Marcellus Pearson counted out three thousand dollars, wrapped the short stack of cash with a rubber band, and handed the money to Oleta Phillips, a narrow-shouldered woman with razor lips. He covered her hand with his, her hard knuckles like pitted marbles against his palm, and rolled her arm over, studying the needle tracks running from the crook of her elbow like drunken sutures stitched into her coffee-colored skin.
"You stayin' clean, Oleta?" he asked.
"Tryin' to," she said, pulling her hand away.
"That's good, real good. Sorry 'bout your boy. He was family."
Oleta looked at him, opening her mouth, then thinking better of it, not asking him what kind of family put a fifteen-year-old boy on a corner, his pockets full of crack, so he could get killed over just whose corner was it anyway. She was afraid to ask Marcellus, the way he watched her with his own dead eyes. And she was ﬂush with shame, knowing that she might have saved her boy if she had cared more about him than her next fix. It was too late by the time she realized how important her son was to her.
"Funeral costs and a little somethin' extra, this being a hard time and all."
Oleta nodded, knowing Marcellus was paying for her son's funeral and her silence, damning herself for taking the money, taking it anyway.
Marcellus's girlfriend, Jalise Williams, came down the stairs into the front room where he did his business, wobbling on four-inch heels. Barely out of her teens, she carried their son, Keyshon, on her hip, the boy old enough to walk but glad to be in his mother's arms. A short-legged honey-colored dog followed after her.
"Put him down," Marcellus told her. "Boy can't spend his life bein' carried around by his momma. Ask Oleta, here. She know. She raised her boy right."
Oleta looked at Jalise. The crack dealer's whore, she thought. Girl's ass hanging out of shorts that was too short, her tits squeezed out of a tube top wouldn't cover nothin' if nothin' was all the girl had, wearing enough bling to buy a house. They the ones somebody ought to be collecting death benefits on, she thought, saying nothing.
"He be walkin' enough," Jalise said, ignoring Oleta. "I'm goin' out."
Marcellus didn't argue. Jalise took better care of the boy than he would have, changing diapers he wouldn't touch, keeping herself and the kid out of the way and out of his business. Girl had a fine ass. That was enough.
"You go on," he told Oleta. "Put that money away, hear. And stay clean."
Marcellus smiled to himself as Oleta opened the screen door, letting herself out, knowing that she wouldn't stay clean, not now, not after burying her boy. She'd be high by the time it got dark, broke a week later, selling her ass again, the money he'd handed her back in his pocket.
It was Monday, late September; there'd be a few days still warm like today, but the nights were going cold. Not much color in the trees, the leaves mostly brown and blowing up and down the street like they was lost, same as Oleta.
Her family gathered around her on the front porch like it was Christmas, whispering to her, "Wuhju get?" Oleta, her head down, answered in a quiet voice, ﬂies buzzing around them. Her brother, a heavyset man, yanked at his pants, shooing away the ﬂies with the back of his hand, telling the others it was more than Condre Smith got when his boy got hisself killed last year, saying that Marcellus sure knows what it costs to live and die.
Rondell and DeMarcus Winston leaned against the porch rail, tipping their heads at Marcellus to let him know that the family was satisfied. They were Marcellus's enforcers — hard-muscled, cold-blooded brothers, seventeen and eighteen years old, three killings between them. If Marcellus decided to hit back for the boy's death, the Winston brothers would do the hitting.
Marcellus was twenty-three, a high school dropout running the crack trade in Quindaro, a rundown quadrant in northeast Kansas City, Kansas. Of all the money Marcellus paid out to run his business, funeral benefits were the smartest. It sent a message: We take care of our own. His people understood that. They needed to feel valued and he set the price.
A fan hanging from the ceiling in the front room stirred heavy air stale with Chinese takeout that had been left to rot in open boxes on the kitchen table. The dog stole one, racing into the front room, its snout deep in the container, wrestling for crumbs. Marcellus cursed the dog, kicking the box out of its mouth; the dog scampered out of the room, out of his reach.
An old twenty-seven-inch television sat in the corner, rabbit-ears antenna not helping to make the picture clear. He kept the plasma screen with its high definition cable in the upstairs bedroom.
Marcellus's mother lived across the street, cooking the crack. He stored his inventory in the basement of the one-room church next door to his mother's house. The pastor rented the space to Marcellus, and the rent was paid in protection.
For thirty years, Kansas City, Kansas, had been the disrespected punch line to jokes told by people living south in Johnson County or east, across the state line, in Kansas City, Missouri. Now, the city had turned the corner, merging with Wyandotte County into a unified government, landing a NASCAR track that triggered an economic boom. The city had shed its stepchild image, the conversation changing from getting out to getting in.
From Shakedown by Joel Goldman. Copyright 2008 ADM Enterprises, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Joel Goldman.