It was a beautiful day in Chicago. The smell of Pine-sol infused into the aroma of the freshly lit incense. My grandmother was cleaning her apartment. The sounds of Bobby “Blue” Bland filled the rooms as my cousin Shihee and I sat at the kitchen table, doodling and coloring, as the day passed the afternoon. My grandmothers friends would come to replace us at the table soon. It was casino night. My grandmothers house would be filled with middle aged women smoking and drinking as they gambled on hands of Bid Wiz and Spades and old soul music boomed from the hi-fi player. This was the scene at least once a month. With both of our mothers working late into the evening, Shihee and I usually had no other choice but to sit quiet and endure the tradition.
But this Saturday was different. Shihee and I scribbled furiously in our notebooks, silent and steaming, upset that we couldn’t go out on such a beautiful day. We weren’t stuck exactly. Its not like my grandmother had the doors locked and requested a secret password for entry or exit. We were broke. With no money for candy and trinkets or the video game arcade, the outdoor world wasn’t any no more exciting or attractive than the He-Man coloring books. We begged our grandmother for money. A dollar. Something. Anything. She told us she didn’t have any money to give us and went back to cleaning. My cousin could smell the money in the air somehow. He spied her tucking money on a bookcase in her living room and in a matter of minutes, convinced me to take a few bills from the wad. I made my move for the money with my grandmothers back turned. We left one at a time and trekked the mile to the arcade, Dennis’ on Clark Street.
It was the best arcade on the north side, a cornerstone of the Rogers Park community. I spent more money and time playing Contra and Shinobi than I did on anything else in my five years living on earth, school included. The walk was torture, but the idea of spending the day in the cool, dark, dungeon like confines of Dennis’ made the trek through the Touhy Park gangland worth it. One day a few years after that Saturday, on another journey through Touhy Park, our friend Frank was assaulted by a tiny little Spanish man. We were walking through the park yelling “GD. Folk. Fuck Latin King”, over and over, and he ran out and punched Frank in the face a few times as we made it to the other side of the park. Frank’s brother Alonzo was so shocked he nearly ran into traffic. Before anyone could think to do anything, the little Latin King disappeared back into the park. Even after that incident, Touhy Park was still our portal to the outside world.
We left my grandmothers home about 1 pm and didn’t return until after dark. The $20 bill I lifted bankrolled more games than I’d ever played before. I took my time with each game. Every quarter played was sweeter than the last. The feeling didn’t fade until I dropped the last token into the neon orange slots on the Double Dragon game. When my cousin exhausted his coins we exited the arcade unto the glowing streetlamps of Clark Street. It was the latest I’d ever stayed at Dennis’ arcade. It felt weird not having a blast of sunshine hit my eyes when I pushed the dungeon’s heavy steel door open. The darkness ushered in a dooming feeling. The sprite was gone. It was time to go home because it was too late to go anywhere else. I walked back home in near silence as guilt began to build inside. It was time to answer for my thieving ways.
I expected to be thrashed immediately. Shihee and I made it home just before 11 pm. The women paid little attention to us as they cackled over a game of scrabble. Maybe my grandmother didn’t know yet. I fell asleep thinking of excuses for the moment she did discover our brazen act. Maybe I could get $20 to replace it. Or at least my half of that $20.
The first lash woke me. My grandmother waited until I was alert to explain the charges. Before I could plead the 5th amendment, she went wild with a few more haymaking swings of the belt. Then she told me to go back to sleep and expect more in the morning.
I woke with the whiff of pancakes and bacon. The smell was too great to be true. I opened my eyes expecting to see my grandmother sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting with her belt. I slid into the bathroom, positioning myself to the living room next, before making myself visible in the kitchen. My grandmother stood over the sink with her back turned. I slid into the chair furthest away.
“Ryan, you and your cousin spent my money?”, she asked.
“Yeah. He told me to take it.” I snitched right away. Guilt is a muthafucka.
“You gonna do everything he tell you to do? That won’t stop you from getting in trouble too. Why did YOU take the money out of my bible?”. She didn’t turn around to say any of this.
“I dunno. I wanted to go to the arcade too, I guess. I’m sorry.” My regret got me nowhere.
“Eat breakfast. When you done, I’m gonna beat your ass with that belt before your mom come get you. Maybe you’ll learn not to listen to everything your cousin tell you. What you want to drink, milk or juice?”
“Juice”, I replied sheepishly. I don’t have to tell you that this was the worst ass whipping I ever got in my life. My mom has meted some great leather branding, but none compare to the totality of pain and shame inflicted upon me that morning with a full belly of apricot and walnut pancakes.