The Stars Don’t Shine in the City (Short Story)

Wrote this three years ago when I was in college.  I had just read about the fatal beating of an A-student in an inner city school in Chicago, and was deeply saddened by the event. It inspired me to write this. Hope you enjoy.

Jamal was coming home late.

His English teacher, Mr. Johnson, had delayed him after class to discuss his future.  Specifically, the possibility of a college education.  Even as Jamal approached the squalor of the projects, he allowed a small grin to creep up from the side of his mouth.  It was Mr. Johnson who had convinced Jamal to expect more from himself, who told him that he could be somebody, and so, in the midst of struggle, he began to rely heavily on his teacher for support.  He might even admit that he liked Mr. Johnson, and that was a rare thing.

Rarity defined Jamal – shambling under the weight of a stuffed backpack – his bookishness, his curiosity, all presented an unfamiliar image around these parts.  In a place where dreams were buried prematurely, his had survived for an unusually long time, enough to earn him the jealous scorn of peers who had relegated themselves to a life of small victories and even smaller expectations.

“Ay yo, check it – here comes that Steve Urkle lookin’ mothafucka.”

Jamal immediately recognized the slouching figures crowded ahead on the street corner.  Long ago, when they were kids, they used to play together.  Now they were entry-level thugs slinging drugs, thinking they were kings that had finally been given the crowns they rightfully deserved.  As Jamal walked past, he felt the violent burn of their judgments, a cigarette butt on the skin of his being, forcing him into a forward march, step-by-shameful-step.  He took care to remain submissive.  They would appreciate that.  Build up their ego a bit, he figured, and then they might ignore him.  In a way, Jamal understood their swagger.  To prosper on these streets demanded a different set of skills, and he didn’t blame them for what they did.  What use was an education when problems here were better solved at the smoking end of a pistol barrel or opiate pipe?  Intellectual sympathies notwithstanding, he pressed on past his would-be aggressors.

“Damn son, Mr. Johnson’s dick must taste like a mothafuckin’ haagen-daaz, huh?  Punk ass over there with him talkin’ bout all kinds of freaky shit, I bet.”  They began to orgasmically moan Mr. Johnson’s name: Damon.

Jamal kept his eyes glued to the pavement.

You ignorin’ us, bitch?  Don’t you dare be disrespectin’ us.  I’ll stick a fuckin’ nine down your throat.”

Jamal stiffened visibly, struggling to ignore their harassment, but his discomfort telegraphed that he was easy prey.  To be perfectly comfortable in the projects was to fully accept an unfortunate, degenerated fate, and Jamal understood that his very refusal to accept that fate was an aggressive statement of superiority, an implicit challenge to the self-worth of all the stunted souls around him.

Damon Johnson put away his coat on the plastic lawn chair serving as a makeshift seat for the kitchen table and threw his keys casually onto the countertop.

He leaned into the stairs while removing his tie.  “Hey Keesh-baby, is there anything to snack on?”

No response.  He shrugged it off and began to rummage through the fridge.  A strange odor emanated from some unidentified source within, though the fridge itself was largely empty.  Damon settled on what little food was available: a lone ham and cheese sandwich that had been neatly saran-wrapped.  Sitting down with sandwich in hand, two of the kitchen table’s leg-ends capped in tennis balls, he scanned his surroundings and realized that – despite having moved into this modest condominium six months prior – there was nothing to indicate that it was, in fact, home.  No framed photos, no decorative pillows, no wood furniture, nothing.  A feeling of impermanence suddenly overwhelmed Damon, as though his life was entirely transient in this place.

He chewed his sandwich at a calculated pace, studying each bite with his tongue as if it were a clue to some great mystery.  Why hadn’t his wife spruced the place up, or, at the very least, asked him to do something?  Had she not noticed?  Impossible, he thought.  Keisha was an independent web developer who worked from her home office, and she came from a relatively wealthy background, having lived her entire life, up until recently, in the quiet comfort of the suburbs.  Certainly, the state of the condo would have shocked her white-picket-fence sensibilities.

Damon scratched his chin and chewed, wracking his mind for an explanation.  The cheese is stale, he realized.  I’m eating old fucking cheese, too.  The front door creaked open before he could settle his thoughts.

“Hey.  Just took the trash out,” Keisha said in a deadpan tone.  She walked in, rubbing her hands down the side of her jeans.  She handed Damon an envelope, “I found this letter addressed to you.  I don’t know how it ended up out there.  Was in a pile with a whole bunch of other envelopes.  You should have a talk with the post office.”

Damon held the envelope but was unconcerned with its contents.  He set it aside on the table and looked up at his wife with earnest eyes.  “Keesh, have you seen this place lately?  It’s been six months, but the fridge is empty, there are tennis balls supporting the bottom of the table, and I’m sitting on a lawn chair in my own damn kitchen.  What’s going on here?”  He kicked at the one of the tennis balls to emphasize his frustration.

A hint of aggression began to seep into Keisha’s voice, “Well, what are you going to do about it?  You can’t expect me to do everything around here.”

“It’s not that you haven’t done something, or that I haven’t – I mean, it’s as if you don’t care at all – you work here!  Just sitting here for five minutes, I feel like a vagrant,” he complained.  Damon peeked his head around his wife and into the living room.  “Fuck, are those packed boxes?  We still haven’t unpacked some of the boxes out there, Keesh!  Aren’t we trying to make ourselves a home?”

“A home, Damon?  We live just a few blocks away from the projects and you want to talk about building a home?  What happened to raising a family, or any of the other million bullshit promises you made?” Keisha pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers, wincing, “I can’t leave the house without worrying I’ll be mugged, or raped even.  I can’t raise a family here.  Those neighbors – the Robinsons – they scream, and yell, and fight constantly, not that the other neighbors don’t, the Robinsons just do it so much damn better than the rest.  The water is never quite hot enough, everything, yes, everything is desolate grey around here…I can’t do this Damon.  I can’t.  I thought this whole arrangement would be different.”

“No.  You thought I would give up by now,” Damon said.

He hung his head, defeated.  He knew that he could not convince her any longer, and they sat together in a bubble of silence.  Keisha understood why he had taken the teaching position in the first place, and she cared, for a time.  Damon obsessed over ‘what ifs’ – his early struggles against the pressures of the projects were successful, but his friends and family were not so lucky.  A close friend shot to death in his own car.  An uncle sent to prison for ten years for gang-related activity.  An older brother struggling with drug addiction.  Every single one represented wasted potential.  Damon grew up telling himself that in order to succeed he had to leave this place, but with success came the realization that he could never live with himself unless he returned to save the ones he had left behind.  Always the shining knight, Keisha used to joke.

She walked around the table and leaned over to hug him from behind.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  Damon sensed her ultimatum through her touch.  “I know how much this all meant to you.  I’m sorry, I really am.”

Keisha climbed the stairs, leaving Damon to stare blankly at the envelope.  Snapping it up from the table, he broke out of his catatonic state with a sudden thrust of his fingers through the envelope.  Inside there was a single page of notebook paper, signed with the name of a student in his class who, by all accounts, had never shown any real interest in learning.  It was a poem.  Damon waded through a torrent of misspelled words and grammatical defects and erratic punctuation.  But the imagery was crisp, he noted, the pacing excellent.

He wept quietly.

Jamal was nearly out of breath.  The backpack slammed continuously into his spine.

Thump.  Thump.  Thump.

He felt sure that it would snap him in half.  The flesh had turned raw and spasms of pain snaked along his spine with every thump.  Jamal looked back.  They were still in close pursuit, murderous smiles planted across their faces.  He finally slid his backpack off onto the ground, but despite his regained advantage, the streets seemed an impossible maze, an endless concrete horizon flush with the sky.

A thunderous clap tore through the air.  Jamal felt a shrill buzzing smother his mind.  He covered his ears and shook his head violently to rid himself of it, but the buzzing continued.  More shots.  The thunder now seemed a faint whisper, but Jamal’s eyes widened in shock as he felt the immediate thrust of a bullet entering his thigh.  It wasn’t the first time in his life that he wished he was bigger and stronger – the bullet pushing itself clean through the unimpressive mass of muscle – and his body collapsed awkwardly to the ground.  As he crawled away, dragging his limp leg on pavement, he anticipated the worst.

His assailants caught up with him, and Jamal turned to face them, wincing.  He prayed that they were finished with him, that they would let him walk away, tail between his legs and licking his wounds.  They stood over him, and Jamal’s eyes wandered to the one with the pistol at his side, hand visibly shaking.  This must be his first time shooting at someone, Jamal observed, and he felt the shooter’s fear commingle with his own.  What little hope he had was quickly shattered.  Across the street, several passersby looked on in awe, waiting for something to happen.  The attackers would need to be consistent with their persona, now.  Jamal examined the shooter – he was young, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with soft features and downcast eyes.  The shooter looked at the others questioningly, his grip on the pistol loosening.

One of the older thugs grabbed his faltering companion by the shirt collar, and nodded his head toward the gathering crowd to alert him to their presence, “What’s the matter with you?  Show these bitches that we ain’t nothin’ to fuck with!”  He gestured with his hand as if it were a pistol, stabbing aggressively in Jamal’s direction.  The crowd of onlookers watched from a distance, too comfortable in their relative safety to interfere.  Though this was a spectacle, an event, they had come to accept the reality of violence so thoroughly as to experience it with morbid ease.

The pistol was raised slowly and pointed at Jamal’s head.  He could have sworn he saw tears.

A sudden clap of thunder tore again through the air.

“How do you like the margarita?  Lawrence and I learned how to make them while we were vacationing along the western coast of Mexico,” Elaine said as she walked by.  She was an old college friend of Keisha’s, a successful businesswoman and an outspoken liberal.

Damon took a sip of his cocktail, “It’s fine, thank you.”

He didn’t like her.  She was the sort of person whose support of a particular issue was correlated with the perceived social capital to be gained from said support.  He remembered Elaine and her husband Lawrence had discussed the possibility of a charity trip to Africa.  Yes, surely your travel adventure is the best remedy for poverty and malnutrition, he grumbled to himself then.  And now, Damon scanned the room, disgusted with the niceties of life beyond the grey-stained walls of the projects, smiles plastered on plaster-white faces.  Keisha had persuaded him several months ago to leave his teaching position in the city and move to the suburbs, where she would be happier and more comfortable.  Not that he had much of a choice – it was either that or a divorce, and he still loved Keisha.  But when he saw her, cocktail glass in hand, laughing and smiling with all the others, he realized that it had become so much harder to convince himself of that.

Jamal’s death had rattled Damon to the core of his being.  For the first time in a long time, he was afraid.  He was afraid that everything he could ever do to build and fix and improve would inevitably be destroyed, and dragged through the dirt.  So he ran.  He ran far away to the safety of life outside of the inner city.  Surrounded by the noisy hustle and bustle of the cocktail party, Damon stood in silent contemplation.

“Silly!”  Keisha slapped him on the arm playfully.  “What are you doing standing here all by yourself?”

Damon was jolted back to his senses – Keisha, Lawrence, and Elaine were gathered to his left and judging by their faces it seemed as though they had already prepared responses.

“Just thinking, that’s all,” Damon sighed.

Keisha ignored him and continued, “We were just talking about how terrible it was that Jamal died – one his students, Elaine – and how glad we are that we left.  So much needless violence.”

Damon nodded his acceptance but felt anger brewing inside.

Elaine shot him a concerned frown.  “That is so sad.  How did he die?  The government should really focus more on improving the lives of people in, you know, the inner city.”

“I’ve heard some horror stories about those kids.  Just not wanting to learn at all,” Lawrence added.  “It’s a tragedy, really.  Was this Jamal a good student?”

Damon closed his eyes.  He wanted nothing more than for all the sound in the room to die, and to be enveloped in the quiet of his own mind for just an instant.

“I’m sorry, honey.  We don’t have to talk about Jamal anymore if it makes you sad,” Keisha said, rubbing his back with gentle fingers.

Damon opened his eyes again and curled his mouth in disgust at his wife and her faux-interested friends.  Without saying a word, he walked away and left the house through the front door, slamming it behind him.  They did not follow.  Sitting on the doorstep, Damon tilted his head toward the night sky, brilliantly lit by a carpet of stars.  He hated the stars.  He screamed at them.  Cursed them.  The stars don’t shine in the city.

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6 responses to “The Stars Don’t Shine in the City (Short Story)

  1. As a Jamal that lived through it, thank you.

  2. one of the best stories I have ever read so powerful and to be able to make such a statement in so little of a story is truly a great writer.

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