Interregnum

I could pinpoint the place between recognizing something was wrong in my neighborhood and taking action by the golden glint of a Winchester shell tucked safely between the cracks of sidewalk slabs, sidewalk right next to some kid’s chalk art, probably the kid I passed on my walk to work every morning, waiting for the bus, and I could see a younger me when I looked at him, a version of myself I’d forgotten about, the one whose baseline was anger and uncertainty, fear mixed in, knowing only poverty and its effects on people. This kid reading stories of superheroes and wondering when they’d come to his neighborhood, why they never showed when he needed them most.

There was the interregnum between action and inaction, going along with the status quo and assuming that That’s Just The Way Things Were. Only it wasn’t. Not necessarily. Because we are the deciders of our fate, the makers of community. Badges and words can only do so much, offer so much lip service to a community that’s bleeding out, day after day, unable to help its most vulnerable. There’s an antecedent to every action. Newton’s law. Etc.

So you can walk down these streets now, at night, barely different than you were before, but with purpose now, green excitement, green nerves, can walk past the tenement buildings with boards over windows here and there, spreading like pox of sickness, and the way the dying fire alarms inside these apartments beep at different pitches in their life cycle, batteries just about to go out.

You can see the side of the city that everyone would rather hide in its closet or shove under its bed, the monster that no one dare speak of, not even report on in the papers, for fear that Development should stall, that Progress might halt. The divide of crossing over the highway and going from marketing startups and hipster coffee shops to abject poverty, of seeing this stark reality on a daily basis, on walks both during the day and at night, and the knowledge that something has to change.

Of getting started.

my ex // perience

this is my ex
//
perience

where the heat doesn’t go down
inside
in a town
where you can take a barbed-wire bat
to the leg
mistaken for a King
or a GD
when you’re just a kid
where you can
walk past grown men fighting
as a child
walking to a friend’s house
at a time when you could see
where everyone was
by the number of bikes left strewn
on the front lawn

this is my ex
//
perience

63rd and Halsted

A pile of counterfeit purses sits in one corner of the living room kitchen till Saturday when Momma will try hawking them on the corner of 63rd and Halsted. JT’s got a hot dog over the gas burner, skewered with a plastic fork, and he’s hoping the thing doesn’t melt and drop the dog into the fire ‘cause he’s only got two for the rest of the week and it’s Monday. Momma’s got the gas station and the McDonald’s and the beauty salon where she washes hair and sweeps up at the end of the day. Dad’s got who-knows-what ‘cause he hasn’t been seen since JT was three days old.

At the bottom of the shoe closet, under Dad’s jackets that Momma “just hasn’t gotten around to pitching yet,” JT keeps a stack of books he’s lifted from the library: biology textbooks, history books above his grade level, Shakespeare. Some action adventure for fun. He hides the peeled-off barcodes under a radiator in the library, puts them back on when he feels bad and swaps one book for another. Lifts them because he can’t afford the late fees and he’s not the type to keep a book for only two weeks.

Momma’s name is Hi-Bye, but JT doesn’t tell her this. Back from Mickey D’s and then a shift at the beauty salon: Hi-Bye. Dropping off the leftover purses to get to the gas station on time: Hi-Bye. JT makes up stories in his head where Momma ain’t Hi-Bye and you’ve got more than a couple hot dogs for the week and dads don’t leave when you’re three days old. Sometimes he writes these stories down and slips them into his lifted books like too many bookmarks. Sometimes he forgets them and they stay there when he returns them. Sometimes he leaves them there on purpose.

He starches and irons his own shirts ‘cause when Momma comes home the last thing she wants to do is be minding no shirts or pants or anything but sleep. He doesn’t mind starching and ironing his shirts. He handles each one like it’s a butterfly he’s setting gently on the bark of a tree. When he’s done, it might as well be a brand new shirt. The other kids at school don’t know about Hi-Bye and the shirts and all that. They don’t know about how when the hot dogs run out JT waits for lunch ‘cause that’ll be the only food he gets all day.

JT gets lonesome on the weekends when Momma’s busy working and no kids are around and it seems like it’s just him in the whole wide world. In the summertime, you can’t tell if the sounds outside are gunshots or fireworks, so you go out anyway. When the crunchy leaves are on the ground and you can play tackle football ‘cause the snow’s there to break your fall, you know the sounds are gunshots. When you hear the sounds, you go back inside even if it’s a tie game and you’re playing best two out of three, one game won a piece.

On the times when there’s no gunshots and no football games and the lifted books have all been “returned,” JT walks around and tells himself in his head that he’s an important man who tells stories and everybody loves him. One day he was so important he saved up a couple bucks and hopped on the el train. It was dinnertime when he got on and he watched the sky’s color darken, buildings and cars and everything rushing past.

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When he woke up, there was no one else on the train. If it weren’t for the streetlights outside, he could be on a train riding through outer space. Then the man sitting next to him made a noise. JT looked around and saw that the man could sit anywhere in the whole train car but he chose to sit next to him. The man spoke up.

Didn’t JT have no Momma to mind him? And he did, but she was at work. And was he all alone then? And yes, he was. And that was quite a shame.

The man pointed at the stars outside the el train’s window and leaned in close to JT so he could tell him which constellation was which. When he got up close, the stink on his breath made JT’s eyes water. It was the same stink his Momma’s breath had when it was her day off and her eyes got bleary and she cried a lot and had to have JT help her to bed.

The man put his hand down on the edge of his seat, next to JT’s leg. He lifted and dropped his pinky like it was a worm inching on pavement. The streetlights outside went whoosh and neither of them made a sound.

The train clacked on the tracks and the worm went inch, inch, inch. JT leaned into the barrier next to him and made like it was just so he could see the subway map better. And the clackclackclack went to just clack, clack, clack, and the train came to a stop at Division. When the doors opened, JT ran like it was a football game in the snow and he just heard the sounds.

The snow crunched under JT’s feet as he ran all the way back, streetlights like false stars above him, snow coming in his shoes that had holes in them ‘cause Momma ain’t got the money for boots, JT wondering if he really is an important man after all, wondering how it is we can leave so many tracks behind us when we’re running away.

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Big H, Little M

Hangups get a big H in the center of the card. It’s okay if it covers up the name of the person you called. The ones that go to message get a little m. You put it in the corner. It wasn’t like working at the suicide hotline, or the telemarketers, or even the sex line he’d gotten involved in in college. This was different.

What they did was sell people another life, one phone call at a time. The first call was the hook. You’d do best at midday, Wheel and Jeopardy! time, when prime customers were likeliest to be by the phone. There was a script they gave you, but it was best to memorize it, do something new with the material. People could tell when you were reading off the page. They wanted a human conversation. They wanted reality. They wanted a new life.

He’d turn colostomy-bagged Vietnam vets into NFL players. Lonely widows into supermodels. Shut-in octogenarians into movie stars. The trick was to make the free trial believable enough, but to hold onto your best cards for the paid subscription.

What they paid for were the galas, the sold-out premieres, the grandsons who called. Someone to read them something, anything–the phone book, receipts, junk mail. Didn’t matter what.

After a few weeks of briefing Presidents on foreign policy, mentoring chess prodigies, and flirting with Oscar-winning actresses, he got this one lady:

“Describe where I am.”

This was breaking protocol. The scenario was always agreed upon ahead of time. The client was never to refer to the scenario once it was agreed upon. Suspension of disbelief and all that.

“You’re, uh… You’re in a sprawling mansion nestled in the hills. Sipping daiquiris.”

“No I’m not. I’m in a doublewide my husband left me after he passed. I’m thirsty, but if I stand too quickly to fill a glass I might faint. I’m hypoglycemic.”

“A… Um, a butler greets you in the foyer. He asks what you’d like to have the chefs prepare for dinner.”

“Wrong again. My WIC card finally got refilled, so I can Uber over to the grocery store with what’s left of my social security for the month. Get a bag of frozen peas. Maybe potatoes if I’m lucky.”

“You’re, uh… What is this? Um, as the butler leaves, you catch a glimpse of the Olympic-sized swimming pool in your backyard, perfectly-manicured hedges behind it.”

“Try the city dump. I can see raccoons from here, fighting over a bag of rancid Mickey D’s. Can smell it, too.”

“Once inside your lavish bedroom, you peruse, uh, your walk-in closet and pick out a tasteful sundress.”

“Honey, the only dress I have left is the one my husband picked out for me fifty years ago. April 4, 1966. Our one-year anniversary. Got it at Macy’s, on Fifth. Had to sell the rest to thrift stores.”

“You pause for a moment at the bathroom’s mirror, apply lipstick. Gather your earrings.”

“Doctors tell me it’s fungus. The heat only aggravates it, and I haven’t had AC all summer. Can either afford the antifungal medication or the repair, but not both. Damned if I do, and if I don’t.”

“You slip on the dress, admire the way it clings to your frame.”

“I knew what it was before I even bothered going in. The right one was bigger. Bigger than usual. Painful, sometimes, too. I felt the lump, so the only news I got from the doctor was how long I had. A couple months, if you’re wondering.”

“You glance to… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“What’re you apologizing for? You didn’t put the lump there, did you? It’s fine. It’s all right. Everything is.”

“I can’t even imagine.”

“Well, you’d be able to. You’d be able to pretty quickly.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to.”

The quiet of a line being held, only air flowing over mics. The sterility of an office. Stifling heat of a doublewide.

He quit the job that night. Hopped on a Greyhound. First one he saw. Didn’t know where it was headed, when it would get there. But then again, maybe he didn’t have to.

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