Chapter 35

∞ STAGE TWO ∞


Chicago Suite

“Past is prologue, or
antilogue, nowhere to hide—
shove it all aside.”
Thornia high-ku

          DING…DING…DING…DING…

          “Any priors?”

          “Huh? Of course not…”

          “What about diseases? Hooked on any drugs?”

          “No…uh, coffee—maybe…”

          “You mental? Get blackouts, seizures—maybe some fits and spasms every once in a while. Ever choke on your tongue or piss yourself?”

          “Hell, no…I’m not some common…”

          “OK, let’s see here, set you up for pix and prints and prints…”

          DING…DING…DING…DING…DING…

          The retreat hadn’t nearly been complete. Yet, there it was: Napoleon’s army out of Moscow, Lee out of Gettysburg, Bataan and Saigon ’75 all over again, albeit on a smaller, more interpersonal scale. Melissa had scooped me and my success trip up like Han Loon’s eggrolls to go, and crammed the entire mess into my car with a little extra Thibeaux muscle. She’d then left an obligatory thank-you note for Denise and Regina Tzu.

          Over her rip torn objections, I’d taped my condolences to Sydney’s mail slot, on the back of a Lovelock Arms receipt I’d fitfully found under my floor mat—something weasel-word lame to the effect that we’d all be better off for this, misgivings be damned—a last, silent offering to any bruised egos and busted hearts. Morning fog lifted as we left San Francisco, but a low overcast set in over the bridge, along San Pablo. I blinked into the rearview mirror at Rodeo and Crockett, aching tail between my legs—tethered somehow still, gauging the evacuation on my emerging man-o-meter while Moon stared out the shotgun side window, crocheting away.

          Mental milemarkers like wuss, wimp and pussy-whipped had accumulated along I-80 East, that haunting ‘Shame on You If You Can’t Pass Through’ disco number Syd had sung to, ragging me on the turned-down radio. My sotto voce crossfire eroded a fragile, unspoken ceasefire by Sacramento, sniping and countermeasures breaking the truce altogether past the Chicago Park and Blue Canyon exits. Finger pointing and recriminations carried us through winter-swept Nevada.

          Spent ammo and road fatigue ended all that by Salt Lake and the snowbound Wasatch Range. Still, the die had been cast, a pattern had been established: Point, counterpoint; pull over for coffee, dish out the cognitive dissonance, pick at the sore spots like an oozing lesion, time and again, onto the next truck stop, as in:

          “How could you be so unreasonable,” I’d ask, milking and stirring as we thawed out our extremities.

          “How could you be such a goon,” she’d sip, face flushed as a kewpie doll. “Going off half-cocked like that.”

          “Don’t treat me like a little kid, Moon! And by the way, who the hell was that guy answering our phone?”

          “It was all I could do to keep you from messing yourself up even more.” Melissa would cover the check as I gassed up the Volks. “Tsk, grow up, Kenny. That was only a good friend looking in on our animules and stuff while I worked, okay?”

          “Grow up? I’m holding my own, Moon. But keep this up, and I’ll be turning right back around.”

          “Back to what? Some fool-headed San Frantasy,” she’d rebundle under her bunny brocade, quilted coat, head to toe. “You know better than that…”

          So it went, by fits and misfits, snits and tarts, until our tongues cramped and throats burned over the sudden depth of our macro-relational woes: she seemingly torturing herself over her cocksure miscalculations, me wondering ruefully why I-80 was so much more uplifting on the westward leg. But from Little America on through Laramie and Loveland, strategic planning, logistical moves had begun to rule the road, slush and black ice taking a back seat to more reasoned than heated debate.

          By the time we had returned to Boulder, snows had cleared, but it hit us like an avalanche that some glacial changes were now etched in the Flatirons’ sandstone. Obligatory phone calls to the Coach Light Inn and Chicagoland had been made—W-2’s resolved, mom not doing any better. Upon first alert, friends and neighbors debated and squabbled and dissuaded us over the distress move, until one of Melissa’s pottery pals said she could see me in a bigger city like San Francisco, with Moon staying put.

          This, even after Melissa declared that where I went, she went—for or against her better judgment—curiously determined to have and hold commitment-wise. Loyal to a fault was she, even though the fault lay elsewhere. I was instantly personal non-gratitude; but they continued to orbit fondly around their Moon.

          With that, a crafty, co-optivating kiln tender eagerly volunteered to take the cabin off our hands—ostensibly tend it for us—fixing as she was to move in before we could even begin to pack and ship. Moon kept fretting as how her bubby might be leaving her just enough money to pluck down an earnest payment on the place to its Idaho landlord, but she couldn’t bank on that just yet.

          Besides, pensive chagrin was disintegrating into foreclosed humiliation, and the cabin had now felt haunted by what was before. No Ph.D. news was bad news from the sociology department and Boulder wasn’t getting any cheaper. So we boxed up most things in every dusty nook and cranny that would squeeze into the left rear corner of a consolidated eastbound moving van.

          The leftovers, mostly mine, were masking tape labeled and stuffed into the backyard storage shed lock, stock and gun barrel—save for ‘Waif and Grain’, which Moon had slashed and burned in the front room fireplace, for warmth and wrath on a cold closing night.

          Morning next, no friends, no phone calls, no confetti rapturous farewells: Dropped like the temperatures, for nobody knew (or cared to know) anybody who in their righteous minds ever left Boulder Valley—for a place like Chicago, no less. So we faced reality overload, doormatted the keys to Rocky Mountain paradise, dropped off forwarding addresses and pulled up stakes, a quick cut and run, in torn, tattered, remorseful silence, with John Denver singing to high heaven on the FM dial.

            “I just feel so uprooted,” Moon had said wistfully, as we loaded our respective cars with essentials and any valuables: Pags into her Toyota, Seamus piled into the back of my Volks. “Really, Kenny, what’s happening here, what’s going on with us?”

          “Hard tellin’,” I replied before we each closed driver doors on our foothills Elysium and crept off like a funeral procession past Columbia Cemetery and Chautauqua Park. “Major missteps, major changes and chain reactions…”

          Such was the gut wrenching and soul searching that had propelled us out onto the turnpike, reverse image of our once-glorious caravan of destiny, flagging downhill to Denver, Melissa stoically leading the way. But she signaled by Broomfield that we couldn’t really break camp, hit the road in earnest, without a decent breakfast. So our crestfallen dos-a-dos wheeled into a hold-the-bacon, leave-the-coffee pot pancake house just short of the I-25/70 interchange. Buckaroo perky waitresses touted some 200-odd varieties of hotcakes and waffles. We pre-empted our cowgal with a quick split order of a short stack and pair of over easies, toast on the cinnamon-raison side.

          “Chains, reactions, what are you thinking,” Moon ruffled out our bronco-busting napkins, busily straightening the utensils and placemats as though we were still in the cabin kitchen on a Sunday morn.

          “Nothing,” I peered out the restaurant’s west-facing windows at the Rockies’ range, peak after snowy peak, shrinking into the corner booth from what lay beyond. “Shoulda left me out of this to begin with, Moon. Shoulda just left it all alone.”

          “Maybe so, but I went out there to save us, Kenny,” she cried, over the jukebox blaring of an immediately awkward R&B number, Maxine warbling, ‘…Love is good, love can be strong, we gotta get right back to where we started from’ like a disco Nightingale. “Give me that much credit, for godsakes.”

          “The best thing we had going was trust,” I sugared up some coffee, tuned out J-7, as the waitress spread around her tray. “Whew, talk about total destruction…”

          “I’ll tell you destruction.” Having knife cut our pancakes, Moon nervously buttered our toast—ever making busy work for her tiny, unpolished hands. “Destruction is you staying out there and fooling around with that little…slut!”

          “You don’t even know, Moon. It wasn’t that way, at all.” I knifed into the Log Cabin-drenched stack, mixing in the yokes.

          “Then why didn’t you come clean with me to start with?” She delivered her egg unto my plate, nibbling at her cakes. “Why’d you scream for the life raft in Golden Gate Park? Because you knew you’d be chopped liver out there by now, that’s why. Tsk, you had two beautiful women fighting over you, haven’t you done enough damage already?!”

          “You finished? Let’s get outta here, okay,” I downed my coffee, hitting the head before while she settled up, realizing I hadn’t thought of things quite that way. As we scrap fed and walked Seamus and Pags out in the parking lot, I took one last long breath of mountain air. “Sure about this, I mean, we could turn around and…”

          “We’re going back to Chicago, Kenny. It’s not a pretty picture, but at least we’ll face it together. Sometimes you have to go back before you can go forward.”

          Then we had quietly slid into our respective cars, and were off, though with very little settled. From there, it was all hand signals to Denver’s Interstate interchange. Seemed her Toyota kept veering east around the cloverleaf, while my squareback kept pulling to the west like a headstrong deerhound on a lapdog leash. Still, I fought the Volks onto I-70, following Melissa’s bumper-to-bumper lead away from Front Range splendor and promise as if she were on cruise control to get us out of dreamland.

          But I impulsively gave into the pull, leaning southbound on I-25 to Pueblo and Albuquerque—if need be, what did it matter—at least until Moon flipped a U-loop and roped me back in on the shoulder just outside Castle Rock. I dutifully followed her back to I-70 toward Limon and the flatlands by default, dialing as it happened to the Jilters’ latest mid-rock hit with a bullet, ‘Around The Bender’, on Sky High 105 radio.

          At first, the more she drew me eastward, the more I had resolved to passively resist—to where she became less an arrowhead than a target, I less a faithful drover than a looming roadblock. But stuff the defiance and dissonance, this road isolation was a tonic somehow, the eastbound interstate proving reliably straight and true. It gave me a buffer, the squareback a cocoon—time for calmer reflection and gradual pause, timeless suspension, a highway trance broken only by Moon’s periodic honking and Seamus’ bursts of barking after grazing livestock, herds of gophers and prairie dogs.

          AM radio ranged from Abba to Merle to Z.Z. in and out, up and down the dial, with an occasional ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Now That You’ve Gone’ oldie recorded by the big, brassy…Chicago up at Caribou Ranch just above Boulder—or Colorado Transit Authority, for all the tinhorns back home.

          I shook those off parting shots, settling in for the Great infinite Plains, this nine-hundred mile drainage ditch into the Mississippi Valley—Kit Carson country pouring into Kansas, Kansas City into middling Missouri—this declining path of least resistance. So much headroom for ruminating, rationalizing, my guardian angel waving, gesturing as she lead the way with a resurgence of homespun confidence.

          The more I had filled my mind with this emotional teeter-totter, the more intriguing it became. Distance, triangular game theory, posing hypotheticals: Upon further reflection, it had all come down to indelibly clear alternatives—as in either, or propositions. Should have stood ground, did what’s best; should have stayed on, hell outta there: life was like that, right? Should have shrugged off Moon’s trusty drive west suggestion in the first place; should have blown Syd out of the water before I got in so deep.

          I dug even deeper amid the long stratocumulated acres of combines, feed silos and towering ingrained elevators. Sociology aside, I harkened back to undergraduate philosophy: What would Bentham have done? Or Kant, maybe John Stuart Mill: the greatest good for the greatest number Utilitarianism, or Free Will and Determinism. Hmmm, interesting. Fade in, fade out: perspectives, conclusions stacking up like hay bales, mile after mile, crystallizing, congealing, sweet as the truck stop custards and other snacks we shared on minimal rest and refuel pauses.

          Guess that was why I always got off on interstates like this—no hassles, no headaches, little indigestion—so ponderous, so empowering, minimal decisions in maximum space and time. Who needed caffeine and Dramamine out here? Just strap me in and I’d ride these brainwaves all the way to Cape Hatteras and Bangor, Maine.

          The roadway had been so casual, so independent, so simply clear—four-lane, high-speed, twelve-volt peace of mind, minus the hog reports and top-40 radio. Velocitized suspension of asphalt grounded reality and jerkwater speed traps—so long, heavy promises and payments due: this super highway was such an infinitely irresistible loophole. Trouble was, that lofty yellow line groove had served to confound me even more over the miles, and only got me as far as down here.

          DING, DING, DING, DING…

          “It’s not much, Moon, but it’s a start, quick and dirty,” I said, capping the pay phone receiver from roaring, peeling garage traffic and the ringing of counting strips. “Looks like I’ll just have to pick up my permit downtown tomorrow.”

          “Um, sounds…okay, Kenny—but…”

          “A little quick and dirty, maybe—but I can’t be vegging out up there, gotta start payin’ back…”

          “Just get back up here before rush hour, okay? The truck came this morning, and our stuff was totally covered with some kind of blue cleaning powder, industrial strength, yet. The driver said a drum of it burst en route, and they’re claiming it’s not their responsibility. Just what kind of special deal did you work out with…”

          “I’ll be right up…”

          DING, DING, DING, DING, DING…

          My interstate nirvana had degenerated into wheel-gripping tension once we bypassed Thibeaux’s St. Louis and plowed up the virtual length of Illinois’ corn country on I-55, looping around Springfield and Normal, ticking off Pontiac, Coal City and Goose Lake Prairie Park with waves of our hands. Then Melissa took command around Romeoville, beckoning me toward the Stevenson and North Shore expressways without the slightest roadside or sidetrack hesitation. By the Sanitary Canal Bridge, Chicago’s industrial sprawl had increasingly sucked us in, truck traffic corralling our little caravan in a squall of soot and fumes.

          The big Broad Shoulders were still as gray and brooding as I remembered, miles of brown brick decay all the way to Lake Michigan’s south shores, downtown skyline excess rising in congested civic ardor and phallic compensation. Sears, Prudential, Hancock, Water Tower PlaceChicago skyline: the taller, premium architectural landmarks remained in place, but someone else’s memories now fetishized their towers. Everything was recognizable here, but nothing was sentimentally familiar. Yet I dutifully followed Melissa’s Toyota like a bugbeared grizzly cub through downtown’s Congress Parkway interchange, all but hanging on her bumper as the Kennedy Expressway clogged with a drizzly, early evening rush. Home again: no sooner had we arrived than I wanted gone from this cold-concrete gridlocked maze.

          JFK’s diagonal slice through Northside revival and outer ethnic neighborhoods slowly fed onto Edens Expressway, whereupon street exits began peeling off like faded Post-Its until Devon. Just before the Touhy Avenue cloverleaf, a Cook County Sheriff’s cordon of flashing patrol cars escorted what looked to be an orderly, rather synchronous cortege striding along the northbound emergency lane, beginning to clog traffic again, before long clear back to Wrigleyville.

          It looked to be another Chicago-style labor dispute, maybe involving UPS or something; I couldn’t make out the bobbing placards. But we had eventually maneuvered past police loudspeakers, the clatter of heels, slogans and signage, into block upon block of tidy blond brick bungalows on the southern, Howard Avenue stretch of Skokie. There, near Oakton Park, between Laramie and LeClaire, was Melissa’s family home—a blond brick, ranch-style bungalow with off-white wood trim—small trim front lawn and parkway trees in line with the neighborhood up and down Howard Street.

          “Out of state license, is it?”

          “Yah, just finished grad school there…”

          “College boy, huh? So whatcha you doing way down here? You got trouble?”

          “No, just some…obligations.”

          “Yeah, yeah—wait, what’s the address? Suburbs? Can’t have that…”

          “Uh, only for the time being. Here, I’ll give you my folks’ here in town…”

          “That’ll do. Go pick up your temporary license,” said the stub Camel dragging dispatcher through his cashier window in a dank upper Clark Street carbarn. “Start tomorrow morning, I’ll give you number 3240 over there. Hit the bricks for the morning push, you move that heap like heinies on fire, hear? This ain’t no bullshit sitcom…”   Cab garage

          I’d whizzed through the express lane for booth photos and fingerprints, been given some sort of priority points for citizenship and language comprehension. The whole idea had come amid the onset of a sleeting rainstorm that caught me with my car battery down, while en route to a northside parts dismantler for a discounted re-core. The first empathetic cabbie I could hail advised me that Checker Taxi was hiring any Chi-town hustler who could reach the floor pedals.

          All I knew was Melissa had fronted all our moving expenses, and then there was a countless tab run west; needed ready money good and fast. So I scared up a cut-rate battery, installing it under the Volks’ back seat, then hit city hall for a temporary driver permit. Just beating rush hour traffic, I soon rumbled back up Edens to Skokie—wipers slapping in tune with some vintage John Prine—to the Saversohn’s place, where I found our Boulder belongings stacked loosely just inside their garage door, Moon sorting through it all with a beset, mournful expression.

           “Now, what am I supposed to do with all this stuff, Kenny,” she spouted, blowing a whisp of hair out of her eyes, straightening up her coral-colored jersey and bib overalls. “The powder is getting like plaster…”

          “Be right there,” I said, ducking into her garage under Tribune cover, Seams jumping me as far as his dog chain would allow. “Had a little car trouble, though I did take the job.”

          “But cab hacking? You have a master’s degree now and…”

          “Gotta make some quick changes, Moon. Something’s gotta give…”

sr dingbats

Saturning for transitory
re-entry to the Chi side…

      Liberating as that I-70 road show may have seemed, there was no  denying the creature bennies of power showers, balanced meals, Mr. Coffee and cable TV. Truth telling: I found myself cozying up to the place, a bit too much so for comfort. Talk about path of least resistance. As usual, Melissa was doing most of the giving, what with her father off on a business trip to Rockford and Rock Island, machine tool samples in his sales cases.

          He was made painfully aware of his daughter’s situation before leaving, however, directing us to separate bedrooms, pledging to weigh in upon return. In the meantime, Moon cooked, cleaned, unpacked and reordered our bundles and cartons, aiming to make me feel as ‘at home’ in her old home as possible as the week progressed. She pampered me, head to head, and everywhere in between, before stretching things full out on a den room sofabed.

          For my part, I kept close phone touch with my parents without letting on where I actually was. I otherwise lounged around reading some professional journals I’d long neglected, paging through Sunday want ads, watching Bulls or Blackhawk games, kitchen raiding and walking Seamus for mutual relief. Sometimes I lost track of where I was, but she would remind me where we were, and better regrouping here than floundering somewhere out there. Yet I couldn’t help fearing we were going nowhere.

          “I suppose,” Melissa said, making for a coffee break in the kitchen nook. “But you’ve a little breathing room here, so why don’t you try for a social services spot, or a little substitute teaching? Then you could check out a Ph.D. program right in Chicago—like back at Circle Campus? I can get into daycare, a crafts studio or something…”

          “Get serious, Moon, that takes time,” I replied, taken aback as she poured us two mugs of Joe DiMaggio’s and broke out the CoffeeMate. “I’m talking about right now.”

          “I am serious. Use your head, Kenny, why do you think I came back here with you? Now we’ve got to get another place and everything…”

          “Everything?” My heart started racing with a caffeine push, although apparently not as fast as her mind.

          “Now that we’ve settled things, it’s time to off with the hang loose no defining us, don’t you agree? I mean, after all we’ve been through, here we be…”

          “Well…sure…I can see what you’re saying…” I sank deeper into my counter stool, tapping away at the Formica as the unspoken prospect sunk in.

          Outside the nook window was a backyard roughly the size of a badminton court, but well tended with dormant plants and flowers budding for an early spring thaw. Inside here, a bookshelf and china cabinet were neatly lined, yet appeared to lack a feminine touch. I couldn’t help but note framed photos of Melissa as an infant, one on her father’s lap, with a bit blurry image of a woman standing behind them with folded arms. Next to the fading shots of sundry relatives was a small brass menorah, the only sign of religious symbolism I’d noticed anywhere in the Saversohn household thus far.

          Not that I hadn’t been up here before, but that initial hospitality was pretty much limited to the living room. Moon and I had initially met in the student union, sharing a sunny outdoor table overlooking the cold concrete Circle Campus. We started right up debating folky singer/songwriters and American Lit. I was talking James Taylor and Richard Thompson, a little Loggins and Messina; she turned me onto Paul Seibel, Steve Goodman and Randy Newman. I liked Tom Wolfe and Brautigan; she was currently into Sontag and Jong, so we went casually from there.

          I commuted north, she came south—we’d meet after class at various Greektown, Old Town and Rush Street spots, spreading our wings uptown on Lincoln and Broadway. Totally secular, nothing denominational—I’d come back from the army stint, she’d come off an overcooked marriage.

          When we completed undergrad, I applied to Boulder on a whim and a dare. Dream of hairbrained dreams, we were soon fleeing big, grimy Second City for some clean, clear Rocky Mountain air like so many heady Midwest refugees, with nary a second thought of theology beyond Ram Dass or Kahlil Gibran.

          But before taking flight, she had introduced me to her father, who greeted me warily at the Saversohn door, then sent us off to Colorado with daggers in his eyes. Now he was pulling his fleet car Buick Special into the driveway, home from the machine shop wars, apparently bracing to grill and drill me as to long-term intentions.   Saversohn house, Skokie

          “She’s my only child, you know, and I’m grateful she will be closer to home,” said Hal Saversohn, setting aside his brief case, dispatching his daughter, sitting down across from me with a piping double mug. “Little angel, she has had tough sledding from the start, basically took care of us from the very moment her dear mother passed away, rest her soul.”

          “I know, sir,” I replied weakly, watching Moon retreat in a mortified huff to the garage for more sorting. “She told me about being the lady of the house, starting in junior high school. I guess that’s what makes her so special, huh?”

          “Yes, preciously special,” he took my measure like a lathe master with his micrometer. “So, man-to-man, what’s going on with you two?”

          “Intentions…well, we’re working that all out as we speak. This move has been a little…awkward…”

          “Tell me about awkward, son,” he sighed, yanking loose his necktie and rubbing his fully receded hairline. “I had to learn about this from Faith Mendel, of all people. She phoned me right after hearing from that spoiled wildcat daughter of hers. Apologized for the unforeseen turn of events between our little girls.”

          “Really…” Our? That kind of connection came as headline news to me, subdividing my perspective even further. In some respects, I recognized I was in the driver’s seat situation-wise, yet was ready and more than willing to relinquish the wheel. At once I felt wanted and wounded, roguish and repentant, free rein and responsible—virile, full of vigor, yet vanquished—sweating and hollow to the core. “Well, it’s not quite what you hear, believe me.”

          “I hope not, son, for your sake, as well as Melissa’s, read me? She’s been through enough already in her young life. And that’s not how a man treats such a fine young woman where I come from,” he tapped my forearm. “Just remember, you can’t always get what you didn’t really want in the first place. But you might get more than you dared bargain for. So I’m sure you’ll do what’s right by her.”

          “I’m getting right on the case to square all this away, Mr. Saversohn, right as rain. You needn’t worry one bit.” Hadn’t a clue what to make of that, but I couldn’t help but respect and like the guy. Still, taken together, these exchanges prompted a retreat to his den, then an extension phone call and speed dial decision, slamming down the receiver once Melissa softly knocked her way into the room.

          “It’s my folks, Moon,” I sputtered, “mom’s taken a turn for the worse…”

          “Sorry to hear that, Kenny,” she said cautiously. “I hope you passed along my best wishes to her.”

          “Yeah, actually it was my dad on the line again. And I’m going to head down and see her for myself…”

          “Good idea, just get back here so we can work on our plans and stuff.”

          “Right, well…this may take me a while…”

Care for more?

 Chapter 36. Back in the driver’s 
seat, hitting the streets, a return trip 
to the old family turf finds skeletons 
ultimately playing the tune…