Because I Can (Part 1)
By A.J. Brown
I watched the video several times. The first time I felt sick to my stomach—literally. The cop in the room with me paused the video when I stood, my hand over my stomach, and turned to leave. I didn’t make it very far. One hand went on the wall—it was cool to the touch. I grew hot. Sweat beaded my forehead. My stomach turned over, grumbled, and I heaved, though nothing came out. My ribs hurt afterward.
He wasn’t gruff, and he didn’t have a raspy movie-cop’s voice. No, this guy talked like a normal person with normal feelings and normal thoughts. Still, he was tough. You could see it in his eyes, the way they appeared hard, as if staring in them too long would be like staring at two polished stones the color of onyx.
“Give me a sec, okay?”
“You don’t have to watch it again.”
I put a hand in the air. The heat of my face had receded, the sweat began to dry. I could breathe again, but my mouth tasted like a well-worn shoe. Don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like. You won’t get an answer that will satisfy the question.
I pushed myself back to a standing position. My stomach still hurt, but the cramped nausea I had felt moments earlier was gone.
“Play it again, Sam.”
No, his name wasn’t Sam, but that’s what I called him. He didn’t seem to mind.
He clicked the mouse back to the beginning of the black and white surveillance video. An old man rounded the corner of a brick building. He moved slowly, the way most old men do, and he carried a couple of grocery bags—paper, not plastic. He was minding his own business. My stomach grumbled, then quivered. The backflow works kicked into gear. I tried to force the vomit back down, but in the end, it won, I lost, and the floor was splattered with what was left of lunch.
“Really, we don’t have to do this.”
I looked back at the cop through tear-blurred eyes.
“Yes, we do,” I said, got back to my feet and staggered to the seat.
We watched the video again and again and again, until I saw all I needed to.
“Welcome,” I said.
The basement was dimly lit, the single sixty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling. It was the old-style rope-pull type, with a chord leading from the light’s chain to the ceiling and through several eye loops, ending at the wall by the door with a loop on the end. The sheetrock walls covered the cinderblocks behind them and were painted a flat green back in the seventies. The trim work was six inch baseboards at the bottom and, interestingly enough, at the top. There were twelve steps that led to the first floor of my grandpa’s old house. Grandpa was dead, so what was happening—or going to happen—didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t like he would ever find out. There were no windows, and yeah, the room was a bit dusty. Other than the chair I sat in, there was no other furniture or boxes or bags or anything else in the room.
Well, that’s if you don’t include the dirt bag on the floor.
The dirt bag mentioned just now probably didn’t think he was one, but he was. I watched him long enough to know he was a dirt bag extraordinaire.
“Where am I?”
He struggled to sit up but couldn’t get much further than where he sat against the wall, slouched back and looking like a sagging bag of deer corn. His arms were held to the wall by thick chains; twelve-inch bolts had been screwed into the walls, through the sheetrock and right into the cinder blocks. Reinforced metal plates held the chains and Mr. Dirt Bag in place. He squinted, but probably not from the light—like I said, it was dim, a sixty-watt bulb, the old type, not one of those new corkscrew type that burn forever and a day. From my understanding, he had a great fall and bumped his crown. He had some help.
“You’re here,” I said from my seat in front of him. I did a grand wave of my hands, like one of Barker’s Girls from The Price is Right.
He tried to push himself to a better sitting position with his bound feet. They scraped across the floor as if he were shuffling around, and he slid back to his former slouched over position. I watched this with great interest. His struggle with the chains and not being able to use his hands to push off on the floor or even to steady himself brought a sort of satisfaction I wasn’t terribly used to. His face contorted, and he grunted several times before looking up at his arms.
“What’s going on? You need to let me go, white boy.”
White boy? Yeah, I guess you could say I’m white—really I’m more transparent than anything else. The sun touches my skin and I burn to several shades of lobster.
“I don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what to do.”
“What? Do you know who I am, white boy? Do you know what I can do to you?”
“Yes, and yes, but neither of those matter right now.”
Finally, Dirt Bag looked long at his arms, at the shackles that held him in place. No, I didn’t go for handcuffs—they were just too thin, and the chains weren’t all that strong. Someone angry enough just might be able to break the small chains that bound one wrist to the other. That’s a chance I didn’t want to take. He bent his wrists and used them to pull himself against the wall, but that was as far as he could go—I made sure of that. Before I had the chains put in I researched the average wingspan for a man that stood four inches over six feet. My guess was he eighty to eighty-four inches. I added an extra two inches to that higher total. Do the math—his arms could only go so far before he could sit up no further, and there was no way he was standing, not with his feet all bundled up in ropes and duct tape.
“Let me go,” he said.
“No,” I replied.
I had one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Both hands rested on that leg, folded one on top of the other. I probably looked like a statue or a mannequin sitting there, barely moving.
He yelled at me, called me names I won’t use here—I don’t use that type of language, thank you very much. He threatened me, cursed me. He spat at me once, but most of it dribbled down his chin or landed on his saggy-bottomed pants. He pulled against the chains.
And I watched it all.
“When you’re done, let me know.”
“You just wait until I get out of these chains.”
I stood from my chair—it wasn’t anything fancy, just something I grabbed from the kitchen before bringing Mr. Dirt Bag into my grandpa’s home—and walked over to him. I knelt about ten feet in front of him.
“Your name is Dequan Jackson. You’re twenty-two years old and have one brother who is younger than you. His name is Darrell. You live in an apartment on James Schofield Road with any number of whores you call girlfriends. Many of those women are strung out on crack or heroin that you gave them in return for sexual favors. You think you’re a gangbanger. You might be—I haven’t figured that out yet. If you ask me, you’re just another wannabe thug, trying to make a name with drugs and fear. For the most part that seems to work.”
I eyed him for a minute, waiting for a response that never came.
“Your mother is sixty-two, meaning she had you when she was either in her very very late thirties or forty. Your brother just had a birthday. He is nineteen. You once joked that you had no problems with killing someone.”
I paused for a moment, stared him hard in the eyes. He stared back just as hard, but there was something inside of him that was different now. I had done my homework on him and his family and his ‘posse’ and it was dawning on him that I wasn’t playing around, that his abduction had been planned out by this crazy white boy and he might just be in a world of trouble.
“It wasn’t too long ago that you proved that to your buddies—killing, it’s just a thang to you.”
“I ain’t never killed no one.”
His eyes were crazy wide, like a rabbit trapped down the hole with nowhere to go and not enough time to dig further down.
“We’ll see about that.”
He started to speak, then clamped his mouth shut. His eyes grew wide for just a second—a second, I tell you. That’s all. Then they went back to their normal almost slits on his dark skin. I could still see a little of the whites, but beyond that, the color was washed away beneath his eyelids. Still, I saw recognition in his face, in his eyes.
“I know what you’ve done.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Really? You didn’t hear anything I said a minute ago? You know, your brother, your mom, your whores? You didn’t get any of that?”
He said nothing. He got it, but he was too stubborn to say so.
“Look, Dequan, I’m going to give you one chance to walk out of here, completely unharmed. You feel me? One chance. That’s the term, right? You feel me?”
Again, he said nothing. Stubborn, for sure.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
I stood, paced the floor a couple times, my arms wrapped around my suddenly gurgling stomach. I was nervous. I held the cards and Mr. Dirt Bag could do nothing but sit chained to the wall. Still, I was scared and felt like my stomach was about to revolt.
(You can stop, you know? Just blindfold Dirt Bag and haul him away, drop him off in some back alley and say, hey you’ve been warned. Turn your life around and fly straight, or I’ll be back. Yeah, you can go all Batman on him and …)
That was a pipe dream. There was no turning back. He had seen my face. I wasn’t sure if he had seen Uncle Lou’s face, but it didn’t really matter. I was smart enough to figure most of the plan out, but not so smart enough to remember to wear a mask like the dude in Saw or like Jason or Michael or a host of other horror movie villains. And if I let him go he would remember what I looked like, and yeah, you better believe he would come after me, posse in tow. I’m not stupid—I just forgot one little, but holy cow important, detail.
I stopped pacing and knelt back down. I looked him in the eyes and all I saw was contempt.
“Why do you do it?”
He scrunched up his face, as if he were confused. “Why do I do what?”
“Why do you hurt people?”
He was quiet for a few seconds. I don’t know if he pondered his answer or just sat staring at me, anger burning on his face, but he answered with a smile that showed off one gold tooth.
“Cause I can.”
It was my turn to get quiet. I didn’t really expect him to answer, and I certainly didn’t expect an answer so … honest. I was stunned. He was defiant.
“I gave you an answer, now you let me go.”
I stood, put my hands on my hips. I wanted to kick him. I wanted to punch him as hard as I could right in the temple, just like … I wanted him to see stars and feel pain.
But I couldn’t. The thought of hitting Mr. Dirt Bag, of causing him even a fraction of the pain he had caused others, made my stomach sour. I wanted to vomit but held back. Instead of letting my anger get to me, I backed away and sat back down in the chair.
“Let me go. You asked your question, I gave you an answer, now let me go.”
“I said I would give you one chance to walk out of here unharmed. I didn’t say when you would get that chance.”
His upper lip curled, and he growled deep in his throat. A second later, he was cussing me for all I was worth. This is what he said, minus all the swear words:
–What type of ******* game you playin’?–
–Let me go right now, you ****head—
–I’ll kill you, mutha******–
–When I get free, you’ll wish your punk*** was dead—
“I’d like to tell you a story,” I said calmly.
Instead, I stood, walked to the stairs and started up them.
“Hey,” Mr. Dirt Bag called, “I thought you were going to tell me a story.”
“I changed my mind.”
I left the room, turned the light off and closed the door behind me. From outside the room I locked the bolts—all six of them—and slid the three boards in to the homemade latches I had made. If Dirt Bag managed to get out of the shackles, he would have to figure out the six locks, and even then, he would not be able to open the door from that side. I unlocked two of the locks—why make it easy on him?
My stomach hurt, and I sat down at the kitchen table, a place I had spent many mornings while growing up, listening to Grandpa talk of the war—no, he wasn’t all shell-shocked like many others were. He had no problems talking about what war was and why they fought and just what the heck was wrong with it. My hands shook as I sat, elbows on the table, head down, eyes staring at the yellow Formica-topped table. Had I really wanted to hit the guy? Had I really wanted to hurt him?
I wanted to do all sorts of bad things to that thug wannabe. My stomach rolled again. I didn’t eat too much that morning on purpose, knowing what I planned to do, knowing the man in the basement wasn’t going to walk out of there or even be carried out alive, and it would be all on my head.
As I sat there, I reflected on my life. I’ve never been able to hurt someone, or something. The thought of insulting someone out of anger made my stomach hurt. The thought of insulting someone as a joke wasn’t too intolerable but was still enough to make my stomach rumble. One time, at a party when I was a teenager (a party I probably shouldn’t have been at) I threw up on Maggie Igliana’s shoes because I laughed at someone jokingly saying Mike Halford’s mom would spread for half the football team. Up went dinner and the nastiness that was half digested beans and franks. It splattered the floor and Maggie Igliana. She screamed. I bolted. Out in the front yard I threw up a second time. I was sixteen. Rumors at school had me being totally drunk and hitting on Maggie. They said I asked if she would spread for the football team. The first time I heard it I vomited in the boys’ bathroom.
1-That was the last party I ever attended.
2-I’ve never told a dirty joke or made a joking comment or laughed at one about someone since.
3-I’ve never been drunk, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a teenager.
4-Maggie never talked to me again, which is a shame—I really liked her.
Yet, there I sat, wanting to kill a man I didn’t even know. The thought had me standing and running to the sink, where the last remnants of breakfast ended. I swished water around in my mouth, spat it out, and wiped my lips with the back of my hand. I washed the vomit down the sink, making sure none of it was left behind.
I could let him go. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I really, really wanted to do.
My legs shook as I went back to the door and unlocked it. I slid the boards from their places and opened the door. Three steps down, I pulled the rope, turning the light back on. I went down the steps.
“You ready to let me go?” Dequan asked.
“No,” I said. My stomach gurgled.
I sat down in my chair and stared at him, hoping I didn’t look as uneasy as I felt.
“I want to tell you a story.”
“It’s not like you’re going anywhere, so, yeah, seriously.”
He shook his head, rolled his eyes.
I could still let him go.
“I want to tell you a story about Mr. Pouncer.”
“You know someone named Mr. Pouncer?”
“No. I knew a cat named Mr. Pouncer.”
Again, he rolled his eyes. I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on my knees. I rubbed my hands together nervously and began my story.
To be continued …