Even when we were kids, Kevin was tough.
Sometimes Kevin would come down from the second story split-level apartment to hang out, and he’d have fresh bruises that nobody’d seen the day before. Everybody would wait outside for him, because everyone always waited for Kevin, and see the fresh swell of purple underneath one of his eyes or on his shoulders. He was tall, taller than most of the kids in the neighborhood, and he had a tall, sturdy frame, even as a kid. Just like his dad. People looked up to him. I looked up to him.
He was six when he started shaking down smaller kids for money at school, and he was getting a rep as a scrapper you didn’t want to mess with by the time he was eleven or twelve. Still, he’d come down those concrete steps, sometimes with scratches on his arms, or small, circular, bloody wounds that could only have come from cigarettes, and nobody had ever seen him cry.
One afternoon when we were about thirteen, me and a skinny neighborhood kid named Frankie Fazekas sat around the stoop, bouncing a basketball, and waiting on Kevin, talking about the things kids talked about. Patrick Ewing was just starting a long span of fruitless playoff runs with the Knicks, the Yankees were in fifth place, Dinkins was leading the polls, which Frankie’s dad said was a lie because there’s no way the whole city’d elect a nigger, and Paula Ramona’s tits were growing in nicely.
“I think they’re already a B cup,” Frankie said.
I bounced the Spalding against the sidewalk, and dribbled clumsily between my legs, and I said, “How the fuck would you know the difference between a B cup and an A cup.”
“It’s easy. My sister’s an A, and your mom’s a C,” Frankie said, explaining. “Paula’s somewhere in the middle.”
“You want to look at my mom, that’s fine, but leave looking at your sister to me.”
Frankie smiled. “I don’t know,” he said. “She’s a nice looking girl. But I guess your mom’s a little easier to get to.”
“Fuck your mother.”
From upstairs there was screaming and yelling, and Kevin busted open the screen door, angry, but calm, and descended the stairs, a T-shirt over his shoulder, but shirtless, with cuts all over his chest and his back, and he said, “Nobody’s fucking Frankie’s sister but me,” he said. “I’ve got it called.”
Frankie laughed and I smiled. Kevin pulled one of his stolen cigarettes from over his ear and he lit it with a Bic and he took a long, deep breath, savoring the tar, the chemicals, and that New York air. The cuts on his chest and his back were fresh, and they were bleeding. I tried to swipe the cigarette for a puff, but Kevin rebuffed me with a stiff hand to the chest.
He called me skinny bitch, long-haired punk bitch, faggot, sissy, bitch…and he laughed and so did Frankie, and so did I. In his eyes, Kevin wasn’t laughing.
He wasn’t crying. Kevin didn’t cry, and he didn’t talk about it. But that afternoon, there was something dark and distant in his eyes, a look I was used to but was rarely seen in the outside world. A look like every piece of him was breaking in half and trying to stay hidden.
“Fuck it,” Kevin said as he slipped on a Metallica T-shirt, “Are we going to go play ball, or are we going to stand around giving each other fuckin’ hand jobs?”
At Kevin’s word, we headed down to P.S. 232, to shoot some hoops and fuck with the elementary kids. There were a lot of guys down there, some of them older kids, and Kevin was as good as any of them. I played, and I wasn’t very good, but I watched as Kevin shot threes, drove to the hoop like a madman, and talked shit all day until we were all wringed out with sweat and ready to collapse.
Kevin, in particular, had his hair matted against his head in a sweaty mop, and sucked down a Gatorade he stole from a fourth grader and rubbed sweat from his face with his sleeve.
He bled through his shirt, and nobody said a word to him about it.
Nobody dared ever say a word…not even me.