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Just a Passageway

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Carver sighs as he gets out of his car, having eyeballed the street from all his mirrors before making a move. The bright sun washes the street and kills most of the shadows in the alley, and so he slams the squad car door, hard, to make sure it really closes, then climbs the white stoop to ring the bell.

“Who is it?” a gentle voice inquires, muffled by the heavy door.

“Sergeant Carver, Ma’am, about your report of a stolen car?” He shifts his weight and attempts to peer through the lace curtains, then hears the sound of deadbolt and door, which eases open. Behind it is a woman's soft lined face framed by curly hair of a nondescript gray, clinging to her round head like a wispy cloud. Her worried eyes brighten as she smiles and opens the door.

“Come in, officer, please come in. Can I get you some coffee?”

He steps into the hallway, taking in the worn rug, shelf of figurines, the family photos fading in their dollar store frames. A mix of soup, air freshener and cat perfumes the house. “No thank you, Miz Hammond.” He follows her to the sitting room and perches on the edge of the overstuffed sofa, suspecting it would swallow him if he sat back. He’s been trained to avoid the indignity, not to mention the danger, of struggling to escape the comfy chair.

“So, can you tell me about your stolen car, and how it happened?”

She sits opposite him, primly smoothing her skirt over her knees. As she relaxes into her chair, a cat appears and claims her lap. “My grand-nephew came by about two week ago, told me he had got himself a fine car, one of them big Marquis like a nice taxi, you know, and could he keep it here? I gots the space, see, and he lives... well, I don’t know. I think he livin’ wit his girlfriend most of the time. So I said yes, Bodie dear, but first I have to tell Reginald to clear out his stuff, see I been letting that poor soul keep his cart and things in my garage; what do I need with a garage, any how?”

Carver looks up abruptly from his notes. “Bodie, your nephew, is his given name Preston Broadus?”

“Yes, officer, that is my sister’s grandson. She’s taken ill, you know, and can’t get out much, her block so bad, you know. Why just the other day there were...”

He feels uneasy now, knowing this is not a simple car theft from a helpless senior. He doesn’t want to alarm her, so he returns to taking notes, and then looks up, prompting her back to the pertinent details.

“And when did you last see the car, ma’am?”

“Well, we had to wait for Reginald to come by so that he and Bodie would organize things. I hadn’t been out there for years so I didn’t know how what that boy had out there. By the time I walked out to the garage, Bodie was hollerin’ at him, calling him ‘Bubbles’, and tellin' him to get his stuff off of my property, ‘ceptin he used a filthier word, and so I had to go out there and get them boys to calm down and talk to one another proper.”

Carver sighs. Bubbles? Could it really be Kima’s CI? Bubbles and Bodie, this couldn’t be good. He mentally adjusts his schedule for the day.

“Mrs. Hammond, who is this Reginald that you’re talking about? Is he a skinny man with twisted hair, who sells t-shirts, hats and such?”

Yes, that’s right. Sweet boy, but not quite right, I think. Takes a drink, if you know what I mean. Needs to find the Lord, if you ask me.”

“Yes ma’am. So tell me what happened when your nephew confronted Reginald, about the garage?”

She adjusts her glasses and looked toward the kitchen, obviously drawing up memory. He waits. And worries.

“Well, I marched them boys up here and made them sit down and talk civil to one another. And get them to make a plan, so then they was going to clean up out there together, so there could be room for the car and Reginald’s things, and that’s when Reginald he see the car is gone. They done stole it in the bright light of day! I’ll be blessed, Officer, what has it come to these days?”

“And what happened then, Ma’am?” his pen is poised over his notepad, ink drying from inactivity.

“Bodie he go all crazy then, and start yelling and then he wavin’ a gun around, and I was shocked, my sister’s grandbaby with a big old pistol like some gang banger. And then he runs off yellin’ about some ...boy... he use that nasty word … name of Marlo or somthin'. Those boys aught to have some respect for what we up and did with Dr. King, God rest his soul.”

She catches Carver’s eye, and refocuses. “And he ran off, down the alley, just like that. I haven’t seen that boy since, and he overdue to come round here and cut the grass, I tell you.”

“So then I asked Reginald what he was going to do wit his things, and he cryin', then, just like a little boy, so's I give him a hug and tol’ him it was fine to leave his baskets in my garage, I don’ mind, and he’s tellin' me that he sleeps there now and then cause he ain't got no place to call home, and all I can think is that poor boy, but by now you know, I am all tarred out, I tell you, but Reg... Bubbs, he likes to be called, helps me up to the house. I make him some sandwiches, and give him some pillows and such, but I can’t have him in my house, not really Officer, I’m sorry, but he … it just wouldn’t be right, you know, I feel for him but the garage be the best I can do, you understand.”

“Of course, Mrs. Hammond, but can you recall anything else about the car?”

She seems not to hear him and launches in. “Well, after that, Bubbs he starts takin' care of the grass, you know, because Bodie he don’t come around, not for a long time now. So he helpin' me with the garden, real nice like, pullin' up weeds and such, and he even comes up with a new spade for me. Lord knows where he come by that, for sure. I see he tryin’ real hard to work like normal and all. So I try to pay him a little for workin’ and get him over to that church, you know the one where they feed these boys, and help 'em find a place to live and all. But he don’t like it much there.”

Carver suppresses a yawn, now working to stay awake. “Ma’am, have you got that coffee?” He’s beginning to regret giving into his urge this morning to visit the ‘hood and see how things were on the streets. Truth be told, Carver has been getting fatter sitting behind a desk, and sprouting a grey hair or two solving the mix-ups and squabbles of his officers. But as along as he’s here, he’s going to listen to this lady and see if there is anything he can do for her. The car really isn’t the issue, he’s beginning to realize. She could get caught up in some banger’s feud over this shit, and he sure as hell is going to see to it that doesn’t happen, not on his watch.

Mrs. Hammond heads for the kitchen and he listens to her fixing coffee and reviews what he’s learned. One: Bodie’s acquired a car, most likely to pay a debt, or stolen a car, since he needs to hide it. Two: Someone is after him, probably tailing him, and that isn’t just about a car, he’s pretty sure. And Three: he’s been missing in action, at least from his great aunt’s, for two weeks. Not good.

Carver holds a certain respect for Bodie, admiring his stubborn loyalty to his old Barksdale team. The young man has a certain street integrity, and Carver wonders if he can’t find a way to get Broadus’ help on some higher-level investigation. So far, though, all Bodie has given him is spit.

Ellis gets up and heads to the kitchen. Mrs. Hammond is loading mugs of coffee on a tray that holds cream, sugar,and cookies as well. He smiles at her. ”You didn't have to go to all this trouble. But thank you.” She cannot restrain a smile, but she tries to hide it.

“You boys work so hard, it’s the least I can do.”

Stirring sugar into his mug as he looks out the kitchen window, Carver asks her, “When could I talk to this Bubbles guy? Is he here now?” He catches her with a bite of cookie and waits for her to swallow. She dabs her lips with a napkin. “I’m not sure, you can check, but he mostly come back late, after pushin' that cart all over town. Unless we got plans for some garden work. Last Saturday, he help me put in a new rose bush.And wait til you hear this, Officer Carver!”

As long as he is enduring another tangential story, he may as well have cookie.

“We is drivin' along to the garden center, and there, bold as brass, is some girl drivin’ Bodie’s car! Right here in our own neighborhood, they is drivin' it around, I can’t believe it. Reginald, he see it, too, and I get so mad I try to chase her and he is telling me, ‘no, slow down Miz Hammond, you don' want to get messin' with them people’ and he sound upset, but then that car, I know it be the one, I remember it good, 'cause it had this dent just so, and those funny orange license plates with a barn on it. But I can't see where she went, and so I all mad and such, and drive us to that po-leese station, you know the little old one over by Druid Hill? And I storm in there and I’m ready to make a scene, I tell you, I am right ready to tell some po-leese what for, imagine just lettin these thieves drive our stolen cars around RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES...”

Carver struggles to keep an earnest look on his face as he imagines the portly Miz Hammond all steamed up, taking the officer on duty to task. It’s really important that he does not smile right now, he knows this. Really important.

“Just then, Reg... Bubbs starts to laugh, he’s LAUGHING AT ME cuz I’m carryin’ on just like my momma used to do, and I am about to smack him one, how dare he laugh about this, this bad situation, so this just makes me madder. But I’m feelin' a bit silly now, so I just yell some more at that officer until he get on the phone and talk to someone, and finally a boss man come out and assure me they is putting out a special bulletin or sommat.” She pauses to catch her breath and begins to grin. “And Bubbs, he still gigglin' like a fool but he pull my arm and get me outta there. Now I look back I must have been a sight, I tell you, carryin' on like that. But hoo, I was mad as a hornet!”

Her smile gives him permission to crack a grin and covers up a long-held laugh with a fake cough. Recovering after a swig of coffee, he asks her, “What happened next, Miz Hammond?”

“Well, it only a day or two, I get a call about the car, they say someone smashed it all up in a chase, way down in Arlington. Some Virginia cop tried to stop them, and they went speeding away until they crashed. Got caught, claimed they had papers, but they didn’t have no papers on that car.” She looks disgusted, and he thinks he sees a family resemblance. He catches himself hoping she doesn’t spit.

“Well, it turns out Bodie don’t have no papers either, that car registered to some poor guy way down Charles County. It’s all a big ruckus for nothing.”

She’s quiet for a while, and Carver watches dust floating in a sunbeam and considers his next move. He needs to talk to Bubbles, but he needs to find Bodie. Seems the car business has solved itself, and maybe Miz Hammond isn’t so at-risk. Unless her nephew comes around again.

“And that’s the last time you saw your nephew Bodie?”

She nods, not meeting his eyes. The coffee things are there, they need fussing with, and that keeps her occupied. She finally carries the tray to the kitchen.

Carver follows her, looking at the flowery curtains that frame the kitchen window and view of the garage, a leaning clapboard structure, peeling dark green paint.

“I’d like to take a look around out back, that OK, ma’am? You don’t need to come with me, if you’d rather not.”

He unbolts the back door and she hands him keys for the gate and the garage door.

“It’s mighty warm today, I think I’ll stay in the shade here. You let me know if you need anything else.”

Carver eases down the rotten back steps and notes the cultivated yard, rows of collards and tomatoes staked in the sun, not a weed to be seen. The sidewalk is cracked and pebbly with wear, but clean swept. The hose is coiled under the faucet, dripping slowly, making a little wet trail down the walk that’s green with moss.

He opens the garage door and peers into the gloom. “Police. Come out with your hands in front of you,” he says quietly, to no one. He finds a light switch that doesn’t work, then uses his flashlight. He trains the beam on the usual garage objects, a mower and gas can, garden tools, old license plates tacked to the wall, a calendar from 1967 with a bikini clad white girl sitting on a Pontiac convertible’s fender. A worn workbench with a now-rusty vise. Coffee cans full of nails and screws.

Bubbs has a bed in the far corner, plywood up on blocks, foam mattress on top, bedding, a small lamp, some cans of food. a paper bag of clothes, a roll of toilet paper.
A lighter and a spoon, corroded.

Carver feels sick. And wonders if he’s losing his grip. For all he’s seen, all the horrid crime scenes, all despicable gangster creeps he’s collared, all the surveillance of the corners and patient tracking of drug activity, he can’t remember it getting to him like this one little scene, a still life of one man’s degradation.

He finishes his sweep of the space and locks up, goes out into the alley through the squeaky gate. The rag and junk man and his horse, still a horse like the one he loved as a kid, not too many blocks from here, are fading into the heat waves down the next block. Weeds sprout through the cracked concrete and spill over rusted fences and piles of rubble. Nothing here, just a passageway, part of the labyrinth of the Western.

Maybe when he was a rookie, he thinks, the drunks and junkies must have made him sick. But he can’t remember. He remembers being all afire about making a difference, keeping his badge and his righteousness nice and shiny, and busting street dealers with vigor, before they got to be twelve-year-olds.

The rattling sound of wobbly wheels gets his mind off the past and he turns to see Bubbs and his cart -- no, two carts, that’s clever -- coming up the alley.

“Hey, man!” Bubbs grins and waves. “Carver, Officer Carver, am I right?” The front wheel in his cart falls into a crevice and stops the whole rickety contraption, and Bubbs has to pull it back and shake it loose before arriving. “How’s that fine lady cop you work with doin’? Ms. Kima?”

“We aren’t working together anymore, Bubbs. She’s downtown now. Homicide.”

“Murder Police? Got out of the Western, then. Good for her.” He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand and sags, the weariness of the day settling on his scarecrow frame. He looks up at Carver, suddenly worried.

“Why you here, man, is Miz Hammond alright? She OK?”

“She’s fine, Bubbs. I was just following up about the car that was stolen a few weeks back. I didn’t know Bodie was her nephew, not until she told me about what happened with the car. Have you seen Bodie around, Bubbs?”

“Me? Uh, yeah. A few day ago I did. He always up on his corner, hangin' on to that old spot. It’s not the same now, everyone so tense, man. But I see him around. “

Bubbs is evading his eyes. He’s a loyal customer, that’s what he’s saying. Still buying from Bodie, the last of the Barksdale corner boys. Shit, he can’t possible expect to make that work for long, not with the new gangsters coming in. Suddenly he knows what he has to do. He’s got to get to Bodie before Stanfield does, and get him flipped and safe somewhere. He turns to go.

“Hey man, I can help you, you know, like old times, remember?” Bubbs is grinning again, looking animated, hoping to keep Carver’s attention. “I can go sell them hats to them new boys, like I did before, right? Hey, where you going, man?”

Carver stops at the gate. “That’s a good idea, Bubbs. I’ll get word to you here, when we need you. OK? I gotta go.” He hurries up the walk and leaps up the step disappearing through the back door and Bubbs is still watching him.

“Man got a bee up his nose, just takin' off like that,” Bubbles mutters to himself as he wrestles his cart into the garage, rummaging around until he finds a small bag that he shoves into his pocket. Then he carefully counts his money. Finally he sinks down onto his bed with a sigh. “Time to relax a little, now,” he says softly, and picks up the spoon.