Authors: Chester Himes
all shot up
It was eleven-thirty at night on ground-hog day in Harlem. It was bitter cold, and the Harlem ground hogs, as the warm-blooded Harlem citizens are called during the cold winter months, were snug in their holes.
All except one.
On the dark crosstown street off Convent Avenue, bordering the estate of the convent from which the avenue derives its name, a man was taking a wheel from a car parked in the shadow of the convent wall. He was wearing dark-brown coveralls, a woolen-lined army fatigue jacket and a fur-lined, dark-plaid hunter’s cap.
He had the inside wheel jacked up on the slanting street, making the car tilt dangerously. But he was unconcerned. He worked swiftly, without light. In the almost black dark, his face was imperceptible. At certain angles the whites of his eyes twinkled like luminous crescents stirred by the wind. His breath made pale white geysers, coming from his unseen face.
He leaned the wheel against the side of the car, lowered the axle to the pavement, glanced briefly up and down the street and began jacking up the outside wheel.
He had the wheel jacked up and the dust cap off and was fitting his wrench to a lug, when the lights of a car, turning into the street from Convent Avenue, caused him to jump back into the shadows.
The car approached and passed, not going fast, not going slow.
His eyes popped. He knew he was sober. He hadn’t been drinking any whisky and he hadn’t been smoking any weed. But he didn’t believe what he saw. It was a mirage; but this was not the desert, and he was not dying of thirst. In fact he was cold enough for his guts to freeze; and the only thing he wanted to drink was hot rum and lemon.
He saw a Cadillac pass, the likes of which he had never seen. And his business was cars.
This Cadillac looked as though it were made of solid gold. All except the top, which was some kind of light, shining fabric. It looked big enough to cross the ocean, if it could swim. It lit up the black-dark street like a passing bonfire.
The instrument panel gave off strange blue light. It was just strong enough to illuminate the three persons occupying the front seat.
The man driving wore a coonskin Davy Crockett cap, with a big bushy tail. Beside him sat the beauty queen of Africa with eyes like frostbitten plums and a smile showing blue-dyed teeth in a black-painted skeleton’s head.
The joker’s heart gave a lurch. There was something shockingly familiar about that face. But it was impossible for his own true Sassafras to be riding about in a brand-new Caddy with two strange men at this hour of the night. So his gaze switched quickly to the third party, who was wearing a black Homburg and a white silk scarf and had a small, bearded face like some kind of amateur magician.
In the soft, blue-tinted light they looked like things that couldn’t happen, not even in Harlem on ground-hog night.
He looked at the license of the big gold car to steady himself. It was a dealer’s license. He felt a momentary reassurance. Must be a publicity gag.
All of a sudden a woman came out of nowhere. He had just time enough to see that she was an old woman dressed in solid black, her silver-white hair shining briefly in the headlights before she was hit by the golden Cadillac and knocked down.
He felt his scalp crawl and his kinky hair stand straight up beneath his fur-lined cap. He wondered if he was dreaming.
But the Cadillac took on speed. That was no dream. That was the thing to do. Just what he would have done if he had run over an old woman on a dark, deserted street.
He hadn’t seen the Cadillac actually run over the old woman. But there she lay and there it went. So it must have run over her. It made sense.
Anyway, he wasn’t flipping his lid. Now the question was—should he get this other wheel or should he scram with the one he had? He had an order for two. He needed the money. That little chippie he was so crazy about had told him the palm needed greasing. She didn’t say palm, but it meant the same thing: money—the one lubrication for love.
If the old lady wasn’t dead, she was past caring. And it wouldn’t take him but ninety seconds to have this wheel off...
He was starting to bend over to his task when the next sight froze him. The old lady had moved. He noticed it at first out of the corners of his eyes; then his head jerked up.
She was getting up. She had her two hands on the pavement and one knee up, and she was pushing to her feet. He could hear her laughing to herself. He felt the goose pimples breaking out down his back, and his scalp began to crawl like a battlefield of lice. If this kept up, his black kinky hair was going to turn out white as bleached cotton and straight as the beard of Jesus Christ.
He was watching the old lady, his brain trying to absorb the impact of what his eyes were registering, when the second car turned the corner. He didn’t see it until it went past.
It was a big black sedan with the lights off, traveling at a hip-tightening clip, and it made a sound like someone blowing suddenly in his ear.
The old lady had got both feet planted and was standing bent over, bear-fashion, with all four feet and hands on the ground, just about to straighten up, when the big black sedan hit her in the rump.
He never knew how he saw it; the street was black dark, the old lady was dressed in black, the car was black. But he saw it. Either with his eyes or with his mind.
He saw the old lady flying through the air, arms and legs spread out, black garments spread out in the wind like a nuclear-powered vampire full of fresh virgin’s blood. She was flying in an oblique line to the left; the black car was streaking straight ahead; and her snow-white hair was flying off to the right and rising, like a homing pigeon headed for the nest.
Furthermore, in the front seat of the black sedan were the dark silhouettes of three uniformed cops.
Now this joker had seen the face of violence in many make-ups. The quick, insensate leap across the river Styx was no news to him. He was not naive about the grisly jokes of death.
But what he saw now scrambled his brains. His head was running in all four directions; but his feet were just standing there like a yokel in a carnival harem. He turned around a couple of times as though he were looking for something. For what he didn’t know.
Then he saw the car wheel leaning against the side of the jacked-up car. The wheel had a whitewall tire.
He grabbed the wheel and started running toward Convent Avenue. But the wheel was too heavy, so he put it down and began rolling it like a kid does a hoop.
That stretch of Convent Avenue goes down a steep hill toward 125th Street. When he came into Convent Avenue he turned the wheel down the hill. The wheel bounced over the curb and increased speed as it went down the hill. He kept up with it until it came to the next crossing. The wheel dropped from the curb and crossed the street. He stumbled slightly, and the wheel gained on him. When the wheel hit the next curb it bounced high in the air, and when it came down it went away like a supercharged sports car.
He looked down the hill and saw two cops standing beneath a street lamp at the intersection of 126th or 127th Street. He put on the brakes and skidded to a stop, made a circle and went up the cross street he had passed. He disappeared into the night.
The wheel kept on down the street and knocked the legs out from underneath the two cops, knocked down a lady coming from the supermarket with a bag full of groceries, swerved out into the street, passed through the traffic of 125th Street without touching a thing, bounced over the sidewalk and crashed through the street-level door of a tenement facing the start of Convent Avenue.
A heavy-set, middle-aged man wearing a felt skull cap, old mended sweater, corduroy pants and felt slippers, was emerging from the back apartment when the wheel crashed into the back wall of the hallway. He gave it a look, then did a double take. He looked about quickly, and, seeing no one, grabbed it, ducked back into his apartment and locked the door. It wasn’t every day manna fell from heaven.
Roman Hill was driving the Cadillac. His thick, muscular shoulders, developed from handling a two-mule plough in the Alabama cotton fields, were hunched inside of his greasy leather jacket as though he were reining the four horsemen of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine.
“Watch out!” Sassafras screamed. It was enough to raise the dead.
“Huh!” Air gushed from his mouth, and he gripped the wheel in his big, horny hands hard enough to break it.
He didn’t see the old lady. It was the scream that did it. When he first saw the old lady she was caught in the left headlamp as though she had come out of the ground. His cocked gray eyes tried to leave his head in opposite directions.
“Look out!” he shouted as he tromped on the brake.
His two passengers sailed forward against the instrument panel, and he bumped his chest against the steer-rag wheel.
The old lady disappeared.
“My God, where she at?” he asked in a panic-stricken voice.
“You hit her!” Sassafras exclaimed.
“Step on it!” Mister Baron cried.
“Huh?” Roman’s slack, tan face looked stupid from shock.
“Let’s go, for God’s sake,” Mister Baron urged. “You’ve killed her. You don’t want to stay here and get caught, do you?”
“Bleeding Jesus!” Roman muttered stupidly, and stepped on the gas.
The Cadillac took off as though it had been spurred in the cylinders.
“Stop!” Sassafras screamed again. “You ain’t done nothing.”
The Cadillac slowed.
“Don’t listen to this woman, fool,” Mister Baron shouted. “You’ll get one to twenty years in jail.”
“Why come?” Sassafras argued in a high keening voice. She had a long, oval face with under-developed features and coal-black skin; and her sloe eyes glittered like glass. “She walked right out in front of him; I’ll swear to it.”
“You’re crazy, woman,” Mister Baron hissed. “He hasn’t got any driver’s license; he hasn’t got any insurance; he hasn’t even got the car registered. They’d put him in jail just for driving it; and, for running over a woman and killing her, they’ll lock him in Sing Sing and throw away the key.”
“Of all the mother-raping luck,” Roman said hoarsely as realization began penetrating his shock. “Here I is, ain’t driven my new car a half hour, and done already ran over some woman and killed her stone dead.”
His forehead knotted in a tight frown and he sounded as though he might cry. But the Cadillac took off again with determination.
“Let’s go back and see,” Sassafras begged. “I didn’t feel no bump.”
“You wouldn’t feel any bump in this car,” Mister Baron said. “It could run over a railroad tie and you wouldn’t feel it.”
“He’s right, honey,” Roman agreed. “Ain’t nothing but to high-tail it now.”
The big black Buick without lights cut in front of the Cadillac and a cop yelled out the open window: “Pull up!”
Roman had a notion to try to cut around the Buick and escape, but Mister Baron shrieked, “Stop—don’t dent the fenders.”
Sassafras gave him a scornful look.
All three cops piled out of the Buick and converged on the Cadillac with drawn pistols. One of the cops was white; he and one of the colored cops swung short-barreled .38 caliber police specials; the other had a long flat .38 Colt automatic.
“Get out with your hands up,” one of the colored cops ordered in a hard, hurried voice.
“Right,” the white cop echoed.
“What is this all about, officer?” Mister Baron said haughtily, assuming an indignant attitude.