Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Step Up by Ralph Pezzullo
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Three youths travel to Manhattan to confront the preacher who stole from their family in this muscular crime fiction from author Ralph Pezzullo.

Step Up

Dotel felt as hard and shiny as stainless steel as the three of them hurtled smooth beneath the streets of Brooklyn - Fulton Street, Eastern Parkway, Church Avenue, south. They were a unit: His cousin K-Mo, Bug-Eye and him.

"We gotta step up" is all he said as he felt K-Mo's sister Vanna's chicken swirling in his belly with the Dr. Pepper mixed with rum and greens, two helpings of peach cobbler and a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. His reflection looked all business in the glass. And he thought of Vanna nursing her baby on the dull green leather sofa with the felt picture of Michael Jordan hovering above her head like Christ.

He thought she'd be proud of him, to see him like this. He was just a few months this side of fourteen, but felt like a man.

Today he'd grown up fast. It started this afternoon when he returned home from school to find Nana, his grandma, slathered in tears on the pink linoleum floor swearing up and down about Reverend Hunter and all the terrible things she was gonna do. At first, Dotel imagined his life swirling down the drain.

Then, the realization smacked him. He had to do something. Dotel had left his grandma locked in the bathroom, threatening to slit her wrists.

"Damn," he said, past K-Mo looking out the scratched up subway window at the flashing blue and yellow lights, past Bug-eye, who was reaching for something in the pockets of his baggy Hilfigers so the plaid boxers he wore underneath slid lower giving up his ass crack.

Before today, he'd hardly heard Nana swear. Rarely heard her lose her composure. She was upright and strong like the piano that stood in the living room; went about her business; paid no mind to fools.

"What'd Rev. Hunter do?" he asked.

"The money," she gasped, grabbing at her throat, waving him away with a palm that looked like a big pink pancake.

"What money, Nana?"

"That choir money," she groaned, slamming the door. "He spent it on that ho!"

Dotel might be young and skinny, but he wasn't raised to be no fool. He didn't have to ask: Which ho was that? He knew immediately that Nana was talking about Mistress Tucker with her airs and big white teeth, smiling in that red dress she wore to church with her tits trussed up like balloons.

He hated Mistress Tucker from the first time he'd seen her; she even smelled like bad news.

The story he got through the bathroom door was that Reverend Tucker had taken the money Nana, Mrs. Kaline and them had raised to send the Monroe Street Baptist Church choir to the National Baptist Church Gospel Music Competitions in St. Louis. Reverend Tucker gave them some mumbo-jumbo about a water bill. But Mrs. Kaline heard that he used the seven thousand to buy another ruby ring for Mistress Tucker.

Everybody knew that Mistress Tucker liked her jewelry. She never missed a chance to shove it in your face. And word through the grapevine was that Reverend Tucker enjoyed the appreciation she showed in bed.

"Your grandma just can't take it no more, " she moaned. "This is it! The Lord done tested me one too many times."

"Damn…."

He loved his grandma. She meant everything-the sun, pretty girls, music and all that was good in the world rolled together. She looked after him and his cousins K-Mo and Vanna, and his little nephew Billy Junior. She made their lives good, cooked them supper, bought them clothes.

All Dotel had left of his mother was a picture of him on her knee at his first birthday party, him wearing a blue matching vest and shorts with a red cone birthday hat on his head.

"Some people ain't prepared for this life," Nana had told him. He understood. He'd learned on the streets that if you don't respect yourself and demand respect from the people around you, you might as well go straight to hell.

"Damn!" It just burned him up to think of Nana, Mrs. Kaline and all those good women turned inside out by their own Reverend Hunter. How many Saturdays had Dotel seen them, sweating in Nana's little kitchen, baking sweet potato pies and apple cobblers to sell in front of Tompkins Park and raise the money crumb by crumb.

He never did like that church, not that he didn't believe in God and Jesus. He did, deeply. But it made him sad to see all those people hoping against hope, rubbing their knees sore, falling out and praying to their Jesus - the one they felt entering their crowded little basement church - hoping that he was the real Jesus - the one who was the son of God; the son of the God who had kicked them out of the kingdom and let all the Black people fall to muddy earth where they found themselves alone amongst fallen women, tricksters and sinners.

Despite all the stupid shit he'd done, Dotel's lean heart was pure. His Nana would tell him at night when she took him in her thick arms and smothered him against her chest. He figured that if Jesus really was strong and good like Nana said, he didn't want people slobbering over him and turning limp.

Tonight he wanted to scream at all the hucksters and the liars who could swipe away an old lady's dignity and hope. He wanted to blow them all away!

He imagined his Nana sitting on her stoop with a jar of wine in her hand, drunk

and empty. Reverend Hunter and Mistress Tucker passing in their fine clothes, laughing in her face.

Dotel tightened his fingers around the shiny metal pole. The voice cutting through the speaker rasped: "Next stop, Beverly Road."

"That us?" Bug asked like he was waking from a dream, fluttering the long lashes over his big blue-green eyes.

"We're getting out at Courtelyou."

Bug, all five-foot-one of him, looked up cross-eyed and cocked his shaved head. He weighed ninety-seven pounds soaking wet. But he had something wild in him that could keep him going night after night without sleep. People said he kept walking the streets because he didn't have a place to stay.

K-Mo was a different story, five shades blacker than Bug and at sixteen, three-and -a-half years older. He was a big boy, ol' K-Mo was, but slow. "Dead-ass slow" his sister Vanna would say. "Like he's some kind a mule pulling the weight of the world behind him."

"We're just going to ask questions," Dotel said so they all understood.

"Yo…."

But Dotel wasn't so sure, drifting off, over the old winos in the park, past downtown Brooklyn, to the river. Manhattan sparkled on the other side like a far-away dream. He imagined himself walking up the Promenade with Vanna on his arm and little Billy Junior, K-Mo, Bug and Nana all dressed in fine clothes, shading their eyes from the sun.

"This us!" Bug said, slapping Dotel's shoulder.

"Damn." Dotel stiffened up and took a good look at them: himself reflected in the glass tall, but unformed; Bug pulling his mouth, his big eyes blazing with some secret; and K-Mo, a dark, sixteen-year-old time bomb waiting to explode.

It took them less than a minute to meet the concrete walk with Dotel leading the way up East 16th Street under black oak trees that shed big yellow leaves with every gust of wind.

"What we all gonna do?" Bug asked.

"Just you follow me," Dotel answered, feeling that they were heading towards an important moment in their lives.

Ditmas Park didn't look like it belonged in Brooklyn with its elegant Victorian-style houses with big yards. Turning left on Dorchester, up two blocks to East 18th, they stopped.

"That's it," Dotel said looking down at the number he'd written on the underside of the sweatband he wore around his wrist, then up at the big yellow house layered like a birthday cake, glowing under the moon.

"Damn…."

It felt a world away from the two-bedroom flat he shared with Nanna, K-Mo, his sister Vanna and Vanna's baby, Billy Junior. From the outside, it didn't look like Reverend Tucker's place had any broken ceilings, pealing paint, water pipes sweating through the walls in summer, roaches climbing out the light sockets and up from the drains.

A lit sign on the front lawn read: Live in faith!

Dotel felt a lump in his chest as he stepped forward, lifted the brass latch on the gate and mounted the thick wood steps to the front door. His heart pounded as he rang the bell, K-Mo dense and dark behind him, Bug jiggling so much Dotel thought he might just blast right out of his shoes.

It happened slow - leaves rattling, then the ding-dong reverberating down the hall, the clock ticking near the front door, the sound of footsteps dragging against the floor.

"Who's that?" she called.

The three of them stood silent. Then he saw Mistress Ticker's big face look out from the curtains, so sure of herself with brown eyes brimming with suspicion.

The door creaked open just a crack and she spoke past the chain. "What are you boys doing here at this hour?"

"We got some business with Reverend Tucker," Dotel said, his mouth turning dry.

"Aren't you Miss Greeley's boy?"

Miss Greeley was his Nana, so Dotel nodded slightly.

"Aren't you Vanna's little brother?" she asked pointing a tapered, red fingernail at K-Mo.

"Yes, ma'am."

Time sped up now and before Dotel could catch his breath, the door was wide open and Mistress Tucker glared down at them in her red silk robe. Reverend Hunter himself came lumbering towards them down the hall with his hands in the pockets of one of those silly jackets white people wear in old movies. He sported a scowl on his wide clown's face.

Dotel was someplace else. It felt like he was in the trees above the house hiding. He couldn't make out what they were saying, Reverend Hunter and Mistress Tucker talking among themselves, tisking and shaking their heads at the boys like they were trash that needed to be swept away.

Dotel heard himself say: "I want my grandma's money." Everything came into focus: the smell of Miss Tucker's lavender powder, the bourbon of Reverend Tucker's breath, the way the light turned K-Mo's face blue and white, the intricate vine pattern on the rug on the vestibule floor, the veins bulging on the back of Reverend Hunter's hand, Miss Tucker's big breasts shifting under the robe.

"What?" Reverend Tucker repeated, making the end of the word slide up for dramatic effect. "What are you damn fool boys talking about?"

"The money my grandma and them other ladies raised for the choir. The seven thousand you-"

"Look!" Bug screeched so loud that his voice scraped across the porch and down the street. He was pointing at a big ring on Miss Tucker's finger with a fancy red stone in it that glittered all kinds of promise. "Look!" he screamed again, freezing everyone in place. Then he reached out his long fingers, took Miss Tucker's hand like he was asking her to dance and started pulling off the ring.

As soon as she realized what was happening, Miss Tucker hit Bug with a long looping right that cracked him under the jaw. The crunching-sound alone hurt and damn if Dotel didn't see Bug get lifted right out of his Reeboks. But Bug was street, so he didn't let go of the finger. She punched straight in the mouth this time, screaming: "Get off!"

Orange blood poured from Bug's bottom lip onto the front of his favorite FUBU shirt. But he kept pulling as Miss Tucker screamed for Reverend Tucker to do something. "Call the police, Raymond! Dear God, help!!!!" That's when Dotel saw the knife flash across his body like a bolt of lightning and cut into Miss Tucker's finger. She threw her head back and screamed so hard that he could see her pink tonsils. K-Mo started using the blade to saw into her finger.

"Damn…." It pleased Dotel to see Bug and K-Mo working together. Then he heard the bang and smelled the sour cordite all at once. He turned just as K-Mo crumpled at his feet.

Dotel was watching the knife spin through air, when something exploded between his shoulders. His body burned for a second and went numb. He fell sideways in slow-motion through the raw October air and hit the deck hard. K-Mo flailed his legs beside him, blood spurting from a hole in his stomach, spilling onto the wood porch, forming three red fingers that quickly ran to the stairs. "Damn," he thought looking into K-Mo's blue-green eyes beaming terror and pain.

Three more muffled shots and he felt something moving near his feet. It was Bug going down, too. Everything turned soft and mushy. He saw Miss Tucker's finger with the ring still on it catch the light as it fell onto K-Mo's chest.

He wanted to say: "Cool." Nothing came out.

For some reason the anger inside Dotel faded and so did the yearning and all the needs. He didn't want cars or clothes or anything of that bling bullshit, because he was filled instead with something better, a kind of completeness, a peace, that he had only come close to the first time he had sex.

He glowed from inside - a combination of love, God, Nana, good cooking, family, sex, evenings in summer and everything that was natural.

"Damn…."

This was what it was all about. And he lay dying. The beams of the porch, yellow leaves and the stars in the sky turned fuzzy. But Dotel didn't seem to care.

He knew so much in that one moment that all the suffering, torment and disappointment of his mean, short life seemed worth it. He had done what he had to do. He had stepped up. He was sure about that. He wasn't saying that what he did was right. Didn't matter. Because he felt a power greater than anything he had ever imagined pulling him towards a place where he knew he would meet his grandma someday and somehow get another chance to love.

About the Author

Ralph Pezzullo is a a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning screenwriter and playwright. His books include Jawbreaker (with CIA operative Gary Berntsen), Plunging Into Haiti (winner of the Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), The Walk-In, Most Evil, Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, and Inside SEAL Team Six and Hunt the Wolf (with former ST-6 member Don Mann).