Gang of One
Felan (pron. feh-lahn) Crease is a poet, a father and a teacher. He’s in love. That’s good. And it’s bad. She’s married. She thinks she loves him back. Her husband is his closest friend. Felan works in a California Youth Authority prison, in the mid nineties, teaching most serious category kids about poetry, helping them write poems. Three of the seventeen year olds are locked up for murder; a black kid from Hunter’s Point, San Francisco, a Latino kid from East L.A. and an Indian kid from Yuma, Arizona. They’ve become close friends. They’re in trouble again. Can a Team Treatment supervisor, a junkie Youth Counselor and a poet possibly set them straight? Aside from the love and back door sex, death is present. Three kinds of separation.
“Michael McLaughlin has written an exhilarating, unruly, painful, sweet, sexy, funny, sad book. ”
— Larry Fagin, Poet, Editor,
“Gang of One is the chilling tale of a poet and teacher’s struggle to reach out to society’s most dangerous and disenfranchised youth. Michael McLaughlin has written a fine novel about the beauty and power of poetry to enlighten and instruct those who might otherwise never read or write it, and in doing so he frees poetry from the prison of academia and its literary elites. Only someone with an intimate knowledge of our country’s juvenile detention systems could’ve rendered the experiences in this moving book so authentically and true to the heart.”
— James Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries
from Gang of One
Tad of horsemeat like they fed them lions, that’d bring my juices back.
Grandma Begat tried spitting off the Collins’s porch but her mouth was too dry to even drool. Those years working at the Cleveland Zoo still meant a great deal to her. She had loved feeding the wild animals. After cleaning her bifocals on the corner of her apron, she focused first on the many-branched trunk of an oak and then on a thicket of manzanita, looking for a sign of the kids. “Funny, after all the time I used to spent hatin’ them scrappers,” she uttered, “now l like them shrubs.” She hummed a bit of a song;
I’m as restless as a willow in a windstorm
I’m as jumpy as puppet on a string
Rocking a bit, she peered out past an old pepper tree. The taste in her mouth was dried blood. When was the last time Rudy had taken her to the pictures anyway?
I’d say that I had spring fever
But I know it isn’t spring
The tweet of Fante and Kit’s voices had to be coming from somewhere. She liked Feely’s little carrot-top boy.
Damnitory spectacles,” she cursed, tossing her glasses aside. Grandma ran her right hand up and down the rocker’s armrest. Her pain was like hot eggs from the oven. Not Jayne, nor Philly could be stopping Rudy’s murder. The validation had been too strong. Young black crepe men, laying in them tin cans like sardines, hands at their sides, above the ocean swelling sand. Heaven’s Gate, they called themselves. Rudy like a wet plate negative, passing through them pearly gates-he’d be just the same. Grandma remembered the photo she had given Feely taken of the poet, Dylan Thomas, at the Cleveland Zoo. Pillowing his head against Zelda the elephant.
She needed to get up and talk to Rudy. Save yourself. Quit that job of yours. Sell the cure. But Rudy could no more save himself than a zoo animal. And pain had rooted her in her chair.
Grandma cocked her head like a lawn robin. She could see the boys beating on an old hubcap. They were closer now.
“Sit up straight,” she whispered. “Upright.” No point them seein me in pain like this. Feely the poet could still save Rudy. Feely was a man of convictions. There could still be a chance.
But what she saw in Feely was one sword fighting off six others. Like from the funny papers or in the rigging of a pirate ship. Errol Flynn. No, there was no saving Rudolf; she’d best get over it. Everyone had their thumbs tacked to Jesus’ cross. Few had any say as to when and how they’d die. Hers was to die alone. If she could ask it of them, every bone in her body would have testified. ‘Would have been an interesting experiment, thought Grandma, querying her bones. But she was too tired to try.
Fante and Kit bounded up to her, wanting lemonade. Grandma pointed a finger back toward the house, just like a witch out of the Brothers Grimnation. If she got up, she knew she’d want to lie down on her cot afterward.
“Don’t get your dirty bottoms on your mother’s sofa now, Fante. Fetch a cup for me; bring it back out with you.” She still couldn’t keep herself from thinking that the poet could save Rudy. For an instant, she felt through all his energy zones to find what might hold him back. It was Felan, she remembered, not Feely. It was important to get his name right. As she suspected, it was Rudy’s lack of fortitude that irked Feely. Rudy had given up on his painting, he’d given up on politically educating them black youngbloods the way he’d set out when he took to the Youthful Authority–a waffler on all fronts, accordin to Feely’s thought. What Felan’s eye didn’t see was the battle her grandson had fought, and how courageous he had been living out his life’s choices .
What she would never get was why Rudy had moved her to Scrubville. She would have been much happier back in Oakland, feeding the ducks and walking around Lake Merrit than in the run-off of this little river town. Oakland had been good to Grandma Begat; she shivered recalling Cleveland and the icy waters of Lake Erie. Kurtis had become such a success in Oakland, too. Grandma rocked quickly. Kurtis, my first pride. Only he couldn’t keep his sticker outta the candy pot. Heinous. She shuddered thinking about her son and her grandson’s wife, Jayne. .
Fante and Kit were still running among the boulders, laughing and hitting them with sticks. “Set up straight,” Grandma reminded herself. Now that it was so close, she was more fearful of death than she thought. But she could also hardly wait.
This body’s all used up, and you won’t see me but the truth of my life could stay.
Fante and Kit had each lined up seven nickels on the train tracks, per Fante’s suggestion, so that they could double his Grandma’s luck. Fante had the gift and he knew his grandmother was watching. Fante shoulda been my boy ‘stead a Rudy. Probably was my daddy in another life.
The old woman folded her hands together and laughed at the way her crooked right forefinger had always bent. “You don’t have no choice what body you was born into, what family neither, and no idea when you’ll die.” She told this to Fante once while they played poker for their peanut butter cracker sandwiches.
Kit and Fante were throwing rocks at a tree. She hoped they weren’t annoying any bees, but there were spots of some sort whirring around.
When the kids ran around the side of the house, Grandma knew she wouldn’t see them coming back. It was funny how the trees never shaded her. Her pain came on like a butter knife and she didn’t even gasp.