Thirty feet up with barely six inches of firm surface beneath him, Brendan works. His movements precise and artful, turning red-gray brick into something vibrant—alive. On his hip is his arsenal, his weapons of destruction.
The tin cans clink as he balances on the ledge with nothing but El track and concrete below.
He knows he’s too old for this foolishness, but art is unstoppable.
Tagging has always been his method of self-expression. He managed to stay under the Latin Kings’ radar, but not the cops. He’d lost count of how many times he’d been hauled in for vandalism before he turned seventeen and met her.
Blue sputters out of the fat cap. “Damn.” He reaches for the sack he left dangling on a bit of broken stone for extra paint.
“Twelve!” a disembodied voice shouts below him.
Brendan’s attention turns to the flashing red and blue lights rushing toward him. His bag falls to the sidewalk with a muffled clink and clatter.
“I got you,” the voice calls out.
Nodding, Brendan watches the shadowed figure scoop up his bag and dip into the darkness. He ought to do the same.
He inches along the ledge toward the low, flat roof that had been his staging ground. With the sirens and the voices of restless, worried teenagers growing louder, the ten-or-so feet seems to multiply and his pathway narrow.
At first glance, Brendan O’Daniel could be mistaken for a heavyweight boxer and not an artist. There was never a time where he could have been considered small. His size thirteen boots lose their footing as Brendan picks up speed to get out of the open view of the police who are now shining spotlights up to bare expanses of brick and metal.
There is nothing to hold onto. No rope tethering him to anything solid. White light makes it impossible to see anything else. He’d heard about people dying and being met by a bright light. He isn’t ready though, not this night, not for a good, long time, so he wrenches his eyes shut.
The aged brick digs through the vinyl gloves he wears as he holds onto his canvas thanks to a missing bit of tuckpointing. He flattens his six foot three inch, two hundred thirty pound self against the wall, showering himself in brick dust when his gas mask bumps the wall.
“Give me your hand.”
Brendan doesn’t budge.
“You been sniffing the paint too? We saw you. You’re caught.”
He recognizes the voice. It’s familiar, but not in that pleasant, comforting kind of way.
“Jesus, just come on, Brendan.”
Brendan’s refusal can’t be understood through the gas mask and steady drone of traffic.
Groaning, Officer O’Daniel says, “Why do we keep having to do this?”
Brendan turns his head and is met with a flashlight in his face held by a man who could be his twin if not for the skin color, hair texture, and height difference. He tugs the gas mask down. “You could always retire or ask to be reassigned.”
“Oh, you’ve taken up comedy, now too? Just come on, Brendan. Don’t make me arrest your stupid ass. Jacque and Perry don’t need their dad locked up.
“Don’t you have enough problems right now?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” If he wasn’t afraid of plummeting to his death or permanent disability, Brendan might have jumped those last few feet just to reach his sneak-shot throwing uncle and beat his ass. Brendan had not put his size to waste; he was also a Golden Glove boxer back in the day.
“You know good and damn well this neighborhood is small and gossip spreads faster than you Puerto Ricans talk,” Officer O’Daniel says, unaffected.
Fucking Humboldt Park.
“Gimme a minute. Damn.”
Officer O’Daniel nods. “While I’m young.
After a few long minutes, Brendan is on more solid footing and standing face to face with unchecked disdain. He holds his wrists out, but his hands are slapped away.
“I always pegged you for police brutality, Unc.”
“Quit with the Unc-shit. You’re my sister’s bastard. I want nothing to do with either of you, but if Mother found out I dragged your ass back to the precinct over this dumb tagging shit, she’d kick my ass,” he says with no trace of remorse.
The two men fall in step and move toward the roof access door.
“So I’m only family when Ma is involved?”
“Yeah? I really feel the love. Just like old times, huh, Uncle Colin?”
“Why can’t you just do right? You’re gonna drive Mother to the grave. The only thing keeping her going is those kids of yours.”
Brendan bites his tongue until the metallic flavor of blood fills his mouth. He could say a whole lot, but Colin O’Daniel is a bully. Had bullied Brendan his entire life as if he could help how he came to be. But he’d take it, just like always. Ma called him a peacemaker, and that’s what he believed in with everything that he was.
“Look. I don’t want to be related to you either, but here we are. You’re forty, man. Let’s move past shit we can’t change no how.”
Officer O’Daniel chuckles and gives Brendan a shove through the door. “When did you become a philosopher?”
“There’s a lot of stuff you never cared to learn about me, and we grew up in the same damn house, man.”
“Yeah. And just like my sister, you chose crime as an outlet.”
Brendan rolls his eyes. “It’s art, pencil dick.” He shoves Colin back.
“Whatever. It’s illegal. I can’t keep covering for you. Go get a permit.”
Colin opens the steel door onto the alley and lets Brendan pass through.
“You know, I never asked for or wanted you to cover for me. This you’re doing on your own. I don’t owe you anything.” He levels a glare at his uncle who is ten years older and few inches shorter at five foot nine.
Squinting, Colin blows out a breath. “Anything I’ve ever done for you was not for your dirty blood. It was for Mother.”