by Katherine Crighton
Originally published on tumblr, February 10, 2015. Written for schatze-loco-pola. Warnings: Early 20th century American-level offensive and racist language/epithets, violence.
There was a guy in a suit, big and fancy, a round silver piece on his watch chain that had to be worth at least five dollars all by itself just hanging there like it was nobody’s business, and he was walking along Minnie’s piece of street like there was nothing to worry about on such a fine, fine Manhattan morning.
Minnie was short, sure, and kept herself to herself, but she had fingers like her old auntie’s tweezers and nobody looked twice at newsboys walking with no papers. She slipped up to the guy and started walking behind him, just a little to the left, waiting for the moment when the crowd would shift and she could shift her hand right into his pocket and across his waistcoat and get that watch for herself.
The crowd shifted, sure, lady and her fella falling behind, businessman with his briefcase cutting right, light and easy, she wasn’t even a spit away, and–
A colored kid she hadn’t even seen, smack dab in Minnie’s damn territory, went gliding easy as you please right past the mark, there and gone again, and when Minnie looked again the damned watch was gone, chain and silver piece and all.
Minnie was a girl, but she dressed like a boy and wasn’t afraid to bite when she fought, and like hell was she going to let some back-alley light-fingered asshole steal shit on her block. The kid, a dark brown smudge of color in the middle of a sea of white skin, was already two buildings away, walking the easy walk of somebody looking to not get caught, and Minnie was going to beat the living hell out of him just as soon as she could get away from the scene of that other jerk’s crime.
It took another couple of minutes, and making her away around and about the swell with the as-yet-unnoticed missing watch, but Minnie caught up to the other kid right at the mouth of the alley next to the bakery that gave out a couple of ends of loaves if she did the sweeping in the mornings, and it wasn’t the work of a second to grab him by the arm and swing him up against the smoke-black brick wall, hand at his shoulder, other fist back and ready to punch him in the jaw if he didn’t give up the goods fast.
“This is my block,” Minnie said, lowering her voice to the gruff one she kept up around people, “and that was my mark you took from, and you better give me that watch or I’ll–”
Which is when the colored kid threw his whole head forward and bashed Minnie in the goddamn face. Minnie gasped and let go, and the kid started to make a run for it, but it wasn’t like Minnie was new to the streets, her body knew how to move even if her head felt like it was playing the clapper of a giant bell. She jumped on the kid’s back and the force of it dumped him on the ground, and it didn’t take half a minute for her to start rubbing his face into the muck on the alley floor. The kid’s hat fell off, showing short black fuzz, and Minnie got one last good rub in before the kid got his arms under him and shoved himself up and toppled her off his back.
The kid tried to make for the street again, and this time Minnie got hold of his ankle and managed to trip him up before he’d taken half a step. The spill he took this time had him pitching up against the alley wall again, and this time he gasped out, “God damn,” and Minnie paused for half a second before she managed to get her tongue to behave itself again.
“Just give me the watch,” Minnie said, getting up on all fours, levering herself to a swaying stand. “You think I won’t hit a girl? I’ll knock you to next Tuesday.”
The colored kid – colored girl, the voice had given it away, and with the hat off Minnie could see it now, and this was why Minnie wasn’t dumb like that, Minnie kept her damn hat on and it took more than a punch to the face to get her to forget how to act like she had a dick as big as any other boy’s on the street – the girl narrowed her eyes and used the wall to slide herself up to stand opposite Minnie. “Yeah?” she said. “Only one of us have hit a girl here so far, and it sure as hell wasn’t you.”
Minnie froze. Her clothes– no, they were loose, and she wasn’t hardly showing anything that couldn’t be covered up for another couple years at least. She kept her hair short, but her hat down low just to cover her face that extra bit, and it was still on. And she knew she’d kept her voice in that growl she’d tested time and time again against cops and pimps and other boys who just wanted to horn in on her space. It wasn’t good to be a girl alone out here. She was careful. She couldn’t remember when she hadn’t been careful.
“You don’t know shit,” she said instead, and the girl across from her gave her a frank look up and down. It lasted a long second, and Minnie could almost feel a blush try to rise up on her face before she dug the ragged ends of her nails into her palms to pull the color away. The girl looked for a moment like she was going to make another fuss about it, either the watch or the girl thing or whatever – and then just as visibly slumped her shoulders, giving up the fight. Minnie wasn’t used to people who gave up. It made her nervous, and wondering what the other girl was planning. But instead of rushing her or something, the girl put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out the watch and chain. It glinted in the half light of the alley.
“I’m new in town,” the girl said. She looked at the watch instead of at Minnie. “Didn’t know this was your patch. Just need some dough to get established, you know?” She glanced up. “Don’t have to tell you how easy it isn’t, keeping out of some kinds of trouble.”
Minnie tilted her chin, just a little. Like a nod, maybe. The girl still didn’t know that Minnie was a girl. Minnie hadn’t said. But… yeah, Minnie knew a little about all kinds of trouble.
The girl bit her lip. It was the most girl-like thing she’d done, and it made her look something close to pretty, like one of those lobby cards at the pictures with the actresses all made up and staring sleepy-eyed and loving at their heroes. Her lip slipped out from between her teeth, popping out like a sucker on a stick, and Minnie jerked her eyes back up to meet the girl’s. “I’m Ida,” the girl said. She clutched the watch a little, and then seemed to loosen her fingers deliberately, breathing out. She stuck out her hand. “You take me where I can sell this, and I’ll give you most of the money. Just let me have a little, and I won’t come by again, all right? I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”
Minnie opened her mouth to take the deal – or maybe to call this Ida girl an idiot, jump forward, snatch the watch, run – or – or maybe –
“There he is!”
Both girls whipped their heads to the mouth of the alley, and like an vengeful angel of the Lord, with his finger pointing and his waistcoat missing his very fine, very shiny watch and chain, the rich guy stood and cried out in an accent that Minnie couldn’t mimic if her life depended on it, “There, officers! I’d recognize the little thief anywhere!” Then he waved his hand. “It was definitely one of them, I know it–”
It didn’t even take half a heartbeat to catch Ida’s eye, and then they were running, pelting for the other end of the alley and out to a sunshiny street where they’d get themselves lost again in the New York morning.
The club was in Harlem, and Ma Rainey was singing that night. Talk started, quiet at first, but it went around the tables fast, that there were a couple of white boys making trouble for the women leaving for the night. It wasn’t uncommon, but it didn’t make for a real good time.
Nobody was really paying attention to the couple of bulldaggers near the door, a mixed pair who both wore their hair short and their collars starched and in the smoky dark of the club looked just as good as any fella might. So nobody saw when the two of them shared a glance and then stood up, slinging their coats over their shoulders and putting their hats on their heads. They slid out into the street behind a group of women leaving at the same time, and they disappeared into the shadows.
The white men were across the street, leaning up against a closed storefront. They straightened when they saw the women. “Ladies, ladies!” the one on the left said, “you going somewhere? You need company? I think you need company, ain’t no company like us where you been, right?” The women ducked their heads, trying to twist away from the words, walk faster. The man jerked his head at his friend, and they started following after the women. “Maybe you need some of this, right?” he called out. “Never had a coon before, but I bet I can fix any of you up a treat. Who wants to go first? I can make time for all of you–”
They passed an alley, and another white boy was leaning against the wall, watching them with interested eyes. “What’s the game?” he said, voice low.
The friend grinned. “All-girls’ club and stuck-up nigger bitches. What else do you need?”
The boy shrugged. “Can’t think of anything else. Unless…” He looked conspiratorially up and down the streets. “You guys want a little something extra to take it up a notch? Because let me tell you, if you think you’re ready for some fun now…” He raised his eyebrows, and he whistled through his teeth. “Well, I’ve never heard a complaint yet, is all I’m saying.”
The women were moving fast, but the men had gotten distracted now. And there would be more girls, no worries there. The first one came back, slapped the back of his hand against his friend’s arm. “What do you think, Joe?”
The friend took a look up and down the guy in the alley. He was shorter than both of them, but his clothes were swell, top-notch – whatever he had, it was probably good. And even if the little guy was no good, or some fairy trying to offer them something else, well, it was two to one, and they were both bigger than him. “Yeah,” said Joe, “I think I’m interested.”
The little guy cracked a smile. “Gentlemen,” he said, “my office.” And he turned down into the shadows of the alley. They followed.
And truth be told, they didn’t really know what hit them.
Somebody bum rushed them from the side, knocking the two together, off-balance, and then there the little guy was again, and he had shoulders that rammed with the force of a goddamn bull, smashing into their stomachs so hard that they both curled over. There was a double-handed smash to the back of one of their heads, the little guy kicked his foot into the other’s balls hard enough to break them like eggs – a breathless laugh came from the side – and then the other set of balls got the same treatment from someone else’s shoe.
The two boys ended up huddled on the ground, crying like babies, and the two who did it crouched down in front of them. “We like that club,” said the one they hadn’t seen, a black man with a lighter voice but bigger fists. “But we like a lot of clubs.“
“If you come around again,” said the little guy, “we’re going to rip your goddamn cocks off and feed them to you. Got it?”
He didn’t wait for an answer – he just knocked a punch against the ear of the one closest to him, hard enough to deafen him for a while. Longer than his balls would hurt, anyway. Maybe he’d remember the lesson. The little guy’s friend snorted, and knocked the other boy’s ear too, though he maybe missed a little and got the boy’s eye for good measure.
With practiced ease, the two of them rolled the shaking men over, went through their pockets, and pulled out all the cash they had. Then they stood, and headed for the mouth of the alley. They paused for a moment.
“Such a romantic,” Ida said.
“You know me,” Minnie said. “I know how to show my girl a good time.”