Welcome to Paradise


     Jesse stumbled across a road clouded over with dirty-faced children and drunken youth. They called out to him. Silently with vacant eyes or with speech drenched with sweat and drink. He closed his ears to the noise, but the same wet raw sounds were already in his head; they had always been. He made his gait clipped and short. His breath became careless.

     The parking lot of the 7-Eleven was waiting for him. It had always been waiting, quiet and wavering, wasting away when no one was watching. He always visited, because the store had an aura of paleness and hollow eyes and cigarettes, which summed up Jesse’s existence.

     Jesse leaned against a wall splattered with black graffiti and lit a cigarette. Humid air played with his skin. His sweaty black shirt clung against his torso, making him want to shove a lighter down his shirt and watch it burn.

     He hid and watched the children on the sidewalk. They were playing in puddles of mud or sitting aimlessly on the crumbly red earth. He had half a mind to offer them a cigarette. He rummaged in his pocket for one; he’d run out.

     Jesse turned towards the convenience store. A patchwork of corrugated neon lights and zinc roof looked back down at him wearily. He’d never actually been inside. He figured he’d go in and stock up on smoke, so he started padding towards the entrance, earth and trash crumpling under his raw feet.

     The old man that ran the 7-Eleven was well-known. People had visited the store, noticed the man and decided he was a nice object to spread rumors about. His face was a slab of pallid glass with two sunken eyes staring wildly at things no one else could see. There was a permanent crooked grin on his lips which reminded Jesse of crawling insects as he stepped inside, feeling somewhat self-conscious.

     His eyes were glinting like beetles as they followed Jesse’s movement.

     Jesse’s voice came out a distant croak. He cleared it awkwardly and tried again. “Can I have some…uh…”

     The man shook his head disapprovingly. Then he opened his mouth. His lips crawled up his face.

     “You kids’er all such rednecks.”

      Jesse’s back straightened as if tied to a board. “Careful who yer talkin to, gramps.” He sized up the man. Frail and fragile. Not hard to fight off.

     The man’s mouth abruptly closed. His forehead knotted in a scowl.

     Then he burst out laughing. At least, he thought it was laughing, because it was more like giant hiccups being peeled off his throat.

     “You kids,” he gasped. “Born and raised by hy-po-crites.” Enunciating the last word, each syllable much too precise.

     He hiccuped gleefully for another minute. Jesse didn’t know whether to be offended or not.

     He finally stopped giggling and said, “You kids, you’re—you kids’er fulla lies. They plugged. Plugged it into you. Like force feedin’!” He slapped his knee and gave a guffaw. “Force feedin’ a baby!

     “Hey, uh, I’m just here to smoke,” said Jesse, bemused by the man’s words.

     The man’s face suddenly became sober. “Apologies. I shouldn’t laugh bout somethin’ like this.” He sighed. “Cigarettes’er 5 cents and a few minutes of conversation.”

     “I don’t get you.”

     “You got five cents?”

     “Yeah.” Jesse dug out a nickel and slid it across the counter.

     “You got a few minutes to spare?”

     Jesse shrugged. “Bored to death.”

     The man sat forward and cupped his cheeks in his hands. “It’s been a while since anyone talked to me. Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t lonely. I just know somethings a lot of you slum goers don’t. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one in this hellhole of a planet that knows. So listen here.”

     Jesse remained silent and confused.

     “There are some people out there who want it in for you.”
     “That’s not new,” Jesse smirked.

     “They ain’t them boys you pick fights with on the streets, kid.” The man chuckled sardonically. “They’re the people who wanna keep this slum a slum and they wanna make you stay here forever. They’re the people who drive around smelling like money in fancy ass cars dishing out propaganda about helping those in poverty. They don’t care about your well being. Politics is just crazy rednecks who just want to raise you kids as rednecks and rule the world with redneck agendas.” The man paused to let this sink in, then said in a majestically bitter air: “Welcome to paradise, kid.”

     Hollow faces that Jesse had long tried to suppress appeared in his mind. Stoned mother. Starving sisters. Careless brother shot dead by teen gangs he refused to comply with. Father shot dead when trying to avenge his son’s death. The song of clicked bullets fired oh so cold and straight, like beer bottles breaking against pavement, back and forth between police and gangs and police and gangs and—

     He put a sweaty hand to his forehead. The image of his brother’s bullet-ridden body on the ground had never really gone away.

     ‘So what’re you gonna do?”

     “What-what d’ya mean?” he stammered, thoughts spinning into directions he didn’t want them to go.

     The man leaned closer. “What’re you gonna do bout them rednecks?” His hot breath licked his neck. “You ain’t just gonna let them be there, ain’tcha? They’re the ones recycling our minds and using them to churn out civil society for them filthy rich up there. They’re choking you. You ain’t just gonna…let them.” He hesitated when he noticed Jesse’s incredulous face. “Are you?”

     In a sudden fit of devastated fury, the old man flung himself away from Jesse and threw himself on the counter, sobbing uncontrollably. “Insane,” he choked out between gasps. “They’ve made you insane already. Too late. Nothing’s gonna change.”

     Jesse stared down at the old man’s hot tears. It was too much.

     He stumbled inside the bathroom stall of the 7-11, feeling as if he were about to vomit. The smell of cheap perfume and staleness smothered his nostrils.

     A cracked mirror clung to the wall. He stared at his reflection. His lips were chapped, eyes faded. The fragments pointed directly at his face like knives, making himself seem broken. Shattered. Fitting in nicely with his crippled surroundings.

    He felt the wall for a bare section and leaned against it, hands shoved in pockets. A drift of light fell into the stall. It created more shadows than it lit places.

     The old man’s words flitted around in his mind. He closed his eyes, making a tired attempt to shut them out. The man was senile. He had no need to listen to his radical and pessimistic ideas. No need at all.

     He tilted his head back, vision blurred. Fingers dragged against the wall desperately. Traces of graffiti burned under his fingertips. He turned and stared. Webs of faded color spread across the wall. Black and blue and green and red. Messy and cracked and tarnished.

     In the middle of it all, a crisp bold word, written just at his eye level: Welcome.

     The letters were tinged with sharp sarcasm. Who would welcome anyone here?

     More words: SUCk It

     and a profusion of profanity

     and countless names and signatures of countless Chicago citizens.

     He leaned back and stared at each name. Each held a living breathing person. Living a slum life. Dirty and ragged life. Losing family, businesses, minds.

     He heard the names screaming. Sobbing. Brusque rapid ragged breaths. Their pain, only heard through walls of graffiti.

     And no one cared.

     They’re choking you.

     He wasn’t breathing. It dawned on him that he hadn’t been breathing his whole life.

     His eyes fell on a final name. A guttural scream ripped from the scrawled letters. He sank to the floor, fingers clawing at the words written on the wall, body taut, clenched. Then he fell apart.

     Hours later, morning came. An amber glow rose gloriously. It illuminated his still body.

     Jesse quietly stood back up, left the bathroom and vowed never to return. The old man was seated again silently at the counter, as if nothing had happened, the twisted smile still crawling over his face.

     He stood uncertain under the shadow of the old man. After a few moments where a silent exchange passed between the two, he turned to leave.

     “You forgot your cigarettes.” A cracked sound escaped the man’s lips.

     Jesse turned.

     “Keep ‘em.”

     “Good luck, kid.”

     “Thank you.”

Inspired by Green Day’s City of the Damned

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