GRAEME CAREY

NO MAN’S LAND

 

“Nah, man.”

No Man said no—or rather, nah—to everything at first. He started every sentence in the negative even if he agreed with what someone had just said.

“Yo, you love your mom?”

“Nah, man. I love my mom.”

“Yo, you think the Mets are gonna win the pennant?”

“Nah, man. That shit’s a cakewalk.”

“Please state your name for the record.”

“Nah, man. Earl ‘No Man’ Wallace.”

On this particular occasion, the question had been, “Yo, No Man. Can I get something from you real quick? I’ll pay you back tomorrow. You know I’m good like that.” And the answer had been a flat, “Nah, man,” and nothing more.

No Man sat in the driver’s seat of the wheelless, black Pontiac Sunfire, with Pig in the passenger seat. Pig, at nearly six and a half feet tall, slouched forward in the chair, with his short afro squishing against the roof of the car so that it looked more like a flattop. One by one people would poke their heads into the window and say, “Yo, what’s good,” before handing No Man a ten-dollar bill. Pig, who was useful because of his giant, dark hands, which could be seen from a mile away, would then raise his arm out the window and flash the signal to the guy posting up against the wall down the block. The person who had given the money to No Man would then casually stroll down the street and, like a running back being handed the pigskin before taking off through the lane, receive a nifty little present from the guy waiting down the block.

At first people had been confused by No Man’s habitual “nah, man,” thinking that he was rejecting their request to purchase some smack, but over time they came to see it as part of the routine, eventually dubbing him The No Man, and then just No Man.

“Yo, you get your shit from No Man today?”

“Yo, where can I get hooked up around here?”

“You gotta go hit up No Man.”

Unsurprisingly, the block had become known as No Man’s Land, even by the regular civilians. They would even say it affectionately.

“Yeah, I live up in No Man’s Land.”

No Man tried not to let it make him too cocky, but that sort of thing was bound to make a person’s head swell up. In the two-minute walk that it took him to get from the burnt out Pontiac to the corner bodega, he’d hear his name called at least a dozen times.

“Hey yo No Man. What’s good?”

“No man, my man.”

“Yo, how you livin’, No Man?”

In lieu of a response he’d nod or, if you owed him money, simply suck his teeth.

Unlike Pig, who, along with being tall was proportionately large, with broad shoulders that could cast a shadow over half a street (his friends sometimes affectionately described him as a “big, baggy monster”), No Man was not at all an imposing physical presence. He barely reached five feet while standing on his toes, with hardly any meat on his bones, and in his oversized blood red hoody, which looked like it could have been Pig’s baby sweater, he almost completely disappeared, with just his head poking through the collar. Some people who had never had the joy of speaking with him believed that he was called No Man because he looked almost as if he didn’t exist.

But, still, this was No Man’s Land.

Despite his lack of physical presence, No Man was still widely feared around the neighborhood, more so even than Pig, who looked and moved like a sloth and was worthless in any kind of physical confrontation unless the opponent stood completely still. No Man garnered fear and respect, which were essentially the same things on the block, for his ability to tell a story. He could spin a yarn like nobody’s business.

There was the story about how he and a guy named Squat—who nobody had ever heard of and who, according to No Man, had gotten his name because he always leaned back while walking—had somehow, after taking a wrong turn or something, found themselves over on the east side, which was a definite no-no for people from the west side, and so they inevitably ran into a guy who recognized that they were out of place and said something along the lines of, “Yo, man, you’re out of place. Why don’t you let me hold your money for a minute,” all the while holding a gun up to their faces. And, according to No Man, this guy Squat had pissed himself, not figuratively, but literally pissed himself. No Man had heard a splashing sound and turned to see a small puddle forming around Squat’s feet. And next thing he knew Squat, piss still streaming down his leg, took off running down the street. But No Man, who certainly hadn’t pissed his pants and wasn’t even really all that scared, truth be told, according to him, just stood there with his hands buried inside the pocket of his huge red sweater. The guy repeated, “Yo, man, let me hold your money real quick,” but No Man didn’t even flinch. “You’re gonna have to shoot me if you want it,” No Man said he had said. And eventually the guy got the picture, that No Man was not the kind of guy that you should fuck with, so he dropped his weapon and ran away even faster than Squat had. By some accounts, before the guy had darted away a second puddle had formed on the sidewalk, although this detail might have been an elaboration from other people retelling the story.

No one had ever questioned the existence of Squat, even though no one had ever seen him around the neighborhood or heard of him, because No Man’s description of him, down to the way his right eye would twitch when he was lying, had been so detailed that it had to be true. And some people, after about the tenth time that they had heard the story, would even chime in with their own recollections of the man, saying something like, “Yeah, I knew Squat. That kid was a bitch.”

Then there was the story about how No Man had killed a man, or was it two men? It changed depending on who was retelling the story. But the original version from No Man had been about how he, while sitting in the Pontiac Sunfire alone one night, working, had been approached by a smack head who simply refused to take “Nah, man” for an answer.

“Come on, man, just a dime, just this one time. You know I’m good.”

“Nah, man.”

“Come on. I’ll catch you tomorrow.

“Nah, man.”

“You gonna do this to a loyal customer?”

“Nah, man.”

Finally No Man, according to him, grown tired of the one-sided conversation, jumped out of the Sunfire with the crowbar from under the seat and bashed the smack head’s head in until it was nothing but nauseous goo. No Man didn’t used the term “nauseous goo,” but he did describe the sound made each time the crowbar connected with the guy’s skull, and how the sound got squishier and squishier with each blow, until it was as if he had been whacking away at a wet sponge. And he described the way the man’s heart kept pumping out blood well after his face was little more than a scattered mosaic of a former face, and how the blood had looked more like a licoricy dark purple than red under the amber streetlights of the pitch black night.

Over the years this story had evolved and transformed quite a bit. It had taken on a life of its own, to the point that it seemed like everyone in the neighborhood had developed their own unique version of it. Sometimes it was one smack head, sometimes it was two, other times it wasn’t a smack head at all but a rival from the east side named Ramo, who had mysteriously gone missing a couple years back. No one had ever pointed out the fact that no one else seemed to be able to corroborate No Man’s story. And no one had ever pointed out the fact that there had never been even trace amounts of blood around the immobile Pontiac, let alone what must have been, based on No Man’s story, puddles of blood all over the place. He couldn’t be expected to explain every little detail of the story, so they would fill in the blanks using their imagination.

“Yo, I bet No Man dumped the body in the river.”

“Nah, I bet he lit the body on fire. Why you think the Pontiac’s all burnt looking?”

Of course, all of No Man’s stories were bullshit. But he was such a good storyteller that no one had ever challenged him. Part of what made him such a good storyteller was that he didn’t reveal everything. He let people draw their own wild conclusions and build up his legend. He knew that the more he said, the more likely it was that he would make a mistake. So he mostly focused on description. He figured that if he could be as descriptive and specific as possible—down to way the light bounced off a car window, or the way a guy bit his tongue as he tried to act tough—it would seem more believable.

Pig, on the other hand, never lied, not really, at least. It just wasn’t in him. He always felt compelled to the tell truth, and if he would for some reason happen to be less than honest he’d immediately own up to it and say, with a mopey look on his face, “That was a lie.” Sometimes he’d even announce beforehand that he was about to tell a lie, so that those listening were aware of any possible fiction in his stories.

The sun had nearly set. No Man and Pig sat in silence in the Sunfire, watching as the orange globe dipped beneath the townhouses at the end of the street. Both of them felt that end of day sadness but neither of them expressed it.

No Man lived in a small apartment, beige-walled with the odd poster (one of a shirtless Tupac, one of a movie called Clockers, which he had never actually seen but he had heard that it was about drug dealers). Due to poor infrastructure and a particularly strong windstorm a few months back, the light pole outside his window now tilted inward on a seventy-five degree angle, right up against his living room window, shining bright orange light into the entire apartment at night. In an attempt to reduce the brightness, which had prevented him from sleeping for nearly a week straight, causing him to nod off during the day in the Sunfire, he had stapled a dirty sheet over the window, but the sheet, which was red, like everything else that he owned, had merely turned the orange light red, making his entire apartment look as though it had been smeared in blood, which he had thought was kind of cool at first, until it started to make everything else, even when he wasn’t in the apartment, seem as though it were tinged with a redness. Over time he had gotten used to the light and the color, and he had learned to sleep in his apartment even though the intensity of the streetlight made it seem as though his eyes were never quite shut.

Pig lived in an apartment, more like a closet, not too far from the Sunfire, just around the corner and down the block. He was neighbors with several of his customers. In contrast to No Man’s excessive light situation, Pig’s apartment was lit solely by floor lamps, since somehow the entire building had been built without any light fixtures.

Neither of them had seen the other’s apartment.

“Gettin’ kind of quiet,” Pig said, noticing that it had been several minutes since the last person had popped their gnarled face into the car window, which was unusual since heads were usually popping in and out like clockwork.

As if in response to Pig’s comment, a dark and grinning face appeared in the window. With his right hand suggestively buried in the breast of his green bomber jacket, the man said, “I’ll be takin’ the money from that glove box now.”

No Man and Pig froze.

“Hurry it up,” the man yelled, slowly pulling his hand from his jacket to reveal the butt end of a .380 to show that he indeed meant business.

No Man started shaking, with his hands gripped firmly on the steering wheel at ten and two as if he were trying to will the car into motion. Pig took the money, a full day’s worth, out of the glove box and attempted to hand it over to No Man, but No Man was too petrified to take his hands off the wheel and grab the money to give to the stickup man.

“Boy, you better hand me that stack,” he said, sliding the gun out even more.

No Man ducked and shielded his face as if the man was about to open fire, and said, “Nah, man, please don’t shoot, don’t shoot. Please, God!”

The man laughed and calmly tucked the gun away, realizing that it wouldn’t be necessary, and reached across No Man to grab the cash from Pig. “I see why they call you No Man,” he said. His big laugh reverberated throughout the street as he strolled away.

No Man stayed cowered in his seat for several minutes after he had gone, although he was now cowering from embarrassment instead of fear.

“Yo man, he’s gone,” Pig said, feeling a little embarrassed himself for No Man’s sake.

No Man finally sat up in his seat, still trembling. Pig looked at him out of the corner of his eye and shook his head.

The next day word had gotten out that the Sunfire had been robbed, and everyone had heard about No Man’s less than brave performance under fire. Some said he had cried, while others said he had wet himself, but all agreed that he was not the man that he said he was. They were disillusioned to his bullshit. And while Pig hadn’t exactly held down the fort and fought off the stick up man, and he had even admitted to a few people that he had been terrified during the robbery, at least nobody had expected anything from him. So there were no surprises with Pig. Which is why on that day the bosses had decided to switch things up, so now Pig sat in the driver’s seat of the Sunfire while No Man sat in the passenger’s seat, slouching down as far as possible so that he was barely visible over the windshield. The consensus was that No Man couldn’t be trusted.

 

 

Graeme Carey is an English MA candidate at McMaster University. His writing has appeared in Grub Street Literary Magazine, and he was named a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest.

 

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