The shadows dancing on the bus’s ceiling reminded her of October’s falling leaves, of snowflakes in January, of the flutterings of birds and butterflies in June. Once the children were off to school she would sit at her living room window looking out to Columbus Park, through the arch at Central and Jackson, across to the lagoon, counting down the years and months of Chicago’s weary days and colder nights. She’d talk to Jinquetha, her best friend, on the telephone. Then she washed the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, took out the garbage, went about the days’ lonely doings of scraping by. Five years to ten meant two and a half to five; with “good time,” only two. Only.
She had made the journey before, eleven times in all. Bishop Judkins ran the Peoples Transport, his banged up one time school buses belching and bouncing to Vienna, Canton, Ina, Dixon, the outskirt mini-cities in the cornfields of flatland Illinois. At their edges in stark clearings sat “correctional facilities,” packed with black men from Chicago, the heart and lungs of their small town Americas. There were American flags and fat white people in chaise lounges on front lawns watching as the yellow cargoes of black faces came rolling by or the white vans of fresh flesh, dark meat, came rolling in. Myesha would bring Ishmiel home.
The past three years the day’s sadness dripped its loneliness into each that followed. Myesha remembered how proud Ishmiel was, a week before the nightmare, snappy-happy, glowing, boasting. A job! A real job! Finally! It had been four long years since Brach’s Candies closed, on Cicero and Division, just like that, without a bang or a whisper. Gone. Can such a world of loss be contained in one small syllable? Gone. A skeleton place now: buildings and loading docks, pump houses and guardposts, generators, railyard, chimneys—the once promised now doomed land abandoned, weeds sprouting through cracks in the asphalt to reclaim the forsaken land, graffiti scarring smokestacks, windows shattered, garbage. On the beach Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, and, now, Chicago. Gone.
Ever since, Ishmiel hustled. Day labor. Car washes. In the summer he and their son, Tyrone, set up a stand near the lagoon to sell snow cones. They shoveled sidewalks in December, trudging through the snow to the village of Oak Park, on the other side of the park, a separate and foreign world, where white people and fancy Blacks lived in big houses with big yards. The day came when Myesha went on the dole. They moved from one cheaper place to another. Their daughters, Tanayshia and Flower, shared a bedroom; Tyrone slept on the sofa.
Myesha could have had her pick. Everyone said so. She had skin like butter, green eyes, a flashing smile. But she picked Ishmiel. His swagger made her body race. The way he looked at her. She knew. She would make a life with Ishmiel. He was also, that rarest of rare gems, a good man. She could tell— he was one who could be relied on to stick to it, to see things through, to keep on keeping on, making her the sun and the moon and the stars of his waking days and her hungering nights.
Ishmiel did not disappoint. He brought his paycheck home. He helped with the housework. The babies came. You would have thought he was the only father in the world. He changed to the night shift at Brach’s so he could walk Tanayshia, Tyrone, and Flower to and from school. “The streets ain’t gonna get them,” he said. He sat at the kitchen table to help with homework. They were saving money. The west side wasn’t all trash and dirt. There were blocks where people cared, where people worked together, helped each other. They would buy a house with a back yard. Maybe on Quincy Street. Maybe on Race Avenue or Midway Park, north of the Green Line tracks, where there were some white folks too. She’d like her children to live in a wider world. They might even get a car. But the house first. She would buy a rocking chair and sit on the front porch watching Tanayshia and Flower jump rope in the street.
Then Brach’s Candies closed.
The job was with Clarence Jackson Jr. of Jackson’s Real Estate, Remodeling, and Construction. She had never liked Clarence, ever since the day he brought his handyman to fix the drip under the kitchen sink.
“I know times are hard. I could help. One hand washes the other.” His eyes were sharp as he looked up and down her body.
“We get by,” she said. “We manage.” He reached into his wallet and took out a hundred dollar bill.
“Something something for a little something something. Who’s to know? We’re adults.”
“My husband will be home soon.”
“Another time, then.” He returned the money to his wallet. Myesha did not tell Ishmiel. She was tired of moving.
A week later Ishmiel came bursting through the door. He would join one of Clarence Jackson’s construction crews. Off the books. Cash money. They wouldn’t lose Myesha’s aid or link card. They could keep their transit passes.
“In a year we can get out of this rathole,” Ishmiel boasted. Myesha said nothing.
“I thought you’d be happy,” Ishmiel scolded. “No more car washes. No more standing around at ReadyMen with the ‘rollin’ and parollin’. No more two hour caravans to sweatshops in the boonies for chump change. I’ll be a foreman before you know it.”
Myesha did her best to smile. She tried to put her worries out of her mind. Maybe everything didn’t always have to be like the dress she bought at the flea market that had a broken zipper. Came Friday and Ishmiel’s first pay the family went to MacArthur’s, a sit down restaurant on Madison. The children had ice-cream. They would save enough money to move to a larger apartment where Tyrone would have a room of his own, Ishmiel promised.
He was arrested the following Monday. The police came upon him stacking pipes in the alley, galvanized iron stripped from the basement of one of Clarence Jackson’s boarded-up buildings.
“I am only doing my job,” he protested. “Like I’ve been doing for a week now. I ain’t no thief. Check it out with Jackson’s Real Estate over on Madison.”
“Who do you think called us?” one of the policeman said. “You know the drill.”
“Here’s the deal,” the public defender said. “You’ve been here four months now.” They were in one of the conference rooms at Cook County jail. “You’ll be here another two years before they are mandated to bring you to trial.”
“Can’t you get my bail reduced?” Ishmiel again. Again the answer was the same. $50,000. It might as well have been a million.
“This is an election year, as I told you before,” the p.d. replied. “Judge Watkins is not going to be Willie Hortoned. Your options are to wait until a trial date opens up—in a year and a half, maybe two–or take a plea. They’re offering five to seven.”
“What about my right to a speedy trial?”
“We’ve been through this before. If I file a motion for a speedy trial, the States’ Attorney will up the charges to felony grand theft. You’d be looking at fifteen to twenty-five.”
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
“That’s neither here nor there. As we say in the law business, ‘Just because you did it, doesn’t mean you’re guilty.’ And, rarest of all, vice-versa. Take the deal. With credit for time here, you’ll be back with your family in two years.”
P.D.–penetentiary deliverer, Ishmiel thought.
But Ishmiel didn’t get the promised credit. When Myesha tracked him down, the public defender could not remember Ishmiel’s name. Myesha came to realize that the zipper was always broken.
Myesha held the family together. Her building kept getting worse, the more so after Clarence Jackson was gunned down in front of his office. Good riddance, Myesha thought. Clarence had come again, just after Ishmiel was sent to Ina. Something wasn’t quite right, but not in the way that something wasn’t quite right when he’d brought the handyman. Myesha couldn’t put her finger on it. He was like a panther that had killed its prey.
“I don’t care how much money you have,” she said. “Go away.”
“I’ll go away now, girl,” he snarled through the crack in her partially opened doorway. “But I’ll be back. Give you some time to think about it. The last thing you be wanting is finding another place for you and the shorties.”
Jinquetha tried to get Myesha to see his point.
“That’s one fine looking brother,” she said. “Me, for myself, I wouldn’t much mind if he parked his shoes under my bed. You need to grow up, girl.”
“I have three children all by the same man,” Myesha said. “It’s going to stay that way.”
“That’s easy to say now, girl,” Jinquetha replied. “But the nights are going to get longer and longer. They got Ishmiel in the system, they gonna keep him, one way or the other. They always do. In and out of lockdown. You know what I’m talking about. Give it a thought, girl.”
A week later Clarence stepped out of the front door of his office for the last time. It was bad, Myesha knew, to feel happy that somebody was dead, but she couldn’t help herself and, as the months passed, her satisfaction at Clarence Jackson’s demise intensified, fueled by the anger she felt as she remembered thinking too much about Jinquetha’s advice. Would she have given in?
Her building continued to deteriorate. The water service was disconnected, occasionally for days. The hallways were dirty. One day she saw two cockroaches and knew they were the advance party of an army of occupation. She would fight her guerilla war, but she knew too that she would lose, for, although she kept her own apartment clean, the rest of the building was descending into a maze of filth. As soon as Ishmiel was back, they would find another place, please Jesus.
At length Chicago gave way to undulating cornfields, white clapboard houses with wrap-around porches, red barns, siloes the color of wheat. In a half hour they’d pass through Joliet, then, an hour more, through Ina, a picture postcard of apple pie America. A left turn five minutes west, through Ina, to the Illinois River Correctional Center, to Ishmiel, to the start again of a new life.
She worried about Tyrone. He was only thirteen, but thirteen years for someone male and black on Chicago’s west side is dog years in more ways than one. Myesha shuddered when she overheard Tyrone on the phone to one of his friends, “None of us ever gonna see twenty.” But now Ishmiel would be home. She could handle the girls; it was Tyrone who kept her awake in the night. Ishmiel would keep him straight. She thought of how Tyrone’s eyes lit up when his father entered the room.
She sat on the metal bench in the waiting room she remembered too well. Her third visit she had brought the children. The officer at the desk then was a big bosomed white woman in a grey uniform, hair in a bun at the back of her head, with hard eyes.
“Visitors are limited to three at any one time,” she snarled. “There are four of you. This won’t do. I’m sorry.” It was clear to Myesha that bun lady wasn’t sorry at all.
“I’ll wait here,” she replied. “It is more important that the children see their father. They miss him so much.”
“Unaccompanied children are not permitted.”
“There was nothing about this on the web site,” Myesha said.
“Don’t get guffy with me.” The harsh tone was one of scarcely suppressed satisfaction.
“What am I to do?”
“That’s not my problem. You’d better think of something, lady. I’m getting ready to let ‘em in.” The officer turned. She went to the other end of the desk, words under her breath: “Cut ‘em out, ride ‘em in/Ride ‘em in, let ‘em out/Cut ‘em out, ride ‘em in/ Rawhide! Rawhide!”
Tanayshia was fourteen. Tanayshia could stay in the waiting room while Myesha took Flower and Tyrone to Ishmiel inside.
“Tanayshia, honey,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Daddy loves you very much and he misses you. But they will only let three of us go in and they won’t let children visit by themselves. You will have to wait here while I take Tyrone and Flower.” Myesha could see the hurt in the child’s eyes. She thought for a moment that her eldest daughter was going to cry.
“It’s okay,” Tanayshia said. “Give Daddy a kiss from me.”
“My eldest daughter will wait here,” Myeshia said, turning back to the grey uniform, who looked at her with steely eyes. She finished her song: “Though they’re disapproving’/Keep /’em movin’, movin.” She had not heard Myesha at all.
“Beg pardon?” Myesha said.
“Nothing,” the officer replied. “I was just singing to myself. You have a problem with that?
“Not at all.
“So why are you just standing there with your tongue out then?”
“Just to say that my eldest daughter will wait here,” Myesha said again.
“Unaccompanied minors are not permitted in the waiting area.”
Myesha had put up with it all, the injustice, the hopelessness, the anger, the loneliness and futility, hunger, scraping by, surviving, holding on, for a ray of sun to come, it had to, through the smothering clouds, but in that instant, for the blur of a moment, she came close so close to giving up and giving in. Her fist in the mouth of the sourpuss hussy. That was what she saw in a flash of unleashed anger. Instead she fell backward, onto the waiting room bench. She put her hands to her face as Tanayshia and Flower screamed, “Mommie, Mommie, are you okay? Are you okay? Mommie, Mommie!”
Myesha remembered a picnic area, just as the bus turned into the corridor leading to the prison. She could walk the children there and leave Tanayshia. Could she? Would she? To leave her alone. Alone and Black, a small dot in the endless prairie sea. She would never forgive herself if anything happened to Tanayshia. Should, instead, she give it all up and she and the children stay the day in the waiting area until Bishop Judkins returned? At least Tanayshia would be safe. Ishmiel would understand. Would Tyrone? There was a gentle touch at her sleeve. Myesha lifted her head. A white woman in her fifties. Weathered face. Sunken eyes. Too many cigarettes and too much whiskey.
“Begging your pardon,” the woman said. “I don’t mean to intrude none, mind you, but I could wait with the child. They won’t let me in ‘cause I ain’t blood kin, just a stepmomma. My Homer [she pointed to a bearded man with a cane, standing at the window] gonna have to visit our Clive all by himself, though we raised him from a Pup, we did, but that don’t mean nothing. They got their rules and ways, the same ones that got Clive locked up in the first place. He ain’t got none of the bad in him, mind you, but here he is—resisting arrest they said. That’s how they snatched him. We’re just little people, that’s what it all comes down to. I’m sure I ain’t tell you nothing you don’t already know. So I’m by myself out here, all in my lonesome. It would do me a world of comfort to have some company, truth to tell. It would be you be doing me the favor if you’d let your daughter sit with me a spell.”
Now, on this, her last visit, Myesha waited again, as she had been waiting three long years. No one would tell her anything. Noon? Two o’clock? Three? Ishmiel would have to appear before four; that’s when Bishop Judkins would return and the bus make its way back to Chicago. What did a few more hours matter? She had waited three years. She could wait three hours.
She tried not to let them, but every five minutes her eyes went to the clock above the desk where another husky uniform, lipstick and pony tail, moved papers from one pile to another. Every now and then the doors to the inside opened and a smiling face emerged into waiting arms. But still no Ishmiel. Then it was, somehow in a dream like trance, past three. With timid steps Myesha went again to the entry station to wait in line as the minutes, now fast, went by.
“What is it?” lipstick/pony tail boomed.
“I am waiting for Ishmiel Meade, T75608,” Myesha said. “He is to be released today.”
“And what business is this of yours?”
“I’m his wife.”
“Identification and proof of kinship?”
The uniform studied the state issued identification card Myesha extended.
“Now I know your name. Fine. What about proof of kinship?
Myesha fumbled in her handbag. “Here’s a copy of our marriage license,” she said.
“Hey, Gus,” the uniform shouted to another officer, waiting near the entrance. “I got me one. Hitched. All legal. You owe me ten dollars.” She looked up at the clock. “In the nick of time,” she said under her breath. She turned back to Myesha. “Have a seat. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Ten long and too short minutes passed. Myesha saw Bishop Judkin’s bus pull up to the curb.
“There’s a hold on your boyfriend,” the uniform said. “He was scheduled for release today, but now he ain’t. This doesn’t give any details. Maybe a glitch in the system. Usually is. Or it could be something serious. Fighting. Sex. Who knows? Keep checking the website.” She leaned her head to the side to look around Myesha’s body.