It was around 11:30pm when Monika called, waking me up from a deep slumber.
– Can you come? I need you here.
– Yes, of course.
I felt my heart beating faster. She never calls. I got up and walked to the bathroom to wash my face. Pausing before the mirror, I noticed a few grey hairs in my stubble. My eyes looked tired.
I put on black jeans, a t-shirt, a pair of distressed leather boots, drank a glass of water and walked out of the house. A pleasantly refreshing breeze embraced me as I headed to the nearby neighbourhood.
She was outside, as beautiful as ever, wearing a green cocktail dress that reminded me of summer. Her lively ever-curious eyes looked straight into mine. She took my hand and led me up the street.
– Let’s go.
We walked a couple of blocks in silence. Then she turned to me as if to see that I was still there. She smiled and my heart sank. Some things you never get over.
I thought of her often. Accidentally for the most part. It takes a seemingly insignificant trigger: a day in a year, a quote mentioned by a friend, a street corner, the hair colour of a passerby. You tend to remember the good. The bad fades away.
She turned into an alley. There was a bar we used to frequent. This night, it was crowded, smoky and loud. A band was playing. We were passing through the throng; someone I knew tapped me on the shoulder. The adjacent room was quieter, and we sat at the bar.
– Two vodkas, please.
The bartender placed two shots beside us. She downed hers. Then took mine and downed it as well.
– So what is it about?
She paused. The light from above the bar illuminated her face. Enchanting, but not mine anymore.
– I still love you.
I woke up to the trill of a ringing phone and found myself on the couch in my living room, with a book on my chest. Must have fallen asleep reading. I saw my cellphone and picked it up. It was her.
– Can you come? I need you here.
A dim table lamp barely made a difference, casting more shadow than anything.
– What’s the best thing you’ve ever done, grandpa? – Asked a little boy.
– Grhm… What?
– The best thing… My homework is to ask our family members about the best thing they’ve ever done.
The grandpa scratched his cheek, gazing through the floor.
– I helped a man, – he said at last, – a man who shaped my life.
The boy was looking at the grandpa, all ears.
– While in university, I struggled for money, doing odd jobs here and there, – grandpa continued. – But one day, I noticed a piece of paper attached to a bulletin board that said:
‘Caregiver needed. Accommodation provided. Pay negotiable. Number below.’
I remember thinking: room for free and money on top – something not to miss. I called the number right away.
A day or so later, I met Martin. He was an old black handicapped man living in an elegant but decrepit two-storey house on the right bank. He greeted me heartily.
During the first week at his house, I learned how inaccurate indeed it would be to call Martin ‘disabled’. Paying next to no attention to his wheelchair and his condition, Martin was in fact the liveliest person I’ve ever known. One thing he couldn’t cope with, though, was being alone.
– Not a single goddamn friend alive, – he used to say.
I lived on the second floor. Caring for Martin was a breeze, mostly keeping the house clean and helping him get around when he was tired. Days on end we spent talking. I got used to him. He became a close friend.
– What happened then, grandpa?
– Then he died. I came into his room one morning with a visceral fear of the end. I was right.
Later I found out that he had left me his only valuable possession — the house. I decided to sell it, but didn’t know what to do with the money. Eventually, I tracked down Martin’s birthplace, a small village in Mali. I went there with a vague idea of trying to help someone, even if distantly related to Martin.
I arrived one early morning and asked, in french, to see the elder. The elder was curious to know what brought me there, and I told him Martin’s story (whose real name was Modibo) and my intentions. The elder said they needed to discuss the matter but I could stay with them in the meantime. On my way out of the elder’s hut, I saw my future wife. I never took that flight back.
Your father was born a year or so later in the same village. With the money I brought, we’ve built a school, which your father went to, and which kids still go to. I will show you one day, – the grandpa turned to the boy.
The boy was sleeping.
On September 21, around three in the afternoon, Al was walking home from high school, following his everyday route: along Sinclair Street, then left and down Frederick Avenue. Unlike most teenagers, Al wasn’t listening to music. Instead, he was preoccupied with analyzing his prospects of getting into Harvard. Al was 18 years old.
Harvard wasn’t easy to get into, but it was the only school on Al’s mind. Thinking of it consumed virtually every minute of his time. Al was working hard to get the best grades while playing basketball for the school team. He was a decent player, but could’ve been better if he liked the game. Money wasn’t a problem — when Al was born, his parents set up a college fund for him. They were morticians: doing very well, actually.
Al wanted to go to Harvard to study finance. In four years, as a graduate, he would join an investment bank as a junior financial analyst, from where he imagined steadily climbing the ladder until gaining enough confidence to move on. He would then quit to start a hedge fund, accelerating his way into early retirement. Family wasn’t a priority: around 35 could be a good time, or once the business is stable. Al’s plan was to make enough to get out at 45, then devoting his time to the things he loved: travelling, music, and raising children. There will be plenty of time to do all that, he thought.
Girls liked Al. He was good-looking and seemed mysterious. Amy, his classmate, invited him on a date, but he never went. In fact, nobody has ever remembered Al going on a date. He just didn’t seem to have time. Last year, Al’s classmates went on a trip to San Francisco, but Al didn’t go. A few months ago, there was a party at Chris’s, when his parents left town, but Al didn’t come. Al’s younger sister, Mary, bought marijuana once, but Al didn’t try.
Al was approaching his house when he saw Mrs. Kinsley, a retired neighbour, standing outside anxiously.
– Mrs. Kinsley, what’s going on?
– My cat. She went up the tree and isn’t coming down. Can you help me get her?
– Sure… No problem. – Al took his backpack off.
Between two properties stood an old oak: mighty and high. Al raised his head and, squinting, saw a small cat at the very top. He grasped the lowest hanging branch and pulled himself up. Al climbed slowly. Occasionally, some branches would dangerously squeak under his weight. Half way there, Al glanced down and noticed how vertigo started to crawl on him. He swallowed heavily but continued the climb, continuously calling the cat’s name. Finally, the cat was close enough. Al extended his arm to grab her, when the branch underneath broke off, and he slipped.
There was a thud followed by the scream of Mrs. Kinsley. Al was 18 years old.
It was getting dark. The sun has nearly set when my partner and I found ourselves on the most dangerous block in Chicago. I was standing against the wall, relaxed, hands in my pockets, talking to my partner when we noticed some black guys walking our way. They didn’t look good at all. We were there to watch, and that’s what we were doing, waiting till the company approached us. Not even thirty seconds later one of them came up to me and said:
– An whatcha doin here?
– Nothing, – I responded in the most polite tone I could master.
– Don ya think its not your kind o place-ah?
– Look, – I said, – we are just waiting for someone. Don’t bother us and we won’t bother you.
– Nobody is gonna bother me around here, ya understand?
The situation was getting slightly out of control. I was tempted to reach for my gun and blow this black guy’s head off. Instead, I signalled my partner ‘to go’, and we silently walked towards the other side of street. Predictably, it was not that easy.
– Where ya goin? I havent finished wit you, bitch!
He pulled out a knife. My partner was going to reach for a gun, but I stopped him. We can’t use guns, not now. If we fire, we’ll screw up the reason we are here in the first place. I had to think of a way to lose this guy, quickly. I wasn’t afraid of a knife. In my life, knives ceased to be scary.
But there was something wrong with this guy. I could feel his hatred. I could feel that if he comes close enough, I had a good chance of being stabbed. I looked over my shoulder to see if there was something even remotely representing a weapon. I saw a brick a couple feet away and stepped back to pick it up. Let’s see.
Surprised by us not fleeing, the guy slowed down for a moment, but then suddenly rushed towards me, his face full of eagerness to end my life. I raised a brick over my head, ready to smash his head if need be. The distance was shortening quickly. He was only about ten feet away when I heard the sound of a gun.
The boy fell on the pavement and remained motionless. His head just a half a few feet away from my boots. Angrily I looked back at my partner, for we’ve failed by opening a fire. But he hadn’t drawn his gun. It was not him who shot the boy.
I looked back at the black boy, lying face down with a knife still in his hand. I could see a bullet-sized hole in his shaved head. His friends were gone; it was just me, my partner, and the dead black boy out in the street on the most dangerous block in Chicago. I had to call the police. But then I realized, I was a policeman myself.