Devil’s Lake

Spring 2017 Issue

Calder G. Lorenz: Little Fellas

His name was Pablo Bravo. And he was my friend. But most folks called him, “that boy with the trembling little hands.” They talked like this behind him. Never to his ears. He was segregated in that way. He was not thought of as an inner cog. He was someone they called upon to run errands, to grab a thing here and there. He was from a rung below most of us on the streets of Pigtown.

I liked him because he liked to say, “You ain’t never lived until you’ve fallen apart.”

I was thinking about all of this, Pablo, where I once was, because I’d remembered that day. I’d remembered that I was stewing. Stewing in loneliness and ignorance and isolation. I stewed a lot back then. But I was really stewing that day. It was so bad that I wasn’t able to leave the stoop. I was in Baltimore. I was maybe fifteen. It was a sweltering sort of day, all of us cooking in it, with the sun long towards the end of its duties.

I saw Pablo swaggering down the block. I saw him waving like he was there to grab votes. I saw him as an invincible force against those rotted row houses, those beaten brick buildings, those posturing people that said, you better know who you are in this town, on this block, in this neighborhood. He was grinning something good. And I had to admit that he put me back into a mood that was worth carrying around.

“Do you think they’re ready for us?” he asked.

“You know they are,” I said. “They’ve probably been practicing all week.”

I looked him over. I asked, “Is that new?”

Pablo pulled against the jersey. He showed it off and turned around. His feet were fast and he could spin with anyone who was spinning. He smiled. He was a big smiling kind of guy.

“You know it.” he said. “The question is, are you ready to pass? Are you ready to dish me out, so I can school these church folks.”

I wasn’t; I felt like a heavy one, an anchor. I wanted to come clean with what was coming, but I said, “You know after all the chances we’ve had, we’ve never beaten these fools.”

He threw his hands up. He signed. He said, “There’s a first time for all of it.”

I lived and sat and slept next to where we played. We went to the iron gate of the soup kitchen. There was a heavy chain over the bars. The lock had been pulled inside so that you’d have to work pretty hard in order to get to it.

The thing with us was that we both knew that one of us had probably been there that morning. Maybe both. Had probably stood in the food line. Had taken our tray and eaten our breakfast. We’d probably passed one another, but the thing was, we didn’t acknowledge that part of it. We didn’t acknowledge that both of us had people who needed the help, that we needed the help. It wasn’t a decent thing to bring up; what we all knew about one another. It wasn’t decent to bring up what you endured out there. In that neighborhood. So, when we showed up to play a game, we acted as if it was our first trip there. Like we’d traveled from another state. Like we were invited. We played there like we were the visitors.

The man with the key approached. He held up a hand. He looked as tired as he always looked. His shirt was unbuttoned and his hair was big and curly and brown. I figured that his features were saying that feeding folks was some kind of hard earned work. We watched as he concentrated with it. As he worked the lock and then he opened the gates enough for us to walk on in. He said, “If you want a peanut butter sandwich, see the chef on the way down.”

Pablo said, “We already ate.”

And I said, “Yeah, we’re cool.”

The man locked up behind us and we headed away from him. We walked under the old wooden arches, the old wooden awnings.

Pablo said, “This shit right here, is like an oasis.”

And I said, “Yeah, this is one silent place to be.”

There were stone benches and stone statues and there was ivy growing up the brick walls. It was cool there. Every time I entered that building, I thought to myself: this is what other places are like. This is what happens when you’ve got time and energy and goodwill.

We walked through the dining hall. The floors had been cleaned and the tables were all stacked to the side of the room. The chairs were stacked too. Our shoes were echoing and squeaking and I watched Pablo as he ran and then slid on the wood.

He let out a whoop. And we walked into the kitchen. They had all the pots up and running. It was as hot as anything. I started sweating and I saw Pablo wiping at his neck and his face and his forehead. Those big steel things were all bubbling there, six of them on the stoves. There was an entire prep table of chopped vegetables. And two sandwiches.

I saw Pablo looking at it. And then we heard big old Shaun. Shaun the Chef, we called him. He was hauling a box with him. He had his massive arms wrapped around the thing. And he was struggling. Teetering. His cheeks covered with sweat or tears or both. When he finally made it, he let it fall hard on a table. He looked worked over.

Pablo was laughing. He was covering his mouth and shaking his shoulders. I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking that Shaun the Chef was one big brother. One big mother. Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

Shaun leaned on the table for a moment. He caught his breath. He put his hand on his chest and then he said, “Have mercy! Those steps were designed by Lucifer himself.”

He said, “That is a load no man should shoulder.”

He clapped his hands and the room filled with it. He looked to the ceiling. He said upward, “Praise his name, help has arrived.”

Pablo picked up the sandwich. He took a bite. He chewed and then said out of the corner of his mouth, “We’re here to play ya’ll and beat ya’ll and that’s all we can do for ya.”

Shaun looked at us and then opened the box. He took out a large can of beans. He said, “Since you fellas are sitting around yucking it up today. Laughing in my kitchen. Eating my lunch. Then I can only theorize that the good lord has brought you to me for a reason.”

I took my turn and grabbed the other sandwich. I watched Shaun watching Pablo. We were both chewing. I gave in first and said, “Yeah, alright, what do we need to do.”

Pablo rolled his eyes. And Shaun sounded like thunder in the sky. He clapped his heavy hands, again and again until he said, “I need you to open all of these cans. We need to serve lunch again tomorrow. People are hungry. They are feeling what they feel and they are hungry.”

With little trouble he slid the can under a steel industrial can opener. He slammed the sharp edge down and then cranked the handle in a circle until the thing popped open. He took it and dumped it all into an empty pot. He said, “Thank you fellas. You are good friends to have.”

Pablo struggled to get the sharp piece to cut into the lid of the can. He tried a few more times before Shaun had to come back and show him again. He was simply without the proper weight, without the proper force. I tried and was able to crank the thing open but only after some considerable time and trouble. We were floundering with the task. And the box remained filled with ten more large cans. We pounded it. We cursed it. We talked it out and soon we were able to get a bit of rhythm going. I slammed down and then Pablo worked the crank and then I pushed through the final turn and then one of us dumped it all.

Shaun carried the pot to the stove. He whistled and then stirred it. He set the lid on it.

He said, “You fellas look tired today.”

Pablo rotated his arm. He massaged his shoulder. He wiped at his sweat. He said, “It’s a hundred degrees in here, man. And we haven’t even played yet.”

Shaun the Chef was grinning. And then he was smiling. He wiped his hands with a towel. He wiggled his head like he’d won something. He said, “Now that you’ve warmed up, we can play ball.”

I had to smile about it but I saw Pablo wasn’t with it. He kept frowning and rubbing his shoulders. He rubbed his wrists. He wiped at his face with his new jersey.

In the basement, we tied the shoes we kept there. We stretched. We listened to the silence of it. It was quieter down there than any church we knew. It had the ability to keep you from saying anything until the game started. There were these little stained glass windows where the light fluttered in. The ceilings were high and filled with dust.

Shaun was on the ground trying to touch his toes. He groaned and Pablo shook his head at the man. He asked himself, “How do we lose to this big FELLA every single time?”

I heard the ball hit the court. It was Miss Kathy. She cut across the floor. She was in her shorts and shoes and old college shirt. She was thin that way. She was taller than us but looked like she slept little and worked always. She’d played at Purdue. Pablo liked to ask: Where the hell is Purdue anyway? And she’d say, the Midwest if I remember right, and he’d say, that might as well be China, and she’d say, sometimes it sure felt like another country.

She tossed the ball over. Her hair was wound up. Pablo started to take his shots. I sat there holding my calves and thinking my thoughts and sort of hoping we wouldn’t go through with it.

Miss Kathy slapped my hand and we all stood up to shoot for the ball. Pablo sunk his shot. And Shaun hit the rim. It was settled. And suddenly, it felt like we were on track for something new. Something different there.

They looked tired. They looked worn through. They looked like they were ready to call it. Like they were adults who sat in storms, who went around in a weathered world.

I could tell Pablo wanted it bad. He didn’t look like them. He was something to watch. He was young and moved without their kind of weight. He drove. He spun off his foot. He hit his shots. He nailed a fade away. He swished a hook shot. He dribbled behind his back and pulled up. I wasn’t really needed. I don’t think I scored. I simply started the game with a pass and then he would cut right to the rim between those two. They had no answer. They were fading from us.

It was down to the end. One more basket for us. One more in the hoop and we won. We’d never done that before. Never won there. Pablo was glowing. He held the ball and said, “I feel blessed today.” He said, “I think we need to celebrate after this.” He said, “It’s a good day to be us.”

Miss Kathy shook her head. She smiled. She said, “You’re laughing now but what about when you don’t have your partner anymore.”

And Pablo said, “I’ll always have my partner.”

And Miss Kathy looked at me. She looked concerned. She said, “You didn’t tell him.”

Shaun interrupted. He said, “Check that ball, little fellas.”

Pablo tossed her the ball and she bounced it back. He asked, “What do you mean?”

I wasn’t going to say. I wasn’t going to tell. It wasn’t my choice to leave. I wasn’t the one who wanted us to move. To escape. To head off down the coast looking for another life.

Pablo drove in easy and he went up to put it in. The winning shot. The end of our streak.

But it hit off the rim. It bounced back like he wasn’t concentrating. Like he wasn’t paying attention to what we needed to do. It was ours in that moment. And then Miss Kathy went off. She hit shot after shot after shot. She dished off to Shaun and he back to her. And then she pulled up to finish us off for good. She didn’t miss once. It was over and we sat there on the bench.

They stood next to us talking about what was needed for folks. What was happening with the volunteers and the donations and the church. They didn’t rub it in or talk any trash.

We sat. And sat, until I finally said, “We’ll get them next time.”

And Pablo said, “You know it.”

And then he slapped my hand. We let it go. We let go of where I was going and where he was going.

We laughed about other things. We talked our talk.

And then we swore we’d be back there one more time, and then we walked on back to the streets.

a photo of the author, Calder G. Lorenz CALDER G. LORENZ resides in San Francisco, and his debut novel, One Way Down (Or Another), is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms Press. More from this issue >