It began at the carnival.
Those magic nights, the whole of St. Greg’s parish there, all strolling
over from the bungalows and two flats and apartments all mix matched
throughout the neighborhood. There were the games, the shouts of the
carnies, the swirling thunder of the Tilt-A-Whirl, lights flashing,
pulsing, the colors of yellow and red and green and blue exploding like
fireworks against the walls of the church, the old nunnery, the high
school and grammar school that encircled it all like a towering red brick
fortress. The carnival set on top the school parking lot, the exits were
the alley to the east near the priest’s house, the tunnel through the
school that led out onto Bryn Mawr and the opening between the church and
nunnery, the noise trapped and echoed with booms that bounced from wall
to wall. And there was the crying joy of the children and the wild in
their eyes and the running and no knowledge of anything else.
Joe was nine years old, he was hanging out near the beer tent with some
kids from the block. His big brother Lil Pete was in the beer tent
drinking with the other hoods, something he’d been doing for years, the
priests too scared to throw the young guys out. Lil Pete was the tallest
of them, his shoulders set close and only his profile revealed the large
potbelly. They were somewhere between greasers, cholos and jocks. Some
wore shirts with sports logos or sweats pants and dago T’s, some wore
Dickies, some with buzzed heads, others with slicked back hair and the
sides almost shaved, their voices rose and fell in that squeaky Chicago
slang. Gold was new to that summer and it shone on their fingers, wrists
and necks. They were a dying breed, the great white flight was taking
their numbers and the neighborhood was changing.
“Aye Joey C’mere,” Lil Pete yelled with a wave of his hairy knuckled hand as he stood near an older woman and a kid Joe’s age.
“Hey did you ever meet Brian?” Lil Pete asked.
Joe shook his head no.
“Well, he’s Mickey’s nephew,” Lil Pete said nodding towards where a
stoutly built young man stood with a round buzzed head, his face flexing
as he spoke to the hood next to him so that he looked like a pit bull. Joe recognized him, it was a hard face to forget.
Joe looked at the kid in front of him, Brian. He was like a mini Mickey,
his hair in a short buzz cut, same pit bull face but softer. He wore old graying Adidas shoes with thick blue laces that made Joe wonder if he was very poor.
“Well shake hands or somethin’, Jesus,” Lil Pete said as his features
scrunched up in distaste.
“What’s up,” they both said looking down.
Joe noticed a thick gold bracelet on Brian’s wrist.
“Nice gold,” Joe said.
“Thanks,” Brian said looking at the tips of Joe’s Air Jordans. “Nice rope. I got one like dat at home.”
“Well, you two go play,” Lil Pete said brushing his hand through his trimmed goatee and mustache as he turned away. “And stay out of trouble you little shit,” he said as they both smiled.
They made quick friends and soon they were laughing and playing with the
other kids, white, black and Mexican kids, dipping and dodging through
the maze of grown ups.
The gunshot was abrupt, and in the masses of people, no one knew what
direction it had come from. Joe saw it though, the fire through the
barrel, and he watched Lil Pete run and jump the fence in the direction
of the tall skinny Syrian kid who held the pistol to his leg, the barrel
smoking slightly. The confusion continued as the Syrian began sprinting
down the alley. Lil Pete gave chase with Mickey close behind him. Joe and Brian followed the older boys. They ran down the alley and turned right, and Joe could hear the wild laughter coming from Lil Pete and Mickey. He glanced at Brian, his brows arched, eyes bulging and darting wildly in their sockets as gravity seemed to turn Joe’s stomach into a helium filled balloon. Joe ran as hard as he could but the older guys pulled away from Brian and him slightly as they turned at the T in the alley, their shoes clapping the pavement as Joe’s Nikes slipped and ground on the light dusting of dirt and small pebbles that littered the cracked cement.
Joe could see them running across Ashland and through the Jewel Parking
lot. Joe and Brian crossed Ashland, Joe’s heart pounding in his ears. He
could see through the parking lot as the Syrian guy ran into the front
door of the pharmacy on the corner across from the 7/11, Pete and Mickey
close behind him, still roaring with laughter. As Joe got close to the
pharmacy, he heard the screams from inside, but no shot. A few moments
later, Pete and Mickey emerged from the drug store. There was a bulge in
Pete’s waistband and as they jogged out of the place still laughing, his
shirt raised up above his belt and Joe saw the wooden pistol handle. They
had not seen the boys who’d ducked into a nearby doorway.
There was still the screaming inside, it was a woman’s voice and it was
the only voice that could be heard, there was a sort of panting between
each scream. Joe listened as he hid there in the doorway next to the
pharmacy, Brian beside him, their chests heaving. After Lil Pete and
Mickey were gone, Joe and Brian entered the drug store. The woman still
screamed, it was loud and rang in his ears. Joe and Brian walked towards
it, both trembling; Joe saw the red puddle on the floor as it slowly grew
like a shadow across the white and black tiles. He walked closer to the
puddle’s edge where he saw the young man not moving, eyes still open as
blood oozed from his head, his frizzy black hair wet with it. The woman
still screaming, was crumbled on the ground with the phone in her hand as she
shook terribly. Joe looked at her in silence and the boys walked out of
the store as others came running to its front door.
The boys walked towards home in the quiet, their heads hung, there was
the weight of it all around them. The air was thick, the carnival roared
on in the distance, the sound of the children’s joyous screams rose
and fell. The boys walked down Clark Street to Hollywood where the yellow
sign of the corner store glowed stale and flickering, they stood there a
“You think dey’re gonna get caught-up?”
“Naw, ain’t nobody gonna rat dem out.”
“Shit… he was dead wadn’t he.”
Brian didn’t answer. They walked down and crossed Ashland with the sirens
floating in the air. Brian went his way and Joe went home. He went up to
his room and sat on his bed a while in the dark, the orange yellow of the
streetlight seeping in through the window. After the others had gone to
sleep, he went downstairs to the TV room where he watched the reports of
And that was the birth of Pistol Pete.
The above is an excerpt from Bill Hillmann’s upcoming novel The Last White Hood. The book is an autobiographical fictive work about a family living in the racially diverse neighborhood of Edgewater in the North Side of Chicago.