Bark thinks a move to Alabama will free him from all the crack deals he’s made in the Bronx, but before we leave in his 4×4, he double-parks across from his building, gets out and jogs off, not one word to me, which trips me about what he’s up to. He has no woman to call is my understanding, but who knows: he could’ve been in love for years, ashamed to have told me. He could now be lost in good-byes.
Then he’s back out, across the street, and his posture says he’s armed.
“Ain’t loaded, is it?” I ask after he’s behind the wheel.
“Why would it be?” he says without a glance over. He pulls into traffic, turning on dashboard rap I turn down. He speeds uptown, away from Alabama, hangs a right onto 216th, brakes hard across from his favorite bodega. No way, I think, but he’s already out his door and off, so again I’m double-parked with no flashers on, in rush-hour traffic—it’s like Bark wants us to get into trouble. What he’s doing in the bodega is buying a six; without beer, he can’t chill. He’ll sip as he drives. He’ll be DUI by Philly. And since I was prelaw during my try at college, he’ll expect me to talk us out of any trouble the beer causes.
Then here he comes, out of the bodega, and now I see a cop, maybe half a block up 216th, walking diagonally across it toward me. This cop is white, so I slide onto the driver’s seat—on account of Bark’s got that handgun—and the cop points at us the moment Bark gets in the passenger side. Just drive off, I think, but here’s the cop jogging our way, motioning for me to roll down the driver’s side window.
Again I think to drive off. But I roll down the window, to suggest innocence. The would-be lawyer in me wants the cop’s focus on me to keep it off Bark, but then the cop, weight trained and clean-shaven, draws his gun.
I’m not scared. I’m startled. I ask, “Man, what are you doing?”
“My job,” the cop says.
“You can’t just shoot me,” I say.
“I ain’t done nothing.”
He looks over the roof of the 4×4, then to his right and left. He says, “You double-parked.”
“That’s no cause for arrest,” I say, and, yeah, I’m a little cocky—but only about how well I’m shielding Bark from suspicion. “That’s just cause for a citation,” I add. “Anyway, officer, since when does a little double-park pose a threat to your life?”
His finger, I see, is on the trigger. “Since I said it did.”
I nod. I swallow hard and ask, “You saying I’m not free to go?”
“What do you think, boy?” he says.
“Because if I’m not free to go,” I say, “I must be under arrest. Which means you’ve arrested me without probable cause, which means false arrest—which I believe means you could end up in trouble.”
And he says, “Whoa, boy! That’s a lot of fancy theory now, isn’t it?”
“Just your basic Fourth Amendment,” I say. “Not free to go equals arrest; arrest requires probable cause. Right?”
“Well, you try to go, boy. And we’ll see how free you are.”
Now I wish all of us—Bark, this cop, and I—could just start over, and I mean start over all the way back in our grammar school days, when we all could have learned to be cool.
And it’s right after I think this that Bark fires. When I first hear the shot, I’m sure I’ve been hit, but now Bark’s yelling, “Come on!”—and I’m touching my chest and face for blood. Go, I think, and my brain wants gas but my foot keeps stomping the brake. The cop lies on asphalt, the bullet hole not far from one of his open gray eyes. There’s hardly any blood. Then the hole darkens. Bark’s gun, in Bark’s hand, is hot against my earlobe, Bark now yelling, “Drive!”
I obey, freaked by death’s quickness, Bark’s ruthlessness, the thousands of nights I wasted hanging with him. Did I befriend him for the cash his dealing lent? Were we really tight? Only his commands are between us now—Right, Left, or Faster—and against his gun I’m dumbstruck, driving like on some joyride, but my face burns with hopelessness all the way into my ears.
Though you are leaving the Bronx, I think. And it occurs to me that this gun is keeping me alive. It certainly keeps me driving to the ramp for the lower level of the GW Bridge, which Bark has me take. Hiding us from helicopters, I think. He no longer needs my advice? Or maybe he never did. Just kept me around for those times when, against my better judgment, I stood lookout for his sidewalk transactions, or when I’d accept UPS for him at my address, or answer his phone after common sense screamed to lay low.
And now, on the dash radio, there’s talk of police activity in the Bronx, which means millions of white folks know about us, or will soon. For calm, I imagine Alabama. And tell myself this broadcast has not described my face. Then we’re off the GW, in Jersey, barraged by overhead freeway signs—Fort Lee, I-95 South, the Palisades, Highway 1, Highway 9, I-80 West, something about the end of I-95—and Bark is screaming since I’m screaming since I’m clueless about where to steer. The lane lines are all screwed up, some new, some faded, some crooked, some suddenly ending, a trucker in front of us veering as if to say, I’m in charge here, so when I see his pink face in his side mirror, I scream at his move, at any racism in him, at the dead cop’s racism, at all the white hatred in the world. Is that why I’m screaming? All that white venom?
Then I realize that Bark, a brother if anyone is, has been one twitch from wasting me for miles.
And this prompts me to say, “Man, I’m pulling over if you don’t put that thing down.”
“It’s down,” he says.
I glance, the gun nestled in his folded arms, his finger outside the loop around the trigger, the whole works aimed to his right. How long has this been? How long have I not been a hostage? College taught me that criminal law says what I’m doing—driving Bark away from the crime scene—is now my unforced choice and therefore aiding and abetting; to cover my ass legally, I should bail from this 4×4.
Still, I drive on. You are, I remind myself, helping a dealer who shot a cop in the face. I convince myself that pulling over onto the emergency lane would risk the lives of others in this traffic. But when an exit approaches, I pass it.
Then here goes Bark, aiming the gun at the floor between his feet, his other hand working a thick fold of cash from a pocket.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he says, “but if we don’t ditch this car lickety, we’re screwed.”
“Agreed,” I say.
“And like I always try to tell you, we think too much about the long run, we won’t even survive the short. So I say we just, for now, take an exit and ditch the car. To, you know, get a running start on whoever will look for us.”
Is looking for us, I almost say. “You wanna hide in Jersey?” I ask, then presume his nod to add, “Jersey’s too close to the Bronx. I say run fast and far. Remember, Bark, you do have that cash.”
“You’re saying Newark Airport?” he asks.
“Too risky. With all that security? I’m thinking a bus depot, a small one. And, yeah, we find it fast, so we can buy our tickets—with cash—before our faces are all over cable TV.”
Bark’s silence tells me his mind’s weighing something out.
“And no gun, Bark,” I say. “Just our best bullshit. Whatever we need to say to get those tickets.”
“I’m good with that,” he says. “Because, what, they’re gonna pull over every bus in the country to hunt us down?”
Hell yeah they will, I think, but I don’t say this, since the scared kid still in me wants them to find us and convict Bark after I plea-bargain my way out of his life for good.
“I’m also thinking . . .” I say. With three quick glances at Bark’s eyes, I try to make the point with mine. But he doesn’t get it, or doesn’t want to, so I say it: “I’m also thinking we need go in different directions.”
“I mean we need to be smart, Bark. Someone saw two black males drive away from that shot cop. So as much as the hunt will be for black, it’ll also be for two.”
“So where for me then?”
“South, since you wanted Alabama anyway. North too quickly means Canada, which is out because of all the attention at the border. So that leaves me east or west, and east means going home.”
“So where west?” Bark asks.
“Cleveland or Chicago?” I say. “I mean, California costs too much. ’Course the last place would be one of those cowboy states.”
I picture myself asking for work on some ranch in Wyoming, and Bark says, “Man, maybe you should take the gun.”
“But there’s a good chance you’ll need it.”
For Bark, I realize, that would make sense. Once you’ve killed, why not go down shooting?
I say, “Bro, I just can’t have that thing on me.”
“Well, I sure can’t be found with it,” he says. “So get in the right lane—I’ll toss it.”
“No-no-no, Bark,” I say. “Do not open that window.” This is my six credits of Crim Law talking: nothing else in me wants the gun near.
“Why not? It’s evidence.”
“Which is why you don’t want it out there.”
“So where then?”
“Just—I don’t know,” I say. Flustered by a sudden sea of brake lights ahead, I say, “Just, let me take it. I’ll toss it as soon as my bus stops at someplace remote.”
“I don’t know, Bark! Pennsylvania? There’s bound to be a stretch that’s nothing but trees!”
“Fine,” he says, and we go quiet, and I change into an unclogged lane.
Then he says, “Here’s yours.”
“Profit share. For being my blood.”
And here’s where I realize that, for yet another time, Bronx-style poverty has forced me to sell myself out. I have done this so often it seems I’ll never stop doing it, and this time it means buying a chunk of Bark’s criminal liability for what looks to be less than a grand. Very stupid, I know, but now here’s Bark, recounting bills as if for the sake of even-steven friendship, folding my payment, handing it to me, and here I am taking it, yes, a stupid man from the point of view of most anyone who graduated the college I dropped out of, but then, as Bark places the gun on the floor behind my feet, I also think: Stupid, yes, but no idiot. Because only minutes ago, I was a pothole away from having lead hollow my brain—and now I have a chance.
I take an exit ramp into Passaic, not exactly a small town but no Newark either, and, hey, Bark was right: we need to ditch these wheels. Here streets divide warehouses and old homes and closed banks and wreck repair shops grayed by Jersey soot. I head in the direction of shorter, older buildings—the depot should be on a main street?—and as I look for the depot, I remember Candice, the only woman I’ve loved, how she declared, when she left me, that I never asked for what I needed, her claim then being there was only one way couples in the Bronx stayed true: constant and mutual need nursed by mutual, updated asking. Had my pride allowed me to ask, she explained, we could have both known our needs and been something, but she’d worn herself out trying to guess my needs and fearing I’d disappear for good into some Bronx night, to have my needs met elsewhere.
And now here I am, gone from her and the Bronx and in need more than ever, still not asking a soul for anything, though now, I believe, I have good reason: fear of someone knowing who I am. But now here’s Bark, as I brake for a red, himself asking directions to the bus depot from a strung-out guy, certainly homeless, who nods in a direction I follow, and somewhat thanks to this nod, Bark soon points out the depot, and for the first time since that pop from the gun still at my feet, I conceive my future. I don’t exactly have a plan, but Bark and I have agreed, via our silence since our last words about plans, to buy tickets for those separate directions. If only silence would have spoken so well between me and Candice, I think.
Because, see, there’s no need, during this lingering silence between Bark and me, for me to say we should park at least five blocks from the depot. And then there’s no need for Bark to say more than two words—on, off—as he shows how to work the safety and holster the gun behind the hip of a guy’s waistband. And all he needs to do is raise his chin to have me stand lookout, this time as he yanks off his 4×4’s license tags, which he hides under his sweatshirt, then slips into a trashcan as we walk.
And as we walk on, our silence assures me he’ll lie endlessly in the depot to keep the gun out of play. I myself don’t believe I could even aim the gun, but no doubt that’s what plenty of lifers once thought. Mostly I’m worried, just now, about who’s in the depot, whether they’ll suspect us, how long I’ll need to wait to be hunkered in some bus Cleveland-bound.
And when we round a corner to see the depot the second time—this time from behind—there, in the parking lot, sit three buses, at least one idling, the signs on two announcing destinations DC and Denver, the other sign blank.
“Looks like you’re set,” Bark mutters.
“You could go to DC,” I say.
He nods halfheartedly, and I remember, with worn fondness, our early days, when all he sold was pot.
“You want it back?” I ask, meaning the gun.
“Let me think about that,” he says, and we walk in. A shiny-scalped brother maybe ten years older than us is selling tickets, no customers in line, and I head right over. Bark stops under a TV hung from the ceiling, trying to hear it without looking like he’s trying.
“One to Denver,” I say.
“Round trip?” the teller asks, glancing up, then at Bark.
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“That’ll be four hundred sixteen dollars,” he says, surefooted. “And I’ll need some ID.”
I reach into my pocket, pull out my new cash, let him see it as I thumb through the hundreds as if searching between them for ID—the prospects of a tip, I hope, cajoling him.
“You know?” I say. “I left my wallet on the kitchen table.” I set seven fanned hundreds on the counter, slide them over. “Travelling and all,” I say, and a surge of heat in my ears reminds me: Hey, you are armed.
The teller starts typing. “You got family out there?”
I glance over my shoulder and see Bark’s jaw clench. “Yes,” I say.
“You’re going to need that ID sooner or later,” the teller says, and I nod but he doesn’t see, since all he does is type. It could be an email to cops. It could be input to help me.
Then a printer hammers out something, taking its time. The teller swipes up the hundreds, counts them, makes change he slides toward me—with the ticket.
“Can’t accept tips,” he says coolly, and I grab the ticket and the change, and he says, “If I were you, I’d board now.”
“Of course,” I say, and he plays this off, and I head for the door. He’s calling 911, I think, and it hits me I never told Bark good-bye, so as I pass him I flash the tiniest thumbs-up, clueless if this sentiment hit its mark—because now here I am, outside, on my own, bound for Cleveland or Chicago or who knows.
On the bus, it’s far warmer. I sit two rows from the back. No one glances my way, but a white woman, then a very old black one, are on cell phones, talking more quietly than they need. This is your future, I think. Adjust.
But I can’t see sitting for even a mile if my mind stays this jacked. Thoughts about 216th obscure Crim Law rulings I learned in college. Then a bus driver, white, gets on and faces the aisle. He appears to be counting us. He runs down the stairs and out the door, then turns right back around—as if he realized he does, in fact, have what he thought he’d left behind—and jogs back on and sits and adjusts his seat and mirrors. He swigs from a juice bottle. My hamstrings absorb revs. Beneath me, brakes hiss, and we back up onto the street, stop, surge ahead, make a left. Blocks later, as we roll down the street where I parked Bark’s 4×4, I see a squad car, siren off, speeding toward us, stopping abruptly, facing me only, it seems.
The bus squeaks to a stop. The driver, standing to face the squad car through his windshield, points at his chest as if to ask, Me? Traffic piles behind us. The squad car’s doors open to release two cops, thick pistols drawn. The cops walk toward the bus, then past it, headed for Bark’s 4×4. Over its gentlest rev yet, the bus joins traffic, and we accelerate. I want to look back, but I know better. I try to picture Bark chilling in Alabama. At this moment, no one near seems to be looking my way; the bus driver, as far as I can tell, is just trying to bust ass out of Jersey. Maybe he’s speeding to some cop station, but after we merge onto I-80 West, I doubt this. The rustling in the seats ahead could be simple relaxation: newspapers being unfolded, chips bags being torn, seats being adjusted.
Then it strikes me that, if the two cops find Bark in the depot, they’ll ask that teller about me.
But the teller’s a brother, I think.
I reconsider whether race matters, then finally decide: No. That teller won’t squeal.
But will Bark? I wonder, and my memory freeze-frames on the bullet hole under the cop’s open gray eye. The bus groans up an incline, and I think, Just keep going. Up as much as you need, then coast.
But it’s my thoughts that coast, and they coast too fast. My own eyes won’t close. Worry about the future presses in on me, led by the weight of the gun against my hip. With each mile marker that blurs past, I feel more scared. I begin to understand the impulse to take a hostage: you could befriend this person, survive on the run with this person, hope this person starts to care for you.
Then, after a blue sign announces the Delaware Water Gap, a green one says I’m in Pennsylvania. I shiver. Maybe no one wants me? I think.
But that can’t be true, my education assures me. I was there, at the scene. I was there.
For a mile or so I think about Candice, about the one question I wish I had asked her: Since when has merely asking gotten us one damned thing we need?
And now my mind won’t quit with how the cop’s blood seemed to need resolve before it filled the hole in his face, a hole created by the gun I now carry, a gun I never wanted but don’t resent completely—because, I now realize, the facts will always hold that I was there, on 216th, when that cop’s blood finally did run.
A mile marker says Pennsylvania stretches some 300 miles. I watch darkness and trees and, here and there, porch lights. This isn’t remote enough, I think. I can’t lose the gun: people live here.
Then, somewhere past mile marker 240, the bus shifts lanes, eases onto an exit ramp, brakes for a stop sign. It veers right, turns left and finally coasts, rolls to a stop in a mini-mart parking lot. If someone isn’t waiting here to cuff me, I think, someone’ll get me at the next stop.
Or the next.
The engine clicks off. The driver stands; passengers stir politely. In front of the mini-mart’s beer-sign-plastered front window sits a single car, an old maroon Hyundai. No problem, I think, but then I notice, behind the building itself, the identical rear bumpers of two white sedans hidden there—freaking state troopers—and that heat in my ears spreads into my neck and shoulders.
“Ten minutes,” the driver calls. He walks down the stairs and off.
Two women ahead of me look at each other. Neither glances my way as I stand. Then I step into the aisle beside them, and the white one, ponytailed, cares enough to notice me, though she seems unaware of the gun.
No way does she know what I need, I think.
No way does she know what I’ll ask.
Mark Wisniewski's second novel, Show Up, Look Good, was praised by Ben Fountain, Christine Sneed, and Jonathan Lethem. His first book, Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman, went to a second printing. His fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review, and The Georgia Review. He has also won a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Best American Short Stories.