A complete chapter from Happy Baby, the novel in stories by Stephen Elliott, published by McSweeney’s in 2004. Help us make Happy Baby into a movie.
At night, when our door is locked, we aren’t supposed to be talking. We’re supposed to be sleeping. I stand over Petey, naked except for my underwear, trying to see out the window. The springs creak and I hold my breath before placing my hands on the sill. We can never tell if they can hear us or not. Through the window I make out the dark outline of the Henry Horner housing projects, the sharp corners facing Western, and some of the dull grey towers of the University campus and its cement bridges crossing between the building’s top floors. I think about University sometimes but I would never go to a school near here. If I ever get out I’ll go somewhere far away, another city on the edge of the country.
“See any birds?” Petey asks in a low whisper. He turned sixteen yesterday, three years older than me, but we don’t celebrate birthdays here. “Anything?” Petey lies under his blanket, his legs inches from my feet. I think about stepping on his ankles for some height.
“I can see the Circle Campus. And the highway. Same stuff that’s always there. That’s the Roosevelt entrance,” I tell him, nodding toward something he can’t see. “Goes straight to Wisconsin.”
Petey shifts below me and I catch his sour odor escaping from under his blanket. “Be careful,” Petey says. Things have been tense recently, more tense than usual. There’s been rumors. Not that anyone talks to us. But you can’t help but hear in the school, or in food line, people whispering threats to each another. We listen for footsteps, for a trustee or a guard to swing the door open and pull one of us out of the room. I think about the door opening all the time, even when I’m on the other side of it. Petey does too. That’s why he wets his bed.
Petey stares at me with his huge misshapen head as I try to see further. I love the streets. I can name every fourth street in Chicago. I wasn’t looking out of this window until recently, when we began to talk. Now I climb on his bed every night to look outside and when I’m looking outside I want to jump up and down on the bunk, but I don’t.
Before, I didn’t want to talk to Petey because of the way he looks, and the way he smiles a lot. I knew the minute I saw him he was a victim. The first time he came into this room I folded my arms over my head and ducked between my knees. It was like a hole had opened in the floor. After that, if he would say something I would look away like I hadn’t heard. I stayed close to the wall, on my side of the room. I spent months not communicating with him.. And one day, not so long ago, they beat him up in the bathroom—they always get him them—but maybe this time was worse. I was under the last shower and still covered in soap. He was lying on the tiled floor wheezing, his teeth broken in pieces, a pink halo around his head sliding toward the drainpipe. I tried to look ahead and get the soap off my legs but I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was this strange deformed white animal. And he said, “I wonder what they wanted.” Then he tried to laugh but started to choke and had to stop. But he made it clear, he wasn’t going to hold it against me. He didn’t expect me to help.
Now we talk about cars, or about television. Or bands, not that there’s ever any music in here. But mostly cars. We both like big cars a lot. I tell him my father drove a 1970 Cougar Convertible with a white leather interior, the original hubcaps, and a 351 Quickstart Engine. And everything is fine, except when Petey asks me personal questions like about Tuesday nights. “Don’t ask about that,” I tell him. But not too long ago I wouldn’t have answered him at all.
I crawl under the sheet and the blue knit blanket. I always try to keep the sheet between my body and the blanket. They don’t wash the blankets. We sleep in our underwear, our clothes in the hallway next to our shoes. I close my eyes and think of nice things to dream about. I think about driving in my father’s convertible, sitting on his lap while he shows me how to drive around the lot at Warren State Park, the courts in front of us, and the hill where I would sled in the winter. I try not to think about the burned-out shell of the car sitting in the alley, a piece of cinder and ash and twisted carriage, waiting for my father’s friend with the truck to come and tow it away.
“People and Folk,” Nico whispers to me and Petey at breakfast. The breakfast hall is rows of brown tables, one after another, thirty tables in two columns. Three long Plexiglas windows with steel wire running through them. Open seating divides itself by basic distinctions, People or Folk, the two largest Chicago gangs, and within those subgroups, Deuces, Black Gangster Disciples, Assyrian Eagles, Vice Lords, Gay Lords, Latin Kings, Simon City Royals. Five points and six points, pitchforks and crowns. A separate table for the unaffiliated Knights of Kaba, a Muslim gang from Hyde Park. And within those groups color lines, ethnicities, neighborhoods, age. Central Park and Wilson, Farwell and Clark, 63rd and Cottage Grove. The intersections of Chicago meet here in the boys Juvenile Hall, the tables named after street corners. Toward the back of the room the boys get thinner and smaller and younger. Finally outcasts, victims, fodder. Where we sit. There’s two tables of us, the ugliest and the weakest, and we don’t even like each other.
Petey smiles and shakes his head, which I take to mean he doesn’t understand. Petey doesn’t understand anything. He’s just big and dumb and ugly. But I understand what Nico is saying. Nico has short blond stubble and nods rapidly as he eats. Things are coming to a head. There’s a new inmate somewhere and it’s someone from the upper ranks. The soldiers are going to be expected to perform. It’s going to go off, and that’s why there’s the tension and the quiet. The two largest organizations. The worst possible news. Nico forces his entire strip of bacon into his mouth. I take a spoonful of oatmeal. Nico squints his mean eyes together and looks at me as he chews.
Ms. Jolet has wide hips and long black hair. She runs basic math problems on the board and I copy them into my book. I like her, even when she’s turned away, with chalk in her hand. She’s always upbeat. “You have to start each day happy,” she says. She wears bright lipstick, and her ears are full of jewelry. People are always trying to get her attention and she has a way of sharing it, which I hate. I watch her move and how the fabric of her dress hangs on her waist and then outlines her legs, where she is most fat, and fantasize about what she would do to me if she could keep me after school. Come here, Theo. Closer. I fantasize about being only six inches tall and Ms. Jolet taping me to the inside of her thighs, her giant legs crossing back and forth over me, and walking out of the building with me inside her skirt. Behind me the boys pass notes back and forth. Something hits the back of my head. I grab the wet paper with two fingers and let it drop to the floor. This is the good class, for kids that don’t get in trouble, kids who don’t need as much supervision. I copy the multiplication tables. I understand them now. I’m learning. I think I’m on track for my age, but I’d have to see the other tracks to know. Before noon I raise my hand and ask if I can use the bathroom. Ms. Jolet says yes.
The halls are marked with red dashes that run five feet off the wall. The floor is bone colored. When we’re in line we have to walk along the dashes only turning when one group of dashes meets another group of dashes. When walking alone we have to stay between the dashes and the wall. I wear a necklace with a plastic hall pass. Because of my status I can go to the bathroom unescorted. I pass a boy walking in handcuffs flanked by two guards. They’re talking about something that has nothing to do with the boy between them and one of the guards takes a long slow look at me as we pass.
I wash my hands before moving to the urinals. As I’m peeing Larry walks into the bathroom and steps to the urinal next to me. Larry is a Vice Lord, one of the heads. Slated to join the El Rukns when he turns eighteen. He sits at the front table in the mess hall. Larry looks like he’s made out of bowling balls but he’s not much older than me. Maybe a year. His mouth is a thin line, like the cartoon Iron Man. “You’re not very big there,” Larry says looking down at my penis. I feel my cheeks go red and my breathing get heavy. My peeing slows down. “What’s wrong?” Larry asks. “I make you scared?”
“No,” I answer. When I first came into Western I had sat at the wrong table and Larry reached across the table and pulled my face into his plate of mashed potatoes and meat loaf. Larry held me there, my hands gripping the ends of the table but I couldn’t pull away because it felt like I’d rip my hair out if I tried to move. “What are you doing at this table?” Larry asked, lifting my head up and ramming me down into the plate a few times, smearing the potatoes on my cheeks, the other boys laughing, their plates shivering on the wood, the guards ignoring the obvious. Finally he let go and I stood up, my legs weak, my face a mess of food and gravy. I slowly carried my plate to the back of the room and sat down, then wiped the food from my face with a napkin, then stared straight ahead to the wall until the period was over. That was a year ago.
Larry beat me up a lot when I first came here. He came up to me on the school yard and hit me with both his fists, in my back and my front, my wind left me. “Look,” he said to his friends. “He doesn’t even fight back.” Then one day Mr. Gracie asked me where I had got a black eye from. I was seated naked on the desk in front of him and he held my chin in his hand. It was cold. I shook my head and Mr. Gracie let go of me then smacked me across the face and I said, “No.” I kept my arms at my sides. But then Mr. Gracie hit me again and I cried and I said it was Larry and Larry never touched me after that.
“You know what’s going to happen tonight?” Larry asks, pulling his pants up, rolling them over his penis deliberately. “Gonna be a big fight. Whose side you on?”
“I’m not on anybody’s side,” I tell him and move with an affected calm to the sink and run the water, turning over my hands. I have long, thin scars on my left arm from my elbow to my wrist. Each time I look they seem faded and farther away.
“In all that commotion I could probably stab you. Nobody would notice. That’s messed up, right?”
I dry my hands on the towel, turn to walk out of the bathroom. Larry is there, in front of me, blocking the way. I try to go around him and he moves with me, so that I would have to bump him if I’m going to get by.
“Where you going?”
“Back to class.”
“Back to class,” Larry mimics. I feel my stomach snap closed and a wave of nausea pass through me. “That’s messed up, right? That I might stab you.” I look at my shoes, the yellow laces running through my sneakers. Larry hits me beneath my chin and my teeth clatter together. “You afraid of me?” I shake my head. “Why you looking away then? Something in your eye.” I look straight ahead into his face. Larry smiles at me. “I’m only playing with you. You know that. You gonna tell your bodyguard?”
“You gonna tell your boyfriend?”
Larry moves aside and I step into the halls which are empty and past the dorm rooms. I try to catch my breath but my neck is tightening on me. I stick my tongue out of my mouth, stretch my lips as far as they will go. I pull on the corners of my mouth with my fingers. The floor shifts. I turn the corner toward class and stop and place my hands on my thighs. I let the fear run out of me, drain from my nose and my eyeballs. Wait for my breath to come back.
They don’t give us knives. It’s hamburger night. Hamburger and french fries, so even the fork is unnecessary, but there it is. “You gonna eat that?” Nico asks and I shake my head. Nico pushes the hamburger into his face, filling his white spotty cheeks with the meat patty and the dry bread.
“You know what we should do,” Petey says. “We’ll start our own basketball team. If we practice every day we can probably play for the Chicago Bulls. It’s just practice. Why not?”
Nico snorts but the food in his mouth stops him from saying anything.
“You can play basketball, right?” Petey says to me. There’s basketball in the yard after dinner but Petey and I never get to play. We hang out with Nico by the back, hoping not to be noticed.
“I’m too short,” I tell him.
“You’ll grow. I bet you’re seven feet before you’re twenty. How tall are you now?”
“Seven feet for sure.”
“How tall are you, Nico?”
“Fuck you, Petey.”
I turn away. Sometimes the optimism in Petey’s voice is disturbing. I turn back to my fork and its dull points. Not much of a weapon. I wouldn’t use it anyway. And I don’t have pockets, nowhere to put it. And it would probably be noticed, and that would be worse. Mr. Gracie can protect me from the other kids but not from the other guards. The guards can do anything. They make you hold out your hand and they hit you as hard as they can on your palm with a spoon. The pain rumbles through your whole body. They restrained one kid by tying him to a table. Then they forgot about him. They left him in a room tied to a table for three days, then he was taken to the hospital ward and treated for dehydration. Another guard choked a kid to death. Everybody knows about it. Nobody says anything. That guard stands at the front of the room by the food line, a big man with a sloping forehead and an enormous hard round gut hanging over his belt. There were talks of investigations but nothing came of it.
Things seem normal enough. A still air and the sound of chewing. The meat smell. It’s not going to happen here. It’s not going to happen during dinner. I turn to Nico, who, done with his food, also looks around nervously. We’re unaffiliated. Traffic will not stop for us.
“It’s going to happen in the yard,” Nico says.
“I know. I know.” I touch the fork prongs. Hold it with one hand and gently push my other hand onto it.
“If you were seven feet tall,” Petey says, “You’d get every rebound.”
“If I was seven feet tall I’d put on a cape and fly away.”
“We need a plan.” Nico wipes his mouth with the napkin. Of the three of us Nico is the only one who is actually a fighter. He’s held his own in most fights so far but he knows he is marked because of the swastika tattoo on his left forearm. Nico came into Western a month ago. He told me it was for setting fire to a Synagogue but I doubted it. I haven’t told Nico that I’m half Jewish. It isn’t the kind of thing that’s worth telling anybody in here. Nico got an early reputation for biting people during fights in the bathroom, trying to gouge eyes out with his thumb. “So what is it?” he asks.
“What’s the plan?” I say.
“What are we going to do?” Nico says, shaking his head. The fork is about to break the skin on my palm and I hold it for a moment to feel the pain. The sound and the smell goes away. The room is a TV set on mute. I pull my hand off and the pain stops and the sound comes back. In front of us hundreds of other boys eat. Some with shaved heads, the newer boys still with the hair they came in with, all of the heads bobbing over the sea of plates. The guards standing along the walls like sleeping bulls. Florescent bulbs swinging on chains above us. All of us in for different reasons. All of us waiting to go to the yard.
At 6:30 two hundred boys line up outside the TV room in a single file. A guard takes attendance, occasionally pulling someone out of the lineup to be escorted somewhere. We stand in order of age, with the youngest, the twelve-year-olds, at the very back, even though one of the twelve-year-olds, Anthony, threw another child off the roof of a building and is being tried as an adult.
We march with six guards. We wear our assigned clothes, brown pants with elastic waistbands that read Property of DOC on the front as if someone was going to try to steal them, or us. T-shirts color-coded by group, green for owls, blue for bears. Nobody seems sure what the animal designations are supposed to mean. Everything is a system but none of it works. I was ordered released three months ago by a judge on the first floor of this very building but nothing came of it. I wasn’t even handcuffed. I didn’t even know I had a court date. I was pulled out of the line before breakfast. They walked me out the heavy, main door, past the office workers, down two flights of stairs, through the metal detectors and the windows and the security gates to the court rooms. They told me to sit down on a bench and they left me alone for an hour while I watched parents bring their children in and out of the room in front of me. Finally a man in a thin shirt with a small, sharp beard introduced himself as my Guardian Ad Litem. I’d never seen him before. He was eating an orange, which he peeled with his thumbs, and he had a plastic Jewel Foods bag full of papers. He said I’d be heading to placement, maybe a specialized foster home. Would I like that? He seemed nervous. He wanted to know how they were treating me upstairs. Any problems? He put his hand covered in orange juice on my shoulder. I couldn’t figure out who he worked for or what he was trying to tell me or what he wanted me to tell him. What if I said, “Every Tuesday he takes me to the last room by the fire exit and I take my clothes off and bend over the table there. Sometimes I feel bad because I never put up a fight. The other boys are waiting to kill me, but Mr. Gracie protects me.” What if I said that? Probably Mr. Gracie would be gone and Larry and the other boys would cut me into tiny pieces and that would be the end of it. The judge ordered me fit for placement, which means I should be in a group home. Before leaving, my Guardian said it was just a matter of processing some paperwork. They took me back upstairs and I waited. I waited on my mat, I waited in the lunchroom and the classroom and the TV room. I stopped sleeping. I almost told Mr. Gracie, who had told me never to say anything when we were together unless I was asked a question. I almost told Mr. Gracie one Tuesday night after Mr. Gracie had closed the door and pointed with his right hand toward the corner of the room. “I’m going to get out of here.” But I didn’t. I’ve never disobeyed Mr. Gracie and occasionally Mr. Gracie says, his hand over my face covering my mouth, pinching my nose shut, “You’re a good kid. Well behaved. You’re going to turn out OK.”
We pour slowly, one at a time, through the double steel doors onto the yard. The stronger kids walk casually toward the lone basketball hoop, Larry dribbling the basketball. The rest of us just mill around. It’s a cold, damp day. The sky is the same color as the walls. There’s a tetherball stand where a leather bag hangs from a long rope. Usually there’s a game of tag and there’s card games, spades, hearts, and bid whiz. And usually the basketball game is so intense that others wait to play, watching the guys in the game lunging at the hoop, sweat pouring into the collars of their shirts. But today just a handful of boys throw the ball toward the basket, then let it bounce away on the cement. Nobody lays any cards out. No one goes near the hit ball. Other groups walk slowly into corners or lean against the walls.
Nico catches up with me. His face is red as a beet. “Did you see that?”
“See what?” Nobody has a jacket and usually when it is cold like this they’ll take us to the gym or just leave us in the TV room.
“They know, you fucking jerk,” Nico spits at me. Petey joins us as we walk toward our spot against the wall, near the back but not in the corners. The corners are taken.
“Hey,” Petey says.
“The guards,” Nico continues. “The guards know. Look at how they were acting. And where are they now? They’re gone. They are gone. Oh man. Motherfuckers. Motherfuckers.”
I turn around and see it’s true, and that groups of boys are congealing together like oil cooling in a pan. Across the top I see Larry whispering in someone’s ear then turning in my direction. A smile spills across Larry’s face when he notices me looking at him. Larry lifts his shirt slightly and I see the flat slab of metal then the shirt lowering back over the blade like a curtain. My view is obstructed by bodies swelling the yard.
“I’m Jewish,” I say to Nico, sticking my thumbs in the elastic of my pants. The sky spinning above us.
“On my father’s side,” I tell him. “I’m half Jewish.”
“Why would I give a shit about that?”
“You’d care on the outside,” I tell him.
“We’re not on the outside, are we peckerwood? Does this look outside to you?”
Groups are moving together, forcing toward the center of the yard. We try to push through but find ourselves stuck in the coming waves. I lean back and realize that Nico is there behind me and Petey’s big shoulder is in my arm. We have formed a triangle. I look through the crowd for Larry’s knife. There’s a scream through my ear. He’s been waiting to do it to me. He has. Waiting. He’s been waiting since Mr. Gracie smacked him in the teeth with his club and pointed to me and told Larry, anything else happens to me Larry was going to take a long fall. The kind of fall you don’t get up from. Mr. Gracie sealed my fate then. He must have known he couldn’t always be there for me. Now I’m doomed. I wait for the blade in my stomach, peeling my ribs. I close my eyes for a second.
The sound of a jaw breaking echoes through the noise. Fists and faces. There are teeth biting near my nose and Petey’s shoulder covering my face then jerking away. The boys rush together. The air burns. The arms swing in windmills. Blood flies against the blacktop. All over is smashing and punching. A fist hits my cheek, the ground flies toward me. The asphalt beneath my fingers is full of pebbles and I’m surrounded by knees bumping my ears. I am lifted by my collar from the crowding feet. I turn around and see Nico has gone down and is sitting in a position that resembles a prayer. But then Nico is standing again, his arms bent into his chest, feet planted, chin forward. The triangle between us grows larger. I stretch my arms in front of me sucking air through my wide-open mouth. Guards are rushing into the yard, swinging billy clubs. A gunshot. They’re herding us toward the walls. Voices come from the loudspeakers shouting unintelligible directions but repeating them over and over again until they make sense.
“Line up against the wall, single file. Line up against the wall, single file. Line up against the wall, single file.”
We’re against the wall, our backs facing out, our legs spread, our hands pressing into the stone. Petey is on the other side of me, his head down. Nico turns his head slightly and we look at each other and I think Nico is going to start laughing. A smile grows across my face. He is going to laugh, his face is contorting and his eyes squeezing shut involuntarily, and tears are running over his cheek pooling into his mouth. He’s mewing, his tongue licking at the puddles. Behind us, someone is dead. But it isn’t us. A doctor is examining a boy that is lying in the middle of the yard with a pitchfork carved into his chest. It isn’t us. We’re fine.
I grab the bed rail and place my foot against the base and swing around it wrapping my other leg around the pole. This is life. I spin three times this way before I sit down on the bed across from Petey. I’m dizzy and Petey deals me seven cards. I look at my cards and like what I’ve been dealt. “So how’d you get here?” I ask. I might be feeling more talkative than I’ve ever felt. I organize first by color, and then by rank. The lights are on in the room. Western is on lockdown. There won’t be school tomorrow, and they’ll feed us in our room. And maybe the day after that, but then Mr. Gracie will come for me, late at night.
“Stealing,” Petey says as an answer, laying a card down, drawing from the deck. “Driving around. I would steal cars.”
“Where would you go?”
What’s done is done. It won’t happen again for a while. I’ll be gone before the next riot. I’ve got my walking papers. They can’t hold me in here forever. They’ll find a placement for me soon. I’ll be transferred. Things will be okay and I’ll start over, like I always do. When I get out I’m going to learn how to fight. I’m going to stop being scared. I’ll change completely. “And you?” Petey asks.
I sit back on his bunk, back against the wall, the window above my head. I grab Petey’s foot. “Ha,” I say, and shake his foot. I lay down three hearts, the king, the queen, and the jack. That’s ten points each but there’s still an ace that goes on the end and the ace is worth fifteen. I discard a low spade and Petey finishes my run on both sides, with the ace and the ten.
“Generous of you,” he says. We’ll never be this close again.
“I couldn’t stay put,” I tell him, picking one up. I measure my options. One of Petey’s eyes is higher than the other. I should be able to win this. My grandfather was a card player. My father told me once that his dad had bet their house and lost. He used to tell me I looked like my grandfather. I try to answer Petey but I don’t really know the answer. I pull on my nose. “I was in CYS, emergency placement. There were thirty of us in each room and there were four rooms. There was only two staff members and they stayed in the office with the door locked. I tried to ask them when I was getting out but they wouldn’t tell me. Then one of the ladies opened the door and said to me, If you don’t like it here, why don’t you walk away? It’s not like you’re in jail. She had hair on her chin. She was the bearded lady. And it was true, the door was open. So I did it. I just left. And she yelled after me where was I going. I said I was going home. I went back to my old neighborhood, but everyone had left. And when they caught me they put me here.”
Original art by MariNaomi.
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