KR OnlineFiction

The Ruins

There was this guy Zippy, who used to have a convenience store across the street from the Slater Village Houses. This was all back when they had the mill. They used to make towels there—linens, shit like that. Now, they call it “the ruins.” But up until the mill closed, boy, Zip had a run. He was right at the end of East Main Street, where the Huguenot River separates Westview from Duxeville, and almost all the cats who worked at the mill would drive back across the bridge to get home to Westview, and almost all those motherfuckers stopped at Zip’s daily. They bought scratch tickets, smokes, potato chips, Keno, TV dinners, soda, lip balm, caffeine pills, porno, dog food—you name it, Zip served it up. And sometimes, when they didn’t have anything to buy, they’d just roll up and have a cup of coffee with him. He’d just give it away. I mean, dude had the game locked down.

And then one day it was the nineties, and everything to dust.

The mill closed, and shit went south real quick. A lot of those dudes ended up straight crackheads for real, no cars, walking up and down Main Street all day, missing teeth and shit, looking up at the sky, like This is all too much. This is all too much. There was only motherfuckers walking across the bridge now. They fished the polluted waters below. But a core of six or seven of the real OGs just kinda ended up at Zip’s. They had their own chairs and shit, and from opening ’til close, they held court like Roman senators. It deadass became these dudes’ livelihoods. And imagine, out of all the shit going on, their chief complaint of society’s ills was the blacks and Puerto Ricans moving into Westview, and these motherfuckers didn’t have any problem saying it to your face. Back when the mill was open, Slater Village had been for the mill employees and their families, but when it closed, all of a sudden there were little Titos and Chinos and Jamals running around, not to mention the Africans, who’d now fully convinced the senators that Slater Village had turned into a refugee camp. We all got it. Those poor motherfuckers saw their whole lives slipping off into the ether, but I mean, you would’ve thought Slater Village was Palm Springs or some shit the way these jokers talked about it. It had always been the projects. I was only a kid, and even I knew it. The real ballers were miles away, up on Bramble Hill, and they’d rather die than share a street address with any of those motherfuckers, including Zippy, who probably could’ve afforded to live there if he wanted to. You know what I’m saying? But it’s like, that wasn’t even the point.

We moved from Baton Rouge to Massachusetts when I was six. Pops went first, then sent for me and Mom, who was pregnant with my sister. The day we found out she was going to have Ashley, we had stopped at a Popeyes to get some lunch, and a cat jumped through our car window and stole the piece of chicken right out of my mom’s hand. At first we all laughed, but then she started screaming at Pops to take her to the women’s clinic. The car ride home was so tense, I thought Mom was gonna die. They told me later that night I was going to have a new baby brother or sister coming, and I couldn’t sleep for two nights. My only other memory of Louisiana was sticking a staple into a light socket when I was three. It was just me and Pops. All the power in the apartment surged, and I started screaming. I remember Pops took me out for ice cream and made me promise not to tell Mom.

The day we moved to Slater Village, I got into a fight with a little white kid named Jeff. I was whooping his ass, and his mom saw us, then she dragged me off him and slapped me. I remember I just stood there. I didn’t cry. She slapped me again, and I ran away. Like I said, Mom was pregnant, but when I told her what happened, she took Pop’s gun out of the closet and went and found Jeff’s mom outside and flashed the heat on her. Pressed it right against her forehead. Mom’s side of the family was crazy like that. They were all military, with no chill. But no one snitched to the police, and it worked out for me cause it was like instant respect. The OGs sitting on the cars outside would always give me the nod when I was walking home. They never let anybody fuck with me. Years later, I would smoke weed for the first time with Jeff, behind the bowling alley on Main Street. It was midnight on my twelfth birthday, and we smoked out of a Coke can that we poked holes in with my Swiss Army knife, with weed that he copped from the OGs.

Jeff’s parents got divorced after the mill closed. His dad moved out and started smoking rock, and his mom moved in this inside-linebacker-looking brother, and Jeff turned into one of those white people who called other white people “white folks.” We’d see his dad on Main Street sometimes, and we’d duck into the nearest building to hide. That shit used to be so embarrassing. Oh, and by the way, that brother his mom moved in—his name was Jeff, too. And guess where he bought his Magnums from. We all called him Big Jeff. And Little Jeff thought Big Jeff was a god.

All of this became very problematic for the senators. On the one hand, they knew Jeff’s pops, who was now fully out there, back when he was one of them, telling Polack jokes in the break room. But those days had flown. He’d been in and out of Framingham for years now, and every time it seemed to be more embarrassing. The last job he had was at McDonald’s, and dude got fired for eating chicken nuggets in front of the customers. After that, he robbed every place he worked after the mill: the hardware store, the video rental place on East Main—he even tried to rob a garage for fucking tires. We heard he was living with some woman in some motel on South now, but it didn’t even matter because, for real, Little Jeff had already started calling Big Jeff “Dad” and his pops “Jim.”

We’d go into Zippy’s sometimes to have a little fun. It was easy. All those dudes were so hyped up, it was just some shit to do before we played hoops. This one day, me and Jeff walked in there. We must’ve been about twelve. I got my little bag of Skittles or whatever, but Jeff just felt like trolling those dudes. He motioned to the rows of scratch tickets, all hunched over and shit and said, “I’ll take three numbah fives, two numbah sixes—and what’s the new five dollah ticket? I’ll take four ’a those.” A couple of the senators laughed, but boy, a couple of those motherfuckers were tight, and Zippy looked like he wanted to burn the whole temple down himself. He muttered something under his breath, and then Jeff asked him for a pack of Newports, for his dad. Zippy looked at the senate. A few of those niggas were trying to hold back their smiles. You could see the anguish on Zippy’s face. He didn’t want to sell the cigarettes to Little Jeff, but he didn’t want Big Jeff’s black ass coming down there, so he grabbed a pack of Newports from overhead, his generous-as-fuck pot belly poking out from the white T-shirt under his short-sleeved oxford, and he slid the smokes across the counter, taking Jeff’s money and throwing the change back at him, on some petulant shit. Then he said, “I’ll be sure to have a nice chat with your mother the next time I see her.”

“He asked me to get matches, too,” Jeff said. The senate burst into laughter.

Zippy closed his eyes and exhaled. He grabbed a pack of matches and threw them onto the counter. Jeff slipped them into his pocket with his free hand.

“Thanks, Zip,” he said.

I looked back inside as we were walking out. Zippy stroked the stubble of his five-o’clock shadow, pointed at the senate and said, “I don’t wanna hear a fucking word.”

I turned around, took another few steps out the door, and somebody—one of the senators—said, jokingly, “Fucking niggers.”

 

(Quick story. The first time I got called a “nigger” was probably a few months after we moved up North. Ashley had been born at that point. It was some of the older white kids from school as I was walking home. They followed me for a block chanting it. My mom asked me if they hurt me, and I said no, then she sat me down and told me I was going to have to toughen up, that it was just us up here, and that she wasn’t going to be able to protect me from every nigger out of somebody’s mouth. Then she went on about all the shit I had in store for me when I became a full-grown nigger. I started crying, and she didn’t even hug me. She just told me how lucky I was not to be born in her era. And I had to eat that. I’ve seen the tape. She was right.)

 

Little Jeff looked at me as soon as he heard it, and I just wanted to pretend that it didn’t happen. We kept walking for another minute, and Jeff said, “I’m sorry, man. I fucking hate white people.” We went down to the ruins after that. Jeff sucked his teeth and pulled the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.

“One day, I’m gonna kill someone. I swear to fucking god,” he said.

He asked me if I wanted a cigarette, and I said no.

 

The front of the mill got boarded up after it closed to keep the kids from partying there. But a hurricane had broken through several openings into different parts of the back, and everything left inside was rotting. I’m pretty sure that’s why they started calling it the ruins. We crawled through the largest of the openings into a room that had large pockets of the sun spilling in. There were empty beer bottles and cans everywhere, candles and spray-paint cans stashed in a corner. The walls in the room were covered in tags. I picked up one of the spray-paint cans and sprayed a little dot. Jeff picked up a can. He apologized to me again, and I said I didn’t care. It was what is was. But he couldn’t drop it. He was all like, “Let’s go tag Zippy’s,” and I didn’t even entertain it. I just said, “Fuck no.” Then he asked if I wanted to play basketball, and I told him I had to be back home to watch my sister. Jeff stayed behind, and I walked home.

 

They said an old woman across the street called the police when she saw him sneaking around the back of Zippy’s. He got arrested running away. And all he painted was a little dot. Little Jeff got no love in court. They sent him to a reform school on a farm outside the city, called Project River Boys, and I remember hearing some white ladies in our building saying he would end up just like his dad. I remember not feeling bad. Then Zippy’s got robbed while he was on the farm. It was three of the crackheads, right as Zip was closing up. His wife was there that night for some reason. Maybe they were supposed to go to dinner or something. One of the crackheads hit her in the back of the head with a baseball bat, and she died right there in a pool of blood on the floor. Jeff asked me if Jim did it, and I said no. He had fourteen days sober at the time. Zippy closed the store down for good after that. The last I heard, he moved to Florida. An East Asian family bought the store. They named it East Main Market.

Photo of Kwame Opoku-Duku
Kwame Opoku-Duku is the author of The Unbnd Verses (Glass Poetry Press). His fiction is featured or forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, BOMB, Literary Review, Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Kwame lives in New York City, where he is a teaching artist, and along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective.