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Hurts like hell. I never knew nothing could hurt
this bad, man. Like a fire inside. And it don’t never stop. Don’t matter what I do. No matter what they give me. It ain’t gonna help. I wake up in the morning and that burning is there. I go through my day but I ain’t really there, ya know. Just trying to keep my mind off of the fire. So I hang with my boys, ya know. Just kickin’ it ‘bout all kinds of stuff. Cause there’s no one else. No one else to talk to about the things that I’m going through. Used to be but not anymore. And every time I think about that something gets all twisted up inside and it gets hard to breathe. My mom, she tries but she don’t know what it’s like out here on the street trying to be a man. So I don’t have no other choice, I gotta find my own way. Just don’t know which way to go. Never thought I’d wind up here though, stretched out in some hospital cuffed to the rail of the bed, hurting and burning. They want me to talk and tell them what happened. They know. My story ain’t no different from all the other stories they done heard. My man Zeke always said don’t tell ‘em nothing cause they just gonna twist my words all around and make it
something more than what it is. Funny thing though, what it is is just some stupid street survival shit that happens every day. So I ain’t saying nothing. Let them figure it out. I heard them talking. They thought I was sleep but I wasn’t. I was listening to the doctor and that fat nurse. They said I was lucky. What a joke. They don’t know nothing about me
and my life. What’s lucky about being a black man on the Southside of Chicago? Man, I can’t even walk down the street without the po-lice rolling up on me wanting to know where I’m going, asking me to prove who I am. Who I am. I don’t know who I am. I did once. Not anymore though. School is a joke, too. Books so old they fall apart. Teachers don’t give a shit whether we learn anything or not. So why bother? I just stopped going. Then they had the nerve to send letters home and calling my crib telling my mother I ain’t been to school in two months! Like they really care. Then I gotta listen to my moms bitching about that, and my “no good friends” and how I dress, how I talk. So I stay away from home, too. The only place left was the street with the fellas that knew what I was talking about. Where else was I supposed to go? No place left, ya know. So I guess I was supposed to wind up here with a bullet in my side and cuffed to a bed. It’s like
they say, it was inevitable. Yeah, every now and then I use a big word. My boys laugh at me. Tell me I’m trying to be white.
So I gotta check myself. Forget that once upon a time I could get into a book, liked to write and play piano. Pushed my chest out when I got good grades and felt good inside when I saw the smile on my mom’s face. That was a while ago. Before things changed and the burning started. Yeah, I guess it all started last year. My best friend Curtis was heading off to college last year. We’d been friends since like fourth grade. Curtis was real smart, smarter than me. We used to compete with each other to see who could get the best grades. It was always a tossup, but Curtis was really smarter. Gotta give my man his props. He took extra classes and graduated a year ahead and that’s cause his pops, Mr. Wright, stayed on his ass. Yeah, man, Mr. Wright was no joke. Mr. Wright belonged to this fraternity and every year the fraternity would organize a trip for high school kids to tour all the black colleges. Mr. Wright hooked me and Curtis up and we went. Man, it was a whole other world out there. I got to see black professors, talk with guys that were planning on being lawyers, and business owners, engineers, doctors. It was crazy, man. And the campuses were really cool. Lush. Yeah, that’s the word. Grass and trees everywhere. Not like here where even the parks are made of
concrete. That trip made me really feel that the world was bigger than my neighborhood, ya know, and that if I worked hard I could get a piece of it. That I deserved a piece of it. So when Curtis packed up last summer, I promised him that I would be right on his ass next year and to hold my spot. We hugged and I realized how much I was gonna miss him. Curtis was my boy. I stood on the curb when him and his dad pulled off for that trip to Atlanta. Curtis got into Morehouse. I waited to hear from him. I wanted to know what his dorm
was like, what the girls from Spelman, Morehouse’s sister school looked like. I wanted to know if he had a cool roommate. I
waited, stayed up most of the night until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. The next morning I felt my cell phone vibrating next to my head. I always keep my cell close. My eyes were still cloudy from sleep. I picked up the cell and tried to make out the numbers. It was Brad, Curtis’ younger brother. He was probably calling to give me the plans for the day and tell me what was up with Curtis. That’s what I figured, ya know. That’s not what he told me. It’s not what he told me. He didn’t tell me that we were gonna play some ball, or catch a movie, or just chill and play some video games. He didn’t tell
me none of that. I couldn’t understand what he was telling me cause he was crying so hard and the words wasn’t making sense to me. I think I stopped breathing and my heart was banging so hard in my chest. I wanted to scream that he was lying but I couldn’t. Cause not even Brad would play a joke like that. Dead. The next few days was like walking through water. Everything was dragging me down. I don’t think I slept. I was scared. All my dreams were filled with visions that I didn’t want to see. And then I was standing in front of two coffins. I wanted to jump inside, let them close me up in there too, so the pain would stop. And Curtis’s mom, man, she was so strong on the outside, nodding and shaking hands, thanking people for coming. But there was something in her eyes, empty like a hole, a hole that was so deep it sucked you into her pain. I stopped looking into her eyes cause every time I looked in the mirror I saw the same empty hole. I felt so lost. I didn’t know where to turn or who I could talk to about this trip I was taking. Just going down, down, deeper into that hole. My mom just kept saying things like bad things happen to good people. Curtis wouldn’t want you to be acting like this. He’d want you to go on without him. It’s gonna be all right. What the fuck did she know?
Curtis was the brother I never had. We talked about everything. We’d mapped out our whole life together. We were gonna get outta the hood and take over the world. Yeah, that’s what we talked about. We had plans, man, ya know. Mr. Wright, damn, I can’t even think about it. He was . . .he was my dad. I don’t even know my own pops. Nothing except his name. Leon. Never seen him. No one knows what it’s
like not having a father. My mother don’t seem to understand that. Maybe that’s why I clung to Mr. Wright so hard and Curtis and Brad didn’t mind sharing him with me. He treated me like
his own. He talked to me about everything. He talked to me about having dreams and goals. And not lecturing me, but like he really understood. We talked about girls and the first time I had sex. He would joke with all of us like he was one of the fellas. Sometimes when we would all be hanging at Curtis’s house he would come down and challenge us to a video game. He took us to basketball games and cookouts. He was the one who got me my first suit for my high school pictures. When I was scared, Mr. Wright was the one I went to. He would call me sometimes just to see how I was doing. Stuff like that, ya know. I can’t even explain what it feels like now. I don’t have the words. My brother and my father. Gone.
For a while I was empty inside all the time. I don’t know when that emptiness turned to anger. This burning rage that never stops. I was pissed off all the time. I was pissed at Mr. Wright for having a heart attack. I was pissed at Curtis for not flying to Atlanta and making his dad drive. Why the fuck did they leave me? What am I supposed to do now? And I was pissed at my moms for not having a father for me. What did that make her? It was her fault that I had to turn someplace else. If I hadn’t, if I hadn’t needed something else so bad this hurt wouldn’t hurt so bad. It’s her fault and I hate her for it. I hate her! No one seemed to notice that I was there and not there at the same time. At home my mom would come in “too tired to talk,” she said and would just give me orders. Clean your room. I sat in
Didn’t you take out the garbage? Turn that tv down!
class and it didn’t matter that I didn’t do the work or answer questions or pass tests. And I didn’t care when I got sent to the principal’s office for cursing out my teacher and throwing that heavy, old ass text book across the room. It fell apart into a million raggedy pages and the entire class started stomping, laughing and clapping. That old bitch Ms. Dunn called security. So they suspended me. Big deal. I didn’t have to go to school where nobody gave a damn for three whole days.
Suspended? Suspended? That’s all my mom kept saying, walking back and forth puffing on one cigarette after the other. What am I supposed to do now? stay home and babysit you. Marcus. I sure as hell cannot afford to
You are going to stay in this house,
You understand me? I just looked at her.
That was the first time. There were others. One day. Two days. A week. When I threw something or jumped up in a teacher’s face or walked out of class before the bell rang, it was the only time anybody paid me any attention. It felt good. So I slammed doors at home and cursed at my mother and walked out whenever I got ready. That was how I met Zeke. Mom went to work. I was home on a three day suspension. It was kinda nice out. I got dressed and went out to get a hero from the corner store. Zeke was standing outside the store, leaning up against the wall with these two other dudes. I’d seen them around. I gave them a nod, let them
know they were seen. They did the same. I ordered ham and cheese with extra mayo, lettuce and tomato, salt and pepper and a little oil and vinegar. My mouth was watering. It was my all time favorite sandwich and Louie at the corner store knew just how I liked it. I only let Louie make my sandwiches. If Louie wasn’t there, I’d walk up the block and get a pizza instead. So, anyway, I had my bag with my food and
my mind on going back inside and playing some video games. My moms thought she’d taken all of them from me, but I had a stash, along with extra cords and controllers. What else did she think I was gonna do all day? I stepped outside and Zeke stepped in front of me. I started to move around him but those other two dudes closed me off. I knew it was gonna be some shit. My mouth got dry. I could do one of them but I couldn’t do three. Whatsup? I asked them, putting some real bass in my voice. I kept my eyes on Zeke. He was the one who would give the order. He sorta half smiled and the razor scar along his cheek shined in the afternoon sun making it look bigger and scarier than it really was. And it made me think that someone put it there. At one time someone had kicked his ass. Was he planning the same thing for me? “Seen you around, man,” he said. “Yeah, you too.” I moved my eyes real slow from one face to the other then settled back on Zeke. “Why you out this time of day? You one of them school boys.” “Suspended.” The trio laughed as if I’d turned into Eddie Murphy and was doing a stand up routine. They were slapping each other on the back and bending over with laughter and pointing at me.
I didn’t see the fist coming that landed on my jaw and knocked me to the concrete. I’m not even sure who hit me. All I saw was stars. Real stars like the kind in the cartoons. Then they were all on me, punching and kicking. All I could do was try to protect myself by curling into a tight ball, the way Mr. Wright had told me if I ever got jumped. For an instant I thought of Curtis. He’d have my back if he was here. But he wasn’t. I heard some lady yelling that she was gonna call the cops. Somebody pulled me to my feet. It was Zeke. He was staring me
in the face, breathing hard. Sweat was dripping down the side of his face where that scar was. “Next time, boss,” he said before he pushed me up against the wall. They walked off. I looked for my hero. It was near the curb. I limped over there and picked it up. It was smashed and dirty, falling out of the bag. That’s what made me want to cry. Stupid that it mattered but it did. I kicked it into the street and walked home. My face was bruised, my ribs were aching and when I pulled up my shirt I had a black and blue mark the same size as a sneaker in my back. I stared in the mirror and I couldn’t see anything, like I wasn’t there, just an empty aching space. My mother didn’t even notice.
I had a few more run-ins with Zeke and his crew, sometimes it was just trash talking, other times it was a fight. Guess I was lucky that he didn’t cut me or shoot me. I guess. It was a Saturday in March I think. Mom was working. I was hungry and there wasn’t anything in the fridge that wasn’t frozen. What I wanted was a hero. But I knew that to get to the store I’d have to get pass Zeke. Thing was, I wanted a fight. All week my moms, the teachers, the streets were getting on my nerves. Bugging me. Pushing me. So I put on my jacket and headed to the corner store. They were there, like always. I gritted my teeth and put hard on my face. When I got to the entrance of the store Zeke stepped in front of me. I was ready for whatever went down. I needed to take it out on somebody. “You getting a hero?” he asked. “Yeah.” I stared at him. He nodded to one of his friends and I prepared myself. “Tell Jay what kind you want,” he said to me. I thought I heard him wrong. “Say what?” “Tell him what kind you want. I got you.”
I looked from one to the other. “Ham and cheese, extra mayo, lettuce and tomato, a little salt and pepper and oil and vinegar.” Zeke went in his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill. He handed it to his boy. “Tell Louie to hook up two of those.” We stood there staring at each other. “You play dice, man?” he asked me. “A little.” “Cool. Come on.” We walked over to a corner, away from prying eyes. There were a couple of other guys standing around shooting dice. “Yo,” Zeke said to the group. “This is . . .” He turned to me. “What’s your name, man?” “Marcus.” “This is Marcus. He’s with me.” They mumbled hellos or lifted their chins my way. I was braced for the worst but it never happened. It really was a game of dice and Zeke’s boy brought me my hero. Me and Zeke been tight ever since. He told me one day that the reason why he was always fucking with me is cause he wanted
to see what I was made of. Funny thing was, Zeke was nothing like the way he acted. He was smart about a lot of things and funny. He lived in a shelter with his mother and four brothers.
When we were by ourselves we talked a lot about what that was like, how it made him feel like shit. Worthless. He told me how the workers would look at the people in the shelter with disgust in their eyes, and say how if they weren’t so lazy they wouldn’t be there. You had to sleep with one eye open cause someone was always stealing your stuff he’d said. They took his mother’s coat and his brother’s sneakers. It was safer on the street he told me one day while we were waiting for Louie to fix our heroes. He wanted to get his mom and his brothers out of the shelter. The social workers didn’t do nothing but lie about what they were doing for them. So it was up to him. If he got enough money he could get them a place where they could be safe. Winning dice games and dealing a little coke here and there wasn’t enough, he’d said. I used to think about that a lot when I was laying in bed wondering what it must be like living in a shelter and scared all the time. So when he asked me to meet him in front of Big A Supermarket at closing time, I did it. I thought he was going to buy some groceries for his family. I didn’t know he was gonna
stick up the manager who had the bank deposit. I swear I didn’t know. That’s what I keep telling myself that I didn’t know. Everything happened so fast but kinda like in slow motion. I saw Zeke when he hit the manager on the back of the head. He
went down. Zeke grabbed the bag and shouted for me to run but I couldn’t. It was like my feet were stuck. I watched the man stumble to his feet and the glint of the gun under the street lights. I shouted. I think I shouted and there was a pop like a
car backfiring and Zeke went down on top of the bag right at my feet. Then something hot tore through me and spun me around. I heard Zeke moaning. I tried to get to him, but it hurt too bad and the sirens started screaming and people were hollering and I couldn’t hear Zeke moaning anymore and everything got dark. I thought I was dead until I heard the voices say that I was lucky cause the other one didn’t make it. The other one.
They have me sitting up today.
They said I could try some I
solid food. My moms asked if she could bring me something.
told her to ask Louie at the corner store if he could hook me up. She looked at me all crazy. I told her I wanted a hero and
he’d know what I meant. She said she would bring back whatever it was I was talking about that afternoon. She left. I closed my eyes and cried.
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