Jan 7, 2009

Vito the king

They called him Vito, like Vito Corleone, like the Godfather, and maybe that was even one of his names. He was 10 years old.

I saw him in the courthouse halls, a big kid with confidence and a stride and his hair cut into a mohawk. His mom was still outside, parking the car and calming her nerves with quick inhales, but Vito knew the way to the courtroom and he went through the metal detector without saying anything and he rode the elevator up to the third floor and hall to the courtroom. He didn’t have to ask directions.

The district attorney was sweating up at the prosecutor’s table, drinking diet coke from the bottle, screw top tossed to the trash, waiting and sweating, not because he was worried but because he was a big guy in suspenders and a spotty beard who sweated his way through the day. I was in the back. I was slumped down so I could see the whole room -- the bailiff reading a catalog of home décor and the lady attorney with the day-old sticker saying she voted for Obama, the mother of the murdered boy not looking at anything and not crying, not now. One of the lawyers, the one with the hip hair, he was up, standing up, standing there telling some story he thought was hilarious. It might have been, but I didn’t hear the beginning. I had a novel stuck in my pocket but didn’t pull it out. I doodled on my pad. I doodled a doomsday trumpet for an angel to blow. The homicide detective came to talk to me, to tell me something and see what I knew, see what I was thinking and what I might write. I said, “who’s up next,” meaning next to testify, and he said “Vito.” I didn’t know who Vito was and he said, “You don’t know Vito? He’s a 10-year-old drug dealer -- You believe that? He lives in that neighborhood. He’s the youngest of the whole family and all of them are in the system. Ten years old and he deals.”

I wanted to know how long he’d been dealing, since you don’t just start, there’s a system and you start doing deliveries or keep look out and then you graduate. The detective didn’t know. He said that whole area, that whole neighborhood was bad and said, “can you believe it?” as if it were a challenge of faith, and he said when he went there, on a homicide, he had to say he wasn’t there for drugs and didn’t care about drugs only death, before anyone would say anything.

I told him I believed him, but it didn’t seem to matter.

When Vito came in everyone turned and he smiled. They looked at him and he liked it. He sauntered a little, up the middle of the courtroom, and pushed through the little gates that swing like they came from a saloon and he sat up in the witness chair. Like he was supposed to be there. He was supposed to have seen something, to be a witness to the murder, but on the stand nothing seemed to be clear except that he liked to be there. In the center. Where people were paying attention. On cross examination he admitted, yeah, maybe he wasn’t there, which everyone seemed to already know, and then the judge in his bow tie asked about perjury and Vito said no, he didn’t know what that meant, what that means, but he said it like he wanted to. The judge liked to talk and he leaned down to explain and Vito smiled, the biggest smile, a beam, a smiled that seemed to take in everything and say “yeah.”

“Ten years old,” the detective said, and I could see him saying it again his head, like even he didn’t even believe it.

I followed Vito out of the courthouse, just to see him walk. I knew he wouldn’t talk, his mom wouldn’t let him and he had a lawyer too, but I wanted to watch him. This kid. This 10-year-old who looked like he loved everything. I’d seen kids who looked like kids who’d got in trouble and kids who looked all doped, kids who’d been got up like gangbangers and kids who were writing raps about merking. But I’d never seen Vito. He walked like a mayor. He walked like he wanted to be Obama. He tried to touch everyone. He said hello to the punked-out kid in the glasses in the hallway and he knew the names of all the ladies at their desks and phones. He waved to the bailiffs with their handcuffs hanging from their belts and made jokes for the lawyers lugging leather satchels. He knew the names of the car-jacking kids and the dope runners and the fighters and the runaways too. In the parking lot he nodded hello to the smokers and to the poll workers and the tax assessor who was leaving for lunch. I saw him when he left. Walking with that stride. Mohawk turning as he looked at everything. Confident he was the king.