Rikky was skinny. The way Michael Jackson was skinny. All rubbery, loose, yet with enough gristle and sinew to look like a man. And he danced like Michael Jackson, too. On the marble steps of our apartment building in Oakland, California, he’d spin, make a little ch ch sound and flip his hand and hip out, posing on the last beat.
My boyfriend, Scott, and I managed the apartment. It was the late nineteen eighties, we were finishing college, working and saving all our money to buy a house. In return for a free apartment, we rented out the vacant apartments, collected the checks each month, and called the maintenance man, a coarse, cauliflower-skinned old man, who would never use Scott's name, only referring to him as "college boy." We mostly rented to people we wanted to be friends with: Keesha and Darril, a couple from Atlanta, she was into fashion design, he was into computers. Courtney and Danny, graduate students at Berkeley. Pierre and Suzanne; she was teaching, he was in law school. And then there was Rikky.
The building was newly renovated, Art Deco, the wood floors refinished, everything freshly painted. But it wasn't a particularly nice neighborhood. The high rise next door rented by the week. A baby was dropped down the stairwell there, killed on impact. One night, Scott and I watched a man beat a woman in the parking lot between our building and the neighboring building. When Scott lowered his voice and yelled out the window, " Leave her alone, I'm calling the police!" The woman who was being beaten looked up toward our apartment and yelled, "Mind your own fucking business!" We quickly shut the blinds and hid out in the bedroom, afraid of a rock or bullet that might come flying through the window. The man in the little market on the ground floor of the neighboring building was shot to death one night. He was a nice man, who said, "Thank you very muuuch," after each purchase, with an accent like Bela Lugosi. There was what we called a "Drug in the Box" across the street. People walked down the street, stuck their hand in a ground floor window and then walked away, quickly. Young boys hung out on the corners whistling and cooing and making all sorts of noises that signaled where the police or any other threat was at any particular moment. And a pit bull was shot in the head on the sidewalk in front of our apartment one day. The dog was attacking the maintenance man who held it back with a push broom. The police pulled over, got out of their car. One cop drew his gun, shot the pit-bull, put his gun back and returned to the car. They drove away. No report, no words. Just a dead pit-bull under my bedroom window.
The day after Rikky signed the lease, an Emporium Capwell truck pulled up in front of the building and began unloading furniture into his studio apartment. Rikky bought the room on display in the department store, including the knick-knacks. He invited Scott and me to come over and see once the rooms had been set up. Everything was black, white and grey; feathery, dappled, shiny. There was even a silver framed painting on the wall: an abstract of splattered black paint. A price tag hung off each piece of furniture; white sticker tags glared from the corners of each object. In the obsidian ashtray, a wide sticker sat where a stubbed cigarette should have been: $16.99.
"I just went into that store," Rikky explained, "and stood in the middle of the showroom pointing. I want this, this, this, and this." Rikky pivoted on one leg, nodding his lanky, limp index finger.
A couple people suggested Rikky might be a male prostitute-for men. He claimed he wasn't gay but, again like Michael Jackson, his sexuality was ambiguous, his appeal androgynous. Most people thought he was a drug dealer, in spite of his fragile looks and feathery wardrobe. If he was prostituting or dealing drugs, he wasn't doing it out of the apartment, so in fact, he turned out to be a pretty good tenant. He always paid his rent on the first of the month, always in cash. And then we began to worry about having cash in the apartment-who knew what Rikky's friends might do for a few hundred dollars? We told Rikky he had to pay the rent by check, like everyone else in the building. The next month's rent came on a check, but it didn't have Rikky's name anywhere on it. The name was similar to Rikky's, same number of syllables, same metric rhythm. And the address was correct, down to the apartment number.
"Who's this?" I asked Rikky.
"That's my brother," he said, and he did a little Michael Jackson dance in my entrance hall. "Man, we were at a club last night," Rikky said, "and you should have seen me, you should have seen me dancing, girl, everyone was all over me, boys, girls, they all wanted me when they saw me dance."
"You told me you don't have any brothers," I said.
"The check's good, don't worry about! And Huey Newton was there," Rikky said, spinning around twice and turning his head like a ballerina so he wouldn't get dizzy. "He likes hookers. There must have been ten hookers at our table. Oh, and the mayor was there, too."
"You were partying with the mayor?" I asked.
"Hell yes," Rikky said, "I only hang out with the finest people."
The check was good and all the checks that followed were also good.
Sometime in the beginning of the summer, right after Scott and I graduated from school, Rikky bought a brand new, white Saab. It had every upgrade possible: a black bra across the front, a built in cell phone at a time when no one we knew had a cell phone, leather seats, sun roof, everything electric. Rikky stood on the stoop twirling the keys around his finger as he told a few of us the story.
"I walked into that dealership and said, ‘how much.' Then this white guy there, big belly, puffy face, he gives me a look like, ‘Ain't no colored boy from Lafayette Louisiana gonna be buying a vehicle like this'."
"How'd he know you were from Louisiana?" my friend, Keesha, asked.
"Girl, he didn't know nothin'! That's what I'm saying, he was just givin' me the look and I was reading his mind!"
"How fast does that thing go?" Scott asked. He'd been admiring the car all day. We didn't have a car, we took the bus, or the BART train, or we walked.
"Fast, girlfriend, it goes fast! So, this white guy is looking at me and he gives me a price and I say, ‘Fine, I'll take it.'"
"Did you test drive it?" Scott wanted to know.
"Fuck no! The only way to let them know you ain't no dumb punk is when you don't even test drive the mother fucker you're gonna buy!"
"So you didn't drive it till you took it off the lot?" Scott was incredulous.
"No, girlfriend, I told you, no! I just whipped out my little Fendi bag, see?" Rikky flipped his purse-like sack from his back to his side to show us. "And I pulled out cash, mother fuckers. Cold, hard, cash and paid for the thing right then and there."
"How much was it?" Scott asked.
The car cost more than what we were trying to save for a down payment on a house. Scott wanted the car. I wanted the cash Rikky spent buying it-I wanted a house.
Scott and I worked hard that summer. I was taking the BART to I.Magnin, an upscale department store in San Francisco where I sold Ladies' Dresses. He was taking the bus to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, working as a janitor, making far more money than I. We both were working on our resumes, looking for real jobs now that we'd finished school.
One day near the end of the summer, Rikky came knocking on my door.
"Girl," he said, "I'm in a little bit of trouble and I need some cash fast."
"I don't have any money," I said.
Rikky was sweating, fidgeting instead of dancing. We were in the hall outside my apartment, he kept looking down to the glass front door of the building as if he were waiting for someone.
"Can I have something to drink?" He asked.
We went into the apartment and he whistled out a long breath, like he'd just finished a difficult chore-changing a tire or fixing a toaster.
"So what's up?" I opened the fridge and pulled out the orange juice. "Juice?"
"No, I don't want anything." Rikky sat at my kitchen table.
"I thought you wanted something to drink."
"No, I'm not thirsty."
"Girl," he said, "I need to get some money, fast. I was thinking I'd sell you and Scott the Saab. At a discount, of course."
"We don't have any money." I was grateful Scott wasn't home. He would have gouged out our house-savings to buy it at a bargain price. He would have reiterated his you-gotta-spend-money-to-make-money theory. A car, according to Scott, would give us broader job opportunities, which would in turn bring in more money, which would lead to a better house than what we were currently scrimping for. In short, Scott had no will-power or self control when it came to money (before we managed the building, he once took the rent money to the racetrack with the plan of doubling it before paying the rent. A poor plan, indeed. He even lost the bus fare he had set aside to get home and ended up hitching a ride with a stumpy middle-aged man who tried to slip his right thumb up Scott's shorts while maintaining steering wheel control with his left palm).
"Ten-thousand dollars," Rikky said. "You can have the whole mother-fucking thing for ten-thousand. That's a bargain, girlfriend. That's ghetto dollars."
I thought about how happy Scott would be with that car. He was from Boston, kind of preppy looking; he liked the props that matched the look.
"I'll give you five-hundred dollars." It was all I could bear to part with.
"Girlfriend!" Rikky stood, snorting and half-laughing. "There have got to be a hundred motherfuckers on this block who would give me ten-thousand dollars today for that car!"
"So go find them," I said.
Rikky didn't hang around. He dashed out of my apartment, no stories, no dances. It was as if the dial that generated his energy had been turned to a different mode: panic.
In order to safeguard our savings, I didn't tell Scott about the car offer. But a couple days later, I was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper, when Scott called me to the living room window. A white truck with no company name or logo was backed in front of the building. Four pro-wrestler-sized men walked in and out of the building carrying the contents of Rikky's apartment. Rikky was nowhere in sight. It was the second week of the month, and for the first time since he had moved in, Rikky was late with the rent.
The next day, Friday, Rikky was knocking at my door again.
"Girl, I need money right now. How about five-thousand for the Saab?"
"I only have five-hundred dollars," I said.
"Do you have a credit card?"
"How ‘bout this. You give me the five-hundred dollars, and charge on your credit card a one-way ticket to Lafayette, Louisiana, and I'll give you the car."
"You'll sell me the Saab for five-hundred dollars?"
"Five-hundred and a one-way ticket to Louisiana."
"One-way? You leaving?"
"You haven't paid your rent," I said.
"Paid my rent? Rent is the last thing I'm thinking about right now! I will worry about my manicure before I worry about my rent!" Rikky flapped his hands in front of me as if he were chasing away birds.
"I'll take it out of your deposit," I said, and Rikky rolled his eyes and clucked his tongue as if I were some kind of traitor.
Scott was thrilled, stunned, really, but cautious. Although he was twice the size of Rikky, he didn't trust that he wouldn't carry a gun, or at least, have friends with guns. The following day Rikky came to our apartment with two alligator carpetbags and a leather duffel bag.
He didn't have the pink slip for the car.
"It's at my house in Louisiana," Rikky said, "I swear on my mother's life."
"Why would it be there?" Scott asked, "you bought the car here."
"I ship all my important papers to my mother to keep. I swear to god, I wouldn't lie to you two."
"I'll write out a contract," I said, and I took a piece of yellow, lined paper and wrote, "I, Rikky Carnegie, agree to sell my Saab 900S, license plate number 1K5 J36 to Jessica Blau for five-hundred dollars. I do not have the pink slip but I will mail it when I find it. This agreement is legal and binding. Signed, Rikky Carnegie."
Rikky signed the paper, then pushed the two carpetbags aside and said, "Look, I'll even leave all this stuff here as collateral."
"Jessica drives," Scott said, as we walked to the parking lot, "and I'll sit in back."
I'm not sure if Rikky saw Scott pick up the piece of old pipe that was lying on the ground in the parking lot. In the rearview mirror I could see that Scott was cocked like a gun, ready to bash Rikky with the pipe if anything should happen.
I drove to San Francisco International and waited in the car while Scott went in to charge Rikky's one-way ticket. Scott wanted to drive the car home, of course.
Here's the missing piece of the story that Rikky never anticipated. Tucked behind our building, at the far end of the parking lot, was a vacant warehouse. The warehouse had no windows and a rollaway steel door. It was a former Brink's truck warehouse-an impenetrable fortress through which millions of dollars once regularly passed. The owner of our building owned this warehouse. When we were given the keys to the building, we were also given the keys to the warehouse. "Just in case," the owner had said. In case of what, I wasn't sure, but driving Rikky's former white Saab with black tinted windows, a black bra, and a thick black antennae on the trunk through Oakland didn't feel safe to either Scott or I. If the police wanted him and pulled the car over, we had no pink slip to prove the car was ours now. And why did he suddenly have to flee town? Surely someone wanted to kill him-killing seemed a part of his world, he had told us about a friend who was killed one night, shot on the steps of a nightclub while Rikky, unknowing, was mirthfully dancing inside. And whoever wanted to kill him wouldn't be able to see that it wasn't Rikky behind the black windows until he came close enough to the car to inspect the body. Additionally, he only gave us one key. Who had the other key? And did that person also have the pink slip? Did he sell the car to two people at once: Us, the faux-yuppie couple who were earnestly saving for a house, and . . . someone who would have no problem picking up their new vehicle in the parking lot of our building around, say, four a.m.?
When we came home from the airport, Scott pulled the car into the warehouse and immediately closed the steel door behind him. He drove circles in forward, then reverse, around the warehouse, while I sat in the passenger seat and watched him smile.
The next day, we went to Rikky's apartment to see what condition it had been left in. It wasn't particularly destroyed; didn't need to be repainted as had other recently vacated apartments. The rooms were shadowy empty boxes, save the mattress in the center of the living room. Cockroaches scattered under the refrigerator and stove when we walked in the kitchen. In the bathroom a cockroach sat in the tub, seeming to watch me as I opened the medicine cabinet. A single tube of red lipstick sat there. The lid off, the pointy, cracked tip rolled up. Somehow it seemed as ominous, or sinister, as a bullet.
Scott and I went into the warehouse as least once a day to drive the Saab in circles. We'd take our friends in there, people who lived in the building, people who had known Rikky. We'd hang out for hours, drinking beer, laughing, while we took turns careening around the warehouse. I always gave up my turn and sat in the passenger seat instead while Scott did a few more laps. Scott would drop his mouth open in an expression of crazy glee, then holler as he spun into the turns while I hung onto the safety strap as if I were standing on a runaway subway car.
Every day I checked the mail for an envelope from Lafayette Louisiana. Every day I wasn't surprised, but a bit hurt, that the pink slip wasn't there. And then the phone calls started coming. Always a woman, same dull voice, but different identity each time she called.
The first time she asked for Rikky.
"Hey, is Rikky there?"
"Rikky Carnegie?" I asked.
"No, this isn't his apartment and he doesn't live in town anymore."
"Oh, really?! He gave me this number once and said I could find him there."
"He was so cute."
"Drove that cute white Saab."
"Didn't he sell it to you?"
"Oh, he told you that?"
"Yeah, I think he said he sold you that car."
"Well, how do you know who I am?"
"Aren't you the sup?"
"We manage the building," I said.
"So he sold his car to you then."
"Yeah, he did."
"Where do you park it? I drive by your building all the time and I never see that car around."
I was tempted to ask if the plan was to steal the car and return it to Rikky, who perhaps had found his way back from Louisiana? Or if the person calling was going to steal the car for herself? But a question like that would reveal too much, take too much away from us, diminish the fervor Scott and I were putting into our role as a hopeful, young couple.
"I park it in the parking lot by the building," I said.
"Really? I never see it. Do you drive it to work? You work at I.Magnin, right?"
"No, I take the BART. We leave it in the parking lot all day."
A woman claiming to be his sister called a couple days later. She wanted to know if we'd heard from Rikky. And then she wanted to confirm that we were the people who bought his car, and were we keeping it in good condition, parking it in a garage somewhere?
And another friend of Rikky called. She thought she saw us driving the car on the Bay Bridge, and was that us, and where we going with the car and where did we keep the car anyway?
A couple weeks later I called the California DMV.
"I bought a car," I said, "and we wrote out a signed contract, but the owner lost the pink slip. What can I do?"
The woman told me that eight weeks from the date of the signed contract, if I still didn't have a pink slip, I could register the car in my name and they would issue me a pink slip, which would, in effect, void the old pink slip. We had four weeks to wait.
The day before the four weeks was up Rikky called.
"Girlfriend, how are you?!" He was back to his high spirits.
"Good," I told him. "How come you never sent me the pink slip?"
"Girl, I couldn't find it. But now I got it and I'm sending it to you. So can you send me my bags?"
Rikky's snakeskin carpetbags had been sitting like two monuments to Rikky in our entrance hall since the day he left. Scott and I had started to look through them one night, but each item we pulled out was sadder, more forlorn than the last-a soiled lavender, suede boot; lace-up leather pants missing the lace; a yellowed, formerly white, ruffled blouse, like what Prince wore on the cover of the Purple Rain album. Scott finally lifted his hands as if to block the sight of blood, and said, "Just pack it all away, I can't look anymore!" I never opened the bags again.
"Give me your address," I said, "I'll send them to you."
"Girl where you keepin' that car? My friends drive by the building and they say they've never seen that car no how!"
"It's in the parking lot," I said. "Just below the living room window where Scott can see it."
"Okay, well the pink slip is coming, so you are the true owner now-feel free to drive that car around town, girl. There ain't no point in owning it if you aint gonna show it off!"
"We're driving it," I said. "We drive it all over the place."
"Girl, my friends say that car has flat out disappeared!"
"I gotta go Rikky," I said. "Give me your address and I'll send you your stuff."
The pink slip never came, but the DMV issued me a new one in my name. That day, Scott and I drove to the Saab dealership in Oakland and traded the car in for some cash (to please me) and a used Saab (to please him). It was brown, nothing fancy, nothing electric, but Scott still thought it was cool; much sexier than the 51 bus.
And the following month, using the money we'd saved and the money we got for the Saab, we bought our first house. It was in Oakland, on a hill with smaller, more broken down houses below it and larger, nicer houses above it. From the front of the house there was a view of the Oakland Coliseum down the hill, and what was then called Candlestick Park further out in the distance.
We didn't own a TV, and with the expenses of a house, we rarely had extra money to go to a baseball game. So when the A's or the Giants were playing, Scott and I would sit in the Saab parked in the driveway facing the stadiums, one or the other of them lit like a birthday cake in the landscape, and listen to the ballgame on the radio. Sometimes we'd drink a beer out there and the car would have that glorious smell of being raced in a secret hidden warehouse.
Causes Jessica Blau Supports
Baltimore School for the Arts, 826DC, CityLit Project.