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Foster Boyz

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Plowing through a mini tornado of dust and trash that suddenly engulfed the sidewalk, Jimmy  "Blue” Waters clutched his collar, held his breath, and continued the four block trudge to his job.

His visions of freedom, while serving time in state prison for selling cocaine, had not included the harsh realities of life for a twenty-nine year old ex-con with a tenth grade education.

As he watched the morning rush of drivers whiz past him, protected from the whirling March winds inside their warm cars, Blue realized that, in many ways, he was no better off on the streets of Los Angeles than he’d been in state prison.

Trapped behind the walls of a subsistence job and a strict parole officer, Blue felt like he was still doing time. Even the bathroom he shared with an assortment of losers in the cheap rooming house reminded him of prison: dirty, broken mirrors reflecting fractured dreams.

And just as he’d often done in prison, Blue thought about putting together an escape plan.

The sudden appearance of a black-and-white patrol car next to him put his thoughts in check. Blue watched from the corner of his eye as the police car slowed enough to allow the two white officers inside to get a good look at him.

When the car finally sped away, Blue relaxed, feeling very much like a small fish that had been tossed back into a pond.

By the time he pushed through the double glass doors of Henry’s House of Bar-B-Que, Blue's sunshine mask was firmly in place. “Good morning, ladies,” he called out to his two co-workers.

“’Good morning, Blue,” they chimed.

Peggy, the matronly grandmother, was busy unloading and stacking the Styrofoam containers they would use to fill orders.

The young one, Mildred, loading receipt paper into the cash register, as always, gave Blue a big smile.

Blue smiled back, thinking about the possibilities with Mildred if she ever managed to lose thirty pounds.

“Mr. Henry said he needs to see you,” said Mildred.

Blue headed to the locker area, hung up his jacket and cap, and donned his butcher’s apron. “Did he say what he wants?”

“No, he didn’t. He just asked us to tell you to come to his office as soon as you got here.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out.” Blue finished tying his apron strings and headed for the small office in the back room. He knocked on the door and heard the familiar gruff voice invite him in.

Charlie Henry was the type of man Blue respected. In the thirty years since his arrival from Mississippi, the short, stocky owner of Henry’s House of Bar-B-Que and Henry’s Dry Cleaners had worked his way up from fry cook at a downtown hotel to successful business man.

“Morning, Mr. Henry. Mildred said you wanted to see me.”

“Good morning, Blue. Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Puffing on his ever present cigar, Charlie Henry punched a few more entries into the adding machine on his crowded desk. Apparently satisfied with the tally, he stretched and leaned back in his comfortable chair.

“Blue, I guess I should tell you that when we hired you six months ago, I had serious doubts about whether things would work out. After seeing so many guys get out of jail and go right back to acting a fool, I really didn’t think hiring you was such a good idea.”

Blue shifted uneasily in his chair.

“But I took a chance,” continued Charlie Henry. “And I’m glad I did. From day one you’ve proven to be a reliable worker. And you seem to have a special gift when it comes to dealing with people. My wife told me about how you handled those drunks in here the other day.”

“It wasn’t that big of a deal, Mr. Henry. I just did what I had to do.” Blue shifted again, trying to get a grip on what his boss was saying. He was unaccustomed to receiving praise.

“Well, I just wanted to say thanks for keeping things from getting out of hand,” said Charlie Henry. “But I didn’t call you in here to fill your ears with a lot of words and send you on your way. That wouldn’t do either of us much good.”

Charlie Henry clasped his hands together, propped his elbows on his desk, and looked straight into Blue's eyes. “Blue,” he said, “sometimes all a man needs to make something of himself is a chance. Nobody knows how many people there are in the world that are locked up, or wasting their brains on dope, that could have been successful if somebody had given them a real chance.”

Checking his watch, Charlie Henry cut his sermon short. “But, like I said, Blue, I didn’t call you in here just to give you a pat on the back. So, if you’re interested in a chance for advancement, and if you think you’d like to settle down and make a life for yourself, I’m prepared to offer you a promotion and a salary that would pay a lot more than the hourly wage you’re getting now.”

Blue leaned forward. “What kind of promotion are we talking about?”

“Well,” said Charlie Henry, “we’re going to be opening a new restaurant in the Crenshaw Center in a few months. And since we plan to move my office over there, I was thinking about giving you the job of helping Charlie Jr. run this place and our cleaners next door. I like the way you handle yourself, Blue, and I’m sure you’d make a great assistant manager if you put your mind to it.”

“Are you serious?” Blue couldn’t believe what he was hearing. After all these years, was somebody actually trying to give him a break?

Charlie Henry studied the man across from him carefully. “I’m serious,” he replied. “To start, you’d be in charge of the day shift, supervising the workers here and at the cleaners, ordering supplies, and making sure things run the way they should. I’ve talked to my wife and Charlie Jr. about this and we all feel that you’re the man for the job. But the bigger question is: do you think you’re ready to take on that kind of responsibility?”

The words came automatically. “Absolutely! When do I start?”

“Well, there’s one small hitch,” said Charlie Henry.

“Okay." Blue settled back in his chair.

“Before you start the job, I want you to attend a two week night class sponsored by the Small Business Administration at West View Community College. The course starts a week from today and, since you’re off tomorrow, you should be able to get over there and sign up."

“That’s cool with me,” said Blue.

“Good, good,” replied Charlie Henry. “I guess that settles it then.” The portly man leaned back in his large chair again, puffing his cigar. He was thoroughly satisfied with Blue’s responses and proud of his own ability to give another black man a chance to do something with his life.

Blue rose from his seat and extended his hand. “I sure do appreciate this, Mr. Henry.”

Charlie Henry leaned forward and grasped Blue’s hand. “This is only the beginning,” he said. “We’re going to open several new places in the next few years and, if everything works as planned, you’ll be the first in line to move up even more.”

The rest of the day breezed by as Blue thought about his sudden shower of good fortune. A new, more stable way of life was now within reach.

Blue had never really made it big in the hustling world, mainly because he wasn’t capable of the ruthless disregard for right and wrong it took to be successful in street life. His career, since running away from his last foster home at the age of fifteen, had run the gamut of illicit enterprises, including dope dealing, pimping, bunco, burglary; forgery, grand theft, and robbery.

And although he’d done well at times, he figured that when he counted all the money he’d spent on bondsmen and attorneys, and the years he’d wasted in and out of jail, his average income over the years was less than that of a person who had consistently worked a square job.

But now all of that was behind him. He would trade in his dreams of pulling off the ultimate big score for the reality of hard work and legitimate success. Eventually, he told himself, he would be able to use his new found knowledge to create his own financial empire, just like Charlie Henry.

And he would be able to show Shirley how stupid she was to leave him for a truck driver while he was in prison. Blue chuckled inside when he thought about the jolt of remorse that would shoot through her when she realized she’d missed out on a chance to share his success.

Shortly before quitting time, while turning a slab of ribs, Blue noticed Willie, one of the neighborhood kids, barreling through the front entrance.

Willie cleaned up around Henry’s after school and made deliveries to the poolrooms and taverns near Adams and Western. He was a ten year old hustler and an incorrigible prankster.

“Blue, I gotta show you somethin’, “Willie whispered, motioning for Blue to follow him.

“Can’t you see I’m busy,” replied Blue. He wasn’t about to fall for another one of Willie’s pranks.

But Willie was hope-to-die serious. Glancing up front to make sure Peggy and Mildred were busy, Willie partially unzipped his hoodie, revealing a rolled up paper bag tucked into his pants.

“Come on!” he said. “I gotta show you this!”

Blue reluctantly followed Willie to the storage closet behind the employee lockers. He flipped on the light while Willie hastily opened the paper bag.

Blue peered cautiously into the bag and almost choked when he saw the contents. Inside were four condoms, filled with white powder.

“Where did you get this?” Blue plucked one of the condoms from the bag and started untying the knot at the top.

“I was on my way home from school, over by the freeway,” said Willie. “And this car with two guys in it came speeding down the street. A cop car was chasing 'em. When they turned to get on the freeway ramp, one of the guys threw this bag out the window.”

“Did anybody see you pick it up?”

“Uh… I don’t think so.” Willie stammered.

“Are you sure, Willie? Were there any other kids with you?”

“No, I had to stay for detention. And when I got out, everybody was gone.”

”What about the cops? Did they see them throw the bag?”

Willie shook his head. "They were too far behind.” It was starting to dawn on the boy that maybe he'd gotten himself into something that was way over his head.

Blue finished opening the condom, poked his baby finger into the powder, and touched it to his tongue. “Damn!” he whispered, frowning from the bitter taste.

“What is it, Blue?”

Blue retied the condom and placed it back in the bag.

Okay, look, first of all, I want you to pay attention to what I’m about to say because the guys who had to get rid of this stuff are gonna be real mad when they come back lookin' for it and can’t find it.”

“Maybe I should put it back,” Willie blurted.

“I don’t think that would be too smart." said Blue. "The cops probably have that whole area staked out by now.”

“What is this stuff, Blue?”

“It’s dope, Willie, and it’s enough to get you locked up if the cops catch you with it, or killed if the wrong people find out you have it.”

“Aw, man…” Willie’s eyes were wide as silver dollars."What do you think we should do with it?”

“We got us a real serious situation here," Blue replied. "But it ain’t nothin’ we can’t handle.”

Blue rolled the paper bag back up and slid it into his waistband under his apron. “All you gotta do is keep your mouth shut and we’ll come out of this alright. I think we can make some money off of it after we let things cool down for a while. In the meantime, I’ll hide it, okay?”

Willie nodded, eager to be rid of the bag full of problems.

“But you’ve got to remember what I said.” Blue pressed his index finger against his lips. “Don’t tell anybody about this. If the wrong people find out, we both could end up dead or in jail!”

“Okay, Blue. Whatever you say.”

As soon as he left work, Blue stopped at a pay phone and called his cousin in Hollywood. Billy, Blue’s only relative in L.A. listened halfheartedly until he heard the magic words: “dope and money!”

“I’ll be right over,” said Billy. Like Blue, he was pretty much self-raised.

Sitting on the side of his bed, Billy put the .38 revolver back in the night stand drawer. Blue’s call had interrupted his concentration on a plan to obtain some quick cash. Having just turned twenty-three, Billy was experiencing the bitter end of a two year run of beginner’s luck in the “fast lane.”

He’d missed two payments on his Benz, his landlord was on the verge of padlocking his  apartment, he owed a substantial sum to a notoriously narrow-minded drug dealer, and he needed to raise bail money for all three of his girls, busted the previous night in police raids along the Sunset Strip.

But as he drove toward South Central to pick up his cousin, Billy’s attitude brightened considerably. If Blue said there was “big money” in whatever he had going, it was worth looking into.

When they arrived back at Billy’s building, Blue followed Billy to the elevator in the underground parking area.

“You must be doin’ alright, cuz,” said Blue, checking out the expensive cars parked beneath the security high-rise.

“I’ll be doin’ alright when I start owning buildings like this,” chuckled Billy.

Blue smiled. “That day might not be so far away, Billy Boy.”

The elevator ride delivered them to the eighth floor in seconds. Once inside the apartment, Billy performed a test on a sample from Blue’s package. Results from the chemical testing confirmed Blue’s taste test: the innocent looking white powder was indeed the most powerful grade of heroin either of them had ever seen. It could be cut ten times and still overdose a mule.

Blue and Billy slapped high fives and jumped around like two ball players that had just won the World Series. They popped a bottle of champagne from Billy's fridge and lifted a toast to "money, good times, and mo' money!"

The next morning Blue called Charlie Henry and told him he needed some time off. His mother, he said, was on her deathbed in Baytown, Texas and he would never be able to forgive himself if he wasn't there to help comfort her during her final days. 

Blue didn’t like the idea of lying to the one person who had tried to help him build a new life—his mother had died after being shot in a bar when he was twelve years old—but when he thought about how he could make more in one day selling drugs than he could in a whole month working for Charlie Henry, he knew his decision to get back into the “fast lane” was a “no-brainer.”

Charlie Henry promised to hold Blue’s job for him as long as he could, and even offered to help with traveling expenses. Blue declined the offer.

Reflecting briefly on the long range plans Charlie Henry had for him, Blue convinced himself that working a regular job was just something he wasn’t cut out to do. He could do it long enough to get his parole officer to cut him some slack but that was about it. The streets were his real home.

He did call Charlie Henry one last time after a couple of weeks to tell him that his mother had died, to thank him for offering him the position, and to lie again. Blue told him that he had contracted hepatitis and wouldn’t be able to work in food service any time soon.

Within a few months of his last conversation with Charlie Henry, Blue had accomplished a high speed version of achieving the American Dream. With Billy handling most of the distribution end of their sixty-forty arrangement, Blue moved from the dingy rooming house to a beach front apartment in Venice and went from traveling via city buses and the “ankle express” to tooling around town in a brand new, powder blue Cadillac Coupe.

He had so many new clothes that he had to tell Billy to stop accepting the suits, leather jackets, slacks, shirts, etc. that junkies brought in lieu of cash for their daily fixes.

Blue kept up the rent on his room and used it as his permanent address. But he only stopped by occasionally to pick up what little mail he received.

And, as luck would have it, Blue’s overbearing parole officer was fired for soliciting sexual favors from females on his case load. The guy who replaced him was a hippy type that didn’t seem to care if Blue dropped off the face of the Earth.

As for Willie, Blue would meet him from time to time leaving school and give him several hundred dollar bills. He always told him to give the money to his foster mother and tell her he found it. But knowing Willie, Blue figured moms probably never saw a dime of the loot.

The only aspect of his life that he wasn’t able to put back together was his relationship with Shirley. She had completely squared up and seemed totally serious about her new life with the truck driver. She even refused the expensive gifts Blue had tested her with.

And although he enjoyed the company of countless females, he couldn’t quite get over the fact that he and Shirley would probably never be together again.

It was starting to register with Blue that there were some things his money couldn’t buy.

After nearly a year of the “good life” Blue started to get bored. And because of the larger volume of his business since he and Billy had started buying Persian dope from an Iranian connection, he found it increasingly more difficult to distinguish between his real friends and the people who were interested only in a free ride.

Another downer was the recurring nightmares that featured him being hunted down, arrested and sent back to prison.

To combat his episodes of depression, especially when he thought about his mom, Blue started trying to fill the empty spaces in his life with alcohol and larger doses of his own merchandise. He also became a regular at many of the favorite bars, strip joints, and hang-outs of the night life crowd.

And after one of his associates was robbed and murdered, Blue refused to go anywhere without his Colt .44 pistol. He knew it was an automatic trip back to jail if he ever got caught with it, but he figured he’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Shortly after he started carrying the gun, while he and Billy waited in a Hollywood bar for Billy’s girls to bring in their nightly quota of cash, Blue got involved in a heated argument with another pimp over a game of pool. As the crowd of hustlers and their ladies closed in on the action, Blue seemed determined to start a fight.

Few people paid much attention to the square looking black dude and his girl-watching white companion sitting at the bar. Those that noticed them figured they were tricks or tourists, looking for a good time.

Blue and the other guy, Eddie from Detroit, faced each other from opposite sides of the brightly lit bar sized pool table.

“You gotta be crazy, sucka, if you think I’m payin’ you for that shot!” Eddie was a good three inches taller than Blue’s even six feet, and out-weighed him by at least thirty pounds.

“Look, man,” Blue shouted back. “Since you don’t seem to remember, we’re playin’ for fifty dollars a game and you just lost! So why don’t you give me my money before this bullshit gets out of hand!”

“You must think I’m some kinda chump or somethin’,” Eddie yelled. “I saw you touch the cue ball before you made the eight and, as far as I’m concerned, you owe me!

Sensing the explosiveness of the situation, Billy tried to pull Blue away from the table. “Come on, cuz. This ain’t about nothin’. Forget it… I’ll pay for the game.”

“Get out of the way, Billy!” Blue yelled, wrenching himself free from his cousin’s grasp. “This lyin’ bastard is gonna pay me what he owes me!”

In a burst of motion, Eddie flipped his pool cue and with both hands took a wild, overhand swing at Blue!

“Look out, Blue!” a woman screamed.

Blue jerked his head out of the way, but the weighted end of the stick landed solidly on his shoulder, knocking him to the floor.

Blocked by the crowds at both ends of the pool table, Eddie scrambled over the top to finish Blue off, realizing too late that this was a fight he would not win.

From the floor, Blue whipped out his revolver and fired, hitting the surprised Eddie three times before he fell on top of him.

Pandemonium broke out as screaming patrons bolted for the exits, turning over tables and chairs!

Billy rushed to his cousin’s side to help him get out from under the dead weight of the bleeding, twitching Eddie. “Come on, Blue!” he yelled. We gotta get out of here!”

Blue seemed to be in a daze as he stumbled to his feet.

“Let’s go!” Billy screamed. He thought Blue was behind him when he broke for the door.

But Blue didn’t follow him. “Where’s my hat?” he mumbled, searching frantically for his prized fedora.

“Blue, let’s go, man!” Billy shouted from the front door.

Blue seemed to snap out of his fog and started toward his cousin, without his hat.

Billy turned and ran for the car, determined to have it started and ready to roll when Blue got there.

But Blue never made it. Just before he reached the door, the casually dressed black man and his white partner jumped up from behind an overturned table.

“Freeze! Police!” they shouted, leveling their handguns at Blue’s back from across the floor.

Forgetting the gun in his hand, Blue turned abruptly, igniting a thunderous barrage from the cops’ guns that slammed him backwards through the open door.

Jimmy “Blue” Waters died on the sidewalk in front of the bar before the ambulance ever received the call.

Dedicated to my Texas homeboy, the late James "Slim" Lilly.

© Paul Howard Nicholas

 

 


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