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Wednesday Writing Prompt
Concrete Journey

by

Karen Meyer
Al’s is jumping with the usual three-thirty crowd, so Andrea has to squeeze her way toward the front counter. A hip-hop beat pulses around
her from the kids’ boom-boxes and the air is thick with the haze of grease from the grills.

Andrea finally reaches the counter and orders her daily dose of the fat, sugar and salt the kids live on: French fries and a chocolate shake.
She finds an empty stool at the narrow counter by the front window and perches on it, munching a strand of grease-soaked potato.

A round, dark face, topped by a pouf of frizzy black hair, suddenly appears in her side vision – her friend, Chemeka.

“Goin’ to Jasmine’s party Friday night?” she asks, edging in next to Andrea’s stool and drawing a fry out of the soggy paper bag in front of
her.

“Probably. And by the way, help yourself to my fries. Don’t even bother to ask.”

“Sorry,” she sighs. “Can’t help myself. How do you do it? You order the same thing five days a week and you’re still a stick. Where do you
put it all?”

“I burn it all off,” Andrea says. “You know that.”

“Yeah, I know how you burn it all off, and I still think you’re crazy, girl.”

“Well, if you had to ride that bus home, you’d do what I do, too. You’re lucky; you only live a block away. About the party – can I stay
overnight with you again? It’s the only way my mom won’t worry about me.”

“Sure. We’ll leave for Jasmine’s right after your mom makes her usual call to check up on you. As long as we’re home before my mom
gets home.” Chemeka has the best mom of any kid at school – a cocktail waitress who works the night shift.

Andrea stuffs the last few fries into her mouth and sucks up the last dregs of sweetness from the bottom of her paper cup. She needs all
the energy she can get for what’s ahead of her.

“Gotta go,” she says, standing up. “You can have my stool. See you tomorrow.” At the door, she glances back over her shoulder to see
Chemeka digging into the paper bag she left on the counter for any stray fries.

Outside Al’s, she gets ready. Ties her long, ash-blonde hair up into a top-knot. Pulls the laces tighter on the black granny boots. Makes
sure the can of pepper spray is tucked into the waistband of her leggings, underneath the long tunic top. Nestles the earbuds of her iPod
into place and sets it to the Shuffle feature. Volume low, so she has background music but can still hear what’s going on around her. Hefts
her nylon tote bag over her shoulder. Then  she sets off down the stretch of dirty sidewalk with scraps of paper and clouds of grit blowing
around her, beating a path down the street on her concrete journey home.

The first intersection is madness – cars and trucks honking at each other, gas fumes stinging the eyes. Andrea slips through the tangle of
traffic like someone who’s done it every day – which she is.

As she reaches the opposite corner, the grimy yellow bus carrying her peers lurches past. She could be on it right now and be home in
half an hour. In fact, she used to ride it all last year. But this year it just got too wild. First the kids were throwing firecrackers in the aisle.
Then there were a couple of fights, once with knives. Ever since the shooting incident, when a kid pulled a Walther automatic and fired it
at his old girlfriend, there’s been talk of putting cops on the bus just to keep order. But Andrea already decided not to wait around for that.
Now she walks home. All three miles. It’s got its own dangers, but at least she has control over where she’s going and how fast she can
get away.

The tote bag digs into her shoulder and she shrugs it a few times to work out the ache. It’s loaded with almost all her books. She wants to
get all her homework for the week done before Friday, so she can go to the party with a clear conscience. She also wants to keep her A
average going. That’s her ticket to a state scholarship, which is her ticket to college, which is her ticket out of here.

At the next corner, a crowd of kids is gathering. Andrea tenses, wondering if she should slip over across the street to avoid whatever is
going down. But then she hears the relentless boom-box beat carrying through the air and catches a glimpse of two guys demonstrating
their dancing expertise, arms and legs jerking in and out in time to the rhythm.

She stops at the edge of the crowd and watches for a few minutes, silently showing her alliance and becoming safely invisible by joining
in. It’s important to join in sometimes, she’s learned. She’s also learning when it’s better to just ignore and walk on by.

Like the next little knot of kids a few blocks up, hanging out in front of a corner grocery with big iron protective bars across the windows.
They’re wearing pendants around their necks, which means they’re probably with a gang. If she crosses the street to get away from them,
she’s just calling attention to herself, almost asking them to hassle her. Better to just walk on by like she doesn’t have a care in the world.


The smell of weed drifts over to her from the group. As she gets closer, one of them starts eyeing her, then grins as he recognizes her.
“Andy! My girl with the brains!”

“Hey, Noel. What’s up?” she says, a smile breaking through her cool act. She stops to shoot the breeze for a while.    It’s okay, since she
knows him.

He was in her English class last year. Sat next to her. Hardly ever showed up, so he was always behind on the lesson. Andrea felt sorry for
him ‘cause he tried so hard, so she used to scribble the correct conjugation on the edge of her notebook where he could glance over and
see it.

Then on one of her first walks home, a pack of guys had started calling out to her as soon as they saw her coming. She could feel the
buried hostility in their remarks. “Hey, mama, come on over here. What’s the matter, you too good for me? I don’t dress good enough for
you?”

Then she had glanced up and recognized Noel in the group. Some instinct made her smile and single him out. “Hey, you’re Noel, aren’t
you? I’m Andrea, I used to sit next to you in Hawkins’ class last year.” That broke the tension. She was a person now, not just another bitch
to be hustled. Now whenever she sees Noel on the street, they stop to acknowledge the bond all over again. Her acquaintance with him
sort of throws a veil of protection over her with all the other guys, too. At least all the other guys who belong to the same gang he does.

As they talk, she gets a closer look at the pendant hanging on a chain just above the zipper of his leather jacket. A crescent moon and a
five-pointed star. That was the Black Disciples. Or maybe it was the Red Disciples. It doesn’t matter to Andrea, she tries to stay clear of
all that, but it means everything to these guys. So she never mentions it; just tries to stay on the level of jiving and joking.

Finally she says, “I gotta get going. I still got a long walk ahead of me.”

“Stay cool, Andy,” Noel says. “Don’t let anyone hassle you, okay? If someone disses you, you let me know and I’ll take care of it for you.”

She grins and waves as she walks on. She appreciates the big-brother attitude, but she’d never take him up on it. The last thing she
wants to do is start a fight between two guys who might happen to belong to rival gangs.

She gets into a rhythm as she puts the blocks behind her, the long ribbons of concrete unfurling ahead and behind her, stretching out
between the high buildings. Her feet automatically beat out the time to the tunes filtering into her head from the iPod. Long strides. Head
up, eyes ahead. Moving to her own internal music.

She’d like to study music composition on a formal basis someday, so she could be the one writing the tunes the kids dance to. Or maybe
get into dance training, do it professionally. She was one of the best in the class the semester they offered modern dance. So many
things she’d like to do, if she only had the money and the opportunity and the time. The only thing she can do now is work like crazy to
keep her grades up, so she can get that scholarship. And not let anything sidetrack her.

So easy to get pulled under in this place, whether it’s guys or drugs or gangs or a stray bullet. Keep to the path.

Suddenly, Andrea notices she’s passing by the housing complex, and there’s Ace at his usual spot by the entrance.   She’d meant to
cross over to the other side before she got here so he wouldn’t notice her. Damn, too late. He’s already spotted her and is heading
purposefully toward her.

“Hey! How come you ditched me the other night, girl? I waited right here for you to come back, like you said. And don’t go tellin’ me you
was here later and missed me, cuz I had a friend on the look-out.”

“Yeah, I know. I couldn’t make it; my mom got mad at me for something and grounded me,” she says, trying to keep it casual. But Ace is
taking it seriously.

“What, you couldn’t sneak out? I waited here all night for you. Had some nice weed for you, too.”

“No, I couldn’t. She had me locked in my room. She does that when she’s really pissed at me. Sorry you had to wait.”

“So how about now? Come on up and we’ll have us a party.”

“Sorry, if I don’t get right home she’s really gonna have a fit.”

“What’s the matter, can’t handle a black man?”

Her knees go wobbly; her stomach turns to water. He’s planted himself right in front of her so she can’t edge around him easily. He’s so
close she can smell the mixture of sweat and after-shave wafting from his purple shirt.

Ace is one of her attempts at friendliness that back-fired on her. He would be here at the entrance gate every day, a cheerful-looking man
in his mid-twenties, maybe, always wearing bright clothes, calling out greetings to friends in passing cars, striking up conversations with
people on the street. Andrea noticed that he would always hold open the door of the apartment building for any women residents. Once
she saw him breaking up a fight between two little kids playing in the street.

He would call out to her, too, and since she passed by him every day, she thought it would be wise to acknowledge him. Get on his good
side, so to speak. So she started smiling at him or saying hi, then went on to exchanging comments on the weather or school or her walk.
Yesterday, he’d asked her to stay and party with him and was really insistent about it, like now. Desperate to get away, she’d told him she’
d meet him back here later. Dumb.

“You pass by here every day and think you’re doin’ the black man a favor by talkin’ to him.” He was really ripping into her now. “Then you
go on home to your nice little white girl life. But when it comes to spendin’ a little time with the man, you too good for that, right?”

Don’t show fear, she tells herself. She’s learned that some people can smell fear, like dogs can pick up a scent and follow it to their prey.

“No, it’s got nothing to do with that, really,” she says, hanging on to that casual, cool act. Don’t let him draw you into it. “She’s just really
cracking down on me lately, you know?”

She wants to tell him, Hey, you got me all wrong. I’m not like that. I didn’t talk to you for a joke or an experiment. I really wanted to be
friends with you. Okay, so maybe I kind of felt like I had to, but that doesn’t mean I meant anything wrong by it.

But she can just tell, by the hard, hostile look in his eyes, that it wouldn’t go over right. It would take a lot more than words to prove him
wrong about her. But she can’t give him that proof. Not the way he wants it.

A split second passes while they stand there, measuring each other with their eyes, when she has an inspiration.

“How about if you go up now and bring the stuff down and we can have a smoke right here? You gotta hurry, though, cuz I really have to get
home soon.” She’s calculating what would be the quickest way to whip out the can of pepper spray if she has to.

“How do I know you ain’t just gonna split as soon as I leave?” His eyes still hard, suspicious.

“I’ll wait right here for you,” she says, sitting down on the cement base around the iron entrance gate and letting her tote bag drop off her
shoulder to her feet. “I’ve got a few minutes, if you don’t take too long.”

“Well, alright. Don’t you go nowhere, now,” he says, moving slowly off into the courtyard, his eyes still on her, half-believing her now.

Even after the cracked glass entrance door closes behind him, Andrea waits several seconds more to make sure he’s gone. Then she
leaps off the wall, picks up her bag, and sprints off down the block, just like the 500-yard dash in gym class. She cuts through an alley to
the next street over and crosses to the other side, to put four lanes of traffic between them, just in case.

She finally slows down to a walk, breathing heavily, her side aching and the bag dragging at her shoulder. Pretty heavy scene back there.
Maybe she should be an actress instead of a musician. Or a track star.

She feels a pang of regret about Ace. She probably just confirmed every prejudice and suspicion he had about white people who were
nice to him, if he didn’t already know. But she’d been right about him, too. Hadn’t she? She feels a twinge of doubt as she remembers
Ace with those little kids, the way he’d hold the door open for ladies. But she puts it out of her mind.

She’ll have to walk a different route home now. Too bad. All she wanted was to do her own thing, and maybe make a friend or two along
the way. Why couldn’t everyone else just respect that? Why did they always want something more from her?

She’s coming up on the last leg of her journey now. She reaches the main drag, Randolph Avenue, and turns off onto it. Different
atmosphere here. The stores and restaurants and other businesses a little more prosperous-looking.

She comes to the Italian grocery that displays all its produce under awnings on the sidewalk. She always stops here and gets a snack.
Sort of a reward for herself, for getting this far. Today she picks out a light-yellow Golden Delicious apple and pays the old guy standing in
his usual position behind the old-fashioned cash register on its wheeled stand.

“Got a sale on peppers today,” he says as he puts her coins into the drawer. “Nice bell peppers. You like green or red?”

“I like both, but I’ve only got enough change for an apple today.”

“Take them anyway,” he says. “You a nice girl. Have your mama put them in a good meat sauce and give you plenty of pasta. Put some
meat on your bones.”

He waves off her protests and sends her on her way with one bright red and one dark green pepper bundled away in a worn paper bag. It
takes her only one block to crunch down to the core of the apple.

Andrea finally turns off Randolph onto her own block. Big, old, crumbling houses, with rotting porches and tiny little panes of glass in the
window next to the front door. Lots of older people here on fixed incomes, hanging on to the places they’ve lived in all their lives. The
younger people in the neighborhood are the ones who find themselves here because of hard luck and reduced circumstances, like her
and her mom.

She becomes looser, more relaxed, as she trudges up the walk of her own house. She can feel the tension actually leaking out of her, now
that her journey’s over. She finds the key in its hiding place – a crack between the porch and the wall of the house – and lets herself in.

She leaves the peppers on the kitchen counter with a note (Dear Mom – the guy at the grocery says I need more meat on my bones. Can
we have spaghetti?”), then passes straight on to her bedroom.

She drops her tote bag in the middle of the room and flops down full-length on her bed, staring up at the long crack that zig-zags across
the ceiling. She’ll stay like this, resting, until her mom gets home from work. That’s the signal to start her homework. She leaves her door
open. Something’s wrong with the hinges and it won’t close all the way. She lied to Ace, of course. Her mother couldn’t lock her in, even if
she wanted to.

© Karen Meyer


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