APRIL 2006 – NO. 5
The second story selection from our second Guest Fiction Editor, Peter Orner, whose novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, is out this month from Little, Brown.
Our oldest just turned five. I've always been honest with him. And now I wonder if I should tell him I killed his father.
He is ours because I adopted him. I told Blanca I wanted to. I am not so sure she cared. My wife is a pretty woman, striking even. But she is also desperate. Desperate in the sense that she knows to take what she can get. Desperate in the sense that she knows not to ask for more. I've always given her the most I could. For this reason we don't argue much.
I love her. Don't get me wrong. Although after all these years I am not entirely convinced she loves me. This though, is not important. Because you see, I am a desperate man, and my only wish is to come home to a family, children who call me daddy, and a wife that will never cheat. In many ways our marriage seems born of convenience. Such is the case with desperate people.
Her boy, our boy, turned five in December. His name is Prince Marcus and while I don't like the name, he was named after his father, and so the boy is cursed. Each time I speak or hear our son's name I am reminded of the man I killed four months ago in the alley three blocks down from where we live. I walk by there often. I need to get to the supermarket. And I look down the alley and expect to see his body there, slumped over, perfectly camouflaged like a bag of trash next to an overflowing garbage can.
I didn't know him personally, not before I married Blanca. He was from 18th Street and in this neighborhood 18th Street and 22nd Street are night and day, hot and cold, two opposite sides of the universe. He really should've known better than to come around. I suppose the fact that he didn't respect the obvious made me dislike him even more.
Marcus was the leader of the Laflin Boys street gang. His name on the street was Prince Marcus. The Laflin Boys were not a big gang. They were one of the hundreds in our neighborhood, twenty or so members, two or three street corners worth of turf. But the Laflin Boys had a reputation. They were crazy. They jumped rivals in front of families. They pulled drive-by's in front of schools, churches. I'd heard of Prince Marcus long before I ever met Blanca. And then there was Orejas, Pac-Man, Lepke, all Laflin Boys, all with ugly reputations, all under the leadership of Prince Marcus. Maybe, this is what attracted my wife.
My wife and Prince Marcus had the fortune of ending up at the exact same school at the exact same time and when I think about it, timing seems the culprit for everything. Benito Juarez High School was built on Blue Island Avenue and 22nd Street, strategically placed to take in kids from both sides of the neighborhood, 22nd and 18th. While this was probably the brainstorm of a lifetime for some city planner, it was an unfortunate reality for any kid who couldn't afford an alternative. For the first four years Benito Juarez was up and running the school had the distinct honor of being the only high school in Chicago with a per capita murder rate. The number of gangs in that school was amazing: Insane Deuces, Two-Ones, Satan Disciples, Latin Brothers, Laflin Boys, Latin Counts, Latin Bishops, Racine Boys, Almighty Ambrose. Even in the envelope of my all-boys, Catholic high school I could see that Benito Juarez was the pits. And living in the community that Juarez served I heard the stories. How Beany from the Two-Ones had stabbed Lil' Cano, a Party-Player, in the gut in the cafeteria. How Sleepy, who was just a Jr. Latin Count, was found shot in a stall in the men's room. How Ms. Welzien, one of the PE teachers, had had her nose broken by an Ambrose named Juice. The gangs in Juarez had taken over. They had divided themselves up into two categories: Folks and People. When a drive by occurred, affiliations were screamed, "People!" or "What up, Folks!" Then the shooting started. There were Chicago Police units assigned to Juarez. Their primary job was to pick up the pieces: the wars went on.
So it was in this environment that my wife Blanca met Prince Marcus, leader of the Laflin Boys street gang.
It still offends me somewhat that my wife has a history with another man. I know this is petty. Plenty of marriages are actually second and third marriages. But I think my attitude would be different if my wife had been in a relationship with a man of different caliber. The first two years of our marriage I actually got to know Marcus quite well. That time he kicked down our front door. That time he threw a brick through the front window of my car while I was driving. That time I found him in front of our apartment, OD'd, puke streaming down his chin onto his black t-shirt. That morning my wife took him in and put him under a cold shower. She knew exactly what to do. She massaged his chest. She gave him blankets, our blankets, and made him chicken noodle soup. He ate breakfast with us, and lunch and dinner, and then the next morning, ate another breakfast. At one point he apologized for all he'd ever done. "I'm sorry, Jesse," he told me over scrambled eggs. "I respect you, bro. You know how to keep a woman. You know how to have a family." He cried. My wife put her arm around him. She told him everything was okay. "People in this house love you," she said. I looked at little Prince Marcus, who was too young to love anything at that point, and I wondered whom she meant. That afternoon Marcus left. Within a week he had broken into the apartment, through the back door while we were away at work. He didn't take anything. It didn't even appear that he'd gone through any drawers. But he left a note on the kitchen table. "I still luv you, Blanca," the note said. "I can't help it." And while it wasn't signed it was obvious whom it was from. My wife cried.
But it is not like I grew up in Winnetka or Arlington Heights or Highland Park. It's not like I took all this laying down. I grew up on 22nd and Oakley. I knew protocol. Those times he broke in I chased him out of the apartment with a baseball bat. Those times he used to call late at night and not say anything, I would scream into the phone, "I'm going to kill you motherfucker!" And then once, after slamming down the phone, I actually went out to hunt for him. I called my partner from when we were young, Ricardo. Ricardo was a Disciple. He'd dropped out of Benito Juarez when it was suspected he'd murdered a Latin Count named Buff. I told Ricardo, "a Laflin Lover named Marcus is fucking with my family." Within ten minutes Ricardo was outside my door with a .38 automatic, fully loaded. Ricardo knew Prince Marcus. They had gone to Juarez together and had their own history. As I started for the front door Blanca took a breath to speak. I turned to look and she was holding the phone to her ear, the same phone I had just hung up. With her other arm she was holding Prince Marcus, using her hip as a ledge for him to sit on. She seemed amazingly young at that moment, small, and for a second I was lost, lost in my own home, married to a woman who had tattoos, a woman who could balance a child on her hip like he was glued there. I didn't know whom she had dialed. I wasn't interested in asking. I turned and left the apartment.
"It's chambered," Ricardo said as he handed me the gun. "Careful." The gun was small, nickel-plated. It fit perfectly into my hand. It was the same piece we had used last New Years to shoot off rounds in Ricardo's gangway. I remembered how quiet it had been. How I'd expected some loud blast but got only a shallow pop that between buildings echoed a sharp hum.
We cruised 18th Street. We started at Damen Avenue and worked our way east. We slowed down at the taverns, watched who was going in, who was coming out. I held the gun hidden at my thigh, ready to raise it the second I recognized him. At Cirito's pool hall at Blue Island Avenue we pulled to the curb and peered in through the torn black tint that covered the plate glass windows. On the sidewalk a young girl, a teenager, walked out of a grocery store. She looked into the car as she passed. She saw Ricardo and me and for quick moment she searched our faces trying to figure out what we were doing. Something registered. Suddenly the girl turned her head and began walking faster. I looked to Ricardo. He was still studying the pool hall; he hadn't noticed her. I waited for the girl to turn and look again but she never did.
Marcus wasn't there, just a bunch of men that seemed to look like Marcus. We pulled away and reached Halsted Street. Then we turned back west. Sweat coated the grip of the gun. I felt as if I was fisting a dirty quarter. I switched hands, flexed my fingers, then wiped my palm on the knee of my jeans. By the time we got to Damen Avenue the gun was under my seat, tucked away in case we got pulled over.
"Want me to turn around?" Ricardo asked.
"No," I said. "He's gone, man. We're not going to find him."
"He's probably fucked up somewhere," Ricardo said. "Angel dust, those Laflin Boys do angel dust. We should go search some alleys."
I shrugged my shoulders.
Ricardo drove me home.
"It's under the seat," I told him as I climbed out of the car.
"Bro," Ricardo said. "If he comes back just call me. I'll pop him if you don't want to." Then he reached over and pulled the passenger door shut. It was late by then. Or maybe it just seemed late. The streetlights were on. My shadow was pitch black against the orange tinted sidewalk. I stuck my keys into the door and quietly stepped inside.
But none of this explains who I am. And truth is I am no one. I work at a law firm. I'm a clerk. I make $28,000 a year. I have health insurance and a brand new Honda. I get on the El at 7:15 a.m. and start work by 8. In the morning I file cases in Circuit Court. Then I eat lunch. Then I file cases in District Court. At some point I am going to finish school. I've been given a promise by my law firm that they will pay my tuition. I am a normal man. I don't wear gold. I don't get high. Things will change. I know they will. I've told my wife this, at night in bed, my arm around her waist. "We'll get a house soon," I've said. "You'll see. Prince will be in a decent school, not that fucking Pickard where all the gangbanger kids go." My wife never seems to hear. She always has her head turned. I listen for her breathing. I wonder if she is already asleep.
I met my wife in a club called Vincie's on 59th and California. Other than beer advertisements the only real light in that place was a huge neon sign behind the bar, "Vincie's" in hot pink, illuminated script. I would have never considered Blanca my type but darkness changes a lot of things, and alcohol changes even more. She was of course pretty, stunning in a familiar kind of way, like you knew who she was, what street she was from, just by looking at her. She was sitting at the bar with two other women and their ugliness seemed to make her stand out. I'd seen them before, all three of them. They were like a team. That night I was with Gilbert and Diego, two friends I'd grown up with. I don't know who had had more to drink, my wife or myself. I don't remember being that drunk although my wife says that I was "wasted." She was drunk enough though. When Gilbert asked my wife's friend to dance, she agreed only if her friend went also. My wife claims to remember that night clearly. How I stumbled when I led her out onto the dance floor. How I couldn't keep the beat and kept holding my hands in the air like a Flamenco dancer looking for style points. She makes fun of me, when she's in a good mood, after the kids are asleep. She giggles and whispers "Olé" in my ear. I remember things differently. I remember my wife telling me "I'm only here to have fun. Don't think this is love." And saying things like this so often it became silly, and we started laughing and telling each other we were "over before we started" and "you can keep the house" and "those kids are mine as much as they are yours." All this while we moved on the dance floor. My wife is a beautiful drunk. It seems that when she is drunk, things make more sense to her. Like at that party for her sister Junie's 18th birthday. My wife sat next to me and had me taste her aunt Hilda's mole. Then she kissed me and continued staring at me for a long time. Then asked me why I married her. I told her because she was "nothing special" and she seemed to understand what I meant even if I didn't. Or that time there was a party for her brother Robert when he finished Army boot camp. That night she sat on my lap and put her arms around my neck. She fell asleep with her head on my shoulder and I had to carry her to the car while Robert carried Prince. "Later," Robert said to me. "As long as you care for my sister."
"I do," I said.
He shook my hand and walked away. That was a year after we got married.
It's when my wife is sober that things are slightly more difficult. Maybe reality hits then. Her job with the State — she hates answering phones. The homemade tattoo she has on her right hand M4E — Marcus For Ever. I've told her we could get rid of it, and we've even gone so far as to ask the gynecologist — because that's where we were when we thought of it. But with everything else going on my wife's tattoo doesn't seem quite so important. Unless of course it is late at night, and I am reading, and I see her asleep there on the couch, her hand draped across her belly. Marcus For Ever. My wife isn't one to think to the future. I have come to accept that. She was born with nothing and it is a struggle for her to think things should be any different. I don't hold that against her.
Prince Marcus though, he is a wonderful boy. He is five-years-old now and he acts like it. He likes to say "shit" and knows it's wrong so he follows every "shit" with an immediate "sorry," as if that makes everything better. After baths he likes to sing and dance naked in front of the mirror and if he notices us laughing he'll do something even more silly like act like a monkey or put underwear on his head. With my son I find myself saying over and over, "what is that kid doing?" He looks like his father. He has crazy, thick black hair, the kind that stays up no matter what you put in it. He has sleepy eyes, down turned at the sides as if he is always sad. My wife has since given birth to our daughter, Marisa, and Marisa is the complete opposite of Prince. She is quiet for one, and calm. She looks like me. She doesn't cry or ask for attention. She just lies in her crib and watches Prince play monkey bars on the furniture. Some nights I bring home McDonald's and Prince goes crazy — he loves happy meals. Some nights I bring home Los Comales tacos and my wife goes crazy — she loves their al pastor. Some nights I bring home toys for Marissa, stuffed animals, baby puzzles with big pieces that are supposed to teach kids coordination, logic skills. It is into this mix that I am afraid to admit that I killed someone, and that it was a person my wife once, or still, loves. I am afraid to tell my son that I killed his father. He already knows that I am not his real father, but I feel the day will come when he asks me about Marcus, and it is that day I want to be prepared for. I believe in honesty, and besides, my son should know who and what his real father was.
He really should've known better, Marcus. He really should've thought about where he was, how far he'd come, where he was going. I guess he figured he could sneak back to 18th Street. But like I said, when I found him he was in the alley by the supermarket, deep in our part of the neighborhood. Maybe he knew I was coming. Maybe he tried to avoid me by going deeper into where he should not have been. I don't know what that man was thinking. Maybe he was just high.
He had broken back into the apartment. I'd heard the blinds chatter and bind. I stepped into the living and saw him standing there at our front window, a silhouette before a flood of orange streetlight.
"Get the fuck out of here," I told him and I started to run towards him. Marcus was fast. He spun and stepped right out through the open window. He moved fast, so fast that even now I'm amazed. I heard him take off, that fleet of foot patter.
I ran back into the bedroom and grabbed my sweat pants and shirt.
"What happened?" Blanca asked.
"I'm tired of this shit," I told her. I threw my shoes on. "This is the last fucking time." I reached into the dresser drawer.
"It doesn't matter, Jesse," Blanca said. "Just don't do any …." I don't know how Blanca was going to finish her sentence. I stopped listening. I was out the door with a gun in my hand.
The gun was Ricardo's. It was the same .38 we'd used that night we went looking for Marcus. I'd borrowed the gun from Ricardo a few months before. I knew a time like this would come. The baseball bat hadn't worked and neither had the threats. "Don't take it out unless you're going to use it," Ricardo said. "Because once you take it out, you have to use it." I remembered that later, after the shot, as I lay in bed, wondering if I'd killed the man, feeling guilty as I prayed that I did.
The only reason I went down the alley was because just as I came out of the apartment a squad car turned up Oakley. A few seconds before and they would've seen me, holding the gun. I imagine the nickel platting reflecting the squad car headlights as I step out of my apartment. But I came out a few seconds after they passed and I turned down the alley.
I expected him to be right there, somewhere close, maybe hiding among the garbage cans just around the corner. I held the gun in front of me then did a quick, duck-and-juke move around the first bank of cans. Then I started walking, sure that he was long gone. I put the gun in my pocket
I walked to the end of the block, listened to pigeons cooing as they slept on window ledges, on roofs of apartment buildings. I turned onto 23rd Place and suddenly there he was. He was walking slowly, strolling, down the center of the alley right behind Leavitt Street. He had on a white t-shirt; I could see him clearly in the streetlight. He was wearing dark blue pants. He was long, thin. He moved like a cat the way his steps were more inline than side by side.
I didn't say anything. I pulled the gun from my pocket and stepped into the alley. Marcus turned. I raised the gun and shot. The sound sailed up the walls around us. I could hear the pop dissipate as rang into the open air above the apartment buildings. Marcus had already turned back around. He was already running. His leg was up. It just didn't seem to come down. Instead his whole body came down. I didn't see the bullet hit. I didn't see blood splatter. I just saw Marcus come crashing down. Then I ran.
I was three blocks from home. Traffic could be heard over on Western Avenue. Everything seemed louder than it should've have been. I suddenly felt like I had to get to work, like I should hurry up and get dressed and get on the El. In my head I could still hear the shot, the way it climbed up the walls and then vanished. I turned the corner and stepped inside the apartment. I kicked off my shoes and sat on the side of the bed. I'd been holding the gun the entire time.
"What happened?" Blanca asked me. She was sitting up.
"Nothing," I told her. I was out of breath.
"You didn't do anything did you?"
"No," I said.
I got up and put the gun in the dresser drawer.
"I thought I heard a gunshot."
"You didn't," I said. "Must've been the traffic."
I laid down. I was shaking. She was staring down at me. I could feel it.
"Jesse, what did you do?" she asked me.
"Nothing," I told her. "It's cold out there. I don't even know where he went. That guy's a fucking chameleon."
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I could even hear it in my breathing.
"Jesse, you know, he's just going through hard times," she said. "Just let him be. He'll get over it. I know him. I know how he is."
I turned my face into my pillow and closed my eyes. My wife finally laid down. I took a deep breath, then another.
I've never told anyone about what I've done, not even Ricardo. And whatever neighborhood talk there was seems to have been confined to his neighborhood. This is how it is with when people have enemies. The gun still sits underneath my underwear, in my dresser drawer, although for a few days my underwear smelled like gunpowder, enough so that for a week I did laundry.
That was four months ago almost to the day. Since then my wife has only talked out loud once about Marcus, and even then it was to comment on something little Marcus did, how he "looked" like his father when he got frustrated. Each time there is knock or a scrape near any window though, in the middle of the night, my wife stirs. I can feel her wake up. I can feel her stop breathing for just a moment, as if even her breath gets in the way of what she thinks she hears. I know she will find out sooner or later. And when she does I will not tell her I killed the man she loves. But my son I feel I must tell, at some point. Just so that he knows his father loves him. Just so that he knows his father would do anything for his family.
Original cover art courtesy Rob Grom.
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