When I got back to Chicago I slept on the streets, as I had been doing for so long now. I slept on a friend’s porch until his mother found out. I slept on the same rooftops. I hooked up with a children’s agency and they put me in Central Youth Shelter. It was a gladiator arena filled with children awaiting placement stuffed thirty to a room. We sat around during the day watching television or playing basketball in the fenced in yard. The shelter was understaffed and nobody would tell me where I was going or when I would get out. Then I walked away.
I slept for a while in a house connected to a Catholic church and in private homes of people that had volunteered to take in children while the state waited the requisite 21 days to decide if they were willing to take custody. There was something wrong with the adults that took me in, all men living alone. I think they were pedophiles and I was a disappointment to them. I played pool with other homeless children at the Advocates center beneath the Granville train tracks. There was a girl there, a year older than me, tall and thin and freckled. She always beat me and then did this little victory dance with her hands, fingers stretched like wings. She had the biggest smile.
Then I slept in the house I had grown up in which my father was in the process of selling. It was an obvious mistake.
I woke into his fists and I tried to cover my face. He dragged me into the kitchen where he had clippers, forced me to my knees in front of the cabinet, and he shaved my head. It was the second time he had done that. There were giant bald patches from where his hands slipped and I looked like a mental patient, which was ironic. He must have been waiting for me, or searching the neighborhood. He had planned to do this. Revenge for something. The meanest thing possible, worse even than the beating, worse than handcuffing me to a pipe, to be humiliated in front of everyone. To be a circus freak. It was an act of raw cruelty well within my father’s emotional range. Something he felt was owed him for the negative portrayal of himself as a parent, for the hatred he saw when he looked in my eyes. But that’s not what this is about at all. This isn’t about hate or love or what went wrong between my father and I or the kind of resentments that never go away. This isn’t about splitting the blame between bad parents and bad children. It’s not about culpability. It’s about sleeping and the things that are important to that like shelter and rain.
That night was the last night of my homeless year. It was the end of August and high school would start in a couple of days. I had cut my wrist open and there was a bright red gash that bled through the afternoon. It was hot and a festival was underway in the park. A soft breeze cut around the sleigh hill and a few clouds pocked the long sky. I solicited beer and people bought me beer because they thought maybe I was crazy or maybe they could get me to leave. I asked one man if I could go home with him and he said, “Look, I bought you a beer,” which was true enough. As night fell a band ascended the stage and I danced while they played, slamming in the moshpit at the top of the baseball diamond, my wrist still open splashing traces of blood on people’s clothes. Proof I was there.
I crawled in the entryway of an apartment building across from the park. I didn’t care anymore. I slept in the open and I heard footsteps pass and a door. The floor was small tiles held together with cement and the door was a glass case barreled in dark wood. I rested with my head on my arm and my knees pulled toward my chest. I had a sack of clothes somewhere. A friend’s parent had given it to me, long white shirts and discarded pants, but I couldn’t remember where I’d left them. My jeans were torn and I wore a black rock and roll t-shirt. I knew it was only a matter of time until the door closing became a phone call and the phone call became swirling red and blue lights and the lights became a backseat and a window with bars. The police came and they asked where my parents were. I told them I didn’t know, which was true. The police weren’t mean or angry. They were just doing their job. In the morning I met a different set of officers who didn’t wear uniforms or carry guns. The new officers offered me sandwiches and something to drink. They asked what happened to my wrist and I told them I fell on a tin can but they didn’t believe me. I was taken to a hospital and a kind nurse used surgical tape to close the hole in my wrist.
“Why would you do that?” she asked and I wanted to laugh at her. I wanted to ask if she was offering me a place to stay. But she was just concerned and nice and I would meet a lot more people like her. Things got much better after that though it took me a little while to recognize it. Things were going to work out fine save some scars.
Written by Stephen Elliott
This story originally appeared at Tin House and The Rumpus.
You need to login to favorite a post.
Need to sign up? Create an account here.
Forgot your password? Reset your password here.