Chicago in the midst of October: Winter stretches her frigid arms, waving them to rid the prickles of so much rest. She wraps them slowly around each corner of the city. The corner upon which I walk is a few miles south of downtown, on the western border that runs up against the suburbs. I am accompanied by two middle school girls as we stroll around their neighborhood, a day out shared between mentor and mentees.
A mango vendor on 26th Street persists even as the weather changes. He sells slices of the bright orange fruit sprinkled with chili pepper and lime in clear plastic cups. I consider buying one, but the girls grab each of my hands and propel me toward La Baguette. We maneuver the narrow aisles of the bakery, using tongs to stack an aluminum tray high with dense, icing-laden pastries that cost only dimes each. Altogether the bill comes to one dollar and twenty cents. The woman at the cash register wishes us a good day: que tengan un buen dia. We carry our white paper bags that have already gathered translucent patches from the buttery treats, and walk in the direction of their homes.
We pass by mothers pushing strollers and gripping the mitten paws of toddlers bundled in so many layers. We pass by the Dunkin Donuts where blue-collar workers invigorate their tired bodies with caffeine, sugar, and a few minutes of conversation. We pass by murals that depict the Virgin de Guadalupe and protagonists of Mexican folklore. We pass by graffiti, some of it making an explicit political statement, much of it unintelligible. We reach the street upon which the two girls live.
Further down the street, I notice a home with front steps bursting in color and light. Bouquets of white roses and pink carnations rest against the cardboard image of a boy. He has the signs of a mustache, and looks no more than a few years shy of twenty. Glass votives adorned with saints contain candles of bright red wax, and are arranged in a semicircle around the vigil. The girls see my confusion and explain, “He died last week. Someone shot him.” Their faces furrow at the brow as they tell me this, but they betray no further signs of distress. This is not an uncommon enough occurrence to them, one that would warrant outward signs of shock. I try to offer a few words of condolences that they brush off like crumbs as they gather their pastries.
We promise to see each other soon and from there we part ways. As I walk to the bus station, I pass a brick wall wall covered with the names of men scrawled in paint. In the center, the anguished artist has posed a question in bubble letters: Who will be next?