An excerpt from City Limit by Lantzee Miller.









I walked out on Dad one soggy night seven years ago. He was an all right guy, but he confused our apartment entry codes to the point he endangered lives.

The fact is, three years after I first left the place, the cops flattened our block, so you have to rely on my memory here. I can only hope Dad was out when the bulldozers arrived to squeeze out the bone heads. A few weeks before that invasion, the city had leveled the abandoned strip mall across Spanish Fort Avenue. Too many cracker jacks had been cooking their pebbles in the hollow storefronts. At night we used to see their lighter flares. Then the city wrapped our apartment complex in chain-link, with warning signs. Next it was a meadow of Johnson grass.

Our complex was a scatter of about thirty quadruplexes, units we called them. I believe they were the first apartments Dallas built for poor folk, to keep you there, way back in the fifties. A unit had yellow brick on the first floor, asbestos siding on the second. Through the front door, the reek of melted cheese, ammonia and diapers greeted you. A flight of stairs dropped to the basement. Over our basement stairs Dad had placed his steel door that lay horizontal over them. He’d made it when he worked at the airplane hangar. We pushed it open from below with a pole. We lived down there too, and no one lived in the apartments above.

The city was supposed to manage the complex, but the most we spotted was a blue city car crawling down Illinois Avenue every couple months. A citizen of sorts, Rick Ocotillo, actually ran the place, with some lofty ideals. He provided free rent and safety the cops could not. The hitch was you had to buy from him. He said he sold cheap and the residents were on the kokomo anyway so he offered a true service. I met him many times in our basement, a heavy man, trim mustache, always in a gray suit and no tie. “Hey, it’s the round dude,” he said all happy when he came in and saw me. As if I was rounder than him. Folks called him The Face, I think because he had so much of one. He brought me model train magazines. “Great hobby for a boy,” he said. “Try it.” I thanked him anyway.

Dad provided him services. That is Dad provided residents with hand-held protection, which The Face required. It helped them feel safe, it kept them to the end. Business was brisk since residents turned over fast, often by surprise in the night. Many were relocated to Laurel Land’s rolling green hills, down off south Lancaster.

The first floor was our buffer zone for transacting. Customers knocked on the upstairs door outside. Here’s where Dad employed his entry codes.

They were a series of long and short pauses between knocks, like Morse Code. Always – · – – · came first, for our last name, Gullo, then came the date by – and · like binary. So February 1, 2001 would be 211, or – · · – · –. Then came a tag, a series of eight –‘s and ·.’s. One string of code could be twenty or more taps. And a customer had to tap the whole code three times; two out of three knocked right got Dad reaching for the pole. The customer needed a lot of determination to get that far. Dad went up and transacted. Folks took whatever he offered.

He had Rick Ocotillo pass the entry code to customers. Dad revised it every three days, because you never knew when someone might change. “Even Rick Ocotillo,” Dad said. Not counting the date, it was the tag that Dad revised, and that’s where I had differences with him.

Trouble was, Dad could be sloppy. He could do too much bone, which has no place in gun dealing. He cooked his stuff in the morning with a butane torch, a .45 shell and needle nose pliers. The city had cut off the gas to the complex long as I can recall. Anybody who cooked hauled in butane. After his morning kokomo, Dad jittered foot to foot as he torched up pork chops before his appetite died for the day. When I was four he still could stand a beer can on his belly, but after years of jittering his thighs had shrunk to scissors way back in his pants. He jittered when selling a sawed-off or Colt. He made people antsy, so they took the first price he named. In that way kokomo worked for him. But it did not work for his codes.

Normally he changed the tag by leapfrogging a dot and dash. So · · · · – – – – went to · · · – · – – –. But he started confusing which digit leaped. He refused to write down the code in case the paper blew upstairs to the wrong feet. No use reminding him that The Face had the code on a paper scrap and copied it for our customers. I said, “It was the second dot moved, because it was January 20th , a 2 for ‘second’ and 0 for ‘dot.’”

“Never trust a 13-year-old,” he said. “That’s the bad-luck age.”

Then another knock came, with the third dot moved. His tiny eyes shifted to me. He jittered in place, let the three repetitions pass and lost the sale. He was losing Rick Ocotillo’s cut too.

But next visit, The Face only said, “You keep depriving me my pay-per-view money, Gullo. Sell the next guy two pieces.” I guessed Rick Ocotillo would have a hard time replacing Dad.



The morning before I walked out, Dad and I got up to go take care of the other half of business, acquisition.

I fell into my Coogis that could fit about two of him in one leg. He made my breakfast, that is mixed the dried milk for my box of Cocoa Krispies, no complaints about my appetite. He was very polite to me, never used the f word except when trimming the white off raw pork: “I hate fat, too slimy.”

We trod up through the steel hatch and to the ’78 Honda. Dad drove a rusted tin can that thieves couldn’t see and piloted with his cell at ear. It was an overcast February Sunday looking for its chance to dump on us. We stopped by the “High Hat,” apartments off Corinth much like ours. He always called them wrong, “High Hat,”saying “Hat” instead of the real word, like a dig at the residents’ condition, as if they didn’t mirror his own. It’s one of those wrong names that sticks. In an old Baptist Sunday tradition, bone heads of South Dallas stay in bed especially late, telling themselves how this morning they’ll just have to sleep through church for a change. Doors opened on droopy-eyed cracker jacks.

But they went and pried the lids off their cartons chock with metal. Screws were missing from trigger mechanisms, springs uncoiled from cartridge chambers: the usual. Dad bought the lot cheaper than the gram of hamburger helper he took too.

We puttered past the woods in the Trinity riverbottoms, and next to them the shacks of the alphabet avenues. A routine day of acquisition, I go into a daze. We used to make these rounds nighttimes, but he started getting too nervous about himself to stick his nose outside after sundown. Buying weaponry was not easy to do mornings since most of our sources kept afternoon cracker jack hours. Sure Dad was a cracker jack, but the fear of going boubou-less pushed him out of bed.

Back when I was a kid I could sneak out on him, mornings. I’d walk to William Brown Miller Elementary around the corner. The kids were about all black and I was the roly-poly Mexican though I don’t believe Dad and I were Mexican. He was the one signed me up in the first place but soon appeared to forget that fact. He’d catch me coming home afternoons. “Too risky a time in this neighborhood,” he said. “I’m a responsible parent.” In fourth grade he started waking at eight and kept me home to work with him. I learned enough stuff by reading gun-repair manuals and the hundreds of magazines he dug from the trashes.

Stuff like the fact the worst grade for dropout rates up in Massachusetts is not fourth but eleventh, over 4%. And the vocational school rate’s not so bad, 2.9%—couldn’t be, if he of all folks made it through, here in Dallas. And aircraft engine mechanics like he once was can make a pretty 48 grande (I spell that right, “grande”? I can’t smell it.)

About eleven o’clock this Sunday morning, Dad got a callback from Tim Stevens for five sawed-off .410’s. A callback was when you were supposed to make a deal yesterday and suddenly someone’s calling saying goods are in. Dad turned down callbacks since they made for ambushes. But he worked with Tim Stevens enough to trust him. “Trust, my last bad habit,” Dad told me. Tim Stevens had left the stash at his grandmother’s in Waxahachie, and his youngest sister Gawene was driving it in. So we had to ring his bell again today.

The screen door shed paint flecks as we waited. Tim Stevens finally opened and asked us in for coffee and lemon chiffon pie his white sister Palla served. The man was long and deep black and stooped over like a grandfolk himself. His old house reeked of mothballs and bacon grease and the ivory lace curtains were yellow. A baby slept in a wooden crate. Many cracker jacks, you find, have babies. Gawene was on her way from Waxahachie this minute. We waited out that minute through two whole pans of lemon chiffon. I could wait out many cuts of pie for Gawene and her spill of tootsie-roll hair.

Dad said, “Trouble is, I’m eating up my profits lounging here.” Like he was competing with Mr. Smith-&-Wesson himself. He just hated sitting and had already had his daily meal. And hated one son’s over-respecting someone’s youngest sister. So he arranged for Tim Stevens to come to our place on Illinois this afternoon. Made Tim memorize the code right there. The long man rolled his eyes, trying to get that code down.

We drove a quick circuit of cracker shacks, and we sold, for ten times what he’d paid, those old guns I’d fixed with pennies’ worth of parts. Half rich, we hung by the Cedar Crest Safeway for items we could store dry since we had no electricity. Beef jerky, pork skins, potato flakes. If we had made an extra large killing, we’d trust ourselves to spaghetti and clams at the Olive Garden. But not today, with acquisition half-done. We then swung by the Mesquite flea market to scrounge for pins, bushings, swivels, bolt blanks, forend screws, bands, any metal bit that could have been from a gun, for our tackle box.

We got home by 3 P.M. Rain was picking up. Illinois Avenue gick monsters were just stirring from bed. A couple dudes, too chesty to be long friends of kokomo, stood under the eaves near our door, like they planned to share our profits. Still they weren’t beamed up yet, so fingers would be too shaky to handle any protection. But as Dad hustled me from the car, I felt his nerves twitching. The boubou brain, he always forgot to pack anything loaded.

Then a few units away, Rick Ocotillo made a rare outdoor appearance. He waved like he wanted to talk. Dad told me, “Afternoon around here, we’ll stay inside and work, thank you.” We slipped through the steel hatch. As Dad poled it shut, it fell the last several inches. Toes around the complex could have felt the quake.

I worked under the Coleman lantern prepping merchandise. Since I was about seven, Dad had lost his steady fine-tool fingers.

Soon, upstairs came the heavy Rick Ocotillo knock. “Someone’s twisting his fourth and fifth digit in the tag,” Dad said. Those fourth and fifth digits in the tag were correct, for all three repetitions. After the knocks there came a long unpleasant silence.


Dad paced, wadding pages of code ideas. We only had that camp stove, the bar stool where I sat working, and clothes and papers and magazines stacked in neat aisles in the living area. The high window had once looked onto a shaft well before he had bricked it up. He stayed warm with his bone and stove, me with my coat.

His evening stir crazies came on, and he tried sweeping the basement mold from the carpet. It still overpowered the sweet plastic cloud of this morning’s kokomo and the solder under my nose. He read out loud from riddle and puzzle books. He shouted he used to repair jet engines at Dallas Love Field. He thrust his FAA license at me. That goatee and tiny face, he was the fox out of the children’s books. He poured gin on top the boubou and started confusing himself with holy sorts, declaring himself Allah or Moses. Thanks to the silly water company, the sink tap worked, and he watered down his gin to stretch it out. He roared he would rain fire upon America for making money God.

Between his barks, rain tapped the brick in the former window.

Five P.M. brought the Stevenses’ knock. Those soft knuckles had to be Gawene’s. Gawene, at Illinois? “Everybody’s switching their digits today,” Dad said.

On a slip of paper I wrote a code, but going backwards, with a date tag for February 4, 2001. I showed him and asked what tomorrow’s code would be. His answer switched a couple digits. “Nobody in their right mind can work with a code backward,” he said. He had stated my point.

The heavy knocks returned. The Stevenses must have tracked down Rick Ocotillo. After two snubs this afternoon, a third would hurt The Face, especially with a customer watching at his side. Dad paced through four perfect repetitions of the code.


About now he recollected once again how I’d had an older sister for a couple years. It was her that somehow made him leave his Love Field job. A .38 Browning pistol I had once refreshed hung on a wall hook above the Bible. He grabbed it, opened the tool box of rounds and loaded the chamber. But only once had he ever flashed a hole in the ceiling.

“Vishnu saves His fire rain for heretics,” he said.

I cringed at the manhandling of my handiwork, but I kept screwdrivering. He’d touched that .38 plenty times, but who knows when he’d jam the firing pin. Gin night happened only two or three times a week, since Dad frowned on booze.


In a few hours came a knock he approved of. He poled the steel door open, went up and dealt with a customer. I fingered some cash from his box of rounds, then snuck up the stairs.

I took the corner behind the front door. It goes into shadow at night. Dad sealed the sale, closed up and went down. I opened, entered rain and walked to Tim Stevens’s.


Let me backtrack to the beginning of that walk. I had never heard how I ended up living with the person at the front part of my life, that is Dad. But the person at this neck of my life will see how we got thrown together. That means you, Suds. Open this in ten and a half years, when you’re of age.

The miles to Tim Stevens’s didn’t roll off my feet. One problem, the route you take to Tim Stevens’s by car isn’t the one you should hoof. A vehicle might recognize your big body in the headlights and then swerve too far. Dad had competition in the world, and I had associated with him.

By wheels, you just wind straight down Bonnie View to Morrell. On the way, Bonnie View cuts past William Brown Miller Elementary and the hilltop where you watch downtown sparkle way down by its river, then the Cedar Crest golf course. You cross wide lazy Cedar Crest Boulevard, then Morrell puts you into the Corinth St. valley and you slog up the hill, past the high-power lines and Morrell Avenue DART tram station, to Tim Stevens’s. But by foot, if you want to avoid front bumpers straying into you, you hike some back trails.

Which brings up my footgear. Dad did invest in shoes. Our customers needed confidence in our product, and your body was the presentation package. Style of rusty car apparently did not play into the presentation. My one pair, black Forzieri oxfords, I shined every few nights. But Dad accused my hind paws of ballooning and bought shoes two sizes over. Try piloting over slick dark rocks in big hard leather.

I first took the woods beside our strip mall, my old way to school. The rain had quit for the moment. Mud slopped into the oxfords. The toes gouged out the drunks’ old broken glass and rotten logs they use for pillows. Dad had always pointed at their campfires far off, yellow flickers in blackness. “That’s where too much wine and religion leads,” he warned. Tonight I only smelled the damp ashes.

Bonnie View is just two lanes of beat-up asphalt, and I plugged across to the clump of trees behind the school. You sometimes see back there the butane lighters of third grader clucks cooking boubou. But rain scares off beamers old and young. The long backside of the school, the window blinds drawn, I got to missing the place. I could sit at a desk sniffing the crayons in my cigar box all morning. In the math workbook I’d fill in the sum blanks weeks ahead. There was a kid, Tonio, maybe a real Mexican with a lawn of black stubs on top. First grade, he walked right up to me, took me over the back chain link, down to a creek. He dipped tadpoles out in his hands, called them sperm. He called himself a cowboy, his mother a raspberry, me an Indian. One November morning he stopped showing up. I searched the playgrounds for months. Dad said the same would happen to me.

Past the school I took the hole in the fence into the African middle class. There were separate houses with grass, mowed, even some ancient flamingos. The front bricks looked so quiet, maybe the cracker jacks to the south would pass them by. I dropped into the storm drain under Kiest Blvd. A six-year-old can stand in the tube, but I was crouching, my sides scraping the walls. Tonio would take me here, and we’d crunch the fried tortillas from the cafeteria. Even on this wet night, water in my shoes, I could taste that salty corn.

I caught up with Bonnie View again, where it had a sidewalk. The oxfords were wobbling across my feet. At the golf course the sidewalk stopped and a spike iron fence took over. Bonnie View wound into the dark trees. I tugged at the top rail under the spikes, but my feet stayed planted. Too many years, Dad’s wheels took me the distances. And I liked Spaghetti-Os too much. Finally, using a roadside crate, I could just straddle two spikes. I landed on my feet and must have burst the soles and some new blisters.

And I halted. I looked awhile at the immense black field ahead. Rain flapped the cut grass blades and dripped down my belly. Dad’s wad in my pocket had to be soaked. Returning the wad would not be easy. And next time Dad crawled out that steel hatch, he might walk right into The raging Face.

I had put myself outside for a night.

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