Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s 6:30 in the morning, and Maria is still asleep. I’m awake before the alarm goes off, but I don’t move yet. I just stare into her auburn hair. Her back, with its thick pale scar, is pressed against my chest. I have to be careful when I get up. If I move too quickly, Maria will startle awake and want me to stay, and I can’t miss another day of work. We can’t afford that. I want to get inside her now, but I resist.
Our place is on the North Side of Chicago, in an area known alternately as Rogers Park and the Jonquil Jungle. There are thirteen apartments on every floor. We live on the third floor, in a small room with a kitchenette, a half fridge, and one window, but we have our own bathroom. The paint in the hallways is dark red and cracked. The girls that work the sidewalk in front of the bookstore on Howard all live here, five or six to a room. They bring their customers in and out, and their customers come from everywhere. We’ve changed the locks on the door three times since we’ve been here.
I raise the window shade to let in a little light and pull on my pants. I boil water in a saucepan, fill my coffee cup — two spoonfuls of instant coffee, one spoonful of creamer — and sit at our table. My caseworker told me they’re changing out the furniture at the day center, so Maria and I might get a new table and some other stuff this weekend.
Maria sleeps naked on the mattress a few feet away. The blanket has slipped off her shoulder, and her breast is exposed. She looks as if she’s having pleasant dreams. This is rare. Normally the blanket is pulled tight around her shoulders, gripped in bunches in her hands. She sleeps with her eyes pressed shut and her mouth wide open, and she talks in her sleep.
I drink my coffee slowly and take one of Maria’s paperbacks off the shelf. I read two sentences, then put it back. She’s always reading. She likes romances. I told her she should write a romance about us, but she said nobody would be interested, because we don’t have nice things. She reads while she’s filling in at the branch library, and she summarizes the stories for me when I get home.
I take one last look at her before leaving to catch the 7:15 train. Her scent fills the room. She’ll wake up soon and call me at work. But now she’s breathing easily, and I think she should always be able to sleep this way. She should have slept this way her whole life.
“Most file clerks don’t stick around,” Ms. Ward says. “We have a high turnover because of the monotony.” Ms. Ward wears her thick red hair in a tight ponytail. She has a small mouth and pointy teeth, and she questions the minutes on my timecard every week. She’s thirty years older than me and was once married, but now lives alone in an apartment in Lincoln Park, not far from the zoo.
“You don’t have to worry about me leaving,” I tell her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I’m working on benefits for overseas employees. The rows of filing cabinets are endless: half a floor of a building downtown. I work slowly but steadily under the long fluorescents, organizing the folders by location, then specialty, then last name. The file cabinets are in the middle of the building, far from the windows, and are ringed by offices that nobody uses. On each office door there is a nameplate and a white board and a marker for leaving messages. Occasionally, when no one is looking, I’ll write a joke message on someone’s door.
I read through the enormous sums of money — salary, compensation, per diems — the overseas employees receive. They all come from good schools; it says so on their résumés, attached to the files. The receptionists keep plates full of apples on their desks. The firm consults for governments. It has copywriters stationed in China writing political billboard ads.
Ms. Ward tells me I have a phone call.
“When are you going to be home?” Maria asks.
“I don’t know. It’s all the way out there by the western suburbs. The brown line stops running after seven. I’ll have to come back through downtown.”
“I never should have encouraged you.”
“You were trying to be supportive. Look on the bright side: after today I’ll be home every day by six.”
“I’m not going in to work today,” Maria says. “I’m going to see Jackie instead.”
Jackie is Maria’s therapist. When you turn eighteen, as Maria and I both did recently, you lose your status as a ward of the court, but you still have access to social services for a year. If you’re good, the state will even pitch in on your rent.
“Don’t tell her about Gracie, OK?” I say.
“Jackie thinks you should be in therapy too. You’re more messed up than I am.”
“I hope not.”
“I could get in trouble if you get caught,” Maria says. “I could lose my privileges. I need my therapy.”
I can picture her holding the phone against her ear with her shoulder and squeezing her arms together. Ms. Ward is standing at her desk, watching me.
“Theo?” Maria says.
“I wish when you left for work that you would tie me up like a pig. You could use the electrical cord. I’d have to wait here for you like that.”
Ms. Ward brushes past me.
“I want you to hit me so hard I have bruises everywhere,” Maria says. “You don’t hurt me enough.”
“Tell Jackie about that.”
“I can’t. She’ll think I’m a slut.”
“I’ve got to get back to work.”
Maria’s sigh comes through clearly over the phone.
Before I leave work, I finish organizing all the employees in Japan. Ms. Ward asks me if I would like to contribute to the bagel pool. Everybody pitches in two dollars, and on Fridays we have bagels and cream cheese.
“But I’m a temp,” I tell her.
“But you eat the bagels, don’t you?”
“I’ll have to talk to the agency about that.”
“You know, Theo, you shouldn’t be on the phone so much at work.”
Mr. Gracie is a security guard at the Standard Oil Building, but he used to be a corrections officer at the Western Juvenile Detention Center. That’s where I know him from. I saw him again a little over a month ago, while I was walking to the beach one day on my lunch break. I recognized him immediately. I stopped on the sidewalk, and people had to walk around me.
I wait for him today after work, as I have every weekday for the past month. I watch him pull his coat from a hidden closet behind the security desk, tip his hat to the man arriving for the next shift, and push through the revolving doors to the subway line. I follow him to the train, keeping a few people between us. I shouldn’t be wearing a jacket in this hot weather, but I am. A light blue denim with an inside pocket.
I’m hoping he doesn’t apologize. If he apologizes, I don’t know what I’ll do.
We take the underground pedestrian tunnel between the two main subway arteries of the city; the long corridor amplifies the sound of the commuters’ footsteps. I swear I can smell his cologne. The traffic in the tunnel runs both ways. I push against people and walls trying to get through.
Mr. Gracie gets on at the front of the car, and I get on in the back. The blue line hurtles toward the Kennedy Expressway and the northwest suburbs, out by O’Hare International Airport. He sits on the outside of a two-seat bench. No one sits next to him.
When I first saw Mr. Gracie, I was surprised that he didn’t look very different: the same short black stubble on his chin, top two buttons open on his shirt. But then, it’s only been a few years. People don’t change that much when they’re in their forties. I look different. I have long hair now. In the juvenile center they kept it cut close to the scalp. My hair is straight and blond and hangs past my collar. This could be one reason Mr. Gracie hasn’t noticed me following him. Another might be that he isn’t looking. A third might be that there were so many boys, he can’t remember us all.
We pass Fullerton and the Barrio. The Polish restaurants and the Ukrainian Village. I tug on my jacket, adjust the weight in the pocket. He’s just sitting there.
A few weeks ago, on a Saturday, Maria and I went on a picnic with our friends Dave and Nadia. Nadia’s pregnant, and Maria rubbed her face against Nadia’s belly and put her hands inside the waistband of Nadia’s shorts, on her stomach.
“Babies,” Dave said, handing me a paper plate with a tuna sandwich and potato salad on it. “Who gives a fuck about babies?” He laughed.
I took a seat next to Maria. She didn’t want to eat. She didn’t want to move away from Nadia’s stomach.
Maria’s the smartest person I’ve ever met, but she had a hard time getting through the system. The state placed her in the sister group home to mine. She taught me multiplication and has won every game of backgammon we’ve ever played; she always locks up my last five spaces. She carefully explains every move, but I never get it. I’m smarter than her in one way, though: I know every major street in Chicago and the address numbers of each block. I knew the boundaries of all the neighborhoods by the time I was thirteen.
At Foster, a Chicago Transit Authority officer boards the train and stands next to me, his holstered pistol inches from my nose. He’s scowling and his hand drops heavily over the gun, his fingers pressing the leather.
The third time I followed Mr. Gracie home, I hid in his neighbor’s bushes across the street. I thought someone had seen me, so I crouched quietly in the dirt and waited. I felt as if I were naked and hiding in the bushes so that nobody would see me without my clothes on, like in a dream. I crossed my arms over my chest. I thought the police were going to come and surround me and ask what I was doing, and I was going to have to admit that I was following Mr. Gracie. They would grab me by the arm and ask why. They’d want reasons, but I wouldn’t have any to give them. When I run through this in my mind, I shake my head slowly and also kind of nod knowingly at the same time. I say to myself repeatedly, I am following Mr. Gracie.
Nobody saw me behind the neighbor’s bushes, and I hid out there and watched him come home and waited for the lights to snap on. I learned that he has a wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They live in a bungalow in Jefferson Park. After eight they sit together in the living room and watch television. He has children. That kills me.
When I first started coming home late, Maria thought I was cheating on her. She broke all our dishes. Standing in the mess she’d made, I told her that I had seen Mr. Gracie and I had been following him. She knew who Mr. Gracie was and what had happened between him and me. (Maria and I tell each other everything; that’s the foundation of our relationship.) At first she was interested. She’d be waiting at the table when I got home. “What did he do today?” she’d ask. “Eat an apple? Read the newspaper?” Sometimes Maria would have bruises or a bloody lip. “I tried to wait for you, but it got late, so I had to go out.” Yesterday she told me I had to finish the job, or she was going out and not coming home again. For Maria, being alone is the hardest thing.
Mr. Gracie unzips his bag and looks inside of it. Satisfied, he zips it back up. The CTA officer exits the train, hand still massaging his gun holster, and looks both ways in the station.
In juvenile, none of us knew anything about the staff’s outside lives. We didn’t even know their first names. The staff carried nightsticks and handcuffs. We had baggy brown pants and T-shirts. I had been in a glass cage for two days after losing a fight to a kid named Larry when Mr. Gracie came to get me. He told me to walk close to the red lines on the floor. The facility was dark, and everyone’s gym shoes were out in the hallway, their doors locked from the outside. Mr. Gracie took me into an empty office. He told me to put my stuff in the corner.
“You think you’re tough?” he said. “You like to fight? You want to fight me?”
He stood a foot taller than me. His arms were like tree branches. He slapped me hard and quick across my cheek. I knew better than to try and cover myself. Then he strip-searched me and made me do squats while he pressed on my shoulder. He told me to stand up and place my hands behind my head, and he poked at my ribs, flicking his middle finger hard. Then he bent me over the steel table and raped me, occasionally hitting my face, his hand flying out from some unseen place behind me. When he was done, he took me back to my room.
© Matthew Gray
In a perfect world I could sit alone with Mr. Gracie and ask him questions, and he would tell me the truth. Maybe we would have a drink, a beer or coffee or something. We’d have all the time in the world. I picture us sitting on a bed, fully clothed, in a cheap hotel.
The first thing I would ask him is how he lost his job. Did he get caught? I don’t think he got caught, because I don’t see how he could get a job as a security guard at the fifth-largest building in the world if they had caught him. They could have just suspected something; or maybe they made a deal. But I don’t think so.
Then I would ask him how he met his wife. Was she his high-school sweetheart? Did they meet at a bar? What’s it like raising children? I’d like to tell him about Maria, about her uncles and her grandmother. How she masturbates until the insides of her thighs are black and blue, and I masturbate with her until the skin on my penis breaks. How she calls me at work crying, saying she’s been shoving the vacuum cleaner between her legs, and she’s hurting. How, once, because I had done something wrong, Maria whipped me across the face with her belt. I got down in front of her and held her legs. She yanked on my hair with both hands and yelled, “You’re worthless!”
The next night I brought her flowers. I was hoping she would hit me again, call me names, tell me how worthless I am. I rushed home from work every day, hoping. But she wouldn’t do it, not even when I asked. That’s when she really started cheating on me. She said whipping me made her feel bad about herself. She wanted to be abused. But I wanted the same thing.
“I’m starting to hate you,” Maria said. “I want you to hit me, and you want me to hit you. This is terrible.”
She went out nights. She met a man with a red beard who held a knife beneath her nipple and dared her to move. She got into cars with strangers. A man stuck a screwdriver in her ass. After a week of this, I started hitting her again, because it keeps her home and safe. When she goes out looking, walking down to the gas station late at night in her underwear, anything can happen. Somebody’s going to kill her someday. I’d like to tell Mr. Gracie about Maria. I’d like to ask Mr. Gracie for his advice. What should I do?
When the train stops at Belmont and Kimball, a large crowd of people get off, and Mr. Gracie and I look at each other. Our eyes meet. The Belmont and Kimball station is underground and curved like a missile silo, only made out of brick. I’m being careless today, which is why Mr. Gracie has seen me. But he looks away. He pulls a newspaper out of his bag, opens it, and begins to read.
© Ryan Anderson
He would come and get me about once a week; I never knew exactly when. I’d wait in my room for him. I remember Mr. Gracie’s hands closing around my neck, how I couldn’t breathe, and then how I didn’t want to breathe. I remember how his body felt warm on my back and how, when he pulled away from me, I felt exposed, as if somebody had yanked a blanket off me. I remember what Mr. Gracie said to Larry, that kid I lost the fight to, after he knocked Larry in the teeth with his billy club: he said that if anything happened to me, he was going to hold Larry personally responsible; that if I so much as cut my finger, Larry was going into the hole. And I remember the look of fear on that kid’s face. Larry, the biggest kid I’ve ever seen, with biceps like watermelons. When Larry realized one day that Mr. Gracie wasn’t coming back to work, he cornered me in the bathroom and broke my leg and caved in my chest. I was in the hospital ward for three months.
Jefferson Park is the last stop in the city. I follow Mr. Gracie off the train. We walk down the iron stairs to the bus terminal. The air reeks of gasoline. People are milling around, and ten buses are waiting to haul passengers to Cicero, Berwyn, Rosemont, and points west. I lose Mr. Gracie for a moment in the crowd, but then I find him again, negotiating his way around a large woman with a stroller. He strides up the steps onto the Archer 68 bus. We’re a long way from downtown. Mr. Gracie’s commute takes more than an hour.
I sit right across from Mr. Gracie. I put my hand over the pocket of my jacket. I’m doing this for Maria. We made a pact. He puts his paper down on the seat next to him — it unrolls to the classifieds — and we look each other straight in the eye. He’s wearing a light cloth jacket. He still has broad shoulders, but he looks thin now, almost frail. Suddenly I feel panicked. It’s a hot summer day, but the air conditioning on the bus is turned up too high. A minute ago I was drenched in sweat, and now I am freezing as the moisture in my T-shirt turns to ice.
“So,” Mr. Gracie says, rolling the word around in his mouth like a gumball. “What’s on your mind?”
I try to smile. I place my hands on my knees. Mr. Gracie places his hands on his knees as well. We mirror each other. Mr. Gracie has long, thin legs. He looks like a spider.
“I’m glad you’re not working there anymore,” I say. “You’re a predator.”
“A predator,” Mr. Gracie says, and he lets out a small laugh. He takes a cigarette from his pocket and slides the window open.
“No smoking on the bus,” the driver says, looking in his rearview mirror.
For all the people in the station, the bus is sparsely occupied: eight or nine passengers. Archer is a desolate street: closed-down factories, hot-dog stands. It runs on a diagonal through the West Side. The street itself makes no sense in the city’s layout, as it never reaches downtown. Mr. Gracie shrugs his shoulders, kicks one leg over the other, leans back. I watch his face for signs of fear. If only I could get Maria to understand me more. She’s so selfish. There are only her needs. It occurs to me that she might be out right now, getting her fix. She always does what she wants.
“Terrible,” Mr. Gracie says, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the world outside, “to work so hard all day and step out into this kind of heat. I’ve always worked hard for less than I’m worth.”
I start to look away but catch myself. I want to be aggressive. “You know what you did.”
Mr. Gracie narrows his vision on me, letting the outside world pass by unnoticed. “How about this,” he says. It’s a familiar tone of voice, and I slip back, pressing my tailbone against the seat. “If you still had anything left to you — which you don’t — I’d do it again.” I can see his teeth. “Look at you. Look at how you’re dressed.” I look at my old jacket, my only pair of work pants. Why can’t I have nicer clothes? “You look like an old man. You should at least have learned how to dress. Don’t you have an iron?”
I look down at the floor, fold my hands. My script is gone. I had it all planned out, everything, but now it’s gone, gone. I try to think about his wife and children, but I can’t. My mind doesn’t want to think. I can’t bring up the images. It’s just empty space. I shake my head. The floor of the bus is polished steel, with thick ridges that run from the door to the back window. There were no windows in the detention center, and the windows in the group homes were webbed with wire.
We ride for miles in silence. Just before Mr. Gracie gets off, he says to me, “That’s a big city out there. Eat a man alive.” He pauses. “Somebody should have taken you home, you know?” He stands in front of me and places his hand, his long fingers, over my face: his palm resting on my jawbone; his fingers over my eyes and across my forehead; his thumb in my ear. “Do this for me: Get a haircut. Clean yourself up a little. You’ll feel better about yourself.”
He starts to move his hand, but I press my face against it, pushing into his palm.
“Don’t follow me anymore, Theo. I can’t take care of you. I have my own family. You wanted to have this talk. Fine. Remember, I kept you safe. You were safe when I was around. None of those boys did anything to you when I was there. You know why I kept you safe, right?”
I nod my head.
“That’s right. But you’re on your own now. Take care of yourself.” Mr. Gracie pulls his hand away, slaps my knee with the paper. I hear the squeak of the bus door opening. The sound of boots in a hallway.
By the time I step into the apartment, it’s late. The orange glow of the streetlights filters in around the drawn window shade. I’m relieved when I hear Maria’s breathing. Then I see the dark blue handprint on her shoulder. She’s lying in bed, staring at me. I peel my clothes off, fold them carefully into the milk crates, hang my jacket in the closet. In the bathroom I run the water and wait for it to get hot, then soak a towel with hot water and hold it against my face. I shave carefully with soap and my old razor. I cut myself only once. Then I pull the razor blade out and make a tiny cut on my shoulder. A thin, stinging cut. There’s hardly a drop of blood. Then I cut myself three times more, making a little tick-tack-toe board on my arm. I run my finger over the wound, push gently to make it hurt. Lean forward into the wall and push harder. Breathe in the tiles and the mildew, the smell of the sink. Breathe.
I climb onto the mattress with Maria. She’s wearing scented lotion.
“Did you do it?” she asks.
She’s a silhouette. The sound of transactions on the street below comes through the window. We can always hear the noise from the streets. It’s one of the many reasons why the rent is so low.
“We talked,” I say.
She turns to me. “That’s not what you said you were going to do.”
“I wanted to.”
She turns away from me, tucks her hands beneath her head. It’s gotten very late.
“Don’t turn away from me,” I say, grabbing her hair tightly. She lets out a gasp and carefully backs her warm body into mine.
I interned for a literary review here in Missouri last year, and I chose Stephen Elliot’s story “Stalking Gracie” [February 2003] as “the one” that should get published from the hundreds of manuscripts I went through. The editor held on to it for two weeks, but in the end decided it wasn’t right for our magazine. I’m glad to see that Elliott persisted and that his story found an excellent home.