain't taking responsibility for no kid."
“Alright, Charlie. You'll see. He'll be alright."
“I ain't a kid."
“I said shut your mouth."
“It's on you, Cal. You watch him."
“I know, Charlie, I know."
“I don't need nobody to watch me."
Charlie spit on the ground. Then he looked up at the sky. I looked up too. There were pink and white streaks way up there, way above the roofs of the buildings. There were long trails of puffy white from airplanes that were too high to see.
“It's time. Let's go," Charlie said. He turned to everybody else and said in a loud voice, “Let's move out, Dragons! Time to teach these punks a lesson they won't ever forget!"
We let up our cheer and then we hustled down Damen, with the noise of the gravel crunching under our sneakers. We walked past old men sitting on lawn chairs and past crumbled down buildings and past bums sleeping in the empty lots, with nothing but raggedy army coats for blankets I felt bad for them. They didn't have anybody.
There was this smell coming o f the street and from the alleys and from everywhere, like it always does on summer nights. The smell of grease and the breaks of the El burning and decaying concrete and the sour stink ofthe overflowing dumpsters. I loved it. It always meant action. I sucked it into my lungs and held it there.
We were all looking straight ahead, and when we all walk together like that, I get real fired up. In step. Together. With a purpose. I was fired up that night, boy. I thought about the first time I ever fought with the Dragons, and how I broke some other kid's nose with my bare fists. That red blood flowing down o f his chin and me standing over him. And Charlie was there too. He'd grabbed me on the shoulders, when we got back to our turf, and he'd said, “You did it, Cal, you're a Dragon now, boy. You gave 'em hell tonight." I don't think I slept for a week after that. Boy, that was something. I tried to picture Hunny standing over some other kid like that tonight. Boom, pow! Hunny got his man! The thought made me proud. I looked over at him.
“Don't be scared," I said, “You can do it."
“I told you, I ain't scared of nothing."
“This is it, Hunny. It's all about respect from here on out."
“What are these boys like?" Hunny whispered.
“Tough," I whispered back. “Where we gonna fight them?"
“Where do you think? In a ring or something? Right out there on the street."
“What if Mama comes home?"
I told him to use his brains when it came to Mama. I wasn't trying to be mean about it, but Hunny stopped walking.
“It's not true," he said.
“Come on, Hunny."
“Mama loves us."
“Forget it, Hunny. Come on."
“She loves me."
This poor kid. He really thought that was true. I felt bad for him, standing there with this tiny
quiver on his lip. Nobody else saw it, but I did. I told him straight out that Mama didn't love either of us. If she did, why would she be gone all the time? Where was all that money she was supposed to be making? Hunny started to cry. The rest ofthe Dragons had stopped walking too, and now they were watching us. Charlie spit on the ground and folded his arms. To tell the truth, I was embarrassed.
“Quit your crying, Hunny,"
“We got to keep moving."
“We don't have a lot of time for this bullshit, Cal," Charlie said.
“I know it. We're coming. Come on, Hunny."
I started to walk back up with the rest of them, but Hunny just stood there. Poor Hunny.
Standing there by himself, the rest of us staring at him. Crying big old tears for his dried-up hooker of a Mama. I went back to him. What could I do? I put one hand on his shoulder, and with the other, I lifted his chin so I could look into those big eyes of his. He was snu fling and trying to stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks. He wiped at them with the back of his hand. His eyes looked a lot like Mama's, that silvery color, and now, in his, swelled up with tears, I could see a the tiny reflection of my head.
“You're your own man." I said. I looked back over my shoulder at the Dragons. He looked at me and, after a second, he nodded.
“Atta boy," I said. We walked back to the group, me with my arm around his shoulders.
“Everything okay?" Charlie said.
“It's okay. We're okay," I said.
We kept marching, Hunny trudging along beside me. He wasn't saying anything now. He'd wiped the streaks of the tears o f his cheeks. I knew he didn't want to cry back there, and I felt bad, like it was me who made him cry. All I was trying to do was tell the truth. I wanted to look over at him, and look him in the eyes again, but I didn't do it. I kept walking and looking straight ahead. The farther we went, the quieter we all got and before we knew it, we went under the tracks and we weren't on our turf anymore. It had gotten pretty dark.
Then there was this sound like a stick makes when you swing it through the air and a 'clonk' and Mickey, right next to me, let out a scream and went down to his knees. We all jumped back. He was grabbing his face and blood was pouring out between his fingers and he tried to stand up but couldn't do it. He staggered sideways and fell down again and Freddy grabbed him under the arms and hauled him up. Mickey moved his hands away from his face and there was a long gash, starting on his forehead and going down between his eyes and ending at the top of his nose. Blood was just pouring down his face, all over his shirt collar.
“What happened, Mick?" Mark-O said.
“Something nailed him outta nowhere."
“What was it, Mick?" Charlie said.
“Had to be this," said Too Tall Jones. He was holding up a big, flat slice of concrete.
“Didn't see it coming," Mickey said. His eyes were wide open.
Charlie stood up and turned around and shouted, “Come on out, you motherfuckers. You want to throw rocks like cowards?"
At first it seemed like he shouted it out loud to nobody. There was nothing but a long, empty street in front of us, lined with hollow buildings and rusty light poles that leaned over the sidewalks on both sides. O f in the distance, the lights on the skyscrapers downtown twinkled. But there was no sound, no answer right away.
“Come on out, cowards," Charlie shouted again.
Then they came out. They came out from everywhere. From the dark alleys and out the gaping, door-shaped holes in those squatty project apartments. They seemed to drip down on us off the power lines and creep up on us from the giant, iron girders that held up the el. They were like shadows this time, moving over the pavement, blending in with the garbage cans and skipping over the last rays of sunlight hanging onto the neighborhood. It was like they were watching us the whole time. There must have been about twenty of them.
Their leader, I think they called him Ratso, and Charlie went back and forth a few times, Charlie spitting his words out. They could really talk up some murder, but Charlie could make it sound better. Better than anybody else in the world. 'The Dragons were gonna rip this and tear into that,' and it made me wish, just for a second, this whole fight was about who could shout the other boys to death. There were so many of them. More than I thought there would be. A lot more, to tell the truth. Some of them had pipes and chains and things like that, but most of them just had balled up fists and they looked like they didn't give a shit about anything in the world. I looked over at Hunny. I figured he might be scared.
“Steady," I whispered, but he didn't say anything back. “Listen to this talk," I heard Charlie say.
What happened next was, I guess, I'm not too sure, it happened so fast that Charlie pulled out a switchblade and threw it through the air, and plunked down right into Ratso's thigh. He howled and Charlie yelled, “Get 'em, Dragons," and we all shot forward into all of them.
I turned my head to shout something to Hunny, but somebody jumped on me right away. I grabbed at this boy's throat and started wailing on his head with my fists, but he had me on the ground in a couple of seconds. I think he was two times my size, maybe two and a half. I didn't even get a good look at his face. I kept trying to reach for my knife. This kid was unarmed, near as I could tell, but it didn't matter. He didn't need a blade or a chain or a bat or anything. I can't even say for certain he was a kid. Some kind of hired gun or something. Maybe a real boxer. Each blow from his fists made my eyes go funny. First I saw double, then triple, and then I didn't see anything, but right before the lights went out, I heard Charlie trying to keep everybody together. I could hear his voice rattle out above the scuffle, “Don't back down, now, come on, Dragons, hit back! These dirty punks ain't nobody!"
And then I remember trying to pull myself up to my feet. I couldn't see right away. As soon as I could think clear, this image of Hunny shot through my mind--him lying out on the street somewhere, blood everywhere around his head, his eyes half open. Hunny. Would they leave a kid alone? Probably not. I didn't hear him. I didn't hear him calling out my name, I didn't hear him crying. I could always tell Hunny's voice even in a crowd of people, and although this was the first time he'd ever been part of the blows and the crashes of a street fight, I was sure I could pick out his voice anywhere. But I didn't hear it now. I had to find him and help him, but I could barely walk. I stood with my hands on my knees, breathing heavy. I opened my eyes, but only my right one would focus. I spit out a mouthful ofbloody goop and a couple ofteeth. Teeth or gravel. That kid landed some good ones. O f in the distance, I heard the sirens. Nothing cleared the streets like that sound.
Nothing turned fighters into ghosts like the high-pitched bawling of police cars.
I took a look around. The wind whipped a handful of dead leaves through the glow of the street light, but other than that, nothing was moving. I guess somebody forgot to tell me to clear the hell out. The cops always throw the last guy in jail, because the last guy is the only guy the cops can ever catch. Cook County Jail is full of old, fat street brawlers. I didn't want to end up in there with them. I started to move, and right then I heard, “Hey, Cal!"
“Hunny!" I was sure relieved to hear that voice. Damn, I was sure relieved. “Over here, Cal!"
I couldn't see anything with my left eye. It was swelled shut. My ribs exploded in pain every time I took even a tiny breath. I limped toward him as quick as I could.
“Right here, Cal. You okay?"
“I'm hurt pretty bad. You okay?"
“I'm okay," he said.
Hunny was standing in the alley, between an abandoned building and the girders of the el tracks. The alley was lit by a single street light on a crooked pole, and the light from it fell directly onto Hunny. Further on down the alley behind him, it was nothing but darkness. I swear to God, the light made him look like an angel. I lurched up to him and put my hand on his shoulder.
“You did the right thing. It's okay you holed up here. You're a man. You're okay," I said. “Wait, Cal. Look."
Hunny took a step to the side, and behind him, on his belly on the pavement, was one of the boys we'd been fighting. The boy was dressed in beat up sneakers, tattered blue jeans, a faded t-shirt. His head was crushed. His face was laid out on the asphalt like a pancake, like it had been peeled back from his skull. The eyes were bugging out. Grey stu f squiggled out ofthe top ofhis head and there was a pool ofblack blood in the stones by the light pole. I gagged when I saw it.
“He came at me and I swung the bat and nailed him and I kept swinging and swinging and he fell over and I kept swinging," Hunny said.
I guessed the kid was about my age, but it was hard to tell. I forgot about the sirens and just stared at the mess in front of me.
“What do we do, Cal?" Hunny said.
Hunny's words banged around inside my head. I was hearing his voice. It was him standing there over this dead kid on the street. Something in my brain told me to block the thought that Hunny did this, that he even had the power inside him to do it. I wanted to send that thought the hell away, but it slid inside and I got a real sick feeling in my gut. I looked at him, but he was like some kind of demon now.
“What do we do?" Hunny said.
Hunny's face was strained. I mean, there was a strained expression on it that I'd never seen before. Deep lines I didn't even know he had started up around his nose and went down to the bottom of his chin.
“You really did a number on him," I said. I didn't know what else to say. I couldn't say much more, because I almost threw up, to tell the truth.
The sirens knifed through the air. They were a lot closer now. “What do we do, Cal?"
“I don't know," I said.
I turned away from the kid, and there was the bat in two pieces, broke just below the barrel. It was covered in blood.
“We better get rid of that."
“I don't wanna touch it, Cal."
I lurched over to it and picked it up. The blood on it was sticky and still a little warm. I slumped against the light pole. Hunny leaned over and walked toward the street, then turned on his heels, like he forgot something, and walked back toward me. I flinched. He stopped and just stood there.
“Cal, what do we do?"
“Let's get out of here," I said.
Hunny staggered back toward the street.
“Not that way," I said, “Head back down the alley. The street is gonna be full of cops any second. We got to find a different way home."
I tried going forward, but I staggered and pain ripped through my whole body. “Help," I said.
Hunny grabbed my arm put it around his shoulder and I leaned on him. I could feel the tight, hard muscles just below his neck. I could barely walk and he had to hold me up. We both started moving down
the alley, tripping and stumbling. Hunny was sni fling and every step I took hurt like hell. Pretty soon we were covered in the shadows. We moved like a couple of ghost brothers and from down there in the alley, we didn't know how to get home.
Previously Published in The Legendary