by Jasmon Drain
Finalist : 2010 Fiction Contest
It was worth everything to us, located on 103rd and Woodlawn, and spread across a set of eight to ten railroad tracks that gave cheapened rural energy to the Community College that my cousin Jameel, my brother Jacob, and I all dreamed of attending one day.
The area was on the south side of the city and we’d turn it into a full day of pleasure. See, being raised in Chicago’s Stateway Gardens Projects exposed us to some things, quite a few different things, none of which dealt with peaceful rides along the lake, A-list restaurants, or even mile-long extensions of grass reminding us of Grant Park. We were probably too serious for those things anyway. My older brother Jacob, and my cousin Jameel, who lived in the ten-story building behind ours and had never met his birth mother, would assemble in the hall, bright and early no matter what the summer weather, mapping out a plan for our journey.
“I’m glad we’re going somewhere that has real grass growing,” Jameel would say almost every single time we left the buildings. The reason he said that was because no matter how the rain may have flooded the streets in spring, green grass was scarce in the projects. It was as invaluable to young people as a $20 book of food stamps, a paper bag stocked with wine candies, or a Chicago Bears Starter jacket. Our buildings were compared to a concrete paved military zone, complete with elevated outposts. From each one, you could look from the ramp-porch and see the others. The truth is, the small samples of grass that littered the middle area where we walked resembled patterns of zebra stripes. “See, it doesn’t even feel the same as real grass,” Jameel continued.
Although his face was gentle for a fifteen-year-old boy—no hair anywhere—his mouth was large, teeth always hidden by dark lips protruding like he was practicing for cigars he planned to smoke one day.
“What in the hell does real grass feel like?” Jacob asked him, speaking quickly.
I nodded and smirked at him, knowing that I was clueless.
“Why would someone want to wet their paper?” Jacob laughed after speaking. “I mean, how stupid can one nigger be?”
“Nah, you don’t know what you talking about,” Jameel responded with a blank face. His words grew clearer. “If you get healthy soil, which is moist and bright, and twirl it around in your fingers with the grass, it’ll feel like a handful of wet paper. Definitely nothing like this stuff.”
Jacob, whitish skin, curly hair, fluffy eyelashes, smacked his lips and began walking ahead of us. He never was comfortable admitting when Jameel had a point.
In the center of our project buildings were the block-long paths of crackled concrete that no roses were going to grow from. All trees had been subtracted and the small patches of grass that Jameel criticized were everywhere. He would hold them to our skin—we both were quite dark—and compare the colors.
“See how dark this is?”
“Nothing as dark as us can be healthy. And nothing healthy can live here. It’s just not possible.”
I tilted my head in response, making certain not to nod.
“Nothing,” he repeated.
“We’re darker than the grass, though,” I said as Jameel continued twirling it around in his fingers. I snatched a big plot of my own from the ground, holding it against my arm. “See, Jameel? We both are darker.”
“That’s the point,” he replied without expression, and began following Jacob. Both of them eventually achieved a noticeable distance from me.
By the time we had passed under the viaduct on 35th Street, the three of us would not have spoken for at least fifteen minutes. It was the routine. I followed behind them like a nervous puppy, small and wide-eyed, wishing that either one of them would say something.
It was all worth it the moment we arrived at the Community College, a school packed with black people as burnt looking as Jameel and I, or even as light as Jacob, set to the side of the road and surrounded with the most attractive scenery the botany channel could deliver. Their soil was a glittery color; it seemed like there were small crystals inside. This would always be the first time during the day Jameel released some form of emotion.
He would sit in the field that was surrounded by a lone road, legs folded over one another like a hippie at Woodstock, and dig his hands into it assertively. You would have sworn you were watching a young Jack Russell Terrier.
“Come over here, Tracy,” he said. “Come now.” I’d sit next to him, as close as I possibly could, attempting to make my short legs match his. “This is what real soil looks like.” He said the same things to me every time we went. He’d point out various “flowers” in the field: green ones, yellows, and a few with purple reflections, giving them all phony names made up on the spot by him. Each was singled out as some wonder woman we wanted: There were Jane Kennedys and Karyn Whites and Appolonia Koteros, and even a few Jody Watleys.
Jacob would be nowhere in sight. In fact, he made certain to be as far away from our two “ugly” faces as he could. It was to his advantage, though. Talking about girls was nothing but a waste of time for a boy like him. At fourteen, Jacob looked nineteen, and his skin resembled the perfect petals of an orchid. Girls outside the college assumed someone as beautiful as him was surely standing outside those heavy school doors waiting to ride the CTA bus home and fuck them. And each time he found a new one to do just that with, telling Jameel and me a glorious story the next morning. We expected nothing less. So, the two of us plainly sat in that grass, pointing out every attractive flower we could. We sat there long enough most times for the sun to begin setting. Jameel would eventually lie down in the grass, unconscious of a few aluminum soda pop cans attracting armies of ants or the empty cigarette cartons students had tossed after class. A few times, I believed I caught him playing with foreign insects or digging deeper for worms. And I was his look-alike companion, patient, along for the serenity of the scene, admiring Black students at the Community College and realizing that if you simply surrounded the building with a barbed-wired fence and dressed its people in orange jump suits, the Community College resembled Cook County Jail.
“I wish I could just live here,” he’d say, just smiling and smiling. “I just wish….”
After I’d mention my comparisons of the college to an in-state prison was when Jameel snapped from his dream, and we’d head back home to the projects. It was my fault that the vacation spot was ruined for us anyway.
The three of us went through a lot to travel that far south to the Community College, and for good reason: it was a summer resort after the spring school semester; we were north-side white kids being annually sent to various European cities we’d never manage to spell. For our trip we weren’t afforded first-class planes with firm-chested stewardesses that made fluttering crushes inevitable, nor were we friskily chauffeured in fabulous carriages boasting windows darkened because we desired not to be noticed. We merely did what he had to for the trip, probably would’ve done much more. Our ways of traveling were unorthodox: there were those days when Jameel and Jacob stole bikes from middle-class kids pedaling down Martin Luther King Drive, and I’d have to hop on the front handlebars, riding dangerously fast through traffic for some seventy blocks; other mornings we stood on an East Side avenue that was close to our project buildings: Cottage Grove, Michigan, or Indiana Avenues specifically, doing our best job at hitchhiking as far south as possible. However, Jameel looked mature for fifteen, and was slicker than baby-oiled worms in Community College soil. If we were feeling really lucky, he would wait until those afternoons where the Chicago White Sox were playing games at Comiskey; hopefully, they were winning. The score of the game was actually rather important.
Comiskey Park was only a block-and-a-half from our Stateway Gardens Project buildings, and when a player from the Sox hit a home run, Harold Baines, Carlton Fisk, and later Frank Thomas, they’d launch fireworks that rivaled Navy Pier on the Fourth of July. The noise of fireworks from the stadium was so loud that it drowned the sounds of most anything: gunshots from the Disciples aimed at Vice Lords, crack babies crying, bottles breaking, or anything else. This was perfect because Jameel would use the opportunity to break the closest car window in the parking lot, peel the steering column, and seconds later the three of us were on our way. Those escapades were only once in a while, though. More often than not we’d simply have to do what was normal to us, something that was probably more dangerous than all those others combined: jump onto the El Train.
Without fail, when we headed to the train platform, Jacob and Jameel began bickering like divorcees.
“Come on,” Jacob started.
“We need to go this way,” Jameel said. It never failed that when he’d talk, it was hard not to notice the terrible puffiness underneath his eyes—full night of sleep or not—that made his pupils seem non-existent. The only way you knew where he was looking was the direction he may have been facing at the time. “It’s not like we’re paying, anyway,” he continued at Jacob. “Just need to make sure we hop on at the right time.”
Jacob replied with a simple, “Whatever.”
“We can’t just go from any side,” Jameel started again while looking at me. “We just can’t.”
Jacob reluctantly glanced my way as well. “He’ll be fine.”
The El Train we used to travel south was on the lower level of 35th Street and it sat smack-dab in the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway. On each side of the train platform was a three-lane highway, with cars heading in each direction at roughly seventy to eighty miles an hour. There was a grass-less knoll near the curb, with dirt matching that of Stateway’s Garden, and it was protected by a ten-foot fence. This headed down to the platform where the train arrived. Neither of us had any money—most times, there was probably no more than three dollars between us, 95 percent of which was owned by Jacob. And there was nothing about him that suggested sharing.
Jameel would head to the fence first, which began on the south end of Wabash Street. He was the oldest, tallest, and most athletic, definitely capable of setting a good example. He climbed the fence with ease, jumping the ten or so feet to the ground without as much as a grunt. Jacob urged me to follow, but the nervousness I felt each and every time we went stiffened my legs. Jacob then followed Jameel, who by that time was at the landing of the knoll, staring back at us, and taking glances every so often at the passing traffic on the highway.
Each time we’d traveled I hoped that the holes of the fence would have widened, spreading spaciously enough that the mouse-like body I had could easily pass through. When I climbed the fence, I’d grip it as though I feared being shot by a military sniper from the projects, or maybe I feared I was falling from a 747. Each link attached to the inside of my hand with air-tightness. Jacob and Jameel, opposites in everything except height, stood there waiting impatiently. Jacob would even be tapping his leg to some rhythm. I’d eventually employ the middle area of my crotch for balance along the fence. Obviously this was painful, but I wouldn’t allow my hands to release. After so much time would pass, Jacob begged for me to go another route, or to not come at all; he grew so annoyed that he’d even offer to use his money to pay my fare. That was when I’d drop down toward them, breathing uncontrollably and staring at speeding cars along the highway.
“Stand here,” Jameel would say while directing me. His lips, as usual, barely moved when he talked. “I mean it, Tracy. Stand here.” His hand pressed into my chest with enough force to move me back across the fence. Jameel then faced the other direction, looking at the cars. He could calculate like a Macintosh Computer, and would use his brain to analyze cars far down the expressway, figuring a map and path we’d travel to get closer to the El Train platform. “Guys, pay attention.” Each moment Jameel spoke I begged to see his teeth, or to maybe witness his mouth truly moving, some form of human expression along that dark face that resembled mine. He was focused on nothing but estimating the angles and timing of that highway: “We’re going to dodge this black Toyota first. Then there will be a gap. We’ll wait there on the second highway line for nine seconds, then cross after the blue Chevy. Once we get to the last highway line, a maroon Ford pickup will pass. From there we’ll run to the wall where the tracks are. We gotta’ run fast because I think I see this greyish sports car further down.
Jacob readied himself after Jameel spoke, rolling his eyes and tightening his shoelaces. Surely he wished there was something to add which would make Jameel’s strategy appear flawed. He pulled up his pants, tucked the bottom cuffs into his socks, and began kneeling.
“Come on, Tracy,” Jameel stated firmly. He grabbed my hand how I’d held the fence, probably stopping a bit of blood from circulating to the forearm. “You gotta’ move right with me,” he said. “We can’t make mistakes.”
“OK,” I replied with a nod. But when I looked to the right, where my brother Jacob was not a few moments previous, he was gone. He’d already left us, forming his own anti-Jameel route to the other side. He was standing next to the train track’s wall, laughing and pointing at us.
Didn’t matter. Jameel pulled me through those cars like thoroughbred horses bound to a plow wagon. We executed his plan with precision: the black Toyota, then the blue Chevy, the maroon pickup—I couldn’t help but appreciate the glow of that greyish sports car we missed, seeing its abnormal white stripes bright in the sun. And we made it to the wall where only a chalk resembling line separated us from cars that honked uncontrollably.
“You OK?” Jameel asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. I don’t think he could hear me over Jacob’s loud laughter and definitely not the sounds of Dan Ryan traffic.
The space from the thick white highway line and traffic was no more than twelve inches, not nearly enough for teenaged feet to fit, but we had to stand there, leaning against the severity of the wall. It was all concrete, probably five feet in height. This was what shielded us from the most dangerous portion of the journey. Because honestly, we never thought much about the ten-foot fence on Wabash, or its subsequent grassless knoll that could have tumbled you into traffic like an avalanche; there was little concern for the eighty-mile-an-hour cars and trucks and grey sports cars with white stripes passing one another on the Dan Ryan. Sure as shooting it would have been worth a million points for one of those drivers to hit three black teenagers from the projects crossing illegally.
What we dreaded most was that Third Rail, located on the other side of the short wall. El Train tracks are set up in paralleled couples, with the outer railing being a bit higher. However, the third rail of the four was what conducted the electrical power for the train. It had to be avoided. But climbing a five-foot wall, without allowing the weight of your body to throw you clean to the floor of the other side was a feat.
Jacob and Jameel, as usual, achieved things like this effortlessly. Jameel was even better, scaling the wall like caterpillars on plants, hands harboring hidden suction. He’d jump to the gravel and rocks in the middle of the tracks, landing and standing with arms outstretched like a gymnast finishing a routine. It was like watching the Secret Service during a Presidential emergency. I barely saw him on the other side, though. But I heard his voice clearly across the wall as he urged me to make my move.
“Come on, Tracy,” he said. “I’m standing on the tracks waiting for you now. Come on.”
By the time he and Jacob climbed the platform, standing arrogantly as though they paid full fares, I would be just beginning. Each time was different for me. I’d stumble while attempting to grip the wall; I could barely balance myself along the top, and climbing the platform to the other side was no simple task either. Still, what happened the last time we went is what I assumed kept my brother and cousin from allowing me on their travels to the southern points of the city.
I climbed that concrete wall that last time easily, balancing myself along its roof all while gloating at them standing on the platform. That was idiotic, because the moment I took my eyes away, I lost footing along the ledge, falling uncontrollably onto the tracks. My brother and cousin had to have thought that my crash into the tracks, whether from electricity or impact, had killed me instantly. I was spread there, immovable, left arm sprawled along the third and fourth rails simultaneously, wondering why my small and dark body hadn’t been entered with enough electricity to power the night lights at Comiskey Park. My eyes opened only a crack – enough that I witnessed everyone along the platform holding their collective breaths. There was a young man with two Aldi bags that had fallen to the floor, an overweight, lighter-skinned girl began screaming aggressively, and an older woman rushed to the payphone in the center of the platform, probably with the intent of calling an ambulance, or at worst, the police. I moved that arm, wondering if it was still a part of my body.
“Get the hell up, Tracy,” Jacob yelled without sympathy. I knew he was likely more embarrassed than worried, but when I saw Jameel, eyes widened, mouth agape, teeth showing, brow lifted, I questioned whether I’d actually died. It was the first time without foliage in his fingers that I’d seen him with expression, or even realized the fact that he really did have cheekbones. He lowered himself to his knees on the platform and the moment he saw my eyes move he began urging me to my feet, hand and arm signals abound.
About forty feet north on the track I saw the El Train, as stout and broad as a century-old walnut tree.
“Are you OK, young man?” a bearded guy asked. His face formed a better circle than the centers of sunflowers. He continued to stand over me and moved so close to my face that I could decode the exact brand of coffee he’d drank with breakfast. “Are-you-OK?” he asked again. He then grabbed my arms, sitting me upright. I pressed my butt against the third rail, just to make certain that I hadn’t lost my mind. “Stand up, boy,” the man said firmly. He wore this neon vest with orange stripes down the front and seemed angrier with me than even Jacob was. “I said, stand-up.” I used the concrete wall that not a few moments ago was the podium of my greatest triumph to lift my body. The man began looking at me as though he planned on grounding me for a month. Lowering my head came natural after staring into his frown.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Do you know that you could be dead right now?” he asked.
I shook my head no.
“Boy, the only reason you aren’t lying there fried on that track is because we were servicing the lines. Thank God the power is shut off.”
Right then, Jacob jumped down from the platform and began pushing me toward it. “Get your stupid ass on,” he said.
Jameel continued kneeling on the edge, hands covering his face. By the time I’d been lifted to the platform, several other men in vests and orange hard hats were standing right next to him, along with three white police officers. Fortunately, they didn’t arrest the three of us. I guess it was because one officer was sympathetic. Mumbled that he was from the other side of Stateway’s Garden, from the Comiskey Park side, and that he’d busted some kids a while back that we reminded him of. Didn’t stop them from kindly escorting us, hands on their weapons in case they changed their minds, back to the viaduct on 35th that led to our buildings.
“We’re not taking you with us anymore, dumbass,” Jacob said as fast as he could.
We walked back to our project buildings slowly that afternoon, not noticing the sun shining, or the weeds that grew wildly, or the cracked pavement used for pitching pennies. We didn’t hear the curse words of early afternoon drunks, or prostitutes being banged behind buildings, not even gunshots from rival gang members. Jacob used his pretty skin to travel to the buildings with virgin girls that would make him feel better. And Jameel disappeared into the hallway of his own building, walking twelve flights of stairs he’d grown accustomed to because elevators never worked. I yelled at him in the hallway as I stood on the first floor.
“Jameel? Jameel? Jameel, wait!”
There was no answer.
“Jameel? You hear me? Jameel?
“Yeah, Tracy. I hear you.”
”Don’t go upstairs,” I said. “Maybe we can find another way to get there. I know we can.”
“I’m glad you’re not hurt, Tracy. I’m glad for real.” His voice became more and more distant. “I was kinda’ scared there for a minute.”
“Sorry I messed things up.”
“Don’t worry about it.” His voice faded almost to a whisper. “It’s just cool you’re OK.”
“It’s still pretty early, though. We can make it before all the students get out if we go now.”
“No need to do all that,” he replied. “There’s really no need.”
“Why not? You and me love being there. We can make it.”
“Why not, then?”
“Because, I’m starting to think we’re where they want us to be.”
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