The Gardens

by Randy Santiago

You ready, Muscles? Trevante asks. 

We live in a two-story red brick house on 131st street. Altgeld Gardens. Trevante took us in after we got evicted from our last apartment, but not before he slapped Chavo for being mean to Ma. She smirks when he tells that story.

Ruben is asleep on the couch and Esmeralda in bed with Ma. I’ve been awake for a while, reading Dragonball in the upstairs hallway. I prefer the kitchen but lately people been trying to break in through the back door, so I read upstairs now. Ma says it’s the trees struggling to sleep beneath the streetlights. But the trees ain’t big enough to reach the door, I say. She pretends not to hear me. 

We leave at 6:30. Trevante places his massive hand on my shoulder, which feels like a boulder but also warm like a hug. Gotta get you more to eat, Muscles, he says. Your bones are jabbing my palms.

Trevante drives an Astro van with red velvet curtains that his father claims he gifted him in Alabama. Trevante says he never needed his father for anything. Regardless, I like how the velvet tickles my cheek when the window is cracked, calmly crashing against me like waves on the lakeshore. Like a bull rushing you, no matter what colors you got. 

Kids don’t like my color in the Gardens. Everyone is black except my family, but Ruben and Esmeralda look like Ma and Trevante had babies. I look like someone found me in an alley. Ma said that once. Kids in the Gardens hit me often when I eat in the canteen and during my walks home. Ruben’s gotten tired of fighting for me, so I usually go down after landing two of my own punches and wait until the kids get tired of wailing me. I don’t like hitting people but you don’t get a choice in the Gardens. 

Jabari’s just about the only kid who likes me. 

Our first day hanging out he took me to the Wall, over by UpTop. Past the barbershops and salons and mom-and-pop joints a yellow wall emerged. Names written across it in black. Nothing more, just names. Who are they?

People who died, Jabari said. Our neighbors.

How’d they die?

Mostly guns. It be violent out here, that’s why my mama don’t let me out much. Especially not after them street lights cut on.

My moms doesn’t let us watch tv in the living room at night, I said while tracing the letters of Lakeith’s name. No last name, just Lakeith. She thinks a bullet might come through, I said. 

Hmm, he hummed. Some of these people died from diseases. The water here ain’t clean, my mama says it got metal in it.

It does taste like metal when you drink it.

Mama says that gives you diseases in your body and your brain.

Why ain’t it fixed yet?

Cause don’t nobody wanna fix it, I guess. Jabari paused to walk along the wall, his finger mindlessly inscribing something in it. 

Most days, when he’s allowed to come out, Jabari takes me on a hunt for whatever bugs we can find. Together we make a colosseum of Play-Doh on the pavement and watch the bugs battle each other. We do this for hours. Usually the bugs climb the walls and we knock them down until one of them bests the other. Then we let them free. It ain’t fun being locked up too long. 

Yesterday Jabari got antsy and asked his mom if he could come with me to the city. He hardly ever goes.

If Trevante’s cool with it, she told him.

 

The three of us quietly watch the lake glimmer as the sun rises along the Kennedy Expressway. I-90. Jabari nudges my shoulder when What Up Gangsta comes on the radio. We sing along, Trevante joining us for the chorus. 50 Cent is the hottest thing on 107.5 WGCI this summer.

Trevante lowers the music when we reach the north side. I guess he’s afraid all the windows might shatter from the vibrations. There’s a lot of windows on the north side and nice cars too. Saw a Bentley out there once, couldn’t believe it. Trevante told us white people don’t like our music when Jabari asked why 50 Cent was suddenly whispering. It made Jabari sad and me too, but I was also happy to be included in their music.

When we cross into Wicker Park the music picks up again. Wicker is just about gone now, Ma likes to say but I’m not sure what she means. There are new restaurants and shops every time we visit. It’s like the neighborhood is finally arriving, I say but she slaps that away with the wind. The Exchange is the only good shop in that neighborhood anyway, if you wanna know the truth. They have cheap games and DVDs, lots of DVDs. Old and new. 

This route costs more gas but Trevante takes it for me. He knows I miss the buildings down Milwaukee, how they grow and shrink and grow again then shrink again like a heartbeat. Sort of like Trevante’s Astro when 50 Cent ain’t whispering, the buildings make my heart dance. Milwaukee does.

I never been out here, Jabari says as we pass the flatiron on Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenue. It’s a lot more restaurants and buildings here.

Wicker is cool, but Logan is better, I say from the arc of his left shoulder. The buildings are nicer and the theatre there is raw.

Should we pass by, Muscles? Trevante grins at me through the rearview. I sat in the back with Jabari, so he wouldn’t feel lonely.

I smirk.

Down Milwaukee we see Miss Hernandez who owns the Village Discount Outlet and also the Bauer’s by Marcello’s and Sons. Lots of cars are going from Milwaukee toward the roundabout and together we whirl the boulevard, like on a rollercoaster, watching everything fade into a blur while also becoming clearer so that the neighborhood looks old and new. I was seeing it again for the first time, through Jabari’s eyes. 

There’s less space between the buildings, he says. His eyes are big like golf balls. And the homes is bigger, with real grass. 

And kids have bikes here, I say.

And don’t nobody steal them.

Trevante smiles at us through the rearview mirror with big white teeth. Whitest I ever seen. The car is vibrating and humming, like Ma does when I can’t sleep at night and the air gets dry. It’s hard breathing but she hums and rubs my chest and tells me to follow the hum with my eyes. I can’t Ma, I say but then she says, you gotta close your eyes to follow the noise. And so I close them and follow the hum all the way back, between my ears until I wake up and she’s gone but the sun is back and the air is lighter.

Trevante’s teeth rattle with the hum and Jabari’s eyes follow it and my head loosens. It ain't stiff no more, curls crushed against those velvet curtains til we get closer to the sign with the lights on it and I shoot up like a car with a bad ignition that needs a few slaps and kicks to get moving. And when it does you can’t stop it for a while. Can’t stop me when I get to doing something and now I’m talking about the sign, the theatre, about all the movies I’ve seen. I watch as Jabari follows the hum of my voice and listens to me talk about the movies until his eyes follow the sound and he sees them too. 

About the Author

Randy William Santiago is an unpublished Puerto Rican writer from inner-city Chicago. He considers Hip Hop his primary artistic influence. Randy received a BA in English from Cornell College, Iowa, where he also earned a Fulbright Fellowship to Spain. Randy is currently writing under lock down in Sonoma, California.