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MIRACLE AT 324-E, BUILDING J

Slip sidesteps fragments of green glass left by the one who slept there. He walks with his head down, intent on his destination. The dealers call him Slip and it sticks. They never let up, calling to him across the street or behind the basketball court at his middle school. Slip runs past the numbers game before they can nab him, steps into Sam’s Diner at a quarter to eight. Sit down, kid, have something to eat, says Sam. Slip orders a double stack and a coffee. He’s hungry this morning.

Sam developed a soft spot for him when Nora started with that sleazeball, Ronny Carter. Carter came sniffing around one afternoon, gelled and oiled for some serious booty in the back seat of his Riviera Classic. Nora has a face and a body that keeps her from the meaner side of the projects. Men file in and out of her life in a queue of fleeting optimism; Slip has long ago given up on their names, except for Carter.

He the man.

Sam worships Nora from afar. He will do whatever she asks, whenever she asks. Slip gets in on some of that muscle just by being her brother. They occupy number 324-E, building J. Not that Nora is there much; she disappears for a day or two leaving him scrawl and a few singles. If she forgets there is always Sam. Sam mugged the diner from some little worm who owed. Now he spends his days drinking coffee and reading Off-Track Betting while his boys do the neighborhood.

Until Carter.

Carter plays middleman to a network of financiers who back him in bulk and bundle. His self-assurance is expedient where Nora is concerned: she flows in dresses and lingerie, stilettos and eighteen karat gold, Chardonnay and a la carte dining. He plans to set her up in an uptown apartment with a security system.

That’s how she comes to Sam. Bruised and broken from an all-nighter that ended with Carter’s fist in her breasts. Slip holds her while she sings into his ear to soothe the burning in his belly, the impotent rage of a thirteen year-old. Sam’s chest heaves with purpose. Slip figures it will go down tonight--Sam isn’t the type to wait.

The sky darkens as Sam sends them home, tells them to stay put. Slip curls up on the bed with Nora’s head tucked in the fold of his shoulder, fingering her corn curls. He waits until her breathing evens out, then slides from the bed under cover of television static. In the back closet a hot 38 with two plugs. Out the door, around the corner, through the alley--he waits. Sam calls his boys. The sun lingers in purple on the horizon; when it succumbs, lightning dances across the sky.

Carter screeches up to the curb, men alight, streetlights reveal metal Clips on their belts. Cover the alley, says one. The corners, says another. The street now empty; its inhabitants’ armor the brick walls lining a maze of collusion in a tight, tacit code of silence. A barking dog breaks the echo, ears pricked with their scent. And still no rain. Eyes peek from inside darkened windows, blinds crack, sheets shift.

Carter’s men aim for Nora. She lies suspended in a Percodan moment, soaking up waves of well being that pulsate through her bloodstream. Slip, she thinks, just as her eyes flutter and close in the welcoming arms of a new lover.

Sam sees them coming in a flash of white and releases the safety. His signal: Wait until they are closer. Sweat beads above his upper lip, drips behind his ear, a mosquito sucks the underbelly exposed by his bulbous waist.

Another flash and Carter is at the corner of Nora’s building. He signals the point man, check the back door. Inching along the brick wall, try the doorknob--okay I’m in. Inside waiting: silencer. His point man goes down. Carter retreats. Back, back! Around here, through the ground floor window.

N-o-o-o-o-o, screams the mother. My bab-e-e-e-e-e...

On three--one, two, three, crash through the window, out the door into the hall. The stairwell’s puke-green broken by an artist’s mural, Jesus Saves in purple ink, cat piss in the corner reeks in steamed, stale air, broken bulb shot off last week. They climb. Shoot the lock. Carter’s men check the rooms.

Slip crawls out from under a pile of garbage bags. He jumps through broken glass, runs out the apartment door and up the stairs. Carter will never know what hit him. An arm shoots out and grabs him right up off the floor, hand over his mouth--kicking, biting. Slow down kid, you’ll hurt yourself.

It’s Sam.

Take it easy, we’ve got it covered.

No chance, that’s my sister.

Go back, you hear?

I hear.

A pulsing reverberates within the confines of thick cement, echoing up the vast chamber and back down again. Soon it will dominate the space it consumes. Love love love, it sings, love will find a way.

Carter’s men eye each other, fingers tick. Carter retreats to Nora’s bedroom, gun at her head. And still she sleeps.

Sam’s men burst through, lights out, where are they?

Carter feels the cold of Sam’s blade on his neck. He cocks the hammer.

Sam hands over the knife.

Carter high on his power. One, two, three rounds each and Sam and his boys drop like cardboard ducks. Carter runs down to the car with Nora flopping in his arms.

Slip waits in the alley, hands shaking. They will find my body with the garbage rats. Steady, here they come.

Watching Carter stumble into the night, Slip aims with one eye open. For an instant Carter sees the glint of the barrel and it distracts him. When lightening strikes, he drops Nora to the ground as his body jolts and his strangled cry is lost in the boom produced before electrocution.

Slip opens the other eye. The bullet still rests in its chamber. Slip drops the piece and runs to pick Nora up as Carter’s men slink away like coyotes after a night of gorging.

Slip carries Nora up the stairs, still breathing, still wasted. Sam lies where Carter left him, arms spread in mute appeal. Slip puts his ear to Sam’s mouth, breath like cerise mist, no doctor needed here.

As sirens approach, the carnage lies abandoned.

And finally it rains.

  Nan Leslie


Biographical Notes