Darius broke right and sprinted down the alleyway, but deep down he knew even his best effort would be futile. Athletic endeavors had never been his strong suit, and the three boys chasing him were older, faster, and stronger.
“Get back here, you fat little motherfucker,” shouted their leader, a hulking monster of a teen whose real name was Terrence, but went by T-Dog. If the rumors floating around school were true, this past weekend T-Dog fulfilled his lifelong ambition, metamorphosed from wannabe gangbanger to a full-fledged member of the Baseline Crips after emerging triumphant from a cocoon of fists and stomping feet. His two acolytes, Peanut and DeRay, were no less menacing.
“You keep running, we’re gonna beat your ass even worse,” yelled T-Dog.
But Darius, faced with the first flight or fight moment of his life, kept chugging along as fast as his stout little legs and asthmatic lungs could go.
It wasn’t fast enough.
DeRay was the first to reach him. He grabbed Darius from behind and slammed him to the ground, knocking his glasses off and ripping the sleeve of his shirt. Peanut slapped him across the mouth, turning his lip raw and bloody.
“The fuck you running for?” T-Dog asked, shaking him. “Huh? Answer me motherfucker! Peanut, I thought you said this motherfucker was smart. Don’t seem so smart to me.”
“Wh-wh-what do you want from me?” Tears poured down Darius’s cheeks as he stumbled over the words.
Before T-Dog could answer, a voice, booming and gravelly, called out, “Let that boy alone.”
Darius, glasses gone and eyes clouded with tears, watched unfocused as a blur of a man hopped a dilapidated, white fence and confronted his attackers.
DeRay rushed at the stranger and was thrown headlong into the fence. T-Dog took a swing at him. The man caught his punch and pulled him close, twisting his arm awkwardly behind him. The man slid his other arm across T-Dog’s throat.
“I said, let that boy alone.” He held onto to T-Dog for another few seconds, choking him and cranking up on his arm, before pushing him down to the ground. “Now, get out of here.”
T-Dog got up slowly and brushed himself off. He and the others backed down the alleyway, bristling with teenage rage, staring at the man.
“I’m gonna get you motherfucker. This ain’t over.” T-Dog yelled, before shifting his gaze to Darius. “You either. See you around school.”
“You alright, son?” the man asked Darius, brushing him off and handing him his glasses.
Darius was pretty far from alright.
“Umm. Yes, sir. I guess, sir.”
“What’s your name?” asked the man.
“Darius, I’m Theo. You live around here?”
“Yes, sir. We stay over in the Commons.”
Theo glanced up at the ten-story public housing unit that dominated the neighborhood. He put his arm around Darius.
“It’ll be ok. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
After he finished washing up, Darius scouted around the little house. He noticed a large picture hanging over the mantle. It was a younger version of Theo. Darius didn’t know much about sports but he knew the iconic baseball uniform.
“Did you really play for the Yankees?” he asked.
The voice that answered him was not Theo’s, but the hoarse rasp of an elderly woman.
“Yes, he did. My baby pitched three seasons with the Yanks, until he blew out his elbow.”
Darius turned and looked at the woman. She was wrinkled and weathered, but had gentle, warm eyes.
“Still lives up in New York, too. He’s just down here taking care of me.” The woman coughed. “I’ve been sick lately.”
Theo came in from the kitchen, carrying a pitcher and three glasses.
“I see you’ve met my momma. I’ve been trying to get her to move out of this neighborhood and come live up north with me for quite awhile.” Theo smiled. “But she’s a stubborn old woman.”
“I love my boy, but the only way I’m leaving this house is in a body bag.”
“Good morning. Is there anything I can help you find?”
The man behind the counter eyed Darius suspiciously. Or perhaps it was just Darius’s guilty conscience. He had never skipped school before, and he had never ridden the bus to this part of town before, either. He felt very out of place, but baseball card shops didn’t exist in his part of town.
“Yes, sir. I was wondering if you had any Theo Jackson baseball cards?”
“Theo Jackson?” The man furrowed his brow. “The name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He played about ten years ago, for the Yankees.” A proud smile spread across Darius’s face. “He’s a friend of mine.”
“Hmm, let’s see what I can find,” said the man. He pulled out a worn copy of Beckett’s Ultimate Baseball Card Guide. “Now, not all players get cards, you know,” he said as he thumbed through the guide. “Alright, here we go. Jackson, Theo. Looks like he was a common in 2004.”
“What’s a common?” asked Darius.
“Well, with baseball cards, about eighty percent of them aren’t worth much. Maybe five cents or so. Players who most people wouldn’t recognize on the street.”
The man walked over to a cardboard file cabinet. He slid out a drawer and started rifling through it.
“It’s the superstars cards that are valuable, but to keep the value on them up, and to keep them rare, they have to fill the packs with commons.” He walked back over to Darius, card in hand. “Like your friend here.”
Darius couldn’t wait to show Theo and his mother the baseball card, but he forgot all about it the moment he rounded the corner. Blue and red lights swirled, lighting up the street. Three police cars were parked haphazard in front of the Jackson home. The people of the neighborhood ringed the area, watching and whispering amongst themselves. Darius’s heart dropped into his gut. Even from a distance he could see the rumpled white sheet on the lawn, covering the body.
He could see Theo’s mother sitting on the front step, crying and shaking. Two police officers were doing their best to calm her. Darius ran towards her. The baseball card slipped from his hand, mixing in with the fallen leaves on the lawn. As he got closer he could hear her wail.
“Oh Lord. I didn’t have no choice but to shoot him. I swear it. He was gonna kill my baby.” She took a deep breath. “He was gonna kill my baby.”
The front door opened. Theo walked out of the house. He knelt beside his mother and offered her some water. When she finished he set the cup on the top step and put his arms around her.
Photo and Words by: Ben Cook