Authors: Don Aker
The First Stone
For my wife,
who always makes the blank page bearable.
I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.
“The Death of the Hired Man”
“C'mon, Reef! Let âer fly!”
“Yeah, man! Toss'er!”
Reef felt the weight in his hand. Hefted it. Saw in his mind's eye the smooth arc it would make when he launched it out over the busy highway below them. Saw, as well, the ripple of expressions on the faces of the drivers, who would react first with startled surprise, then fear, then anger. He knew that tangle of emotions well, the sudden transformation from shock to stormy outrage that left you weak and hollow inside, like those Hallowe'en pumpkins that little kids still carved. He and the others had stolen pumpkins last October and thrown them off the Everett Street overpass. He remembered the orange explosions they'd made as they hit the highway, the slash of meaty pulp crushed and dragged along by sliding, squealing tires. He grinned. Leaned back. Wound up for the throw.
Jink grabbed his shoulder a split second before his arm shot forward. “Cool it, Reef!”
“Yeah,” hissed Bigger. “Cops!”
A white Metro Police car pulled out of Carver Avenue and cruised down Birmingham on a course that would take it under the Park Street overpass on which they stood. They waited motionless, watching the white car move toward them, then flash its turn signal and pull over to the curb. They could see the patrolman behind the wheel take a microphone from the dash, hold it to his mouth and begin talking, all the while looking up at the three teenagers standing by the metal railing that kept vehicles and pedestrians from falling into the traffic below.
Reef swore. Pocketing the rock in his leather jacket, he muttered, “Be another one âlong in a minute. Let's get outta here.”
He and the others cut across to the other side of the overpass where the cop couldn't see them, then loped northward up Park Street. From below, the cop wouldn't know which direction they'd gone, or even if they'd left the overpass at all, but they kept jogging anyway till they'd made it to Patterson, cutting through the empty lot between Fishman's Mini-Mart and yet another used CD store. This one didn't even have a sign up yet. Not that it matteredâit wouldn't last any longer than the one before it.
By the time they got to The Pit, they'd slowed to a walk, sharing swallows from the bottle they'd snagged earlier off a bum on Wickham. Bigger had been worried they'd catch some kind of disease, but Reef and Jinkhad laughed at him, called him an old woman, shamed him into taking the first gulp. The rum had burned their throats, but it took the edge off their rancor and putâas Reef's grandmother used to sayâ”a bit of a glitter” on what otherwise had been a lousy day.
For a moment, Reef could almost hear her voice in his head. Coming from a woman who'd never swallowed a drop of alcohol in her life, those words had always been funny. He tried now to think of the last time he'd seen Nan alive, but the image of her lying in the cheapest casket Proule's Funeral Home offered eclipsed his other memories of her. She'd been wearing the black dress she had bought two years earlier at Zellers, the only dress he'd ever seen her buy new. Even at 70 percent off on the Final Clearance rack, it had been an extravagance, but she'd needed something to wear to her husband's funeral. He remembered how Nan had wept quietly all through the service. Reef had just been glad to see the son of a bitch laid out.
He drained the bottle, then drove it into the alley between The Pit and Wade's Laundry. Miraculously, it bounced twice before shattering, the combination of sounds boomeranging between the brick buildings. No one came out to investigate. Lou Wade had learned the hard way that it was bad for business to worry about what went on in the abandoned building next doorâthat fires had a habit of starting next to his laundry's ventilation stack after police showed up at The Pit.
Owners of the few other remaining businesses on the street knew too. Knew that the decaying eyesore once known as the Patterson Hotel was off limits to prying eyes and wagging tongues. No one called the police any more. And the few times they came by on their own, they just flashed their light and doo-wopped the siren a couple times to scare kids off. Not that it worked, but it allowed everyone to pretend it did.
They sidestepped a mangled grocery cart, a rusted hubcap, the remains of a child's stroller, and climbed the crumbling stone steps to what had once been the main entrance of the hotel. Gone were the ornately carved double doors and leaded glass windows that had adorned the original threshold. In their place were battered, graffiti-covered sheets of plywood nailed over the entryway, and similar sheets covered most of the basement and first-floor windows. To discourage people even further, someone had spray-painted “DANGER! KEEP OUT!” in fluorescent orange letters across the plywood that blocked the doorway, but some joker had altered it so it now read “DANGER! KEEP PARTYING!” It was clear from the broken bottles littering the steps that the hotel's newest tenants were following this instruction to the letter. It was also clear that city maintenance workers had given up the notion of ever keeping the building's steps and walkway clear of debris, resigning themselves instead to the task of keeping it from overflowing into the street.
His head now fuzzy from the rum, Reef stumbled as he climbed the steps, banging his knee on the worn stone and cursing. Bigger began to laugh, but Jink shot him a look that shut him up, and he coughed twice instead. At the top of the steps, Reef tugged at the bottom left corner of the “KEEP PARTYING!” plywood, easing it far enough away from the door frame to allow Bigger and Jink to slip inside. They, in turn, pushed against; it from the inside, enabling Reef to enter easily. There was a time, Reef remembered, when they used to climb the rickety fire escape and crawl through one of the second-floor windows at the back. Now it didn't matter who saw them. The Pit was theirs.
Bigger belched, the sound a long, hollow gargle that seemed to come from his toes. “Gotta take a leak,” he said.
“So do I,” offered Jink.
Reef's back teeth were floating too, and all three turned toward the rear of the building. Although the plywood on the windows darkened the first floor, they made their way easily through the gloom. They knew The Pit so well they could find their way through it blindfoldedâand they had one afternoon when they'd all been bored.
Lately, the hotel had really begun to show its age. Huge chunks of plaster, weakened from rain that seeped through the roof and blew through paneless upper windows, had begun to let go. The latest, the size of a small driveway, had fallen on the second floorthe week before last. Zeus Williams had been lying under it when it came down, but he'd been so stoned he hadn't realized what had happened till he'd regained consciousness in the hospital. The paramedics who'd pulled him out said it would have killed a normal person, but Zeusâwho'd never wasted time worrying about being normalâjust laughed. The city, of course, reacted true to form: within hours, a building inspector had tacked up four additional “THIS SITE CONDEMNED” signs, one on each side of the building. They didn't last long, though. In fact, Bigger stuck one on the end of Zeus's emergency room bed that same day. The nurses weren't amused, but Reef and Jink laughed like hyenas until Security came and escorted all three of them out.
The Pit was built on a hill that sloped down toward the harbor, so the rear of the building's first floor hung a story above an alleyway even narrower than the one that ran alongside the building. In the days of the hotel's operation, this alleyâbarely wide enough to accommodate a dumpsterâhad served only to park delivery vehicles and to dispose of garbage. The only first-floor rooms with windows facing the rear had probably been used as officesâno paying customer would have appreciated that view. One of these first-floor windows lacked its customary plywood curtain, and it was toward this window that Reef, Jink and Bigger headed.
Standing in front of it, they unzipped their jeans and relieved themselves, sending three yellow arcs into the alley.
“Yes!” Bigger yelled. Months ago, some clown had painted a crude target on the asphalt below, and Bigger invariably scored a bullseye. Today was no exception.
Reef and Jink grinned. Bigger sure had the height advantage when it came to trajectory. They'd long ago accepted the fact that their huge friend was stronger and more agile than they were. Than anyone they knew, in fact, including Bigger's own brother, Kirk. Three years older, and recently laid off from the shipyards, Kirk Ellis was a massive guy who could bench-press 250 pounds without breaking a sweat. But even he was dwarfed by Bigger, and people had referred to the younger Ellis brother as “the bigger one” for so long that few of them used his real name, Bobby.
suited him better, anyway.
When they'd finished and zipped up, Reef patted his jacket for his smokes and lighter and his fingers found the rock he hadn't thrown. Annoyance at having been interrupted by the police flickered through him: he hated seeing a good rock go to waste. He pulled a pack of Rothmans from his other pocket and tapped out a cigarette, then offered one to each of his friends. All three lit up, then made their way to the staircase behind the lobby, Reef in the lead.
No one else was in The Pit, which wasn't unusual.
The warm June day wasn't forcing anyone inside, and it was far too early for a crack party. Later, though, the place would be jumping.
Their footsteps echoed hollowly as they climbed the stairs. Bypassing the lower floors, they stepped out of the fifth-floor landing and crossed to the west-facing rooms at the front of the building. The afternoon sun pierced the interior shadows, flooding what had once been the Presidential Suite with yellow light. This was Reef's favorite place. Two stories above the surrounding flat rooftops, the Presidential Suite on sunny days made him feel like he was standing on a huge stage washed by spotlights, the city stretching before him like an expectant audience.