by Martin Ott
The first block Max felt nothing but guilt, his arms pumping like pistons, feet pounding, lungs burning, wishing he hadn’t left Dario’s toolbox outside where it could be plucked by anyone with a devious nature and a good pair of wire cutters. Beside him, Dario cursed in Spanish that would have sent his mother to confession, rosary in hand. In front of them, the thief streaked down the poorly paved street, red toolbox bouncing against his thighs, his shaved head rocking like a metronome.
“Stop thief!” Max yelled to the overcast dusk blanketing Hunter’s Point, embarrassed he sounded like a flat foot from a ‘70s detective show.
The second block seemed to take forever as they hit the base of a steep San Francisco rise, each upward stride as long as the silence between outbursts when he and his ex-girlfriend Beth fought. As they gained altitude, the closed Naval Base jutted into view alongside Dario’s rented lot—the tin warehouse where they cranked out counterfeit South Park and The Simpsons t-shirts, the abandoned school bus where Dario let Max stay for free after he got kicked out of his Mission flat, and the gray expanse of asphalt in between. Dario’s curses turned to coughs and wheezes up the sharp incline. Max’s bike messenger’s calves screamed as he pulled even with Dario, the thief stepping off into a bank of fog over the crest. Max followed with a childish fear the sky would open up and swallow him whole.
The third block was like a gunshot in the air above a New Year’s crowd, wild and impetuous, Max’s feet slapping the poorly paved down slope as they closed the gap. It reminded him of what he loved best about cycling in and out of traffic, the rush and blare of horns kicking you into a steady buzz of adrenaline and escape. Beth had always liked that he was reckless. Dario, too, egged him on, screaming, “Push it, Max” as the kid began to tire, shifting the mechanic’s box to his left arm and stumbling, losing ground.
The fourth block Max felt a sharp pain in his side, but he’d gotten used to discomfort—sleeping in a drafty bus on a single mattress, with a circular hole by the emergency door he used to relieve himself when he was too tired to make his way to the bathroom in the shed. Shivering alone at night he found himself drawn to the hard metal shell of the bus and the magnetic attraction for all things cold and hard: sheet metal walls, razors, bullets in the guns that fired off in the distance, beckoning him to follow their flight.
The fifth block they were almost on the thief’s heels as they neared the bottom of the hill ending in a cul-de-sac. Dario whooped, but Max felt a vague dread, like during nightly calls with Beth when she gave him an update on the creature in her belly that had grown steadily to resemble, in no particular order: a nut, a reptile, a rat, a chicken, a mutant wiggling in ultrasound, each stage prompting her to comment, “He reminds me of you, Max.” The boy lowered his head and lumbered down the driveway to a three-story housing project, one Dario and Max had often talked about, but had never gotten close to before.
Dario sprinted ahead like a man possessed, narrowing the gap. Max felt an overwhelming urge to hightail it out of there, every muscle in his body rebelling against the weakening signals from his brain. But, as he’d recently discovered, some memories refused to remain safely stored in a closet, like a well-worn pair of tennis shoes that would never again handle a fast sprint or a dime turn.
On the yellow lawn of the housing project, the thief braked before Dario could jump him. He held out his arms and dropped the toolbox onto the sidewalk, saying, “Whoa, cool it.”
Dario bent over double, heaving for air. Max felt suddenly cold. Long shadows had sprung up out of nowhere, the sun dipping behind the hilltop. Max looked up at the stairwells and windows of the cement complex. Their voices had drawn people to their doorways. They looked down with a cold expression that reminded Max of his own father—a stranger’s mistrust. He wanted badly to escape, but he was tired of running and had learned the hard way as a kid to be stoic, no matter the danger.
“What’re you waiting for? Take the damn thing back, if it’s so important,” the thief said, throwing up his hands.
“Damn right I will,” Dario said. “What did you think you were doing? I work for my money, asshole.”
Dario walked up face-to-face with the backing kid. “You have some kinda nerve.” Max saw shadows skirt along the stairwell down toward the courtyard. “I came to this shitty neighborhood because the rent was low.” A group started to form at the foot of the building stairwell. “But not nearly as low as the neighbors.” A murmuring of angry voices.
“Come on, Dario, let’s get out of here,” Max said, even though he didn’t have the slightest fear for his own safety. Still, it felt like life or death inside his chest.
“Not until this shit says he’s sorry,” Dario demanded.
The kid’s eyes darted around the courtyard, trying to figure out how to save face. Max recognized the look; it was the same expression he saw every morning while brushing his teeth in the tool shed—tunnel eyes set on oblivion. Beneath, Max could tell the kid wanted to bolt every bit as much as he had run from Beth or his mom had from his father.
“What’s it going to be?” Dario growled.
But there are some things you can’t flee from. Hide from. Ignore. Max stepped forward and yelled “Hey,” and as Dario turned, Max hit his friend in the solar plexus with a stiff undercut. Dario staggered and fell on his ass in the brown grass, his mouth small and gasping. The thief darted off around the corner of the building and several onlookers broke out in laughter. “Crazy white boy,” one said, but Max felt incredibly sane. He picked up the toolbox with one hand and helped Dario to his feet with the other. For once, his friend was at a loss for words.
He rested his hand on Dario’s shoulder and guided him up the incline toward home. The only way to help his friend had been to hurt him. He looked at his knuckles, bruised from a recent fall from his bike. Be tough, never cry, the manly voice was still there in his ear. And yet, he ached. Inside. From how much he would injure Beth with this unspoken confession: I’m afraid I’ll harm my son like my father hurt me.
As they reached the hilltop, Dario started to swear softly under his breath. Max figured it was a good sign—his friend’s pride was bruised worse than his ribs, but at least he was alive. Finally, Dario got back his wind and started laying into Max, saying, in no particular order: “You’re a nut, a rat, a chicken, a reptile, a mutant no one wants around.”
The sun sank lower into the ocean’s belly and Max shivered in the breeze atop Hunter’s Point, staring at the breakers for a sail cutting through the fog or anything solid in the murk. From the top of the rise, above the thieves and con men, he almost felt as though he could reach through the cloud bank with trembling hands and cradle a rising moon as faraway and magnetic as a newborn son.
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