The Unscrupulous Al Dunbar

Uptown the city streets are rainbow and they play their own music. It leaks out the jazz clubs and cafes, spills across the sidewalks and drips over the curbs. It pools in the cracks of the pavement and permeates, awakening the muscular grooves huddle under the surface cement. It is deep soul burrow underground: low electric bass from long thunder fingers, a walking line, backbeat divine, an open strut, jaywalk in broad daylight. The music unpeels from brass shining bright: lush horns splitting the day from night, the good from the easy, bouncing round concrete corners of the city, echo up the alleyways, resonating warm and lush.

The music was always there, sweeter than Saturday night, make the people gravitate, radiate, wake up the day and take the evening deep. It was evident especially now at the sundown: you could hear the soul vocals blowing in the breeze, in every sigh, rising high, dissolving into the blood orange, cotton pink, and grape purple of the sky. In a club an alto saxophone takes a solo, stand up to speak his mind, moaning testimony up the avenue true in clear spiral streams of aural persuasion. Everybody in the city making their way, moving to the music, in five-part harmony, honest and alive, free and more than easy beneath a smiling April twilight. For a minute the world was wrapped up right.

Then Al Dunbar had to come along and fuck everything up.

Al Dunbar came pounding down the boulevard in his purple sirloin coat jacket, his gold-tip cane in vice grip, feather taking flight in his two-tone hat. He wore a lowercase scowl held bracket by his black goatee trimmed immaculate to style. His bad mood was boiling over, out into the neighborhood, his pace changing the tempo of the town, parking meters losing time, traffic lights blinking out of sequence, subway trains stalling on the tracks. Al Dunbar walking with his nostrils wide, his tongue tied in a knot, his leopard skin shoes crashing cymbals on the crosswalk.

Al spotted Mrs. Berry coming the other way. She was his Mother's friend, from long ago, drinking him Kool-Aid and eating him cheesesteaks when he was a kid. He remembered her. She would sit with Al's mother for hours smoking cigarettes, commiserating about men and the quality of government cheese. Now she was old and prune wrinkle, in a bad wig, limping down the street with a bag of groceries from the market. She spotted Al, made the face to say hi, and on an impulse he hooked her right ankle with his cane, yanking as hard as he could.

Mrs. Berry tip back like a good bottle of beer, going airborne complete before crunching the sidewalk & shattering her spine, paralyzing the lady for life.

She cried out in a minor key as her groceries spilled, and as a rogue orange rolled after Al he helped himself to a smile. He walked on, couldn't miss a beat: he had business.

Jelly, one of the neighborhood girls, had been in his car while he was at the barbershop yesterday. But she wasn’t alone: she had brought her sister. And while the barber had buzzed Al's sideburns to symmetric that chicken-head Jelly and her sisters had decided Al's car was a good place to eat their ham sandwiches. Except Al had only one rule: you don’t eat in his car.

You don’t eat in Al’s car.

1961 Cadillac Coupe. Vintage. A clean machine, restored & adored, a prize ride on vulcanized rubber… Al's Coupe was white bright with shark fins to prowl the waters and slice you in two, a plush pink interior that made every woman giggle when they touched it and every man say “Fuck.” The grille was a wide smile in sneer, all teeth beaming menace in gleam. The lower skegs were sharpened spikes, ready to puncture the kneecaps of anyone who stood too close or tried to peek down the tinted windows. Al's Coupe was more than a car: it was an ideal on wheels, his crowning glory, a perfect mesh of machinery and bloom.

It took Al Dunbar four years and dollars uncounted to restore the vehicle… everyone in town knew it was his, and everyone let him park where he wanted to: double, triple... sometimes he pulled in horizontal and took up four spaces- two handicap. The Coupe made all the tough guys stand up straight. Most of the time the car was on the boulevard under the overpass, bouncing, while another neighborhood girl sat in Al's lap and thanked him repeatedly for preserving the legacy of General Motors. Other days it was thick with the fog of sweet white smoke while Al & his pals smoked the deep purple from hollow blunts… head in the clouds, riding on air, cruising on the dream…

But today was a today for justice. Today was a day for payback. Jelly needed to learn what happens when you use the Al's Coupe like a picnic bench. Al had pulled up the crumbs from the backseat upholstery with his own manicured hands, almost split his skull wide, tiny flecks of ham and flakes of bread all over the backseat: under the mats, between the head rests, and the man at the car wash had swallowed hard and took off his cap, “I’m pretty sure I can get out the grease stains.”

Al got the call this morning from Randy Butler that it was Jelly who fouled the car- she was fucked up, out of control, eating ham sandwiches like they were going out on vinyl. Randy said she had red eyes when he saw her run out the deli, brown bags and potato chips and beading bottles of Mountain Dew. Randy said he saw Jelly laughing with her sister and  the two of them had ducked in the car to eat up out of the sunshine. Randy said he watched them do it. Randy said they didn’t even have any napkins.

“But you didn't hear it from me.”

Al knew she needed a beating: a good romantic pulp to set her back on the right way, remind her that he owned this town and no treats his car like a barnyard. A hospital job would be good, maybe break her leg... some time in a cast might make her think twice about her table manners. The girl was a nitwit, alway one ring shy of a circus but now… now she needed correction.

As he walked Al Dunbar was thinking of other things. That bootleg concert he had to dupe to cassette and get onto the street. The five grand he owed Chimney from the football games. And he thought of the Manhattan Wrap.

The Manhattan Wrap was serious business. And it was an original, Pizza Palace was the only place you could get one. Dice-chicken, tomato, lettuce and special sauce in a wrap with fries. Fries in the wrap- he loved that. Then you got seasoned fries on the side and an ice-cold Dr. Pepper. He was starving... he could taste the hot grease. Al lick his lips and check his watch. He would still have time for a Manhattan wrap, if he beat Jelly fast, no small talk or conversation. He could smell the nuggets frying, taste the sugar of the soda sweet. His pupils dilate, blood sugar go low. Gotta make this fast.

Up the stairs to Jelly's place, walls filthy with the wallpaper slick and slithery. The place made him sick. He climb up to the second floor, could hear the TV from the hallway, knew it had to be from her apartment. It sounded like some junk talk show where the audience could scream and holler at the guests and pretend to be outraged. Al come to the grimy door, knocked and waited, and eventually Jelly’s five year old boy opened up, naked except for his yellow underpants. Al had forgotten the kid’s name: he handed the boy a toffee from his coat pocket and stepped inside.

The place was a wreck: Al could smell the toilet room and expired food. There was garbage on the floor... it covered up some of the cigarette burns pockmarking the carpet. The people on TV got righteous with the microphone.

Jelly's little boy bit into the toffee and wordlessly wandered back to TV. Al asked, “Where your Mother, son?”

The boy pointed.

Jelly, in her bathrobe, at the kitchen table, sound asleep next to her pipe. A bruised apple sit on the table next to her- on the verge of going rotten- next to a puddle of saliva from her open mouth. Jelly was out cold. Her filthy robe was open wide and exposing her breast, her hair knotted gnarly with her eyelids making flutter. She was dreaming of ham sandwiches and harder rock.

Al looked at Jelly, just some public school walkout, just some poor bitch that didn't have the sense God gave a pigeon. In that minute he wanted her dead. In that minute he hated her.

He kicked the chair out from under her, breaking off the legs, and Jelly's chicken face slide across the table before she collapsed like an empty puppet on the floor. Then her eyes open wide, blinking, trying to boot up her brain box as she rose to feet and saw Dunbar before her.

Al was at work but his mind on the Manhattan Wrap, the sound of the crackling deep fryer. “Who told you to eat in my car, you crackhead reject?”

He slapped her face, warming her up, yanking her wrists to pull her close. She shook her head. “No, godammit, no!”

Al punched her stomach, uppercut her face when she was doubled over. He felt a tooth go loose. He grabbed her neck and kicked her in the back, using the instep of his shoe so he didn't scuff the vamp. He slammed her face into the kitchen table. She stood up, shattered, a panic in tremble, blood flowing from her mouth, howl, “No! Stop! Stop it Al Dunbar!”

Al smile, sit her on the table top, one hand on her hip, the other reaching for the switchblade in his vest pocket. “The hell is wrong with you girl? Who do you think you're tangling with?”

He put the knife to her throat but Jelly slip away. He decided to carve his name into her forehead, and then he'd be on his way to taste the seasoned salt of the french fries. Al grabbed for her and only got her bathrobe, which she stepped out of as she ran. He dropped it to the floor: “Get over here.”

Jelly, naked, bloody, bent in cower behind the sofa, “No, Dunbar, no...” The tears were flowing.

Al crossed the room, grab her dirty hair in his hands and drag her across the apartment on all fours. Jelly, bleeding, eyes tearing, nose running, buck and prance like a Paso Fino.

“Now you're gonna learn what happens when you fuck with Al Dunbar.”

That was when Jelly's kid plunged the knife into Al Dunbar's round belly, invasion off schedule.

Al stopped and looked down at the child, curious, and the boy looked back at him- no fear, no anger, just the understanding of what had to be done.

The kid, fresh bold, kept his eyes locked with Dunbar's as he moved the knife northwest jagged up Al's belly, severing coiled bowel, slicing pancreas like sweet potato pie. The steak knife stake its claim in the deepest of Dunbar’s gut, just enough air left for Al to speak placidly the only word he ever understood: "Motherfucker."
But it was too late. Too late, yeah. That's the grace of nature. Even with the sun falling slow and the crocus in blossom, even here in the golden hour, it was too much for medical doctors to repair. Too deep for nurses to soothe. Not even enough time left to thank God for the sunset.

Al looked down at the blood. His. Real. The knife stuck out his stomach like a comic prop, and his hand went loose, letting go of Jelly's hair. She stand up and grab her boy.

Al took a step to walk- somewhere- but saw he wasn't going far. Maybe there was no place to go now. This was happening. In a moment he felt the cold that would be taking him home, and he realized then that's what death was. The cold. All the cold and nothing else.

'I came out of a warm wet hole and I'm not going back'

Who said that? He smiled watermelon wide at his own stray thought and personal punchline, but you'd never get it, you're not dying, you're alive and you could never understand, couldn't comprehend...

Al sit down on the sofa, the red from his center impossible to stop, the loss of his core preposterous to deny. He looked to the TV for one last minute of entertainment but found he couldn't process anymore. He saw it, the people onscreen, all tangle up in troubles that belong to someone else. He watched the faces: brows furrowed in fury, ears closed, shouting words they didn't understand, their anger the only fingerprint they had to leave behind. They were just ants... digging tunnels mindless, lost in their own avenues and falling farther away from home. Al felt the pain but the pain no longer bothered him. It was just a nuisance, like a phone ringing in the distance... he was onto something bigger. He was absorbing the minus.

He was wondering if they would bury him in his good clothes.

Jelly was on her cell, lower lip shaking, squealing at someone she knew, asking for help in removing the body. Already planning his funeral and fearing no repercussion. Chicken-headed nitwit.

The music of the evening- organic jazz, jungle funk- played over the sounds of the city, swarmed into symphony, rose to crescendo: the percussion of the train on the tracks, the harmonica howl of the car horn, the ride and crash of the bus exhale hydraulic, the applause of the people, the clapping of the feet. He was gonna miss the music. And as Al Dunbar lay there bleeding to death, missing the Spring, the city at night, the music that is life, his last thought was of the juicy Manhattan Wrap.

And he licked his lips.

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