63rd and Halsted

A pile of counterfeit purses sits in one corner of the living room kitchen till Saturday when Momma will try hawking them on the corner of 63rd and Halsted. JT’s got a hot dog over the gas burner, skewered with a plastic fork, and he’s hoping the thing doesn’t melt and drop the dog into the fire ‘cause he’s only got two for the rest of the week and it’s Monday. Momma’s got the gas station and the McDonald’s and the beauty salon where she washes hair and sweeps up at the end of the day. Dad’s got who-knows-what ‘cause he hasn’t been seen since JT was three days old.

At the bottom of the shoe closet, under Dad’s jackets that Momma “just hasn’t gotten around to pitching yet,” JT keeps a stack of books he’s lifted from the library: biology textbooks, history books above his grade level, Shakespeare. Some action adventure for fun. He hides the peeled-off barcodes under a radiator in the library, puts them back on when he feels bad and swaps one book for another. Lifts them because he can’t afford the late fees and he’s not the type to keep a book for only two weeks.

Momma’s name is Hi-Bye, but JT doesn’t tell her this. Back from Mickey D’s and then a shift at the beauty salon: Hi-Bye. Dropping off the leftover purses to get to the gas station on time: Hi-Bye. JT makes up stories in his head where Momma ain’t Hi-Bye and you’ve got more than a couple hot dogs for the week and dads don’t leave when you’re three days old. Sometimes he writes these stories down and slips them into his lifted books like too many bookmarks. Sometimes he forgets them and they stay there when he returns them. Sometimes he leaves them there on purpose.

He starches and irons his own shirts ‘cause when Momma comes home the last thing she wants to do is be minding no shirts or pants or anything but sleep. He doesn’t mind starching and ironing his shirts. He handles each one like it’s a butterfly he’s setting gently on the bark of a tree. When he’s done, it might as well be a brand new shirt. The other kids at school don’t know about Hi-Bye and the shirts and all that. They don’t know about how when the hot dogs run out JT waits for lunch ‘cause that’ll be the only food he gets all day.

JT gets lonesome on the weekends when Momma’s busy working and no kids are around and it seems like it’s just him in the whole wide world. In the summertime, you can’t tell if the sounds outside are gunshots or fireworks, so you go out anyway. When the crunchy leaves are on the ground and you can play tackle football ‘cause the snow’s there to break your fall, you know the sounds are gunshots. When you hear the sounds, you go back inside even if it’s a tie game and you’re playing best two out of three, one game won a piece.

On the times when there’s no gunshots and no football games and the lifted books have all been “returned,” JT walks around and tells himself in his head that he’s an important man who tells stories and everybody loves him. One day he was so important he saved up a couple bucks and hopped on the el train. It was dinnertime when he got on and he watched the sky’s color darken, buildings and cars and everything rushing past.

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When he woke up, there was no one else on the train. If it weren’t for the streetlights outside, he could be on a train riding through outer space. Then the man sitting next to him made a noise. JT looked around and saw that the man could sit anywhere in the whole train car but he chose to sit next to him. The man spoke up.

Didn’t JT have no Momma to mind him? And he did, but she was at work. And was he all alone then? And yes, he was. And that was quite a shame.

The man pointed at the stars outside the el train’s window and leaned in close to JT so he could tell him which constellation was which. When he got up close, the stink on his breath made JT’s eyes water. It was the same stink his Momma’s breath had when it was her day off and her eyes got bleary and she cried a lot and had to have JT help her to bed.

The man put his hand down on the edge of his seat, next to JT’s leg. He lifted and dropped his pinky like it was a worm inching on pavement. The streetlights outside went whoosh and neither of them made a sound.

The train clacked on the tracks and the worm went inch, inch, inch. JT leaned into the barrier next to him and made like it was just so he could see the subway map better. And the clackclackclack went to just clack, clack, clack, and the train came to a stop at Division. When the doors opened, JT ran like it was a football game in the snow and he just heard the sounds.

The snow crunched under JT’s feet as he ran all the way back, streetlights like false stars above him, snow coming in his shoes that had holes in them ‘cause Momma ain’t got the money for boots, JT wondering if he really is an important man after all, wondering how it is we can leave so many tracks behind us when we’re running away.

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