Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence


Gregory Pardlo

It seemed the problem of my adolescence was the yellow line. The Nubian God slapped the switch on the wall and peeled the quasi-converted space in half by light. Toward the end of the driveway, my skateboard lay on its side like a capsized tanker. Beyond that, the solid yellow line. Like the stripe down a coward’s back. It divided Twin Hills Drive, the sinuous main road bisecting Twin Hills Park, our subdivision in Willingboro, New Jersey, and established an unofficial border between two hoods: man and child.

He often cracked on me because I lived on the east side of Twin Hills. Nubie said that because I lived on the east side, I lived in the ghetto, the barrio, the favela. On the west side there are no sidewalks, the uninterrupted lawns giving the homes a bucolic, stately mien. Cross Twin Hills Drive—cross that solid yellow line—and in addition to the urban appurtenance of sidewalks, you’ll find a vague but discernible reduction in cachet.

For once he didn’t flaunt his status as he usually would by asking, for example, how my people were getting along, or if aid was getting through to our backward and “internecine villages” in the east. When Nube saw me eyeing the skateboard with a mix of emotions as if it were a stray that had been following me around, he asked if there was any news on my ride yet. Until recently, I had been the proud owner of a moped, make and model unknown. The seat was patched with black electrical tape, and I’d sprayed parts of the chrome with silver acrylic to cover the rust and cut out contact paper designs with stencils I got from the hobby shop to decorate the gas tank. I paid for the moped with money I earned, and I rode it, avoiding major thoroughfares—as I assured my mom—to the pool or the library or to my guitar teacher’s house. Or to play Ping-Pong with The Nubian God.

Over the previous Christmas break I worked at CVS in the Burlington Center Mall. What I hadn’t spent on cassette tapes and magazines, I was required to deposit in a passbook savings account. I was neither legal working age nor street legal for the moped, but I was being raised by a graphic designer whose ability to conjure documents would have suited her for life in some radical clandestine movement like the “People’s Front of Judea”—Monty Python’s Life of Brian offering my only understanding of insurrection at the time. Instead, she rescued our family from run-ins with bureaucracies that would only tell us what we didn’t want to hear. An inspection sticker, for example, to hold us until we could afford to replace the cracked windshield. She fabricated a pool badge when I lost the one I signed for on the last day of school. She changed dates on school forms and insurance cards. And she doctored my birth certificate when I needed to prove I was old enough for a work permit. That any one of these conveniences might constitute a felony was no deterrent. We weren’t strangers to confrontations with the G-men.

By 1982, a year after Reagan fired him along with 13,000 of his fellow air traffic controllers for engaging in an illegal strike against the federal government, my father was blackballed and seemed stuck in a daisy chain of shitty jobs. He dedicated himself to smoking weed, which anyone could have seen coming. I was an otherwise zealous imitator, but I had difficulty reconciling this new ethos of surrender with our (his) former occupation directing airplanes as if levitating from the palm of his hand (I was Luke, in this analogy, to his Yoda). Dad was hors de combat, and I was too young to imagine either rescuing my captain or assuming his command. I was dumb with resentment for feeling pressed to make a choice. I’m sure Nube had no inkling of this larger, existential dread, and connected my dark mood solely to the theft of my moped, but his knack for reading people showed in moments like this as he distracted me with practical concerns—directing my attention toward the future, a kind of moving on—by asking me how I’d get to my guitar lessons. Small talk, in other words. Uncharacteristic.

More characteristic was the elegant way Nubie could tear people down. Kids who couldn’t keep up with the improvised cruelty of Nube’s insults in a busting match would grasp at easy jabs or else lumber after him with some unimaginative reference to his skin tone. He’s black, and he identifies black. This was never a question, but he’s from a light-skinned family that subverts racial categorization by maintaining, like the amount of vermouth in their nightly cocktails, a bloodline barely redolent of Africa. “Weak,” we’d shout when an overconfident homeboy was reduced to calling him Casper or snowflake, and we’d throw our hands down as if we were done with the whole thing. It amazed me how automatically people—regardless of race—would indict him for racial noncompliance like it was the dirty secret, the worst thing a motherfucker could say.

Though “tightly curled,” Nubie’s nearly blond hair and khaki-colored eyes prompted strangers behind him in line at the 7-11 to tap him on the shoulder and ask what he is. His ability to attract that kind of attention fascinated me, how his existence would confound even the most liberal racial logic. He parlayed this mystique into a talent for making time with girls, which I further fabulized into legend. It helped that he was a full year older than me, even though we were in the same grade, the result of his missing, by one week, the cut-off date for starting school, and my having tested out of kindergarten. Your mom so dumb she played hooky a whole year and told people she skipped a grade. While Nube was smoothly growing into his role, my self-image was caught in a bitter custody battle between Alex P. Keaton and Jimi Hendrix. I had difficulty branding myself, and I couldn’t blame girls for not knowing what to make of me. In my way, I resisted social conventions. But unlike Nubie, I was not a popular kid.

And it’s not like I could think of a whole lot to throw at Nube either (other than calling him The Nubian Prince, which ain’t no better than Casper, now that I think of it). But I thought I was at least idiosyncratic in my busting style when I did. I thought knowing words like “idiosyncratic” could make up for my not being funny. Your mom’s feet so crusty, she gets her shoes from a blacksmith. Problem was, I wasn’t so much funny as I was mean. Your mom so dumb she got fired from Amway. This was our bond, I suspect. That is, I suspect some guilt over our precocious pining for the world beyond our provincial borders gave us both a burden of awareness that felt immodest and, as with our newly big feet, made us self-consciously clumsy.

No, I don’t know how I will get to my guitar lessons, I told Nubie. I was already assed out over the question of how I was going to continue paying for the lessons since my CVS money was running low. Nubie tossed my Ping-Pong paddle from the milk crate where we stored the equipment.

As if flipping an omelet I tapped the ball a few times into the air. I felt the tension elastic as the ball heaved against its own inertia and was sucked back into the open mouth of my paddle. Nube seemed to be as fascinated by the fact of gravity as I was. He was standing there, quietly, and I could feel his attention gathering like a cloud of gnats over my shoulder a moment only to kite out, curiously, through the garage door, down the drive and beyond. “You know how when you lose something you start thinking you see it everywhere?” Nube said. “That raggedy thing wasn’t even mine, but every black moped I see reminds me of yours.” I turned around.

Motherfucker. Tyrone—let’s call the motherfucker Tyrone because I don’t know what his name was, exactly, I only know he was one of Herman Joiner’s four little brothers. The only interaction either Nube or I’d ever had with any of the boys in that family was a snowball fight one day when I was helping Nubie shovel his driveway. (Instead of paying us for shoveling, his mom would take us to the Pennsauken Mart where I once bought a wave brush, which I intended only to display in my back pocket, because outside my mother’s field of vision I’d occasionally sport a doo rag in pantomime of urban black machismo.) I remember there was a plush thud in the thick of foot-high snow beside me and when I looked up I could make out the scurry of bodies behind drift-covered cars across the street. We knew they were only fucking with us, but because of our shared contempt for them, Nube and I were easy to provoke. At least I was. The more I heard them cackle with glee, the more wild-eyed and iced with rage I became, the more desperately I returned dense missiles of snow. I scared the shit out of myself in moments like this when such minor provocations would light a match in the dark basement of my mind where the whisper of voices sounded like a gas leak. I hadn’t yet noticed a pattern in what would trigger it, the hysterical anger. A fly in the room, maybe. Or a basketball caught between the rim and the backboard.

Sometimes my little brother would attack me after one of my spells of relentless berating had finally broken him. These embittered homilies of mine coaxed a similar indignation from the basket of my brother’s gut. He’d swing at me uncontrollably. He was four. I worried he’d hurt himself before hurting anyone or anything else, and the futility of his rage so filled me with shame it was all I could do to straightjacket him with my arms, the two of us soon sobbing like a couple of drunks fumbling for the melody of a song we could not name. Sobbing, as I found myself suddenly sobbing in rhythm with each snowball I catapulted at the glare-shrouded silhouettes across the street that day, one of which I would name: Tyrone. And now my inner ear was full of the snake charmer’s pipe again as the summer sun thickened the air of Nube’s garage, and I felt the bile in my throat. Tyrone had done little to disguise my moped; I assumed he had Sharpied over my contact paper designs on the gas tank. Nube saw from my face that I was convinced. There was nothing more to say.


My skateboard reeled in the streets like a length of garden hose. I know the layout, the inner lives, in shape if not in detail, of almost every house in Willingboro because they were all based on just the handful of models that Levitt modified to various degrees from one park to the next. The subdivisions, called “parks,” are organized to suggest distinct neighborhoods, but these arrangements conjure the impersonal logic of a Monopoly board, reflecting gradations in class and aspiration rather than affinity.

Levitt and Sons is the name of the company run by Bill Levitt. Bill, the founding father of our town, made the cover of Time in 1950. He was the Henry Ford of real estate development. There were originally three: the famous Levittown on Long Island; the one in Pennsylvania across the Delaware from where I grew up; and mine. But because our Levittown was partially mapped onto an already existing municipality, the township kept its original name, Wellingborough.

Having built some 12,000 homes, Bill Levitt and his brother Alfred put the first Willingboro homes on the market in 1958. Although the Federal Housing Administration insured mortgages in Levitt’s development, which meant the development could not be legally segregated, Levitt insisted that permitting home sales to black families would deter white families from buying. His segregationist policy stood until 1960, when, after his attorneys’ fruitless appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the first black family moved in.

None of this history was evident in the daily life of Willingboro as I knew it. Except for the increasing frequency of black faces we might see in the supermarket, there was no indication a revolution was taking place. In 1980, 43 percent of Willingboro’s population was black, and the total population of the township was in decline. By 2010, the African American population would make up more than 70 percent of the community.

To put this into a more narrative context, if you were a student at a high school in, say, Cherry Hill, Cinnaminson, Moorestown, Marlton, Mount Holly, Voorhees, or any other neighboring town and played “first singles” (the top seed on your school tennis team) in the mid-eighties, I was the only black kid you would have encountered your whole season, the one whose ass you likely whooped. On the other hand, Willingboro, home of Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, fielded indomitable teams in track, football, and basketball. Of all the suburban towns, Willingboro was the Post-War Harlem of South Jersey.

In 1967, sociologist and University of Pennsylvania professor Herbert Gans published his study of Willingboro, The Levittowners. Here, invoking the language of his interviewees, he claims, “As in other racially integrated areas, there is much speculation about the future, and a few people predict the early arrival of ‘Philadelphia slum dwellers.’” This is hardly coded. They mean us. But my parents were more like immigrants, and I, a first-generation “Afro-American,” considered myself the rightful heir to Levitt’s prized demographic.

My parents fled the proximity of their parents in the Old World—that Germantown section of Philadelphia—to stake claim in this Lotus land of vernacular tract housing. Philadelphia is the place idealized in my memory where when visiting I played with other children and marveled that they were shod, so primitive I believed them to be; marveled how they managed the summer heat with a hydrant instead of a swimming pool. There was one playground at the top of Widener Place, the street where my mother had grown up and where Mom-Mom Sarah still lived, but the basketball court there seemed eternally frosted with shards, and the rusted merry-go-round should rather have had a mule hitched to it for drawing water from some ancient sluice. The playground served the housing projects and there was an unspoken rule—or perhaps my instinctive fear—that I was not to cross the boundary indicated by the stark change in architecture between the humble row houses and the monotone facades of public housing. Before they built the projects behind my grandmother’s house, some people in the neighborhood kept chickens and raised vegetables in the open field. The people who occupied that land, I pictured them bartering with natives in feather headdresses, themselves dressed uncomfortably in bib shirts and shoe-buckle hats. On the walls of my grandmother’s living room were framed photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, whom, I had no question, were the founders of Philadelphia.

Despite my aloofness from them, families recently drawn from the city to the sapling and sod hillocks of our Willingboro made sense to me. Following some version of the axiom that it takes three generations to produce gentility, families like the Joiners that bypassed the urban acculturation period entirely, and arrived straight from the rural sticks in one generation, short-circuited the narrative of racial progress as I understood it. They weren’t pulling themselves out of any slum, and like our remaining white neighbors, had a taste for lawn gnomes and pinwheels that offended my sense of decency. They were impossibly foreign to me, and that obscurity made an easy screen for monstrous projections.


All night I schemed a course to the Joiners’ yard to retrieve my moped. Calling the police wasn’t an option because I was not sure how the kid I bought it from came into possession of the moped in the first place. The deal was brokered by this other kid I met outside the school pool. Dude said he knew where I could get a cheap moped when he saw me admiring his. There was a paranoid urgency to the arrangement. I didn’t want to consider the possibility the moped I bought might have been stolen from Tyrone or that Tyrone might know who it did belong to. The whole way home from Nube’s I spent discrediting the scenario in which Tyrone, walking by my house, notices the moped on my porch and recognizes it as his own. So I reasoned, we live on a cul-de-sac and there is no way Tyrone could “coincidentally” glimpse the moped. The only circumstance that would explain his wandering into visual range of my porch is if he had been roaming the streets after curfew looking for trouble. It did not occur to me that he might have watched from a window as I rode it up the driveway of Nube’s house directly across from his any day during the few summer weeks before now.

The Joiner family consisted of five apparently unsupervised boys, only one of whom—Herman—was of driving age, despite the small fleet of vehicles in their driveway. There was an old conversion van that stood in the pooling rubber of its flat tires gathering pine needles; there was a dented moss green F-150 touched up in several places with primer and a sparkling lime green paint; there was a champagne Seville with a sloped rear trunk, and a rotating cast of economy cars that must have been won at auction because there were usually numbers written in grease pencil on the side window and temp tags in the rear. The family lived in a model called “The Gramercy,” a two-story colonial with four bedrooms and a two-car garage. It was a color my dad would have called “doo-doo brown” with caramel shutters and Navy blue trim around the doors and windows. If the mother ever harbored ambitions of tending a flower garden she had abandoned the idea with prejudice. Random twiggy shrubs pronged the packed dirt skirting the house. The garage doors were occasionally left open during the day, giving view to an assortment of dirt bikes and quads. What anyone in that family would need with my misfiring, oil-burning, third-hand (at that point, at least) moped was beyond me, but there he was, Tyrone, pushing my ride through every thought in my mind. My ride, which nearly came up to his chest so that he looked, in the image congealed in my mind, as if he were bulldogging a steer into a chute as he wheeled it around the house and into his backyard.


Midnight expeditions, or “rambling” as we called it, with Nubie had been exciting only because we were breaking curfew. We didn’t have any agenda. We were just bored—unlike Tyrone, if Tyrone was indeed a fellow midnight rambler. We had no interest in breaking any ordinances other than curfew itself. The point was as simple as in a game of tag: don’t get caught. It began with just Nube and me pool-hopping at school pools. And then one night Nube brought a guest to our one-in-the-morning meeting place, the band shell in Broido Park (which is actually a park and not a subdivision, and which most people, even grown-ass adults, to my frustration would mispronounce “Bro-deeyo Park”; the park where Debbie T. would soon teach me to tongue kiss; the park where I would hear live music for the first time from musicians who were not wearing tuxedos). Nube had with him the knuckleheaded Iranian kid who lived on the next street down the hill behind Nube’s. After that night, our crew grew incrementally to resemble a pack of zombie-eyed preteens wild with the night’s musk, liberated from our circuits between school and ColecoVision consoles. That’s when I knew enough to bail. Here’s proof God loves fools and children: the first night I chose to stay home was the night the ramblers broke protocol and decided to throw pebbles at some late-night beer-drinking rednecks. This was a couple of weeks before summer break began. We were all impatient with school. Someone was bound to act out. When Nube appeared in school the next morning with his nose taped and both eyes blackened, I didn’t care if anybody called me a pussy for having bailed. The gossip that went around later in the day was that police had rounded up all the kids who were out that night—and some who weren’t—after they caught the Iranian kid and forced him to give them a list of names. Even though it gave me great material for busting on Nube, nobody but him got to hear it because Nube’s parents didn’t allow him out of the house for the whole summer. And because my name miraculously hadn’t appeared on the Iranian kid’s list, I was the only person allowed to visit Nube at home, which is how we got so good at Ping-Pong.

But those earlier outings served me well after all, like practice runs. There was a system in place and I knew it. I knew whose parents stayed up late watching television, which empty nests were shut up tight like beach houses in the off-season. I knew which yards I could safely cut through, staying off the street and out of the lights, as I made my way to the Joiners’. That night I left the screen to my bedroom window open to avoid the shush and click racket of raising it. There was only the shudder of the window frame in the sash, and the red flash in the arch on the soles of my Jack Purcells disappearing over the sill in my memory of that night.

Once I was out the window, I crouched behind the forsythia to survey the street. My neighbor’s Trans-Am was parked in shadows that swayed like kelp, and condensation pebbled the windshield. The voice of Johnny Carson echoed from bedroom windows as if the whole neighborhood were a drive-in theater. Except for one yard, I took the fenceless cut-throughs because I didn’t want to risk disrupting lullabies with the shower-sound chain links make under the vaulting weight of my 115-pound frame.

Fences were initially prohibited in the Levittown on Long Island. I doubt if Bill Levitt ever considered the same rule for Willingboro when he got around to building this, his third town. But the intention for that earliest community was to preserve the sense of open and accessible common space, which was supposed to promote cohesion among residents. Doubtless this was one of his brother Alfred’s ideas. It was for quibbling over aesthetics and such quality of life issues—in addition to his general cuddly boosterism—that Bill muscled Alfred out of the family business. By the time he broke ground on Willingboro, Bill couldn’t give a shit whether or not residents felt like they lived in a cohesive community. He owned a big-ass yacht. Bill was committed to the bottom line.

A popular and long-standing feature of the two previous Levittowns was the successful exclusion of Negroes (as opposed to the unsuccessful, though fervently pursued, exclusion of Jews). I’m not speculating which prohibition the Levitt Corporation dispensed with first in those communities preceding Willingboro—the prohibition on fences or the prohibition on Negroes—but the two have a syllogistic relationship in my mind. Understanding that court rulings don’t produce social reality, I wonder (perhaps cynically) what conditions allowed Willingboro, in contrast to nearly every other municipality in Burlington County, to become such a haven for middle-class black families. Maybe white folks decided fences were a good idea after all when they found out some of their sable brethren were moving in. Or maybe the installation of fences disrupted, as Alfred might have predicted, the bonding process among neighbors enough to give black homebuyers a chance to slip through those divided ranks in increasing numbers without lighting up the phone trees. Whether they were intended to wall in or wall out, in Willingboro, fences were the norm. It was so rare to find a fenceless yard I figured any home without a fence was philosophically committed to accessible common spaces. Idealists hoping to ride out a downturn in the market of human sociability, they would welcome my trespass.

Stockade fences usually guarded swimming pools so I expected to find a kidney-shaped sheen, dark as a tar pit in the night, at the center of the Joiners’ yard when I got there, or a precipitous cedar ledge surrounding an aboveground pool, its fiberglass pump obscured by a trellis and potted ivy. But when I climbed the only tree with a limb high and strong enough to reach from their neighbor’s side yard out over the Joiners’ fence, all I could see was a large patch of dirt spreading just beyond the shed in the corner to the right of the sliding glass door. The shed must have been homemade by Mr. Joiner because it looked more like something out of a documentary about life in a shantytown than anything purchased off the sidewalk outside Rickel’s Hardware.

My moped teetered on its stand by the rear door of the garage to the left of the kitchen’s sliding glass door. I shimmied out to where the tree limb dipped and braced against the top of the fence, then let myself drop into the arms of one of the evergreen bushes lined along the perimeter. As I did this, I heard the sliding glass door open like the lid on a can of baked beans. Whoever opened the door was too distracted with the dog to notice the tops of the bush I fell in toodle-ooing in the shadows across the yard. I tried to keep everything still as I stared up at clouds bright as teeth and T-shirts in a black light nightclub, but I peeked to see Mr. Joiner clip the dog’s collar to the nylon leash. Who the fuck keeps a Pomeranian on a leash in the yard? I wanted to play with the dog. I couldn’t play with the dog. Some mechanism tracked Mr. Joiner back into the clock face of the house, and once that cuckoo bird disappeared, I scrunched down and scrambled like a roach around the yard out of sight.

I couldn’t tell which parts went where, so many were laid about on a bed sheet on the ground beneath the moped. The seat and gas tank had been removed and now leaned in the shadows against the house. Although it was dark and there was no evidence of this, I was certain Tyrone was preparing to paint my moped. At least in the dark it gave away nothing to suggest it was not my moped. Reassembling it would be a job beyond my ability. If I repossessed the moped just then, it would have cost me, having to take it to the bike shop to get it back in working order, more than the thing was worth. I had to abort the mission. At least I could hope that when I did get my ride back, Tyrone would have it running better than it did before he stole it.

But still I was distracted and couldn’t focus. I couldn’t help myself. I had to pet the dog. And then it occurred to me.

She wasn’t even barking, just licking me and squirreling. She pecked my face with her cold little beak. Trotting, I connected the shadows between each yard, and as the moon coated treetops and lawns in its chalky particulate I retraced my route home, following the North Star like, well—never mind. The dog was a little sunburst in the hammock of my shirt.

I skirted Broido Park and turned north onto Topeka Pass, where I addressed myself to the incline that proves one of Twin Hills’ eponymous topographical features. This was the hill where I famously busted my ass in fifth grade. When I told my mother I wanted a skateboard, the first thing she did, after joking that I was going to be the first black professional skateboarder, was buy me a book on the basics of skateboarding. Before she would consent to buy me a board, she insisted, I had to give her a summary of what I learned after each chapter. The chapter on falling still stands out in my memory, how to do so without breaking my neck, that is, because it was this hill and my failure to apply what I learned from that chapter that ended a promising skateboarding career before it began.

Once back in my room, I scraped together a pile of dirty clothes with my foot and balanced the dog like a figurine on the top, but she was more interested in exploring her new surroundings. I left her sniffing around as I drew the door shut and backed out of the room. Because of our four-legged houseguest poor Dudley had to sleep in the yard that night. Fortunately, he usually slept in the kitchen anyway so I was able to usher him out the sliding glass door without much fuss.

Dudley was a collie-lab mix—the kind of dog certain kinds of people like to collar with bandanas. People like my mother. A pegboard in the laundry room was stocked with dog-lover’s hardware. I retrieved one of Dudley’s old double bowls and one of the half-dozen leashes hanging there. Provisioned for the night, I slumped to the floor on my elbow to play with the Pomeranian. In addition to giving her home address, her tag read “Kindred,” and I was thinking that’s a cool name because it’s kind of soulful but not obnoxious. Not that my-soul-is-deep-like-the-rivers kind of black folks’ pretension. But I wondered if it could work only for a dog, and I began meeting various imaginary black people named Kindred, trying to determine whether or not I had an urge to roll my eyes as I shook their hands. “I’m sorry, was that Kindred? Oh, what a lovely name!” Or, “Hey. Kindred. Whassup.” if it was a dude. Or, if it was a she and she was fine, “Kin-dred,” I’d lilt—in the mirror of course, since my only mack was a strange version of 1970s black pimp mixed with Ricardo Montalban, useless in the unscripted world—before glistening my bottom lip as if it were the edge of an E-Z Wider. I’m ashamed to admit I spent time thinking about shit like this. The constant rehearsal, the constant cartography of race.

Kindred made herself comfortable on the pile of clothes, and just in case, I hooked the little question mark of the leash onto her collar and slipped the loop handle under the leg of my desk chair. I slid the bowls of food and water closer to her.

The next morning it wasn’t easy to sneak Kindred out unnoticed. My mom had let Dudley back in and he’d caught wind of the alien dog. So I put Kindred out my window and lassoed the leash over some branches on a bush. Before I told my mom I was going out, I called Nube to ask him to open his garage and wait for me there.

By the time I skated up Nube’s driveway with Kindred inside my zippered windbreaker, Nube was sitting in a chair orphaned from a long-gone kitchen set, clearly expecting an explanation as to why I’d gotten him up that early. “I stole the dog,” I reported.

“What dog?”

I lifted Kindred from my jacket and knotted the leash around the handle of the lawn mower. “The Joiners’ dog.”

“Why would you steal their dog?”

“I have a plan.”

“When—how did you steal their dog?”

“I rambled last night. I was planning to steal back my ride, but your ‘homie’ over there had it all disembodied.”

“You rambled? Alone? So you were just going to steal back your ride?”

“Yeah, but he had the spark plugs and shit all spread around the patio.” To illustrate I sprinkled imaginary parts around the garage floor at my feet.

“So you took the dog instead?”

I put my hands on my hips and nodded proudly.

He sighed. “And when you need a safe house, you think of me?”

“I have a plan.”

“I have a record. Don’t tell me you were going to ransom the dog.”

My eyes were tumbling around in my head like sneakers in a dryer while I tried to think of a plan. I untied Kindred. “No, dumbass, I’m giving the dog back. You know, like those firemen who start fires in order to be the hero?”

He struggled to make sense of all this. As did I. “I . . . I fail to see—,” Nube said.

“He’ll know it’s too much of a coincidence that I just happened to be the one who found the dog,” I said. “He’ll know I’m sending him a message.”

“And that’s what, exactly?”

“That I can take something of his, too.” Mob logic for a thirteen-year-old. Unfortunately, my fantasy mob would always end up looking like the board of trustees of some non-profit arts organization, cutthroat and vindictive but not exactly scary. Yet somehow I thought handing the dog over would have an unnerving effect similar to placing a horse’s head in Tyrone’s bed. Or at least a more subtle effect like when Tom Hagen, the Corleone Family’s consigliere, sat in the courtroom gallery with the snitch’s brother who was wearing a Giuseppe cap to show that he was fresh off the boat from Sicily and probably still smelling like a goat. All it took was the brother’s presence to remind the snitch of the old school code: snitches open their own veins in a penitentiary bathtub. Even in crime one can be compelled to surrender personal security for the greater good. The dog is unharmed. Though the threat implicit in my returning her is an empty one—I could not imagine hurting the dog—I wanted him to know I could.

“I think you’re overestimating somebody’s intelligence. I’m not saying whose,” Nube mused. I noticed bicycles that must have tumbled onto each other at some point over the last five years.

“It’ll work, trust me. Besides, he’s not stupid. He stole my ride right off the fucking porch.” I was in the middle of the street with the dog in my jacket when I heard Nube’s garage door closing behind me. I was in the Joiners’ driveway when I looked back across the street. Nube was watching from his living room window. My demands were simple and direct enough that I didn’t need to state them, but I rehearsed them in my mind so they would be written into the flex of every muscle on my face: I wanted my ride returned. I wanted some evidence that it had been unharmed. I wanted to see some goddamned contrition for the hardship I’d endured.