Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The sign reads, No Parking First And Third Tuesday November Thru April. I’m standing next to it, holding the pole. A police car drives past, its wheels lifting and sliding on the ice before it disappears behind the Pita House and the video store. The streets are covered in salt. I’ve been staying with my friend Jackson, and I’m wearing his large red flannel jacket with the blue padding inside. I hope he lets me keep it. It’s a comfortable jacket, and I’d freeze otherwise. The wind is blowing. In Chicago in the winter, the wind chill is the only measurement that matters. I wish Maria would get here before the cold sinks into me permanently.
She approaches from the alleyway, eyes to the ground, then looks up and waves. She has on blue leg warmers and fingerless gloves and walks with her feet pointed outward, like a duck. In her room, over her bed, she has a poster of Madonna in a wedding dress, with “Like a Virgin” written along the top.
This is a dangerous place for me; the girls’ group home is just a block away. The staff there would recognize me and call the authorities, who would force me into a car and take me back to Reed and dope me full of Thorazine and sit me on a plastic couch in front of a television. Or maybe they’d put me in Central Youth Shelter, thirty of us on mattresses on the floors. A gladiator arena. Cut your face, cut your neck, steal your shoes. Stand in the corner, keep watch on all sides.
I come forward to meet Maria, draping myself across her shoulder and melting into her collarbone. I feel her arms searching my ribs. “Dodo-head, it’s cold out here,” she says.
“I should have checked the weather report this morning.”
We sit in a booth at the back of the restaurant with a pitcher-shaped thermos of coffee between us. Two small children draw on a nearby table with crayons. I’m still shivering a little and trying to smoke my cigarette. Outside, Lincoln Avenue ends at Lincoln Village, the last strip mall before the suburbs. All along Lincoln are bars, which we’re too young to go in, and truck-stop motels. When I was eleven, a man offered me ten dollars to go with him to a motel room on Lincoln. There was supposed to be a woman there, but there wasn’t. The man who was there, the one with the money, the one in the nurse’s outfit, wanted a black boy, not a white boy, so they let me go.
The waitress is waiting to take our order.
“Do you want something to eat?” I ask Maria.
“I’m not eating,” Maria says. “I’m trying to lose weight.”
The waitress tucks her pad into her apron. “One-hour time limit. Don’t forget.”
“Listen,” I say to Maria: “A man goes to the doctor and says, ‘Doctor, I’ve got this problem. I’m in love with my horse.’ And the doctor says, ‘Is it a male or a female?’ And the guy says, ‘It’s a female. What do you think, I’m queer or something?’ ”
Maria snorts and shakes her head at me. “Joker. You have to go back, Theo,” she says. “You’re going to get staffed out.”
I’ve been gone eight days. After fourteen days, they “staff you out.” It’s the policy of all institutions that house wards of the court. Once you’re staffed out, you can never get back in.
“I failed my drug test,” I tell her, dumping a creamer into my coffee and giving it a swirl with my spoon. I lift the cup with both hands and hold it in front of my face like my father used to.
“Gee, how do you think that happened?” she asks.
“If I go back, they’re going to ship me to Prairie View for rehab.”
Maria doesn’t say anything. She lives in Peterson, a converted three-flat apartment building for girls who weren’t adoptable. People joke that Peterson is a two-abortion home; girls who’ve had three or more abortions are sent someplace worse. Every kid in the homes knows the different facilities you can be sent to. Prairie View is in the woods near the border with Wisconsin. There’s no getting out. The first week, they lock you in a timeout room and push food to you through a slot in the glass door. After that they come and ask if you are ready to “join the program.” They leave you in the glass cage until you say, “Yes, sir,” or, “Yes, ma’am.” Once you’re in Prairie View, you stay there until you’re eighteen.
“Do you think I could have a tomato juice?” Maria asks.
I try to get the waitress’s attention.
“Waitresses don’t like to wait on Mexicans,” Maria says. “They think we should be in the kitchen or busing tables.”
“If I go to Prairie View, I’ll never see you again.”
Maria thinks this over. “You only have a year and a half left. Then we’ll be eighteen, and we can live wherever we want.”
“Would you cook for me?” I ask.
“I’m not a very good cook,” she replies.
“What kind of apartment should we get?”
“A big two-bedroom in a nice neighborhood.” Maria drinks her coffee. “Paula’s been stealing my socks.”
“She says she doesn’t want to do her laundry. She said if I told anybody, she’d pull all my hair out.” Maria puts her coffee down and looks out the window at the bus stand, where an old man with a white sack is gripping the icy rail, trying to pull himself onto the first step. Maria leans forward over the table. “You have to go back. Look at it out there. On the news last night, they found two people frozen to death on Lower Wacker Drive.”
“Since when do you watch the news?” I pull out the twenty-dollar bill Jackson gave me and lay it on top of the tab. “You know, in Prairie View you’re not allowed to make phone calls. There’s no such thing as visitors. If you get mad, the staff puts a paper bag with a smiley face on it over your head.”
A grin spreads across Maria’s cheeks. “Could be an improvement,” she says. She cups her mug in both hands, the steam rising through her hair. The brown thermos sits between us with more coffee waiting to be poured.
An alarm goes off in the bedroom. No one turns it off. Julie hurries from the bedroom to the bathroom, her robe parting to expose her long, pale legs. I think I see a white breast through the opening in the terry cloth. I sit up on the couch and rub my face. The alarm is still ringing. Then there’s a bump, and the sound of plastic breaking, and the alarm stops. It’s snowing. Across the way are the enormous Section Eight tenements, windows ringed with black ash from old fires, ledges covered in snow.
Jackson comes out of the bedroom buttoning his jeans. He’s got a lumpy face, as if he’s been hit with a sock full of quarters. The lumps make him look like he’s smiling even when he’s not. “You ready to make some money today?” he asks me, waiting for his wife to come out of the bathroom.
“Do we have to sit in the back of the truck?”
Jackson sees the snow falling outside the window. “Oh shit,” he says. He raps his knuckles against the bathroom door, then smacks the door with his open palm twice. “Get the fuck out of there already! Let’s go.”
I met Jackson and Julie last summer. Julie’s brother Jon lived across the street from the new group home where I’d been moved. Jackson, Julie, and Jon were standing in front of their contractor’s truck, drinking beers. Coming home from school, I stopped and asked, “Can I have one of those?”
The men looked at me like I was crazy, but Julie smiled. “Give the kid a beer,” she said. “It’s hot.”
Later, inside Jon’s place, Julie divided up lines of PCP.
“You don’t have any parents?” Jackson asked me.
“We should adopt him,” Julie said. I moved closer to her. She blew smoke in my face.
“Put him to work on the truck,” Jackson said. Everybody laughed, even me. They were pretty surprised when I showed up at their apartment three months later, looking for work.
Julie and Jon’s father, Mr. Berry, owns the small white truck. He drives us to the job sites. At seven o’clock we arrive at an old bungalow near Sauganash. We’re supposed to tuck-point it — put new mortar between the bricks. “Gonna be a quick day,” the old man says.
It’s snowing steadily. Jackson surveys the house, gloves on his hips. “We’ll just set a chicken ladder,” he says.
“Won’t the ladder slide off the roof?” I ask.
“You want to work or not?” Mr. Berry asks impatiently. “I can take you home right now. You can go on welfare, like the fucking niggers.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“It’s called a chicken ladder for a reason, Theo,” Jackson says. “It’s for chickens. Bawk-bawk. Besides, it’s not snowing that hard.”
“This is nothing,” Mr. Berry says. “Pigeon shit.”
We haul the sand and mortar mix from the truck, the wheelbarrow, hawks, and slicks. When we’ve got everything, the old man gives us a hard wave and drives off.
Jackson lights a joint and hands it to me. “What are you going to do about school?” he asks. He’s always concerned about my welfare in the mornings.
I take a hit off the joint and hand it back to him. “Nothing,” I say.
“You want to end up like me?” Jackson asks. “I guess that’s not such a bad option.” He pinches the lit tip of the joint and drops it into his pocket.
I mix the mortar while Jackson sets ladders. We each take a slop on our hawks and go to opposite sides of the house. The first time I climb the ladder, my hand slips, and I feel a splinter lodge itself in my finger, straight through my glove. I lean into the ladder and try again. Eventually I forget the snow. There’s nothing else to do but cut the mortar and paint it into the cracks in the brick, wiping away the excess until my gloves weigh ten pounds. Mr. Berry says that if you don’t tuck-point your house, the house falls down. The old people in Sauganash certainly believe it; we come out here almost every day.
It’s six at night and dark when Mr. Berry comes to take us home. We crush together in the front seat of the truck, the heater blasting. I try to bite the splinter from my finger. I want to mention the “short day,” but we’re not even done yet. We still have to rinse off the mortar and wash the side of the truck.
“Took a loss on this one, boys,” Mr. Berry says. “Have a better day tomorrow.”
“This is all he gave you?” Julie asks Jackson as she steers the light blue Chrysler onto the main road. “What did you do all day?”
“Tuck-pointing,” Jackson says, lighting a cigarette and handing it back to me. “The kid here did a good job. There might be hope for him yet. It’s too early to tell.”
Julie reaches to the dashboard for her own cigarettes. “Give me what you have,” she says, stretching her arm over the seat and tickling my nose. I press my fifteen dollars into her palm. She steers the LeBaron down Western Avenue to Humboldt Park; “Mexico City,” it’s called. The snow is getting heavier, and the wheels push the slush toward the sewer drains. While we drive we sing the theme song from Sesame Street, shaking our arms and shoulders like Muppets.
I think that, with the weather so bad, the “store” will probably be closed — which shows what I know. The same man who’s always working the lookout is standing in the street in a round black jacket. Julie rolls down the window for him, and he sticks his head into the car, his hat pulled over his eyes. “Go slow,” he says. “Police came through half an hour ago.” He cranes his neck to look through the windshield and down the street. “You got anything for me?” He makes a small twitching motion with his fingers.
“Hard day,” Julie says, smiling as wide as she can; it looks like the effort might tear her face. Snow falls into the car around the man’s shoulders.
“Well, that’s different, homes. That’s different.” He pulls back and shoves his hands into his jacket pockets. Snow falls in a curtain past his face. “I don’t see how I can let you through. Not with the weather like this.”
“C’mon,” Julie says. “It’s a bad night. Tomorrow we’ll bring something for you.”
“Yeah. Tomorrow. Where is that? Is that in the phone book? I’m having a hard night too. Look at this shit.”
“Oh, fuck!” Julie says, smacking her palm on the steering wheel. Her hands scramble through her jacket like mice. She pulls out a five-dollar bill and thrusts it at him. “Fucking take it then.”
“OK, OK,” he says. “Take it easy.” He stands away from the car, tucks the money into his sleeve, and glances both ways down the street. “We’re all friends here. Let’s have a good time. Make it an easy night, right? Drive slow. Don’t freak anybody out.”
Julie pulls over near the car dealership and lays three lines on the dashboard, one noticeably smaller than the others. The neon dealership sign blinks on and off, sending rays of pink through the car and highlighting Jackson’s apelike features and the veins in Julie’s long neck. “You’re too young,” Julie says. “You don’t want to get hooked on this shit.” She does her line first. Then Jackson does his. I have to climb up front to do mine, hanging my ribs over the seat back. Jackson hands me his half straw. I try to remember which side he used, but I can’t. I snort it up anyway. The PCP burns. It feels like soap and rocks tumbling down the back of my throat. In a little while I get that cloudy feeling, and things start to haze over.
“Fucking Mexicans,” Julie says, remembering her five dollars. “You’d think they’d be grateful we let them into the country. We need to close the fucking border.”
“My girlfriend’s Mexican,” I say.
Julie looks back at me, her hands clutching the wheel, her face a cinder block. Her lips roll back over her gums, bright red daggers splitting her teeth. Then her features soften. “That’s too bad,” she says. “Too bad you have a girlfriend, I mean.” Julie smacks her lips. “Because I have a friend, Tracy. She’s got a great ass. You would love her ass. I told her we have a sixteen-year-old runaway sleeping on our couch. And you know what she said? She’s twenty years old, and when I told her you were a virgin, she was like, ‘Oooh, I like virgins.’ She seemed really excited. I was going to invite her over tonight to listen to some music and party. But I guess you won’t want me to, if you have a girlfriend. . . . ”
“Do whatever you want,” I say, my cheek twitching.
Jackson lets out a short, loud laugh.
“You’re just like the rest of them,” Julie says, throwing the car into gear. “So much for innocence.”
I’m sitting cross-legged on the couch, a blanket wrapped around me. I hold the phone to my ear, listening to it ring on the other end. Julie and Jackson are in their bedroom. They’ve left an album playing on the stereo. All the doors in the apartment are closed.
“Hello?” a voice answers.
“Maria?” I say.
“Are you drunk?” she asks.
“A little bit.”
“What’s that music?”
“Oh. You shouldn’t call so late over here. It’s almost midnight. You’ll get me in trouble.”
“Sorry. We’re getting up early again tomorrow.” I hear a crash in the background. “What was that?”
“Tamara and Jodie are fighting. I can’t stand it.”
I hear girls screaming outside the phone room. Tamara is a street fighter. I picture her pulling Jodie along by her hair, like a dog on a leash.
“I wish you were here,” I say. Outside the window, it seems the snow has stopped. The city is covered with thick drifts of white. I hold the line, keeping my eye on the bedroom door. “I wanted to hear your voice.”
“Here I am.”
“I’m going to take care of you.”
“Now I know you’re drunk.”
“I mean it.”
“What else do you mean?”
When Maria visited the boys’ home the first time, I pretended not to notice her. Then she asked me to walk her to the store, and all the boys laughed and whistled. After that we stayed apart from everyone else. Maria told me why the state had taken custody of her: Her uncle had raped her and left her tied up overnight. Her grandmother had let him do it. She told me stories like I had never heard before.
I wish I could sit behind her now and comb her hair and wrap my legs around her waist.
The bedroom door opens.
“I have to go,” I say.
“Are you coming back? You only have a few days left.”
“No,” I say. “I can’t.”
Today we lay a roof on a three-story town house in Edgewater, near the hospital: Jackson and I and Julie’s brother Jon and a roofing crew with a tar heater.
“Jon got a line on some dinosaurs,” Jon says. Jon likes to talk about himself in the third person. Dinosaurs are heavy-duty downers. “Think about it,” he says to Jackson and me. “Dinosaurs. Four o’clock.” We shovel the steaming tar onto the roof and spread it with mops. Pushing a mop full of tar is like trying to shove a piano. The heat from the tar keeps us warm, and we strip down to T-shirts. The men who lay roof all the time wear green T-shirts that say “Harry’s Roofers.” They look like the monsters from the movie The Time Machine, only without the fur: shaved heads, blank stares, yellow eyes, tattoos running up their necks. By the time we finish, my jeans are covered in tar.
“That will never come off,” Jackson says.
“That’s OK,” I say. “Now I have work pants.”
“Do you have any other pants?”
Jackson slaps my back. The day is over already; we worked through another one. It’s cold, but the sun is out, and the sky over Chicago is blue. The Sears Tower pokes up, miles away, near the lakefront. Our breath escapes us in thick clouds. The sticky blacktop shines compared to the dusty tops of the two-flats nearby. The men stand back and stare at the craftsmanship spread out before them. The roof is a wonder to behold.
© Amy R. Boles
I am a phantom. No one will ever find me. I can become invisible. Jackson and I smoke cigarettes with Jon and roll dice on the floor between the couch and the television set. The dinosaurs are really called Placidyls, big white pills, twice the size of a cigarette filter. I had to cut mine in half and take it in two swallows. The smoke swims through the air like a fish. I am at the bottom of the world. Jon’s pants are nearly falling off because he doesn’t wear a belt. He leans forward on all fours, mooning Jackson and me. He’s blue from the smoke. Junkie Smurf, I think, and laugh to myself. Jon turns the dice over and over in his fingers, matching up the dots. I remember the night I won the Department of Children and Family Services shirt in the group home. That was the best night of my life.
“Keep drinking,” Jackson says to me, shooting a ray from his pinkie to my beer. “It’ll help.”
Julie slams through the front door and heads straight for the bedroom, leaving a long, dark trail behind her. Jackson’s eyes follow her and rest heavily on the bedroom door.
“Watch closely,” Jon says. He puts the dice right up against his eye and stares into the center of the blocks. “Jon Berry needs a six.” The dice tumble over each other toward the bookcase. I cough, and my lungs hurt. Mr. Berry gave me twenty-five dollars today, which means Jackson must have made forty. Mr. Berry asked me today how I liked laying roof. I said I liked it fine, and he said that was good because Harry might want to hire me. Apparently roofers have a high turnover. Mr. Berry said roofers are only interested in making enough for their next fix.
Jon’s dice come up eight. “Jon Berry needs a six,” he says again, as if the dice simply misheard him the first time. Everything is very flat and on its side.
“Hold on a second. Just wait,” Jackson says. He gets up, falls over a chair, tumbles headfirst into the wall, then crawls back and sits down again.
“Oh, no,” Jon says. “Watch Jon Berry.”
We all look at the dice. The dice come up seven. Seven is a loser. The most losingest number of all time, unless you roll it first. I’ve never seen such a loser. Jon owes Jackson and me each a dollar. What horrible luck. Unbelievable. How could anyone be so unlucky? It makes me sad. I stare at the dice, waiting for them to move. “Boo,” I whisper. Maybe they’ll jump or something. Maybe if I concentrate hard enough, the dice will fly around the room and roll for me. I can feel every piece of air in my nostrils, each molecule of oxygen. I can see a space three inches in front of my nose where nothing exists.
“You owe me a dollar,” I say to Jon, because it’s true. I am a speaker of truth.
“You’ll get it,” Jon says. “Absolutely. Double or nothing.”
“Take it easy,” Jackson says, waving his big hand in front of him as if clearing fog from a window. Then he closes his fist in front of his face. I can hear everything. I can hear his fingers brushing each other. “Everything’s going to work out.”
I can’t take it. I turn away from him. Outside it’s starting to snow again. I think I’m going to cry. Things are not going to work out. They’re going to be horrible. Look at all that snow, grabbing dirt from the sky and pulling it to the earth, hiding it beneath the white. It’s enormous, this city; it swallows everything. Maria is out there somewhere in a building with bricks over the windows. She can’t even see the snow. I’ll bet she’s staring at those bricks right now, wondering where I am. I have to help her.
Nobody says anything for a long time. There’s comfort in the silence.
As the pills wear off, Jon gets up and leaves. The roar of his car engine causes snow to slide from the ledges. Jackson makes it into the bedroom. After a while I hear him and Julie call my name down the hallway. I follow my name to their door.
It’s late, past midnight, and I’m on the sidewalk freezing. Tiny icicles hang from my eyelashes, and I can’t do anything but keep moving and hunch my shoulders. Julie had some cocaine, and we were all having a good time, I thought. The cocaine and the Placidyl felt really good together. I came out of the fog. I told Julie and Jackson that I loved them. I told Jackson that he was my best friend in the whole world. Jackson and Julie had been swapping looks all night, like they knew something I didn’t know. It was suspicious, now that I think about it. We were sitting on their bed. It’s an enormous bed, must be the biggest bed you can buy. I can’t even imagine how they got it into the room. We were listening to the Rolling Stones at full volume. Then Jackson said I had to leave. I said OK and went to the living room. He followed me.
“No, I mean you have to go,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re going to get us in trouble.” Jackson ground his teeth and bit the tip of his tongue. I’d never seen him do that before. “The cops are going to bust us. We’re harboring a runaway.”
I wanted to cry. I’ve been labeled a runaway since I was eleven.
“You have got to get out of here.” Then Julie stepped out of the bedroom, completely naked. I had never seen her naked before. She had a big tuft of red pubic hair fanning out over her thighs, and her stomach was all flat, segmented muscle, not round like I’d thought it would be. It was like her muscles were trying to get out of her skin. She stood behind Jackson with her mouth open, her eyes all pupil, almost solid black.
“Can’t I just spend the night?” I said. “I’ll leave in the morning.”
Jackson shook his head, and Julie grabbed his arm with both hands. Beneath her breast was a small blue tattoo of a bird flying. I didn’t understand why Jackson had to be there at all. Why couldn’t it have been just me and Julie? I wanted so desperately to get into bed with her and lie there. I wanted it with everything I had in me. I wondered what it tasted like between her legs. I thought about it so hard that my tongue grew thick.
I gathered my stuff together and put on Jackson’s jacket. He didn’t say anything about the jacket. Then I walked out the door.
A row of mustard-colored three-flats runs for a full city block between Pratt and North Shore. TVs flicker in some of the windows. I try not to walk under any streetlamps; I don’t want to be seen. The cold is starting to hurt. I can’t feel my ears. A man was following me for a while, but it got too cold even for him.
By the time I find the basement door, I’m shivering hard. It takes three attempts, throwing myself against the door, to break it open. It buckles, and the latch clatters down a cement stairway into darkness. I’ve been here before. A friend used to live in an apartment in this building. I stand and let my eyes adjust to the dark. Shapes become visible, and the darkness disappears. I belong here.
The basement is empty except for a few storage closets, a metal sink, and a washer and dryer. A single darkened bulb hangs on a thick cord in the center of the room. The dryer is clean, large, and sturdy. I undress, peeling off my many thin layers, and put my clothes in the dryer to heat them up. The dryer fills the basement with noise. I cross my arms over my chest, worried that someone will come into the basement and find me naked. Will they let me put my clothes back on, or will I have to stay naked as they haul me away? Will I have to stay naked until I turn eighteen? The dryer rattles around on the floor. I drape myself over it and lay my cheek on the top, trying to get the heat to enter my body. The machine quivers, tossing my clothes inside it. I stretch my arms around to its back and slide my fingers between the metal ridges there. I rub my face along the lid.
Maria and I are waiting in the smoking room in the boys’ home for the car to arrive to take me to Prairie View. The heat is on, but I’m still shivering a little. We hold hands. I’ve been putting my stuff together all day, watching television, smoking cigarettes. A staff member gave me a full pack as a going-away present.
“At least I’ll graduate high school,” I say. “There’s no missing classes in Prairie View.”
“You’ll like school once you’re into it,” Maria says. Maria is the best student at the group-home school, which is just a holding pen, a baby-sitting facility. But her book is always open. She gets an A in every class.
I shrug. I don’t want to talk about it. The windows look out on the empty playground where I put up a basketball net last summer. There are two staff members in the front of the house. They’re giving us some time alone, Maria and me. They act as if they’re doing you a favor every time they leave you alone.
I kiss Maria on the lips and slide my hand inside her sweater. She leans into me, resting her head on my shoulder. I run my finger along the edge of her bra and push up under her breast. Her sighs are like music. I just want to protect her. I think of her grandmother selling her to support a heroin habit, the time she spent hiding in a closet. I see her uncle breaking through the door night after night, Maria frightened, pressed against the wall, biting at the piece of rubber she was told to keep in her mouth, raped so many times the memories blur together. I rub my fingers down her spine, and she moves closer. I pull her to me even more. She lays her legs across my legs. We try to climb inside each other.
“It won’t be long,” I say.
“No,” Maria replies. “You’ll be out soon.”
You never know what people are going to do to you in a locked facility. When adults are in control, they’re capable of anything. You do whatever you can not to disturb them. They’ll take you out of bed with their hand across your face, strip-search you in empty offices late at night while your roommate pretends to sleep. The car will be here any minute. I kiss the top of Maria’s head, the pale scalp where her hair parts. Her hair is dry and sour-smelling. I kiss her again. It won’t be so long. I will have years to keep her safe.