Ralph Sherman laid on the concrete parking lot of McDowell Elementary, his face still throbbing form its recent encounter with a brick. Sluggishly working himself back into consciousness, he muttered unintelligibly to the morning autumn sky as three school children poked at him with large sticks, waiting for the school bell to ring.
“I think he dead.”
“Naw man, he ain’t dead. Look at his mouth it’s still movin’.”
“Ion know, that’s prolly just the wind blowin’ his big ugly lips back an forth.”
“Les go back to the playground, y’all. We should-“
“Naw, he dead I’m sure. He dead as that rat we had saw last week, remember?”
“Man, that things guts an shit was hangin out and it was bleedin’ all over the ground. Ion see no guts hea or no blood. Just a bum in a smelly ass coat.”
“He do stink.”
“Les go back an play y’all, I see Janet on the monkey-“
“DeAndre, you pussy, you can go back to the playground if you want. Me and Alicia gon stay ova hea and play wit this dead body.”
“I tol you, he ain’t dead!”
The children argued over Ralph’s body as their respected sticks poked at his arms, toes, nipples, and groin. One of the sticks struck Ralph’s left eye and he shot up off the damp concrete, swatting and screaming. “Ya rotten sonovabitch! I kill you for that!” The children dropped their sticks and scurried back to the playground to join the larger flock of children, laughing and punching little DeAndre Boyd.
Ralph sat there, on the parking lot concrete of McDowell Elementary, perplexed. How had he ended up here? I ain’t slept here at McDowell for months. Not since hard ass Deputy Costello booted him form the premises for urinating on a car parked in the lot in June (Janitor Joe Williamson had returned to the school to search for an almost full pack of lost Newport’s.) No Ralph usually laid his head to rest in the abandoned lot past the train tracks on Greenwood, were the other neighborhood bums, dope fiends and delinquents set up camp in cold, trying times. There was plenty of liquor to drink and piles as big as William “The Fridge” Perry of tires to burn for warmth, not to mention the company of kindred spirits. Why the fuck am I here? And what did I do last night? Ralph thought to himself. I need a drink. He stumbled with forward motion until he was on his feet, leaning on the gate separating the parking lot from the playground for balance. He walked to Kenwood Liquors on Stony to get a bottle of Skol; vodka so cheap it came in a plastic bottle and tasted of hydrogen peroxide.
Ralph entered the liquor store in search of the temporary elation that alcohol more often than naught gave him but also for a piece of mind. Just a sliver of an idea of what took place last night would put his mind at ease. The Skol, on the other hand, would help ease the pain of his throbbing head. His face was still aching and he didn’t know why or who to blame for his pain. As he walked through the door Monique Wallace, the cashier, signaled for security. “Oh no no no. HELL NO. Raplh, get yo crazy ass out of my store. You got the nerve to step foot in hear after that shit you pulled last night?” Two burly looking men (one Hispanic with a missing tooth from high school football, the other African American with the crown of his scalp shining in the dim fluorescent light due to premature balding) both with rippling muscles barely held back by the skin tight black shirts that read SECURITY in bold white letters on their backs came up behind Ralph, each placing a hand on Ralph’s shoulders.
“Just what in the hell you talkin bout Monique? I ain’t done a damn thing wrong to ya for you ta be this upset at me. Least not recently.”
“Yo drunk ass tellin me you don’t remember last night?” She shot back at him as her red acrylic nails tapped loudly on the register keys that came to $31.15 for the 2 bottles of Cooks Extra Dry Champagne for old Alma Patrick.
“Well, as a matter of fact I don’t remember last night! Nah I just came hear ta ask ya some questions and get myself something ta sip on if ya don’t mind. Actually let me just grab some-”
“I do mind dammit! You an that damn crack head Ernie came in hear last night tryna steal some shit.” The security guards gripped tight on Ralph’s arms right above the elbow with their free hands.
“Aight! Aight! I won’t buy nothin, but please darlin I’m beggin you can ya tell me what we was doin in hear last night? Somebody got me good over the head and I’m tryna figure out just exactly what happened.” Monique’s face softened slightly and noticeably as she glanced at the knot now slightly pulsating on Ralph’s forehead, a signal to the security guards to loosen their grip on Ralph.
“You an Ernie came in hear drunk as hell or high as a kite last night.”
“Nah Monique you know ion dabble in that crack rock foolishness. I know Ernie like that dope but-“
“Well birds of a feather, mothafucka! As I was saying, y’all- oh, have a good day miss Patrick,” Monique placed Alma’s change ($8.85) into her thin wrinkled hands. Alma waddled past Ralph, the security guards and out the door; a faint electronic ding replaced the sound of her feet shuffling across the linoleum floor. “Anyways, yall was tryna play me for a fool. Ernie was fakin a heart attack or some shit screamin an hollerin an knocked over a whole rack of Beefeater in the process while you, thinkin you all slick an shit, tried pocketin 3 bottles a Crown Royal.”
It dawned on Ralph just how drunk he must have been. Ralph had stolen many things in his lifetime, and had admittedly gotten fairly good at it. He’d stolen cigarettes out his mother’s purse, cars from the rich folks up in the Gold Coast, hell he’d even held up a gas station or two, when things got truly desperate. When it came to stealing liquor, or anything for that matter, you try and steal something inconspicuous; the thing that falls under people’s noses and slips right past them. Crown Royal came in a bright purple and gold velvet satchel. Crown Royal was far from inconspicuous.
“Well shit Monique I’m sorry bout that baby,” Ralph felt remorse, an emotion that often hit Ralph hard and fled shortly after. “Lemme make it up to ya. When ya get off work? Les go down to the bar an get ourselves a little drink maybe smooth things over, if you catch my drift.”
“Ion think so Ralph!” Monique’s face hardened and voice shrill. The security guards tightened their grip.
“Well at least lemme get myself some Skol Monique! This knot on my head is killin me!”
“What I say Ralph? You ain’t welcome hear no mo!” The guards lifted Ralph off of his feet in one fluid motion and carried him limp out the door. Ralph knew there was no use in fighting back. He’d been busted up more than enough times to count by security guards to know that.
“And tell Ernie’s ass he ain’t welcome hear neither!” Monique’s voice travelled through the doors and past the even fainter electronic ding outside to Ralph. “He can stay at Darren’s for all I care!” And with Monique’s spiteful last two cents, laying on the damp concrete outside of Kenwood Liquors, Ralph knew where to head next in his search for enlightenment.
Ralph walked west down 87th street the four blocks to Darren’s; a small cocktail lounge on Blackstone nestled between a clothing store and a vacant lot that often served as parking space for its patrons. A local’s only type place, with the same people inhabiting it since it was Artis’ a few years back, before it was bought out and renamed. Small but homey, the overhead lights never came on inside Darren’s no matter the time of day, just the neon red and blue crisscrossing around the ceiling in an infinite dance. Ralph walked in the door and was greeted with various groans and sighs.
“Well, how the hell are ya Charlie?” Ralph asked the bartender as he smiled and took a seat.
“You hear lookin for Ernie?” Charlie Winfield snapped back at Ralph.
“As a matter of fact, I am Charlie, but first I was wonderin if I could wet my whistle a bit?“
“Nuh-uh,” Charlie shut him down quickly. “Not until ya get that mothafucka out of my bathrooms. I don’t know why, but I let that crackhead motherfucka stay past final call and nah he botherin folks. None of the paying customers can go in restroom and take a piss wit out him holdin his hands out beggin for money, and on top of that he got the whole bathroom smeillin like piss and gotdamn glue. I can’t have it Ralph. I just can’t have it.”
“Aw well shit man, sorry Ernie been a hassle for you. You know he been going through some things so-“
“Ralph, Ernie been ‘going through some things’ for 11 years now I don’t want to hear that shit. I just want him out of my bar.”
“Well how bout this Charlie. If I get him out of hea, will ya gimmie a drink?”
“I said I would, didn’t I?” Charlie replied while he polished a shot glass. Ralph walked pass the bar and to the men’s bathroom. He opened the door and immediately took a step back as he was greeted by a wall of foul odor, the combination of urine and Loctite 37467 Gold Rtv 598 High Performance Silicone, a high-grade glue that Ernie Stott enjoyed to huff. He covered his nose with his coat sleeve and walked in, yelling with a muffled voice, “Ernie! Getcho ass out hear right now!” Banging on the stall door with his other hand. “Ralph? Hey, baby is that you?” A croak of a voice retorted in between the sounds of heavy breathing and the crinkling of a brown paper bag being inflated then deflated and inflated again. The lock turned and Ernie stepped out clothed in a bathrobe, shabby underwear and a pair of worn Timberland boots. Gold flecks of the high-grade glue stuck to his unkempt facial hair surrounding his mouth. Several brown paper bags lay crumpled at his feet in a large puddle of urine that spanned well over two stalls, as well as a tube of glue withered and frail from a night’s worth of huffing.
“Wassup baby? How you feelin after last night?” Ernie asked Ralph, leaning against the stall door, grinning from ear to ear. Ralph was surprised Ernie remembered the two of them were together last night. Glue tended to have negative effects on short-term memory. “Now, see Ernie that’s what I came hear to ask ya about. See, I got hit on the head at some point last night an, well to be honest wit ya Ernie, I don’t remember shit.” Ralph spoke as Ernie walked over to the sink and threw some water on his face, scrubbing the glue off his beard, flakes of gold sticking to the polished black porcelain of the sink bowl.
“Nah I know we tried ta knock over Kenwoods.”
“An would have succeeded if that ornery bitch Monique didn’t snitch on us. Gettin’ us manhandled like that by them big ugly niggas runnin’ security. Almost broke my damn nose when they threw me out the door.” And yo drunk ass was hollerin’ and screaming once we was out the door, talkin’ bout you gon kill somebody if you can’t get your liquor. Ha! I don’t know who in the hell you thought you was foolin’ with that nonsense, Ralph, but it damn sho was funny. Now, what else you remember?”
“That’s it. After that I just remember wakin up at McDowell with these little shits poking me in the eye with some sticks. Think you can fill me in on what happened after we got booted from Kenwood, my man?”
“Well, after we was ‘escorted’ from Kenwood, you thought it would be a good idea to go get something to eat so we walked down to 79th to get some hot dogs from Maxwell Street, you know the ones with all the relish and mustard and tomatoes and extra fixin’s and shit on em?”
“Aight, so we got some hot dogs then-”
“Not exactly. See, before we got in Maxwell Street one of them Muslim Brotherhood muthafuckas was preachin, tryna sell bean pies an shit you know how they do. Well I guess that made you feel a bit angry cause you fucked him up something good.”
A sickness came over Ralph. He was a drunk sure, but most definitely not a violent one. Ralph was joyous and cheerful while under the influence, a disposition he prided himself on.
“Aw man did I really? What in the hell was we drinkin last night, Ernie?” Ralph moaned through the scruff of his beard, scratching at it worrisomely.
“Well lemme see,” Ernie picked his drug-impaired mind. “Skol, most definitely, some Hennessey, a lil Jack Daniels, some Seagram’s Gin,” the list went on.
“Well what happened after I beat on that man?”
“Ion know Ralph, I took off when you started fuckin’ him up. Wasn’t tryna get bumped off by no cops on a count of yo crazy ass wantin to kick a nigga’s teeth in cause you got a lil liquor in you.” Ralph knew what he had to do next. He had to go down to 79th and apologize to the man, but first he needed a drink.
“Aight Ernie, ya gotta come up outta this bathroom now, Charlie complainin sayin ya ‘disturbing customers’.”
“Man, fuck Charlie! That uppity ass nigga! I ain’t done shit but mind my own business!”
“Well, how bout this,” Ralph placed a hand on Ernie’s shoulder. “If ya leave with me, I’ll buy ya some more glue.” Ralph had Ernie’s full attention now.
“Yeah man? You’ll do that for me?”
“Yeah, I know what kind you like too. That “Loctite Gold” right? And I know you banned from the ACE Hardware up on Stony for tryna steal some.”
“Damn that’s right I am ain’t I? I ain’t too good at stealin, am I Ralph?”
“No, ya ain’t Ernie. Nah come on, get ya shit an lets go.”
“Oh, well aight, but I ain’t cleanin this shit up.”
Leaving the empty tube of Loctite Gold and the brown paper bags, Ralph walked behind Ernie as he escorted him out of the bathroom. The two strolled happily towards the front door amongst a small sea of disgusted faces and upturned noses; the smell of Ernie’s mess had clung to his bathrobe. Ernie smiled, sure that he was about to get his next high free of charge.
Maybe it was the thought of the glue that blinded Ernie’s intuition, but Ralph had no intentions of buying Ernie anything. In fact, once they were close enough to the front door, Ralph pushed Ernie through it. The door swung open with the force of his weak feeble body and the glorious autumn sun shown through the dimly lit lounge. Ralph exited as well, maybe to ensure Ernie stayed out for good so he could collect his alcoholic bounty, or maybe as an act of solidarity, instant atonement for his trickery, but once the door closed behind them it was swiftly locked by Charlie the bartender, the clicking of the gears was a noise Ralph was all too familiar and angry with. He pulled and pushed the handle, an exercise in futility, until he realized as such.
“The fuck you do that for Ralph?” Ernie swayed on wobbling legs, disoriented from the sudden burst of motion and sunlight.
“Aw, shut the hell up Ernie, go on an get!”
“What about my glue, Ralph?”
“I ain’t getting ya no damn glue! You need to quit huffin’ that shit anyway, you damn fiend! Now get!”
Ernie stomped off west down 87th cursing Ralph’s name, a sound that grew distant until he reached the viaduct on Greenwood where it was briefly amplified into a cacophonous rage, then faded into nothingness. Ralph was angry now. He had gotten no further in his quest for knowledge, but more importantly, he still hadn’t had a sip of liquor all day. He stormed north down Stony Island towards 79th, his head still throbbing with every step due to the brick and the cumulative hangover that came with 20 years of non-stop alcoholism, as it was just rearing its ugly head.
79th and Stony Island is a crossroads of sorts. Three streets intersecting (79th, Stony Island and South Chicago) as well as the Chicago Skyway looming overhead, rusty brown metal legs planted into the concrete moaned and screeched as freight trucks soared above along the Skyway, dripping murky water down on pedestrians even on sunny days like today as cars zip past at ground level. In between the traffic of the crossroads you can always find two groups of people: bums and Muslims. The bums congregate there because of the large influx of cars, hoping to God that one of the drivers would grant them with the spare change floating around in their ashtrays and cup holders. The Muslims are there for the same reason, money, but instead of humbly begging, they sell. Bean pies and copies of the Muslim newspaper “The Final Call”. Dressed in sharp, but cheap, black suits and stiff bowties year round both parties patrolled the intersection of 79th and Stony Island.
Ralph glided through the traffic, a predator in high weeds. He spotted his target: a younger man, around the age of 25, with a blackened eye and bruised right cheek. “Final Call! Final Call!” the young man yelled feebly amongst the roar of a passing semi truck. He turned, saw Ralph walking towards him and in a flash of panic dropped the newspapers and bolted towards the sidewalk with Ralph in not far behind him. Horns blared like mad dogs as the two played out their game of cat and mouse in the intersection. Eventually, with a last breath, Ralph tackled the young man onto the moist concrete, droplets of water falling onto his cranium.
“Mister, don’t hurt me no more, please!” Ralph got a closer look at the damage he had done the night prior. I been roughed up worse than that, he thought to himself, but figured he should take it easy on the young man, seeing how much fear he seemed to instill in his heart.
“Hey now, calm down. Calm down, young blood!” Ralph yelled and the young man stopped squirming.
“Just calm down. You calm? Nah son, I ain’t hear to hurt you no more I just wanna ask you some questions bout last night if that’s alright with you.”
“Aight I guess,” the young man replied reluctantly, still on edge from the entire experience. “Get off me though, man. You smell like piss and glue.”
Ralph eased his way off the young man and once on his feet offered him his old, calloused hand. The young man grabbed it and was gently holstered up.
“Aight nah first things first, what’s ya name son?”
“E-Ezekiel,” he answered.
“’Ezekiel’, huh? That’s a biblical name, ain’t it? Well, Ezekiel, first off I wanna apologize for beatin’ on you last night. I shouldn’t a done what I did and quite frankly I’m ashamed of myself, son.” Ezekiel looked into Ralph’s thick brown eyes, at his black beard peppered with flakes of white, at the scars and wrinkles of time that layered his face. He saw a man sad and defeated by his vices, a man truly lost.
“It’s aight man, don’t worry bout it.” Ezekiel replied, a large and utterly sincere smile shown across Ralph’s face.
“Well nah that we got that out of the way, I wanted ta ask you bout last night and what happened after I, well, you know.”
“Well, that’s the thing man,” Ezekiel sat on the curb and reached into his suit jacket, pulling out a dull silver flask and proceeded to unscrew the top. “I passed out after you beat me up. I wish I could help you but I don’t know shit man.”
“Now wait a minute, I thought you Muslims couldn’t drink? Thought it was against your religion?”
“It is, but when you dealin’ wit folks round hear like you, sometimes you can’t help but stray from ‘God’s righteous path’.” Ralph sat next to Ezekiel.
“Well regardless of ya religion, ya shouldn’t be drinking son. Leads to bad things, bad decisions. I mean hell, look at me for Christ’s sake.”
“Oh yeah? What the hell you know bout life old man?” Ezekiel took a swig and the second after he retracted the flask from his lips Ralph’s worn fingers ripped it out of his hands. Ralph took a long swig from the flask, savoring the moment.
“Well, let me tell you son, this morning I woke up in the parking lot at McDowell Elementary, you know the one on Dorchester? Well I woke up there with nothing to my name but my coat and this nasty bump on the side of my head while some school kids was poking me with sticks…”
Davis Blackwell is a fiction writer born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. He currently attends Columbia College Chicago and is a senior in the Creative Writing department.