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Excerpt for Where The Marshland Came To Flower by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








WHERE THE MARSHLAND

CAME TO FLOWER

Peter Anderson



Copyright © 2018 by Peter Anderson

(KUBOA)/Smashwords Edition

www.kuboapress.wordpress.com


Singing for the Here and Now was originally published in ANTHOLOGY OF CHICAGO (www.anthologyofchicago.com)



For my parents, Dorothy and John Anderson—the first Chicagoans that I ever knew, a South Sider and North Sider who defied that imaginary boundary for more than fifty years, and gave me my love for this fascinating and perplexing city.



Where the bright and morning faces of old familiar friends now wear the anxious eyes of strangers a long way from home.

A midnight bounded by the bright carnival of the boulevards and dark girders of the el.

Where once the marshland came to flower.

Where once the deer came down to water.


-Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make



PRIME TIME

Humboldt Park



Mario squares his shoulders, raises his chin and curses Jesus. He pauses, looks down at his newly shined shoes, then looks up again. He again squares, trying to look tougher, more defiant. But the slender frame before him in the mirror makes it hard to look tough, he realizes. Have to make those words even stronger.

He stands at his closet door and watches himself knotting his own tie. The mirror is full-length but old, the age-darkened glass offering only a dim glimpse of his full blue-suited length. But he doesn’t need to see what he's doing anyway, so mechanical has tie-tying become for him. Clip-ons were out with his twelfth birthday, three years earlier, but not from his choice. Instead his mother insisted on it, claiming that grownup men must wear grownup ties.

Grownups, he chortles aloud, his resignation tinged with bitterness. But he catches himself and thinks better than saying such things aloud, and continues the monologue in his mind. She considers him a grownup, he thinks as his hands continue their unconscious task—moving back and forth, putting the end of the tie behind the knot and back out through the top, then down through the loop—but only to assume responsibilities that would never be expected of a child. Adult privileges, well, somehow he isn't ready for any of those, mostly remaining a child. He is an adult only when it suits her.

He pulls the front strand down, then does the same to the rear strand until the knot is tight and snug. The tie feels familiar but not comfortable on his neck, its tautness pressing the heavily starched collar into his skin. He reaches his finger inside his collar, seeking relief from the chafing, when he notices the tie is knotted wrong, the rear strand a full inch longer than the front.

He knows she won't approve, but the hell with her, he mutters, and starts toward the hallway before reconsidering. With a gentle sigh he stops, returns to the mirror and undoes the knot so he can tie it all over again.

He glides down the stairs, still graceful from the dance lessons he never wanted to take, and reaches again for his collar, this time in back. As he frees his reddened neck his hand brushes his thick hair which, while halfway to his collar and overdue for a cut, is still only half as long as he would like it to be. He imagines it very long, fantasizes it flowing far down his back, like an Indian on horseback or one of the muscular men on the front of his mother's romance novels, hair cinched only on special occasions with one the sweet leather bands he had seen at the corner bodega.

He hopes his hair will grow a bit longer, until it reaches some sort of no return when he can reasonably argue that he should just let it go. But he remembers hearing his mother in the kitchen, just yesterday, phoning Manny’s for an appointment.


***


He eats his cereal in silence, lingering, and when the time comes he rises and sets the bowl in the kitchen sink. He takes one step away but then stops, opens the dishwasher door and places the bowl on the rack inside. He turns toward the back door where his mother stands, arms crossed and eyes staring at him, as he had suspected without even seeing her.

“So you’re getting your hair cut right after practice. Right?”

“Sure, Ma,” he mumbles.

“What’s wrong?”

“You know what’s wrong. I want to grow it out.”

“And have you look like some gambero? Like...what? A thug?”

“That wouldn’t make me a thug. It’s just my hair.”

“Long hair is just the start. After that, what? Maybe you start hanging out on the corner, drinking, maybe even drugs.”

“Aw, come on, Ma,” he says, rolling his eyes.

She sees his expression, and tenses, her shoulders rising.

“I just want you to be careful. I want you to straighten out and live right, while you’re still young. You’re young enough that any bad decisions you make can still be fixed.”

“I’m not making any bad decisions,” he says, quietly seething. “I’m doing everything you want me to.”

“For now you are, but I don’t want you to stray. Maybe if you won’t listen to me, you’ll listen to Jesus, try to live more like him.”

Jesus. He knew the name would come up sooner or later, and sees his opening. Again he squares his shoulders, raises his chin and glares at her with what he hopes shows defiance.

“The hell with Jesus.”

Her sudden slap crimsons his cheek and returns the slump to his shoulders. He leaves by the back door, mumbling the smallest apology. His cheek stinging, he realizes he is grateful she invoked Jesus instead of insisting he pray to Mary for guidance. Had he cursed the Blessed Virgin, his mother might have easily broken his nose.


***


By the time he climbs aboard the Division Street bus, he has resigned himself to going to Manny’s Barber Shop that afternoon, as expected. At least she lets him go to Manny’s, surrounded by old men, instead of her stylist. That was one of the few concessions she gave him. He settles into his seat as the bus accelerates away from Western Avenue, rolling past the towering bulk of Clemente High School and St. Mary’s Hospital. The sight of the high school reminds him of her only other real concession.

Somehow he convinced her that dancing lessons weren't for him, and that he should join the wrestling team instead. Giving up private lessons for a school activity that didn't have to be paid for—Mrs. Alvarez's class being far from cheap—must have partly been behind her concurrence, but couldn't have been the entire reason. The only other possibility was that being in such close proximity to the church—even if only in the parish school gymnasium on all fours on a wrestling mat instead of on bended knee in a pew—made wrestling a more decent and proper afternoon activity for a young man than waltzing with Mrs. Alvarez in her living room.

Wrestling comes easy to him, his wiry and limber frame well-suited to reversals and escapes, his shorter stature giving his opponent less to grab hold of. During gym class he was no more than an uninspired wrestling participant, with nothing there to accomplish, mere participation earning a passing grade while excelling might bring little more than some pride. And only a qualified pride—the top wrestlers in gym class only lorded over a bunch of fat kids and assorted nerds, none of them athletes, with the school's true wrestlers being on various school teams and excused from phys ed. The lowliest wrestler on the freshman team could easily take the oldest champ of gym class.

She gave in on Manny’s and wrestling, but nothing more than that.


***


Later that day he saunters into Manny's, after practice and right on time. As always there are a few older men sitting around the shop, men somewhere between retirement and the nursing home, with plenty of time on their hands and still mobile enough to head down to the corner and drop in on Manny.

"Hey champ, how's it going?" Manny calls out, looking up from behind a middle-aged man who sits, patiently getting a trim.

"Who's a champ?" blurts one of the regulars, a fat man whom Mario remembers is named Jorge.

"This kid is," Manny replies, nodding approvingly at Mario, who blushes despite not being embarrassed. Instead he is quite pleased by being recognized.

"I'm no champ."

"Okay, maybe not yet, but you're on your way. Won...what, now? Four in a row?"

"Yeah, four."

"Uh huh, I heard that. And you pinned that last kid, the one from Ignatius, in what? Twenty seconds?"

Mario nods in silence.

"You see, Jorge, I've always been a wrestling fan. Wrestled myself, in fact, 112 pounds. To me it's the purest sport."

"Oh sure, pure," Jorge scoffs. "Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, all that crap."

"I ain't talking pro wrestling, idiot. All that's fake, following a script. That's just show biz, just entertainment. No, I mean amateur wrestling—high school, college, Olympics. Just two guys, no pads, no gloves, both trying to neutralize the other. And when the match is over, they hop up, shake hands and are ready to go at it again. Not like boxing where the whole idea is to pound the other guy’s head in. Wrestling's about strategy and strength and following the rules. Kind of like chess, but for real men."

"So, what, I'm not a real man?" another regular pipes up, one with a flattop haircut that Mario assumes must require regular visits to Manny.

"Yeah, Sammy, I know you play chess. No offense. But even you gotta admit you couldn't take a kid like Mario, not even when you were his age."

The older man says nothing, a hurt look on his face, and turns his gaze back to a months-old issue of The Sporting News.

"You wrestled, Manny?" the teenager asks. He already knows that Manny wrestled, but plays along anyway, stoking the barber's ego and returning the favor.

"Sure did, all four years of high school. Didn't win much, but at least it kept me off the streets. And Mr. Dvorak—Anton Dvorak, he owned the shop before me—put me through barber college because of it. Thought I showed discipline by sticking with it even though I hardly ever won. Without that, I wouldn't have gone from sweeping up on weekends to owning the place."

"Dvorak was a pinko crank," the chess player utters without looking up from his magazine.

"Don't you talk about Mr. Dvorak that way. I got a lot of respect for him, God rest his soul."

"Pinko."

"Watch it, watch it. I'll toss you out of here, and you won't be welcome back. You haven't gotten a haircut from me for six months now, so if you're saying stuff I don't like there's no reason to let you hang around here."

"Pinko," the man says for the third time.

"Alright, Sammy, that's it," Manny says, lowering the comb and scissors to his sides as he steps out briskly from behind the chair. "Out. Get out."

"Out?" the other says, rising to his feet. "I'm a good customer."

"Not today, you're not. You're an annoyance, and you've been getting your hair cut by Freddie Velasquez for months now. So out you go. Come back whenever you’re ready to watch your lip."

The chess player tenses, clenches his fists and flings the magazine onto the formica table—Barry Sanders, lunging for the end zone, disappears as the front cover flips back—and exhales sharply through his nose as he tromps toward the exit.

"You just lost a customer, Manny," he growls as he retreats.

"Sure I did," Manny calmly replies, a smirk crossing his lips. "Go bother Freddie for a few days. And after that, when he’s sick and tired of hearing you, I'll bet you'll be right back here."

There is no reply as the screen door bangs shut. Manny laughs to himself, shaking his head as he returns to his position behind the chair and begins again with the scissors.

"Don't listen to that old crank, Mario. He was with the city for thirty-five years and worked maybe a month of honest days all that time. He don't know what it's like being here six to six, Monday through Saturday, on your feet the whole time, cutting a few heads and worrying about paying the rent, and having to listen to idiots like him."

Mario nods in silence. He thinks the same of the old man but holds back his opinion, from his habit of showing respect even for elders who don't necessarily deserve it.

"Mr. Dvorak was a good man, no matter what his politics were. Maybe he was a lefty like they say, but he gave me a chance when nobody else would. Practically handed me the place when he retired."

Mario nods again, and is about to speak when the barber turns back to his customer.

"All done, Frank," he says, spinning the chair toward the mirror. The customer stares at his reflection, turning his head slightly from side to side as Manny moves the hand mirror behind, revealing the blind spots the customer can't see.

The customer grunts his assent and stands up before Manny can fully remove the polyester smock. A few damp clumps of hair fall onto the customer's shoes, which he kicks away as he withdraws his wallet from his back pocket. He hands the barber a ten and gives a nod whose meaning Manny clearly recognizes, and the barber files away the bill in the cash drawer with no motion toward making change.

"I guess you're up, Mario," the barber says as the screen door bangs shut for the second time.

Mario settles into the chair as Manny snaps the smock in midair, giving such a flourish to the act of dislodging the last customer's stray hairs that Mario almost forgets about those that remain. With Sammy having stormed off and Jorge sunken back behind his Field & Stream, it is essentially just Mario and the barber, who eases back into the conversation as before.

"So yeah, I wrestled, at 112. Wasn't too good, though. I just didn't have that quickness, you know? Strong, but slow reflexes."

"Yeah, you gotta be quick," Mario says. "Where'd you go to school again?" He knows Manny is too old to have gone to Clemente. Maybe Tuley, the high school that was here before.

"Crane," Manny replies. "I was one of the only Puerto Rican kids there. And not too welcome either. Got in plenty of fights early on."

"But I thought you said wrestling kept you off the streets."

"Off the streets, yeah, but the fights were in school. I almost got kicked off the wrestling team a few times, but Mr. Dvorak finally convinced me to straighten up. Lucky for me I was at Crane, or I never would have graduated. I couldn't have gotten into Holy Trinity like you. Too dumb, and I couldn't have afforded it anyway. Still, Trinity's a good school...but..."

"But what?"

"Don't get me wrong. Good academics there, but sports just aren't like at Clemente."

Mario had lately begun to have similar thoughts. Clemente was the class of the West Side, not just for baseball, and had been for many years. Going to a top sports school meant nothing to him before he started wrestling—back when he was still waltzing with Mrs. Alvarez, school prestige didn't matter—but now, at Holy Trinity, it already seems too easy. Now that he is fully into the sport, he knows that wrestling against St. Ignatius and De La Salle just isn't the same as Marshall or Juarez. He knows he could go a lot farther at the public school.

"I mentioned Clemente to my ma a few times."

"No dice?"

"Public over Catholic? Not a chance."

Nothing will convince her about Clemente. A walk of a few blocks instead of a bus ride, which adds up quickly even at the student rate: no, taking the bus is a sacrifice, a small trial that shows discipline. Having friends at Clemente doesn't sway her either; he has plenty of friends at Holy Trinity, she says. And if he even mentioned it, she would never understand the difference between wrestling at Clemente versus a small Catholic school. To her the academics and daily Mass at Holy Trinity mean more than anything.

"It's just as well I wasn't much of a wrestler, not even at Crane. And Crane was no Westinghouse."

Holy Trinity is no Clemente, Mario thinks.

Even at Holy Trinity, wrestling wasn't his first choice. When he gave up Mrs. Alvarez's dance lessons, his first thought was trying out for football. As long as he was in the Catholic League, he thought, he might as well play football, where the League was the power. St. Rita, Brother Rice, Mt. Carmel...some of the most legendary programs in the city, much more big-time than the public schools. He dreamed of being a cornerback—he thrilled watching Deion Sanders, the famous Neon Deion, for his sticky coverage and after-play antics, swatting away passes and making open-field tackles. But he knew better than to suggest football to his mother. Too dangerous for her Mario, she would have said. Wrestling was less violent, more controlled and officiated, the primary object not being taking the opponent's head off, like Manny had just said. He knew he could never talk her into football.

So any dream of following Deion Sanders, maybe even becoming the first Hispanic cornerback to make All-Pro, was set aside. Okay, he admits to himself, All-Pro and the NFL were a huge stretch, or even All-State or All-City. Still, it was something he wishes he had tried.

His hair falls rapidly from Manny's scissors as he sits lost in thought, barely hearing the barber's patter. Coming back around, he hears Manny still talking about wrestling and Crane, how the school wasn't Westinghouse back then, and about Mr. Dvorak and how straightening up and following the rules got him where he is today. Mario also suddenly realizes how short his hair has been cut, now no more than a half-inch in length. An idea comes to him.

"Tell you what, Manny," he says. "How about you buzz it close?"

"Crewcut? Sure, if that's what you want. I bet your mom would appreciate that, too."

"Yeah, crewcut, buzzcut," Mario says, ignoring Manny's final words. "And when you get it real short, I have something else for you to do."

As he walks down Division Street, he smiles to himself, thinking he has gotten away with something, and imagines what the reaction at home will be. His fingers trace the letters that Manny grudgingly shaved into his scalp. N-E-O-N. He crosses Sacramento and the grassy boulevard median before pausing for the red light at Humboldt Drive, the trees of the park just beyond.

After the light changes and cars stream past in both directions along Division, he still stands, lost in thought, until the walk signal begins to flash, warning of its impending change and bringing him back. Even though he feels the strange power of the name emblazoned across his skull, he sees himself turning and heading right back, sees his embarrassed and awkward stance, Manny nodding in agreement and reaching again for the clippers, and finally, home again, his mother's satisfied smile of approval.



DISAPPEARING INTO THE NIGHT

Washington Heights



Some crackhead from Washington Heights stumbled down the aisle, careening from one side to the other before blurting into the conversation without really conversing, leaning over the two businessmen and yammering something about creepy crawlies and the end is near in a spray of spittle before righting himself and staggering along down the aisle. Though Brian didn’t know for certain, he guessed that the stranger was from Washington Heights, which was the stop where the stranger disembarked just minutes after stumbling past them. Through the green-tinted window the two men looked on as the stranger weaved across the cracked asphalt of 103rd Street, away from Julian High School, and wandered down the far sidewalk.

As the train left the station, Brian looked back to where the stranger had faded into the shadows, disappearing to a somewhere he couldn’t begin to imagine. The two turned back from the window and faced each other again, in uneasy silence, and shared a nervous laugh.

"He looked like Crab Man," Mark said, referring to the wild-haired, sleepy-eyed television character.

"Yeah," Brian replied before lapsing back to silence. Calling him crackhead was unfair, Brian realized, but whether fair or not that was his first impression, of someone strung out and lost, and not all resembling the goofy and loveable sitcom character. He loosened his tie further, the starched collar suddenly uncomfortable on his neck.

The client dinner downtown had gone well, the proposal favorably received, and the two were then returning to their homes, Mark to Tinley Park and Brian all the way to the end of the line. With their different schedules, they never rode the same train, with one coming in early and the other staying late, which gave them few opportunities for casual chat. Slowly they drifted back into conversation—about the client, golf, women—and by the time they reached Tinley their mood seemed almost normal again, though to Brian a vague something still simmered, nagging at him.

Brian watched his colleague dissolve into darkness toward the parked cars, and then leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His stop was still twenty minutes away, with home a fifteen minute drive beyond that. Another late work night, another late arrival home, of which there had recently been many. As he drifted off he suddenly started, his eyes widening in realization of his relief for having a place to call home. Not everyone...

He shook off the thought, closed his eyes and settled back for the rest of the ride.


***


Work continued on for Brian, as it had for so many years, sometimes rewarding but more often seeming merely to use up his days. Deals were done, others lost, new customers brought on board while others departed, the relentless churn of business repeating itself again and again. Though the work never fully engaged him, he thought it would do for the time being, however long that time might last.

What did come to engage him, for reasons he couldn’t quite explain, was the train ride to and from work, an hour each way. The train ride which had become so routine, so forgettable, over the years, now drew his interest as he found himself peering through the window with expectation, even hope. He would spy less intently in the mornings, figuring Carl would never be out that early, but closer in the evenings and especially nights which seemed more promising.

Soon after that first night, he began to think of the stranger not as Crab Man, but as Carl. Calling him Crab Man—a veritable cartoon—seemed too unfair to him. But the hard “C” lingered, and the stranger didn’t seem like a Clarence and certainly not a Curt, so Carl he became.

Brian watched for him, morning and night, as the train approached the ragged Washington Heights station, peering around its corners and then back over his shoulder as the train pulled out again, craning his neck further and further as the station receded and finally disappeared from sight. Day after day, night after night it was always the same, looking up from his Wall Street Journal to gaze, searching.

Early on he would only look up briefly when the canned voice announced Next stop, Washington Heights over the loudspeaker, and then look away again after the station disappeared from view. But soon he found himself looking up earlier and looking away later, his watch lengthening from Washington Heights to three full stops, from the vast railyards and desolate factories of Blue Island to the empty boulevard at Longwood. All neighborhoods where Carl might have been.

He still was unsure whether Carl was even from Washington Heights—whether he intentionally got off the train there that night or randomly did so in his bleary oblivion. Even more mysterious was how he ever got on the train in the first place—the downtown station wasn't easy to find or navigate, especially in the condition he was in that night—or how he paid for it. The suburban commuter trains were much more expensive than the local elevated or the buses, and it seemed unlikely that he would have had even the few dollars for the two-stop ride from downtown. Maybe the late-night conductor gave him a break and didn't press him for a fare, hoping he would just get off the train before the supervisor noticed. Brian did know that the conductors had some latitude there.

But not once, on all those nights and mornings, did he ever see Carl. Sometimes he would glimpse another black man, scuffling down 103rd or loitering by the high school, and though he knew it probably wasn't him he would continue to stare. The man’s head would turn, and Brian’s doubts would be confirmed, or the face would remain turned away, the mystery enduring, leaving him to rationalize that it wasn’t Carl at all, that he would never be up that early in the morning or walking so assuredly at night. His eyes would invariably confirm that Carl was nowhere near, but still he searched, something in his subconscious mind willing the stranger’s presence. Thinking about creepy crawlies and the end is near—whatever any of that meant, or if it meant anything at all.

Looking for Carl, he slowly became more aware of the neighborhoods. Seeking out that singular, shambling figure brought the surroundings more into focus as he was drawn out of the insular realm of his reading. Though most of his observations were still from a safe distance.

From the south, starting at Robbins and into Blue Island, the houses huddled closer, hard by the tracks, side streets dead-ending just short of the rails. Past the neighborhoods, freightyards were stacked high with intermodal containers, waiting to filled and shipped elsewhere, while vast empty lots stretched for blocks where factories once stood. The margins along the tracks grew wilder with scruffy trees and marshy reeds, then another expanse opened which was marked only by a single, forlorn baseball field. Just beyond the field, the sunken expressway curved near, a stagnant stream of the halted taillights of another morning commute, then curved away again and out of sight.

Approaching the Washington Heights stop, a self-storage warehouse is passed, revealing the high school and the station huddled in its shadow, and the storefronts on 103rd where he had last seen Carl. Rear porches of bungalows and alley garages gradually reappeared, with some of the homes plywooded up and desolate.

At Longwood, 95th Street usually stood silent and empty, and beyond the industrial lots were jammed with empty trailers, then another scattering of intermodals and gray corrugated-aluminum factories which belched exhaust plumes of unnatural colors. By Gresham, where the surroundings became more residential and tidy, he would have drifted back into his reading, Carl slowly retreating from his consciousness.

Evenings, the procession was reversed, Gresham to Longwood to Washington Heights to Blue Island and Robbins. Day after day, morning and evening, at Washington Heights he would peer east down 103rd Street to where Carl disappeared into the shadows that night, before the train would depart again and the neighborhood left his vision, if not completely from his mind.

All were neighborhoods, Brian realized with what somehow felt like guilt, that he would probably never really know, other than the little that could be seen from the train.


***


March 18th was like any other day. Or it seemed that way, to Brian, at first. The weather had turned bitter after a long mild stretch, and as the train again chugged through the South Side at reduced speed Brian’s thoughts, still fogged by a St. Patrick’s Day hangover, drifted back to Carl and where he might be, if he had found someplace warm to ride out the cold night.

He again turned to his book, a management primer his boss was pushing him to read. He forced his mind to focus on the concepts—how to lead, how to keep the team moving toward the goal, when to encourage initiative and out-of-box thinking, when to stifle diversion and dissent. But it all seemed too abstract, too unreal, and thoughts of Carl came pushing back. He closed the book without marking his place. He stared out the window, seeing little more than the arc lights which hovered over the shrouded neighborhoods. As the track clicked along a notion, vague and elusive, began to press upon him, a feeling which he had sensed several times in recent days.

The train paused at the south side maintenance yard, snow whipping across the rails, then continued toward its first stop at Gresham where the locals hurried to the exposed bus shelter to wait for the next unreliable arrival, or braced for the long walk home cowering away from the northwest wind. But at least those people were fare-paying daily commuters, he thought, and had somewhere to call home. With Carl that seemed unlikely.

The train passed Longwood without stopping—this was a later train than usual, one that made different stops in the city—and finally slowed to a halt at Washington Heights. But instead of waiting out the stop in the cabin's warmth, staring down the cold dark street, he suddenly found himself bounding down the narrow staircase and through the sliding door. The vague thought had suddenly become clear, overwhelming him, and the outer doors had already started to close as he squeezed through, past an outdated poster for a summer city festival and a very surprised conductor. Surprised, as people like Brian rarely disembarked at a place like Washington Heights, and never at that time of night.

His feet hit the pavement, legs coiling and then relaxing again as he came to rest. The pavement was the only grounding he had at that moment, his mind only partly aware of what he was doing, of any sort of purpose. But a sharp gust of wind rose up, piercing the open front of his overcoat and snapping him to attention. Immediately he realized the task he had undertaken but thus far had only weakly committed to, doing nothing more until now than looking through a window. He was searching for Carl. As the train and its safety pulled away from the station he looked back over his shoulder, to the west, not because he thought Carl might have been in that direction, but from wariness, as he reassured himself that no threat followed him while he walked east, toward where Carl had gone.

The high school rose to his right, but he doubted Carl was there; on such a cold night, all of the cardboard boxes and discarded blankets in the world wouldn't keep him warm and alive, huddled up in the school entrance against the steel doors. Farther back, half a block away, he imagines the gray-framed station, shuttered for the night and offering no protection.

No, he told himself, Carl must be indoors somewhere, if alive at all. Seeing no promise in school or station, he drifted across the empty street to the opposite sidewalk where an old line of storefronts remained, standing mostly empty and silently impervious to any attempt at urban reclamation. He peered through the window of the first building, his hand smudging the filthy glass, below a sign which advertised a doughnut shop, now long gone, and the second building was vacant without even a sign and the third a day labor agency that also seemed, judging by the glaringly blank space below its "Current Openings" sign, to be in its final days. Day labor to where, he asked himself. No factories here, or at least none that were hiring.

Beyond that was an agency of another sort—Salvation Center, a storefront church—which did not promise temporary employment today but eternal bliss in the afterlife. Though this agency seemed to do the briskest business on 103rd Street, it was still closed for evening.

The church was the last building on the block before the expressway, eight lanes which cleaved the old neighborhood in half. On the other side he could see another storefront, this one with dim lights on inside. He imagined it as a shelter or hostel, a refuge for people just like Carl, or maybe even a halfway house that offered substance abuse treatment. He thought of Carl there, getting all the help he needed, getting clean, feeling safe. But despite the pull of the lights he ventured no further, stepping onto the overpass only far enough to feel the concrete vibrating from the traffic underneath. Crossing that overpass seemed too forbidding, and not just for the brutal gusts that he knew would await once he stepped out into the open.

He took one last look at the taillights passing below—drivers bound for the suburbs and warmth, as he realized he also should have been—before turning back toward the station. He walked with his head down, not looking around, and only on reaching the tracks did awareness return to him, and he decided it was best to wait there, out in the open, instead of next to the station and its secluded shadows. Not that being out on the street—Vincennes Avenue, he read from the green sign on the stoplight pole—was much safer, he figured. He would stand for another forty-five minutes, hunched into his collar and shivering from the wind, for the next train, as he tried to convince himself that Carl was indeed at that hostel, safe and cared for.


***


At the office Brian still found himself distracted by thoughts of Carl. More and more, he felt doubt. Maybe Carl never found help that night. Maybe, even if help was there, he shuffled past in his confused haze. But the pressing work soon pushed back, and Brian found himself lost in figures and strategies, with Carl and the streets of Washington Heights driven to the back of his mind.

One night, one little different from any other night at the office, he sighed, leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. “That’s enough for today,” he said aloud to himself, and though he wanted to leave the work behind, he decided to stay prepared in case something came up, as it often did on the train or even at home. He grasped the stack of manila files from his desk and slid it into his briefcase. On top of the stack he tossed his office copy of Forbes and clicked the briefcase shut. He walked along the nearly empty streets to the station, noticing that the air seemed milder after the cold past weeks, and calmly rode the escalator up to the platform and the waiting train. He settled into a vinyl-covered seat, noticing only four other riders in the car.

No work for now, he thought, as he opened the briefcase and removed the magazine. But instead of the bold headlines and grinning photograph of the latest CEO to be profiled, he noticed, underneath the file folders, a corner of paper in blaringly bright teal. He dug below the files and pulled out the brochure.

From its cover beamed smiling faces—a man and boy, a woman and girl, the adults white and well-dressed and the kids varying shades of color. There were no words on the front, but the photos told him what he would soon read inside: Big Brothers/Big Sisters, sharing your life with the underprivileged, guiding, mentoring, just being there as a friend and someone to listen. He barely remembered getting the brochure; it must have been in the bottom of his inbox, and unknowingly shifted onto his desk under the stack of files. He looked again at the smiling faces—the adult smiles the biggest of all—and suddenly realized how uninvolved he was with that sort of thing.

He gave to the United Way every year, like everyone else did at work through an easy payroll deduction, and tossed spare change now and then to street people he passed. But he had always told himself, with the twelve-hour days at the office and the work he took home on weekends, that he didn’t have time for any more than that. He glanced again at Forbes and unconsciously shook his head, returned the magazine and brochure to the briefcase and closed the lid. Instead of reading he gazed languidly out the window at the passing streets and arc lights, which soon blurred into a continuous loop as the backdrop to the thoughts that shifted forward and back in his mind.

The train clattered over the Dan Ryan overpass, jarring him to attention, and he began to notice more details of the neighborhoods below. The apartment buildings seemed worn, their back stairs littered with trash, and the streets were clogged with dead leaves and the occasional rusting car. Still, every now and then he saw a backyard that had been kept clean, barren in winter but obviously cared for in anticipation of the coming spring, or a car that gleamed under the amber light, clearly wiped clean in defiance of the filthy slush and clinging road salt. Some people were trying to do good, he reflected, if not for the entire neighborhood then for their little corner. His gaze moved across the blocks of buildings, all of them the same and yet still different, almost lulling him until they briefly parted around a frozen lagoon, which he remembered shimmering in the morning light of summer, always cheering him.

Vague, flitting ideas slowly solidified in his mind, and he felt strengthened, confident, certain of what he should do. But first he would take one last look. Several blocks before 103rd Street, he rose from his seat and casually entered the vestibule, where the same conductor clearly recognized him and warily eyed him. Brian gave a slight nod, a faint smile on his face. When the train stopped at Washington Heights the conductor pushed the overhead button to open the doors, shaking his head as Brian descended the stairs, the only rider to exit.

As before he stepped directly onto the asphalt before moving to the south sidewalk. The high school was long closed for the night, as he knew the station—hidden half a block down the tracks—was as well. Looking across 103rd, the storefronts were as dark as before, the doughnut shop and labor agency job board still empty. He walked briskly to the east, deciding that the air was indeed milder, and when he passed Salvation Center and reached the overpass, he did not hesitate but continued across. The wind was stronger here, chilling him slightly but not like before, and he felt the concrete vibrate below his feet as cars sped and trucks rumbled past. As the building on the far side came clearer into view, he felt his hopes fade. More accurately, it wasn’t hope fading but doubts becoming reality, those doubts that accumulated during the past few weeks as Carl vied with the workload for his attention. Those hopes were already gone, and he now saw them as nothing but wishful thinking.

He could see that the building on Racine, just beyond the expressway, was not a hostel at all. Instead it was apartments which, though humble, seemed far beyond what Carl could afford. He crossed Racine and continued for another block before pausing to take in his surroundings. Another storefront church, closed for the night. Some vacant lots and then a gas station, and further down some stores with bright streetside signs but darkened windows. And on the side streets, brick bungalows and woodframed two-flats, none seeming to be likely homes for Carl.

Then, finally, it came to him. He had no idea where Carl went that night, where he lived, how he survived. He didn’t even know his real name, with “Carl” nothing more than an invention, a tool for pondering the stranger’s life. Without his name or his whereabouts, Brian would never find him. He could ride the train home every night for the next twenty years and never have Carl again stumble past, babbling, and give him a second chance to reach out. He would never be able to help him.

Brian turned, the soles of his shoes scraping the loose gravel that littered the sidewalk, and began walking back to the west. He crossed the overpass, red taillights streaming twenty feet below, and with the wind having slackened he moved ahead without turning up his collar. Passing the high school and glancing again at the empty storefronts across the street, he stopped at the railroad tracks, next to the upright crossing gate. He checked his watch and saw that he had been there for fifteen minutes, with another forty-five minutes to wait for the next train. He imagined, with a slight grin, the look on the next conductor’s face as he climbed aboard. Nobody ever rode from Washington Heights to the distant suburbs, and certainly nobody that looked like Brian. The image stayed with him as he continued to stand, gazing at the lights of Vincennes Avenue. There it seemed more lively and not as desolate as 103rd—more cars, an occasional CTA bus, stores still open, even some pedestrians a few blocks south. The sight cheered him, gave him what almost felt like encouragement.

No, he realized, he would never be able to help Carl. But maybe he could help someone else. He turned his head halfway, taking in the looming structure behind him. Maybe he could tutor at Julian. Maybe volunteer at a food pantry, maybe...remembering the brochure in his briefcase, his thoughts sharpened. He could be a Big Brother. He would spare the time, and whatever expense there might be. He could no longer help Carl—that moment had passed, with nervous laughter and a joke about Crab Man—but he could still help some kid, help him avoid becoming another Carl, make him not feel so lost and alone.



VALENTINO'S RETURN

McKinley Park



The revving roar pierced the air as the billboard colors flashed past the window, whose fresh-pressed curtains fluttered though the pane remained closed. Without a glance she could see the familiar scene outside: the bus abruptly braking and turning, bumping over the curb as its tires thudded up inside the wheel wells; the sharp turnaround and arcing toward the rear of the lot, brakes screeching as it stopped at the gas pumps. Then after a ten-minute pause, the engine roaring up again as the bus circled to the edge of the lot where it idled, pistons a shuddering throb, before departing again minutes later. Over and over, all day long and through most of the night.

Once, the house had made sense, back when everything still made sense, when Valentino was little and Julio came home every night promptly at six, strolling through the front door with a tired grin, after his shift ended only seconds earlier when he signed the bus over to the next driver. He insisted on using the front door—it was proper, he always said, the way that decent people entered their homes, and not through some filthy alley. He never liked the front door, that gateway to his inner sanctum, being dirtied by fast-talking solicitors and Bible-hugging fundamentalists, hawking magazines or salvation. Let them come to the back door, and then only when he was away at work.

Once, the house made sense, for the convenience of Julio going on and off his shift, but now that he was gone so was any reason for living there. Now it meant only ceaseless engine noise, and headlights that flashed across the bedroom wall, and grit that somehow blew its way indoors despite the windows always being locked tight. Now it was only an isolated house on a busy commercial stretch of Archer Avenue, wedged between the CTA turnaround and a body shop. Across the street, a few houses were scattered among the storefronts, but the residents there were no more familiar than a wave or nod from across the four lanes of traffic.

Giovanna sat at the kitchen table, swiping the palms of her hands over the formica surface which was pockmarked with tiny gouges from Valentino idly grinding away with a table knife, long after the meal had been finished but before the dishes were cleared away. It was a bad habit of his, one for which she once admonished him but had since become used to, willingly accepting it as part of the price of having him home. The house seemed so empty, so silent despite the engine noise from outside, without Valentino around.

Six p.m., and despite herself she half-listened for the key—Julio's key—turning in the front-door lock, and for the tuneless but cheerful whistling that always announced her husband's nightly arrival. But the key turning and the whistling were gone and would never return. Neither had been heard for fifteen years now, since one evening quite like this one, in April with a lingering chill in the air and the sun fading toward the western horizon, when six p.m. instead brought the knock on the front door, and the news that changed everything.

She continued to gaze absently toward the rear windows, imagining the tinted glass of Valentino's car—that beloved black Camaro of his, the sixteenth birthday present she never should have given him but couldn't resist—reflecting the setting sun or, later, beaming its headlights across the kitchen walls as it pulled up. But then she remembered that the car was already parked in the narrow patch of concrete between the back door and the alley, and no reflected sunset or beamed headlights would signal Valentino’s return. That evening after dinner he had simply walked away, to wherever he was keeping himself these days.

Despite this realization she continued to gaze toward the rear of the house, knowing he would return through the kitchen door, silent and morose but at least home again, unlike his father who always came whistling through the front door. And unlike his father who would never return again.

As her palms continued to swipe the formica surface, she bumped over the pile of unread mail which rested there, scattering the envelopes. She righted the pile again, moving the envelopes into a neat stack, edges perfectly aligned. On the top envelope she noticed the familiar downtown address of the central office, where the pension checks came from every month. Standard pension, plus a survivor benefit for Julio having been in the line of duty.

That day he didn't follow the rules that every driver was given, whether rookies new on the job or veterans around for years. Julio himself told her several times about the company policy, after returning from the annual training sessions that were required of all drivers. Don't resist, the money isn't as important as keeping our employees safe, call the police afterward and give as good a description as you can. Don't be a hero out there, Julio would utter, laughing, as he mimicked the grave tone of the sergeant on Hill Street Blues as the latter addressed roll call each morning. Be careful out there. Don't be a hero.

A screech of brakes from the street jarred her back to the present. A slammed door, then another, then angry voices back and forth, the words unrecognizable but the escalating volume revealing the anger behind the altercation.

It all seemed so familiar, from what she remembered hearing later from witnesses, and she was taken right back to that day. But Julio didn't yell or argue, furious as he must have been when the confrontation finally came. Riders said he sat motionless for a few moments after the robber departed, his face beet-red in either anger or shame—That will never happen to me, he had always told her—before he stood and rushed through the door. They saw him sprinting, still twenty yards behind but closing fast, when he disappeared around the corner.

The midday street was empty, or empty of observers who remembered anything afterward. His body was found, hours later, in a littered dead-end alley.


***


Valentino, still a toddler back then, was now sixteen going on seventeen going on nothing at all. He showed no interest in school—where he was still at least three years from graduation—or anything else, other than the Camaro or simply wandering the streets. He had gotten caught up in something lately, she knew, as he came to ask her for money much less often. Something that made him money, something that had to be no good. It couldn't have been a regular job. She would have been happy for him to be busing tables at the greasy spoons up on 35th Street or bagging groceries down at Jewel. Even sweeping floors at the body shop next door would have been good enough. But he shrugged off all of her suggestions, and she sensed that his attitude was no different now.

She just prayed he wasn't dealing drugs. Prayed to Jesus Christ and anyone else who was listening.

Valentino would be home soon, she told herself as she looked toward the back door where she had last seen him, his broad shoulders silhouetted in the doorframe and blocking most of the outside light. The door had slammed behind him, and the last thing she saw was the Sox cap which he wore, like all the other teens she saw on the street, casually cocked slightly to one side, the flat brim centered over his left temple. She had never seen any ballplayers wear their caps that way, but then again, she considered, sports didn't seem to matter to him or any of his friends. Maybe ballplayers weren't their heroes, so looking just like them wasn't that important.

Baseball caps were something she didn't understand about Valentino or his friends, just one of many things. But maybe she wasn't trying hard enough to understand him. When he was younger she knew him so well, especially after Julio was gone and it was just the two of them, but as he grew older and into a young man he drifted away from her.

She thought about going to his room and gazing at his belongings, some from his childhood that she couldn't part with, but most the clutter of a young man. Stacks of CDs with names she never recognized, posters of cars—rides, he called them—plastering the walls, dog-eared men's magazines carpeting the floor. She wanted to stand and gaze at all of it, trying to make sense of what he had become or was becoming, but even more she wanted to stay right where she was, sitting and staring through the back window at the darkened alley, waiting for his return.

An ambulance roared past in the street, engine gunning and siren blaring, bringing her back for a moment but just as quickly returning her to that day in the past.

There were two of them at the front door—that entryway which Julio cherished so reverently—a uniformed officer and another man whom, as his quiet words steadily deafened and numbed her, she slowly recognized as Julio's supervisor. They had met once or twice before, but any friendliness he showed toward her then had vanished as he spoke, in a low and serious voice, the words she refused to believe she was hearing. She rushed out the door in a daze, seeming intent on staggering the twenty-five blocks to Mount Sinai Hospital until the officer grasped her elbow and gently guided her into the rear seat of the squad car.

The officer sped away from the house, siren off. There was no siren for for Julio either, nor was any ambulance necessary. She only realized this now, as she sat in the kitchen waiting for Valentino, and wondered why the passing ambulance had taken her back.

She continued to sit at the table, the alley now completely dark, and thought again of Valentino. His name had been her idea, after the silent film idol her Sicilian grandmother had adored and told Giovanna so much about when she was a little girl. The name was the only thing Italian about the household, other than her cooking, which Julio loved and had no objection to. But everything else—Mass, holidays, the language spoken when Valentino was present but not supposed to hear—was Spanish, coming from the Cuban heritage that Julio insisted the family should follow.

After the twenty hours of labor she endured, Julio couldn't deny her suggestion of the name Valentino, as she remembered now. He must have thought the name was Latin enough to—

A heavy thud jolted the front door, behind her in the living room, shaking the entire house and startling her from the chair. She heard the knob rattle frantically, seconds before the door flew open and banged against the wall. She first thought of an intruder, an attacker, and cowered back into the kitchen before recognizing the broad shoulders. She moved forward again, wondering what could be wrong, imagining for a moment that Valentino was simply drunk, and approached him with benevolently widespread arms, seeking to take in her wayward boy and guide him to safety. But then she saw how he stood, bent slightly at the waist with both hands clutching his chest, and as he stepped into the light she was shocked to see a dark red stain spreading out from beneath his hands.

"Mother of Mercy!" she cried. "Valentino, what—"

"Stab!" he gasped, cutting her off. "Fucker stabbed me!"

"What...where..."

"Roses...no, carnations...Stevenson ramp..."

She grasped his arm as he stumbled, his eyes rolling back and eyelids hanging heavily.

"Mama," he whispered at her shoulder, "I'm hurt bad...help..."

She immediately sensed what to do, and began to lead him toward the kitchen. His words dwindled to mumbling, his eyes now completely shut as she guided him as if he was blind. With her free hand she pulled a dish towel from the rack, folded it and placed it over the wound, moving his hands onto the towel and pressing them inward toward his abdomen, telling him without words that he must hold it firm to staunch the bleeding as much as he could. She continued to support him as she reached for the spare key ring, then pulled the back door open. The rush of outside air seemed to momentarily revive him, and he opened his eyes, his blurry gaze settling on the Camaro which gleamed in the amber glow of the alley light. She felt him straighten up slightly, as if strengthened by the sight of the car, though his words still came unevenly, delivered between gasps for air.

"Stupid...sh' listen to Juan...nev' argue customer..."

"Quiet now, Valentino," she said, unlocking the passenger door. "You need your strength."

He slumped into the seat as she released him and hurried around to the other side. As she climbed behind the wheel of the car she had never once driven, his head fell back to the headrest.

"You hold on, baby," Giovanna said. "It's not far to Mount Sinai. Mama will get you there safe."

In the dashboard glow she glimpsed a faint smile crossing his paled lips before he sunk into unconsciousness. She started the ignition and backed carefully into the alley, more calmly than she believed she ever could be at such a moment.

As she slowly turned onto the side street, steadily picking up speed toward Archer and growing more confident as she realized the urgency needed from her, the thought came to her.

My baby was in trouble.

She paused only a second for the stop sign at Archer before stepping hard on the gas pedal, barging into traffic and speeding toward the turn north on Western and the two dozen blocks that remained until Mount Sinai.

And he came right back home to me. To his mama.



HERE THE ELMS

STOOD TALL

Dunning



"Dunning never deserved all that recognition," the old man uttered.

The words came from nowhere, jarring loose from minutes of silence, and left Claudia confused. At first she thought he meant the neighborhood, on the furthest edges of the Northwest Side, but then she reconsidered. She couldn't remember Dunning ever getting any recognition at all, whether or not it was deserved. But she sensed he meant more than that.

"Sure, Dad," came her mother's voice from the other side of the kitchen. "Old Dunning got too much credit for the neighborhood, it never should have been named for him. We've heard it all before."

"I've never heard it," Claudia piped up, her voice cracking after her long silence. She knew she had heard it once or twice before, the details now slowly coming back. Still, she wanted to hear it again.

The old man looked away from his daughter, his look of resentment dissipating as he gazed upon the face of his granddaughter, as if gladdened and grateful for her curiosity.

"If anything, old Pete Ludby should have gotten the credit. That's what my grandfather used to say. Ludby sold the county the land for the poor farm, and without the farm this neighborhood never would have existed."

"Of course it would have existed, Dad," the mother said, her voice weary. She chopped carrots with an oversized knife, her swift hands whirring effortlessly, and tossed the vegetables into the stewpot which steamed atop the stove. "The city's always been growing, further out every year. It would have gotten here eventually, no matter what."

The old man ignored her, keeping his warm gaze on Claudia.

"Without the poor farm, the railroad never would have built a depot way out here, and without that depot, no neighborhood."

"Heard it all before."

"Maybe, but Claudia hasn't. So I'm saying all this for her benefit."


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