Cognac and Courage
Words By Andrew Wright, Art By natureworks
It was bottom-of-the-shelf cognac; every time Derek took a sip his tongue protruded out over his bottom lip as if he intended to wipe it off with his hand. He shoved the bottle against my chest. The finish was bitter and reminded me of suckling on a bar of soap but it was cheap and Derek had said it would do the job. We made our way past the apartment buildings which looked as though they were made out of a single slab of concrete. Working the night shift, I had past these parts before, always in the safe haven of public transit. The shadow cloaked figures loitering around the apartment buildings had always seemed to blur into the scenery of payphones and empty bus shelters, but now they shifted indiscriminately among the darkened entrances, cackling in harmony with the sound of glass exploding against the pavement. The glow of their cigarettes offered only enough light to discern the indentations of facial features. Their eyes were like pools of black ink but their heads swivelled slowly as if they were watching us.
“There’s the 32, come on,” I said in desperation. I quickened my strides toward a dilapidated bus shelter and looked back to urge Derek on.
He presented the bottle to me. “Nah. We gotta finish this.”
The bus eased up for a moment by the stop and groaned past. I shrunk back down beside Derek, and tried to ignore the dropping feeling in my stomach. Derek spoke in a boisterous voice that bounced off the apartment walls. I watched him as he raised the bottle to his lips, taking several swallows. He had walked this route before, and while he was not unaware of the danger, he was unaffected by it. His eyes calmly surveyed a few meters in front of him and he seemed to impose himself upon his environment. He was noticed, he was respected. Perhaps the shadows knew this; they didn’t approach. His overarching confidence enveloped my fear and the watchful shadows began to blur into the landscape as they had before. I took another swig from the bottle; the liquid flickered down my throat like a lit match and ignited warmly in my stomach.
Derek produced a tin Altoids box from his pocket and flipped the lid open. He picked a cigarette out and clamped his mouth around it with his lips folded inward, fished out a yellow transparent lighter, and held it to a buzzing street light as we passed underneath it. He let out a muffled grunt and shook the lighter as if it would change something. He flicked at the lighter behind his cupped hand three or four times and tossed it onto the road beside us. He tucked the cigarette behind his ear and kissed his teeth.
“I meant to get a new one.”
“Yeah,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
Derek looked down at me inquisitively, “Why you so shook of this place?”
I took another swig, and lowered my eyes. “Ah don’t know, I’ve just heard things I guess.” The words fell out of my mouth and oozed into one another.
“Ain’t nothing to be shook of unless someone give you something to be shook of,” he said emphatically. He frowned at me so the skin gathered in folds between his eyebrows. “I see you at school too, scootin yourself up against the wall so you don’t bump into nobody; that’s why they fuck with you. If I wasn’t with you tonight, someone would snatch you up, just cuz you look like an easy pick.” We had come to a stop and he was hunched over me now, swaying slightly from the booze. “But you know what you do, when you feel it? When you feel yourself gettin shook?” He grabbed me by my arm and pulled me in closer, speaking in a half whisper. “You make the first move, before they catch you all froze.” His eyes steadied on mine in silence for a moment as if he expected some sort of affirmation. I lowered my eyes from his and began to screw the cap back on the bottle.
He released my arm and slowly rose to an upright position as he surveyed the darkness. “I gotta piss,” he said. Unhinging his belt, he walked toward a tattered playground that had long since been used for its intended purposes and propped himself up against one of the pillars under the slide. I turned away from him and could hear the steady stream smack against the sand bellow him. “Hey, he got a light!” Derek craned his neck and torso awkwardly in my direction as his stream continued in a consistent pattering. He signalled to the far side of the park where a man sat on a bench with his elbows resting on his knees. The man pinched the flattened remnants of a blunt between his pinky finger and thumb, lighting it and waving it out after each draw. I shoved the bottle into my inside pocket and walked toward him cautiously. As I neared, a thick earthy smell filled my nostrils. The billowing smoke filled the hood of his parka and filtered out through the ratty fur that decorated its outer edge. I leaned over and spoke into the hood as if I were speaking into an intercom.
“Hey,” I said louder than was needed; I lowered my voice. “’Scuse me, my friend and I were wondering if we could use your lighter.” He flicked at the lighter again and waved the blunt through the flame. He tilted his head back and looked down on it as if he were wearing a pair of bifocals. His bottom lip protruded out over his top lip and he ran his tongue along the exposed lip, creating a white froth that collected in the corners of his mouth. He took another draw and inhaled deeply before slowly letting the smoke seep out from his mouth and nose. He finally glanced up as he flicked at the lighter again.
“You needs a light, huh?”
“If we could”, I said politely.
“You could,” he said rising to his feet, “but I can’t be wasting all my butane for nothing.” His voice was so raspy I felt as though I needed to clear my own throat. He took a cigarette package out of his back pocket and carefully dropped the extinguished blunt inside.
“You can bum a cigarette if you want,” I suggested timidly. He stared down at my feet with a dazed expression as he struggled to return the cigarette packet to his back pocket. He closed his hand around the lighter.
“Nahh, nahh, I don’t smoke,” He shifted his weight from side to side; “I walk, though.” He stared at me intently and took a step toward me; my stomach leapt up to my chest and my heart beat against my breast bone rapidly. He licked his lips again, “How bout you gimme them boots,” he said as he tapped one of his chewed shoes against the steal toe of my left boot. I nervously balled my right hand into a fist and searched his face for a place to strike. I decided on his right cheek just under his eye and I felt my nails dig into the palm of my hand as I tightened my fist. He grabbed me by the collar and nearly head butted me as he pulled me in closer.
“You retarded or something?” His voice seemed to rumble deep in his chest.
Suddenly Derek’s voice shot through the air, “Ay yo! My man! What the fuck is up?” His grip loosened and fell from my collar as he peered over my shoulder. Derek stepped in between us and tucked me behind him with one hand. The man spoke again; his voice rumbled up from his chest and grinded through his throat.
“This your boy?” He asked as he signaled over Derek’s shoulder.
“He’s somebody to me, that’s all the fuck you need to know,” Derek shot back. The man shifted his weight to one side and peaked out from behind Derek’s massive frame.
He twisted his mouth and his lazy eyes surveyed me from under his lowered brow before returning his gaze to Derek, “Well, your somebody be disrespeckin me, and I don’t be taken kindly to disrespeck.”
Derek took a step closer. “Well, we gon’ change that today,” Derek said as his massive hands curled into even bigger fists at each side. The man stepped back from Derek and his face collapsed into a crooked smile.
“Aight dude,” he raised his hands in surrender and spoke in a higher pitch. “You got me, young blood, you win, I ain’t mean nothing by it mang, a fella’s gotta eat out here, ya know? That’s all this was, nothing personal.” The smile fell from his face, as he leaned to one side again. He ran his tongue along the front of his teeth and narrowed his eyes at me as if I were too small to see. “But you lucky you somebody’s boy,” the smile appeared again as he returned his attention to Derek, “cuz if you hadn’t brought your refrigerator lookin ass round—”
“You got us a light or what?” Derek interrupted sharply.
His smile dissipated once again as he lowered his eyes and patted at his pocket, “Yeah, yeah, somewhere here.” He produced the lighter and flicked at it a few times. “There you go, boy,” he said mockingly as he tossed the lighter to me, “you can keep that.” I caught the lighter and stared at him with a soured look. “Your somebody need to learn some manners,” he sneered. With that he turned and sauntered away.
Derek watched him intently for a few steps as he slipped a cigarette between his lips and lit it. “Come on, let’s go,” Derek said dully out of the corner of his mouth. I took a final look back; the man had returned to his slumped position on the bench. The shadows masked his face but I could swear he was staring at me with that same cocky smile, mocking me. I stared back, my face twitching with anger. I took a swig from the bottle and held it in my mouth for several seconds. “Come man,” Derek urged on. I swallowed and inhaled the vapour in my mouth as I continued to stare into his darkened hood. Derek’s hand slapped down heavily on my shoulder, “Kev man, let’s go.”
I shrugged his hand off my shoulder without turning to him. “I would have done it, you know? I would have hit him.”
“Man, you trippin off that shit I told you earlier? About making the first move?” I said nothing. “Man, I talk a lot of shit, that ain’t you man.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it needs to start being me,” I said as I continued to stare into the man’s darkened hood. Derek studied my face for a moment and looked out into the direction I was staring.
“Nah man, that ain’t you, cuz that don’t need to be you.” He grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him and he spoke in a half whisper as his eyes widened, “You got what you need man, right up here,” he tapped his index finger against his temple. “I’m telling you man, one of these days—”.
“What?” I interrupted as I pulled my arm free, “I’m going to be some pimped out CEO or a doctor or a Harvard lawyer? Like you said, you talk a whole lot of shit.” The words flew from my mouth with little formulation. “One of these days, wait and see,” I said mocking Derek’s deep voice. “When have you ever waited for anything?” I poked at his chest bravely, “you act, you don’t wait for shit and that’s what people respect.”
Derek grabbed me by the collar and pulled me in close. “So what you wanna do, Kev? You wanna go fight someone?” He loosened his grip and his hands fell away. “Go ahead.” He stretched his arms out in surrender. “Start with me.” He smacked at his face with a massive hand. “Hit me, right here, who knows, maybe someone’s watching.”
I shook my head as I shoved past him. “You’re such a dick,” I said boldly.
He followed closely and the deep bass of his voice filled my ears. “Exactly, you ain’t gon do it, cuz that ain’t you.” He grabbed me by the arm, tightened his grip nearly to the bone and spun me around again, but his voice softened. “Let me tell you something, Kev. Respect these fools got for me out here, don’t mean shit. Where am I gon’ take it? Where am I gon’ cash it in? Outside this place, it ain’t nothing but fool’s gold, man.” He gently took the bottle from my hand, unscrewed the cap and took a swig before offering the bottle back to me, “and I got enough fool’s gold for the both of us.” I took the bottle from his hand as he winced and bared his teeth as he swallowed. “This shit just don’t let up. We getting some premium shit next time.” With that he walked on ahead and I followed closely behind him, the same as before.
“Kevin, hide that shit!” Without questioning I shoved the bottle into my inside pocket. A police cruiser crept out of the plaza we were passing with its headlights off. The glow of the dashboard computer cut through the shadows and illuminated the bottom half of the officers’ faces, revealing two smirks.
“Don’t look at em,” Derek whispered. Suddenly we were engulfed in the light of the squad car’s high beams. A symphony of profanities escaped our mouths as the light harassed our retinas. Just as our eyes began to adjust the light dissipated, leaving us once again with the glow of the dashboard and this time, two toothy grins. We stared into the police car with bewilderment. “What the hell are these guys doing?” I asked.
“Fucking wit’ us,” Derek said as he grabbed me by the collar. “Let’s go,” he yelled as he shoved me on ahead. The squad car slowly rolled onto the sidewalk in front of Derek. As he passed, a siren pierced the air; I jumped, while Derek seemed to expect it. He turned and raised his hand toward the squad car as if he were shooing away a small animal. The siren was abruptly silenced mid-scream and finally the driver’s side door opened followed, by the passenger’s side. “Be cool, don’t do shit, don’t say shit,” Derek said in a loud whisper. Both officers stepped out simultaneously. The passenger’s lips were pursed tightly, as if he would explode with laughter at any moment. The driver was chewing a piece of gum, sloshing it from side to side, his whole face twitching with every chomp. He was the first to speak.
“Hello boys, what are we up to this fine evening?” He placed his hands on his belt and sauntered passed Derek, looking him up and down while he chewed on his gum rapidly. He strutted over to me and stood uncomfortably close. His now gaping mouth emitted the smell of stale coffee directly into my nostrils; the gum lay ineffectual and grey on his tongue. “Doing a little drinking tonight, boys?” Each question was met with our silence as expected. “Where is it?” He said, addressing me directly. I peered over the officer’s shoulder at Derek, he shook his head. “Come on now, I watched you tuck it away somewhere.”
“You ain’t seen shit!” Derek interceded. Without turning his face from mine the driver snapped his fingers in the direction of his partner. The passenger started suddenly as if he were daydreaming and recovered dismally.
“What did you say, boy?” His voice was shrill and ineffective. He was much younger than the mouth breather and much shorter than all three of us. He scurried over to Derek and disappeared behind his athletic frame. My attention was once again commanded by the chomping, twitching face before me.
“Come on now, do I have to find it myself?” He pulled his baton from his belt dramatically as if he were unsheathing a sword and rhythmically tapped the bottle concealed in my coat with a padded clunk. “What do we have here?” I had barely got hold of the neck when the officer snatched it from my hand and held it above his head. He squinted at it as if he were reading the fine print on the label and slowly dropped it down to eye level, unscrewed the cap and took a swig.
“Tastes like piss,” He said in a gruff voice. He laughed boisterously and shoved the bottle against my chest. “Tell you what, you can keep it,” he said as he slapped at my upper back. He sauntered over to Derek and waved his partner away with a flick of a few fingers; he sunk back beside the cruiser and began fidgeting with his belt. “How ’bout you?” The mouth breather asked as he looked Derek up and down. “Got anything better than that panther piss you two been drinking?” Derek’s eyes seemed to darken and his lips curled into a scowl.
“Eat shit,” Derek said.
The officer smiled victoriously, “Come on now, I know you have something for me,” he said softly. Derek stared back into his eyes intensely. He circled Derek, scraping his heals against the pavement and kicking up particles of glass with each step. “Do I have to go looking for it, or are we going to save us some time and offer something up?” He asked as he circled back in front of Derek. Derek raised his chin and looked down at him in defiance. “Suit yourself,” he said as he unsheathed his baton once again. “Now, let’s see, is there anything in HERE?” Derek grunted and lurched forward in pain as the officer stabbed the baton into his lower ribs. Derek’s chest seemed to expand as he rose again to his towering position. “Or how about here?” the officer lunged the baton again, but this time Derek caught it first with one hand and then clamped down with the other slowly raising it to eye level. The baton shook as the officer attempted to regain control.
“Freeze!” The passenger’s shrill voice cut through the air. He stood in a wide stance beside the cruiser and his shaking gun shifted up and down between kill and injure. Derek’s grip loosened and the officer ripped the baton from his hands. He held it tightly with two hands like a spear and quickly jabbed it into Derek’s midsection. Derek fell to one knee, gasping for air, “You’re lucky you don’t have a bullet in that pea-brain of yours,” the officer said breathily as he looked down on Derek with disgust. He shoved Derek onto his stomach and pressed a knee into his back, patting at his pockets. He located the Altoids box.
“Well, look what we have here,” he flipped it open and fished through the box with an index finger. He snapped it shut, “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to let you off with this small token of your gratitude,” he leaned in closer. “But the next time you pull a stunt like that, I’ll let my rookie here pop his cherry.” He chuckled to himself and tapped the altoids box against the back of Derek’s head. Rising to his feet he turned to me, grinning from ear to ear, “Y’all have a good night now.” He signalled his lackey back into the cruiser and soon they reversed slowly around the corner from where they once came.
I cradled the bottle in my hand. I hadn’t moved an inch. Derek sat on the floor, facing away from me, his whole body heaving with anger. I crept closer. His hands were curled into giant fists, with veins that seemed like roots spidering up to tree-trunk-like knuckles.
“Derek,” I called softly, “you okay, man?” There was little change; his breathing became more rapid. I carefully offered a hand, then withdrew before making contact with his shoulder.
“Come on man, we should go.” I offered my hand once again; his shoulder bucked wildly as my hand made contact and he exploded to his feet. His massive frame seemed to cave in on me as he towered over me and he craned his neck so that his forehead nearly touched the top of my head. “What the fuck did I tell you? I told you to be cool.” I hung my head low and rotated the bottle in my hands nervously.
“I did,” I said coyly.
“How the fuck was that cool? You know why that dude tried to rob you? You know why that pig came at you first?” He left no time to respond. “Cuz that God-damned look you get on your face, soft as shit. And you know what that look gets us? A whole lot of motherfuckers fucking with us.”
“What was I supposed to do?” I pleaded.
“I ain’t asking you to do shit. Just whatever fucking look you choose to put on that smooth-as-a-baby’s-ass face of yours, turn it upside down, reverse it, do something. Cuz it ain’t a coincidence that every time you’re around I gotta be dealing with some bullshit.” He snatched the bottle from my hand, unscrewed the cap and furiously scrubbed at the top end with his shirt. “Dirty-ass motherfucking pig.” After a few more furious scrubs paired with objectionable phrases he raised the bottle to his lips and tilted it back slowly.
“Wait!” I lunged forward and knocked the bottle out of his mouth with a clink.
“God damn Kev, what the fuck?”
“There’s something in the bottle,” I said, breathing heavily. I grabbed the bottle from Derek who was now sliding his fingers along the bottom row of his teeth. I fastened the cap and tilted it upside down. A gray misshapen mass bobbed to the surface and swirled around in a foaming of saliva. “It’s his gum,” I said dejectedly. Derek spit on the ground.
“Motherfuckers! Hiding behind a God damn badge and they think they something?” He paced back and forth and the veins in his neck bulged. “I’d love to catch ’em off duty, see if they something then.” Derek suddenly stopped pacing, and directed his attention back to me studying my face. “And look at you man, that same God damned look on your face. You ain’t even upset, huh?” He crouched slightly as if he were about to take a picture. “Nahh, not even a little. Someone could piss in your face and you’d still have that fucking look on your face.” He straightened up and nodded at the bottle. “Go ahead, take a sip. Tell me what flavour it is.”
I exhaled heavily through my nose. “Come on man, you’re drunk, let’s go.” Derek stepped in front of me and jabbed his index finger inches from my face.
“Nah, I ain’t going nowhere with you, till you wipe that god damned look off your face.” I attempted to side step him but once again he intercepted me, this time shoving me backward with a giant hand.
“Derek, what the fuck is your problem?”
“That look in your eye, that’s my fucking problem.”
I clenched the bottle in my hand tightly. “Derek, get the fuck out of my way, man.”
He pointed a finger inches from my face once again. “See, your eyes, they don’t say what you say.” I squeezed at the bottle in my hand and it felt as though the glass would collapse into shards. Derek punched at his palm, “You say you want respect? You got to wipe that fucking look off your face.”
The cruiser crept out of another entrance behind Derek and idled. Derek slipped out of focus. The driver sat lopsided with his forearm spilling out of the window. His face bathed in the streetlight above, revealed his cocky smirk, twitching as he chomped on a fresh piece of gum. He watched us, his eyes full of glee. The glass ached against my bony fingers as I tightened my grip. Derek’s voice continued to fill my ears as I glared at the driver.
“Why you think they fuck with you man? Cuz you small? Cuz you’ve never fought nobody?” The officer turned to his partner and back toward us, his cocky smirk replaced with a gaping smile, laughing at us, laughing at me. “Nahh, man,” Derek jabbed two fingers against my forehead with each syllable. “It’s. That. God. Damned. Look—.”
I threw a forearm up and knocked his hand from my face before he could finish. He studied my face curiously as it twitched and shook with anger. I felt heat rush to my cheeks and forehead, mixing with the numbness of intoxication. He leaned in close.
“There it is,” Derek said in a belittling tone. “That’s a good look.”
The cruiser revved behind him as the bottle trembled in my hand. I raised the bottle up to waist level and held it steadily now.
“Man what the fuck is you doing?” Derek asked with no regard for his grammar. I held it tight and steady and stared over his shoulder at the cruiser as the driver’s side window slowly closed. The tint blackened the officer’s face but I could vividly imagine that smirk smeared across it. Derek stretched out his hand.
“Come on man, you ain’t gonna do anything with that man, that ain’t you, Kev.” The cruiser rolled onto the sidewalk now.
“Don’t tell me who the fuck I am,” I shot back.
He leaned in close. “So now you wanna get mad huh? Where the fuck was this when we needed it?” He yelled as he beat against his chest with his fist. “When I was taking ass whoopins for you my whole God damned life. Where was it then, huh? All I do is step out in front of shit for you, and now you gon’ act like you steppin to me?” He took two fingers and jabbed it against my collar bone, “Then do it. Crack that shit over my head.” He grabbed me by the collar. “Do it, right here,” he said, slapping his palm against his forehead.
Tension filled my entire body as I alternated my gaze between Derek and the cruiser. He waited a moment. His pupils almost seemed to shake as he surveyed my face.
“That’s right, you ain’t gon do shit,” he framed my face with his open hands with each syllable, “cuz that ain’t—.” Before he could finish the tension seemed to leap out of my body. I threw my head upward and toward Derek, connecting with the bottom of his chin. Derek stumbled backward, the squad car peeled out with a screech toward us. My ears were filled with the sound of the squad cars acceleration. Raising the bottle over my head by its neck I hurled it in the direction of the squad car. The bottle seemed to flip through the air in a speed that was unnaturally slow. The bottle met with the driver’s side window with an explosion of glass. The cruiser veered off the road, barreled over the curb and was brought to a stop by a cement hydro pole only a few feet away from where we were standing. The driver’s head hung on his neck crookedly as blood trickled down the side of his face. My gaze alternated between the streams of blood and the thick brown oozing of cognac down the driver’s side door.
Derek shook me by the shoulders, screaming something. I saw in his eyes something that I had never seen in all the years I had known him. He was frightened. I had done something he could never have done. The blood collected on the driver’s chin and fell in neat little droplets on the sheet-white airbag, and the cognac continued to ooze past the blue and red stripes of the cruiser. Derek ceased shaking me now. The muffled echo of his voice slowly faded away and was replaced by the faint calling of sirens in the distance. The cognac, like the blood, now dripped thickly onto the sidewalk below and soon, I could feel that it was just me, alone.