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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2008 - Vol. 5, Issue 4

"Mr. Tambouine Man"

written by

Erika Jahneke

He had what the balding white guy wanted, and he knew it.


Wasn't too many white guys in this neighborhood after dark, otherwise. This one had a woman with him, a girl, really. Young. Fresh young, blonde, pretty. Nothing had been near those veins. She was new enough looking that back in old Willie Johnson's day, even a businessman like Clayvon would have felt obligated to send her home and tell her to leave this shit to the hard-core fiends, and go back to smoking herb in her little pink bedroom, like on television.


She didn't even look like she did that. She looked like one of those Mormon girls, like her brother was one of those sad-looking motherfuckers Clayvon would see on his daily trips for some of that strong-ass coffee at the Quik-Stop--on their bikes, while he watched from his pride, his window-tinted Lexus. Once, out of some last wandering bit of Christian charity, he'd offered one of them a ride to wherever they wanted to go as he waited for his Coke to be filled. Boy looked at him like he had "Sin" lit up on a sign on his forehead. For some reason, it really hurt, and he was tempted to say something about it being stupid for a boy pedaling a Schwinn to judge a man in a Lexus, but he held his tongue. A man didn't get where he was in his business making trouble with citizens.


Around these parts, about half the five-ohs were Mormon too, and they stuck to the letter of the law like they wrote it, whether they were Narco or not. It pissed him off. A man oughta just stick to his job and not go around complicating it, trying to be fancy. His job was selling product and not letting the bodies drop, not letting the counts get short, and not pulling any burns. That was it. Beat police's job was just writing tickets, maybe making reports on stolen Schwinns, not making Van Buren clean. That shit was never gonna happen, even if times were getting hard at this particular moment.


This street had always had some kind of dirt on it. That's why he was gonna take Blondie's money if she offered it. His color didn't make him Montel Williams, after all. He didn't care about her sad story. Everybody had one, anyway. Even if she looked luscious, with a mouth he'd be seeing in his dreams, probably especially then, but that wasn't the kind of problem Clayvon Jones could fix. He wished he could see her eyes, but she was wearing those mirrored cop shades, which meant she was probably a real law-and-order freak, too. He'd do that, but still, it was another thing he hated to see in a woman so young. He liked a girl to have some room to fall and if she started at nineteen or twenty with the cuffs and shit, by the time she was thirty, like him, which, dag, he still couldn't quite believe it, being an old-timer and shit when so many of his boys'd been lost either to death or to jailing and weights in the exercise yard. But if the blonde bitch kept on like this, in a few years, she'd be a real freak show.


He was wrong about one thing, anyway. When Baldy told her to wait in his Audi, the finger gesture she shot him was not one favored by Latter-Day Saints, in his experience.


"Lydia, please," the man begged. If he wanted to look hard in front of his woman, better he left her in Scottsdale than letting her hang around, while Prince Viagra dickered with the disadvantaged. Lydia walked around in front of the car, making sure Clayvon got a good look at how fine she was, and then said "Hey," like she was a dead woman.


"What's up?" Baldy said, taking too long to say it, like most old white guys always did, but truth be told, he preferred that to the new, "down" breed of white boy that was a little too free with the word "nigger" for his personal taste. Was Tarentino started that shit, if Tarentino found himself in this part of town, that ugly fucker had better pray his power locks worked.


"Is that enough now?" the blonde said, only a little less bored with her "man" than some asshole she was doing business with and wasn't gonna see more than once.


That was a sad fucking statement, right there. She twirled like that bitch that turned the letters on television and said "I'm getting back in the car now. It's hot today." Seeing her from the back, where she was a treat of a white girl, Clayvon had to agree.


"Sure. Fine. Whatever." The guy said as his pocket made a sound like a fucking circus." I should take this. It could be long distance."


"You brought your cell to a felony? Jesus,Papi. here are no words for you, you know that?"


It was like she rode her wave of pissed off and irritated back inside the Audi, and sealed herself off with the tinted power windows.


"It's her time of the month." Pablo explained. "And the reception is actually crap inside the car. We must be close to a tower or something."


Clayvon nodded briefly.


Back to business. Baldy handed him ten dollars and Clayvon handed him a vial of rock. And incredibly, the bald guy didn't leave. Just sat there, staring at his shoes, weakassed and pathetic, looking at the vial like Clayvon's grandmoms had started to look at everything, like she'd seen that shit before, but she was damned if she knew what to do with it. From Grandmoms, it was sad, but it just irritated him that Baldy was sitting on the curb by the smelly Dumpster messing up his off- brand cotton Dockers and taking up a pharmaceutical salesman's valuable time.


Other businesses didn't work this was all the drive-up traffic. Too bad he'd have to be up the chain to take appointments. He wouldn't miss this shit at all, being somebody's urban experience.


"All right, then," Lydia shouted, more roughly than he might have expected from her sweet-looking pink mouth.


"Let's ask him."


She put her magazine back on the dash, but she still wore those tired shades.


Suddenly, he wanted to see her whole face like he wanted to hit it with another his life wouldn't mean anything if...but that was stupid. The smell of old piss and food coming from this alley told him what his life meant which was nothing and a half. Theirs too. Probably. He was just gonna have to let go of that shit. Period.


"It's your funeral," Baldy said and tried to act hilarious.


The blonde pressed a button and the Audi's power windows zipped down. There's a fuckin' switch.


"Excuse me - Can I ask you something"


He was struck, again, by how strongly her voice rang out when it looked like she'd whisper like a mouse. He had thought the bald guy was in the car but he must have gone off in search of the magical cell phone reception that would make him less of an old punk. Clayvon figured he'd be gone for a while, in that case.


"Ask me?" he repeated.


He tried to play it off like it didn't mean much if she did or not. "Sure, if it doesn't take too long. I've got to meet a man from the Coast in an hour."


He wished him trying to sound business didn't feel like Baldy being street. He felt like he was just standing there with his dick in his hand and he wanted to kick the shit out of the Audi's bumper.


It was hard to believe that Clayvon's calm nature got him the busy corner. He'd never felt less calm in his life. He sauntered over to the car again and found himself looking straight at her in the way he never looked at anyone during business hours, not even trying to be hard, but the look was ruined by his getting an eye-full of mirror.


"Don't tell me you decided to drop that zero and get yourself a hero, darling. I'll answer any fucking question you got if you let me see those pretty's more personal that way."


Lydia laughed, deep in her throat.


"Maybe I'm Indian," she teased.


"Maybe I think you'll steal my soul."


He paused.


"Was she cracking on him?"


Because he could see the veins in those pretty hands...the pretty unspoiled veins in the perfect hands. She did wear a bracelet with that blue stone in it that Indians seemed to like. Not that he met many of them since he didn't sell their poison.


He just nodded. It was weak, him getting whipped by some bitch he hadn't even hit it with yet, but he couldn't stop himself. Some blonde bitch, slumming, looking for her own little Kunta Kinte, but there was something about her.


That isn't what he'd tell his boys, though. In that story, she'd be the fiend, all desperate and shit from getting limp dick in the back of an Audi. He felt better just from making up that story and he wondered, just for a second, if that's how Spike Lee ever felt, if Spike got to be Spike because some white bitch looked at him sideways.


"When I walked past here, just now - you looked at me."


Oh, hell yes, he'd looked, uh huh. He'd had the expensive thought of giving Baldy his rock free, just to relive it. He hadn't really had that feeling since his girl put him out. "Yeah," he told her. "I might remember a little something about that."


"When you looked at me, were you just looking or were you looking at me?"


He stayed quiet. Thing was, he felt he really didn't know the difference, but he didn't want to look weak. Saying so, not knowing, that would do it.


Lydia heaved a gusty sigh. It made her sound like a horse, really not sexy. Clayvon found himself wishing Baldy and blondie would get the engine in that fancy Audi going and get the hell on with their business, let him get back to his own business, apply a little relief to the fears of some of his patrons, who might be feeling that the transaction was taking too long.


Lydia was feeling impatient, too, mumbling under her breath about "Boys and their toys" and looking at the spot on her wrist where her watch would've been.


"How long does it take to check your fucking messages?" she complained.


"Of course, for him, using our clock radio, he practically needs a schematic."


It seemed to Clayvon that he wasn't the only one embarrassed by the casual reminder that she and Baldy were a couple and sleeping together, and, like a fool, he was cheered by her sudden brief silence.


"So what do...excuse me, does that have to do with what you wanted to ask me?"


Lydia had lit herself a cigarette. She offered him the pack but he declined. That shit could kill you. He didn't touch very much that was mind-altering or that could affect his body, just the occasional liquor or herb in his younger days, and no pork. Not because he was Muslim, just for the discipline.


"It's like a bet," she explained.


"Pablo is older than me, and he goes crazy if people look at me at parties."


For a second, the dealer didn't remember that Baldy had a name and wondered who Pablo was.


"So, settle it for doesn't mean anything when you look at me, does it?"


She took off her motorcycle- cop glasses and her eyes were wide and blue enough that he could understand why those crackers back in the day tripped out behind somebody whistling at a white girl. Wasn't like she'd be worth dying for, but it could get close.


"What about your soul?" he asked, and his mouth was all dry and shit. Damn. Like a high school boy. Not that he ever went much past the first week, to show off his new clothes. He had another job to learn.


"It's ok," Lydia said, "If I was really using it, I wouldn't be hanging with Pablo. You know?"


"Yeah. I feel you. No offense."


"If I was the type that got offended, do you think I'd be here?"


He couldn't tell if it was teasing or outright disrespect and he felt the urge to make a fist. She must have seen that in his eyes because her whispered "Men!" was somewhere between a kiss and a curse.


"If he comes to this corner again, you won't tell him what we talked about, right?"


As if on cue, Pablo walked across the street. The closer he got to Clayvon, he tried to put some flavor in it, but the effect made him look retarded or something, and the dealer felt very lucky that Lydia's spicy smell and the look in her eyes distracted him from falling out laughing.


When she looked like she was begging him for something, Clayvon had to agree with Baldy. That look could definitely mean trouble for an unsuspecting man.


"How was the call, babe?" Lydia asked, after she startled, like a woman caught having a daydream.


"I didn't get through...I didn't count the time zones's two hours ahead to Chicago, not one."


He explained, mostly for Clayvon's benefit.


"That's too bad," Lydia said, like she was reading it.


"I'll get 'em on Monday. I always take care of my girl...what have you all been doing?"


"Clayvon's helping with our bet."


"You'll have to excuse me," he told her.


"The...what-do-you-call it, interpersonal, isn't really my area. I'm a businessman, miss." "I thought in your business you saw a little of everything."


Damn right, honey.


"It all looks the same to me."


"For Christ's sake," Baldy complained.


"You've been talking here for ten goddamn minutes. I told you we were gonna get in and get out."


His faint East Coast accent got thicker with his attempt to be "street" for the blonde.


"You're the one that had to show how 21st century you were, so you can just chill for one minute."


"That's gonna be written on my tombstone...he died because Lydia needed a minute."


"I'll make it worth your while," she said and shot Baldy a look of such meaning, Clayvon thought he would die from being jealous.


"That's what they all say." Baldy said, oblivious to Lydia scrabbling in her purse for a receipt and the nub of a pencil. Yeah. You heard that from both your spoiled yuppie motherfucker. Lydia wrote something on the tiny scrap and handed it to Clayvon. "What's this crap now?" Baldy barked, all pretense to cool forgotten as he looked behind him and sweated like there was a dragnet waiting just for him.


"Clayvon knows where all the good parties are." Lydia explained. "I slipped him my cell number so he'd take care of us."


Baldy grunted and Lydia put the cop glasses back on again. After they'd gone, he read the crumpled paper. "IOU: one soul. In spite of your job, I trust you to take care of this better than You Know Who. L."


Clayvon hoped he'd never see her again. Because she might not know it yet, but she wouldn't be pretty next time.

Erika Jahneke is a wheelchair user, novelist and crime-fiction fangirl who lives in Phoenix, but has left her heart in San Francisco and her spleen in Baltimore. She hopes for creative success or the chance to wash out the coffee cups in the writers' room at HBO. Other goals include congratulating a Senator for whom she voted, world peace, and the chance to direct. Feedback is her strongest addiction. Feed the craving at

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