Northwest Side Night

Outside, the night is suffocating, air heavy and hot though the sun’s been down for hours. The street is awash with motion: cars flash by, rushing to make the next light, young couples moving from the bar on the corner to the pizza parlor across the street, gangs of high school kids hover in the convenience store parking lot down the street. Behind us, a kid on a BMX bike rides up, knees hitting handlebars. In soft-spoken Spanish he asks us if we want to buy any weed. Luis laughs and says no, his shoulders tense as we watch the boy ride away.

“Alright, you had your walk, got your pop, let’s go home.” I say.

Luis looks left to right, he searches the pockets of orange street lights, staring and deeply into the gaps of dark between them. He hadn’t been very comfortable out at night ever since the incident a few months ago – the incident with the “smelly grocery cart guy”, as Luis he called the man, the one who sang incomprehensible songs to himself. Luis claimed the man tried to mug him, then he claimed the crackhead tried kill him with a wooden baseball while wailing out ‘Ava Maria”.

“Luis, calm down, for real.”

There were other reasons for his anxiety, though. He’d learned long ago, after learning painful lessons, to act a certain way on certain streets, to play the part of a man carrying a specific level of machismo if he wanted to make it through certain neighborhoods alive.

But this isn’t one of those neighborhoods, at least I don’t think so, and it’s a beautiful night, the cool breeze from the lake cutting through the humid stillness. It reminds me of past nights running around the block after dark, chasing each other with sparklers and playing tag through the alleys. We walk past the white-glowing liquor store window and past the Mexican restaurant with the smell of slow-cooked carnitas riding outward from the rising steam above the building. We walk past the dance studio and Luis can’t help but stop and watch the late-night dancers in their black tights and thin sweaters moving and stretching behind the plate glass, until at last we have to round the corner to go back home.

“Know where I’d like us to live if we had money?” Luis asks, same question he always asks.

“Boystown.” Usually that’s the right answer, but not tonight.

“No, I mean, for real, like if we got real rich somehow, like lotto rich.”

Anywhere but here. Anywhere away from where we both grew up, street names we knew better than we knew our presidents, corner shop owners like family – I knew for sure Luis wanted to put it all behind him.

“Up high, way up high, that’s where I want to live.” He says, his eyes raised past the trees shading the side street from lamp light, up to the purple sky. “Up on the lakefront, in one of those fancy condos, way above the city and everyone else, where I can look out on the city and see how small our little life was.”

Bushes and weeds grow in dark clumps across the the black iron fences lining the sidewalk. Away from the big street it’s quiet enough to hear crickets chirping. Luis is calmer now, smiling at me while I drink the last of my orange pop. I belch, “like a gross boy”, as he would say, when I finish.

“We’ll get there someday.” I say to him, arm around his bony shoulders while we feel our way past the gate into our building. Someday sure, but hopefully no time soon.

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