Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Rocks, July 1994

  

 

The droplets of sweat tickle Dujuan on his arms and legs. Those dribbling down his ribcage behind his shirt too. Crouching, he flattens his palms onto the overpass railing and peers over, chin on the hot steel. He loves being here. He hates being here. Below in the glass and multicolored river of metal flashing southbound along the expressway and vibrating his eardrums like firecrackers going off so close, he hopes for, among other things, no blue Camaros, his favorite. Stinging is the gray beam under his hands and the tender skin between his jawbones. Still, he remains in place—knees bent, heart shoving his chest wall. Maybe it’s good luck to watch. Not even a yellow Camaro yet.

Beside him Tarrick yells something. Dujuan flinches, but the taller boy’s words are indecipherable in all the rising wind-whipped engine noise, so Dujuan re-concentrates on the traffic until a bare elbow butts his. He turns, knowing not to ignore Tarrick, whose un-sleeved arms hang over the railing. They’ve done it. Where Tarrick and James, eleven-years-old too, are looking, Dujuan also must look and accompany their concrete grenade all the way to impact—gray dust spraying the whizzing tires and wheel wells of what he is certain is either a Towncar or a Bonneville. They missed. Dujuan is thankful.   

From Tarrick:  “Damn! Weak-ass bitches!”

Dujuan lifts his chin off the beam and gives Tarrick his eyes. His white muscle shirt reminds him of yesterday’s backhand to his cheek. Dujuan hadn’t run fast enough after their threesome torched a brownbag of Rottweiler shit on someone’s stoop and beat the door three times. Minutes later though Tarrick had his back by charging an older boy from a different building in his public housing complex when he stripped off Dujuan’s marine blue Charlotte Hornets wristband on the playground adjoining his rowhouse unit. A cousin down South had mailed it to him for his birthday. The enemy kid bolted but fumbled the wristband after spinning around for a smirk only to ram a swing set pole. Other kids gawked at him writhing on the littered ground. Tarrick said to let him go. Don’t jump his ass.

The sun’s dazzle behind Tarrick outlines his shaved-slick head and intimidating physique like a mannequin’s. His shoulders shake, so Dujuan braces, gathering his arms up near his chest as a shield.

Instead, Tarrick spins to James, slightly thicker and stronger than Tarrick, on his opposite side, and re-drapes himself on the railing.

With them, Dujuan stares down at the Dan Ryan Expressway traffic. No wrecks. Just more tires ironing their concrete splotch thinner and fainter over black asphalt. Reappearing is the dash of stripe they’d hit, a half-moon chipped off the white rectangle. Wind gusts remind Dujuan of his hair’s proud willowy length as if a small snake is driving its way through its five vertical inches. For scoring his first B in math, his mother has allowed him to skip haircuts since spring vacation. School ended seven weeks ago. The sunned metal burns again. 

“Why you fuck it up!” Tarrick yells.

Dujuan looks. Tarrick though is facing James again, who is motionless. Tarrick shouts more, the bill of his backwards White Sox cap bobbing with his head, tapping the base of his neck. Through his great-uncle on his mother’s side, Dujuan knows that the team went throwback several years ago to their minimalist black/white color scheme from the 1950s when they last played in the World Series. The black caps with a stylish white S are top-sellers, even with people who can’t name a single Sox player—people in his complex wearing them to signify gang allegiances. He stays between Tarrick and James because Tarrick is serious today. But Tarrick doesn’t swing, so Dujuan paces off. Repositions himself at the curb’s sandy edge. They’ve given him a job—scan for police cruisers. Call out if you spot one. When uneasy with their assignments, Dujuan can usually craft plan-B and plan-C, like when he coaxed them out of flinging inch-long nails onto Wentworth Avenue ahead of the number 24 bus where it stops at 44th Street. The drivers hide TEC-9 pistols under their seats, he told them. This time he’s out of ideas.

His southward view of the Dan Ryan is a canal, bisected by El train tracks. Clusters of CHA tenements. Dujuan recognizes one. A dozen floors high are several adjacent fire-charred empty window squares. His mother has pointed out this building. He was born there. He remembers their dark green front door and the steel mesh barricade in their open-air hallway to avert death-falls to the courtyard. That screen was so close that his mother standing in their doorway could almost touch it. Does his father still live there? For safety, his mother had said, they were leaving whether Dujuan’s father was coming or not. Anything with more than two stories was no good because the more floors, the easier for gangbangers to play war from the roofs. A different roof could mean a different gang.

Something up there on his old roof moves, so Dujuan steps forward. He wants to figure out what it is, but he slips on the curb. Ankle bent against the pavement feels like a blade embedding itself between heel and shin. Dujuan yelps and sinks to the curb, extending his legs into the street. He checks behind him.

The two squat along the short wall under the steel columns under the railing. Hands dance over the row of concrete chunks, scattered around their sneakers. Such delicateness surprises Dujuan. Normally, they just grab and drop. Dujuan stands and limps to them. Watching them finger the chunks, he inspects his own hands. A cut from assisting to collect these “rocks” still marks the end of his right middle finger. He licks the torn skin. The smudge of blood is sweet. 

Tarrick hoists a concrete piece to waist-height. Dujuan maneuvers between the boys and the railing and leans on an elbow atop the steel to ease weight off his hurt ankle. He also wants to block James’s view of Tarrick.

“Damn man!” Tarrick is half-crouched and cradling the chunk, the length of an egg-shaped lunchbox.

Dujuan pretends not to hear:  “Help me get this shit up!” Instead he faces over the railing north past two other tenement huddles bordering the expressway to downtown and the symmetrical coal-black rise of the Sears Tower marring blue sky. Like white antennas, two mysterious rods stick up from the roof but nothing there moves, so he follows the giant rectangular stalk back down to its obscured base, spitting out each vehicle soon to rush below them, as if a massive subterranean parking garage is emptying.

A hand strikes his forearm and Dujuan forgets downtown and the clerk job his mother once had there, the one letting them buy discounted caramel corn at the walk-in popcorn store along Michigan Avenue, mere spaces away from cavernous Niketown. His father claimed to work there, but the time they went, no employee had heard of him.

Dujuan participates in assisting the concrete piece onto the beam. As long as he doesn’t do everything they do, Dujuan reminds himself, he isn’t guilty.

“No cars gonna be hit,” they say. “It just for fun.”

This rock exceeds the beam in width. Dujuan can’t take watching the traffic, so he focuses on the jagged shade patterns overlapping his crisscrossed sneaker laces. He’d had to retie them while helping marshal this cumbersome chunk to the overpass. They had loaded it and smaller ones into an overturned Miller Genuine Draft forty-ouncer carton, which Tarrick dragged by a top lip.

Dujuan pays attention to the beam again. A whack probably coming if he doesn’t. He wants this finished. His fingers tingle, including the bleeding one, where he touches the teetering rock. A sound—synthetic stone goring metal. The rock shifts and he synchronizes his hands with theirs to balance it, flattening them against the chunk whose surface is alternately cool and smooth, warm and barbed. With it steadied, Dujuan looks at James and Tarrick on each side of him and remembers his church elders during last week’s laying-on-of-hands healing service. Shoulders rubbing his, their heads bowed, their four hands quivering adjacent his, Tarrick and James seem as resolved as those holy women and holy men, like they too are about to exact something miraculous. Something miraculous for this rock. Something miraculous for themselves.

“Go man! Damn!” James yells. But Dujuan presses down and pulls the rock toward the cavity of his concave chest, hoping. Pricks of ridged concrete gouge the moist cut on his finger when they rip his hands from the small boulder. An even louder scraping sound.

Rock falls. Dujuan reels. Now it’s his fault too. He must know what happens, so he lunges forward and clamps down his hands, one on the railing, one on James’s shoulder.

This asteroid shears off the driver side mirror of a tan Hyundai, which swerves and slams a slanted embankment. Front end crushes halfway to the windshield. Dujuan lifts his head and checks Tarrick on his left and James on his right.

Dujuan’s finger blood marks James’s gray shirt at the shoulder. Their arms wave in front of their faces, victoriously or not, Dujuan isn’t sure. They aren’t facing him, as if Dujuan too has plunged and disappeared. He looks out and down. 

No more powdered concrete splotches on the asphalt. No sign of their rock, only the crashed car. “Got us a motherfucker!” Dujuan hears behind him but doesn’t push up and back away with them. He waits. A vein of relief shoots through him when something beneath the windshield flinches, like a fish under the ice of a frozen sea. 

*   *   * 

Two days later, even the indoor air is warm and spongy, smelling of minerals. James wants to play his new Sega game scored in the Boys & Girls Club basketball free throw contest. Too many people crowd around his family’s television though. Dujuan agrees to head for Tarrick’s. “Only my gramma home.” Dujuan follows but they deviate when catching the expressway’s roar.

Only one chunk remains—a square-ish piece—part of the cinder block that cut his fingertip. Angels, Dujuan decides, must have been disposing the other chunks last night until God dispatched them to more urgent tasks. Maybe a lady and her little kids needed watch-over going back to the projects from the corner store in the dark. God done His part. Now I gotta do mine. He glances at the clouds, bunched up between them and the sun, and then kneels with James and Tarrick. With them he touches the rock, which is damp in the clammy air.  

Dujuan stands when they do and looks over the railing. The Hyundai is gone. Nothing about the embankment seems scraped and dented. Without the sun’s glare, Dujuan distinguishes sports cars from sedans, candy apple red from rusty brown, and even for one moment, he is sure, gold rims from chrome. He scans again for a blue ’93 Camaro like in the magazine his father had unrolled from a front pocket on his visit a month ago. Dujuan turns when he hears, “Bitches, watch this!” James is holding up a dime, leaning into the railing, an elbow at a right angle. Between his thumb and index finger, juts half the coin.  

“What you gonna do?” Tarrick asks. “That ain’t gonna do nothin!”

James’s fingers separate and Dujuan tracks the dime to an eighteen-wheeler’s cab. A silver ricochet into the embankment is silent.

From Tarrick, “Stupid man, you stupid!” 

James turns. “Gimme a nickel or a quarter, Dog! Dimes too thin.”

They undo their pockets. Dujuan has gum sticks. Tarrick has a Sharpie.

James snatches the marker, yanks the cap, and sniffs the velvety tip. When his head twitches, Dujuan leans over. A chemical tang stabs his nasals like a laser into the brain, nudging him into the railing. He waits for his head to clear and then opens his eyes. Tarrick is gazing over the city. James is next to him but squatting in front of the chunk.

Dujuan moves behind James who with the Sharpie is adding fuzzy asterisks onto the off-white, cratered surface. James goes on with the pen while Tarrick slumps onto the railing, arms swaying like loose live wires. Okay so far. Dujuan’s tender finger shows no more blood. Only a twinge lingers in his ankle. God taught me my lesson. Any time he’s in trouble, his mother requires him to repeat:  ‘Everybody makes mistakes, but smart people don’t repeat their mistakes.’ His shirt is dirtied at the chest and stomach, dirtied such that he can’t brush it off as usual, dirtied enough that Mom will notice.  

He monitors them until Tarrick jolts off the railing. The backlash from one leg whacks a Converse heel into James’s forearm. Sharpie rakes craggy concrete.

“Fuck man! Watch the fuck out!” James responds, a black line zigzagging over the chunk’s longest side before the Sharpie lands near the wall.

Dujuan’s hand is halfway to the ground to grab the pen and hand it to James until his tongue tip pinches between his teeth because the top of James’s head has slammed his chin. James is fully up now, squared off with Tarrick.

Pain opens Dujuan’s mouth wider than he thought possible. Below his ears, his jaw throbs. He wants to scream at them. His mother also instructs him to count to twenty-four if angry—a one-second pause for each hour the incident needs to be forgotten and thus forgiven. So he starts counting, counting also for these two people who don’t know to count. “Talkin shit to me hoe ass bitch!” Tarrick yells over Dujuan’s whispered ‘Five,’ his left foot twisting on the rock James had been inscribing. Staggering, Dujuan can’t make out what James is shouting back. Sorry, J-Dog, Tarrick should reply because this is an accident like Dujuan’s baby sister dropping her pacifier is an accident. Tarrick used that very apology last week when he made James waste his Big Mo’s cheesy-beef on the sidewalk. 

Instead James grasps his white t-shirt and skins it up over his head. “Wanna box motherfucker!” Shirt slung aside, James’s hands go to fists.

Dujuan jams a palm at each chest but one hand slips on the sweat sheen on James’s chest. Tarrick swats away his other wrist. Next are the swings.  

Trying to keep them apart dizzies Dujuan like he is the one being pummeled. He spots the concrete chunk between his feet. Still, he trips. Knees and hands slap pavement. Tiny stones and sand grit dig into Dujuan’s palms and knees. He raises his head. Draws a knee off the sidewalk. I just gotta get back between them.

“Man what the fuck you all!” Dujuan pushes and grabs until they collapse onto him. Pavement scores his bare knees again. He yells nothing else. If he stops, maybe they will too. Dujuan pictures a car smushing them as they tumble into the street. If they survive, what explanation can he attempt with his mother? Knees and fists from one body thump him through the other body until another moving vehicle, low and roaring, mutes their grunts.

On his feet with them, Dujuan remembers:  Don’t run from the pigs. Run at the pigs. Fleeing in front of a squad car leaves you in the cop’s sight longer. Easier to catch. So Dujuan breaks out from their place at the bridge’s midpoint and races toward their neighborhood.

Tarrick and James chase him. The shock of thinking they were caught rockets Dujuan on even after the green compact car blur that isn’t police. “Damn dogs, that was close,” Dujuan says. They ignore him, scooting by a brick-walled factory, quaking and hissing every few seconds like it might cave in.

*   *   *

On their next walk to church, Dujuan’s mother mentions a radio report about a car crashing into an expressway wall under a nearby overpass. The driver, a Taiwanese graduate student with no family in the country, was still in I.C.U. at Rush Presbyterian. She asks Dujuan about his friends. “We just be playin around everywhere.” Their preacher summons people from the pews to act out a passage about sin and the knowledge of sin generating more sin. “To him who knoweth to do right and doeth it not, to him it is sin!” Dujuan squirms under the swirling words. The unpainted wood of the pew aches his tailbone. Bursts of congregational affirmation put mild shocks into his shoulders. He brings his chin up and down as his mother glances at him. He claps when everyone else claps. When told to, he closes his eyes.

Lunch after church is grilled cheese sandwiches while his two-year-old sister sleeps. Dujuan sits with his mother at their kitchen table.

“You know anything about these people throwin stuff off the bridge at cars?” she asks while Dujuan is tearing a crust from his sandwich’s mushy middle.

“No, I don’t know nothin. The bridge be closed a lot. We don’t go there no more.”

The truth is that they have revisited the overpass several times, but several times fewer than they would have had Dujuan not subverted them with alternatives. Shooting hoops into the trash barrel dragged around front from behind their rowhouse row. Playing spades on James’s living room floor. They’ve returned to the overpass but always flee after a single drop. Dujuan avoids touching the railing. Nothing bad has happened, he believes, because his ankle twinge is gone. He hasn’t reaped anything permanently bad for sowing bad seeds.

“So you ain’t never done anything like that?”

“Naw mamma. I ain’t do that.”

“And you don’t know anyone who did?”

“No.” Dujuan focuses on an empty corner of the table where an edge strip is peeling away. Then he must look up at her. If not, she will ask something else.

*   *   *

Their front door buzzes. Dujuan has helped scrub their interior cinder block walls with bleach water. A mildewy film had coated the white paint, etching itself into the mortared creases between bricks. Dujuan quizzed his mother about the funk. Why something was growing out of nothing, she didn’t know, only that she’d been told long ago to wash walls every few months. “Something in the air makes it do this.”

Dujuan thumbs hotrod magazine pages at the table facing the door. Something about the new Camaros that keeps the ’93 his favorite. His mother unlocks the door. A squad car’s front end in the street behind the female officer prods across their open doorway.

“Ma’am, does a boy about ten or eleven named Dewayne or Dejohn live here?” A blonde streak in her flattened, shiny hair dulls the noon sun.

Dujuan blinks when the officer’s profile is mostly visible to his mother’s left.

“Dujuan, does, yeah. What’d he do?”

The officer steps up a stair. A hand plants on her forward knee. “Someone said one of the boys who’s throwin things off the Dan Ryan live here. Said he’s about that old and has a little Mickey Mouse tattoo on his leg about halfway up above his ankle.” The officer is a little shorter than his mother.  

“Yeah he’s here. But he don’t do nothing like that.”

On his last birthday, Dujuan had begged her to let his father, who’d shown up unannounced, albeit with another hotrod magazine, to ferry him in his just-acquired El Camino to a parlor on 55th Street for the quarter-sized cartoon character to be emblazoned onto the outer side of his left calf. Dujuan slept that night with his yet untouched left leg poking out of the sheets. Gotta let the ink dry.

His mother calls, using his name. The trousers that she selected for Dujuan last week at a table set up on their corner, since made into cut-offs, exposing Mickey Mouse, feel lose, comfortable even.

On the stoop, the buttons of her tight blue shirt are bright until the officer bends to his eye-level. When her eyes hit his, he looks down. Her shoes are thick-soled, almost like army boots. “Young man, I need to ask you some questions. A few days ago an innocent man got injured real bad by a rock dropped on his car. Did you and your friends do that?” 

Dujuan feels his mother’s hip against his elbow. He must look up. “What you mean?” 

“Dujuan, did you help drop something on a car?

He leans away from his mother into the thin railing leading down their four concrete steps. The paint-flecked surface scrapes his arm. “I was there but I didn’t do it.” In the courtyard—a toddler in a pink diaper is twirling a billowy plastic grocery bag. Dujuan senses his mother right behind him now.

 *   *   *

She has already grounded him when his court summons arrives. School begins in three weeks. She threatens to transfer Dujuan to the next closest campus, even if it means riding a CTA bus with him every morning and afternoon. He can’t use the phone either.  

On the final Friday of summer Dujuan asks about K-Foods because he needs a new pouch for erasers, pens, and pencils. He can walk there without passing James’s or Tarrick’s address. His hair is scalp-shorn—part of his punishment. If she catches him with them, she’s shaving his head every week. He’s dreading having to wear a hoodie to hide what will be his nearly naked head and knows teachers will make him pull it down once in their classroom. He barges through the store’s scratched glass door with his mother’s two dollars. The pencil-pouches are on the usual school supplies folding table in the back corner. The musty warmth of the single-cashier store slicks his arms with perspiration. Moisture collects on his bare scalp before he can wipe it off. He finds a pouch and then the candy area. Then from behind a corner is Tarrick, darting into Dujuan’s aisle.

“Hey, dog, why you don’t come out no more?” Tarrick has been here before too. The store is even closer to his building than to Dujuan’s.

“You get in trouble?” he asks Tarrick, whose white shirt seems perfectly clean today.  

“Yeah dog, but we gonna beat it. We ain’t catchin no case.”   

Tarrick sounds confident that the three of them did nothing wrong and neither had Dujuan in giving their names up to the officer. Tarrick and James will stick up for him in front of the judge and confirm that Dujuan never threw any of those rocks over the railing. They got my back. Dujuan looks to the racks on his right and picks up lemon sours. The candies’ crystalline sugar coating makes sandpapery sounds when he tilts the box until Tarrick jerks the pencil-pouch from under his arm. Dujuan almost drops the lemon sours.

“Here dog, do like this.” Tarrick opens the pouch, takes the sours from Dujuan, and rams them between the pocket’s zippered lips. From the rack behind the candies, Tarrick plucks a thin package of cherry gum. Into the pouch too.

Dujuan’s throat lurches as Tarrick slaps his smooth head. The mild sting is less than what he expected. Tarrick adds, “Let’s go dog. Pay for that shit and let’s ride!”

Up front Dujuan hands over the two dollars and prays to God that the cashier won’t pat his wrinkly hand on the pouch’s middle. He may be the oldest man Dujuan has ever seen, not the usual guy he knows by name. This man doesn’t touch the pouch and gives Dujuan fourteen cents in change. Dujuan can make this up to K-Foods and to God and to Mom by bringing the old man a dollar from his allowance and inviting Tarrick and James to Tuesday night church.  

Across the street, Dujuan hands Tarrick his gum. He’s so close that Dujuan smells him. “Follow me, dog.”

Dujuan says he can’t.

“Man I gotta show you something at my house!”

It’s only his house. His gramma will be there.  

 

 *   *   *

Dujuan sets his pencil pouch on the TV at Tarrick’s. The lemon sours go into a pocket of his jeans shorts. Tarrick’s grandmother is nowhere.

Tarrick leaves the living room, which looks as before, other than the rug between the couch and TV being gone, showing shiny white linoleum.  

Dujuan flinches in the window unit’s frigid air stream and turns a palm over. Tiny bumps rise along his arm. Were there a secret camera somewhere in the room filming, his mom would know all of this. Dujuan had expected her to cry that day after the officer left. She didn’t, but for the day’s remainder, her sole words were instructions.

Tarrick returns, holding his shirt bottom doubled up against his stomach. At the table he lets his shirt go. Clatter. Steel balls big as regular marbles roll over the laminated wood. “Don’t let ‘em fall!” he squats and plops his arms spread wide onto the table.

“Where you get these?” Dujuan bolts to the round table’s other end and assumes Tarrick’s pose. In the table’s middle, his hands meet Tarrick’s. His arms with his are a diamond, trapping the smooth spheres, which gleam and are cool, cold-like, bumping into his inner arms. Tarrick grips his fingers when he leans back. The squeezing pull of Tarrick’s fingers and palms is warm, hot-like, wrapping his hands, making Dujuan feel that he shouldn’t move, can’t move, draped on the tabletop, recalling his own invented games for their threesomes with James. Now it is Tarrick’s turn as game-master. What could be next?

“They for a slingshot. My uncle use ‘em to kill rats,” Tarrick whispers over the drift of bearings, each slightly bigger than Dujuan’s thumb pads. Tarrick jumps up. “Don’t let ‘em go!”  

Dujuan encircles the bearings with his arms to keep them on the table and listens to Tarrick behind him yanking kitchen cabinets and drawers. He waves a brown paper lunch bag and gives it to Dujuan to hold open below the table’s edge. The steelies zip across the table when Tarrick lays his belly there and middle-finger-flicks them. Each one whirs, rolling toward the stiff paper. The clinking ticks louder the more steel balls that collect in the bag. He being nice again. Always when he wanna show me something.

“Come on, let’s go outside. We gonna do a game.”

On Tarrick’s stoop, Dujuan has the bag and follows him. The bearings jingle until they knock on James’s door.

“Naw, man, I can’t be goin there no more!” Dujuan answers James’s exuberance about playing the bridge game again.

Neither boy is looking at him. They ain’t never gonna learn. He darts off the stoop for home. He will tell his mother that K-Foods was out of pencil pouches and hope she tells him to just keep the two dollars until he finds another place selling school supplies.  

Before Dujuan is off the front yard area of James’s rowhouse unit, the two boys are grabbing at his neck and upper arms. “We gotta have three people for the game! You gotta come! We ain’t hittin no more cars! Don’t be trippin!”

If he returns to his same school next month, Dujuan will need them as usual, and especially now to not be made fun of for newly very shortened hair. He can’t let them keep being angry. They probly already mad at me for giving they names to the police.

 

*   *   *

The objective now, Tarrick explains, forearms on the railing next to James staring down to the Dan Ryan, is to not hit a car. Too soft. James isn’t looking. Tarrick says he got this game idea from his uncle taking him up on the roof of their highrise. If a steelie hits level concrete instead of gravel, the rebound caroms it all the way back to roof height. You can catch it. Here above the Dan Ryan:  Two points for every ball you catch. Minus-one for every ball that disappears. If it hits a car but ricochets:  Z-row. Tarrick backs off the railing and snatches the bag from Dujuan. He digs in a hand and then squeezes a bearing into each of their hands. “Spread out on the lines! We got three guys for the three lines!” He sets the bag down and waves them off.  

Dujuan paces away until the third dashed divider lane line below seems between his feet. Why it matter having somebody on all three lanes? He grips his bearing between his thumb and first two fingers so hard that it slips. He juggles it, his trembling hands feeling like they might fall off at the wrists but he re-cradles the bearing with both hands. Glancing down, Mickey Mouse peeks out from under his shorts that reach almost halfway down his calf but not far enough. Like usual, no one is up here. They could get in trouble again though. That frizz-haired lady wrapped in garbage bags always pushing an Aldi Foods cart with cans and bottles and wadded towels might be the one who told on them. He saw her once near the overpass. She must have seen Mickey Mouse. The three of them are due in court the day after Columbus Day.

Dujuan’s toes bump the overpass wall. He looks out, then down. Their chipped traffic lane dash from a month ago is one lane over, Tarrick’s lane. For good luck, Dujuan could aim for that exact piece of paint, so he asks, “Can we trade?”

Nothing from Tarrick. “Ready!” Dujuan turns. Tarrick’s elbow is on the beam, bearing perched at his fingers’ end, the sack of bearings at his feet. “Hit in between the cars! But not on the paint! It too soft! Then catch yo’ ball when it come back up! Whoever catch the most win!”

Dujuan watches James and Tarrick, their faces hovering over the expressway’s blast, his own steelie rolling around his palm. He stops it with his thumb. He should be home by now.

Tarrick’s “Go!” makes Dujuan focus over the railing but he holds his bearing. On either side of him, two silver specks descend and disappear.  

“That fucked up!” 

Dujuan spins around to stare across the bridge behind them, as if his steel ball too has vanished like driftwood flung into a rushing stream. He whips back around to the railing. Below, vehicles, those small and those huge, chase each other undisturbed. Behind them, still, luckily, no cars have whooshed past. No walkers either on their sidewalk next to the railing.

From Tarrick, next to him now, “We doin this shit again!” Rush of words fans Dujuan in the face. Tarrick squats to the bag and fishes out three more bearings. “Open your hand!” 

Dujuan wraps his free hand around the fist with the bearing and rests his arms on the railing as if genuflecting at his church altar but without his praying kneeling mother beside him.

“Take it dog!”

Dujuan squeezes one tingling hand with the other. “That’s all right, you keep ‘em all.” Why does it matter that he participate? Their jollies should be enough fun.

Tarrick grabs his clasped hands and fingers. James leans in. Dujuan’s hands open.  

“You ain’t never drop your first one!” James yells. A smack to one of his forearms separates Dujuan’s hands. The steelie falls, plinks the cement at their feet.

“Lemme just watch!” Sweat is oozing through his thin brows into his eyes. Dujuan totters, trying to separate himself from the railing but steps on the ball. His foot goes sideways. Muscles in his legs stretch like they’re tearing until James grips his forearm tighter and yanks him back to the railing.

Dujuan blinks his stinging eyes and wants to swab them with the heel of his free palm but they have him off the ground and he can’t find his face with either hand. Front-side first, he hits the railing. His right leg swings through expressway airspace before he can coil both arms around the dirtied joist. Someone has the cuff ends of his jean shorts. Testicles aching. Eyes closed, Dujuan double-arm wraps the railing and buries his face on the non-traffic side. Groping for the overpass-side sidewalk with his left foot, he feels his mother’s fourteen cents—nickels and the pennies—slide out of his right pocket forever. A hipbone pins his cheek against the warm railing. He keeps his burning eyes shut against the steel.

“Dog you scared! You scared!” A hand slaps his back and shocks his eyes open. Another tightens on Dujuan’s upper arm and then four hands extract his torso from the railing. His face suspended a few inches above the beam, the sidewalk and the expressway contrast. One moves. One does not. Another shove. Chest-down into the metal again, Dujuan bear hugs the beam. His chin hurts, pressing it against the beam for leverage while clutching at the vertical strut, but he loses grip when they wrench him up by the shoulders. “You all play too much! Lemme down!”

“You don’t be lyin to us!”  

Elbow points burrowing into his shoulder lighten his head like it no longer belongs to him. Hands and elbows find his lower back and thighs.

Then rotated, Dujuan sees only traffic before closing his eyes against the acidic auto exhaust aerating his face like a steam bath, tickling his bare scalp. Elbows dig into his backside now, mashing his groin into the railing. Breath empties from his lungs. His arms fly out in front of him without feeling them, numb like they’ve gone to sleep.

“Look down dog! Look down!”

Dujuan does. He must. Cars again. The glittery, black asphalt. No dashes for the lanes though. Between his upper thigh and the railing, the box of lemon sours crushes flat. Cracked and broken now are the candies that he’d planned to offer his mother.

They push and pull, pull then push. He is the saw blade. They are the lumberjacks. Dujuan’s shirt and arms and face smear the railing’s soot—soot muddied already by his tears and spit.

Then they push but don’t pull back. The beam compressing Dujuan’s stomach folds him in two, hanging one half of him over the expressway. More yelling. Hands holding his legs below his shorts, hands no doubt touching Mickey Mouse, and those fastened to his hipbones soon are a single touching sensation. Touch hinting that the pleasure derived by its givers is of such intensity that the touchers can’t quit. A touch like his mother’s hands on his shoulders after arranging the bedcovers near his chin while talking him through any day’s mistakes. As if flexing a bicep to feel in control and bluff that his arms aren’t too heavy to lift to cover his face with his hands, Dujuan clinches his sweaty, stinging eyes shut against the streaking psychedelic noise below. His closed eyes keep him in bed, his used-to-be-bushy hair indenting the pillow, his mother near and coaching him about his ‘way to know how to do what’s right.’ Seeing her, hearing her, almost feeling her while feeling their hands, arms, and elbows, lets Dujuan believe that everything here on the overpass might still be okay.

 

 

 

 

Mark Dostert volunteered as a counselor at Chicago’s 500-cell juvenile jail and later became a full-time Children’s Attendant (unarmed guard). He is the author of Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, excerpted in Salon and featured at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest. He teaches at Writespace and holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Houston. His nonfiction has appeared in Ascent, Cimarron Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review Online Content, and Southern Indiana Review, and been cited as Notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, The Best American Essays 2011, and The Best American Essays 2013. Find him at www.markdostert.com