Chester Himes

The crazy kill


It was four o'clock, Wednesday morning, July 14th, in Harlem, U.S.A. Seventh Avenue was as dark and lonely as haunted graves.

A colored man was stealing a bag of money.

It was a small white canvas bag, the top tied with a cord. It lay on the front seat of a Plymouth sedan that was double-parked on Seventh Avenue, in front of an A amp;P grocery store in the middle of the block between 131st and 132nd Streets.

The Plymouth belonged to the manager of the A amp;P store. The bag contained silver money to be used for making change. The curb was lined with big shiny cars, and the manager had double-parked until he'd unlocked the store and put the money in the safe. The manager didn't want to risk walking a block down a Harlem street at that time of morning with a bag of money in his hand.

There was always a colored patrolman on duty in front of the store when the manager arrived. The patrolman stood guard over the cartons and crates of canned goods, groceries and vegetables, which the A amp;P delivery truck unloaded on the sidewalk, until the manager arrived.

But the manager was a white man. He didn't trust the streets of Harlem, even with a cop on guard.

The manager's distrust was being justified.

As he stood in front of the door, taking the key from his pocket, with the colored cop standing by his side, the thief sneaked along the other side of the parked cars, stuck his long bare black arm through the open window of the Plymouth and noiselessly lifted the bag of silver money.

The manager looked casually over his shoulder at just the instant the stooping figure of the thief, creeping along the street, was disappearing behind another parked 'Stop thief!' he shouted, assuming the man was a thief on general principles.

Before the words had got clear of his mouth the thief was high-balling for all he was worth. He was wearing a ragged dark green cotton T-shirt, faded blue jeans and dirt-blackened canvas sneakers, which, along with his color, blended with the black asphalt, making him hard to distinguish.

'Where's he at?' the cop asked.

'There he goes!' a voice said from above.

Both the cop and the manager heard the voice, but neither looked up. They had seen a dark blur turning on a sharp curve into 132nd Street, and both had taken off in pursuit simultaneously.

The voice had come from a man standing in a lighted third-story window, the only lighted window in the block of five- and six-story buildings.

From behind the man's silhouetted figure came the faint sounds of a jam session holding forth in the unseen rooms. The hot licks on a tenor sax kept time with the feet pounding on the sidewalk pavement, and the bass notes from a big piano were echoing the light dry thunder of a kettledrum.

The silhouette shortened as the man leaned farther and farther out the window to watch the chase. What had first appeared to be a tall thin man slowly became a short squat midget. And still the man leaned farther out. When the cop and the store manager turned the corner, the man was leaning so far out his silhouette was less than two feet high. He was leaning out of the window from his waist up.

Slowly his hips leaned out. His buttocks rose into the light like a slow-rolling wave, then dropped below the wmdow ledge as his legs and feet slowly rose into the air. For a long moment the silhouette of two feet sitting upside down on top of two legs was suspended in the yellow lighted rectangle. Then it sank slowly from view, like a body going head-down into water.

The man fell in slow motion, leaning all the way, so that he turned slowly in the air.

He fell past the window underneath, which bore the black-lettered message: STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT

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To one side of the cartons and crates was a long wicker basket of fresh bread. The large soft spongy loaves, wrapped in wax paper, were stacked side by side like cotton pads.

The man landed at full length on his back exactly on top of the mattress of soft bread. Loaves flew up about him like the splash of freshly packaged waves as his body sank into the warm bed of bread.

Nothing moved. Not even the tepid morning air.

Above, the lighted window was empty. The street was deserted. The thief and his pursuers had disappeared into the Harlem night.

Time passed.

Slowly the surface of the bread began to stir. A loaf rose and dropped over the side of the basket to the sidewalk as though the bread had begun to boil. Another squashed loaf followed.

Slowly, the man began erupting from the basket like a zombie rising from the grave. His head and shoulders came up first. He gripped the edges of the basket, and his torso straightened. He put a leg over the side and felt for the sidewalk with his foot. The sidewalk was still there. He put a little weight on his foot to test the sidewalk. The sidewalk was steady.

He put his other foot over the edge to the sidewalk and stood up.

The first thing he did was to adjust his gold-rimmed spectacles on his nose. Next he felt his pants pockets to see if he'd lost anything. Everything seemed to be there-keys, Bible, knife, handkerchief, wallet and the bottle of herb medicine he took for nervous indigestion.

Then he brushed his clothes vigorously, as though loaves of bread might be sticking to him. After that he took a big swig of his nerve medicine. It tasted bittersweet and strongly alcoholic. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

Finally he looked up. The lighted window was still there, but somehow it looked strangely like the pearly gates.


Deep South was shouting in a hoarse bass voice: ' Steal away, daddy-o, steal away to Jesus…'

His meaty black fingers were skipping the light fantastic on the keys of the big grand piano.

Susie Q. was beating out the rhythm on his kettle drum.

Pigmeat was jamming on his tenor sax.

The big luxurious sitting room of the Seventh Avenue apartment was jam-packed with friends and relatives of Big Joe Pullen, mourning his passing.

His black-clad widow, Mamie Pullen, was supervising the serving of refreshments.

Dulcy, the present wife of Big Joe's godson, Johnny Perry, was wandering about, being strictly ornamental, while Alamena, Johnny's former wife, was trying to be helpful.

Doll Baby, a chorus chick who was carrying a torch for Dulcy's brother, Val, was there to see and be seen.

Chink Charlie Dawson, who was carrying a torch for Dulcy herself, shouldn't have been there at all.

The others were grieving out of the kindness of their hearts and the alcohol in their blood, and because grievmg was easy in the stifling heat.

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