I finally light this cigarette that’s been hanging out of my mouth while I’ve been digging for some matches. After I take the first drag it rips a piece of skin off my bottom lip because I left it there too long and it got stuck. As I take to cussing and trying to stop all the blood I accidentally step on this baby bird that must’ve fallen out of its nest…I hear its little dry bones splinter. I make a face.
Muck was an asshole. And that’s not that big a deal—assholes can get shut down. But his buddy Jimmy? Jimmy was a prick. Not the kind that just farts in an elevator, but the kind that hits the stop button and then cuts one. And then laughs. Because, ok, if you’re downtown in a big law building or something and it’s early in the morning it kind of already smells like farts and cologne so what’s one more and ha these jags have to spill their coffee and huff it up, so yeah funny. Also, there was this other Jimmy who didn’t say much, and he was pretty cool.
Muck, the two Jimmys and this other motherfucker whose name I can never remember decided that Friday was the best day to kill someone. That it was Friday sure maybe I get that, and the weather, probably. You know those summer days. The ones when those warmest of southern winds pick up, say things to you you don’t want to hear but cant wait to hear, all in the smallest thinnest wedge of the day—that time when in between the rain that’s coming and the floating in your chest feeling under your hands as you walk, the wind and leaves fly up damp and dry all in the same gust, the breath you leave the same breath you take that one moment holds all summer there for you and only you.
It’s that breath but kind of like the breath too of a bar that exhales out into the milky-eye ash colored street the heat the summer night, door open at the bar sweating listening to the radio the beer warm but still cooler than the thick thick air, the air that carries the drone of flies out to the haze of arc light where now there are tables and chairs and yuppies but really it was like a stoop and a bucket back then and you can still smell the cigarettes and the old warm beer, shit they don’t make any more like Schlitz and Stroh’s and Special Export and man, this is the greatest, you’re just, just drunkbuzzed, and life
better than that, does it?
Here we were on this perfectest of days, and these assholes want to kill Tiger. (I ask myself, “How the fuck is this guy named ‘Tiger’ / ‘El Tigre’ what the fuck seriously those are from Asia right what’s wrong with a jaguar [except short for “jaguar” is…] or an ocelot, or whatever?”) Pretension in gangbanging. I think this is probably right before they sent Gang Intelligence crews after everyone. Those two man GI units would just beat your ass until they got what they wanted to hear, or tired, or both. Mostly Viet Nam vets and lots of former gangbangers, they knew how to get shit done. And we paid for that. But we learned things, too.
Excellent, I think. But I’m like no, man. Let’s get some more beer.
Nah, they say.
Fuck. It’s on. Except one of the Jimmys (and now that I’m saying this I’m remembering that, shit, there were actually three Jimmys) drops two hits of acid (wow, you’re thinking—acid? Yup. You gotta see gangbangers tripping on acid. It is like Noé meets Winding Refn, just like you thought it would be.) The other Jimmy snorts some tic and then Tommy Muck beats off or something, whatever it was he did to get fired up to humbug. That other guy slow sips his quart of Mickey’s Big Mouth and doesn’t share. I hide my cigarettes from these fuckers and we all take off for Howard Street and then we run into Jerry the Brazer.
What’s up Jerry?
Where you going, man?
I gotta go. I just shot Taco Junior.
Yeah. But in the stomach, man. Fuck. I think I can still hear him yelling.
Damnit Jerry (yeah, haha). We were going to get Tiger.
Fuck. That punk is holding in Taco’s guts right now. He’s busy. The cops’ll be there before you are innyway.
I say, told you jagoffs. Shoulda just kept drinking.
One of the Jimmys, 2 or 3, I’m not sure, makes this face.
I hate when he makes that face because it means he’s thinking. He’s not chewing the inside of his cheek like Cesar who does that out of habit but also when he’s thinking about punching his girlfriend in the face like he does until one of us says stop but it’s kind of like that face and I start to thinking this is where it could get dangerous. I can feel this lowkey burning in my neck kinda like tightening up your laces all slow but when you pull and sweat it and yank too hard and you peel back half your fingernail and you think damn that hurts but it’s ok, because it reminds you to be more careful, and besides, picking at that drying crescent of fresh nail underneath but not quite pulling it off is a great way to stay awake, and to gamble and remember you’re still alive when you forget and you jam your hand into your pocket too fast, digging deep for your keys, or your knife, or whatever it is you keep in there.
Jimmy1 says well fuck it, let’s just go. Muck is all fired up to hit Taco Junior and Alegio (that’s Tiger’s real name, and the only one I use for him, because Ocelots, or whatever), but way too fired up like they do when they know shit ain’t gonna happen. I see through that shit right away, but I don’t say nothing no way, cause Muck is just mean. And I’m not in the mood. I think let these fools figure it out on their own; I know what I want to do. I want to drink.
Muck, he says, now’s our chance to get those motherfuckers.
Jimmy2or3 makes that eepy face again, twitches his mouth and says you need to listen to Jerry, dumbass. The cops’ll be there any minute.
I can’t help myself, I want to prolong the agony and stick it to Muck a little bit, and say, yeah, but it’s just fuckin Taco. You think the cops or even a ambulance are gonna show up for at least a half an hour? We got time.
Jimmy1 says, man fuck that shit. I’m not getting popped for that. I didn’t even get to shoot him. And you know they’ll blame my black ass anyway. I ain’t goin near there.
Muck looks at us with his head tilted to the side and makes a grimacey face, the one you see where you’re like is that guy smiling at me or is he thinking about stabbing me, or is he trying not to puke, but either way he doesn’t look too good. I worry about this guy’s blood pressure. A lot. When he gets mouthy, we look at his hair and say to him, “red as the head on a dick on a dog.” Man, he hates that. But right now, no one’s saying nothing.
Time sort of slows down. It gets hotter, and even stiller. Everyone looks around at each other like in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And in this group we’ve got some of all three, so this shit is hilarious. Muck grimaces along, frozen in space like a fire-faced gargoyle. Jimmy1 picks at his fingernails and laughs to himself like he does lots of times. Jimmy2 carries on his internal gastric dialogue, and kicks rocks into the street. I dream of quarts of Old Style, and wonder if that other motherfucker has his .32 with him or not. Fuck.
Since there’s no rusty windmills or guys passed out with flies trying to land on their faces and we never know or care what time it is anyway, no clock is going to tick and boom ominously to end this scene.
But the sirens do. And the assholes on the car microphone choose for us, like they usually do.
“Hey you fuckin punks—stop right there. Teddy! Goddamnit! Don’t you fucking move.”
Bam. We start running. It’s Lenny and Squiggy! Those dipshit cops are actually getting out of the car. Holy. This must be serious. Hahahaha. Off we go behind the Big Pit parking lot and up the side of the tracks. Jerry the Brazer stands there for a minute and then takes off in the other direction, towards Howard Bowl and into the smoky poolroom that we can smell from across the street, even with the cracked glass doors closed all the way.
The tracks are lifesavers. The Chicago and Northwestern railroad line runs through the middle of the city and takes rich assholes from the North Shore to their grindy, soul crushing jobs downtown. When we were younger we used to get drunk and moon commuters on their way home to whatever palaces they live in up that way. The ones where they drink too much, bitch about taxes, ignore their kids, and get buried in golf courses or whatever. Except one of the Jimmys. He would turn around and give them the other kind of windmill. Think about that on your ride home, Biff.
“C’mere Injun!” Squiggy tries to grab me by the hair, and he gets close, but not close enough. Fuck that guy. We’re running and laughing, big smiley faces washed in light now heading into a new gold sunset that pops up out of nowhere below the low grey cloudline, our eyes squinched against the sudden bright and we easily outpace the fat, sweaty cops and I think about the last time we were at Big Pit, home of Howard St. Greasers and junior mobsters in training. Sometimes they would help us, and sometimes not, like this one time maybe last summer when
We headed down to Howard Street to fight some Playboys one night before the truces and alliances, to the street at the edge of the Jungle (where dime bags good for about eight joints cost 10 bucks, hence the “dime” in dime bag—and yeah, that’s about seven grams, and we were the only kids in school with a rudimentary understanding of the metric system, which one or two of my teachers liked to point out, but you could get about 16 pinners out of one and you could sell them for a buck a piece, fatties were two bucks, either way you could’ve made a few bucks AND got high, how cool is that), home to Howard St. Lords, Latin Kings, and Mexican Playboys. It sucked, because the El stop was there, too, and it was an A/B stop. If you wanted to get off at Jarvis you had to catch an A train or pull the emergency stop and who has time for that shit?
There’s like 11 of us. Skinny shits mostly, except Bubba. You can imagine from the name. We’re walking and talking loud and laughing too much, so you can tell we’re scared. We’re outnumbered in our neighborhood and we know it, but whatever. We go into this fight knowing we’re probably gonna get our ass whooped good. We’re peewees, and one of the older guys, a junior, I think, maybe, no, it was Giggy from the TJO’s, he set up this humbug. I never did find out why. He’s not even our set. He says it’ll be good for us. I think yeah, you know what would be good? You falling down that hole where they’re digging up the sewer line on Clark Street and breaking your fucking neck. That would be good, Gigs. On the Nation.
We’re walking and Gigs tells us it’s going to be skins. No weapons. Get rid of those bats and shit. I told them no weapons, he says. I’m like cool. I’m good. Except I have my hand jammed in my pocket and around my middle finger are the two rings from the ends of a six-foot dog chain because fuck all that. I’m not even five feet tall right now. Kiss my ass. No way.
We talk tons of shit for blocks, trying to get ourselves worked up for this. The Jimmys and Bubba (no Muck, though, now that I think about it, that fucker), some of the juniors, they want to come check out our skills, and the seniors, well they just sit back and watch it all. I think of some of the shit they’ve done and seen. Jeezus. And then I think about it now, now that I’m older, and I still think that. Man.
We’re close now. One block over. Birchwood and Ashland. Ashland is one of the biggest streets in Chicago (Ashland Vikings, Wells High School), but here, this far up on the Northside, Ashland is nothing. A side street. An afterthought that needed a name. Like a lot of us.
We keep walking. Giggy goes ahead and then we can see a bunch of gangbangers in the parking lot by the bank. Like us. Wearing baggies. No shirts. Everybody good and browned up from summer. And it looks like they brought their juniors too, but they’re not hanging back. They all want to humbug together. What the fuck, Gigs? we say. And those motherfuckers have bats and shit. I see a chain slowly swinging, winking under the arc lights and tighten the grip in my pocket. The other guys look around. Shit, man. Folks is nervous. I say damn. This is gonna be hard. Motherfucker. I keep my glasses on cause shit, whatever. They’re already held together with two bandaids. Probably going to need new ones after tonight, anyway.
Giggy says aight!. They’re gonna drop their sticks and shit, and then it’s on. You fuckers ready!? We say yeah, bitch. Get out the fucking way if you ain’t helpin’ and Giggy says y’all bout to get a whuppin but hold up the flag, brothers! On the love! All the Playboys start yelling, talking shit, hey pinche puto! and fuck you, Royals! and it’s getting louder and I smile a little like whattehfuck and….Shit. I’m about to head in and get it over with, I’m jazzed, I’m sweatin’, I’m seeing silver everything and red tinges the edges and
this car skids up
under the streetlight
and I look at it and through it and I see the Huck Finn donuts that my dad would bring home like twice a year (bestfuckingdonutseveryoubetyourass)
and this car is a burnt orange or maroon Lincoln, or a Newport, like a 1962 or so and
A double barrel shotgun comes out of the back window…
I know who this is.)
and rips a hole in the night, blasts twice
while one kid falls by the wall by the bank I
remember him, can see his hair that would’ve grown out by the time school started again, but then it was still black and fuzzy, tiny-spiked still close to his skull and I could see the light hit in between the smallest spots on his head close in hair, his skin brown and oily like mine and then all the little lights went out and he hits the ground and it’s
fucking Taco Senior, Big Taco, that fucker
and shit, we all laugh, crazylike cause holy fuck
and we take off back up Birchwood running like some scrawny motherfucking devils, and I can’t help it, I say, Get ‘em Giggy you fuckin bitch puto hillbilly and I think man if he lives he is going to beat my ass, but thems the breaks, init, hahahaha, I laugh. And we go and we cross Clark Street and run into Big Pit. Big Frank says get the fuck outta here, and we start to back out, but some of the Grease they say, what’s up boys and we say “Big Taco” and they’re like here cut through here and we head to the back and the door just past and they give Frank the look and then I hear someone say Donny grab that 12 gauge and then I remember why we always gripped to the HSG and why most of their set was in jail.
They hook us up with the quick escape proper and we hit the tracks running. I rip my leg open on this rusty piece of shit fence I didn’t see in the dark but my brain tells me save it for later letsgoletsgoletsgo. We run for a few blocks and finally stop. We look behind us, and nothing. No one. Just the tracks, and heavy-with-summer trees rustling in the dark.
The moon is up. I’m warlord, so I do a quick headcount. Yeah. We’re all here. Bubba’s fixin’ to pass out though. I’m like brotherman, calisthenics should be your best friend. Fuck you, Teddy he says and we all laugh like it’s the funniest thing ever and it kinda is because I look around and everybody’s in one piece and holy shit. Anyone hurt? I say. Nah, they all go, by parts. I’m good. All good. Cool. Frrrrrrrippppp Jimmy goes. I say did you just shit your pants? Hahahahaha, we all crack up. Dang they say in the blueblue light. Let’s get the fuck out of here. Let’s go to Farwell. I’m tired of concrete for tonight. I say, man, let’s get some beers and hang out on the tracks…
And then I’m walking back to work, back to my own soul crushing job and all around me are red-walled canyons of brick and warm air blowing up from the street everytime a train passes in a tunnel below and there in front of me is a herd of fuckin pigeons and I think goddamn I hate these fucking things (and remember one of the Jimmys would feed them from a bench in the Lincoln Park zoo where we used to go when I could talk the boys into a day of watching the wolves and the buffalo—“what the fuck, Teddy?!,” they’d say. “Let’s go check out the gorillas” and I’d say, “man, if I wanted to watch a monkey beat off we could’ve just hung out at your house and saved the dough”—and then that Jimmy would jump up and down on the closest one and I was like “jeezuschrist, Jimmy, get a grip” but then he always had dough and would pop for French fries and shit so whatever) and this I guess the proper term is “flock” not a cool one like a “kettle of nighthawks” (which we had all over the neighborhood) but the actual word you think of when you think of a shitload of birds, yup this flock of pigeons takes off in front of me like they do and they’re fiddlyfuck flying around and then there’s this…shadow, but not really a shadow more like a greyed out knife-edge of pressure I can feel above my head and then bam there’s like a shock wave and this ploomph sound and a crack of hollow bones that comes from the center of the birdspray and then just some feathers float down and all the other pigeons flap away in rolly-eyed terror and I watch this falcon streak home supper to her young, about 55 stories up, and I just keep looking, looking.
Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr. is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of Native American Studies at the University of Montana. He is co-editor and Creative Editor for Transmotion (an on-line journal of postmodern indigenous studies). His short story collection about sort of growing up in Chicago, Sacred Smokes, is out for review at the University of New Mexico Press. His edited volume The Faster Redder Road: The Best UnAmerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones was released last year, also by the University of New Mexico Press. His fiction and photography have been published in Future Earth Magazine, The Raven Chronicles, High Desert Journal, Noted, and Yellow Medicine Review, among others.