Once, long before everyone realized they could speak, someone had written a name. The red brick wall served as a backdrop for the two parallel basketball courts that faced the street, and someone had taken a black permanent marker and written it there, on the corner brick. “Trey Matthews,” a boy of 13 who had been shot in the neighborhood, a case that had gone uninvestigated by the police. No one knew who had written the name; it just appeared there one morning, but people would come, disrupting pickup basketball games to stare at it, kneeling down, and touching it with the two fingers of a kissed hand.
After a while the name vanished. The black ink that marked it disappeared, as if the pores of the red brick soaked it up like cracked earth to a desert rain, leaving it unblemished. People decided it was impossible that someone had come and cleaned it. No one would take the time to clean graffiti in this neighborhood. Also, everyone knew what the name on that brick meant. The brick had mourners and, out of a sign of respect, no one would clean the brick. People understood that the words must have disappeared for other reasons.
Jake’s coffee shop was one of a row of shops within sight of the basketball courts. The café had been vandalized one too many times. Jake came one morning to find the front pane of glass broken out except for a few clumps, held together by the shop’s decal that spanned the front window. The cash machine was gone. Insurance paid for it, but Jake didn’t picture himself staying in the neighborhood long. His coffee shop didn’t belong down here. It belonged up there on The Loop with its white-collared office-goers and investment bankers.
But the coffee spoke for itself. Businessmen would come for their lattes and sit at the metal tables out on the sidewalk, watching the pickup games on their lunch hours. People risked journeys past lines of gentrification for a good cup of coffee. It was cheap too. Jake had always been impressed with the cost of a good cup of coffee in Italy and Spain—one euro for the best coffee he’d ever tasted. They were true masters of their craft and it was so different from the $7 Venti Frappuccino franchises kept in business by University of Chicago coeds. Jake had known, when he opened his coffee shop all those years ago, he wanted to capture the essence of the European coffee drinker’s experience. He promised himself he would make it just that—an experience; an escape from the everyday blur of Chicago life, the cranks and spins of digital dollar signs, the huddled metro drudgery.
International travel had led Jake to think of coffee in terms of variety. Each place he visited abroad served its coffee a different way. In Istanbul they mixed hot water with finely ground coffee and shaved cardamom, put the mixture in a deep metal ladle, and stuck the whole contraption in hot sand. The cardamom with the coffee tickled the back of your throat. In the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco they had “Barraquitos,” a mix of sweetened condensed milk with a shot of espresso and garnished with a tang of lemon. After dinner they would add a shot of “Liquor 43.” In Senegal they ground their coffee and mixed grounds with a peppery root called selim to make the spicy brew “Cafe Touba.”
Specialty coffee drinks meant Jake also needed specialty coffee grounds. He imported Blue Mountain Coffee Beans from an isolated mountain range in Jamaica that ran $60 for a 16-ounce bag and promised to be some of the most delicious coffee the people of Chicago ever tasted. And for the real aficionados there was Civet Coffee, consisting of beans eaten and processed by the Indonesian cat-like creature of the same name, and then collected, cleaned by coffee growers, and sold for upwards of $100 for a 10-ounce bag. There was something in the way the civets processed the coffee that made the beans distinct.
Despite his regulars, Jake’s place in this neighborhood was tentative. Once he had been mugged on his way to work. He needed to get out. This was not the glamor he imagined when he opened the shop.
Jake had taught high school for ten years, spent another ten as a principal, and then decided one summer not to go back. To risk it all on his dream and providing people with a trip around the world through a cup of coffee. He found the cheap space, ignored his friends’ dissuasions about opening a luxury coffee shop in South Side Chicago, and leased it. He bought a brownstone walk-up a mile away.
He liked to walk to work, but it made him nervous—a white man in a non-white neighborhood. He felt like a cliché. He kept to himself, crossing the street whenever he saw people walking in his direction and never looked anyone in the eye. He told himself this was just the stepping stone all small business owners had to take.
The names began appearing more often, in no orderly fashion, some high up on the wall and others on the bottom row next to the first name. And people began seeing the names being written, telling stories about their scripters—figures uncapping magic markers, scrawling across the bricks, and then leaning forward, head bowed, families with weeping mothers and babies sucking thumbs, marking in block letters.
One day a man with disheveled facial hair, carrying a plump, bright-green garbage bag, began standing outside of the window of Jake’s shop, under the awning. Jake had been filling filters for the drip coffee machines when he noticed the man stop outside and put down his green bag. The man looked at the vacant basketball courts across the street and pulled a thin coat closer to his body, shivering.
Jake fixed the filter to a latch on the machine and flipped the orange switch to “On.” He walked to the door and stuck his head out.
“Hey, bud. You can’t stay around here.”
“It’s awful cold out, sir. Mind if I come in for a bit?”
Jake shook his head with a grimace. “Sorry. There’s a shelter uptown. They’ll take you in.”
The man stood there for a minute shivering and then gathered his bag and began to walk in the direction Jake pointed.
“Hey!” Jake called after the man. “The public library is only a couple blocks that way. If you’re just looking for a place to get warm.” The man nodded in acknowledgment but continued in the direction he had originally set off in.
Jake dipped his head back into the shop, the bell on the door ringing behind him as it shut. He began lining up tall glass cups and saucers on the bar, on each saucer a packet of brown sugar. He removed the chairs from the tops of the tables and set them on the floor. He took a large bag of green coffee beans and poured them into the centrifuge roaster in the back room, wafting the smoky smell of slowly toasting coffee throughout the café.
It happened more than Jake would have liked—bums coming in and not buying anything. Sometimes, when it was busy, they came in and stole things from the condiment station, packets of sugar for empty calories, or to fill crumpled plastic bottles with half and half. Once he caught a man drinking from the bottle of liquid sweetener. It was strange to see the depths to which people sank when they were hungry. This kind of stuff wouldn’t happen when he saved enough money to move his shop uptown.
This was the day that people stormed the courts. The winter had given them one day of sun, and the neighborhood responded. They had next up. A row of teenagers watching some of the older boys finish their basketball game, waiting their turn, lined up against the brick wall.
One boy lay his head against the wall, the better to look up toward the sky, and he heard it. The softest of whispers, like the noise a house makes when the heat kicks on. A sort of inanimate breathing. Unable to find the source, the boy turned his head and noticed a name written on the brick by his ear. Martavis Evans. It had not been there before.
As if being called to do so, the boy pressed his ear against the brick, eyes widening, drawing laughs from his friends who were watching him. He stood there for minutes, ear to the wall and sometimes almost comically nodding, as if affirming something that had been told to him in confidence.
All of a sudden he broke free. He bent down and picked up his sports bag, taking his basketball under the other arm.
“I gotta go!”
“The fuck, man? We got next.”
“I gotta find Mrs. Evans.”
“At least leave the ball!”
Jake had seen the man with the green garbage bag several more times, each time insisting he couldn’t hang around the shop. But the man looked at him with a small furrow on his brow, not exactly angry and not exactly pleading, just curious.
When things were slow Jake would stand out on the sidewalk and watch the basketball games across the street. Kids would come over asking if he sold bottles of water, and he had to turn them away. They were too young to understand what type of coffee shop Jake was running. The more he went to watch the games, the more the neighborhood seemed to spin around him and draw him in. Jake had been raised in such a different place— neighborhoods with big houses set back from the street instead of four-story townhomes, front lawns instead of walk-ups.
One afternoon, as Jake was behind the bar, people began clambering over the metal tables out on the sidewalk and streaming in from outside, bumping past each other through the glass door. Jake rushed for the door, but as he tried to close it, sounds came from down the block like the loud snapping of branches, and Jake found himself doing the opposite of what he originally intended: opening the door, ushering people inside. Some from the court came across the street and hurried inside while others disappeared around the corner. When the street was empty, Jake turned around to see his shop crammed with people. They were gathered so tight they congregated behind the bar and into the store room.
“Everybody get down!” Jake managed to shout. He wondered vaguely how much safety his shop would provide with its two fishbowl windows if whatever was happening down the street decided to move itself up to the front of his shop. He turned off the lights, locked the door, and crouched. Next to him, resting his back on the jam, was the man, clutching the garbage bag to his chest as if it contained sacred objects.
The shop breathed collectively. No one spoke. As Jake looked around his shop, he knew he should be scared, but for some reason he wasn’t. He was curious. So many quietly blinking faces looking back up at him as though nothing was wrong, everyone silenced, refusing to put a name to whatever was going on outside.
Noises and sirens came from down the street and after a few minutes two boys dressed for a basketball game got up and moved for the door. The boy with the basketball under his arm unlocked the door and peeked out into the street. He continued out the door followed by his friend and ran across the court, around the corner, and out of sight. Slowly people began to rise and leave the shop, checking the street and then flitting out. As they left, none of them looked at Jake. None of them thanked him. Jake asked himself why he felt he needed to be thanked.
The shop emptied except for the man with the green bag, who sat unmoving in the same position he was in when Jake first noticed him in the shop.
“You OK?” Jake asked him.
The man had a dazed look in his eyes. He rose slowly to his feet and glanced out the window. He looked back at Jake and said, “I don’t wanta go back out there.”
“Me neither,” Jake said. He walked over to the bar and pulled over a chair. “Sit for a while,” he said, scratching his head. “I don’t know what happened, but you can wait here for a bit just to make sure everything sorts itself out out there.”
“Happens all the time around here.”
“Yeah. Found the front window of the shop broken a couple weeks ago.” Jake paused and looked out at the normally buzzing courts across the street as an ambulance drove by in the direction of the chaos. “But nothing like that.”
Jake began moving things back to their original places. With the amount of people who had been in the shop, all of the tables and chairs had been pushed to the fringes of the room. The man did not, however, sit in the chair Jake brought over for him, but rather set down his bag and moved to help Jake re-situate the shop the way it looked before.
“Thanks for your help,” said Jake. “You want some coffee?” The man nodded and sat down at a table that allowed him to look out the window. Jake filled a cup with coffee from the drip machine behind the counter, set it down on the man’s table, and reached out a hand saying, “Jake.”
The man took the hand and said, “Name’s Thomas. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
Jake returned to the bar, but watched as Thomas took a sip from the coffee. He cupped the mug with both hands and brought it to his lips with extreme caution, closing his eyes as he sipped. His eyes opened right after the sip, a smile appearing on his face, as if it was the best thing he ever tasted.
Thomas spent most of the day at his table looking out at the empty street. Once, Jake saw him rummaging in his garbage bag and taking out a paperback book, a crumpled sleeve of rolling tobacco, and a small, thin, red-stained wooden box. Jake watched him as he took a rolling paper, filled it with a thin line of shag tobacco, and rolled it nimbly between his fingers. He took the finished cigarette and laid it carefully in the open wooden box. He watched Thomas repeat the steps. He watched it so many times he assumed either the box would begin to overflow with rolled cigarettes or the package of tobacco would be empty when he next reached to fill a cigarette, but both seemed bottomless.
Sometime later in the afternoon Thomas picked up his book and began to read. Toward closing, when Jake was cleaning up for the day, Thomas rose from his seat and brought his empty coffee cup to the bar.
“Thank you for the coffee, sir.”
He proceeded to pick up a wet rag Jake left on the bar and began going to each table, wiping it down, and making sure any trash went into the bin.
“Thomas, you don’t need to do that,” Jake said walking over.
“Please. It’s the least I could do for the coffee. My thank-you for letting me sit here all day. And besides…” Thomas’ voice trailed off. “There’s nothing to do out there,” he said, staring out the window. “It feels good doing something.” He continued to wipe down the table.
“You’re welcome any time, Thomas.”
After the shooting, Jake’s shop became more popular. Boys would come in from basketball games and ask if they could fill their water bottles using the tap by the condiment station, and Jake, reluctant at first, decided to let them. After a while, once he had saved enough money, Jake even invested in a glass-door refrigerator, stocking it with sports drinks, sandwiches, and snacks.
Thomas had taken up Jake’s offer of “any time.” He came every day to get out of the cold, and Jake would always have a steaming cup of coffee waiting for him on the counter. He would stay all day reading paperbacks and watching the cars pass out on the avenue in front of the courts. Whenever someone left their table, Thomas would rise and begin clearing it off, stacking mugs, taking empty sugar packets and wooden stir sticks to the trash, wiping the table clean of ring stains and milk foam.
Jake told him time and again it was not necessary to do this, but Thomas would ignore him, almost as if the charity of a simple cup of coffee was too much not to repay. Jake had once offered to pay him for the work he did at the shop. Thomas refused this as well. Jake even put a scone next to the cup of morning coffee, which was also rejected.
He wondered what Thomas did when he wasn’t at the café. Where did he go? What did he eat? Where did he sleep? How did he get his tobacco and books if he had no money? What had led Thomas to a life on the streets?
News of the wall spread throughout the neighborhood and people began to discover the way it worked. After the name had been written on the wall it would stay for a few days before disappearing. The name would appear again and someone would go over to press their ear to the wall and listen. Within the tight-knit community someone would run off to find the family of the name on the wall. Then they would come and spend time with their loved one.
Families took turns listening and putting their lips to the wall to speak back.
Young men would come with beer coolers and lawn chairs and set up next to lost friends. Spending Sunday afternoons watching basketball and drinking beers, putting their heads back as you do to talk to someone behind you without turning around, listening and then responding.
If you stood back and looked at the wall from afar you could see the names flash, the wall emitting an almost strobe-like blinking.
Winter began to fizzle into spring, and Thomas moved to a table out on the sidewalk, the better to see the basketball games across the street. There seemed to be a growing presence at the courts. People came now not only to play ball, but to look at the vigils left by families for boys and girls who had died in the neighborhood.
Thomas began talking more. When outside tables filled, someone would occasionally have nowhere else to sit except with Thomas. They would look hesitantly at the table’s occupant, but Thomas would always give a friendly gesture, insist they sit down, ensuring they had table room, and often, by the time they left hours later, they would get up shaking Thomas’ hand and bidding him farewell.
One particularly slow afternoon Jake abandoned his position behind the bar, bringing with him a “Barraquito” he had made for himself. He took up the seat across from Thomas, who removed from his box a previously rolled cigarette.
“It’s good to see you taking a break, sir. You’re always so busy.” He took the cigarette firmly between his lips, lit it from a book of matches, and blew the smoke out toward the street in long streams. “Would you like one?” Thomas asked, to which Jake shook his head “no.”
“I just wanted to take an opportunity to thank you, Thomas,” Jake said.
Thomas looked at him confused. “Why’s that?”
“You’ve been a lot of help around here. Like you said, it can get pretty busy with just me working. It’s been nice not to have to worry about cleaning up. I just wish you’d let me give you more than a cup of coffee.”
Thomas shook his head, frowning and waving his hand. “Please. I thank you. It’s been nice to have a place to come. Something to do. Something to focus on.” Jake nodded, still not really sure he understood. “Besides, you don’t know how long it had been since I had a good cup of coffee. They serve nothing but brown sludge over at the shelter. I’m not sure you can call it coffee.”
Jake laughed. “Is that where you stay? The shelter?”
“Yes, sir. When there’s space.”
One Sunday, after another gang shooting a few blocks over left four people dead, a group of twenty or more came to the courts. Family and friends. Writing names with colorful markers on adjacent bricks.
The following week protesters came with placards, pictures, and colored candles, leaving them by the wall after they wrote the name of a man who had been held down by police. The man had not gotten up when they tried to move him to the cruiser. The case garnered national attention, and Jake served cappuccinos to a news crew after they had gotten shots of the wall and the protesters.
Jake did it as a sort of experiment. He knew Thomas would notice. If coffee was all Thomas would accept as a form of payment for everything he did around the shop, Jake was at least going to make it special.
One morning Jake prepared Thomas a cup of Kona coffee. Kona came from Hawaii and was known to be some of the best coffee in the world. All Kona coffee came from one small field on the slope of a volcano. Something about the volcanic properties of the soil made it ideal for growing coffee.
Jake left the steaming mug on the counter and went about his business as usual. After fifteen minutes Thomas came in and gave a wave to Jake behind the counter, taking the cup of coffee and setting up on one of the tables on the sidewalk.
Jake watched him through the window. After sitting down, Thomas brought the cup to his lips and sipped. He put the cup down and closed his eyes. He spent a moment with his eyes closed and then opened them and looked into the window, cupping his hand, trying to block the glare. Jake pretended he was busy doing something with the espresso machine, and after a bit Thomas turned back to the coffee and took another sip.
It became an unspoken agreement. For the cleaning Thomas did, he received a cup of the world’s best coffee. He spent his days out on the sidewalk, reading paperbacks and talking to passersby. Soon it became custom for patrons to sit with Thomas outside. If it had only been out of necessity before, people now went out of their way. Groups who used to come into the café and sit silently now gathered at Thomas’ table, listening to what he had to say. Whenever Jake had a free minute he would stand by the door and listen with the others. The bearded prophet, preaching smoke and coffee breath to anyone who would listen.
The stories Thomas told were about people who weren’t there. Ghost stories of the silenced.
He told a story about a boy who grew up in a town that ended at a busy highway. During summer evenings the boy and his friends would take walks to the edge of town, gathering on the bits of train track before the highway and wondering what lay beyond the stream of cars that blocked their crossing. Every boy in town claimed that one day he would leave, find some way of crossing the road.
In this town there was a teacher who took drives out on the plains to see the mountains. He had moved from the big city and wasn’t used to the emptiness of small towns. Nothing to do. At school his favorite student was a tall girl who kept a yellow flower on the corner of her desk after coming in from recess. The things she said were so brilliant, ideas ranging beyond her age group into uncertain depths of philosophy and theology.
One day the teacher came to class to find an empty desk with a yellow flower on the corner. The girl’s body was found near the train tracks that evening. No one was sure what happened. The teacher left the flower in its place, but at the end of the school year, he scooped it, with its brown leaves, into the trash.
Jake held conversations about Thomas with the patrons. They remarked that he never talked about himself. He just told stories. They tried to place Thomas as a character within them. Was he one of the boys gazing wistfully at the other side of the highway? Was he the teacher? The father of the dead student?
Sometimes kids would come over from watching the basketball games to see Thomas. The broken man with the tattered beard, doing tricks for them, making coins disappear and then pulling them in flourishes from the ears of passersby, causing the boys to run screeching across the street to tell their friends. Jake wondered how long the tricks would manage to entertain them. At what point would they stop believing in the magic and notice the coin as it dropped out of sight behind Thomas’ hand.
Spring burned into summer. The neighborhood began to sweat. Jake stocked the shop with more sports drinks. People ordered cool blended coffees that perspired in small puddles, and they sat under the awning with Thomas, watching the games across the street. Jake would set the roaster running in the back room and prop open the front door with a stone, letting the smells leak into the afternoon streets, coffee aromas proliferating the neighborhood.
Chicago’s South Side became infamous—even more so than usual. Not because of the wall. The wall seemed almost mythic. A tacit secret kept by the neighborhood. The South Side became infamous for its deaths. The news took it up every night, the rising numbers of murders in the area. Politicians used the neighborhood as a vehicle for their campaigns, as if they knew of the atrocities first hand, citing studies and statistics, polls and percentages, but leaving the ones with the most to say in silence.
If all the politicians with their agendas really came to the neighborhood to see it, they would have realized that basketball was no longer played on weekends. There were now so many visitors they began taking up space on the court. It began to be a weekend tradition. A happy gathering. Almost like a tailgate, with food and music to light the afternoon.
Three boys no older than ten stacked themselves on each other’s shoulders to reach a brick halfway up the wall. The top boy pressed his ear against the wall, hands flat on its surface, as the boys on the ground strained, beckoning other friends to help bear the weight. The top boy laughed and shouted tidings to those below, looking up with cricked necks.
One Sunday Thomas didn’t come to the shop. A cup of coffee went cold on the bar, and Jake had to pour the contents into the sink at the end of the day.
As he walked home he stopped to look down each alleyway. They were empty except for scraps of blowing paper and tumbling styrofoam.
One afternoon before he walked home, Jake stopped to watch a minute of the half-court basketball game that was going on. He found a spot on the fence next to two small boys.
“… and we had to watch from far away ’cause they had this yellow ribbon blocking everything off.”
“What were they doin’?”
“Just takin’ him away. I mean he couldn’t just stay there!”
“What do you mean?”
“Just packed him up. Covered in a white sheet and all. And then they left.”
Jake overheard their conversation between the trash-talking on the court. He looked over at the boys, trying to pick through what they were talking about. After a minute he decided to let it go and turned his attention back to the game, but felt an immediate pull on his pants. He looked down to see a little boy tugging lightly at his belt loop.
“Didn’t you hear me? I asked if he wasn’t gonna come around no more?”
“The man that sits at your shop.”
Jake didn’t answer the child. He turned and walked toward home, rubbing his eyes. A shimmering was developing in them and it was making him dizzy. He hadn’t known what he heard. He knew he shouldn’t be buying into the tall tales of the neighborhood children. That would be a signal he was truly going crazy.
In the morning, Jake went to his shop and found a paper sitting in front of the door. In a back section of the paper, where no one ever looked, was a story about a homeless man found shot in an alleyway. Jake looked around the quiet café for a moment, wondering vaguely how many cups of coffee would grow cold on the otherwise empty bar, the place getting dirtier and dirtier in ways only he noticed.
Jake knew what needed to be done. He waited until well into the afternoon. He waited until people gathered on the courts. And then he walked over, pen in hand, and immortalized a man nobody knew but everyone loved.
Once, before they believed in things like séance—before they placed their faith in bits of existential brick and voices sent to us from places just out of reach—someone had written a name as a simple act of significance.
But the bricks began to speak and the crowd began to grow, grievers pressed to every inch of the wall, wondering what would happen next. Jake often wondered what would happen when the names of the dead outnumbered the bricks in the wall. Would they come with clay and mortar and build it higher? The brick-laying faithful, framing layer by layer till it reached ever skyward, scraping the tips of the clouds? Cementing the miracle of masonry to finally connect earth to the heavens?
The ones who were lucky enough to have died and held space in the wall before it filled up would become saints, moved to speech by everyone’s deceptively simple acts of faith. People would gather around and hear stories and truths that made their thoughts pop and fizz like the seasons. Psalms in soft voices. Raconteurs of the American dusk. Realizing, finally, just how much the silenced have left to say.