By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Sitting on the fire escape of the abandoned apartment building behind us sat a shirtless young man, his dark hair close-cropped and his head bent in concentration. His tan arms and chest were cut like those of an underwear model, with tattoos inked from each shoulder to each forearm. He was tugging at the ends of a narrow band tied around one of his biceps, the point of a needle poking out from between his fingers. At the sound of the door opening, he looked up. Halfway up the wooden stairs, he sat opposite where I stood on our back porch. Our eyes locked and he turned his head again, carefully jabbing the needle into his arm.
Behind him, in the upstairs apartment, a boy about fifteen years old looked out the window. He had caramel-colored eyes and soft brown hair that fell in long curls around his face. He watched me watching him without moving. There was no hostility in his gaze, a street-smart refusal to back down suffused with longing. Coming out on to the porch, my partner saw what I was looking at and pushed me inside. "Stay in the house," he demanded sternly, shutting the door between us before walking down the stairs and pacing across the lawn. When he opened the door to come back in, the beefcake teen was gone. His gentle-looking friend was laughing and trying to pull a puppy from the roof through his window. When he saw me looking, he pursed his lips, pulled the puppy inside, and hugged it tightly to his chest. A light rain began to fall. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, whenever my partner was in the front room, I would open the back door and watch the boy holding the puppy and staring out the window. As long as I would look at him, he would look at me.
"We've seen some really heavy things," my partner told Forrest, the nonprofit director. "I don't want to keep a man from supporting his family," he said, "but we just can't live like this." He worried about bringing in the police. "What if someone comes after us?" Forrest assured us that he was talking to the people at NET and that a big sting was in the works. The police would be observing the area for two or three weeks. Then they would block off the neighborhood, swoop in, and clean the whole place out. I had visions of Armageddon: sirens blazing in the darkness, helicopters churning the air, drug dealers rushing out of houses with their hands over their heads. In the meantime Forrest promised to add height to the chainlink fence between our yard and Dwayne's to keep people from jumping it. "But if someone wants to get in," Forrest added ominously, "they're going to get in no matter what."
For the most part, people had stopped coming into our yard anyway. One morning I saw the beefcake boy, still shirtless, Rollerblading out front. From a distance his body was stunning; up close, the sculptured curves of his arms were covered with scabs and dark blotches. "You buy this house?" he asked. When I told him we were planning to, he whisked away, sighing, "No more shortcut." My tour guide Charles stood near the spot where Skates had been. "How's it going?" I asked him.
He gave his customary reply: "Doin' good; gettin' better." No matter what was happening, Charles was always "gettin' better."
Another morning I sat on our front stoop peeling two hard-boiled eggs. Charles sat with a bearded man on the curb across the street; both men watched me hungrily. "Would you like an egg?" I asked.
"Yes ma'am," shouted the bearded man, who sprang up and ran across the street. I handed him the spare egg.
"You hungry too?" I asked Charles. He nodded. I went back inside and got another egg for him.
"That was good," the bearded man smiled. "Got anything else in there?"
Many of the homeless men would stand at the fence and ask if we had any odd jobs for them to do. We never did. Charles let us know he was looking out for us anyway, keeping an eye on the house. "'Cuz sometimes," he said gravely, "Dwayne's not here, you know."
Alone in the house one night, I began reflecting on what Forrest had said. Thinking about the iron bars and the steel doors, I wondered, How could they get in? Would they, whoever they were, pick the locks? File away the iron? Spooked, I ran to the front window and lifted the curtain to see what was happening on the street. It was a Wednesday night, and there was no one out there but a lone black man I had never seen in the daytime. He was crouched in front of the minister's house in the circle of light shed by a lamppost. He swayed from side to side as though he was dancing. I watched him for half an hour as he pushed himself up until he was nearly standing and then sunk back down on his haunches. Still swaying, he would extend his right hand and pick at something in the gravel. Then he would raise his hand and put something into his mouth. He repeated this cycle: standing up, sinking down, picking at the ground, putting something into his mouth. In the darkness I could not see if he was picking at rocks, seeds, insects, or nothing at all.