While thinking these things, Ptolemy’s body was in motion. He was old and without great strength, but his mind was sharp as a razor and he could see Melinda coming up from behind in his visions. As she approached him he turned, raising his arm. As she reached for him he brought down the whole arm as if it had no joints. His wrist and elbow were fused and the steel pipe hit the knuckle of Melinda’s index finger with a whoosh and a snick.
The big woman yelped and jumped backward. She cried out when Ptolemy raised his arm again. This was the dream he’d had for years. This was why he wouldn’t let Robyn throw out his pipe, even though he couldn’t have told her then.
Melinda Hogarth sidled away like a crab with a woman’s voice, hollering for safety. Ptolemy brought down the pipe again through the now-empty space where she had stood. He wanted her to see what he could do even at this age, in this body.
The pain rose in his chest again. A man across the street was watching the incident, weighing the facts that his eyes and ears gave him. For a moment, even in his pain, Ptolemy wondered if he would have to explain to the man why he’d struck the wino drug addict. But this reverie was interrupted by the trilling in his veins and the smell of garlic. He looked around him as Melinda shouted and ran down the street. Nobody was cooking, as far as he could tell. And when he looked back, the man had continued his walk, no longer interested in the years-long drama of the old man and Melinda Hogarth.
Ptolemy took the Central bus up to Twenty-third Street. There he disembarked and looked at the four corners. There was a store-front on the northwest corner of the street that had a display window. Inside the window was a Spanish man jumping rope at a furious pace.
“Can I help you?” another man said to Ptolemy when he walked in the door of the long, sunlit room.
It was a poor gym. A few mats on the concrete floor and a punching bag, a bench for weight lifting, and a bar screwed into a doorway for chin-ups.
The man who asked the question was on the short side but he had extraordinarily broad shoulders and muscles that stretched his T-shirt in every direction. His face was light brown and his neck exhibited the strain of a man pulling a heavy weight up by a long rope.
“I’m lookin’ for Billy Strong,” Ptolemy said.
“You lookin’ at him.”
The men both smiled and Ptolemy understood why Reggie had called this man friend. He was powerful but there was no anger to him. This was the kind of man that you wanted to know, wanted to work shoulder to shoulder with.
“My name is Ptolemy Grey,” the old man said, continually astonished at his renewed new ability to communicate.
The smile on Billy Strong’s face diminished. It took on a sad aspect but did not disappear.
“You Reggie’s great-granduncle.”
So many children, Ptolemy thought, and children getting children and them doing the same. It seemed to him like some kind of crazy math problem worked out in streets and churches, dance floors and cemeteries. Reggie was his great-grandnephew, now dead. And Ptolemy was his survivor, like the small sum left over at the end of long division, like the few solitary and dumbfounded men who had survived the first wave on D-Day.
“Yes, I am,” he said simply.
“Reggie told me that you was havin’ some problems with your, um, thinkin’.”
“Robyn Small took me to a doctor give me some medicine help me put my words and my thoughts together.”
Strong smiled broadly, saying, “Robyn, huh? That little girl gotta backside on her that’s a crime.”
Ptolemy smiled in response. Even when he was in his confused state he had noted Robyn’s hips.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Grey?”
“Lemme buy you a drink and ask you a couple’a questions is all.”
“You wanna go to a bar?”
“Someplace quiet an’ upscale, so we don’t have to get in no fights.”
“No place around here like that. We have to drive if you want to go to a nice bar.”
“You drive and I’ll buy,” Ptolemy said with a sly grin.
“Julio,” Billy exclaimed.
“I’ma be gone for a hour or so. Look after the place while I’m out.”
“You got it.”
You know my nephew long?” Ptolemy asked Billy Strong at the Aerie Bar, on top of the Fredda Kline Professional Building on Grand Street in downtown L.A. If they had turned away from the bar they would have seen all the way to the ocean through a blue and amber sky.
“’Bout six years, I guess,” Billy said. He had put on a pale-gray sweater and a pair of dark trousers as formal wear for the bar.
Billy ordered a beer. Ptolemy asked for a double shot of sour-mash whiskey. Billy had convinced the older man to leave his steel pipe in the car.
“Somebody kilt him,” Ptolemy said. “They murdered my boy, shot him down like a dog.”
“I know. I was at the funeral. I didn’t see you there, Mr. Grey.”
“Niecie sent Hilly to get me, but I don’t like that boy, he’s a thief.”
“Yeah. He’s not the kinda son I’d be proud of.”
“Why somebody wanna shoot a boy sittin’ on a stoop mindin’ his own business?” Ptolemy asked.
Billy took that opportunity to sip his drink.
“I mean,” Ptolemy continued, “I don’t know much about the streets today. When I was movin’ around, there wasn’t gangs or these drive-bys, but Reggie wasn’t a part’a no gang, was he?”
“No, sir. Reggie stayed outta that.”
“So you think that it was just some mistake, somebody thought he was somebody else?”
Billy finished his beer and Ptolemy raised his hand to catch the bartender’s attention. When the slim, mustachioed white man looked their way, Ptolemy pointed at the empty glass. He was astounded by this simple gesture, aware that only weeks before it would have been beyond him.
“Did Reggie talk to you about moving away to San Diego?” Billy asked.
“Uh-uh. At least I don’t think so. You know, the medicine I took cleared up my mind, but a lotta things I heard when I was, I was confused are still jumbled up. You sayin’ Reggie was gonna move outta town?”
The bartender brought Billy’s second beer, along with an outrageous tab. Ptolemy put two twenty-dollar bills down on the bar.
“Why?” Ptolemy asked.
Billy sipped again.
“Why?” Ptolemy asked.
“You know Alfred Gulla?”
The image of the brutal man with the name not his own hanging from his chest sidled into Ptolemy’s mind.
“Reggie’s wife’s boyfriend.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “Reggie found out that Nina was still seein’ Alfred and he decided that he was gonna move with her an’ the kids down to San Diego. He asked me if I could find somebody to look after you, because he didn’t trust Hilly either. But before we could make plans, he got shot.”
Ptolemy tried to slow his mind down, to make himself believe that he didn’t yet know enough to say who had killed his great-grandnephew. He tried to make his mind muddy again so that confusion would wash away the words that Billy was saying. But he could not turn his mind’s eye away from the ugly man that had his arm around Reggie’s woman.
“When did they shoot my boy?” Ptolemy asked.
“Eight weeks ago yesterday.”
“It was four in the afternoon.”
“Bright day?” Ptolemy asked.
“Out in the open?”
“Car drove by and opened fire. Every damn bullet hit Reggie.”
Billy looked up into Ptolemy’s eyes. The truth was there between them, like a child’s corpse after a terrible fire that no one could have prevented.
Billy parked the car in front of Ptolemy’s apartment building. After hearing about Melinda Hogarth, he offered to walk his friend’s great-uncle to his door. A man shouted at them from across the street.
It was a big dark-skinned man with bright eyes and a nose that had been broken more than once, a man who wouldn’t be daunted by a ninety-one-year-old man swinging a steel pipe. Behind him was Melinda, her finger wrapped in thick white bandages and gauze.
“You done attack my girlfriend,” the man said to Ptolemy.
The old man wasn’t afraid. His revelation about Reggie had taken up all of his feelings and pain. The blustering man in army surplus pants and purple T-shirt was nothing to him; death was nothing to him. All he wanted to do was remember if Reggie had talked about going to San Diego.
In his oversized gray sweater Billy didn’t look powerful or strong. He was shorter than Melinda’s brute, but he still moved into the space between Ptolemy and the big man, who, on closer inspection, was past fifty and paunchy.
Ptolemy expected Billy to say something, to warn off the thug boyfriend of the woman mugger. But instead Billy threw a straight punch, hitting the man in the throat. After that the bodybuilder kicked and bludgeoned the big man until he was on the ground, crawling away down the sidewalk. There was a streak of blood on the pavement behind the bully, and the only sound was the beaten man coughing, trying to catch a breath through his bruised windpipe.
“Go on in, Mr. Grey,” Billy said in a mild, friendly voice. “I’ll stay out here and watch these mothahfuckers until you inside.”
Ptolemy saw that Melinda had retreated across the street. She wasn’t complaining or even trying to help her
“Yeah, Mr. Strong?”
“If you need it, I’ll come by an’ get you anytime, ya hear?”
“Yes sir, I sure do.”
Inside the apartment Ptolemy thought about Robyn, who was so quick to fight, and now Billy, who didn’t even utter a warning. He could see that the world outside his door had become more dangerous than it was when he was a younger man. Poor people had always fought and killed each other, but it wasn’t so fast and unpredictable. People shot out like rattlesnakes on these modern streets. There was no warning anymore.
The phone rang at 7:27 that evening.
“I’ma be home late, okay?”
“Sure it’s okay. But be careful when you come back in. That Melinda got her some boyfriend threatened me.”
“What you do?”
“I was wit’ Billy Strong. He beat the bejesus out that man.”
“Billy? He’s nice.”
“He said the same about you. What time you comin’ home?”
“Okay. I’ll prob’ly be up.”
“You don’t have to wait up for me, Uncle.”
“No. I’m just thinkin’ ’bout things.”
“The modern world.”
At 8:30 there came a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” Ptolemy asked.
“Dr. Ruben, Mr. Grey. Can I come in?”
Ptolemy opened the door and said, “Hello, Satan.”
The doctor was wearing a herringbone jacket, black trousers, and a dark-red dress shirt that was open at the collar. He seemed to grimace under the bale of hair that passed for a mustache.
“How are you, Mr. Grey?” the beady- and green-eyed doctor asked, forcing his scowl into a smile.
“Burnin’ up and singin’ in my veins, rememberin’ all the things that went to pass like they was just this mornin’ and not fifty, sixty, seventy . . . eighty years ago.”
The doctor’s smile grew as Ptolemy watched him. This standoff went on for a while, until the doctor asked, “Can I come in, Mr. Grey?”
Ptolemy spent maybe twenty seconds more trying to think if there was some rule against letting Satan in your door.
“Come on, then,” he said when he couldn’t think of any strictures pertaining to the Devil and simple civility.
Ptolemy sat on his lightweight stool and bade his guest sit on Robyn’s couch.
“Your mind is working well?” Ruben asked. “You’re remembering and able to get your words out?”
“Bettah then evah. I could tell you the kinda cake my mama made on my sixth birthday, and what the driver talked about when I took the bus up to Twenty-third and Central this afternoon.”
“Did you take the bus by yourself?” Ruben asked.
“Do you have any problem walking, handling things?”
“Naw. Mattah fact I seem a little more handy than I was.” He was thinking about the pipe he had swung at Melinda. “I seem to be more—what you call it?—coordinated.”
The doctor smiled and nodded.
“And you say you have fever?” he asked.
“I get so hot sometimes I can feel it comin’ off my skin. I take aspirin an’ a cold shower an’ it go away.”
“That’s just right, Mr. Grey. A shower and aspirin will work for a while. Maybe a long while.”