Randy William Santiago’s “Humboldt Park Blues” is a coming-of-age story set in the inner city of Chicago. The narrator of Santiago’s story discovers a world in which he can no longer rely on his brother’s protection, after Rubén meets Vanessa. “Humboldt Park Blues” explores family and masculinity in a voice that is fresh, earnest and true. We are so proud to share this story with you all.
These pendejos get a taste of some ass and suddenly think they can fly, Ma said to me after Rubén started dating Vanessa.
Ma only talked to me when she was pissed at Rubén, cursing his name behind the embers of her blunt. She’d vent to me one day and kiss Rubén’s ass the next.
Made me wish Rubén hadn’t switched up on me when Vanessa came into the picture, so that I wasn’t left to deal with Ma’s mood swings alone.
It used to be that Rubén and I chilled often, that we talked about the girls we wanted or the dudes we hated or the dreams of escape that we never believed in. But then Rubén met Vanessa, and it was like she had her own gravitational pull and Rubén couldn’t help but be with her.
And sure, Vanessa was fine.
She was tall, with wavy hair and hazel eyes. Golden hoops dangling from her ears. A frail neck piece to match. To top it off, she was Puerto Rican, White Puerto Rican (like Ma and Rubén, but we never talked about that). All anyone talked about was what they would like to do with her (which wasn’t appropriate to address in public either) or what they believed she did with random guys around Humboldt Park.
As far as Rubén was concerned, there wasn’t another man in Humboldt Park. Maybe even the world. Vanessa was his and no one could convince him otherwise. Ma tried to once, told him that he’d forget how to see if he got too close.
Can’t see anything if your head’s up her ass, she said.
No doubt Ma was still bitter toward the men who left, who abused, who cheated. Bitter about their ability to transition from their current lives to new ones once their interest faded.
Despite her bitterness, Ma was also lonely. She liked the idea of Rubén locking fingers with a Puerto Rican girl from our hood, leaning against her locker at a precise angle, slightly tapping her shoulder with his in that manner that says I’m feeling you.
That’s how your dad used to do me, Ma said, nostalgia creeping into her voice.
After a while, Ma began asking Rubén everything she could about Vanessa, a silence falling whenever I entered the room, as if the two of them were in the know of something confidential. Rubén and Ma transformed our sala into their very own gossip mill, talking shit through the wee hours of the night.
This forced me to melt my eardrums until they spilled onto Fullerton Avenue, where red light traffic whirred my psyche into paralysis, thrusting me into that limbo that straddles complacent and discontent.
* * *
One night, I overheard Rubén telling Ma that Vanessa’s ex was back in the picture, appearing at her house randomly, staying for dinners. That he was older and abusive, forcing himself on Vanessa early and never letting go.
Rubén, seventeen and with a fresh mustache, steaming from a recent trip to the barber shop, wondered if he should whoop the guy’s ass out of principle, then brushed the rumors off as blasphemy, bochinche, bullshit.
Ain’t nobody swooping on my girl, he said, his eyes sharp as blades.
I wasn’t sure what the truth was, but it concerned me that Rubén brushed it aside completely. If I know anything, it’s that gossip always carries weight and the streets don’t respond well to pressure. By avoiding the rumors, Rubén left me to cope with the streets alone.
Walking home from school was easier when Rubén was around. Having him near didn’t make run-ins with gangs less prominent, and it sure as hell didn’t prevent them from chasing us down Kostner whenever we wore anything that deviated from the neutral black and white, but it felt safer. There’s comfort in getting jumped with another person, in laughing it off once you’ve survived. The deep vibrations of their laughter clutching your body like a firm hand as it wobbles above the pavement.
That all changed when Rubén met Vanessa. Suddenly Kostner seemed larger, its threats amplified. Three pairs of fists began to feel like twelve, seven blocks like twenty. I couldn’t tell if the gangbangers were hitting me harder or if I’d simply become more sensitive to their blows, lacking my usual buffer. Either way it hurt like hell. I felt that shit deep.
Only perk walking home alone brought was the sweetness that permeated Fullerton, drifting over from the baking warehouse down the street. All the pastries are eventually frozen, but taking in their aroma made me feel like I got first dibs.
I’d squat behind the warehouse in Hermosa Park, smiling as the artificial strawberries reminded me of childhood memories I never had.
Ma always killed the vibe, talking shit as soon as I entered the apartment. The most recent time, there was a pile of clean laundry on the table, looking like someone fumbled through it to search for matching socks. Ma was pissed I didn’t clean it up.
Why’s it always up to me to clean?
Cause I’m the one who works all fucking day, not you, she said, suddenly several steps closer to me.
And what about Rubén, what does he do, other than chill with Vanessa all day?
Don’t worry about him, worry about what you’re supposed to be doing, Ma said. She shut off the light while exiting.
How am I supposed to fold the laundry? I asked, walking toward the light switch.
You should’ve thought about that before you came home so late.
It’s only seven, I said, reaching for the light.
Don’t you touch that switch, she said.
I folded the laundry, mostly Ma’s and Rubén’s, in the dark. Whenever I wasn’t sure what I was holding, I took it over to the window so that the light of the outside world might provide a clue. That lasted about an hour. Rubén didn’t bother looking at me when he arrived, despite me saying wassup. He went straight to Ma’s room and shut the door.
Him and Ma began spending more time together. Each conversation they had seemed to grow longer and Ma began to prioritize them over other social engagements. Including, but not limited to:
- spades with our neighbor, Reina, who looked forward to their games after long days serving at Hooters. I gotta turn these tips into something real, she always said, pulling a neat roll of cash from her tits.
- sex with our other neighbor, Paco, who was also sleeping with Reina (on the low), and whose daughter I occasionally kicked it with whenever she was mad at her man (usually for cheating, but sometimes just for looking).
- movie nights with me, typically Wednesdays, where we’d go to the RedBox at Walgreens, grab two movies, buy Snow Caps and Reese’s Pieces and watch the movies until I fell asleep, my eyes fluttering as Ma’s finger tickled my ear, twirled the curls at the back of my head.
About three months into their relationship, Rubén began bringing Vanessa to our place, chilling with her in his room mostly, but also arranging dinners with her and Ma. Ma tossed the meals together and they all talked shit while leaning against the counters—their laughs bouncing off the walls, like wind through the tunnels of Chicago’s streets, blasting my face.
Occasionally, I’d enter the kitchen and it’d fall silent. Eyes clinging to me suspiciously. Vanessa’s expression betrayed the others, warm and welcoming, almost as if she wanted to be on my side of the room.
* * *
Roughly a week later, Vanessa approached me in the sala. I moved away from the window, where I sat, using the projection of our streetlights to read—our electricity was shut off, despite Ma’s guarantee that it’d never happen again.
Upon noticing Vanessa enter the sala, I felt inclined to continue reading but there was nowhere else to divert her. She sat inside one of the permanent indents of our couch and said, What you up to?
I was reading.
You do that a lot, she said. Rubén doesn’t read much, not even for class.
She kepting looking back at the door that connected the kitchen and sala. Until then, I hadn’t realized she’d shut it.
I’m surprised you read so much, she said. Not many guys do.
It helps me escape people’s bullshit, I said.
You know you can talk to me, she said. You don’t always have to be by yourself, avoiding people.
Don’t talk like you know me.
Your brother never stops talking about you, she said. So I feel like I do know you.
Yeah, well Rubén don’t know shit either, I said but I didn’t believe it myself.
You’d be surprised what he knows. He worries about you.
Somehow I doubt that, I said and attempted to stand.
Vanessa pulled me by my hand and said, He still cares about you, you know.
I swiped her hand away just as Rubén entered the sala. Why the fuck you holding her hand? he shouted, jumping into the next accusation before allowing me to respond.
So you just close the door and think you can make a move on my girl while I’m sleeping? he shouted again. He shoved me. Vanessa faded into the couch.
You need to chill, I said. It ain’t even like that.
Then what’s it like, nigga?
He knew I didn’t like when he called me that. He knew my complexion was a sore spot.
Watch that shit, I said.
Or what… nigga?
I took a swing at Rubén and he ducked, pulling me into a headlock. Ma entered the sala a few seconds later. She cursed me as an instigator and told me to leave or else get slapped down in front of everyone.
Rubén started it, I said. Calling me nigga when he knows I don’t like that shit.
Ay, don’t start with this color shit again, Ma said.
I swear y’all be on some bullshit.
Ma jumped forward and said, I’m done playing with you, Alex.
I looked around at all their faces: Ma’s was frustrated and Rubén’s was angry and Vanessa’s was fearful.
A tension began to ferment in my lungs and rise to my throat, threatening to explode but the moment never came. I went to my room instead, which lacked a door, allowing their collective eye to linger on me.
I camped in my closet, where I shuffled songs on my mp3 player. My body was stiff by the time the floorboards cued me to their exit.
On my bed, I let the music drown my thoughts as it bounced between the canyons of my ears. Eventually, a song that Rubén and I used to vibe to came on, and I imagined that he still slept on the bunk below mine, that he knocked the beat into the slab of plywood that separated us as I cried laughing.
Then I remembered where I was, what had just happened, and I sobbed. Shoved my face into my pillow and hoped—somewhere deep inside of me—that my breath would escape me.
I lifted my mp3 player to change the song and saw my dark puffy eyes reflected on the screen. My dark puffy face. Next thing I knew, the mp3 player was crashing against the floor in pieces. Months passed before I could afford a new one.
* * *
A few weeks later, I accompanied Rubén to Vanessa’s crib. Vanessa lived on a rough block in Humboldt Park, in one of those housing communities that’s made of large yellow stone buildings, divided by courtyards, completely gated off from the rest of the block. Projects by another name.
Rubén told me that some dudes got crazy with him last time he visited, so I decided to pull through.
Our block had its moments, but it wasn’t as hot as Vanessa’s. Heard once that even Yuppies were getting whooped on by Vanessa’s, so I knew Rubén was in for some shit.
Rubén and I cut into the courtyard as soon as we reached the gate. I followed him to an intercom, where he rang Vanessa. She buzzed us in, but I decided to wait in the hallway, sitting on the stairs near the entrance. Rubén said he wouldn’t be long.
Music blared from one of the nearby apartments, Rubén’s steps merging with the rhythm of the beat as he made his way up. A man and a woman entered the building abruptly, two children behind them. The parents pummeled me with their eyes as they drew closer, wondering what I was doing in their space, a man they’d never seen before. I stood up to let them pass and remained standing. Their eyes released me after they rounded the second flight of stairs.
A few minutes later, Rubén came running down the steps, angrier than I’d ever seen him. I asked what happened, but all he said was: Let’s dip.
So, we dipped.
Hurried past the block, sticking to major streets for the entire walk. Rubén didn’t utter a single word, power walking back home as if the solution to whatever his problem was awaited him there. I was pissed we wasted an hour walking there and back for a five minute interaction, more so with being left in the dark about it all.
Ma was sitting on the porch when we reached the apartment, her tight curly hair dampened from a recent shower, glimmering sporadically in the streetlights. Kush smoke shot from her nostrils as she sighed.
Where the hell were you? she asked.
Vanessa’s, Rubén said, stomping up the porch. I followed him into the apartment, Ma following me.
You better pick up your feet, she yelled.
Rubén went straight to his room, where he tore all the pictures and letters from Vanessa off his wall. There were dozens of them, collaged like a vision board. They fell to the ground in pieces.
You good? I asked from the kitchen.
Mind your fucking business, he said.
Ma charged in before I had a chance to respond. Ya! Stop your shit, both of you, she said, standing between us. Leave your problems with Vanessa at her house. I don’t need that shit here.
How about you tell him to stop being so damn nosy, Rubén said.
How you gonna ask me to come with you, then accuse me of being nosy? I said.
I left for my room before he could respond and climbed out the window. There was a platform of roofing outside that hung above the porch. I only went out there when no one was around, so they wouldn’t know it existed.
Out there, I’d reach my hand to the stars as if they were waiting for me to touch them. They’d shimmer and wink when I did, longing to embrace me. That’s what I’d do if I could fly, I’d leave everyone and everything behind and chill amongst the stars.
The world had different plans for me though. Ma came to the window and asked if I knew why Rubén was upset.
How’d you know I was here? I asked.
You always leave when things get rough, she said.
Rubén never tells me anything.
She climbed through the window and sat next to me, sighing strong enough to rattle the trees nearby. Her body was warm beside mine.
I wish we would talk more and not scream at each other so much, she said. But you’ve always been so hard that way, it’s impossible getting through that thick skull.
I continued to watch neighbors and cars pass by as they struggled to make sense of the traffic. Felt Ma’s honey brown irises scratch at my surface. Looking into her eyes made me feel weak, that somehow the honey of her eyes would dilute the coffee of mine, granting her a microscopic peek within.
Suddenly she’d question her embrace of Rubén and Vanessa. Punch herself in the mirror daily. Hope creaking floorboards would precede an inquiry, a hello, acknowledgement. Sob and sniffle outside the window, trusting the traffic to drown it out. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she’d hate me, instead.
I know you’re upset with me for encouraging Rubén, she said, but someone had to support him.
We sat quietly as the wind picked up and blew strands of Ma’s hair against my cheek. The scent of lavender drifted off her creamy white skin, hugged my nostrils. Gunshots sounded off in the distance.
Don’t sit out here too long, Ma said. It’s been hot lately.
Ma climbed back into the window and turned to me from the room. She’s pregnant, she said. Three months in.
I knew he’d slip up.
Would you stop talking shit and listen for once? He’s only been sleeping with her for a month, Alex.
* * *
Rubén tore everything from his wall and rehung it several times over, as he waged a war against gravity. He broke things off with Vanessa the night we walked to her place. Then he attempted to mend wounds with her in the Science Wing of our high school.
His body no longer leaned against her locker at a precise angle, but slouched in a mode of plea. Many times I wanted to walk over to Rubén and tell him to move on, to accept the easy out. But I wasn’t trying to square up with him.
One day, Rubén approached me near the entrance of the school, asking for a favor. I’d just passed through the metal detectors, about to walk home, when he stopped me.
Vanessa threatened me this morning, he said. Claimed some dude named Chris was coming for me.
Who do you think?
Do you know what he looks like? I asked, immediately considering which of my homies would be down to fight, if necessary.
Nah, she just said that he knows everything.
Yes, everything, Rubén said.
Can you walk home with me or not?
Yeah, bro, I said. I got you.
I told Rubén to wait for me while I hit up my boy Raymond, who I wanted to join us for the walk. I couldn’t find him, so I went back to meet Rubén, but he wasn’t around. No one at the school saw him. I figured he’d gotten impatient and left for home, so I headed that way.
Students were scattered throughout Kostner, which made a run-in with Chris unlikely. I ran toward Fullerton, convinced that was the case.
Rubén would be good because all of Kostner was filled with witnesses. He probably made it home already, I thought. He’s chilling in his room, finally tearing those letters and pictures off his wall for good.
Then a car pulled up to me and a tall, skinny guy with a baggy grey tee exited, his body positioned to devour mine. His face was rage, his fists clenched as though they were protecting prized possessions. I knew exactly who he was and what he wanted.
You Rubén? he asked.
My heart clinched. Nah, I said, who’s asking?
The motherfucker whose girl you’re fucking.
Ain’t nobody fucking your girl.
Don’t play like you innocent now, nigga, he said, charging toward me.
I dropped my bookbag, then squared up with plans to shatter his jaw. But the passenger door flung open and Vanessa exited.
Aye, chill! she shouted. That’s Rubén’s brother.
Where’s Rubén at? Chris asked, him and Vanessa staring deeply into me – not at me, into me.
Don’t worry about it, I said.
Chris walked to the trunk of his car and began to pull from it what looked like a strap, but it was too dark inside to tell. My body froze, blood rushing to my center, stiffening my limbs, rendering me incapable of escape.
Don’t go there, Vanessa said, her eyes screaming.
Chris stood near the trunk for what felt like several minutes, then reluctantly slammed it shut. He watched as he got back into the car and continued to as he ran the stop sign on Cortland and zoomed toward our apartment. My body hadn’t thawed, but my legs were warm. I can’t remember if I pissed myself or not, but that ain’t important.
Once my limbs regained their strength, I continued my run toward Fullerton. I didn’t realize just how much oxygen I’d lost during the scare, found myself winded after only two blocks. I didn’t stop running though, passing several red lights before I reached home. Chris’s car wasn’t parked out front, which meant they were still looking for Rubén.
Or they’d already found him.
Rubén wasn’t home. His absence made my chest tight. I checked the windows constantly to see if he was nearby, hoping he returned uninjured or, if he was injured, that it wasn’t severe. Another hour would pass before he showed.
* * *
Rubén entered the apartment holding his torn sweater in hand. Scratches and bruises marked his face like acne. I didn’t notice any severe injuries on him, which was slightly relieving. I walked over to him from the sala.
Where the fuck were you? he said, dropping his sweater. You were supposed to walk back with me.
His chest was practically touching mine.
Me? Where were you? I responded. Chris and Vanessa rolled up on me, looking for your ass. But you disappeared.
Nah, you left me to get moved on.
I risked my safety to protect you, I said, shoving him across the room. None of this shit would’ve happened if you hadn’t fucked around with someone who already had a man.
Rubén punched me before I got the chance to continue. I would’ve reacted more aggressively had I not looked into his eyes, pits of blackness gifted him by Chris, and Vanessa.
You’re the only one who don’t care about shit, he said. Don’t get it twisted, nigga.
Rubén turned for his room.
Blood stung my tongue as I rose from the floor, sending a surge through my body. Something like fuel, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. Could only look at Rubén, who paused briefly at the kitchen door.
He looked toward me, words growing on his face but never fully birthing.
I left for my room and climbed out the window, into a chilly night. My lip quivered as the swelling set in. I became lost in the whir of zooming cars as the wind created a jagged scab on my lip. Whenever I saw a car that resembled Chris’s, I panicked, fearing he’d returned for me and Rubén. That a bullet might fly this time.
I laid on my back and watched as clouds overtook the sky. Some stars were visible, so I raised a hand toward them in an attempted flight, but they drowned behind the growing darkness before I could reach them. Leaving me in the clouds. Alone.
Randy William Santiago is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer from inner-city Chicago. He is a Fulbright Scholar, a 2021 Periplus Collective Fellow, and a Michener Fellow at the University of Miami’s Fiction MFA. Randy’s writing has found a home in The Blue Nib, Rigorous, Storm Cellar Quarterly, Litro Magazine, Lunch Ticket, and is forthcoming in Craft Literary.