Rocque spent most of the train ride paging through his late brother’s black book, marveling at the intricacy and attention to detail paid to his pieces. Tek had been a master planner, keeping notes on the traffic patterns below railroad trestles and along interstate sound barriers. Page after page, Tek mastered his tag, sharp and angled, the ‘E’ swallowing whole the ‘K.’
“I want people to know the ‘e’ is long, like ‘easy,’” Tek had told his younger brother and the rest of the crew as he etched it onto a cement wall. The crew held their meetings below an old concrete bridge on the Red Line. Theya would dump the contents of their backpacks and sift through the mess of cans – spray paint, beer, malt liquor – while smoking black & milds. Someone would pack tree into a blunt and pass it around til they could not discern themselves from the tags they threw up on the walls.
Rocque recognized some of the pieces as his brothers’ while passing them on the Red Line. There remained little differentiation between Tek’s sketches and the paintings themselves. He expanded his concepts with masterful precision. Rocque himself had trouble duplicating what little sketches he could create. His lame left arm, shriveled and weak, could do little more hold the aerosol cans against his body while he worked a surface. Oftentimes, they would fall from his grasp and clatter noisily along the pavement. Rocque would then get scared and run away, leaving his piece and his cans unfinished. He had never completed a coherent work of graffiti.
He could however tag with aplomb, speedily, efficiently, for it required only one hand and his left pincer hand could handle the circular lid to his mop. He rode the red line at off peak hours and as a result, most cars bore his dense tag – a boulder-like jumble – for, as Rocque told his brother before his passing, he wanted them to know that his name was “ ‘Rocque,’ as in ‘Rock.’”
He exited the train at the University Circle station, surveyed for the last time the section of the black book with the map of where Tek had hid his racked paint cans. Tek, always airing on the side of caution, hid the cans he had recently lifted from hardware stores. This had a duel purpose of concealing his crime and placing the materials in a close proximity to where he planned to begin his next piece.
Rocque had worked all last summer as an art teacher for little kids at the Portland-Outhwaite Recreation Center down on East 5-5. On afternoons, parents would drop off their kids, or the kids would walk over on their own and Rocque would show them arts and crafts. He enjoyed this, for he knew that these kids didn’t have anything, and didn’t really have anyone to look up to, as he had, with his brother.
He had done this job the last couple summers, but this year he noticed less supplies for his department. Less beads, less paint, less paper, less pens. Any time he tried to ask someone at the Muny building to help him out, he ran into a secretary, saying stuff about “The Economy.” Rocque didn’t understand much about the economy, but he knew when he was getting the short end.
About three weeks before the end of summer and the end of his contact, the City laid off Rocque. They said that though he did a good job with the community arts position, budget cuts required them to pare back certain programs. As such, his position had been eliminated, and though they were grateful for his commitment to the task, they would not be asking him back the next year, nor were they able to provide a severance package, as his employment was seasonal.
Just up Cedar Hill, Rocque came across a grouping of hedges and pine trees illuminated beneath the halo of streetlamp. He waded into the mass of branches and stepped beyond the arc of light, bent below the lowest canopy of hanging pine. Inside the tent of tree branches, he kicked around until his foot struck something hard and metallic. Rocque felt a plastic bag filled with heavy cylinders. He knew this to be his brother’s stash. He tore open the bag, which had taken on some water, and pulled out five few cans, stuffing them into his backpack. He left six or eight behind, retied the bag and set it against the trunk.
Upon crawling back out of the hedges, Rocque was illuminated by a spotlight. A UC patrol car was passing by on the street. Rocque righted himself and nodded toward the car, the light too bright in his eyes to make out the cop inside.
Nash Bridges, Rocque thought, I ain’t doing nothing.
The light went dead and the 5-0 rolled on down the road. Rocque continued up Cedar Hill as his brother had countless times in the past. Until the one night someone took his life. Tek had taken on a job at a sandwich shop up in Cleveland Heights. The job market down in their neighborhood was not so hot, so Tek was forced to take work somewhere up the Red Line. The neighborhood was clean and nice but too stuffy. Nobody responded well to the big burners Tek threw up around town. The last piece he started – just around the bend on Cedar – was to signify his defining work, an autobiography consuming a large portion of a brick wall alongside the road.
Tek had begun the project but never saw it through to completion. Rocque learned that his brother was killed by a drunk driver near the piece. Tek may very well have been working on it as he was run down. Rocque has his suspicions. With little on his plate, Rocque took over in his brother’s footsteps, attempting to validate his life with more graffiti. But Rocque could not spray nearly so well as his older brother and most of his pieces miss the flare displayed in Tek’s work.
Rocque’s talent never lay in original composition, for he was much more of an emulator – a realist. He focused more on pencil drawing than airbrush, not only because it was easier to manipulate with one serviceable hand, but because it was more tactile. He felt the ability to add more layers and to a pencil drawing. But Tek’s art affected more people for it was viewable by more people. Rocque supposed that was the trade-off: quicker, less detailed work for higher visibility. But in the end, their art made little difference in the lives of the two brothers.
Rocque came to bend in the road where Tek had begun his piece. Now viewing it in full scale, Rocque was able to gauge the scope of the project. He thumbed through his brother’s notebook. Tek had begun approximately a quarter of the piece as conceptualized in the sketchpad. Rocque wondered how he would be able to reach some of the higher places on the walls. The stones jutted out to act as footholds, but he could not see himself bracing against the wall and working the can of Krylo. He though of acquiring a ladder, though he was unsure how, and securing it in the bush for when it was needed. Still this task proved daunting already. Rocque had expended much energy just reaching University Circle and then finding the cans. The thought of bringing a ladder on the train seemed too much.
Rocque decided that he would consider all the logistics later. Although the idea of giving it all up and going had entered his mind, he opted to stay and work on what little he could that night. A larger portion of what Tek had completed still needed filled – most of the work was still frames. This part of the piece depicted the group members of Tek’s crew, CONTROL, in their hideout underneath the railroad bridge on the red line. Six figures huddled around a can throwing flame casting their shadows against the walls. None of the shadows had been filled so Rocque decided to work on that for the time being. He could get a feel for the surface and for the paint against it. He pulled out of the bag a can of black Krylo and shook it in his good hand. He slapped a painter’s mask over his mouth.
The road at this hour was lightly trafficked though he tried to keep an eye out for headlights. The air filled with aerosol as he applied the spray to the wall, careful to keep the color within the space Tek had previously outlined. The can was cool and controlled in his hand and felt very comfortable to him.
A voice behind called him an asshole. Rocque turned around and a pretty boy in a white Benz had rolled up on the street. Rocque cursed himself for not noticing but this man had driven down the road with no headlights, probably drunk. Now he was stopped just next to Rocque. The man had spiked his hair up into a shark boy look and it appeared that his collared shirt was shiny for it reflected in the streetlight. Rocque did not say a word.
“People like you are the reason this city looks like shit,” the man yelled.
Rocque did not say a word. He dropped the can of Krylo and it rolled down the hill. He placed both hands in his pockets.
The man went on to say that he was sick of people like Rocque shitting on his city and he meant to do something about it. Rocque could not be sure, but he thought he smelled liquor on the man’s breath.
The man in the shiny shirt stepped out of his car and into the road. He was on the heavy side, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, though with a beer gut and not all that tall. Imposing only in his obnoxiousness, the action was quick and it caught Rocque off guard.
Not a moment later, the car began to move down the hill, sans driver. It appeared as though the man forgot to put on the brake, for he yelled “Shit!” and ran after it down the hill. The car did not make it far, as it ran up against a telephone pole near the bend in the road. The man jogged, listing back and forth, after his scraped up car and Rocque could tell that he was drunk. Suddenly he became the man the killed Tek at this very spot. More than likely he was returning from the club at the top of the hill, drunk off Scotch or champagne or whatever the rich people drink.
The man climbed into the car and threw it in reverse, scraping the side again. The front bumper tore off and littered onto the road. This made the man angry, for he accelerated very quickly with the car still in reverse and tore up the hill. At that moment, another car with no headlights careened down the hill. It smashed into the rear of the car moving in reverse. Pieces of broken glass sprayed all around Rocque but managed to miss him. He still stood with his hands in his pockets. Both cars sat sideways across the road. One’s horn would not stop sounding its monotone blast. He could not make out a figure in the white Benz, for the inside was engulfed in airbag. For a few moments, the event suspended itself in time and place, the only signal of life being the drone of horn.
Then Rocque was sprinting down the hill, attempting to outrun the sirens in the distance. He rounded the bend in Cedar Hill, came past the tree with the stash and kept on toward the Transit Station, glowing fluorescent sanctity through the night.
* * *
Rocque took on a job at the same sandwich shop that had employed Tek and most nights found himself walking past the unfinished burner on the wall on Cedar Hill. He had not been able to bring himself back to it. Shattered glass still bespeckles the sidewalk around the accident. Each day, Rocque passes a rusty can of black Krylo rolled into a pile of leaves.
Today, however, is different. He recently racked some new cans from a hardware store on Quincy with plans to get back to work on his brother’s memorial. Over time, he has honed his craft beneath bridges on the Red Line and is much more confident in his spray art than he has ever been. And he has some ideas for the memorial that deviate from his brother’s plan. But he is sure Tek will understand.
Rocque steps off the Red Line train onto the platform in University Circle. He wears his work uniform – black polo, black khakis, black visor. He steps into the stairwell leading onto the street. At the bottom, a man waits. His neck is in a brace and his clothes appear disheveled. He holds a baseball bat in his right hand and appears to brace all his weight against it. Rocque recognizes him as the man in the Benz.
But Rocque is unafraid, for among other things he gleaned from his brother following his death, Rocque carries a revolver. His brother’s gun, cradled carefully in his jacket pocket, hammer clicked back, safety off. Just a tool, Tek used to say, to scare or to maim, depending on the circumstance. Rocque was not sure what this one was to be, but he was ready for either.