Working Roots
by Andrew Vachss


Hard Looks #9 cover

Shawn knelt at the door to his tiny closet, worshipfully regarding a red shoebox. He slowly removed the lid and carefully removed his prize. Air Jordans, Nike's very best. The Rolls-Royce of sneakers, gleaming in pristine white with artful black accents. He turned one gently in his hands, admiring the intricate pattern of the soles, the huge padded tongue, the plastic window in the heel through which he could see the air cushions. No matter how closely he looked, Shawn could not find a single blemish to mar their perfection.

Almost two hundred dollars for a pair of sneakers. Granny would never understand. All they had to live on was her miserable little Disability check. If Granny wasn't able to make a little extra selling potions and charms to other people in the Projects, they wouldn't make it at all. It got harder and harder to sell her spells every year, Granny told him—younger people just didn't believe in the old ways.

Granny might not understand, Shawn knew, but she would never get mad at him. Old people were supposed to be mean, but Granny never was. She never punished him, even when he deserved it. Other kids got a whipping for nothing at all, sometimes. He'd heard them talk about it, at school.

Yeah, Granny was old, and she was kind of strange. And, sure, there was that back room, where he was never allowed to go. But she was always home, always had food for him. Always cared for him when he was sick or hurt. So maybe they didn't have a color TV like everyone else. Maybe he couldn't play Nintendo, couldn't have his friends over either. He had complained about the old lady's ways to his running partner Rufus one day.

"Shut up, fool!" Rufus replied.

Shawn saw the pain in his best friend's eyes—he felt ashamed again.

Granny never got drunk, didn't take drugs, didn't have strange men living with her, different ones all the time. Rufus was right.

Andrew Vachss in his 8-Ball jacket


"That mope, he think he bad, doin' the strut like that?" Shawn said.

"Brother, he be bad. That is Marcus Brown, man. You see that jacket? Cost you a thousand damn dollars, you buy it in a store."

"So what'd he do, rip it off someone?"

"You don't know 'bout that jacket? That jacket famous, man. Marcus, he roll up on this boy from the Jefferson Houses, throw down on him, point the piece in his face. Marcus, he don't go nowhere without his nine. Marcus say, give up the jacket. This boy, he don't play that ... worked his butt off for that jacket, he ain't givin' it up. Marcus, he just squeezes one off. Right in the boy's chest. Ices him right in front of everybody. You look at that jacket close, you see a hole right over the heart. Bullet hole, man. Marcus, he one cold dude. Got everybody's respect."

"He don't have mine," Shawn said, his voice laced with bitterness. Marcus wouldn't worry about wearing his fresh sneakers on the street.


Shawn had worked for his special sneakers. Worked hard. There was easy money to be made around the Projects, inside and out. The drug dealers were always looking for new runners, the numbers man could always use a smart kid who could keep records in his head. Stealing and hustling were a way of life ... sometimes a way of death, too. Shawn didn't touch any of that. All summer long, he had worked ... hauling the monster bundles of newspapers the trucks dropped on the streets at dawn to the individual newsstands. Afternoons, he helped out in a car wash. He didn't spend his money, although the temptations were great.... Shawn was fifteen.

Now it was September, and school was starting. Shawn bought his own clothes this year, with the money he'd earned. Granny was proud of him for that, but she didn't know about the sneakers.

When he'd gotten his first money from the newspaper driver, he bought Granny a gold necklace. Twenty dollars, the young man in the long black coat told him ... for gen-u-ine eighteen-karat gold. Shawn thought how pretty it would look on Granny. He showed it to Rufus, but his friend said it wasn't gold at all.

"You been hustled, chump. That ain't nothin' but brass ... turn green right around your neck."

Shawn gave the necklace to Granny anyway. But because he had been taught not to lie, he told her what Rufus had said.

"Sometimes, people believe thinkin' the worst means they smart. It ain't always so, son," Granny told him. And she told him the necklace was real gold too. Gave him one of her dry kisses.

She always wore the necklace. And it never turned green.

Shawn couldn't really remember a time when he hadn't been with Granny. He knew his mother was dead, killed in a drive-by shooting while she was standing on the corner, just talking with a friend. They never caught the night riders who so casually blew her away. The police told Granny the shooters were really trying for a dope dealer standing on the same corner, like that would comfort her.

There was an "Unk" written in the space for his father's name on his birth certificate. Rufus explained that to him.

"Jus' means yo' momma didn't tell them yo' daddy's name at the hospital, that's all."

"Why wouldn't she tell them?"

"'Cause the Welfare go after him for the support money, see?"

Shawn nodded like he understood, but he was confused. Granny didn't collect Welfare—her Government money came from working all her life. As a maid. In Louisiana, where she was from. Where his Momma was from too, she told him. But Momma had come north when she was only a young girl.

"Came for the party, stayed for the funeral," Granny told him.

Sometimes, people would come to the apartment to see Granny when they had a problem. A lover who jilted them, a job they were hoping to get ... stuff like that. Granny always seemed to know what they wanted before they even asked. She would speak a foreign language while she was working ... sort of like French, Shawn thought, but he couldn't tell for sure. He knew it wasn't Spanish—he heard that every day in school and this wasn't the same. And she worked with roots. Special roots she got from someplace. Dried old things, all twisted and ugly. But Granny could make things happen with them, folks said. Some folks, anyway.

Other folks, they said she was crazy.

School was tomorrow, and Shawn couldn't decide. His beloved sneakers wouldn't change his status sitting in his closet, but if he wore them outside ... there was a risk. The Projects were full of roving ratpack gangs. They'd take your best clothes in a second, leave you bleeding on the ground if you tried to stop them. School was close by, but it was a long, long walk.

"I'm going downstairs to hang out, Granny. You want anything from the store?"

"No, son. Just watch out for yourself, hear?"

"Yes ma'am."

Shawn took the stairs. It was only seven flights, and the elevator scared him. You got trapped in one of the cars, there was no place to go.

He spotted Mr. Bart on the third floor landing. Mr. Bart was a monster of a man, over six and a half feet tall, more than three hundred pounds of muscle. But his mind wasn't right and he could be vicious, rip your head off with one hand, easy as pie. He could never catch anyone, though—his legs didn't work. Mr. Bart supported his huge body with a steel cage that went from his waist all the way to the ground. It had four rubber legs, like a walker. The hospital had to make it up special for him. Mr. Bart would pick it up, stick his arms straight out, slam it down, then swing his legs forward, supporting all his weight on his massive forearms. His hands were the size of telephone books ... the Yellow Pages. You could hear him coming a mile away ... like an elephant thumping.

"Good evening, Mr. Bart," Shawn called out.

"My money!" the giant grunted, touching a leather bag he had looped over a hook on the front of his walker.

"Sure is, Mr. Bart. Your money."

The monster smiled. Kids were always snatching his little bag, just to be doing it, show how brave they were flirting with disaster. They would grab the bag and run, stand down the corridor and empty it of its few coins, then drop the bag and run away. Mr. Bart could never catch them.

He would thump over and drop himself on the floor to pick up his leather bag. Then he'd pull himself upright again, making horrible noises.

Everybody said if he ever caught one of those kids, he'd pull them apart like wet Kleenex.

Shawn hit the front steps running, spotted Rufus across the street and waved.

"What's up, home?" Rufus greeted him.

"You know."

"Yeah, you still fussin' about them shoes, wearin' 'em to school tomorrow?"

"Yeah."

"You got to do it, homeboy. The ladies ain't goin' to see what you worked so hard for they be sittin' in your house, right?"

"Right."

They exchanged a high five, Shawn drawing strength from his friend. A young man of about nineteen turned the corner, wearing a multicolored leather 8-Ball jacket, black leather sneakers on his feet displaying the distinctive red ball for Reebok Pumps. He hard-eyed the two friends, then dismissed them with a sneer, moving away in a shambling, practiced mugger's gait.

"That mope, he think he bad, doin' the strut like that?" Shawn said.

"Brother, he be bad. That is Marcus Brown, man. You see that jacket? Cost you a thousand damn dollars, you buy it in a store."

"So what'd he do, rip it off someone?"

"You don't know 'bout that jacket? That jacket famous, man. Marcus, he roll up on this boy from the Jefferson Houses, throw down on him, point the piece in his face. Marcus, he don't go nowhere without his nine. Marcus say, give up the jacket. This boy, he don't play that ... worked his butt off for that jacket, he ain't givin' it up. Marcus, he just squeezes one off. Right in the boy's chest. Ices him right in front of everybody. You look at that jacket close, you see a hole right over the heart. Bullet hole, man. Marcus, he one cold dude. Got everybody's respect."

"He don't have mine," Shawn said, his voice laced with bitterness. Marcus wouldn't worry about wearing his fresh sneakers on the street.

That night, Shawn couldn't sleep. He got up and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Granny was there, cooking something in a big black cast iron pot she brought with her from down home.

"What troublin' you, son?"

It took a long time, but Shawn finally told her about the sneakers. Granny sat at the kitchen table, watching the love of her life struggle with more weight than he could carry.

"What do I do, Granny?"

The old woman looked around the kitchen, brought her eyes back to rest on Shawn. "Go get them shoes for me."

Shawn brought the shoebox into the kitchen. Slowly took out his prizes, laid them on the table like an offering on an altar. Granny held one in each hand, eyes closed. Words came out of her, but her mouth never moved. Then her eyes snapped open, but they looked someplace else. Some other place. Shawn didn't move. Finally, Granny focused on her child.

"Shawn, here is what be. What be the truth. The spirits can't protect things, you understand? Ain't nothing they can do, keep those special shoes on your feet. But I got a spell ... an old, old spell that I never used in all my life. What it can do is make those shoes do good, you see?"

"No, Gran."

"I can't swear you keep the shoes on your feet, but, with this spell, whoever wear the shoes got to do the right thing, or..."

"So if somebody take them...?"

"Somebody take them, he have to walk right the rest of his days. Like when you run off from a chain gang ... no point in running off to live bad. They just catch you for whatever bad you doin' and back you go, understand? There's crimes that have to change a man. If the man don't change, he got to answer."

"Okay, Granny."

"Don't you 'okay' me, boy. The knowledge I give you is the oldest knowledge in the world. You don't obey, you have to pay."

Shawn nodded, waiting.

"Now look here, boy. You know, I charges people for my spells, don't you? That's the rules. It don't necessarily got to be money, but it has to cost somethin'. Now what this spell costs you is this ... no fighting. You hear me talkin' to you? No fighting. Somebody try to take your precious shoes, you let them go. After while, they come back to you ... one way or the other."

"I promise, Gran."

Shawn gave his Granny a kiss and went to bed, too excited to really sleep.

It took him forever to dress in the morning. He tiptoed down the stairs, watching each step carefully, maintaining the perfect newness of his sneakers as long as he could.

Mr. Bart was standing on the first floor, right near the front desk, watching. Shawn waved good morning to him. The monster waved back, not saying a word.

Rufus met him on the front steps, sporting a new lime-green leather jacket, his chest out like a peacock.

"That jacket is boss stoopid, Rufe."

"Thanks, homeboy. Those your new shoes, huh? Righteous!"

The two friends walked to school together. And, for one bright shining day, the whole summer's labor seemed well worth it to Shawn. Especially when Taineesha told him how much he'd grown since last year ... he was taller than her now.

As they turned the corner to the Projects, Marcus stepped out to block their path. He had two of his boys with him, but they were just there to watch. They all watched ... watched the black nine-millimeter automatic in his hand.

"Give it up," is all Marcus said.

Shawn put his hand in his pocket, brought out the fifty dollars he'd taken to school to impress everyone, wishing he hadn't. Rufus handed over his dough too.

"The jacket too, punk!"

Hot tears shot into Rufus's eyes, but he slowly took off the lime-green jacket and dropped it on the ground. One of Marcus's boys picked it up.

"Those look about my size," Marcus said, pointing his gun at the ground.

Shawn felt a stabbing pain in his chest as he bent to unlace his sneakers. When he let himself look up, they were gone.

Rufus went home. Shawn walked the rest of the way through the lobby in his stocking feet. Some of the older residents looked sad for him—he wasn't the first shoeless boy to walk home past them.

It was another two days before they saw Marcus again. Marcus wearing Shawn's sneakers, lounging against a streetlight pole.

"You got somethin' to say to me?" he snarled at Shawn.

Shawn and Rufus walked by, heads down.

"Maybe you gonna tell your crazy old lady, huh? Have her work some roots on me?" Marcus collapsed into laughter, his boys joining in.

Shawn and Rufus separated at the Projects door.

"I know where I can get a piece," Rufus whispered.

"No."

"No? We don't do somethin', we don't have nothin', right? Whatever we got, Marcus gonna take sooner or later."

"It'll be okay."

"You sure?"

"Sure."

"How you know?"

"I just know, Rufe."

Friday night there was a dance in the rec room. Shawn took a long time to dress ... Chanel had told Rufus that Taineesha told her she was coming and she hoped Shawn would be there.

Everybody was there, even Mr. Bart, standing in a corner, his mountainous body moving to the music. Shawn danced with Taineesha and he didn't really miss his sneakers.

It was late when Marcus walked in with his boys. Wearing his lifetaker's jacket and Shawn's sneakers. Everyone stepped aside to give him room. Shawn prayed he wouldn't try to grab at Taineesha—he knew he couldn't keep his promise to Granny then.

The DJ was taking a break. The floor was cleared. People walked in a wide circle around the perimeter, visiting. Marcus made the circle too.

Everyone he approached turned away from him. Nobody gave him back his smile, nobody responded to his challenges.

It was midnight when Marcus sauntered over to where Mr. Bart was standing. With a cobra-quick move, Marcus snatched the monster's leather bag and stepped away. He upended the bag, coins spilling out onto the floor. Nobody moved.

Mr. Bart picked up his walker, shifted it forward, slammed it down, advancing on Marcus.

Marcus grinned.

Another lift, another slam, another few inches.

"I ain't got all night for this lame to make his move. Let's book."

Marcus signaled to his boys and stepped to make his exit. His foot came slowly, agonizingly off the floor, like he was pulling it from quicksand.

Another thump as Mr. Bart slammed his walker forward. Marcus pulled out his pistol and leaped forward. Heavy, ropy roots sprang from the soles of his sneakers into the floor itself. The gun went sailing into the distance as somebody in the crowd screamed.

Marcus fell to his knees, grasping for a claw hold on the floor.

Another thump, and the giant's shadow fell closer.

The rec room emptied, people walking out quietly, steadily. Nobody looked back.

The last thing Shawn heard was Marcus screaming ... and the thump of Mr. Bart's walker.

 

© 1994 Andrew Vachss. All Rights Reserved.

"Working Roots" appears in Born Bad, a collection of Andrew Vachss' short stories published by Vintage Books.