At first I thought it was a cop and a shoeshine boy; then there was a break in the traffic and across the sun-glaring bands of trolley rails I recognized Clifton. His partner had disappeared now and Clifton had the box slung to his left shoulder with the cop moving slowly behind and to one side of him. They were coming my way, passing a newsstand, and I saw the rails in the asphalt and a fire plug at the curb and the flying birds, and thought, You’ll have to follow and pay his fine… just as the cop pushed him, jolting him forward and Clifton trying to keep the box from swinging against his leg and saying something over his shoulder and going forward as one of the pigeons swung down into the street and up again, leaving a feather floating white in the dazzling backlight of the sun, and I could see the cop push Clifton again, stepping solidly forward in his black shirt, his arm shooting out stiffly, sending him in a head-snapping forward stumble until he caught himself, saying something over his shoulder again, the two moving in a kind of march that I’d seen many times, but never with anyone like Clifton. And I could see the cop bark a command and lunge forward, thrusting out his arm and missing, thrown off balance as suddenly Clifton spun on his toes like a dancer and swung his right arm over and around in a short, jolting arc, his torso carrying forward and to the left in a motion that sent the box strap free as his right foot traveled forward and his left arm followed through in a floating uppercut that sent the cop’s cap sailing into the street and his feet flying, to drop him hard, rocking from left to right on the walk as Clifton kicked the box thudding aside and crouched, his left foot forward, his hands high, waiting. And between the flashing of cars I could see the cop propping himself on his elbows like a drunk trying to get his head up, shaking it and thrusting it forward – And somewhere between the dull roar of traffic and the subway vibrating underground I heard rapid explosions and saw each pigeon diving wildly as though blackjacked by the sound, and the cop sitting up straight now, and rising to his knees looking steadily at Clifton, and the pigeons plummeting swiftly into the trees, and Clifton still facing the cop and suddenly crumpling.
He fell forward on his knees, like a man saying his prayers just as a heavy-set man in a hat with a turned-down brim stepped from around the newsstand and yelled a protest. I couldn’t move. The sun seemed to scream an inch above my head. Someone shouted. A few men were starting into the street. The cop was standing now and looking down at Clifton as though surprised, the gun in his hand. I took a few steps forward, walking blindly now, unthinking, yet my mind registering it all vividly. Across and starting up on the curb, and seeing Clifton up closer now, lying in the same position, on his side, a huge wetness growing on his shirt, and I couldn’t set my foot down. Cars sailed close behind me, but 1 couldn’t take the step that would raise me up to the walk. I stood there, one leg in the street and the other raised above the curb, hearing whistles screeching and looked toward the library to see two cops coming on in a lunging, big-bellied run. I looked back to Clifton, the cop was waving me away with his gun, sounding like a boy with a changing voice.
“Get back on the other side,” he said. He was the cop that I’d passed on Forty-third a few minutes before. My mouth was dry.
“He’s a friend of mine, I want to help…” I said, finally stepping upon the curb.
“He don’t need no help, Junior. Get across that street!”
The cop’s hair hung on the sides of his face, his uniform was dirty, and I watched him without emotion, hesitated, hearing the sound of footfalls approaching. Everything seemed slowed down. A pool formed slowly on the walk. My eyes blurred. I raised my head. The cop looked at me curiously. Above in the park I could hear the furious flapping of wings; on my neck, the pressure of eyes. I turned. A round-headed, apple-cheeked boy with a thickly freckled nose and Slavic eyes leaned over the fence of the park above, and now as he saw me turn, he shrilled something to someone behind him, his face lighting up with ecstasy…. What does it mean, I wondered, turning back to that to which I did not wish to turn.
There were three cops now, one watching the crowd and the others looking at Clifton. The first cop had his cap on again.
“Look, Junior,” he said very clearly, “I had enough trouble for today – you going to get on across that street?”
I opened my mouth but nothing would come. Kneeling, one of the cops was examining Clifton and making notes on a pad.
“I’m his friend,” I said, and the one making notes looked up.
“He’s a cooked pigeon, Mac,” he said. “You ain’t got any friend any more.”
I looked at him.
“Hey, Mickey,” the boy above us called, “the guy’s out cold!”
I looked down. “That’s right,” the kneeling cop said. “What’s your name?”
I told him. I answered his questions about Clifton as best I could until the wagon came. For once it came quickly. I watched numbly as they moved him inside, placing the box of dolls in with him. Across the street the crowd still churned. Then the wagon was gone and I started back toward the subway.
“Say, mister,” the boy’s voice shrilled down. “Your friend sure knows how to use his dukes. Biff, bang! One, two, and the cop’s on his ass!”
I bowed my head to this final tribute, and now walking away in the sun I tried to erase the scene from my mind.