Before the white girl went missing in 1969, they were like blood. Beautiful black boys, strong and tender in their eighteen-year-old bodies. Even then, Sweed had a man’s look about him: the shape of his head, round and full of grown folk’s mischief, sitting on a thick defiant neck. Everybody said hanging with Ricky was good for him. You know, a positive influence, on account of Ricky’s family being rich (at least by the standard of folks in the neighborhood).
The Chiles’ home was located in K Town, so named because the collection of streets that ran from the 4000s block to 4800 on Chicago’s West Side all began with the letter K. They lived next door to what had been a Jewish synagogue back in the ‘20’s. Up until the mid 50’s, Jews dominated the neighborhood that boomed with entrepreneurial prosperity and nearby industry. Mr. Chiles, Ricky’s dad, was the only black manager at Sears & Roebuck (one of few stores that would not be completely devastated by the riots to come). The Chiles family had been a part of the 1950s migration of blacks who moved west from the South Side and from southern states. At that time crooked real-estate dealers all but evacuated the white population by using scare tactics to drive out the current residents and to drive up the cost of living for the blacks who moved there. In a span of about ten years, the white folks living west dropped from 99% to less than 9%. Despite the white flight, vestiges of Jewish fortune from long-ago residents were still evident: the Chiles’ home was a bulldog squat bungalow once owned by a Rabbi with a real front lawn, so blue-green it made your eyes ache. Along with it came the haughtiness only reserved for the few black folks whose poverty had not relegated them to shabby apartments and up-over places: small rooms rented out up over laundry mats, up over liquor stores.
Over time, there would be a steady increase of black residents with little means to purchase, which meant an overpopulation of renters. Industries would close; many homeowners would barely be able to afford their mortgage by then, much less the upkeep. Many would move away in the years to follow, leaving behind abandonment and ruin, the filth of poverty made worse by the city’s refusal to provide much in the way of community services.
But way back then, when the front gardens in K Town smelled of hyacinths, the world was ripe with possibilities and the likes of Ricky Chiles was proof. Money must make for good breeding because everybody marveled at how well mannered he was. He was even going away to college in the fall.
He had grown into a lithesome boy with delicate features and a broad smile. The kind he used often to ease any misgivings. A long time ago, though, that smile only got him a routine ass kicking by Sweed and his gang—a pack of little hyenas who smelled of dirt and sweat, with hair like sharp beads of rice. At eight years old, Sweed was recklessly free, a wildness that his M’dear had little interest in restraining. His friends pleasured themselves in their budding manhood aggressions on each other: wrestling and scuffling, jabbing knees and jerking elbows, the hardness of their bodies hitting bone against bone, bruises and bloody scrapes worn as badges, cuss words repeated from the grown folks they knew (when other grown folks weren’t in earshot). They ruled the schoolyard, and flexed their collective power by beating down the likes of cornmeal yellow Ricky Chiles, frail with awkward knobby limbs that moved clumsily around breakables. Shod with Jergens lotion, he was clothed in starched robin’s egg blue shirts tucked neatly into the waist of his shorts.
Much later, in adulthood, Sweed would recall that long-ago time when something shifted. If he ever told this story to you, he would blame the asphalt that was slick with rain for how the fight turned out between him and Ricky.
They seemed an odd pair, Sweed and Ricky. Sweed roamed like tumbleweed through the neighborhood. A boy whose only boundaries were his curiosities, his M’dear was too old to exhaust her energy on caging the likes of her absent daughter’s only kid. She’d done enough when she’d taken him in after his mama’s disappearing act. The mark of abandonment was on him: he skulked around with his seedy hair speckled with lint from his worn blanket; his tight black forehead creased in an old man’s scowl, with deep-set eyes that were black like a dog’s and as hard as coal. His second-hand clothes smelled of his deviance: smoking in back allies with older boys who pitched pennies; sweat from being chased away from the liquor store. For all of Sweed’s audacious freedom, he envied Ricky. Not just the new clean clothes and the other stuff his parents bought him, but the thing that Ricky most complained about: the insufferable way his folks hovered and smothered him. Sweed wanted to get near as possible to it as he could; and Ricky, coveting the way Sweed was left alone, wanted to possess it by being in Sweed’s company—even if it was limited to school hours at first.
Maybe it was Mr. Chiles’ pity for the boy, but he began letting Sweed visit Ricky at their house. He didn’t think the boy seemed so bad when he was away from his little hoodlum friends. Perhaps he just needed a father figure, a real man in his life. So he’d invite Sweed to join him and his son, Ricky, when they went fishing at the lake near their cabin just a couple of hours away in Loveless, Indiana. Over time, Sweed was a regular in the Chiles’ home.
By the time the boys were old enough to drive, they’d make trips to the Chiles’ lake house by themselves. Sweed had always gone off on his own with no limits; Ricky’s folks were too trusting if he was with Sweed. That spring in 1969, Sweed hustled up on enough cash to buy himself a car, his first, a sweet number: 1957 Plymouth, black with white fins and leather seats. It was rusty in spots, and would run hot sometimes. In the alley behind his apartment, he clanked around under the hood to get the death rattle out of the engine—through weeks of spring snow that froze his breath into white puffs, through rain that ached and then numbed his hands, until finally he’d succeeded. By then, the stubborn frost clinging to the alley weeds had melted, and it was time to take to the road.