Group Home

By Bryan Alston Patrick


From across the street, the boys look like cartoon silhouettes fighting in the front yard. Their jagged movements resemble old school animated characters floating on a layer separate from the static background. The man they all refer to as Smith has come outside with his camera to document the scene for city officials who won’t give a shit. The woman who theoretically represents their district will tell him “we only work for bribes don’t you know,” in a tone that makes humor and truth eerily indistinguishable. That’s in another day or two when he finally gets in to show the footage of the yard fight.

Smith has been trying to get Borough Hall to move this group home for nine years. Early on, some of the other neighbors agreed with him but now they all just remind him, “nine years,” going about their business. When it started, Smith had been concerned for the safety of his adopted daughter, Lima, who was a child at the time but now is a teenager. She’s only sixteen but Smith is attracted to her. This stunt is partly intended to impress her. From the beginning he’s tried to look strong in her eyes and why not? They’re not blood related. When she reaches the age of consent, like it even matters these days, they can be together. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” he often says, letting the subtext remain subtext. He still has no idea that Lima has had sex with two of the boys next door. First she did it with Brickman and then with his best friend, Kendrick, to make Brickman jealous (a strategy wasted on Brickman as jealousy falls outside his paper-thin emotional range). Since then she’s been doing it with Brickman almost daily because his weirdly vacant magnetism terrifies her.

Tone is taking bets on the adjacent stoop. He’s been running a pool on all three group homes in the neighborhood and anything else he can get people to bet on. Gambling is one of the few enterprises that can still generate a local economy. Tone used to make music and loved doing it but a man has to eat and last couple of times he tried to write or record anything the power was dipping and diving every hour or two as it does, making electronic music nearly impossible to produce.

Odds are on 14-year-old Preston to beat the smaller 15-year-old Salvador. Tone likes Sal in the bout. He’s fast and lean. The one-year age difference gives him a slight but meaningful advantage in experience and expectation. Preston is much too confident. He’s not really looking. Sal knows how to break down an opponent. He’s not just older but wiser from growing up in a warzone like Sunset Park. When you have to defend yourself all the time, you learn to assess your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses as well as your own. Preston hasn’t yet learned to do this. Because he’s bigger than most other guys around his age, he’s used to not getting fucked with.

There is an outside chance that pigs will roll up to stop the fight. Not because they care about the citizenry or the crime rate but because they run gambling in downtown Brooklyn and want in on Tone’s action. He’s trying to keep it small and under the radar but lately he’s been booking at the old sports bar on Dekalb Ave. The owners are getting by but even booze has gotten hard to move at a profit. They like Tone’s action. They’ve known him for years since he used to come in for the happy hour buffet and catch the beginning of prime time football games before heading back to the studio for night sessions. They don’t know that he recently strangled his landlord, Arlene, in her apartment three blocks over on Gates.

Lima watches the fight from her window upstairs for several minutes before needing to jack off. A year from now she will be living on a commune in Red Hook, beginning to understand that her hyper sexuality derives from an imbalance in her second chakra that can be corrected with certain yoga poses and meditation practices. For now, she is simply compelled.

She had been hoping to hook up with Brickman again because he satisfies her in a way that solos don’t. But he’s busy with Kendrick, breaking into an apartment two buildings down. They’re taking advantage of the fight as a diversion. Coincidentally, they had been talking about the possibility of staging fights in the yard for manifold reasons: to fix the gambling pool, on the one hand, while on the other engineering controlled diversions during which other crimes could be committed and it’s fun and fights simultaneously attract girls and scare them. Brickman has observed that females abhor violence yet crave it. Later, when his test scores get him admitted to an experimental higher education program, Brickman will study psychology and revisit the “feminine contradiction,” concluding in his undergraduate thesis that “young women, especially, consciously detest violence while unconsciously yearning for it as their ancestral, hereditary or karmic memory understands that male combatants are unconsciously competing for female affection and therefore transferring their power to women.”

But right now, he and Kendrick are trying to quickly get in through an unlocked upstairs window and boost some shit before the fight ends. Kendrick doesn’t even care about the money or anything. He’s been programming drums on a photovoltaic sampler for months and gotten pretty good. The guy who lives here, Randolph 3, is a gasoline DJ who bought a bunch of gear from Tone months earlier. He spins block parties mostly, using generators that run off anything from true gas to biodiesel, mold spores, grape seed oil, mammalian hair and even bucket wine. Kendrick and Brickman have been discussing the possibility of promoting a block party during which they can orchestrate a wave of burglaries. They’re in the process of locating a storage facility and a fence.

They’ve moved as quietly as possible over three rooftops to reach this window on Randolph 3’s fire escape. The metal is stressed from age and exposure. It should have been protectively repainted years earlier but wasn’t so now it’s rusty, bowing and snapping in places. Brickman’s nerves are crackling and he rarely gets shaken like this. Already, he scores high for a narcissistic personality disorder but he won’t know this for a couple of years, when he crunches the numbers on a self-evaluation as part of the admission process for a specialized area of study. By then, Lima will have reached full enlightenment and ascended to lead the commune out of Red Hook to farmland in Pennsylvania. The key to her breakthrough is the “realization of desire as the portal,” as she explains to 21-year-old Miles Brickman when she tracks him down at the Yale annex outside the reboot community formerly known as Wilmington, Delaware. She teaches him to see his psychosis “as the wall you’ve built around your true, feeling self.” Brickman won’t get it right away but eventually he will at which point he will actually begin helping his patients rather than coolly analyzing them for his own curiosity and amusement. Without Lima’s help and his supercharged intellect, Brickman would have no chance of ever seeing the light. She forgives him completely for the explicit videos he made and distributed without her permission during adolescence. They move on.

At the moment, he’s just hoping to find some research chemicals or non-perishable foodstuffs that can be fenced for cash and/or any actual cash that Randolph 3 might have lying around. Kendrick is interested in musical equipment he might be able to use rather than sell. It’s not going to matter unless they can move the large piece of furniture that R3 has parked inside the window to optimize space and improvise security. He also painted the old six-pane windows black, preventing Kendrick and Brickman from seeing the armoire or bookshelf or whatever the thing is until getting the window open.

There’s a clunking from somewhere inside the apartment followed by unmistakable footstep noise on creaky wooden stairs. Kendrick is trying to close the window in a panic but R3 left it so the bottom half is inside the top half and now it’s stuck. It doesn’t take long for R3 to feel chilly evening air drafting in and the footsteps speed up.

“Come on.” Brickman is already on the move.

Kendrick hesitates at the window for reasons that aren’t clear. Maybe he’s gotten attached to the equipment inside even before getting his hands on it or maybe he’s feeling guilty.

“Come on!” Brickman says again from the top of the ladder as he gets a leg over the parapet and steps on to the roof. Looking up at Brickman in the dying light, Kendrick is all eyeballs and Afro. His wide open pupils are portals to innocence lost.

Kendrick is the one guy Brickman can’t leave behind. They’ve known each other since they were six years old and first tossed into the system. They are brothers who have never even considered their racial differences. Seen through the love between them they look like identical twins. Although for Brickman, love is an object relation breakdown in which he can’t effectively distinguish himself from Kendrick.

Someone is trying to move the armoire from inside. It scrapes and squeaks on the deteriorating wood floor. Kendrick gets a grip and scurries up the ladder. In seconds, he and Brickman are back on the roof of the group home, entering through a hatch that doesn’t lock and keeps them from being seen by R3 who is now outside on his fire escape with a view of all the other fire escapes on his end of the block. The weakened iron under his left foot breaks away and he falls through, first with the one leg and then the other as his body weight overpowers the old metal. He’s clutching the bottom rung of the guardrail with both hands, both legs dangling.

The group home is empty inside except for Dawn Washington, who is passed out on the sofa, six weeks pregnant with Sal’s baby. Dawn will turn thirty-six in less than a month. She was a segment producer at a 24-hour news network that folded along with most of her industry nearly two years ago. She was totally out of work for a while before finding this situation where she gets a stipend from the city to live in the group home as the housemother. She’s assigned to looking after the boys (and increasingly girls) and maintaining order but almost immediately after her arrival some of the older boys began beating her up and sexually abusing her. Sal fended them off which is what indirectly led to this beef with Preston still raging in the front yard. Smith is still filming the whole thing on the same camera Brickman will steal from him to document several of his sexual encounters with Lima. He will almost accidentally record over the fight before noticing the footage and saving it for distribution. Eventually, the district rep will see it along with thousands of others on the t-net.

Around the corner, the sports bar is quiet since word of the fight reached the front door ten minutes ago and cleared it out. With no live sporting events to show on their screens, owners Giancarlo and India have resorted to airing pre-recorded events from years, even decades earlier. It keeps the ambience alive but can’t compete with fisticuffs in the flesh. Lima’s mother, Xishnia, is tending bar and plotting Smith’s murder. The bar’s only patron right now is a hermaphrodite prostitute named Wren. S/he’s nearly incoherent from guzzling bucket wine and staring into a recording of the US Open like an elliptic video installation at a museum. S/he has no interest in Xishnia or anyone else.

Xishnia turns up the volume on the set and lights a joint, letting her imagination flow with possibilities for getting rid of her husband/master. She came to the States sixteen years earlier in an intermodal container with eight other women and eleven dead bodies, three of which had been inhabited by their “escorts” when they originally departed from a fictitious Eastern European nation pieced together from remnants in the cascade of regime toppling during the rise of the 2nd Ottoman Empire (revealed later by historians as the culmination of super-bankers backing religious extremists in exchange for sweeping resource rights). The other eight bodies belonged to women who didn’t make it. Unfortunately, for two of the women who did, including Xishnia, unprotected sex with their original escorts resulted in pregnancy and more escorts waited on the other side to receive and deliver them to the buyers. Early in the trip, Xishnia and her best friend, Ehtid, convinced the other girls that allowing the male escorts to rape them en route would give them a chance to disarm and kill the men, wrongly assuming that the mini-mutiny would give them a shot at freedom after porting. Instead, they were taken to a discreet location and punished before delivery.

The marriage contract Xishnia had been forced to sign back home left her indebted to Smith and legally obligated to all kinds of responsibilities as his “wife.” As the years went on, it became more and more obvious to Xishnia that the social institutions essential to enforcing contracts like hers were either crumbling or already in ruins. All she’s needed is an efficient means of killing him and disposing of his body. She isn’t entitled to anything upon his death and thus has no motive on paper. He forgave her debt in an addendum she coerced after catching him in Lima’s room one night. Lima had long been aware of Smith’s proclivities. She pretended to sleep when he snuck into her room at night to watch her and masturbate. Xishnia busted him in the act on camera and got the new terms in writing days later. She was countersigning the doc when it first occurred to her that she might already have the foundation in place for a perfect murder. Police are so uninterested in isolated homicides she would basically have to shoot him in the head before multiple witnesses on a busy street in broad daylight in order to start an investigation.

Brickman comes strutting into the sports bar with a nickel bag of grunk he just lifted off Tone while Tone was distracted by a moment in the fight when Preston appeared to have the upper hand before Sal turned it around again. Brickman knows Xishnia is buying because she always is—she stays high 24-7. For a second she looks annoyed because he disrupted her train of thought but quickly a smile forms. She knows what Brickman is doing here and it gives her another idea. They get high together as crowd noise from the fight leaks in through the corner entrance.

As Xishnia suspected, Brickman is happy to help her plan Smith’s murder because he wants that camera and “it sounds fun.” Pretty soon, Brickman is back behind the bar tapping himself a pint of the bark ale Giancarlo brews onsite. He’s completely wasted shortly after that and forgets he was going to boost the rest of Tone’s window weed. He gets completely distracted with all the old music on the jukebox. Kendrick shows up a few minutes later with Lima, who was on her way to the bar to see her mom when they crossed paths. Now the trio is blazing grunk and drinking bark ale, playing the jukebox again and again with coins Xishnia gives them from the register.

Back on the stoop, Tone almost notices the missing nick but he doesn’t because Bronson walks up on the fight looking for his old friend Tone. A moment passes before Tone stands up from the stoop as disbelief comes and goes. It’s almost like seeing a ghost after so long.

The two men embrace on the sidewalk as the crowd roars above the grunting and snarling of the combatants in the yard. Salvador is winning the fight with patience and a methodical, cumulative beating that gradually drains Preston of his strength and will.

“What are you doing here?” Is the obvious question but it has to be asked because there’s no logical reason for Bronson’s return.

“I came back for you, bro.” Bronson tells him, still wrapped in the bear hug. Tone is six-four and weighs 260. Bronson is five inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. “I had to.”

“How the fuck is Chi-town?”

“It’s what’s up. That’s how. Mayor cut a deal, like a treaty, with the Canadians in southern Ontario, man. They’re rebuilding.”

“Wow.” Tone just says that without really comprehending. He’s too amped about seeing his friend to contemplate sociopolitical movement stuff.

Bronson is a sick guitarist. The two of them played together for years in a group called Bronze Toner first and later shortened to Bronzer. They had a regional following on the East Coast pre-Decline. They made hard pop songs that played on the dance floor. They toured clubs and small theaters. Twice they filled thousand-seaters. There were girls plus drugs and money.

“You took the rail here or what?”

Bronson is nodding, helping himself to Tone’s grunk. Tone broke it out the second Bronson split open the blunt with both thumbs. It’s like old times, sort of. For anyone who hasn’t heard, grunk is window weed dusted with any variety of research chemicals (and window weed, just in case, is spliced marijuana grown in a Plexiglass windowsill mister). “Grunk” is an imprecise contraction of grunge and chronic or something. Bronson is rolling a “DB” or “dirty blunt.” In a few minutes, they’ll be hallucinating from an interaction created when Bronson combines their stashes.

“You’re crazy, B. You could get killed.”

“Nah, son. I can still handle myself.” And he can. Bronson was the rare white kid growing up in mostly black and Latino gangs. He learned to fight and play guitar from a Blue Blood warlord named Red King. King was a ruthless gangster and an instinctive jazz virtuoso who could play nearly any instrument he picked up. He was killed by an assassination squad, politely called a “task force,” composed of agents from various paramilitary divisions of the international law enforcement apparatus. “And really, the rail ain’t all that dangerous like people say. Heads ride it all the time. I stopped off in South Philly, you want to hear about dangerous.”

“Already heard about that,” Tone says, “makes me glad I live here.”

“You should come back with me though, T. New York is no place for no one. Everybody says Omen got it locked down.”

Omen is a mysterious criminal syndicate the existence of which is still hotly debated. Some say it’s a secret alliance of super-bankers and thugs who do their bidding. Others argue it’s a myth made up by whoever to scare people or at least keep them distracted from the real shit.

“Nah, B, that’s like, you know, shit people say. Damn.” Tone nods in the direction of 17-year-old Nutika. She moved in next-door weeks earlier after aging out of a legit home for girls in Murray Hill.

“She’s a child.” Bronson says, taking the DB from Tone.

“She ain’t no child, B. Look at her.”

“I looked.” Bronson hits the DB harder than he should as blazed as they already are.

Bambi and Trinanne come walking up seconds after Nutika. They stopped at the bodega for ices. Even though it’s sixty degrees out, they still want treats to enjoy while the fight continues and ices are what they can afford. They’re living in the home too and that means doing what the boys say in exchange for a roof over their heads. Times are what they are.

“I’m getting stupid on this, B.” Tone hits it again anyway and passes to Bronson.

“Girls hang there now?”

“They live there, son.”


“I know, right.”

“That can’t be good.”

“It ain’t.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. Come back with me to Chi-town. We can play music again. They got electric all the time coming off the lake. Seriously.”


“All day, son. That shit dips here and there but for like an hour and it’s back up for days. I think we went like two weeks once with no voltage dip.”

“Damn, man, we can hardly go two hours. Makes music damn near impossible.”

“Arlene still shaking you down for this joint?”

Tone is fucked up and smiling but there is agony in his eyes.

“I killed her, son.” He blurts it out not even thinking whether anybody else can hear it.

Bronson giggles. “Word. She had it coming I bet.”

“Nah, she didn’t. She was a decent lady. I just snapped and shit. Choked her out.”

They’re both wasted to the point that it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s funny but Bronson remembers this Puerto Rican-Iroquois girl Tone used to date when they lived together. Everybody called her Ellie or just E. Her name was Elian or Eliana—something like that. She and Tone fought all the time. Once Bronson had to come in their room and break them up when Tone flipped out and started choking E. It never happened again but Bronson always knew Tone was capable.

“Yo, seriously?”

“For reals, dog.”

“You better not be fuckin’ wit me right now, T.”

“Nah, son. I snuffed her out on some straight up murder shit.”

Bronson feels a slight version of what he might be feeling without chemicals in his system. “Why?”

Tone shrugs. “She pissed me off, talkin’ ’bout how I don’t take care of the building right, how a real man does shit. I mean it wasn’t even her, honestly, I was just steamed about mad different shit and she pressed the button.”

“You killed anyone else?”

“Nah, just Arlene. But I’m surprised I haven’t killed more by now. You know, she flailed and peed everywhere while I strangled her. It was pretty interesting.”

Bronson turns to the fight because he doesn’t know what else to say. He’s traveled a long way to learn something.

“Check it out.” Tone nods at Sal and Preston. “I called it. Watch.”

Preston is wobbling on his feet. Sal is banged up too but lucid. Preston is struggling to keep his guard up. Sal throws an easy fake and gets him to drop it, following up with a real elbow on the bridge of Preston’s nose that sends him to the ground like one of those big feed sacks the relief choppers drop every few months.

“That’s my boy right there.” Tone gets up too fast and drops back down on his butt from the sloshy equilibrium. He grabs the handrail and pulls himself up on the second try, waiting to settle before taking an actual step.

Money and goods are changing hands out on the sidewalk and across the street. Tone is too fucked up to do business, really, and many heads will duck out until he finds them tomorrow to collect. Some people are coming at him to pay up and get it over with.

Two white girls new to the group home are trying to help Preston off the ground but he is dangerously slow to rise. Cuts on his mouth, cheeks and brow are gushing. His eyes are swollen shut. One of the girls, Leah, starts crying. She’s a chubby, pretty brunette with a ponytail and minimal, black and gray ghost makeup. Her friend, Taryn, is skeleton thin and shaves her head to be unattractive to the boys but it’s not really working. What’s kept them off her this far is Leah.

“He needs a doctor!” Taryn shouts into the quickly dispersing crowd.

Old Albert who lives across the street is a retired cardiologist. Nutika runs over there. She and Albert have a connection. He opens the door for her. He wouldn’t do that for just anyone, much less agree to leave his house at night. 

People are slow to get out of the way and let Albert through to help Preston. It’s like they’re floating in gelatinous matter and need to be pushed because they can’t do it on their own will power. Albert finally gets to Preston and crouches next to him. “You all have a couch or something we can put him on?”

Taryn and Nutika help Albert get Preston inside. Leah grabs a portable lantern from the pantry and holds it over the sofa so Albert can get a real look.

“He’ll be alright.” Albert says. “He took a real beating, may have a concussion. Don’t let him fall asleep.”

“That’s it?” Leah asks.

“Unless you have some brain imagining equipment I don’t know about.”

“I don’t know, Doc.” Nutika says, standing over Preston, shaking her head. “This boy need a hospital.”

“Hell yeah he do.” Taryn agrees. “Can’t we take him to Brooklyn General?”

“You’ll never get past the Nevins Street Morleys this time of night.” Doc Albert blurts. Morleys are militarized homeless people, by the way, nicknamed in reference to both HG Wells and the cheap cigarettes bundled in with the relief drops. “Even if you did, the trauma doctors won’t treat him. They’ll put him in a coma to preserve his organs until they can be legally harvested. His chances are much better right here. I’ll come back and check on him in the morning.”

Leah’s crying again. Taryn and Nutika put their arms around her. Albert checks Preston’s pulse one more time, calls it a night and heads home. 
 Down the street, Bronson and Tone are walking to the sports bar for old times’ sake. Brickman is standing out front by himself smoking. He sees them coming and bumps his chin like an old friend.

“Little Brick Man.” Tone says when they’re close enough. “What’s up?”

“Plotting a murder. You down?”

Tone mulls it over with a lopsided grin. “Why not?”

In an odd turn the following day, Kendrick and Brickman break into Arlene’s apartment by mistake, having miscounted the windows on her high rise co-op building from the roof of the group home. Her place is full of antiques, jewelry, prescription drugs, cash, gold and silver and some framed acrylics and watercolors that might be worth something. Although they notice the smell right away, it’s not until just before leaving that Brickman opens the bathroom door and sees the body in the tub, wrapped up in the shower curtain, presumably to slow the progress of the stench.

In seconds, he pieces together the entire puzzle because that’s how Brickman’s mind works. Arlene owned three buildings in the neighborhood: one on Lafayette between Waverly and Washington, another on Adelphi between Dekalb and Willoughby and the spot Tone has lived in since maybe before he and Kendrick were even born. Tone was instantly amenable to helping out on the Smith murder. He has “the itch,” as Brickman recently started calling it with respect to both home invasions and interpersonal violence. Arlene had a rep as a tough, bitchy, overly demanding landlord few if anyone liked. Plus, Brickman caught Tone in a weird funk days earlier, roughly coextensive with the time of the murder he estimates based on eyeballing the rate of decay. Brickman and Tone spoke nearly everyday on the stoop. Only on that one afternoon had Brickman ever observed Tone in such a peculiar, reflective mood.

Instantly, a blackmailing scheme is hatched. Tone has all kinds of fencing connects. He’s been around forever and knows everyone, including pigs on the take or on the cusp of corruption. Brickman is confident many of them can be easily turned in the current climate. His mind races with possibilities. There seems to be almost no limit to what he can accomplish with crooked cops in his pocket. Together they can shake down dealers and bookies, intercept relief drops and take over food distribution—that one’s particularly complicated, he’ll come back to it—and of course assemble the greatest most efficient B&E machine of all time, with rolling burglaries going down simultaneously throughout the borough in a manically elaborate scheme that Brickman quickly foresees will devour itself as more people lose everything and buy nothing meaning he will need someone with banker connects to make the whole thing work financially but once he hits that level Omen will come for him, if they’re even real. Shit, that’s one way to find out.

Brickman finds Kendrick thumbing through Arlene’s record collection with latex gloves on his hands because Kendrick never leaves prints and that gives Brickman another flash of inspiration. One of the drawers on Arlene’s antique bureau contains the usual home office shit—stapler, staples, staple-remover, sticky notes that no longer peel right because the adhesive deteriorated, scissors, paperclips, binder clips, even screw posts and finally there it is—scotch tape.

Brickman grabs the tape and returns to the bathroom, lifting man-size prints off the clear vinyl shower curtain that captured them perfectly. He’s incredibly confident they belong to Tone. Sandwich baggies in Arlene’s kitchen make a decent short-term container for them.

Kendrick is still digging through records. Brickman finds him examining a Nina Simone live album sealed in a protective plastic sleeve. Four bars of solo piano lifted from this LP form the basis of the show opener Bronson and Kendrick will perform two years from now when they debut in an unmarked Toronto juke joint. He grabs a few more jazz and soul titles, making them fit in his gym bag.

“You can’t even play them though.” Brickman says.

“Maybe I can.” Kendrick sounds tired or something. “Anyway, someone will want them.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“People always want music.”

“Word. You got enough though?”

Brickman’s parking their take next to the door. They’ll have to drop it down the old dumbwaiter in chunks, returning to the basement overnight to retrieve the installments.

Kendrick nods with a hint of uncertainty.

“Let’s bounce then.”