I grew up in south central Los Angeles, Compton to be exact and I’ve seen my share of violence. I noted, keenly aware, a click before the violence, a moment, calmness, and afterward the same. Violence has its energy; a man-made tornado. This concurrence of violence and beauty visited upon a little part of the world inspired the Sugar Brown Store.
The Sugar Brown Store
The bullet that killed Sweet Jeffrey in front of the Sugar Brown Store whizzed through the currents at a velocity of nine hundred feet per second. The bullet upon entering Jeffrey’s chest was true and precise, creating a hole the size of a dime, but upon exiting his back the tumbling bullet exploded, leaving a hole six inches in diameter, depositing his right lung and scapula against the brownstone wall.
With his legs extended in front of him, Jeffery sat slumped to one side, coming to rest gently on his left temple. His left arm was twisted and pinned behind him against the brownstone wall, while his right arm was stretched out in front of him, the hand splayed. What enraptured those that gathered to see Jeffrey in his last moments on earth was how he had struck such a beautiful, poetic pose.
A shiny European suit of dark green draped his body, underneath he had worn a black silk shirt and on his feet were black Italian loafers. A gold wedding band and a pinky ring of black onyx and a gold crucifix, which had been pushed up and out of his shirt during the explosion that occurred in his body and now dangled near his chin, were his only jewelry. It was no surprise to some, “Leave it to sweet Jeffrey,” that he would be the one to make such a gallant courageous last defiance of death on the streets, because by capturing death in such a way Jeffrey was to be remembered always. For nearby was a photographer from Life Magazine who was shooting an expose of the city for “A Day in the Life.”
Across town a small young girl lost her purple balloon and instantly began to cry at the loss of the object of her attention until the movement of flight captured her imagination. She stood on the lawn of her friend’s house in her pink party dress, which had been bought for her friend’s birthday party, and gazed upward as the balloon maneuvered its way up into the clouds, and as her expression changed from sharp pained features into soft wonderment, this too was captured for posterity by a mother, who sent the photograph to her favorite local news show.
Carlos Terrano ran with a gun in the shadows through garbage can strewn alleys, over chain link fences, across vacant lots, and past churches of all denominations. In his mind he knew what he had done and repeated “oh my God” until it became a chant. And the chant became a way for Carlos to stabilize his breathing as he ran; it was a technique he had learned while on the Lincoln High cross-country team. But even with the chant it had become hard to breath. He now had been running for twenty minutes and calculated that he had run at least three miles. And he smiled at this calculation, and if not for the stinging in his lungs would have laughed, laughed at how little ground he had covered, at how little ground he, a star cross-country man, had covered in such a time of danger. And he tried to rationalize this by taking into consideration that he was not running the 10,000 meter race in the Dominguez Hills but, rather, an obstacle course through East L.A… But as soon as he had rationalized it, the sirens could be heard again; because as long as he kept his mind clear and concentrated on his breathing and steps, the sirens never reached his ears, but he could never concentrate for long, because of the image he carried in his mind, and whenever he slipped back into the real world, the sirens would fill his head. And now the sirens were closer than ever.
After Jeffrey’s body had been taken away, after the detectives had taken their notes, after the children had mockingly lain where Jeffrey had lain,–acting out another gangsters last moments, passing the name of Sweet Jeffrey on to the ledger of street lore–the Sugar Brown store opened for business. And Carolyn, a young mother of three young boys, of which one had contorted his body to fit the outline that had marked where Jeffrey had fallen, bought a carton of milk, a dozen eggs, and a stick of butter, and with the change from the five dollar bill bought the boys each ten cents worth of hard candy.
The little girl in the pink dress was put into the shiny new green sedan. She tugged at her seat belt, which her mother had put on too tight, and barely able to see over the rear passenger door waved at her friend who stood waving back with a purple balloon in her hand. And the little girl could not understand how her friend had caught the balloon, when it had been so high up in the air, so high up that not even her mother could reach it. Then the car began to move, and the little girl put her head back against the seat and felt the motion of the car until she fell asleep.
When Carlos heard the words to stop, he honestly thought that he would. He had told himself as much. But, instead, he ran on, because now he could see the end of the alley and freedom ahead of him–the tape at the finish line. With the words from the officer in his ears, he began to run in a zigzag motion, tipping trash cans behind him as he went. He heard the footsteps behind him and made quick calculations, which told him that after sixty yards the footsteps would slow to the point where they would no longer close the gap, and he would, at this rate, make it to the light at the end of the alley. He turned to look over his shoulder to confirm his calculations, but it was in this moment that a sudden flash went off inside his head followed by a sudden warmth that spread along the side of his face like maple syrup. And then he was on the ground sliding and skidding through rotten lettuce and wooden crates and bits and pieces of fruit that he could not recognize. He was being pushed forward by a force so great that he felt at any moment it would give him the momentum needed to regain his feet. But as hard as he tried to get to his feet, he could only crawl on his belly through the garbage, and as hard as he tried, he could not lift his head from the smell, so he closed his eyes as he so often did in races, when he was trying to run through the pain, and he held his breath because now the smell, the stench was like meat gone bad.
The policeman that stood over Carlos Terrano never saw anything like it and later told his story to fellow police officers, many times; but the story was told only over beers and, usually, after having had several. What he saw was a young kid running zigzagging through the alley with a big gun in his hand. And seeing that he could not close the gap on the young kid, with the perfect running technique, and seeing that the kid would reach the opening of the alley, where he was sure to lose the kid in the projects that the alley opened into, he stopped, gave the order to “halt or I’ll fire,” and when the kid did not stop, but rather turned and began to lift the gun, he took aim and fired.
The boy, the officer would say, propelled by the bullet sailed through the air head first, landing in the garbage and then immediately began to swim through it. When he caught up to the boy, the right side of his head was gone and the white-yellowish brain matter oozed from his head and mixed with the garbage. And the kid, although, the motion of swimming had long ceased to move him forward, continued to swim through the garbage. “The kid was dead before he hit the ground,” the police officer would always say at the end of his story, then add, “but the kid never knew it.”
Later that evening, a mother, accompanied by a little girl in a pink dress, bought a box of cereal and a gallon of milk at the Sugar Brown store. When the mother received her change, she counted the coins in her palm then asked for a small package of balloons behind the counter. This brought joy to the little girl, who began to pull on her mother’s yellow sun dress and who in her jubilation stepped on her mother’s white sandals. The young mother smiled and stroked the little girl’s head to calm her and then placed the coins on the Formica counter top, where the flecks of gold had been rubbed out, and thanked the man.