Beginning of Summer, May ‘91
First chapter of Mario Perez's first novel, South of the Sun.
A siren echoes through the blackened Chicago streets like an unsteady pulse. There are people out on this late night, people who seldom find solace in slumber and would rather trundle through the Southside blocks they’ve grown to know. They skitter like spiders through the alleys trying to stay out of sight. Others are red-eyed, wobbling on unsteady feet, having had one too many and are attempting the always difficult journey home. There are those dreamers lazily lounging on their porches trying to spot stars. Then there are kids like the two teenagers who quietly climb the rungs of a ladder leading to a billboard off Ashland and Archer. One of them is named Nico and just as he reaches the top his back magnetizes to the billboard, latching itself for dear life, trying to keep his eyes from looking down. He focuses on the Sears Tower: it’s a beaming white obelisk standing apart from the other shadowy skyscrapers that reside below it. It sees everyone, even him, as he sits on the porch of his parent’s house. There were nights when he couldn’t sleep so instead he would throw on a hoodie and sit on the cold porch steps, watching the skyline as it burned white like the snowy peaks of mountains above the neighborhood. If he was able to stay up long enough he would catch his father as he left for work. Each time his father would dig his huge palms into Nico’s curly hair and hustle along the steps towards his bourbon van, having a knapsack slung over his broad shoulders as if he was being shipped off to war. Nico’s eyes shadowed his father’s receding steps, the hallow slamming of the metal door, and the low rumbling of the engine. His father usually honked, waved from the driver’s seat, and dashed off into the sleeping streets. Nico waited for the red tail lights to fade before settling back into his bed. He’d sometimes dream of his father sailing into Lake Michigan on an old skiff. Nico would watch him has he built the boat, taking ply wood off the beach and hammering them into place till it was sturdy enough to stay afloat. Eventually the boat would be done and his father would set off, alone, without saying a word. All Nico could do was watch as his sail faded beneath the moonlight.
The other kid is a tagger by the name of Abbas. He’s mindlessly etching his next piece onto the billboard with a blueberry canister of spray paint. Like a conductor his lanky arms weave along the contours of the paper creating colorful caricatures out of nothing. Beads of sweat slide off his marble forehead and over a fine-tipped nose, dropping like a faucet along a sharp chin. The spray can hisses like a snake, pausing only when Abbas needs to shake more life into it—like loose teeth bouncing in a tin cup. Abbas’s plain white shirt hangs off him like a coat rack. His eyes are so focused it looks as if he might not be aware of where he is, instead lost among the vast sea of his mind as the piece rises from the dark depths like a mythical beast. Nico watches as the piece unfold, wondering what’ll come out of Abbas head this time.
A forceful wind batters the spine of the billboard making it shake, causing Nico to lose his footing. He lunges desperately for the rail within arm’s reach and dizzyingly gapes at the rooftops below him, which seem farther away than he first imagined. He has never viewed the city from this height before. The entire landscape stretches endlessly in all directions like golden sand sprinkled on the back of space. A bitter coldness grips Nico, coursing through every vein, pore, and exposed skin. The charcoal streets start to spin like turntables, headlights from the passing cars leave burn marks on his forehead, and the scratching rails of a cargo train dig into his stomach making it curl into a tight ball. Abbas is unaffected, every subtle motion centered on his goal. Nico alters his gaze towards the tenebrous sky, hoping that counting the lights might stop the vomit from creeping up his throat. He thinks those lights are stars, but they’re almost always planes. Aren’t any stars in a place like this, his dad would say on their night drives from El Grande Orgo, a restaurant they’d frequent. There is too much noise in a place like this, he continued in a hushed tone, and most people in cities want to forget there’s a place beyond this one. Nico asked him why and his dad said it was because it reminds people that there is an escape…splattering, chunky liquid expels from his mouth. Everything that was once inside him paints the city. It drips onto the facades of the buildings and onto the grimy sidewalk. He collapses to the floor out of exhaustion. Abbas snickers but doesn’t say a word.
Closing his eyes, Nico follows the sputtering whispers of the spray can and the soft brush strokes of the cars zooming along the highway. Sandwiched within those sounds exists a chaotic screaming, a jagged, high-pitched moan dicing apart the otherwise comforting climate. It’s the sound that yanks Nico out of his stupor, going erect immediately, and seeking out the source. Two spinning blue and red’s dance along Archer Street, ignoring traffic signs, and weaving between other vehicles on the road. It’s his one job up here, but what could he possibly do if they’ve found them out. There is only one way back to the surface and it isn’t like they have to come up to get them. Nico watches the squad car jet beneath them and doesn’t breathe till it bolts off in another direction. It’s wailing wilts with time, being squashed by the city silence. Only then does Nico notice Abbas has stopped and is peering over the rails to see if they’ll be spending the night behind bars. Once the sirens recede, Abbas shrugs and finishes his piece, leaving Nico to the deepest abyss of his mind. He wants to say that they should leave; they might come back, but can’t find the words, or the courage. Instead he leans his head against the icy bars, trying to forget the fear sitting on his chest like a heavy cat, but it’s impossible. The cat has stretched his entire body over his face and makes it hard to breathe.
The squad car inches along the street contemplatively. Its headlights shut off as it slinks through the parked cars. There are two silhouettes of heads within, faceless, as if they’ve adapted to the Chicago night. Saint Joseph ruffles up his jacket, clenching the Bible tightly against his wet palms. A nervous cough makes him stumble. Leaning against a gate, he knows they’re watching. The second the car stopped they haven’t looked at anywhere else, he can feel it. Fuckin’ pigs, he sniffs, attempting to seem inconspicuous. He can’t remember how he normally stands. His left leg behind the right and his elbow over the gate casually, or was it the other way around? Licking his dried lips, he realizes he’s standing under the only streetlight that is off. Maybe this is God’s test? There is no better way to make money, so you can’t judge me. The siren squeals as it pulls into view and stops. The blue and red lights lap across the entire block partially revealing each structure. There’s no hiding from certain types of lights, he thinks. Their windows casually descend to reveal two sets of aviators staring stoically his way. Saint Joseph tries unsuccessfully to act as though he doesn’t see them, darting his composure elegantly, till they inevitably lock eyes and he’s pulled by one of the white men’s leather fingers.
Hola, officers. You’s seeking a late-night confessional for prior misdeeds?
The one closest to him peeks at the Bible clutched tightly against his chest. The officer has a buzz cut and a round hairless face. Saint Joseph’s focus is bouncing from inside the car to scouting around them, in case he needs to run. The blunt he smoked is adding to his anxiety. He can hear his skin sweating. His smile is like the Cheshire Cat smiling down at Alice as she stumbles into Wonderland.
Ello’ Padre, what’s a preacher doing on the streets on a night like this? Buzz cut snorts.
God’s work of course. The night is when those sinners need me most.
Not a church for at least a few blocks. The other squeals in a higher pitch.
God needs no roof. This is all his church. St. Joseph recites.
He didn’t notice buzz cut’s gloved hand extended at first; instead his head was strafing upwards. He was trying to find the moon. He didn’t notice the thick rug slowly being pulled across the sky. Mindlessly, he drops his Bible in buzz cut’s hands, but then curses to himself, biting his lip. Buzz cut thumbs through the first few pages, and lowers his aviators to ponder each word with his natural blues. Like a curious child, the stockier fellow next to him leans (the chair makes a squealing sound as he does) over his friend’s shoulder to get a peek. Saint Joseph recalls the prayer his mother used to speak to him when he was a child,
May you always walk in sunshine and God's love around you flow, for the happiness you gave us, no one will ever know, it broke our hearts to lose you, but you did not go alone, a part of us went with you, the day God called you home,
My old lady used to sing that all the time, when my grandpa died.
Saint Joseph forgot about where he was; about the moist clouds beginning to rumble; about the two knights of law who are looking for any reason to slap cuffs over his wrists and stuff him in a cell with other faceless spicks.
Y-yes, it’s a common requiem for the dead and for our Lord.
Practice inside padre, Ambrose are crawling on the blocks looking for something, someone.
There has to be evil, if there’s good, Saint Joseph whispers, chuckling.
You say something?
Oh no, thank you. He bows nervously.
Adios padre. Hope there are more saints like you around.
Saint Joseph lightly snatches his Bible as they pull away. Against his chest it feels warm. This was the Bible his mother read to him every night. Licking his fingers, he zips through the aged pages, filled with countless tales of sacrifice and love, till he reaches the section that he cut out where a fat wad of high-grade kush rests. He lifts it to his nose and is immediately engrossed by the scent, the feel. Opportunity exists in that pound, as well as all the other pounds he has stashed at home. Without the kush the bible is just a bunch of empty words without meaning. You can’t exist on faith, not in a city like this, he tells himself. A raindrop drums the plastic bag. St Joseph crosses himself three times before moving on, happy to have another day.
Suddenly the hissing stops and Abbas mumbles presto. Before him stands his masterpiece, created using wet paint as the catalyst and the city as a canvas. Nico lingers in place, mesmerized by it, trying to understand what it says. All art is saying something. His name Howlin18 explodes from the center of the advertisement with gold block letters, outlined with black, and above it Bug’s Bunny smugly snickering with his arms crossed and a Bull’s cap turned backwards—a perfect way to salute the Bulls and Jordan on their forthcoming playoff run. This would never be hung next to a Picasso, Nico thinks. The people downtown would spit on a piece like this; they don’t have time for trash art that some spick or nigger pissed onto a wall. If only they could see it the way Abbas did. An extension of the neighborhood they’ve been brought up in. In the south slums, this was their art. Abbas sucks up the spare spray cans with life left in them, stuffing them into a duffel bag, and then fades towards the ladder, melting into the city where they belong. Nico devours what’s been bombed one last time before mimicking his steps.
Back on the surface, Nico feels relieved, revitalized. His roots sprouted from this ground, anywhere else feels uncomfortable. A steady haze of smoke steadily wafts from the alley. Nico saunters over to it, attracted by the signals spewing into the sky. Out of the darkness Abbas appears, but he isn’t alone. A higher-pitched voice is beside him. It is a dark-eyed Asian with thin red lips and skin that glows like moonlight. She has silky bangs that try in vain to hide her eyes and a light brown birthmark shaped like a star on her right cheek. Her fingers playfully drum her tight jeans. They’re talking like old friends. Nico didn’t know Abbas could laugh.
Nico, meet Day. Her hobbies include books, long walks on the beach, and creeping up on you in the middle of the night without announcing herself.
What a charming way to introduce me. I’d been keeping watch down here for you. I didn’t know you already had help.
Nico’s his name. He doesn’t have the strongest stomach for heights, haha.
She throws Nico a half-smile. Before they get to talk, Abbas pushes himself off the brick wall and starts to trek back to the neighborhood. Suddenly they’re immersed within a viaduct. Water drips perpetually from the high Roman arches, sounding like a tongue clicking against teeth. Their neighborhood is visible past the sullen street lamps and the Tribune building. More Mexicans there than you’ll find at an immigration center. Pilsen used to be filled with Poles, but they fled west as the Mexicans swam in. Abbas cuts across the street to a high grated fence and a thick fish stench. Ducking beneath a bend in the gate and entering a thicket of weeds higher than his waist, Nico realizes the smell is radiating from the Chicago River. It gracefully murmurs beneath the waning moon, accompanied by the soft crunches of their feet. Specks of gray dots fill the sky. To the east there is an old concrete bridge that connects two vastly different neighborhoods, Bridgeport and Pilsen. Bridgeport is where the Mayor is from, mostly Irish, Nico sometimes treaded under the viaduct connecting the neighborhoods and was astonished to find apartment buildings so clean, so open. A creamy hue reflects off the ripples. Across the river there are new homes being built, a sleepy park surrounded by asphalt with one lone tree, and an empty bread factory. The water is muddy, stirring with the wind like a steaming cauldron. It’s so thick if he put his hand inside it, it may not come out. Abbas strikes a match. His face burns a fiery red as he leans in with his eyes closed, sucking up the charcoaled essence, and ignoring the activity beyond this place. Day tosses rocks onto the surface of the river. They give a few jumps before sinking into the black pool, eaten. It is like an island within the shadows, a place no light touches. Only the Sears Tower keeps its watchful gaze upon them. Nico notices an abandoned factory doused in graffiti directly across the train station. It’s rusted, pieces of its walls have peeled and eroded, and most of the large open spaces are splattered with words. A huge portrait that stands above the rest is one that reads “GRMM is ALWAYS WATCHING.”
One of the old slaughter houses, Abbas coughs, catching Nico’s curious gaze. They’d dump the carcasses right into the river. That’s why it still reeks. So much dead in this river…
Who’s GRMM? Nico asks.
Abbas’s sworn enemy, Day replies playfully.
The end of the cigarette brightens. Ash trails of the ends. When it diminishes completely Abbas speaks again,
Some say he is the best tagger coming out of the south side.
What do you say? Nico asks.
Not sure. I have been seeking him out ever since I started. No one knows anything about him. They say he doesn’t actually exist. Others say it is a bunch of cats using the same name.
Maybe it is you? Day chides. Your evil twin out to overshadow you.
You’ve got some imagination, haha.
Flicking the butt into the river, Abbas rises, stretching his lanky arms as far as they could go. The purple landscape is starting to lighten, but there is still time before the sun will rise and that first explosion of sunlight spills over the entire city. The city has felt empty lately. A meteor hit the dinner table at home, leaving a human-sized crater. Nico has been reluctant to bring it up to his mother who has gone about her daily chores unbothered, as if nothing was wrong. His father hasn’t been home for a week now and that type of absence has never happened before. Maybe he is already snoring on the chair in the living room. Nico will creep in and see him slumped deep within its blue folds, mouth wide as a bass, and barrel chest rising delicately. Before Nico gets to his feet Abbas is already disappearing inside the tall weeds, leading back to the street, back to where life exists, followed closely by Day. When he catches up with them, they’re saying goodbye.
Better call it before we’re caught in the rain.
The sky is murmuring. Clouds cling to the ceiling as if the smoke from Abbas’s cigarette created them. A moist wind clamors upon his skin. Nico is enthralled by the utter emptiness of the night. That icky twitch in his neck comes back again. He has a sudden feeling that he’s being watched, but the city reveals nothing. Not a single foot stirs on the sidewalk besides theirs.
Which way you walking? Day asks Abbas, lifting her hood shyly.
I’m taking the long way back. Nico’s headed back that way though and he doesn’t look tired at all.
Startled, Nico skips a glance at Abbas, then Day.
I know you ain’t going home, Abbas. Day’s comment comes off half-jokingly, but also half-honest.
You two aren’t the only people I know.
I don’t doubt it.
Abbas sniffs and squeezes Day’s wrist before stepping away from her. The motion surprises Day, her ochre eyes widen. Abbas throws up two fingers as he vanishes within the mist of the neighborhood. A light spray gently wafts onto them. Day hurriedly raises her hood and tightens up. All she has to do is nod her head. Nico saddles up next to her.
Abbas hustles into the alley. There are dark puddles beginning to form in the asphalt. The yellow lamps blur with the rain. The garages are all black, locked. Rainfall masks footsteps. A bulky man steps out of a yard. A hood covers his entire face as he stops in the middle of the alley like a giant door, arms crossed tightly. Abbas halts and waits. He hears more feet trundling over his shoulder. It doesn’t take them long to surround him. He keeps his eyes on the big man in his way. Abbas knew they were watching.
You’ve been walking my streets a lot at night lately, huh Abbas?
A familiar voice rumbles near his neck. Slick saunters into view. A sharp line of hair rides his chin and circles his lips. He has a dagger-like nose and eyes devoid of color, nothing escapes them. He’s wearing a tight purple suit jacket that matches his pants, a deep chocolate handkerchief stuffed in the breast pocket, and an ashy dress shirt under it all. His hands click a lighter imprinted with a Black Ace on and off, twirling it carelessly. An imp-like fellow holds a flowery yellow umbrella over Slick’s matchstick head. The imp’s name is Rufus. His front teeth are shockingly white and he has an overbite. Compared to Slick it looks like he is wearing rags.
Nothin’ wrong with taking a stroll home now and then is there Slick?
Only if you cross the wrong people. It’s dangerous these days boy. I guess you haven’t been hearing about it though since you’ve left.
Word gets out, but I have nothing to do with that remember?
Ah yes, yes. This has nothing to do with him, Slick is speaking with Rufus, spinning the umbrella as if he were about to start singing. I guess I forgot. He lowers his head still grinning, rubbing his chin. No, no that isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right. The big man moves in closer to Abbas, which makes him flinch. He didn’t want to flinch. I don’t recall letting you go so easily. That doesn’t sound like me.
But you said…
I know, I know. And see, you being family I let it slide. I was nice and let you walk, but I’m in need of extra men and it is good to have someone you can trust. I can put money in your pocket boy and that is something you’ll need when you’re out of here.
Abbas nervously stares into his cousin’s eyes. Ever since he was young Abbas as feared him.
As long as no one else gets wind of it…
Abbas, you’re clean. Well, sort of…A knife-like chortles cuts into Abbas. He clenches at his stomach briefly, feeling sick. That’s what I like about you. Don’t worry. If all goes to plan nothing will be said. As the old pirates used to say, dead men tell no tales. We’ll be in touch.
Slick ignites in laughter as the gang dissipates. Abbas is alone in seconds. The rain is really coming down. His whole body is soaked and shivering. The small puddles are turning into wide lakes beneath his feet. A burst of lightning sizzles through the orange clouds. Abbas is rooted into the wet alley, fearing what the sun will reveal to him come morning.
Nico can see Day’s face, somewhat somber, or maybe contemplative. The drops grow, exploding on the asphalt steadily. Nico isn’t sure how far he needs to go; he doesn’t even know where she lives. He trundles north waiting for her to send some guidance, letting the hiss of the rain fill their lips. Nico has heard rumors about Day and Abbas. They started dating sophomore year. It didn’t seem like they spoke at all, so it was out of the blue, and you couldn’t even tell since they never held hands in the hall or kissed: it was their proximity, their unbearable closeness, arms almost touching but not quite, that gave off the vibe. The rumor spread among the school and everyone watched their movements whenever they were together. A word seldom passed their lips, and they’d offer a silent wave as they branched off into separate classes. Maybe they were never really dating, only very close. Sometimes people see what they want to see. Nico is as curious as anyone, but hasn’t asked. He’s never been close to anyone like that...
I never liked the rain…She mutters, tightening the hood of her sweater. I always feel like I’ll melt into the ground like the wicked witch.
She was evil though. I don’t think you’ve got an evil bone in you, by the looks of it.
Little do you know…She croons jokingly, but it wasn’t just about being evil. It’s about weaknesses. We all have that.
Hesitantly, What’s yours?
She halts abruptly at the corner. The street lights flickers on and off. They retreat beneath an awning of a restaurant. They can see their reflections in the mirror: Nico’s hair is soaked, sharply stuck to his forehead. Day takes off her hood and shakes the few drops still clinging to her long hair. Her cheeks glimmer like wet mirrors.
What kept you from joining a gang? She asks suddenly. Tilting her head to one side.
Nico balks, gulping his courage along with his dinner. He can’t look directly at her.
I don’t know…I guess my dad. He’d always remind me of what they do and how they’ll amount to nothing. My mom told me he was in a gang when he was my age. He would sell weed to his classmates and steal from stores. It wasn’t till my mom got pregnant that he quit high school and got a real job to support her. There’s always one thing that could set us on a better path right? Nico chuckles, He didn’t do any kinds of drugs after that. He went straight when I was born. Besides, what would a gang want with a useless kid like me anyway?
Sounds like a good guy.
Yeah, yeah. I guess…
My dad’s a migrant too. He said my grandfather left China when the revolution started. He made friends with an American General and got his family on a battleship bound for New York just before the first bullet got fired. My dad is a worker like his dad. He has always been stern and protective. If he knew I was out right now he’d ground me the entire summer.
Why do you come out?
To experience this…her arms extend like wings…before I leave. It’s still so mysterious somehow. I fear it, but I feel it’s because I don’t understand it. I like understanding things. When I was little I tore apart my bike and tried to rebuild it so I could understand how it works. I could never get it to work right though. In the end it wasn’t about understanding. I hadn’t gained anything – to the contrary –my dad never bought me a bike after that. Still I like taking things apart. Something about destruction and creation that gets to me. That’s why I follow Abbas sometimes, you know. His creations sprout from nothing and will vanish just like that. Kind of sad, no? Isn’t that why you’re out?
I’m not sure…
…Coddled up in a corner near the window, Nico crunched the cardboard pizza while watching the ebb and flow of the cars—it was his ritual, a somewhat cleansing experience to witness the beautiful constant motion of the world that never seems to cease. The lunchroom had enough space to hold four hundred students plus every period or so. It was a dingy white with large brown tables seating ten kids each spread out in rows. There were two lines where the food was served, usually watered down spaghetti, cardboard pizza, or a mystery meat that was even a mystery to the lunch ladies serving it (the answer varied depending on which one you asked). The lunch ladies were haggard looking Mexican women, usually sweltering under the heat of the dishes, their mascara running across every crease in their wrinkled skin, and a crackled voice that reminded you why you shouldn’t smoke. Each group type sat in their specific section: breakers, bangers, ballers, populars, soccer stars, grunge heads, metal heads, nerds, and the loners. Nico fit neatly within the last category, usually claiming the spot furthest from all the buzzing that filled the room constantly, a motion that he was never part of. Then one day a mysterious plate smacked the table making Nico turn his head, being confronted by the pensive gaze of Abbas, who mindlessly dug into his food. Abbas didn’t acknowledge his sudden appearance at his table, nor did he raise his gaze to the curious eyes of Nico. Nico ignored his presence and went back to pondering the outside. Abbas was the first to break the silence, asking him what he was looking for out there. Nico was caught off guard. All he could muster was a feeble shrug.
You’re searching for something, why else would you be looking out there?
After staring at Abbas who spoke to his food, he answered. Where else is there to look? Nothing interesting in here.
They let the murmuring atmosphere fill the gap between their words for a minute, weighing the air floating among them.
If you’ve been out there, the outside, it wouldn’t mean much either, Abbas said.
Nico didn’t understand what he was getting at. He didn’t understand why he was being talked to either. Peering at the rest of the room to make sure this wasn’t some cruel joke, he realized no one was paying much attention to them. The others were happily munching on the flavorless meal, chatting with their friends, and taking advantage of every second that they had left before class started again.
Can’t find anyone from the inside, he continued, you know who I am, right?
Nico nodded his head.
No you don’t. You just know what you hear and what little you see. You don’t know who I really am. Only at night-dwellers would know the real me.
Nico nodded again, but was confused. I’m confused.
What I’m getting at is I’ve got other hobbies, the illegal kind. The kind that involves a bit of climbing, hiding…
Nico’s voice lifted a bit too high and echoed throughout the cafeteria. The kids around them stopped eating for a second and looked at them bewildered. Instead of answering, Abbas snickered and lowered his head and voice.
In that type of profession, you’d need extra eyes, a lookout, someone you can trust. You get me?
No not really. Abbas’s voice was almost a whisper so Nico mimicked it. He felt like a spy conspiring against a government.
Takes you a minute to catch on huh? I’m asking if you want to see the outside you seem so interested in, instead of just looking at it. You want to be my eyes?
Nico laughed out loud instantly. A defensive mechanism he later realized.
I can barely scribble a happy face on a napkin. What makes you think I’d want to do that?
We all start somewhere. You think Picasso was sketching masterpieces out of the womb? I got a spot I want to bomb in a couple of days. Meet me on Blue Island by the gas station at one a.m. this Friday. Don’t wear white.
Abbas vanished as quickly as he came without an answer, leaving Nico to his former sanctuary. After school, Nico laughed at the thought of him running through the streets at night with Abbas, skimping spray paint off dirty walls and climbing through yards to get on the garage to hit up a spot. The outside, the night always permeated with a harsh light cause of the menacing sounds he heard from his window and the stories people tossed about with their trash. His father got mugged on a walk back from a bar one night. It was like any other night, cold, bitter, and he had a buzz but was able to walk straight. He took a shortcut through the alley behind their house, which was a mistake, and got confronted by three teenagers asking if he wanted weed. He waved them off and tried to get by them, that’s when they pulled out a gun, emptied his pockets, and bolted. The Rodriquez’s garage door felt his father’s wrath and he was bleeding from his knuckles when he came back to the house. This image always frightened him, yet, when one a.m. on the Friday came, he found himself sprinting to the meeting place, out of breathe, noticing Abbas leaning against a light post smoking, grinning, tossing a full bag of spray cans and leading the way for their first job together…
They watch a car slowly skid by. Heavy bullets of rain pelt the hood, sounding like a hollow drum. There’s no way to tell who is inside. It doesn’t wait long at the stop light and speeds right on. Without it there’s this feeling of emptiness among the blocks. The rain patters along the streets without obstacles like kids playing in an open field.
Where’s your dad now? She asks suddenly.
Nico shakes his head absently, you mean at this moment? A twittering brushes his heat. He wishes he was in the rain. Well, to tell you the truth…he’s gone. I haven’t seen him for more than a week.
Gone? Day’s head bent southward as if the words were rolling out of her ears. What do you mean gone?
Nico doesn’t know. It doesn’t make sense to him. I don’t know, he hasn’t shown up at the house. My mom hasn’t said anything, so maybe he’ll come back. But, I got this feeling…this heavy weight on my chest telling me something happened, something’s wrong, and I can’t shake it—she breaks the flow of words with a hand on his cheek. Her fingers are like icicles. They are locked in a stare for seconds, minutes, he doesn’t know. It feels like her eyes are focused at something inside him.
Sorry, she removes the tips of her fingers, that’s what my mother does for me when I’m stressed. She rubs her fingers. The icy feeling still clings to his skin. Will you try to find him?
Try to find him? He hasn’t thought of that. How would he try exactly?
Day nods. He might be waiting for you to find him. She nudges him on the shoulder and winks at him. If you need any help, ask. I’m sure Abbas would lend a hand as well. You don’t have to search alone.
It isn’t long before she rushes into the shower, gripping her hood desperately, gleefully, and scurrying home before her father wakes up. Nico lifts his palm into the water to see if he’ll melt…nothing happens.
A voice within whispers one word, yes, yes I have to try.
It’s pouring and the water drenches his lingering thoughts. He treads in a space between awake and dreaming. A dense fog smolders off the street as if it were fuming. He knows where to go. He’s traversed these blocks so many times in his life that it would take a complete tidal wave destroying the entire city for him to forget. He remembers everything. Like a camel trundling through a desert it sits on his shoulders. A buzz runs through his ear and then wanes. The ice cold drops are pine needles bashing into his skin. The dull hum of the pale moon shivers with his steps, peeking playfully from behind the menacing pillows, but then it becomes masked once again. His eyelids sail with the motion of his heart. What will become of him and the rest of the kids on his block? Here they are, scraping through the trash of the city trying to survive. They have to live with a sin that was inherited, one they didn’t ask for: poverty.
The rain ceases. There’s a light drizzle and a ghastly howl shrouding the surroundings. Nico pauses to take a breath. He isn’t far from home. His tiredness is the reason he doesn’t see them, otherwise he would’ve caught their shadows swarming like crows ready to peck apart his soul. He doesn’t feel the first fist clock him in the back of the head. All he recalls is hitting the ground, thud, and a few sharp pangs in his abs, thump, thump, and the sound of pattering growing faint. It happened so fast, as if his own body attacked him so he could finally sleep, but when he wakes up tomorrow and sees the black eye he’ll know what happened. Some of the muddy water slips into his lips and makes him choke. Pulling to his feet, steadily, agonizingly, he limps west.
Three words to capture your feelings toward China?
Vast. Relentless, and Real.
Most memorable moment from your first year in China?
I was located in a small city in Shanxi province called Yuncheng when I first leaped into this side of the world. Being a Chicago boy that had never journeyed over the ocean, the moment my foot struck the carpeted airport and I was surrounded by countless individuals who didn't speak my language jarred me. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning and waking up in another dimension. I think my first meal is the most memorable moment for me since I learned so much about the culture through it. There I sat with two men I didn't know in some place I couldn't have showed you on a map blinking in and out of consciousness due to the long flight surrounded by countless others in a dingy alley eating more food that I could put down. I remember carefully lifting parts of a dish out of thick red liquid (blood I later found out) and asked myself what I was doing, why was I there? I came knowing nothing, no one. What better way to understand the world?
Moment you realized China was an important part of your life?
I can't say the country itself is as important as leaving the routine I was stuck in. Like Sisyphus lugging the bolder continuously up the mountain only to have it fall again, I felt myself stuck in Chicago. After graduation, I had the choice of working the same dead-end job I had for four years prior and paying off a debt or escaping. I threw nets all across the globe and China happened to be the first country to throw a up flag, waving me in. I've never looked back since.
Moment you realized writing was an important part of your life?
Writing was something I stumbled upon. There were no real sources of artistic endeavors as I grew up in Chicago. What I witnessed were people striving, trundling through 9-5 jobs, content in having a few dollars to spend once the bills were paid, If it weren't for writing I'd probably have chosen a similar life. Writing helped me forge into the deepest, darkest parts of my soul where all the answers are. Writing forced me to detach myself to better understand my surroundings. Without writing, I may have never got on the plane to China, seeking more stories to scribe. I owe writing everything, yet it asks nothing of me. What better relationship can I ask for?
Your writing history/notable writing projects:
This will be my first exposure to the outside world. I've spent more of my energy on completing this novel. I've hid away in my cave attempting to mend my creation as best as I could so it could be ready. Took me five years to reach this point.
Favorite word to use in writing: This is difficult. My favorite English word is bliss: it's a word that floats out of your mouth into infinity.I never get the chance to use it though. I'd probably say the phrase "city silence" is one I'm always excited to use. Chicago was a symphony that played constantly and lulled me to sleep.
A metaphor to describe what writing is?
Writing is getting lost in a house of mirrors with thousands of strange eyes scowling at you, waiting to see if you glare back or shrink away.
Anything else you wish to say?
I appreciate the opportunity to reveal my novel here. It's nice to see a forum for the artist can still strive. Thanks!
I appreciate the opportunity to reveal my novel here. It's nice to see a forum for the artist can still strive. Thanks!