Saturday, July 30, 2011
Water Behind Us: Chapter 1 (Summer)
This is the first chapter of a novel I wrote many years ago. I will include following chapters over the next several days.
Water Behind Us
by Mark Osler
What I remember best about Chicago is the feel of stone. Each day as I left on my messenger-boy assignments, I ritually touched the same small spot just outside the revolving doors of the massive building on Lasalle Street, where the stone skin of the building began its rise. The stone was always cool like gun-metal, even in the summer when the humidity filled up the canyon spreading out in front of the Board of Trade.
My job took me all over the city, but each trip started with that touch, then the walk across the street towards the old bank building, right on LaSalle to Jackson. Only eighty feet across from the top floor of our building stood the statue atop the Board of Trade, a Goddess of Commerce with arms outstretched, imploring the prairie to yield up its wealth. No one was supposed to have gotten up there to see her face, but now LaSalle Street could, from its top floors, discover her secret--she had no features at all, only the gleaming roundness of the human form, designed to be viewed from the ground far below.
Her sterling gesture saw me off on my tasks, which primarily consisted of running papers to the courts, serving summonses and complaints on unsuspecting parties, and picking up packages. It was humbling work for someone born with the name David Baxten Trigg II, a name that said too much in a city like Chicago. The descriptiveness of my name may have been why, at birth, I had been given the somewhat less off-putting nickname of Buddy.
My office was exactly 51 floors below my father's, which is a striking contrast in a 50-story building. With me in the basement were the lowliest servants of Taylor, Toth & Moore-- word processors, bookkeepers, and "runners", myself being one of the latter. My tiny cubicle was wedged between two translators, who spent much of their time listening to tapes on their headsets, asleep. It was a tight fit for someone six-foot-three, especially when the floor caught the overflow of the stacks of boxes and papers which made their way to my desk.
A job slip was sitting on my chair, marked "urgent." This wasn't unusual-- everything I got was marked "urgent." It was signed "T. Conran, Esq.," a sure sign that the assignor was somewhat full of himself. I looked him up in the office directory, and found his name listed with the litigators. I didn't know T. Conran, but I had a hunch. My guess was that he would be a lean, hungry, arrogant guy a year or so younger than I was, out to impress the partners. I underestimated him somewhat. He was a short, somewhat thick man, with very short dark hair that still managed to be a little disheveled. Turning in his chair to face me while hanging up the phone abruptly, he pointed at my chest and said, "Buddy, right? I've heard good things. I'm Tommy Conran."
We shook hands and I sat down in the broken chair across the desk from him. "Tort waiting to happen," he said, waiving at the broken arm of the chair, "you'd think they would worry more about that around here."
"No kidding," I said, lifting the broken arm.
"Just like your Dad," he said quickly.
"Your hair," he said, pointing. "I heard your Dad used to have that. One of the old-timers told me."
What he pointed at was the thatch of white hair at my temple, standing out from the darkness of the rest. My father colored his now. It was a genetic trait, a whitlock.
"Yeah," I responded, "I don't know what his problem was with it, but he got rid of it. It's still there, under the coloring and everything." I declined to explain my family further to the novice lawyer.
"Whatever," T. Conran said, waving it off with his hand. "We got business." His voice had the clipped tones of the East, a displaced New Yorker or Bostonian. While Chicagoans were hurried, they rarely sounded like it so much as those from the East; it was a distinction I had picked up in college.
Shuffling through a file, T. Conran snorted as he pulled out a photograph, sliding it across the smooth unweathered wood of his desk. It was a snapshot of a woman, a slightly overweight blond, standing in front of a suburban house. She wore khaki pants, a graying white shirt and a somewhat weary expression. Her two children, a boy and a girl, stood beside her. There was something at once annoying and pitiful about the woman, in her stance and slack expression.
"Janet Larson," T. Conran said, "surgeon. She and her husband are both surgeons. You ever work with doctors before?"
I shook my head.
"God, they're the worst," T. Conran said, looking like he was going to spit. "They think they're omniscient about everything, including law. Spend most of their time telling you how the hell you should be doing your job. Anyways, we work for the husband. Tony Oleone-- they call him Tono. Tono the surgeon. Divorce."
I must have flinched at the word, because T. Conran looked up abruptly.
"What, is that a problem?"
"No, no," I replied, "I just know how ugly that can get. People get shot at." I reached into my pocket as we spoke, touching a pack of matches and an old lottery ticket, a $2 winner.
"You won't get shot at. These people are just mean, maybe arrogant, not lethal. Anyways, Tono and Larsen finished their residencies four years ago, so now they're into the serious bucks. From what he tells me, they both meet other people, start fooling around. Buy fast cars. Leave the kids in day care. Twins. You probably noticed that." He pointed at the photo.
Picking it up again, I looked at the children. Kids made me nervous. T. Conran continued, gesturing with a pen as if conducting an inattentive symphony.
"So, things get complicated for our client and Larsen. They yell at each other, yell at the kids. About a year ago he moves out and they get a court order for joint custody of the kids. He moved out of their big old house in Homewood-- pool, hot tub, lawn service, all that. So Tono moves out and finds a flashy apartment in the Loop, spends money on girlfriends, probably drinks too much, whatever. He's having a wild time, and she's just sulking. They're switching off with the kids still, and the kids think Dad's getting a little weird.
"About two months ago, I got a letter from Larsen's lawyer. He's saying that he has evidence of child abuse. Word-processor crap, trust me. I've seen the exact same letter from this guy before. Anyways, they serve Tono with an Order to Show Cause. You know what that is?"
I nodded with what I thought was a jaded, knowing expression. As I was reminded everyday, however, I wasn't trained in the law, and T. Conran didn't bite. "If you think someone is violating a court order, you can force them to go before the Court to explain their apparent failure. To make them do this, you file a Motion to Show Cause, and serve it on the person at least seven days before the scheduled hearing."
I nodded again. T. Conran wasn't so bad; arrogant but smart, which is better than arrogant and dumb. I saw a lot of arrogant and dumb.
"We have the hearing, and of course the judge finds that there is no evidence that anything bad has happened to the kids, besides being exposed to a few "Uncle Norman" type characters."
That one I knew-- Uncle Norman, the goofy pal from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father", who wore a turleneck and a big peace sign pendant and used the word "groovy." T. Conran laughed briefly at his own words, seeing that I had gotten the joke.
"So then the Judge changes the custody decree so that Tono gets the kids every other month. Before that, it was just on weekends. You married?"
I shook my head.
"Me neither. I mean, why? I don't get it. It's like some biblical urge, from what people who do it say. One day you wake up and fold the cards and sign up. Anyways, the time comes for our man Tono to get the kids. He drives over to her house and she's gone. Cleared out. He tries her folks, some friends, can't find her. So now its up to us."
I nodded, and took the lottery ticket out of my pocket and looked at it discreetly underneath the edge of the desk. 1-9-6-1. 1-8-6-2 was the winner. Halfway there wins $2 in Illinois. I liked having it in my pocket more than I would have enjoyed the $2.
"So we need to serve her with the Motion to show cause. That's why I need you. And you need cash, I'll bet. Here's the deal-- you get her by tomorrow, and there's $375 in it for you. You up for it?"
"You bet," I said, paying attention again. $375 would go a long ways towards putting myself up in an apartment. I had chased that tiny lump of money for a while, always just short of moving out of my father's house in Kenilworth. There was a certain stigma to looking thirty in the face and not having your own address.
Conran was tapping the end of a pencil against his desk and looking down. Quickly, he looked up again. "You went to Williams, I heard."
"Yeah," I told him, "about a million years ago. You know about it?"
"Sure, I went to Amherst." There was the hint of a conspiratorial smile, the sharing of something secret. The little three were relatively unknown in Chicago, where Lincoln Park teemed with the sweatshirts (and sweat) of the Big Ten.
Conran tapped his pencil again, self-consciously. "I heard that from someone who knows your Dad. It must be a little weird, doing what you do here."
"Nah." I had no patience for this line of conversation. I hated the thought of him pitying me, but didn't sense that so much as a bit of empathy.
"I'm not so sure I'll be doing this next year either, so maybe it all ends up the same," Conran said, nodding and rising from his chair.
With a forced smile on my face, I stood up. "Good to meet you," I said, backing out the door as I turned down towards the elevator and the nut-brown paneling and the familiar, faint smell of leather. That was the worst part of my job: the understated curiosity of the attorneys as to why I was doing such menial work. I had learned to deflect the questions, keep a straight face, and move on quickly.
Walking out to the garage of the building, I started to gather my thoughts. In my hand was the photo from Conran, and a sheaf of papers he had handed me that I had not looked at. I stopped outside the door to the garage, in the cement-block vestibule, trying to get on track and come up with a plan. A group of people walked past me, and I tried to look down as if I was waiting for someone. It was a talent-- the ability to be accepted as Guy Just Standing Around Harmlessly, especially in a parking garage.
One of the group who had passed me wheeled and called out to me, pointing. "Buddy! Buddy Trigg! I need you!"
It was Tenerife Baker, an associate a few years senior to T. Conran, but with a presence and a manner that made her a figure to contend with inside the firm. She stood 6'1", with a subtle shift of her shoulders that hinted of playfulness and offset the deadset demeanor conveyed by her eyes, briefcase, and directed air. "I got something else for you to do, Buddy," she said without stepping closer, "and not another Gary run."
She had sent me the week before to drop some papers off with some clients in Gary, who had turned out to be her cousins. They had lived in a poor neighborhood, with a sign looming almost directly above the house directing cars on the Skyway overhead to the United States Steel plant.
Looking up and smiling, I pointed back at her. "You got me. Whatever. Call."
Walking away already, she winked at me over her shoulder. Tenerife took me seriously, and I liked her. The first time I had gone into her office, I had quickly looked at the diplomas on the wall-- Delta State, Harvard Law. That night I had gotten out the atlas, and found Delta State in Mississippi, not far from the river. I watched her walking away and wondered why she had picked me to go to her cousins'. Perhaps she mistakenly thought it would be my first time in a black family's house.
For a moment, I stood by the doorway, protecting my cover of waiting for someone. Having given it a few minutes, I walked to my car, put the file on the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel. The car had been purchased by my Mother 22 years before. An old Chevy Malibu needs heavy maintenance, but there were times that I enjoyed working with my hands, even if it was only to change the oil are replace a headlight. Unlike so much else in my life, these tasks were easily quantifiable as successes—the oil was changed, the turn signal worked.
Sitting in the car, the keys still in my hand, I realized that I was still without a plan of attack. I had learned that such a plan was essential on these tasks-- one couldn't simply set out wandering. I opened the file on the bench seat and pulled a pen and the lottery ticket from my pocket. On the back of the lottery ticket I wrote:
1) Find out where Mother's parents are.
2) Find Mark L.
3) Find her car
Number one was a natural-- it was logical that she had simply gone to stay with her folks, who were protecting her. Looking through the folder, I found where Conran had jotted their address. 432 Thurston Way, Northbrook. The other two notations were back-up. Mark L. was my childhood buddy who had grown into a information guru-- he was able to nurse things out of the internet that probably shouldn't be there. Should even Mark fail, I would resort to tracking her vehicle identification.
Driving out the Edens expressway to Northbrook, I picked crumbs and leaves out of the crevices of the seat. It was a very old but very good car. Because it had belonged to my mother, it was one of the few places that I could hear her voice, and it was this voice that directed me to keep the car tidy.
Janet Larsen's parents lived on a long cul-de-sac, in a ranch house that was relatively small for the neighborhood. It was squarish and solid.
In front of the house was a statuary deer, its head tilted to one side as if listening for a certain car, likely a Lincoln, coming down the block. On the mailbox was the name "Larson," woodburned onto a polished board attached to the post below the box itself. The Larsons appeared to have tried to make up for the lack of trees with shrubbery, which obscured the front yard save for two strips of lawn and a brick walkway.
I had two options-- I could sit and wait and see who came home or left, or I could simply go up to the door and see who was home. Having chosen the latter, I briefly considered concealing the purpose of my visit, saying I was from the hospital and had to hand-deliver a paycheck to Janet. I rejected the thought, uncomfortable about the bold-faced lie involved. With my heart beating faster, I approached the door.
Since I was very small, I have been able to sense where people are. It is a physical feeling-- a sensation that tells me whether people are nearby or not. Not a tingling, like Spiderman; it is more knowing in the way that you might know without looking that there is a steel railing next to your bare arm. An inchoate sense, I guess. As I walked up to the Larson's front door, I felt the presence of the people inside.
First I rang the bell, then knocked, and stepped back to wait. They were in there, and after awhile they would realize that I was not going away. After a few minutes there was a rustling in the curtains next to the door, and a glimpse of white hair through the window. I rang again, and waited another five minutes. Finally, without my having rung again, the door swung open and a woman of about sixty forced a smile on the far side of the threshold. "May I help you?" she asked, her voice as stiff as her hair.
She wore a mask I had seen before, one that covered up the obvious, and pretended that she was simply answering the bell. It amazes me sometimes who it is that has the capacity to tell the biggest lies.
I smiled. "Ma'am, my name is Buddy Trigg, and I work for a law firm downtown. Is your daughter Janet here?"
Still maintaining her smile, though the strain became increasingly apparent, she held the door at an angle with her right hand and parried, "What is this regarding?"
Her face reflected a thousand emotions: anger, at both me and her daughter; embarrassment; worry; a hint of fear. There was a brief silence, in which I decided to push her into reality, to end the game. "We represent your daughter's husband in the divorce case," I said, "and we've run into kind of a problem that is sort of making it hard for everybody. There is a court order that says they have joint custody, but Janet hasn't turned the children over at all, and we don't even know where to reach her to find out. It's not really such a adversarial thing right now. We just want to find out what's going on."
The mask did not break. "I don't think I can..."
In my anger, I imagined reaching for a gun. It shocked me sometimes, but at times of intense frustration I did imagine it; the feel of the grip, the reaction of surprise. I imagined the sound of it, the loudness, a spike of heat.
My anxiety showing, I cut her off. "I'm not a lawyer or anything. Really. I'm just kind of a messenger. I drive around in my car and just... I just work for the lawyers, I do what they... I just need to see her, if she's here."
"I'm sorry I can't help you," she said with sickly sweetness, closing the door a little too firmly. Stepping back, I knew that she was doing the same on the other side, protecting her fief.
I backed down the driveway, watching the windows for her face. I stepped into my car, pulling the door shut softly behind me, both hands on the handle.
For fifteen minutes, sitting there in silence, I waited for something large to happen-- the police to come, the woman to come out and scream, for the father to charge out with a gun. Then the feeling of tenseness faded, and I let my back rest fully on the seat of the car and took my eyes off of the house. My car could not be seen from the windows of the house, but I could see anyone entering or exiting from the walk or driveway.
A simple sort of depression born of boredom and disappointment settled in, and I turned sideways on the bench seat, putting my feet up on the passenger side. With my left hand, I reached over and turned on the radio.
I noodled around the AM dial. On the flat plains of the Midwest, especially at night, it is possible to pull in stations from as far away as St. Louis, Nashville, and the East Coast. I found WBZ in Boston, where two men were talking about the Red Sox with great passion. There was a pitcher who just might be faking an injury, and this one kid down in the minors who someday would play shortstop at Fenway. This was wonderfully familiar. I had gone far away to college, and sometimes I found myself in the hills of Western Massachusetts, falling asleep to men on WBZ taking the Red Sox very, very seriously. The sound warmed me, and I smiled to myself as I sat in the dark.
Still, nothing came in or out of the house. The sports program ended, and the news came on. There was a war, and fear of terrorists with nuclear weapons, and a politician charged with bribery. I turned off the radio and sat in the silence as the edges of darkness crept down the block towards my car. Every now and again a large sedan would wend down the street, a large sedan slowing down to look at the unfamiliar car with the young man in the front seat. I was out of place, and welcomed the darkness and its protective cloak.
With the sun sunken into the red horizon and the street lights only providing a dim haze, I slunk down in the seat and looked at the door of the house. Staking out a quiet suburban residence took very little effort, I had quickly found. I probably could have just gone to sleep unnoticed on their lawn. The idea was appealing, given the soft warmth of the evening. I have always loved dusk on a clear summer day, a stillness which defines the season. Enjoying it, I slipped off into slumber.
The sun woke me up, along with the hot, damp, horrible feeling one gets from sticking to a vinyl seat. As I rose up in the sunlight, there was a faint ripping sound as the wetness of my shirt separated from the seat-back. I sat upright for a few minutes, feeling sorry for myself, and swearing under my breath. Looking in the mirror, I found that I had slept with my face against the patterned inside of the car door, and the pattern was now imprinted on the left side of my face. I felt the ripples in my face with my fingertip.
Slowly, I wrenched my uncomfortable body around in the seat so that I was beneath the wheel. What I wanted and needed to do was to get out of the car and stretch, but I felt intimidated by the stillness and the dew and the quiet artificiality of the neighborhood. This had been a farmers' field not so long ago, and the sound of a tractor rounding out a row in the early light would have replaced the hum of the electrical wires in the morning stillness.
The drive to Kenilworth took only twenty minutes. Driving down the Edens, I looked into the other cars, expecting to see tired people. I was surprised-- most of them looked pretty good, ready for the day. As I passed a grey Honda, the man inside peered back at me. His face registered first disapproval, then amusement. I realized that I did not look like someone on his way to work, but someone who had fallen asleep in the wrong place. In the college dorm we had called them "lawners", because of their sheepish, sloppy walk across the lawn as they headed home before class.
I pulled up in front of our house, and parked in the street. Though the house was not small, my Mother had insisted that the house not have a circular driveway. So, instead, we ended up with a fairly long winding single-lane drive which meant that if I had parked in the drive I would have blocked my father's only path out. The main part of the house faced the street, except for a short wing to the back containing the breakfast room, a pantry, the den, the studio, and the back bathroom. After my Mother died, my brother and father and I had gravitated towards that back wing, eating our meals in the breakfast room and talking in the small den or studio. The studio was probably my favorite room in the house, with a skylight, my mother's easel and drawing table, a small refrigerator, and a day bed. Sometimes, when my father was not at home, I would close my eyes and smell the scents my mother surrounded herself with, and imagine myself sitting on the daybed and watching her gentle brushstrokes.
Opening the old screen door, I went into the kitchen. I knew that my father would be up-- he must have had farm-family instincts which woke him up at six every morning, even when he had been working late into the night. Entering the foyer, I smelled fresh coffee and banana. I could have avoided him by sneaking up the back stairs to my room, but chose to join him in the breakfast room. As I passed through the pantry, he looked up and smiled. My father was not at first glance the type one would think of as a big-shot lawyer; he was too handsome. His grey-blue eyes always looked right into mine, unashamed.
"There's a good story here, Buddy, isn't there?" He looked at my hair and laughed.
I touched my cheek and felt the lingering imprint of the vinyl. "Just doing my job, Pop. You know somebody-or-other Conran?"
Nodding vaguely, my father pursed his lips slightly. "I think I do. Sort of a thick guy. New York type."
"Right. He sent me out on kind of a stake-out." I waited for him to pry a little bit, to bring the story out.
"All right, well, shower time for you. I put your mail up in your room," he said, smiling and turning back to his newspaper. For a moment I stood there, waiting for him to turn back to me, but he didn't. As I walked up the main stairs, I heard the pages of the paper turn, and as I got into the shower heard his car back down the driveway, turn slowly, and head off into the simple grid of tree-shaded streets that is Kenilworth. The exchange captured the essence of our life together.
The mail was a letter from Williams soliciting donations and personal updates for the alumni newsletter. In the nearly eight years since my graduation, I had never filled out the information form; I had started more than once, and each time gave up on the project feeling slightly depressed. I read the class notes in the newsletter with a sort of bizarre, morose fascination. My classmates were getting medical certification, becoming government lawyers, starting businesses. I could not compete, which is why I never sent in my own little bio. None of them, however, looked forward to work that day as much as I did. I felt lucky. Janet Larson was holding my $375, and I was smart enough to find her.
I stayed in the shower longer than necessary, thinking about my next step in the search for Janet Larson. There had been no new cars in the driveway when I had left. Which left me with nothing, or worse, as Janet Larson probably knew by now that someone was looking for her.
There was hope, however, in summoning a little help from my friends, or friend, in my case. I had one close friend that could help find people who didn't want to be found-- Mark L., the only kid I could beat in boxing as a kid, and the only one who could beat me in chess. He worked in the State of Illinois Building in the Loop, which would be my first stop.
Walking down the stairs, I put on a tie. This was something that I had picked up from my father. I remember as a small child, when we still ate breakfast in the dining room, watching him come down the steps slowly, cinching the tie to his collar and sniffing for the smell of breakfast. Sometimes on Sundays we would emerge at the same time, tugging at our ties in preparation for church.
Heading down the block to turn towards the loop, I passed Mark L.'s parents' house, a broad white colonial with fireplaces at each end and a beautiful porch off of the kitchen. It was on that porch that I had once seen Mark's father hit him, once, in the face. He was upset that Mark had decided not to stay at Dartmouth, the father's alma mater. Time had been long in healing those wounds, but the healing had happened and the scabs receded each day as the family became accustomed to being a group of adults. Mark's car was gone; he customarily went to work well before eight.
I took Lake Shore Drive into the city. It was, and is, my favorite road in the world, sweeping into the loop with whiplike grace as it hugs the lake. On that summer day the lake itself was a beautiful color, more blue than emerald-- like blue topaz, the stone that I had bought for a girlfriend once because the color shone like the lake. To my left, people were running and biking in Lincoln Park. They seemed impossibly ambitious.
Mark L. had done a good job of maintaining a fake cynicism over the years. He had learned early on that a jaded attitude was quickly accepted by superiors, while the idealism or hope he truly held inside would brand him as dangerous. I had watched his actions, though, and knew that he trusted in our species in a rare way. On our worst day, I had screamed at him. He was silent, then quietly said "you'll feel different tomorrow." His gift was a glistening intellect and a gentle nature that I longed to have.
Mark had tried to explain his job to me several times, and had failed. I knew that it had something to do with computers and that the state paid him to configure some sort of system. He was good at it, I knew, and he liked it. Beyond that, I didn't worry about it.
His office was large but constantly hot and humid, an effect that was emphasized by the tropical plants that Mark kept around. I found him chewing on a pencil and watching numbers flash on a screen above his desk, which he had suspended from the ceiling with different colored shoelaces. I knocked lightly on the open door.
"Hey!" Mark L. said, rising from his seat and giving me a small hug.
"Geez," I said, flinching slightly, "you don't always have to hug me, man."
Mark L. didn't acknowledge my comment. "Buddy, good to have you, you deserve it. So what's up? What brings you to the hellhole?" He turned and punched something on the keyboard, and the screen quickly changed to display a rotating planet with blue oceans and green continents.
Settling into the tired couch in the corner, I launched into the tale of Janet, the surgeon husband, the twins. "Anyways," I concluded, "I've got until this afternoon to get her with the Motion."
Mark L. shook his head. "Back up a little. Do you have to read this to her, or what?"
"Nothing like that. The key word is contact. I put it in an envelope, and if that envelope comes into contact with her, I win."
"It's interesting that you call that winning," said Mark, pausing, then continuing, "did you call her employer?"
I shook my head no. "She's a doctor, but I don't know where."
"Wouldn't work anyways. Insurance runs the hospitals now. They won't tell anyone who might be a potential plaintiff anything over the phone." Mark L. flashed a brief, devious smile. "Don't ask me how I know that."
Mark L. turned to his computer, and the screen changed again, to a swirling pattern with pilgrims in black hats looking over a cliff into a swirling vortex. "You've got one chance, but it's a good one. The kids."
I tried to look past him to the screen as it changed again to a password screen.
"Every kid in the state has to be registered in school by now. Do you have their names?"
I shoveled the slip of paper with the names under his arm as he worked through two more security screens. There was a moment of silence as his fingers stopped tapping. Finally, picuters and text flashed on the screen. "Three hits," he said evenly. "One in Vandalia, and two in the same school down on the South Side, the Lake Calumet Christian Academy. I'll print this out."
Silently, my answer slipped out of the printer by his desk as he turned again towards me. Mark had a way of trying to make everything significant, and his efforts were always proceeded by this sort of pause. I knew it was coming, but I just waited; he was my friend. "Back when I was in elementary school, I had this kind of secret game. When they let us all out of the school at the end of the day, I pretended that we were all sort of secret commandos on our way to some mission. That we were all kind of a team working for something, instead of being a dork trying to get out of everyone's way. Sometimes this stuff you have me do, it feels like that, Buddy. I like that."
Mark L. often got a little too wrapped up in the emotional end of things for me, and I felt the need to escape. "Thanks a million," I said, shaking his hand, backing out the door, and running down the hall with the school name and address clenched in my right hand. It's not that I wasn't getting along with him, or even that I didn't agree with him; it's just that I didn't want to hang around and talk about it.
The South Side was forbidden territory, the far side of the line between the known and the unknown for us North-siders. I had been south of the Loop only to visit museums and, once, to go to a White Sox game. In short, the South Side was everything that my family was not, and it struck me that it was quite a break for Janet Larson as well.
Lake Shore Drive abandoned me in the South Shore neighborhood, where the numbered streets marched onwards past storefront churches, empty shells of buildings and cars, tiny restaurants, and posters for politicians I did not recognize. On the left, there lay the aftermath of an enormous fire; charred wrecks of buildings lay on the ground, and the sidewalk was black with scorch marks. At one end, next to a church, charred rubble leaned against the wall and spilled out over the sidewalk as the people walked around it.
The neighborhoods tumbled by unevenly. There was one building, red brick, a church, on which the morning sun played with intense beauty. People had obviously scrubbed the brick clean, scraping off the dirt and soot. I imagined the parishioners up on ladders, the minister below handing out buckets. I knew that my church wouldn't do that-- we paid some guys to do it when we weren't around.
After tens of blocks, the neighborhood changed to one of tiny brick homes with lawns that seemed enormous compared to the houses. On either side of the neighborhood loomed giant factories, with active smokestacks spouting a steady detritus. The neighborhood looked almost like it was intended to be a secret, hidden away in the midst of the towers and the noise from the more cacophonous world beyond. The people on the streets were white and most of them, I imagined, spent the day in the nearby factories. I can still smell it, slightly sweet, and acrid, with the taste of sulfur never far off.
I parked my car, then walked two blocks to the school, a long low structure with a gym at one end and a small playground at the other. It was about ten in the morning, and I had at least two hours to kill until the kids came out after lunch so that I could try to pick out the twins. There was a small park, most of it covered with gravel, across the street from the school, and I sat on a bench for a few moments watching the school and the boxy houses and the towering factories and the sun over it all, concealed by a veil of haze even at mid-day.
On a low brick wall in front of the school, the words "Lake Calumet Christian Academy" were spelled out of white metal letters. Under the word "Academy", the faint outline of the word "Montessori" could be discerned. For a while, I stared at the bricks and the faded name of the former failure, and wondered what it was that had caused the demise of the Montessori school. In Kenilworth, the public schools were good enough for everyone, right through New Trier High. In fact, most of the kids who went to private schools left New Trier because it was too demanding. Thinking about it made me feel out of place as the sun rose higher behind the grey curtain of haze.
Worried that I was looking somewhat shiftless, I left the park and walked down a block towards a line of storefronts. From the park I could see their signs: bright colors on plastic sheeting, like most of the commercial strips I had flashed past on my way there. It occurred to me that the stores were much like the ones found in a small town in the South: a barbershop, a small grocery, a printer, a cafe, and a two-pump gas station. In the windows of the grocery and the cafe, there were flyers posted for a fair at the school the following week. I had always felt a certain affinity for such posters, which seemed naively hopeful, with their bright colors and not-quite right descriptions ("tasty deserts!").
I walked into the small cafe. There were eight or ten stools by the counter, four of which were filled, and six booths. I stopped for a minute at the door, wondering whether I should take a booth to myself. Wanting to fit in, I sat at the counter.
One of the other patrons, a man who looked happy but needed a shave (which, in fact, I did as well), nodded briefly at me as I sat down. I nodded in reply, and looked back down at the menu on the counter. Everyone seemed to be having coffee. There was one waitress who was doing all of the cooking and serving; as I sat there, she had her back to me. She looked to be about 35, at least from my angle, with strong features that hinted of Eastern Europe, like the man who had nodded at me. When I saw people like her, I always wanted to find out more—how she got here, what had happened in the place she came from, what she thought about God. I had learned long ago, though, to resist that impulse. Nonetheless, I still felt it, the urge to break down the wall dividing strangers.
Noticing me, the waitress turned from writing something and walked a few steps over. "What brings you down here?" she asked, her voice tinged with tired earnestness.
Embarrassed, I looked down, wondering what it was that gave me away as someone from outside, as a North Sider. I knew that she didn't know me, personally, which was part of the reason that it bothered me that she knew that small bit of my identity. Looking over her shoulder, I nodded and smiled and said "Just looking around I guess."
"Huh. We don't get a lot of that down here. Lake Calumet isn't much of a tourist spot, you know."
The man who had nodded leaned closer and said "Maybe you're looking for Lake Geneva. It's a real lake. It's up in Wisconsin." He and the waitress shared a short, grating laugh.
There was a long moment where they both looked at me, waiting for a reaction. I felt trapped. "Just... just coffee, I guess," I said quietly. She brought the coffee, left it before me with half of a smile, and turned back to her writing. The man turned back to his coffee, the hint of laughter still on his lips.
I left the coffee there for a while, just watching them, to make sure that they did not turn back towards me. After five minutes I took a sip of the coffee. It was terrible, and I don't like coffee to start with. There was something slightly gristly in there, and the grit got between my teeth after that first sip. Taking my leave, I left money on the counter and quickly dipped through the door and down the street.
I looked at my watch again; it was nearing eleven. Then I heard a sound which froze me in place, my spine tense and my fingers outstretched. It was an unmistakable sound, as singular as that of a bowling ball rolling down a lane and striking pins; the sound of children leaving school, pouring out of the doors with a shriek. The high-pitched screams, the banging of doors, the admonitions of teachers, and the pounding of feet blurred into an aural cacophony of joy and release. I broke into a run towards the school, which was half a block away, feeling the controlled panic of a businessman who has realized that the meeting is at 2:30 and not at 3:00.
As I approached the school, I ran past a line of cars next to the school, each occupied by a single woman. One stood by her car, watching the children and scanning the crowd. As I approached, I startled her slightly, and she looked up towards me. Meeting her eyes, I spoke: "what's happened? Why are they getting out now?"
By her reaction, I could tell that I was a bit too frenzied to appear rational. Her eyes widened slightly, and she turned her head, crossing her arms. "Half day today," she said apprehensively. I was running again as I heard the words, leaving her by the grey sedan.
A single child was leading a pack through the playground and towards the line of cars, a blond girl with a stain of red paint on her dress. A teacher called out for her to slow down. I passed her and stood on the lawn, surveying the mass of children surging out over the yard. The children wore blue and white uniforms, which made them seem maddeningly similar. There were blond heads everywhere, and I couldn't focus quickly enough to find the children of Janet Larson. My heart sank as I realized that the majority of the children had passed me. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
The man's hand seemed enormous on my shoulder, and its grip implied seriousness and strength. I turned and saw him, a large man with a somber look on his face. "Are you a parent here?" he asked, the low rumble of the South in his voice.
I looked at him blankly, then back over my shoulder at the children streaming past. "You don't look familiar," he said, his voice steady and even and terrifying. With a sharp downward motion, I wrenched my shoulder free from his grasp, running in the midst of the children towards the line of cars, the women looking out from the car windows at me.
Dodging between two of the cars, I turned slightly to see the principal close behind me, stopping at the line of cars. I ran across the street, a car skidding to avoid me, and down a side street. I looked behind me and saw the big man panting next to the cars.
At the end of the block, I took a right so as to get out of the view of the principal and the mothers and the children. This block was chock-full of small houses, each with a standing lamp in the middle of a small, immaculate lawn. I was nearly out of breath, and slowed to a walk, turning around once to make sure that I was not being followed. Seeing that I wasn't, I rested for a moment, my hands on my knees, my lungs sharply drawing in the sticky air. My chance had slipped away from me. The children had been there, no doubt; I just hadn't had time to find them. A cold feeling of disappointment began to creep through me.
Straightening up, I saw them.
Coming towards me, not more than ten yards away, were the twins. They were fighting; she had a stick and was poking him. It was as if they did not see me at all, as if I was invisible. They cut down a driveway and started across the street when I saw their destination; the station wagon, the tired-looking blond woman reading the novel in the driver's seat.
I started towards her, and as I approached the curb she looked up, not at me, but at the children. "I told you, don't cross the street in the middle of the block. People won't see you there..."
I had her. As I got closer to the car, I felt the warmth on my palms, the sense of urgency rising in my chest. My sweaty hand went into my pocket, and I pulled out the envelope as I ducked under the level of her window. When I got to the car, my left hand touched the cool metal of the car door while my right reached in through the window and dropped the envelope neatly on her lap.
For a second, I watched her reach down for the envelope, then turned and walked away. That was the first rule of process serving-- don't wait around to get in an argument, just drop off the goods.
I strode away quickly, bursting with pride and wealth and pleasure and revenge. I had never had this moment as a child playing baseball, hitting the home run and crossing home plate with my arms stretched overhead, my teammates shouting for me. Now that moment had come on a wave of effort and luck, and I resisted the impulse to put my hands over my head, making the fists of the victor. It was a moment of victory, of fledgling confidence, that I had waited a very long time for, and it was delicious.
But it was only a moment. As I got to the corner, I felt a tug at my sleeve. Looking down, I saw the little girl. Her face convulsed with fury and questioning, her eyes focused into intense slits, she looked up at me, screaming incoherently between sobs. Her rage and frustration boiled over through every part of her small self, and her tug became almost violent as she gathered up the material of my shirt in her balled fist.
For a moment, she was quiet, and stared up into my eyes. Just as suddenly, her anger overtook her again. She grabbed my sleeve, looked up at me and screamed, "who are you? Who are you?"
I didn't feel her fist, but I heard her words, and ripped my arm free from her grasp. It was only a few steps to my own car, and without looking back at her, I opened the door quickly and shut it behind me, putting the wall of glass and metal between me and her fury. Despite the sound of the engine, the wall of glass and steel, and the deadening grey haze that obscured the sun, I could not push her question away. Soon I was back on the freeway, turning up the radio to escape the sound of her voice. Who I was—that was a question I did not want to think about.
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One of the reasons I love to read is that I get to create an alternative universe in which I retreat for the time the story unfolds. I go places, I meet characters, I think along with them, I get sucked in the action, and I owe all of it to the story teller. I'm certainly no critic and never claim I could be one ad-hoc, but I think you do have that very esoteric story telling gift. I cannot explain it though like an academic would. Perhaps reading many books; good, bad, the obligatory junk in two very different languages helps some... with perspective, at least.Post a Comment
So I say thanks for sharing your gift. Hope you'll never stop cultivating it and if you do I hope you reap the rewards from people like me who love to come along for the ride.
So I say thanks for sharing your gift. Hope you'll never stop cultivating it and if you do I hope you reap the rewards from people like me who love to come along for the ride.
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