Zenith Rising: A Story for Our Times

The Dream Takes Root

Just then Darnella’s little boy let out a yelp. "I wanna go home," he wailed.

"You shut up or I’ll slap you again," Darnella snapped. "I’m talking to the rev’rent." She was tall and lean, with tangled hair, dirty jeans and an old sweatshirt. Her skin was black as asphalt, with a hard, grainy veneer. Her eyes were menacing, and her lips were laced with a series of tiny scars.

Later, when the others had left, Peabody told Narrows that Darnella had only recently moved into the neighborhood. He’d located a house for her after he found her curled up with her son by the back door of the church. Her boyfriend had turned her west side flat into a crack house. When she complained, he beat her up and threw her out. She’d left all her belongings behind, but was afraid to go back and get them.

"Isn’t there something we can do?" Narrows wondered.

Peabody smiled kindly and wrapped a fatherly arm around Narrows’ shoulders. "First thing you have to learn, Burt, is you can’t do everything. If you try, they’ll eat you alive."

"But I can’t just sit back and watch her suffer."

"She’s not. She’s got shelter now, and DHS will replace her belongings."

"DHS?"

"Department of Human Services. The Welfare people," Peabody explained disdainfully. "Darnella will have everything she needs to scrape by. The one who’s going to suffer is her boy. The odds are better than even that he’ll be dead or in jail by the time he’s twenty."

"You don’t sound very optimistic."

"I’m not. I’m an idealist at heart, but I don’t have much hope," the preacher said bluntly. "I don’t do these things because I think they’ll work. I do them because I have to."

"You have to . . ."

"God won’t leave me alone." His voice trailed off and his eyes with it, but he came back after a moment. "If you want to feel good about helping people, go home and write some checks. Stick around here and you’ll get a hard heart and a thick skin. You’ll learn how to say no, and mean it. You’ll learn how to throw junkies out of your office." He stopped and stared meaningfully at him. "You’ll learn, or you won’t survive."

Narrows said he didn’t know if he could do that. If he was going to act like a caring person, he had to get involved in people’s live. "Aren’t people the key to this project?" he argued. "There’s a lot more to this than fixing up houses, you know. We can’t turn the neighborhood around until we turn the people around."

Peabody smiled sadly. "Oh, to have your faith." Then he shrugged. "Talk to me in six months." As he ushered him to the door he said, "We’re going to need legal advice, you know."

"We sure are. Know any lawyers that’ll work for free?"

"Actually, one paid me a visit the other day. He said he wanted to give something back to society."

"Great. Let’s get him on board before he changes his mind," Narrows said. "What’s his name? Maybe I know him."

"Seneca Doane."

His smile faded. "You don’t want him," he said flatly. "He’s not a lawyer, he’s a judicial terrorist. He has no conscience, no values. He’s a racist, a liar, and a conniving bastard. The only reason he’d want to get involved is to make money off our dreams."

"I almost invited him to our meeting," Peabody said wistfully. "Are you sure he’s so bad? He seemed pretty sincere."

It was Narrows’ turn to smile knowingly. Peabody might know the streets, but this was his area of expertise. "He’s a lawyer, John. It’s his job to sound sincere."

Peabody shrugged. "I guess we’ll have to keep looking."

Instead of heading directly back to his suburban office, Narrows drove up and down the six blocks comprising the target area. Skidmore, Wright and Merrill streets weren’t as bad as some blocks he’d seen. They were about fifty-fifty. As he drove along, he identified those structures worth saving, and those which needed to be demolished. It’s like cancer, he thought. The disease consumes a dwelling, then jumps to the next one. What would happen if we destroyed all the diseased organisms, if we tore down all the houses already dying of neglect? Would it keep the others healthy?

Then he reminded himself that people lived in those wrecks. That was the problem, and that was the beauty of the preacher’s dream. Repairing the dilapidated housing would enhance the neighborhood’s appearance. If it looked like a better place to live, it might become a better place, especially if people helped fix up their own homes. In the process, maybe they would acquire a few marketable skills, and more important, a sense of accomplishment and the pride of ownership. If Peabody’s right, welfare won’t be good enough anymore. Welfare’s great for just scraping by, but it’s a lousy foundation for building dreams. If we can give them motivation, maybe they can . . .

"It’s all blue smoke and mirrors as far as I can see," the other Narrows thought. "How can we get these people to fix up their houses when they’re the ones who are letting them fall down in the first place? Where are they going to get the money? Do they think I’m going to bankroll the whole thing? No way. Even if I could, no way."

He drove on. Owings and Portman Streets were bad, but Stirling was the worst. On the whole long block there were only six houses still standing, and none of them for long by the looks of things. Scattered between the structures were heaps of rubble overgrown with weeds. It was the bleakest vista he’d yet encountered in his almost addictive meanderings along the mean streets of Zenith. It was worse than a battlefield. It was a graveyard, a forgotten, decaying cemetery.

He fought back a sense of futility until, halfway through his slow perusal of the block, his vision altered. Suddenly he saw it not as it was, but as it could be. He saw new houses. He saw a complex of townhouses, with landscaped common areas dotted with swing sets and benches, with off-street parking; a clean, well-lighted place. Stirling Street wasn’t in the final stages of decay, it was in the first stage of a new, user-friendly housing development. Overcome with the force of the possible, for the first time Narrows applied his developer’s mind to the opportunities, not the obstacles.

All those problems of financing, liability exposure, zoning laws, a hostile bureaucracy, a recalcitrant community, diminished before his resurgent confidence. "We can do it," he cried. "We can do it."

He stopped his car and walked across the street to one of the lots. He sat on a pile of crumbling bricks, lit a cigaret, and picked a stalk of grass. While winding it around his finger he watched a new city rise out of the detritus of the old. I’m the man to do it, he thought. Didn’t I just pull of Oak Grove with little more than a good idea and a whole shitload of confidence?

If he could do that, and he had, though sometimes it was hard to believe, and he still couldn’t shake the suspicion that something was about to go wrong–

"Hey man, you got a light?"

Narrows glanced up at a skinny, shave-headed kid wearing a bomber jacket. He said, "Sure," and tossed his lighter. The kid lit a Kool, and, pocketing the lighter, said, "You got any money?"

Narrows laughed and said, "How’d you like a house of your own?"

The kid scowled. "What kind of shit is that?"

"It’s not shit. It’s the real thing. You help fix up a house, and then you can buy it for almost nothing."

The kid shifted uneasily. He looked around at a block full of emptiness, then back at the strange man in the nice suit sitting on a pile of bricks. "C’mon, just gimme the money."

"What’s your name?"

"Darrel," he answered without thinking, then with mounting suspicion, demanded, "What’s goin’ on? You a cop or somethng?"

Narrows took a shot at it. "Do you know Angela Duggins?"

Darrel’s eyes widened. "Yeah, she’s my Ma." He frowned, now completely bewildered. "You know her?"

Narrows stood up. He towered over the scrawny youth, and outweighed him by at least sixty pounds. Unless the kid had a gun, which was always a possibility, he wasn’t in any danger. He took out his money clip and peeled off a five while Darrel gazed hungrily at the rest.

"You want some money? Here." He reached over and tucked the note in a pocket of Darrel’s jacket. "My name’s Burt," he said. "Ask your mother about me." He stepped around the kid, half expecting him to come after the rest, then stopped, turned, and said, "Oh yeah, can I have my lighter back?"

Darrel was too shocked to speak. He retrieved it from his pocket and tossed it to Narrows. "Thanks. See you around." As he got into his car he heard Darrel shout, "Hey, you crazy. You know that?"

Narrows waved and drove off, hands shaking on the steering wheel, thinking Darrel was probably right.