She lies and says she's in love with him
Can't find a better man
She dreams in color, she dreams in red
Can't find a better man
Can't find a better man
Can't find a better man
(“Better Man” Pearl Jam, 1994)
Devon Shellnick wanted to be a better person, but sometimes nature does not allow the leopard to transform into a sheep just because he is tired of killing his next meal. Devon was twenty four and in six weeks, he’d be twenty five. At that point he would be the oldest member of the Flushing Avenue Freaks Gang. His brother Ernie died one night during a rumble with the Crown Heights Royals. Ernie was just seventeen at the time of his untimely death. Devon was thirteen when he stood next to his mother, all dressed in black. She let out a wail when they lowered Ernie’s casket into his grave.
“Don’t ever be one of those juvenile delinquents.” She waved a finger at him when they got home.
“No mama.” He swore which at the time was like swearing on the Bible.
Ironically, Devon had done everything right. He went to Catholic school, he was an altar boy, and he sang in the choir when he was in high school. Many thought he was on his way to becoming a priest. But sometimes the roads in life aren’t so straight and there are many detours that are distracting.
“Carlos, I’m gonna be twenty five in a few weeks.” He told his best friend and fellow Freak.
“So?” Carlos lit a cigarette and handed it to Devon. He lit another one for himself.
“I’m getting a little old to be gang-banging, huh?” He took a puff.
“You can’t quit, bro. Once a freak, always a freak.” Carlos repeated the motto of the Freaks.
“Seventy.” Carlos turned his head and smiled. Some of the freighters were pulling away from the docks. “You can’t jump out, dude.”
“I just think it's time to do something else.” He said, but a boat horn drowned out his last few words.
“You know Nicky would go berserk if he heard you talking like this.” Carlos smiled wide revealing some gaps where his teeth had been knocked out during some of the gang’s action.
“Nicky is a freak.” Devon sighed.
“Damn right, his brother got knifed in a fight. Boy is hardcore.”
“My brother was killed.” Devon shook his head.
“Yeah, so how come you’re not as crazy as Nicky?” Carlos elbowed Devon.
“Mama made me swear not to join a gang.” Devon tossed his cigarette but into the water.
“Lot of good that did.” Carlos did the same. Both of them came to their feet and began to walk the waterfront street near the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Devon loved this part of town, because he could imagine where all the ships were coming from and where they were going to. It was a brisk late summer morning where the wind would remind you that winter was not too far away.
“I joined when those bums came in from Flatbush. They pushed me down and stole my stuff.” Devon recalled.
“And we came in to save your ass.” Carlos laughed. Carlos was only eleven at the time.
“Nicky told me in order to repay him for the rescue, I had to join the Freaks.” Devon shook his head.
“And you’ve been a stand-up guy ever since.” Carlos slung his arm around his friend’s shoulder.
“I can’t do this anymore.” Devon confessed.
“Look around. Do you see any guys wearing tailor made suits with Gucci shoes walking around?” Carlos shrugged.
“Yeah, but the money we make-”
“The money we make helps your mama pay the rent.” Carlos pointed his finger at Devon, “You gotta be grateful for what we give you, compadre.”
Devon came to the stoop on Grace Court where he had lived all his life. He climbed the cement steps and leaned on the half wall near the front door.
“Don’t be stupid, Dee. You know how Nicky is.” Carlos said over his shoulder as he continued to walk another block to his apartment where he lived with his mother and her sister Aunt Flora.
“Hey ma.” Devon walked into his second story apartment passing through the hall filled with strange smells of dinner being cooked and conversations taking place in several languages.
“Where have you been?” She was wearing her flowered apron like she usually did along with a mid-calf skirt and a pastel colored blouse.
“Talking with Carlos.”
“That bum.” She nearly spit to rid herself of the bad taste left in her mouth by mentioning his name. “What did you two get into?”
“We were at the park watching the ships.” He turned away from her.
“And this is what a man does? He goes and watches the boats come into the harbor?”
“Yes.” Devon snapped.
“You need to look for a job. You need to find something worthwhile to do.” She said as he walked into his room and shut the door.
Inside his sanctuary, he saw his walls filled with the posters of his youth, many had been put up while Ernie was still alive. He felt if he removed them, it would be like removing Ernie from his memory, as if his brother never existed. He had a few old dog-eared books that he hadn’t opened since high school, since he actually had some goals and plans.
It happened a few weeks from graduation when those idiots came screaming down the road waving sticks and clubs. He was alone walking home from school when they descended on him. He remembered the first few blows just before everything went black. When he came to, Nicky Ronnerick was kneeling beside him, slapping his cheeks, “Hey kid, are you alright?”
He groaned as his eyes fluttered open. “Who?”
“Nicky, Nicky Ronnerick of the Flushing Avenue Freaks or just Freaks for short.” He laughed, “Your brother was one of our lieutenants.”
“Yeah, Ernie.” He managed to say.
The initiation was easy since Ernie had told him all about it. The hardest thing he had to do was eat a small bar of Ivory soap, but one he got done retching, he was a member of the Freaks. He would no longer have to walk the streets in fear of being jumped by some rival gang. The Freaks were now his blood brothers and would look out for him.
“One day, kid, we will get some revenge for Ernie.” Nicky told him as he choked down the last bit of the soap. Saying that sealed the deal for him.
Now everything was changing. He was watching some of the kids he went to school, make something of themselves while he played gangster. So far they had not gotten revenge for Ernie and he was beginning to doubt that anything would ever make up for losing Ernie. His mama kept a shrine in the main room with candles, a crucifix and Ernie’s last school picture framed behind the cross. His smiling face with his thick glasses always haunted Devon when he left to join the gang.
With his mama watching Wheel of Fortune, Devon snuck out of the apartment to meet his girlfriend Desiree Fontenelli down at her place a block away. It was a cool evening as he walked, but he liked the refreshing breeze.
When he got there, she was sitting on the stoop.
“Hey.” He leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Hey.” She said back. “We need to talk.”
“What about?” He asked, but he could tell there was something serious on her mind.
“Devon, we have been going out for over a year.” She stood up. She was wearing her tight fitting jeans that he really liked and a simple top that complimented her shape.
“Yeah, it’s been great. We’ve had some laughs and some good times.” He recounted.
“And we have not moved an inch since then.” She touched his cheek. “I don’t know if I can continue.”
“What do you mean?” He suddenly felt as if he was having trouble drawing his next breath.
“I mean I need someone who is willing to get off the starting block and go somewhere.” She was having trouble putting her feelings into words he would understand and she could see by the expression on his face, she was not doing a very good job.
“Where do you want to go? New Jersey?” He shrugged.
“No, we are both not getting any younger.” She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m gonna be twenty five in a few weeks.” He beamed.
“That’s it. Twenty-five. God, it seemed like it was a million miles away, but now here it is.” She bowed her head, “We need to start thinking of the future.”
Future? What was everybody always talking about the future? Ernie never got a future. Some of the others never got a future.
“If you stay in the gang, one day they will get you.” She began to feel the sting of her tears. “I don’t want to be there when they come to tell me something bad happened to you.”
“It ain’t, it ain’t.” He took a hold of her hand.
“Yes it will. It will happen.” She pulled her hand away, “Until you get out of the Freaks, I don’t want to see you again. I can’t live like this.”
“Don’t do this to me, Desiree.” He felt the sting of his own tears.
“I don’t want to, because I do love you. I just can’t sit at home and wait for some bad news.” She shook her head and ran inside. He could see her mother’s face at the window, pulling back the curtains and scowling at him. It was time for him to go. Slowly wiping some tears from his eyes, he began to walk home.
“No. No sir. I will not let you jump out.” Nicky sat flanked by two of his lieutenants in the abandoned warehouse where they met once a week. “We would have to do bad things to you.”
“I am almost twenty five. Ain’t I getting too old for this shit?” Devon shrugged.
“Once a Freak always a Freak.” Nicky repeated the mantra that had hung over the gang since inception. Street gangs were nothing new to Brooklyn, but the Freaks had reached the pinnacle of legend with some of the antics they had pulled in their history, resulting in them becoming one of the most feared gangs in history. Nicky’s brother had been the leader, but the police had finally apprehended him and put him away at Rikers for a long time. Nicky still drove up there with a couple of his lieutenants to visit him during visiting hours. Unrepentant for his deeds, Owen would just sit there with that wicked smirk on his face and listen to his younger brother go over a list of what the Freaks had been into.
“I want to be a better man.” Devon pleaded.
“You already are. You are a Freak.” Nicky used the same smirk his brother made famous during his well-publicized trial.
“I want to be a person. I want to be the man I wanted to be before-”
“Before we saved your worthless life?” Nicky chuckled.
“I’ve paid my debt to you and the gang. I’ve done everything you asked me to do. Now I’m asking you to let me go.” Devon felt the stinging of more tears.
“You are pathetic.” Nicky sneered bearing his teeth. “I should have you thrown into the river.”
“All I’m asking for is to go about the rest of my life.” He shook his head, “I’m too old to be any good to this gang anymore.”
“You have been with us for over eight years. The average time is about five years, but then that’s due to the violent nature of our business.” Nicky lit a cigarette and blew the smoke into Devon’s face, “In all that time, you never rose about a foot soldier in the Freaks. Why is that?”
“I do. You were always the weak one in any of our operations. You didn’t have the guts to ante up to what was required. If the going got tough, you got going.” He laughed.
“That’s not true.” Devon shook his head.
Nicky pulled out his .45 and put the barrel right up to Devon’s forehead.
“I can hear your sweat.” Nicky gritted his teeth and pulled the trigger.
“Ahhh!” Devon cried out as the hammer clicked on the gun.
“Just as I thought, spineless.” He stuffed the gun back into the waistband of his pants. He sat down disgusted with Devon. He could not even look at him as Devon began to blubber. “Get him out of here.”
There was a pause before he repeated his order, “Get him out of here before I puke!”
There was a look in Nicky’s eye that told Devon he needed to put some distance between him and Nicky.
He drove his old Duster to the park. With a duffle bag filled with rocks and stones, he put it in the front seat with the bottom resting on the gas pedal. It was an hour before sunrise, so he was completely alone except for the homeless people who were asleep beneath their tarps. He started the engine, put it into gear and watched his rusty old car putter toward the docks. Reaching the dock, the car did not stop, instead it went into the water. As soon as it hit the water, it began to sink, cutting off the engine, leaving only a trail of bubbles as it sank into the water.
He smiled as he picked up his gym bag. He knew he would be on his way out of the city when his mama found his suicide note saying that he drove his car into the river to join Ernie. It made him sad he had to lie in order to get away, but he knew he was no longer welcome in the city. If he stayed he would never be able to get himself on the path he had always wanted to travel, just like that Robert Frost poem he learned in high school. He would mail Carlos a letter once he got where he wanted to go.
He jogged to the train switching yard where he would throw his bag into an empty boxcar before jumping in.
Sometimes you have to cut all the connecting lines when you are starting over. His note to Desiree was short and sweet.
My dearest Desiree,
By the time you get this, I will be out of the city and on my way to the west coast where I will start my life all over again. I am sorry that it has to be this way, but in order to get where I need to be, I have to disappear. You will hear that I drove my car into the river, but I will tell you now, that is not so. When I get myself set up, I will mail you my address. You have a choice, you can join me or you can stay there and live your life as you see fit. You were right about everything. Thank you for the love you shared with me.
In about thirty minutes, the engine began to pull the long line of cars down the tracks. Even though he knew the journey would be long and arduous, he was excited when he saw the city disappear behind him. He said a prayer for his brother, one for his mother and one for his father whom he never met. Somewhere in Pennsylvania a man threw his bag into the open door and then flung himself into the car across from Devon.
“Howdy, I am Dustin Roberts.” Replied the dark skinned man, “I’m on my way to the coast.”
“Me too. My name is Otis Rittenhower.” He smiled.
“Good to meecha, Otis. Looks like we’ll be traveling together.” Dustin shook Otis’ hand.
“Looks that way, don’t it?”