The South Side of Chicago is a tough place to escape
"Damian can I ask you a question?" Mikey tossed a stone at the green Chicago River below them, two skips.
"Sure Mikey, what's up?" Damian tossed a stone in turn, four skips.
"What do you want to be, you know, when you grow up?" Mikey chucked his stone at the river, no skips.
"I sure don't want to be a trash man Mikey." Five skips.
"But I want to ride on the back of a truck!" Three skips.
"You don't want ta be a trash man Mikey. Trash men are all losers." Five skips.
"ARE NOT!" No skips.
"Yea, they are. How would you know, you're only four. If anything I'd be a police man. You get to shoot guns and chase people." Six skips.
"I want to ride on the back of a truck." Four skips.
"You do what you want Mikey, as long as you're with me you'll be ok. "Ten skips.
The dry office air put Mikey on edge. He wiped his trembling palms on his jeans and shifted in his chair. He then took time to survey the room. All grey: the tables, the walls. The only colors in the room came from a blinking vending machine in the corner. Mikey let out a sigh and checked his shoes for dirt. When the guy said he'd "Be right back" Mikey didn't think he would be sitting alone for 30 minutes in silence. But he waited anyway, he was in no rush. For once he felt like he wasn't in a rush. He looked out the lounge windows, at all the people at their desks. What was their story? What made them want to take job like that, here?
With a resounding "click" the door at the front of the room erupted and in strode officer Tancredi. He was holding a mug with a painted picture of Clint Eastwood that read "Feelin' Lucky, Punk?"
"Sorry for the wait. Had to make sure we wouldn't be interrupted here by officers on lunch break...Well Mikey, you said you had a story for us?" Tancredi brought out a small and outdated camera and aimed it at Mikey.
Tancredi had seemed nice enough when Mikey first got to the station. The man was tall, fat and must've been in his 50's. His white button down sat wrinkled on the curve of his belly, and his red striped tie loosely hung around his neck. From the second Mikey had stated why he was there Tancredi's eyes had lit up. As they had walked through the office Tancredi had described the cubicles around him. "Working here is just as dull as it looks sonny. I want to genuinely thank you for making my day a little interesting." Evidently Tancredi was not enjoying his retired office life.
"Yes sir, but I was uhh wonderin' before we start, you know, could I use the phone?"
Tancredi continued to adjust the camera. "Oh come on now Mikey, I've kept you in here long enough we might as well get started." Tancredi was giddy to be working on something besides criminal reports. "How 'bout you we get you to the phone when we're half way through the story."
"Uhh yea sure that's cool."
"Great, alright let me get this thing up and running and we'll start."
Mikey was always the family gem, and his older brother Damian always the family burnout. But being a burnout didn't really mean much when you lived in the neighborhood of Roseland. The small neighborhood, tucked between East 79th street and East 95th street on the south side of Chicago, was teeming with burnouts. High School dropouts littered the gas stations, the parks and the corner blocks. Most of the small neighborhood's schools had been defunded and merged. The remaining teachers lowered their expectations for the influx of students and mediocrity became accepted as excellence in Roseland.
From fourth grade on Mikey's story had been different.
"Oh Thomas, Thomas come here and look at Michael's report card!" Loraine was frantically waving the thick green piece of paper toward the back of the cramped apartment, "Looks like we have a little Einstein in the family!" Loraine was Mikey's mom, and he couldn't help but smile when he saw her beaming ear to ear. Loraine was half white, and although her short stature did not immediately demand respect she made sure that she demanded it herself. She was working two jobs at two different drug stores and was always still in her wrinkled uniform when Mikey got home. After working a long shift there was nothing that made her happier than to see her sons had a chance to escape Roseland.
"Ooo mama, lil' Mikey's first report card!" Mikey's dad Darius rushed into the room.
Darius was tall and heavy, the perfect trash man; there was never a trash can too big. His dark face popped out of the white tattered 1985 Bears Superbowl sweater. He always wore the sweater around the house, no matter how much Mikey's mom begged him to buy a new one. "Tell da Bears to win again 'n I'll burn dis one" is what he always said. Mikey was lucky, sometimes he felt like he was the only one in Roseland with a functioning family.
The burly man seized the report and silently read. "GOD DAMN Michael, good to know the whole family ain't brain dead." He directed the last comment towards the back of the apartment where Damian was watching TV. Mikey blushed, he never liked to be compared to his brother because he didn't want his brother to think Mikey thought he was better than him.
"Look I'm real sorry kid, this thing just isn't working. If this place had some fucking money maybe we wouldn't be doing interviews with 10 year old cameras...Anyways, I'm gonna go look for a tape recorder. I'll be right back."
"How about that phone call man?"
"I told ya kid, at half time. Here's a buck, get something from the vending machine." Tancredi swiftly grabbed the camera, papers and his mug and went off on his expedition, leaving Mikey in the empty eating lounge.
Mikey tugged at the neck of his deep green hoody, the stagnant air was becoming suffocating. Slowly he got up, his legs stretching out bearing the weight of his skinny body. He walked over to the vending machine, up close he saw the words 75 cents flashing. The machine had chips, a few kinds of cakes, and a lot candy bars. Mikey's eyes flashed to the Snickers bar at the bottom left and he inserted his dollar.
The night Mikey got his first report card he couldn't fall asleep. He just lay in bed with the Snickers bar his parents had rewarded him. He was too proud of it to eat it, so it just sat there clutched in his hand.
"Yo little Einstein, come with me I'm bout to kick it with Wallace, he be chillin at Eckersall Park tonight. Yo you can come blaze with us mayne." Damian whispered down to Mikey from the top bunk. He was four years older than Mikey but they had always shared friends, and whenever Damian got really excited it meant that he was about to go smoke with Wallace.
Mikey turned over in the darkness "Nah man, I'm not trying to do any of that tonight."
"Don't be a bitch Mikey c'mon, if you hurry up you won't be a fucking loser your whole life." Mikey grumbled and rolled out of bed, still clutching his snickers bar.
The walk to Eckersall Park was chilly and wet. April did not yet feel like spring and the light sprinkle of rain didn't help with the cold air. The soft golden glow of lamp posts guided the two brothers through the streets. Every once in a while they had to make their way in darkness down a street where all the lamps were burned out. The streets were quiet except for the light pattering of rain. They soon passed hobo Jo a local tweaker.
"Wayuuu finnne g-gennelmandoin out dis late?" Jo was grabbing onto nearby trashcans doing his best to standup.
"Mind yo damn business." Damian snapped and kept walking.
Mikey started to have second thoughts, and when he felt the candy bar in his right pocket he began to feel guilty for sneaking out so late. He started to debate whether he should head back, but then in the distance he could see the swing set and slide of Eckersall.
Mikey slipped his hand into the machine to grab his candy. He quickly ate it as a substitute for the lunch his stomach craved. Outside the lounge the officers were dispersing for lunch break. Mikey could've sworn he caught a few glares for occupying in the cafeteria lounge. Mikey was tossing the wrapper into the trash when Tancredi burst into the room stumbling over his own feet.
Tancredi's tie was loose and the man was now sporting a coffee stain on his shirt. He stood there, as if he was about to make a speech but the words had simply slipped his mind.
"Hey there Mikey. Apparently the official tape recorders been taken out til after lunch. Err I'd sit and eat with you but, you know, things to attend to. There's a public phone in the back of the office if you want. I guess see you after lunch." Tancredi swiveled and tripped on a chair as he rushed out. It was easy to see why the man hadn't been promoted past officer.
The walk to the phone hadn't been far and the red phone was easy to spot amid the depressing grey.
"Oh it's you Michael! Where you been? We been worried boutchu!"
"Is Damian there?"
"Honey, nah Damian's not here. He's prolly tweakin his ass off. The god damn fool. You come home now, you hear?"
"Uh yea mom in a little bit... hey, if you see Damian tell'em I'm sorry."
"Honey, sorry bout w--"
Mikey put the phone down and waded through the empty cubicles back to the lounge.
"Look who finally brought their raggedy ass ovah. And look at dat he brought Mikey too." Wallace's bulky silhouette stood tall beneath the warmth of the moonlight. He was wearing a stolen letterman jacket for football and a white skullcap. To his left and right were Jalen, and Rasheed. Both had dropped out of high school with Wallace and were always eager to follow him around.
Wallace and his friends were huddled under a strikingly white gazebo. Behind the silhouette of Wallace, Mikey could see the vacant children's park. A pair of benches surrounded the small crimson slide. Behind the slide, the arched poles of the swing set shimmered in the moonlight. Beneath the sound of rain hitting the pavement Mikey could hear each swing squeal as they lazily drifted back in forth.
"Whaddup cuz, how you livin?" Damian looked up at Wallace who towered over him and stuck his hand out for a shake. Damian worked out a lot and was big for his age, but Wallace, who was two years older than Damian, dwarfed him.
"Just fine til your bitch ass showed up." Wallace offered no hand in return and the park became silent. Damian turned as white as the moon and began staring at the ground. Wallace looked from Damian to Mikey and smiled. Wallace stuck out his hand, "C'mon mayne even little Mikey over there knows I'm just fuckin' witchu." Mikey tightened the grip on the candy bar in his pocket. "Yo little Mikey," Wallace crouched down to eye level "You know tonight's a special night righ? Big bro over here is gonna crew up with me and my bros. Mayb sumday, you'll crew up wid us too. Watchu think about that?"
"Nahh Wallace, Mikey got his first report card today, kid's a fuckin' queer, straight A's." Damian was feeling more at ease now that Wallace's attention was on someone else.
Wallace still crouching, smirked and nodded, "Well Wallace ain't got nothing but love for a homie hustling to get outta dis shit hole. You ever need anything lemme know aight?" Wallace got up and looked back at Damian, "Kid hasn't said a word and I already like him better'n you." Jalen and Rasheed laughed behind him. "Aight boys, wus the holdup, les light up."
A small pack of grape swishers materialized from Jalen's pocket. Choosing one out of the pack he meticulously pinched the sides of the cigarillo and slowly split the paper. Jalen was short and skinny which was not much different than Mikey's. Jalen was sporting the same fake, baggy, Louis Vuitton coat he always wore. As the paper split, Jalen let the tobacco fall to the ground. Again from his pocket Jalen pulled out a small bag of already grounded weed. Slowly he began to refill the empty cigarillo skin.
Once the blunt was lit it got passed to Rasheed next. Rasheed was the opposite of Jalen: tall and large. Easily one of the biggest kids Mikey knew, Rasheed could only wear elastic sweats and was always sporting an oversized stained white shirt. While not very smart, Rasheed was a very useful friend to have in case of a fight.
"Yo lil Mikey, hit dis shit." Rasheed muttered sticking out the smoking blunt.
Wallace quickly snatched it. "Da'fuck you tryin to do? Kid's getting straight A's and you wanna mess wid dat? Mikey ain't trying to get as dumb as you, dumbass." Rasheed muttered something along the lines of sorry while Jalen snickered next to him.
The lounge was slowly sucking the life out of Mikey. The flashing light on the vending machine now seemed to be taunting him. He checked his shoes again for any recent dirt and then stretched out in his chair. For a brief moment he thought about returning home but it was only brief. He knew he had already made a decision he would have to stick with.
Above him he noticed two flies buzzing around the office. Mikey looked at the door and wondered how they got in, must've been the air vents. The two flies crossed paths zig zagging around the ceiling fan above him. The incessant "bzzz" and flashing lights slowly lulled Mike's head to the table.
Mikey and Damian were helping Loraine with laundry. As Mikey threw a sack of clothes over his shoulder and headed out of the Laundromat he could hear his mother screaming.
"DAMIAAAAAAAN, I swear ta GOD if you don' help yo LIL brotha out Imma kick yo ass out've da GOD DAMN apartment."
Damian was outside sucking on a cigarette. He hadn't said much all day, and whenever someone asked him what was up he just grinned and said "Nuttin to do witchu." Reluctantly he dropped the cig and walked into the building.
The bags were heavy and the walk up the stairs to the apartment was almost unbearable for Mikey. With each stride his body sank under the weight of his bag. Mikey kept looking down hoping he hadn't left a trail of clothes that he would have to go back for later. The graffiti layered concrete walls seemed to be laughing at his despair.
When they reached their place Damian had barely broken a sweat. Now officially a high school dropout, Damian's sculpted body made his 18 year old body look much older. A passerby wouldn't be able to tell they were brothers, based on mike's short skinny frame.
The bags were lobbed onto the bottom bunk and Mikey and Damian began sorting their clothes. Mikey stuffed his holey jeans into the bottom drawer. He was used to holey jeans, most of his clothes were hand-me-downs and Damian wasn't in a habit of keeping his clothes in good shape.
"Hey Mikey, I got something to tell ya mayne." Damian's eye's had a spark as he grinned over at Mikey. "I'm gonna be making a lot more money soon mayne. Like a lot more money, y'know wut I'm saying? And that means mom don't have to work both her jobs no more. Yo Mikey look at me, tell me that ain't great. I mean she works so har--"
"She works hard for us Damian. She wouldn't be doin none of that shit if she wasn't so scared we'd be stuck here man." Mikey looked up from his clothes at Damian. "Goddammit man when are you gonna straighten out? Get a real job?"
"Hey, don't fuckin' talk to me about straightening out mayne. I'm out here trying to help the fuck out, and you just stick around and run up the bill." Damian caught his temper. "Look Mikey, maybe for you dis place feels like a cage, like you don't belong. But...Mikey look at me! But, for me this is where I belong mayne. Not everyone as smart as you. Watchu want me to do flip burgers for the rest of my life? Fuck dat."
"Whatever." Mikey went back to sorting his clothes.
"Mikey, it's not whatever. I'm doing it for the fam you know, I'd do whatever it takes to look after you guys. Damian paused trying to think of something to say and then brightened up. "Yo Mikey, check it."
Mikey looked back over at Damian who was now pressed against his dresser. Damian was grimacing as he strained to force his arm further into the back of the dresser. Finally, with a look of victory in his eyes, Damian began to withdraw his hand from the drawer.
"Wallace jus' hit me up with it. Sa' Nine millimeter. Not bad huh?" Damian held the gun in two hands as if it was a piece of fine china. The gun's grip was wrapped with red and green duct tape. The gun had been modified and still had some sharp edges. That's the only reason people duct taped their guns, to smooth out the grip. "No serial numba or nuttn'. Here lil man, hold it."
Mikey was hesitant but knew better than to resist. The gun was heavier than he thought it would be. He moved his hand up and down and felt the weight of the weapon. Acting satisfied, he handed the gun back and looked around the room. Everything that was hung up was Mikey's. The movie posters, the math trophies, the class photos, they were all his. Mikey looked over at Damian who was admiring his gun, and then went back to sorting clothes.
"Alright, Alright buddy wake up! It's go time."
Mikey yawned and rubbed his eyes and slowly did a scan. The buzzing had stopped and Tancredi was now fussing with a small tape recorder. Mikey also noticed that officer Tancredi had donned a new shirt. The staff outside had all returned to their respective cubicles for the final lap of their day. In the corner of the ceiling he noticed a moving black dot. Apparently both flies had flown into the web while he was asleep. The first fly laid still, fluttering it's wings every once in a while, while the fly next to it was flying in circles still bundled by the web.
"Okay, I know this has been a much longer process than I'm sure you were hoping for. I brought you back a sub because I figured you'd be hungry just lying in here all day." Tancredi slid the sandwich across the grey table towards Mikey. "Shall we start? Just describe your whole day. Even if it's unrelated we want to prepare you for cross examination. Ready? 3...2...1"
Mikey was in a great mood. His acceptance letter to the University of Illinois on a full scholarship had just come in. Mikey swiftly sprinted up the slight of stairs to the apartment to make the announcement.
"Mom! Dad! Guess whaaaat!"
Mikey's mom and dad slowly emerged from the living room. Both sauntered towards Mikey, who passed them the letter that had become wrinkled by his tight clutch. As his parents passed the letter back and forth their smiles broadened across their face.
"Look like we gotta college boy in da family naw." Mikey's dad began sobbing into the sleeve of his beat up sweater.
"Honey you don't know how proud this makes us." His mom embraced him in a hug that seemed to contain the accomplishment and strain of every overtime hour she had ever worked.
Mikey smiled, but as they were talking to him he stopped hearing what they were saying. Mikey gazed around the apartment looking for Damian but couldn't find him anywhere. He knew Damian probably was out somewhere getting high out of his mind. About a year ago, when Damian had started selling meth, Mikey began noticing small changes. At first Damian would just skip a night at home and sleep somewhere else. But after a few months Damian would disappear for days at a time, sometimes even a week. Mikey forced himself to smile, he missed Damian, but today was going to be about Mikey.
As his reward Mikey's mom had given him half her week's salary to go and buy the red pair of high top, ultra-light, Nike basketball shoes. The ones every other kid in Roseland wanted but almost no one could afford. Mikey sprinted through the streets and through alley ways; he waved at hobo Jo as he ran by, and finally went to cut through Eckersall Park to get to the sneaker store. When Mikey finally arrived and the smell of fresh shoes greeted him at the door, he heaved a sigh of victory. He brought the red shoes to the counter and his heart fluttered as he placed the wad of cash next to the register.
Mikey strode out of that store on top of the world. The deep orange sun was setting and the streets were empty for dinner. Ahh dinner, Mikey smiled as he walked towards Eckersall Park. In the distance he could see hobo Jo sauntering near the edge of the park singing "My Girl" to a flock of pigeons.
It happened so fast. A grey mini-van reeled around the corner into the street at the back of the park. The driver was quick to roll down his window.
"YOU FUCKED UP THIS TIME JOE!"
Out of the window a small handgun protruded. Jo never had a chance. Three shots rang out and he was dead before he knew what was going on. As the van shot off, Joe's body crumpled spattering its red blood on the red slide. Without thinking, Mikey ran towards the slide. With each step his brain processed more and more of what had just happened. He was almost there when he looked up and saw that the van was circling back. The grey van sped up and plowed its way through the empty road. Quickly and efficiently the van came to a complete stop, right where it had been for Jo, and the window rolled down.
It was Wallace "Well fuck me, s'only Mikey. How you doin Mikey? Heard you're a college boy now. We're all proud a ya kid." Mikey could hear Jalen laugh from the passenger seat. "Look mayne, I think we both know you didn't see shit. Got it?" Mikey nodded. "Aight ya queer run home and study or some shit." The window rolled up and Wallace drove off.
Mikey's mind went blank. His legs guided his body through the streets and alleyways towards his home. Once back at the apartment he passed his smiling parents to get to his room. Mikey sat down on his bed and laid there the rest of the day just staring at the bottom of the top bunk. Whenever his parents called for him he called back saying he was too tired to eat. Even after replaying the scene for five hours Mikey was still having trouble absorbing what he had seen. Finally at midnight Damian returned.
"Mikey I heard about what happened." Damian whispered in the dark room solemnly. "I want you to know that I'd never do som'n like dat, but...but you know you can't go to the cops right? Yo, you know what Wallace would do right? To you, to me to our family. Yo, you just got into college mayne. You Roseland's goddam success story mayne. Don't throw it away for a drunk, tweaker bum. Alright? ... Alright?"
"And so that was yesterday?" Mikey nodded. "Alright sounds good fill out these forms for the court date we'll need you to go on the witness stand. And that's it. Sorry it's been such a hassle for you but I mean it when I say you just brightened up the department's day a little. We've been waiting for a way to nail this Wallace guy, for a long time." Mikey and Tancredi rose to their feet, both of them now holding a stack of papers.
As Mikey and Tancredi left the room Mikey couldn't help but notice one of the flies had escaped the web.
It was dark out, Mikey followed the familiar glow of the lamps home. It was a cool October day and as Mikey looked around he could see the potted plants that were changing color. Mikey had always loved the fall. It brought vibrant colors to a town that did little to produce its own color. He watched the fallen red leaves float around in the pools of water that dotted the sidewalk. Then from behind a tree ahead of him he saw three bodies silhouetted against the back glow of the lamps. Wallace was walking towards him, his black pistol gleaming in his hand.
"Now what did I say Mikey? I really wanted to be friends you know. Seems like a waste to killah person from Roseland who ain't already a bum. You were supposed to be the one that made it out mayne. The smart kid wid da clean sheet, but then again going to the cops is punishable by death." Wallace raised his gun.
Three shots rang out and Mikey quivered with his eyes shut. He wondered if he would go to heaven. He wondered if many people from Roseland went to heaven at all. Even if he went there he might not be able to recognize anyone. The thought scared him, and silently in his head he said his good byes to Roseland. Slowly he opened his eyes to see his fate. In front of him were three dead bodies and Damian holding a smoking 9 millimeter. "Godammit Mikey...*sniff*...I told you, I'd do whatever it takes to look after you guys." Damian sobbed and dropped his gun into a puddle. No skips.