By the time my sixteenth birthday rolled around, Grimy and Theo were yesterday’s news. I saw them in passing, usually around the neighborhood, taking up their perch at the corner gas station. Just months before, I was there with them. As I’d make my way up the block, they’d ignore or simply mean-mug me. Theo would mumble a word or two under his breath, but never had the heart to go another round. Grimy would typically stare into the distance, toward the highway and further down 55th Street, as if he could see the lakefront from there. If our eyes briefly met, he’d avert his gaze.
Fine by me. My dad and my Uncle Ray were proud that I’d disconnected from those wannabe knuckleheads. I was pretty darn proud of myself, though I did kind of miss my former friends.
Grimy was more or less a loss cause, having decided long before that he was going to be an apex predator. Theo, however, had a chance to turn his life around. But he was gullible and wanted too badly to be part of something. I heard they’d both been initiated into the DQP: Devoted and Quoted Players—a burgeoning crew with ties to a larger gang that ran street activities all over Chicago’s South Side. What had once been a spot for catcalling at girls had become Grimy and Theo’s corner for slinging rocks.
I’d taken a job at the Finest Foods market, which was a short walk from the apartment. Making money felt good. I even sneaked a few dollars into Pop’s wallet every now and then, him being none the wiser…or so I thought.
“Junior,” he called to me one Saturday afternoon. He’d been fishing through his billfold for debit card receipts. He religiously purged the thing once a week to update his checking account register.
“Yes, Dad,” I said, emerging from my bedroom with a book in hand. I’d been wrapped up in the adventures of Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo.
My father, Carlos, Sr., was parked on the living room sofa, which was slumped in the middle from him sleeping on it so much between double shifts. He had a queen sized bed in his room but had lost the desire to be in it much without his wife. He was a respected man in our neighborhood and a survivor of the War on Drugs that’d claimed my mother. Unlike me, he’d never had any aspirations toward college, but the man was far from dumb. He sat back into the cushions, his hardened face breaking into a slight grin. “You think I’m slow on the uptake?”
“No,” I replied with surprise.
He began to rub his chin, fighting back a smile. “Stupid, then? Yeah, that’s it—you think your old man is stupid.”
“No, sir,” I laughed nervously.
He went into his back pocket and presented the worn bit of leather that may have been around before I was. He opened and sifted through it, pulling out the two Jacksons I’d slipped in. “You ain’t slick, boy,” he said, lifting an eyebrow, his teeth beaming like the Cheshire cat’s.
“That’s a little something to help out around here, Pop,” I admitted. “You said a man who don’t work don’t eat.”
“Doesn’t,” he corrected. He was free to speak improper English and use all the linguistic shortcuts he wanted; I was not. “I did say that, didn’t I? I guess you were listening after all.”
My daddy took the twenties and put them on the cocktail table under the repurposed jar that served as his favorite drinking glass. The ice clinked around inside and a condensation ring formed on the currency. Despite being referred to as paper, our currency was made primarily of cloth, so the bills would wrinkle but would otherwise be fine.
“So,” he began, changing subjects, “how are things going with you, son?”
I loved those rare occasions when the two of us caught up and were able to just talk. He’d eased up on pulling extra hours all the time, slowly healing from my mother’s absence. My working hours, which were juggled between school and homework assignments, ensured we saw each other primarily in passing. But I’d already pulled an early shift that day, and he was off on weekends.
I told him about my physics class and how, though most people groaned about it, I actually found it exciting. I mentioned my new girlfriend, Aida, who lived a couple of blocks over. I also told him about Markell, another neighborhood kid that had to make the trek across town to Kenwood Academy High School with me.
“Sounds good,” he said proudly. “Whatcha got going on this evening?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Not much. I was going to do some more reading, then maybe head down to Aida’s house to watch TV.”
“Why aren’t ya going out to enjoy the weather? Ain’t long before the Indian summer is done, autumn sets in and it starts to get cold out.”
“Don’t have no money.”
“Any money.” He expected more from me and would reinforce it every chance he got. I quietly appreciated him for it.
“Sorry. I don’t have any money. I gave the last of what I had to you.”
“Just as I thought.” He picked up the glass jar, which was halfway filled with a neon red concoction. My dad loved his fruit punch, often with a little nip of something extra that he wouldn’t allow me to drink. The two notes had overlapped so that part of each bill was wet. He fanned them, shaking off the water, and handed them over.
“Pop,” I protested in vain.
“Now you have a few bucks to hang out with your friends. Get out of the neighborhood for a while. Show that pretty girl a good time.” I fixed my mouth to complain but he shushed me by adding a 10 spot to the other bills. “Now you have an even fifty.”
I exhaled, both delighted and defeated. We both chuckled and I shook my head. “Thank you.”
My dad gave me a two fingered salute and I went to call my lady.
The walk from Aida’s to the bus and train stop at 55th & the Dan Ryan was only a few blocks. We met with Markell and his sister Reina along the way, greeting each other with smiles and hugs. The ladies walked ahead, yammering about goodness-knows-what.
As we made our way to the main street, we passed by the gas station. Neither Grimy nor Theo were there to suck their teeth or ignore us altogether.
“I’ve got a few dollars,” I half-whispered to Markell.
“Got paid yesterday, so I got a few bucks myself. Where you wanna go?”
“We should take the girls to the movies at Water Tower Place, then we can go hit up the value menu at Burger Joint.”
I nodded in agreement. Going to the movies would drain the little bit of money my father had given me, so we had to be smart about it.
Before I knew, we were at the Dan Ryan. “We should take the bus to the old Englewood el train,” I suggested.
“I don’t know,” Markell said. “We could just jump the train here instead.”
“Fear of heights,” Reina said with a playful nudge to my ribs. She was tall for fourteen and had something of a crush on me. I couldn’t see past her being anything more than my friend’s kid sister. “That’s why my brother avoids the rollercoasters when we go to the amusement parks.”
It was time for my girlfriend to weigh in. “He’s right, Carlos”—she never called me Junior—“We should probably take the Ryan downtown. It’s faster and cleaner.” To that, she winked one pretty brown eye and flashed a perfect set of teeth at me, causing me to melt.
“Okay, okay,” I relented. The antiquated elevated train, which was another mile or so east, was a throwback to happier times for me. Mom and I used to ride it downtown to see the nightly light show at Buckingham Fountain in the summer. But I was equally charmed and outvoted.
We approached the bus stop, which sat across from the station, the Dan Ryan Expressway running at full tilt beneath us. To get to the train, we had to cross the street, where I spotted two familiar figures. Grimy was posted up against the protective fence, which kept folks from falling onto the highway below. As expected, Theo hovered just a few yards away, whispering to potential customers on the stop. They were dressed in matching black tees and shorts that hung mid-calf. There were black bandanas hanging out of their right back pockets and baseball caps cocked to the right, completing their ensembles. They stood around, addressing citizens like young evangelists, blatantly peddling their wares and daring anyone to challenge them.
As we walked by, they took notice and sneered at me. They knew better than to step to me, but I wasn’t going to tempt the hand of fate, either.
My gaggle crossed the road to pay our train fare just as the 55th Street bus pulled up. And that’s when everything became surreal, the early autumn sky suddenly fading to a sickly green, the camera going askew. The back of the bus was full of young men wearing bright orange, with their hats cocked hard to the left—members of the rival Sherman Park Hustlers.
I glanced at Markell, who’d suddenly stopped chatting it up with his sister when he saw the grave look in my face. Without a word between us, we grabbed the hands of our respective dates and made a dash toward the ticket booth.
On the bus, two of the bangers stood up and pointed in the direction of my homeboys. I watched as the leader, face grimaced, yelled something. Through the glass, I couldn’t hear him, but I didn’t have to. Other members of the crew stood and began pounding their fists and throwing gang signs. Stacking, they called it.
Theo and Grimy, caught up in raising their net worth, didn’t even notice the bus beginning to rock, as one orange clad banger after another jumped off. It looked like a circus clown car, a seemingly unending number of street thugs pouring out from the exits.
“YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” one of them yelled in a battle cry. “WHAT SET YOU CLAIMIN’, FOOL?!”
Have you ever walked into a dark kitchen and turned on the lights? Cockroaches tend to scatter, seeking out any dank corner or crevice in which to hide. Theodore was one of those six-legged creatures, sprouting greasy, brown wings, and taking flight.
Grimy wasn’t easily bugged out.
As Theo sped away, three of the orange boys with varying shades of dark skin peeled off to give chase. It was like watching an ill-fated gazelle trying to outrun a pack of lionesses eager to feed their cubs. I knew it wasn’t going to end well. He made it as far as the grassy boulevard before they caught up. All the weaving and stutter-stepping in the world couldn’t shake them. The fastest one kept delivering punches to the back of their prey’s neck and head. Finally, a hammer strike caught him square between the shoulder blades and Theo tumbled, his momentum carrying him forward like a sack of potatoes. They descended on him with a flurry of punches and kicks. The younger boy hunched into a fetal position, covering his head with his bloodied hands.
Grimy never even blinked or changed expression. His right hand went under his oversized shirt and slipped into his back pocket, next to the bandana. What he produced was hard to see, the blue steel blending in with his black clothing.
Vivid orange turned to bright red as the closest rival caught rounds to the sternum and chest. The screams of onlookers rang out a beat behind the gunfire and everyone who had not scattered before did so.
Not me. Like Alphonso Grimes, I was no cockroach. While Aida, Reina, and Markell flattened themselves to the pavement, I continued to stand and watch foolishly, like a deer in the headlights…
As the saying goes, there’s never a cop around when you need them. When the smoke cleared, Grimy had unloaded all seven rounds from his .45, killing one of the Sherman Park Hustlers and injuring an uninvolved mother who was shielding her baby. The bullet entered through her back and shattered her clavicle while trying to exit through the front. Her infant daughter was unscathed, just screaming and covered in her mother’s blood.
The slide locked to the rear on Grimy’s pistol and he was bum-rushed while dropping his magazine for a rapid reload. It wasn’t the boys in orange (who’d turned out to be cockroaches themselves), but two citizens who saw the mother get hit. One was a Gulf War veteran who instinctively fell back on his training; the other was a rather unassuming high school teacher in glasses who told reporters he was sick and tired of the violence. The former soldier had tackled the assailant while the teacher kept delivering punches until Grimy dropped the weapon and was knocked out.
Theo didn’t fare as well. The three who’d given chase went above and beyond to show how, though their skin was the same basic shade, they hated the colors he wore. Chicago’s finest had set a cordon while his corpse was zipped up and wheeled away. He was only fourteen and had been stomped and kicked to death with steel-toed boots—a gruesome Sherman Park trademark.
Reina and Aida had been crying, especially when we were told we couldn’t leave until after we’d spoken to the police. Markell was in shock, eyes wide. I was sitting down, my head between my legs, rubbing my head. I had to get out of there, was all that kept echoing in my mind.
An officer in plainclothes walked to us with a stern look on his face. He’d seen too many scenes like this and was war-weary. Rather young-looking to be a detective, he introduced himself and took down the information for the people I was with. After asking them a few questions, he crouched down to my level. I looked up with tears flowing down my cheeks.
“My name is Detective Brandywine,” he said with a bit of sadness. “Did you know Theodore?”
I thought about all the fun we had before we’d fallen out just a few months before. I considered how he’d looked up to Grimy and me as his adopted older brothers and how he’d do just about anything we’d tell him. I imagined the heartbreak in his mother’s face when the cops would show up at her door bearing bad news. No parent deserved that. Then I thought about how much potential he’d had and how, but for the grace of God, it could have been me being carted off to see the coroner…
I nodded to the officer, the Blue and White Nile converging to drip a river of tears down my chin. I looked up through the veil, Grimy’s image blurry but recognizable in the backseat of the cruiser. I put him out of my mind.
“His name was Theo,” I said, repeating his name in a quavering voice, as if that alone could bring him back. Realizing that nothing could, something broke in me. My shoulders heaved up and down as the sobbing became more intense. “He was my friend.”