The J-Walk by Eric Bolson

With wary speculation, Chester Goldman peered down the long baked stretch of Avenue J watching the smell of the ever-present garbage bags wafting on the heated blacktop’s mirage waves. In silent testament of the abuses of August, J stoically bore bleeding scabs of tar down the cracks of its careworn back. To the left, wrought iron and brick fences in weary outfits of faded whitewash and cracked hues guarded their families with varying fervor, each and all bending in obeisance to the merciless clime. Haunted brown eyes drinking in its crafty pretense, Chester tried to envision every feasible danger before him.

“Chaz, are we leaving or what?”

Steff regarded him with an air of bravado betrayed by the darting of her dark eyes. Deep brown hair hung loose to the barest beginnings of the curves she would one day sport, her faded pink t-shirt and Jeans as threadbare as his own, if cleaner. Steff was the only one who called him Chaz, the endearment unintentionally securing his heart. She was also thirteen, scarred by the city, scared of the J-walk and desperately trying to hide all three.

Their Saturday had been spent amongst the strangling crabgrass and scrofulous trees of Amersford Park on J and 39th, but now time and reality had caught them up in their unyielding embrace. For him, a return to yelling and disproportionate consequences, her to secret pains best avoided. Theirs was a bond forged by the misery of a black eye that provoked no comment, the shoulder uneasy in a socket twisted beyond its endurance. Each hidden bruise a fated binding.

Chester’s fears coalesced as Ethan sauntered onto the J. Two years older, blond hair immaculate, Ethan’s gleaming white sneakers and starchy t-shirt refuted the torpid heat. Chester scowled as Steff eyed Ethan with a longing that made his stomach slowly roll. If not for that look, he would have suggested that they cut over to Avenue K and just avoid the J-walk today. But that damned look, a secret yearning for things he could never be, overwhelmed even his gut churning fear of Ethan’s bullying.

“Chest Hair? Is that you?” Ethan mocked, his voice warbling two octaves above its usual baritone, a fair impression of Chester’s rebellious voice occasionally singing soprano.

Steff’s involuntary huff of laughter stretched frayed nerves past their breaking point. His stomach roiling, Chester watched from behind a lifetime of veiled bruises as his mouth uttered the last thing any of the three expected to hear.

“Only pussies make fun of being manly.”

In the following silence, the adrenaline trembling in Chester’s gut threatened to make his legs go all wibbly. Peripherally, he saw Steff sidle a half-step away, that ancient ritual of prefight space-clearing.

Ethan rushed at him growling, “The fuck you say?” his right fist delivering the blow assumed to be both alpha and omega of the situation.

The dilapidated houses disappeared in a momentary flashbulb of pain as Ethan’s punch connected solidly with Chester’s left eye. Spinning to the ground, Chester’s hands drove into old J’s sun heated surface, the avenue’s detritus unfelt in his torn palms. Ethan would never know, but after that first hit, Chester would feel only contempt for him. A hissing cat, sleekness puffed out in a show of impotent threat, delivering bites and scratches that were as nothing compare to the mauling Chester had been conditioned to all his life.

Rising to bent knee, Chester’s left fist pumped up and out, catching his bully full in the crotch. As if trained all his life, his right launched a familiar jab to the solar plexus, so different when seen through the eyes of the deliverer. Ethan crumpled, distended eyes above fish mouth, gasping “Ungh… ungh…”

Later, the haze of unredressed rage retreated, and Chester’s ringing ears slowly started to function again. Awareness returned, crashing through him in a flood of images. His own incoherent screams. His left hand, tangled in the bloodied mass of hair, pressing the side of that hated California face to the molten blacktop. His right fist slamming the once square jaw repeatedly until it crunched beneath each hit, a dark satisfaction. Steff screaming, crying, punching him in an effort to rescue Ethan. Everything snapped into painful clarity.

Chester stumbled back, watching achingly as Steff peeled Ethan’s beautiful features from the scalding tar of J’s embrace. Gently picking grit from the blistered ruin, she looked up at Chester in betrayed horror, that secret pain had been masquerading in him all along, waiting for the curtain to rise.

He left them to their star crossed display and slowly finished the J-walk alone. Old J shimmered as Chester’s blooded tears fell, mixing with the ghosts of all the other lost children clutched to its asphalt breast.

 

Bio: I am an AIMS student who is continuing his education and broadening his horizons while working full time and supporting my family