The Wizard of 63rd Street by Shane Halbach

2016

Russell walked past the Check-’n-Go and the cell phone shops on either side of it. It was cold, and the bare branches of the leafless trees reached up to snatch plastic bags from the sky.

He paused at a bit of graffiti low down on the brick of the abandoned corner building. Someone had written, “CA$H MONEY”. Most folks tuned that stuff out, and even if they didn’t, they wouldn’t see any significance in this particular tag. But Russell did; he recognized it for what it was. It was a pretty good one too: even folks who knew what to look for might have missed this one.

He felt a vague stirring inside, but he ignored it like he always did. Tamped it down. He didn’t do that kind of thing anymore.

Then again, erasing wasn’t drawing, not exactly.

He snatched up a rock and scraped a quick slash through the “C”. That ought to do it. He’d have to keep an eye out to see if this was foolishness or someone new in the area.

Not that he cared one way or the other.

If it had been summer he could have come first thing and got the news from pretty much anywhere, but this time of year you couldn’t reliably find folks out until ten or eleven. Folks mostly stayed inside if they could help it.

When he got to the corner of 63rd and Oak Grove, he saw the usual players: Wax, Nipsy, and the rest of the old timers, standing in front of Jesse’s mini-mart, Angelo over by the steps up to the train, trying to sell cigarettes, and a group of kids over by the Seafood Shack. Some Russell didn’t recognize, but he picked out at least three Slate Street Warriors.

63rd and Oak Grove was neutral territory. Technically, the S Street Warriors controlled west of Oak Grove and the Sons of Profit controlled everything east, but both sides used the Green Line from here. Certainly it was one of the few places where the stars-and-dots of the Sons of Profit mixed with the angel dogs of the S Street Warriors.

In fact, as Russell approached Jesse’s, the old timers parted and he saw a new angel dog painted on the front of the mini-mart. It was a fine specimen; at a glance the lines looked sloppy, but Russell knew there was power in the simplicity.

The drawing looked like a hasty sketch, but they were all more-or-less identical. Even the lowest member of the Warriors could reproduce it exactly.

The sagging lines of the face gave the dog a lazy but angry look, like maybe that dog was sleepy, and you’d best to let it lie. The halo was tilted just enough to suggest maybe that halo didn’t belong to that dog at all. Maybe that dog had stole it from someone more deserving and put it up there on his head just to taunt them. The effect was somehow menacing, even though you couldn’t point to anything explicitly wicked about it.

A sign like that probably wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t from the neighborhood, but to someone like Russell, who’d lived here back when this was a neighborhood people had wanted to move to, who had roots in this neighborhood all the way back to emancipation, signs like this one formed a sort of map. They traced lines of power, repelling rival gangs and showing safe zones. They cropped up overnight like mushrooms, and the more of one kind that were left to stand, the more “claimed” that territory was. Multiple signs mixing, like on 63rd and Oak Grove, usually meant bad mojo.

Jesse came out of the mini-mart with a can of paint.

“Whoa there!” said Jerome, and a couple of the guys looked nervously over at the group by the Seafood Shack. “Best let that sit for a bit, chief.”

“You know I can’t do that,” said Jesse. “I’m not part of their foolishness, and they know it. I’m not for one side or the other; I’ll sell to whoever has cash.”

“Even still,” said Jerome, “no sense in riling them up.”

“I don’t want no part of their foolishness,” repeated Jesse, and he dipped his brush into the paint. “It used to not be like this around here. Kids used to have some respect.”

He slopped the paint brush down across the angel dog, obliterating the left side of its face. The act of rebellion had an immediate effect on those standing around. Missing one side of its face, the dog lost its menace, and the air seemed easier to breathe. The old timers still looked around, but they stood a little straighter.

At the same time there was a revved engine and a squeal of tires from down Oak Grove. Everyone on the block knew what was next: shouts. Running. Shots.

Russell knew he should be hitting the deck like Wax, or hustling into the mini-mart like Nipsy, or doing any number of things except what he was doing: turning toward the Seafood Shack, gaping like a tourist.

Sons of Profit, of course, already leaning out the windows with their guns to the side, worrying about looking good even as they started taking lives.

Russell’s eyes locked with the driver, Eda Brown’s grandson, Dewan, and those eyes were cold, cold.

People scattered, time stopped, and the pop of the guns was drowned out by the roar of a train going by overhead. The bullets, not well aimed and fired haphazard from a moving car, went in the general direction of where the crowed used to be. Some sparked off the sidewalk, some pounded through the Seafood Shack, some went who knows where.

And then Russell was hitting the deck, his legs taking his mind out of the decision.

He found himself on his stomach looking across the chipped sidewalk and cigarette butts at Jesse.

“It didn’t used to be like this,” Jesse whispered, his eyes pleading with Russell to remember.

***

1973

“You should’a seen it!” said David, his eyes sparkling. “Fifty people, at least. It’s growing, Russell. We’re gonna do it! And I’m not going to forget who helped me.”

Russell was tired, but not too tired to smile from ear to ear, and he shook David’s hand. “I’m just pounding the pavement, my brother. When it’s time to speak to all those people, that’s all you; I’m just hiding out back here at HQ.”

“I’m not talking about working the streets, though Lord knows I need everything I can get. I’m talking about those.”

David pointed to the campaign signs lining the room. Russell had designed each one of them, and others besides, painting most of them here at campaign HQ.

There were the usual kinds: “David Freeman for 12th Ward Alderman” and, “Neighbors First!”, but there were also what David called, “the specials”. A mosaic of David’s face, where the resemblance to Dr. King was unmistakable. David with his fist up-raised and the big, block lettered “Justice”.

“I like doing those,” said Russell. “I’d probably be doing those anyway.”

“I know what those can do,” said David, his voice dropping low. “Don’t bullshit me. Do you think I can’t feel it when I’m standing up there in front of a crowd? I know.”

Russell looked down. “I’m just glad I can put my talents to a good cause.”

It was true, though; Russell probably would be doing those even if he hadn’t known David since they were kids. There was just something—a feeling—when he was painting that kind of picture. It was electric; tingly in his fingers and toes.

David’s eyes were shining again.

“With you doing your thing, and me to do the speeches, this thing is just going to keep growing. You’ll see. Next year this time, we’ll be talking about more than the 12th ward. This is going to open up serious opportunities. Money. Power…”

Russell shuffled his feet. “But for the neighborhood, right? I mean…this is all to help the neighborhood, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” said David. “But think of how much more we could do! If I were, say, mayor, I could help other neighborhoods too.”

“I guess,” said Russell.

“Now you’re talking!” said David. “Okay, I need you to really outdo yourself this time. A special, but a big one. Something we can bring to a march or a rally. Like a banner or something.”

***

2016

“Jesse, I want to paint something on the side of the mini-mart. A mural,” said Russell.

“What do I want with a mural on the side of the building? Besides, you know it’s just going to get marked up the second you finish it.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“What do we need another mural for?” said Jetawn Johnson, buying milk with her daughter Nevaeh. “We got murals all up and down 63rd street saying, ‘Stop the Violence’ or ‘Put down the Guns’, but don’t nobody pay attention.”

“Russell, listen: I remember you used to paint back in the day. I’m not saying you couldn’t do it. But a plain wall is easier to paint over when the signs start showing up.”

“So paint over it then. If after two months it’s covered in angel dogs and stars, just paint over it. You ain’t out nothing.”

“Can’t be worse than a trash filled empty lot,” remarked Jetawn.

Jesse sighed, then held out his hand. Russell clasped it.

“I’m not making no promises,” said Jesse. “If it looks like shit, I’m painting it white.”

All morning Russell was restless. He went all the way up to Ace Hardware to get paint and brushes, but even still, it only cost him a couple of hours. It was barely noon before he got back.

He sat at his kitchen table to sketch something a little more concrete than the vague ideas starting to take shape in his head, but it was no use: nothing for it but to get started.

Russell carried some of his paints over first —he’d have to make several trips—but on his way back Old Mrs. Smith called out to him from her customary seat on her porch. She’d been sitting on that porch since before Russell was born, and looked to go on sitting there after he was gone.

“Going to be doing some painting Russell?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, suddenly embarrassed. “I’m going to paint a mural over at Jesse’s mini-mart.”

“Well, it’s about time, Russell. When the Lord puts you on this Earth to do a thing, you got to do that thing.”

“I don’t know what the Lord put me on this Earth to do, but I do admit: it has been some time since I’ve painted anything.”

Mrs. Smith leaned forward, her glasses flashing in the sun. Russell suddenly wondered just how old Old Mrs. Smith really was. He had no idea; had she been old even when he was a kid, or was that just memory playing tricks?

“A neighborhood is like a garden, Russell. You got to tend that garden. If the gardener doesn’t pull weeds, that garden’s going to get overrun. Gardener’s got to keep on top of it. Seems to me the gardener in this neighborhood hasn’t been pulling any weeds.”

Russell’s brow wrinkled at the change in conversation. “Well, I might agree with you there, even though I’m not much of a gardener myself.”

Old Mrs. Smith leaned back in her chair.

“Just glad to see you painting again. Does my heart good to see folks happy.”

Russell felt a bit unsettled by their brief conversation, but he continued shuttling his supplies to the lot next to Jesse’s. Paint, brushes, ladder.

The wall was rough, irregular brick. It looked enormous now that Russell was standing right there next to it.

His fingers started to tingle in that old way. He hadn’t felt that tingle in so long he had almost forgot about that part. He felt like something was building inside of him, like big gears shaking off the rust and starting to turn, slowly at first, but then faster and faster.

Mostly his head was empty except the singing of the paint. He held on to the feeling he wanted out of the mural, and his hands did the rest. He didn’t know how he remembered what to do, but he did, and each line sprang into being like a light through darkness.

Folks came to watch him—Jetawn and Nevaeh, Wix, Old Mrs. Smith, maybe even Dewan Brown —but he didn’t pause or even acknowledge them. He concentrated on his frustration and disappointment, 40 years of it, and he worked angel dogs into the overall structure so cleverly that you couldn’t even see them. He worked stars-and-dots into the border, twining them with doves and smiling children’s faces, never letting them touch the pictures of guns.

He poured it all out into the paint, and when the sun when down, Russell kept on working by the street lights.

***

1973

“You need some coffee or something?” asked David.

Russell flashed a hint of that old smile. “Don’t worry about me, just a little tired is all.”

“Look, I’m going to need another special,” said David.

“How big?”

“I don’t know how this shit works,” snapped David, irritated. “However big you need to make it.”

Russell swiped his hand across his blurry eyes. His sleeve hung loose on his arm.

“Now listen. You do whatever you got to do, but I need Alderman Miaowski to select Brown and Mitchell for the hospital project, okay? You got to make him pick Brown and Mitchell. You understand?”

“David, what does some hospital up in the 6th ward have to do with us?”

“You’re not the only one who’s tired around here, you know,” said David. Then he took a breath and softened.

“Listen, Russ, this whole thing takes money. Lots of it. Brown and Mitchell are thinking about kicking in for the campaign, but only if I can deliver on some promises that I’ve made them. Only it turns out that Alderman Miaowski isn’t quite the friend I thought he was. Turns out Alderman Miaowski has other friends who he values more than me.”

“Can’t we do it without Brown and Mitchell? Find some other way to get the money? Maybe we could talk to –”

“This is what politics is!” said David. “This is how it works. I can’t change things, unless I have a seat at the table, and I don’t get a seat at the table without friends.”

“Brown and Mitchell don’t give a shit about the neighborhood! They’re not your friends, David. They don’t give a shit about you, neither.”

David sighed and then cracked a smile, dissipating all the anger, just like that. That was his magic.

“Well then, the feeling is mutual, because I don’t give a shit about Brown and Mitchell.”

They both laughed and David stood up. “But I do give a shit about their money, Russ. This is it, man. Final push. Get this done for me and we’ll all be celebrating come election night.”

He clapped Russell on the shoulder and left.

Russell sat for a long time before pulling a small, square canvas over in front of him. He tried to get into the zone, let it flow out of him like it sometimes did, but it wasn’t there.

He understood what David had said about the money, about politics. But this Brown and Mitchell thing…it wasn’t the same. David was right when he said he didn’t know how this shit worked. Russell didn’t either, not really, but forcing someone to do something against their will? Quite frankly, that’s not how this shit worked. It wasn’t putting thoughts in people’s heads, more like radiating a feeling. And even then…

He wiped his eyes again and sighed. What could he do? He reached for a paintbrush.

***

2016

“Hey, Russell!” said Jesse, gripping Russell’s hand and giving him a slap on the back. “How you been, man?”

A group of old timers was standing outside of the mini-mart.

“You know, you know,” said Russell, grinning right back. He felt like he hadn’t smiled like that in ages.

He said, “So, it’s been two months now. You going to paint over my mural?”

Jesse shook his head. “Naw man, you know I’m not going to do that. It’s as good as the day you painted it; not a single sign on it. I guess it was too pretty to mess up.”

“Glad to hear it, my man. I was actually thinking about doing another one, on the empty lot by the Church on Oak Grove.”

“You should! Something about it really brightens up the corner, you know? Anyway, I’ve got to get inside and stock shelves. I’m getting extra deliveries in, the way stuff’s been flying out the door lately. Must be the warm weather.” He went back inside.

Russell turned to the others. “So, what’s the word?”

“Early spring,” said Wax. “Folks out and about, feeling good.”

“Let’s just hope they keep on feeling good,” said Jerome. “This warm weather has a way of riling up the blood.” He nodded over at a group hanging on the fence by the steps to the train.

So far, the warm weather hadn’t come with the usual increase in shootings, but it was early yet. Spring hadn’t really gotten its feet under itself.

One of the kids over by the train detached himself and angled toward the mini-mart.

The Profit Dewan.

The old timers parted, expecting him to go into the mini-mart, but he stopped in front of Russell instead.

“Hey Dewan,” said Russell tentatively. “How’s your grandmother?”

“She’s good, she’s good. Hey, Mr. Smith, let me talk to you a minute.”

The Profit Dewan looked at the others, waiting for them to clear out, but they didn’t. Instead he walked around the corner of the mini-mart, not looking to see if Russell was following him.

Russell looked around at the other old timers. Nobody said anything, but they all looked unsettled.

There were layers in the neighborhood, stacked on top of each other like layers in a cake. People like Russell and the old timers lived on one level, and gangs like the Sons of Profit lived on another. Usually they could exist in the same place at the same time. Parallel dimensions. Trouble started when the layers started crossing.

And now the layers were crossing.

When Russell got around the corner, Dewan was waiting dead center under the mural. Russell could tell that Dewan knew something about that mural in the way he refused to look at it. Dewan had probably drawn hundreds of stars-and-dots in his time with the Profits. You couldn’t draw that many without feeling something, and the stars-and-dots were to Russell’s mural what a motorcycle was to a Mac truck.

Still, Russell was nervous.

“Something happened a couple of months ago,” started Dewan.

Now that Russell looked at him closely, Dewan looked hunched; tired rather than the usual swagger of any of the gang leaders.

Russell held up his hands. “Dewan, you know I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve got no love for the police. You don’t have to worry about—”

“Forget all of that. That was only the beginning; it’s been different since then. I spent a lot of time thinking, and all that is done now. And not just for me, neither—there are some guys that listen to me, you know? The Sons…I think I can change them. I think it can be different for everybody around here.”

“Dewan, why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. Because you saw me. Because you’re part of this, somehow. I just felt like…like you could help me somehow.”

Dewan looked away, gazing across the street.

Russell stood for a minute, then stuck out his hand. “I’ll help you any way I know how.”

Dewan clasped his hand, then dropped it quickly and turned to go back across the street.

“Your mama would be proud,” Russell called after him, but Dewan didn’t look back.

When Russell turned around, he couldn’t keep the spring out of his step. His fingers were snapping and buzzing.

He was going to go paint another mural.

***

1973

     Russell stood in the crowd, his breath clouding the crisp night air. David was on stage. Behind him was a banner—a special—lit by stage lights. Big block letters said, “A Seat at the Table” on a red background. David was talking.

“It’s been a long time since we had a seat at the table. They don’t want us to sit at the table. They’d rather we sat at the back of the bus!”

The crowd shifted and murmured, reacting to David’s words. Reacting to Russell’s painting.

“It’s time for them to realize, we will not be content to sit in the back. We will not be content to sit at all. We’re going to stand at the table. We’re going to flip that table over, and we’re going to make room at that table for all of our brothers and sisters who are tired of sitting down!”

The crowd shouted in approval. This was wrong. This was off message. Russell could feel the crowd roiling and expanding, taking in energy like a storm. The special was feeding them, but not how Russell had intended. Why didn’t David get back to the script? People were arguing now, and shouting, and Russell couldn’t hear David anymore, even with the microphone. Someone shoved him from behind.

Why hadn’t he seen this? Why hadn’t he built something in, just in case? Maybe if he hadn’t been so tired.

Someone barreled into Russell from behind and he got knocked to the ground. There were cops now, wading in, their nightsticks thumping out time like a clock. But they weren’t prepared for this, and those in the crowd who hadn’t already fled saw that their cloud was bigger, and blacker, and stronger.

And then David was there between them, arms upraised, his voice like God. At that moment, he looked like he could have held them. Wrestled the crowd back into submission.

But it was Russell’s painting, had never been David’s, and Russell had no way to take it back.

The first nightstick hit David in the side of the head. The stage lights made the arc of blood drops glitter it the clear, chill air.

Time stopped.

“My fault,” whispered Russell into the pause. “My fault.”

Time resumed and chaos reigned.

***

2016

Russell was just starting on the frame of the mural, when he heard a commotion across Oak Grove. Looking up quickly, he saw a small knot of Profits starting to scatter as squad cars—both marked and unmarked—screeched up to surround them.

Cops boiled out of the cars like ants, guns drawn. They must have finally figured out who shot up the Seafood Shack, or maybe for something else the Sons of Profit had done, or maybe for no reason at all.

Russell could feel down in his chest how scared the boys were. Unfortunately, everything in their life had taught them to replace fear with anger.

Russell started to run then, across the empty lot, but stumbled and hesitated. What could he do to stop this? His eyes darted between the standoff and the mural. How best to—

The Profit Lamar reached for something in his waistband—Russell didn’t see what—and everything froze. Russell could see it like a photograph: Dewan standing between the two groups, arms upraised. More than anything, it was this all too familiar pose that told Russell he was too late.

“It’s happening again,” he whispered and the cops opened fire. Dewan was thrown back, Lamar too, maybe all of them.

Russell howled. The roar of the guns merged with the roar of the crowd in ‘73.

He had to turn away, couldn’t watch it again. Turned and looked directly on the blank wall. His blank canvas. His voice. His power.

Russell strode quickly to collect his brush. His fingers pulsed with fire, but he couldn’t see the wall; his vision was red.

Russell thought about David, about Dewan, and all the people of the 12th ward. How he had sat back over the last forty years and done nothing, while people died and the neighborhood went to shit.

And he didn’t need to see the wall anymore. His fingers knew what to do.

***

2016

The protest started at the church, but quickly spilled into the empty lot as folks kept on coming. Some had signs, some had candles, some had chants, but as the crowd swelled, so did the police presence.

The crowd cast about for a leader, someone to give voice to their raw emotions, but Russell had never been that man. However, with them standing there in the empty lot under his mural, every person heard his voice. Every person felt the power of his images, magnified by the occasion for which they had gathered.

Dewan Brown. Lemar Robinson. Poverty. Suffering. Broken promises and missed chances.

Russell wasn’t the same tired kid he had been back in ’73. This was the work of a master: complex, subtle, unbreakable. Built with years of experience, years of knowing his neighbors, of living in and loving the neighborhood.

The mural took in all of the raw emotions and spit them back out, cleaned somehow. Stripped out the anger and replaced it with hope. Sorrow, yes, but sorrow tinged with determination. Weariness, like someone on a long journey, having crossed many long miles and feeling every single one of them in their bones, but still not having reached their destination.

And then Eda Brown—positioned on the church steps to witness this for her grandson—Eda Brown’s voice, old and quavering, rose above the chants.

We shall overcome. We shall overcome.

An old song, one they had all heard a hundred times before. Even those who had never believed those words until that night, maybe would only believe it for that one night, joined their voices. Linked their arms under Russell’s special.

Deep in my heart, I do believe…

Russell found himself linked elbow to elbow with Jesse on one side and a member of the Chicago PD on the other side, tears streaming down his face.

…that we shall overcome someday.

Tears for Dewan. Tears for the neighborhood. Tears for himself.

Catharsis.

Later, Old Mrs. Smith found him in the crowd.

“Going to do any more murals?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. That part is all done now.”

It was true. Russell could feel it, or rather couldn’t feel it. He felt lighter without it, like he’d been carrying a lead ball in his stomach for so many years that he hadn’t noticed he was carrying it anymore. That deep connection to the neighborhood and the people was still there, but not the responsibility for it.

“Time for someone else to carry on with it. I just hope to God they do a better job of it than I’ve done.”

Mrs. Smith looked out over the faces of her neighbors, lit by candles.

“In the end, Russell, I think you did just fine. Just fine.”

 

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