“A mother complex
this time raging fore and aft—
sure to drive one daft.”
“Yes, we are attempting to better stabilize her vital signs. Temperature’s moderating, but we’re specifically desiring to get her blood pressure back up.”
“It’s sounding like my dad should be here and in on this now…”
“Might be best, for we are increasingly concerned about both her heart, and the possibility of a stroke.”
I had arranged to visit my mother at Holy Sacrament Hospital, and meet with a physician or two at her bedside. There she lay, in a third-floor double room, one day removed from the ICU. Sedated as a captured cougar, she was barely recognizable, what with the oxygen tent, breathing tubes and intravenous drips, glucose bags and saline solutions.
I saw no indication whatsoever that she knew me from the bedpan orderly, but I drew comfort from just being nearby for this short while. I gently tapped her tent frame, squeezed her veiny, liver-spotted hand just below the IV needle. But the beeping monitors, medicinal smells and ever whither hospital odor of excreted bodily fluids drove me to kiss her hand and turn away to follow her doctor out of the room. We paused in the meal cart and gurney filled hallway, where he counseled me on the calculated perils immediately ahead.
“Stroke,” I asked, glancing back in upon her critical-to-grave clinical scene. “Who said anything about strokes?!”
“During surgery, while she is hooked up to life support,” said the cardiologist, marking his chart. “Your mother’s circulation is both constricted and distended at certain tenuous points.”
“So her pipes are as bad off as her pump. Have you told my father about all this?”
“He was apprised of the situation as of last evening, but not since,” nodded the physician, walking me toward the elevators, evaluating my reaction thus far. “It’s like the old family car, machinery not well maintained tends to wear out in an untimely manner.”
“You’ll keep us posted,” I asked meekly, barely over the background clatter of intercom directives and alerts.
“Just as soon as we are prepping to operate…and we’ll do what we can for your mother.”
“Here’s my office number again, doctor,” I handed him a corner slip of yellow legal paper. “In the event…”
“Yes,” the doctor tucked the paper scrap onto his clipboard. “In the event.”
Old cars—I could relate, having nursed my squareback into a German import garage down on 63rd Street, the only metric repair shop within limping distance for some last-gasp patchwork: Any gasket and grease rack job that might enable me to wring a few more kilometers or miles out of the tired Volkswagen. Meanwhile, dad and I had commiserated over mom’s life and death circumstances: me assuring him that she would marshal all her Irish luck and pluck to fight her way back to health; he recounting all her pestering relatives who had rallied to her cause. Then came the insurance forms that needed filling out if his city employee healthcare was to cover this technically elective ordeal.
Once we had seen tentative eye to eye over the kitchen table, he resigned himself to the back porch for a princely pipeful. He muttered that if he had it to do over again, he’d bring his wife home right now—that he’d never been cut open like this, didn’t want that for his better half no matter what.
I instead made for the front room, just in time for ‘Mork & Mindy’ on the tube, which reminded me as how I had left so many of my books and other belongings in that Boulder cabin shed, stuff that suddenly seemed more important somehow. Next up was another ‘Streets of San Francisco’ rerun, the one featuring Detectives Stone and Keller combing Pacific Heights, Lafayette Park in particular, for some South Bay serial killer. Rang true to me, anxiously, adrenally so, especially a long shot of the park’s panorama walkway; had me squinting at the zoom-in for a lost Satalisman possibly surfacing alongside. The episodic shoot-out then made me wonder where Sydney might be about now, and whether she’d be taking that stroll with others or going it alone.
“So you’ve got to keep this under your hat, professional discretion, strictly hush hush … ”
“Well, sure, why would I spill anything, much less to whom?”
“I’m only showing you because you’ve spent some time out there yourself.”
“That I have, not a whole lot, but…let’s just say I got a taste of the place.”
For this late in the winter, a brutal cold wave had descended by way of Manitoba and Saskatoon. I had piled off a CTA Michigan Avenue express at the Sheraton stop amid a busload of bundled-up white collar commuters, shivering under road-worn sheepskin in the face of what Chicagoans trepidly referred to as The Hawk. Green river, Pioneer Court and surrounding skyscrapers formed a wind tunnel of sorts, wherein lake-fed blasts gained frigid force and velocity, all but airlifting pedestrians along as it barreled down Michigan Avenue, tightening its icy noose around Streeterville at the ringent shoreline curve along Oak Street Beach.
I’d thrashed and re-stepped my way into the Iniquity Center, unbuttoning my warmest winter coat in the elevator up to 16, where Andrea Dudic and most everyone else on the creative floor looked at me like I was there to raff through the trash baskets. Slipping into my office to trade sheepskin for sport coat, I followed Bob Gelvart’s fetching finger into his larger chamber, several closed doors downhall. There, he stood me before a large easel stand, preparing to flip over a charcoal paper cover sheet.
“Ta da!” Gelvart uncovered the easel with a flourish, beaming like a fresh-faced cigarette sample pusher down on the Mag Mile. “My pièce de résistance…”
“Whoa…” I was suddenly privy to Pantone colorful workups for a full-page ad, P.O.P. display poster and two-scored, six-panel brochures.
“Only Lacey and Castalone have seen it—Larry helped me with the art,” Gelvart gloated like a newborn’s dad, stroking back his Vitalised hair. “Haven’t settled on the final killer headline yet. Am only at the rough stage, something like, ‘For Nerves of Steal’—still working on that.”
“Well, it would just be the cherry on top…” Curiously impressed, I didn’t know what else to say at this point, but that it all was rendered so…handsomely.
“The concept is Bandito Tequila—as the person, the legend. There’s this entire story built around an outlaw cat who once swept Mexico with his own brand of bootleg hooch. Riches, women, he had it all, until he was gunned down by revenuers near Guadalajara. His recipe died with him, until it was recently unearthed in an archeological dig—get it? Now we’re bringing that legendary rotgut back to life.”
“Wow, what a tradition,” I scanned the blocked-in brochure copy. “Where’d you discover all this?”
“Discover’s not the conceit,” Gelvart grinned mischievously. “Devise is more like it —right in here.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s all a crock, that’s how. I dreamed it up on my Barco Lounger, one night when everybody else had cleared out. The idea first came to me on a vacation trip to Mazatlan—have quietly run with it from there.”
“So, what about the product, the tequila itself?”
“We’ll have a distiller cook it up,” Gelvart smacked. “Then the client can contract it out south of the border. See, the importer is based in Frisco, and the account side might actually handle it out of there. On paper, we’d do the Midwest launch, but my plan is to blow them away with the pitch, so that maybe we could land the entire national campaign. Think they’d go for it in San Fran? I’d go feel it out myself, but California and I don’t mix—I’d never get any work done out there.”
“Dunno,” I tried to picture a snow job like this sticking around the Bay, at least as I remembered it. “Wish I could go back out there and see.”
“So, why don’t you,” Gelvart replied, re-covering his pet project. “Because you really don’t seem totally on board here. And if you’re not cut out to be gunning for Phil Richmond’s office, what’s the point? You’ve got to want that office, speed. Me? I aim to own the place, and I’m going to see this campaign through if it kills me.”
“Can’t say I haven’t thought about it, believe me,” I glanced out the window at a lake bordering on Zamboni territory. “But that’s water under the bridge.”
“So why not truck out there and starve for a while,” said the more seasoned ad man. “You’ll catch on somewhere…”
“Because it’s tough out there, that’s why,” Lacey countered, as she entered his office, today’s pantsuit finished in greener tones. “Take it from personal experience. Chicago tries to keep people here—the city works, then plays. San Francisco tries just as hard to keep people out. The Bay Area is all play, with a little work thrown in.”
“Maybe that’s what makes it interesting,” Castalone added, joining in from next door with black turtleneck and gray wide-wale cord bells on. “Challenge-wise—kinda like New York on acid…just like Chicago’s the Big Apple on ’ludes.”
“Sure,” Gelvart grudged, wearing his Second City pride on his double-knit tan raglan sleeve. “Just like New York is Chicago on bad smack. And it’s not Chicahgo, it’s Chicawgo. Isn’t that right, speed?”
“Don’t ask me. All I know is I got mugged in New Yawk once…”
“We didn’t collaborate, we fought for our homeland.”
“But you sympathized. The Vilnius killing forests, pigs’ heads and bloody swastikas at Kaunas synagogues—admit it, Lithuania and Latvia were both in cahoots with the Nazis. And what about the Ukraine and Babi Yar?”
“Agh, you’re a bleedin’ Jewess. You think you’re the chosen people, think you’re better than the rest of us!”
“See you on Holocaust Remembrance Day, you retarded Gestapo goons…”
There were some things I had to sort through again, items that demanded more furious vetting and assessment. I had hunkered down, caught up significantly on my FBC inbox, and so Archer Expressed south to Chicago Lawn. Head aspinning, vapor locked, all else around Francisco Avenue having failed, I shorted and sweatshirted up for another frosty jog into Marquette Park. I could see and feel my breath like icicle daggers along Mann Drive, largely deserted until I hit the lagoon’s backstretch over on the Kedzie Avenue side.
Again, Frank Fuhrery’s crusaders had assembled about the Redfield Drive turn, outfitted in Luftwaffe-era parkas, drab green save for the requisite red armbands. The neo’s were apparently drilling for an upcoming procession honoring Hitler’s birthday, if not to push the button on Operation Skokie up Edens Expressway north.
By this time, they had drawn further attention from some outlier White Alliance supremos, either Michigan militia types or more RAHOWA warriors with a Baader-Meinhof complex. Slowing my pace out of chronic socio-curiosity, I could detect the presence of another small contingent from the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture over on Pulaski, cautiously exploring the nature and dimensions of this increasingly notorious movement roiling the neighborhood anew.
Facing them off was another cell of activists from the progressive Chicago Freedom camp, mouthpiece for whom being a slight, resolute woman from the Hyde Park ward, in a maroon U of C varsity jacket and pink pedal pushers, not giving one inch to the revolting putsch men before them.
This entire scenario was getting uglier and old, the cross-group dynamic deadlock cold, to where I wanted to brain the lot of them with a big Iron Cross. But pre-frontally throttled, I sprinted away along Redfield Drive before the squadrols arrived—slowing around the lagoon, Kanst Drive and aviator monument at California Street, back to my parents’ flat. Once again, I couldn’t for the life of me believe I had Saturned back down in Chicago Lawn, and my head was scrambling further at the very notion of somehow belonging here, veritably or vocationally.
A running mile ventured, but nothing gained in terms of clarity, I avoided everything except Mork and Streets of San Francisco on the front room TV: dad, dinner, even the daily mail. At least until word came down from Holy Sacrament that mom was prepped and in a holding pattern for the knife: Looked like godawful decision time had come once more.
“She’s gone…long gone.”
“But y-you said there was some time to…”
“Time doesn’t stand still, son—even for you.”
“Sooo, there’s no way I can…”
“I gave you your chance, didn’t I? But I couldn’t sit still on a beaut like this. The young woman came along, loved the place, no dilly-dallying—settled the deal on the spot. Put it all down in cash within an hour. Like my dear, departed husband used to joke: ‘Are you good at making decisions? Well, yes and no’,” said Mrs. Tovello, on a snowy phone line. “Sorry, but she made a quick decision, try it some time.”(CLICK).
One door left slightly ajar, another door slammed. I really didn’t know where I stood with Forrester, Blaine at this point, and maison Eugenie was back in the bottle. Then, another pressure drop and a sudden build-up of fluid in mom’s charred lungs pushed the pause button on her scheduled surgery—which, given everything, prompted me to hit a fast forward button of my own.
Decisions, yeah, try it sometime. But what was I supposed to do about this now? Can’t live there, sure as hell can’t stay here, especially when I might have been a whole lot better off out there. Skokie, West Rogers Park—how does that square with the jerks circling around Marquette Park’s lagoon? Anyway, what good does a studio walk-up do if Moon’s baking a bun. Mom, dad—motherhood, fatherhood, for chrissake! God forbid, how’s that supposed to work if I can’t hold a job you’re not sure you’re even cut out for, speed? You want that corner office, even if it kills you? But what if you don’t want to be cornered by that office?! Are you writing your own script here, or just following one by or for somebody else? Do you have character, or are you just a pathetic caricature of your sad, sorry self?
My brain felt like it was slapping back and forth against my cranial hockey boards. Really, time for détente, a little summit of the principals, a meeting of the interested minds—the party or parties involved—right around dinnertime, after a few hours at FBC, pounding out brochure copy, provided she was willing to meet me halfway.
“So, then they said I could even register for summer session, isn’t that great?”
“Wow, you’re really on top of it, huh?”
“See, things are all coming together so fast for us here.”
The halfway point was Vercelli’s, a thoroughly Chicago-style postwar-born pizzeria on Dearborn Street, just off Huron. The deep-dish delight was housed in one of the dwindling stand-along brick stick Victorians on the rapidly redeveloping Near North side, red/white/green striped awnings on its vertical windows, dormered attic crown cast in Sicilian flat black. Inside, the décor was rather retro Italian metro: stamped metal ceiling, checkerboard tile trimmed against mahogany-stained panel and exposed brick walls lined with framed prints of the boot heel and Sardinia.
We caught a table toward the rear, under a display shelf of culinary awards, roundball trophies and various Corsagna and Venetia kitsch from the old country. Among Vercelli’s Eisenhower-era anachronisms were diner-style chrome jukeboxes on every table; we were seated by a harried, white blouse on black-skirted waitress, to the stereo piped-in tune of ‘You Light Up My Life’.
“All?” I glanced about at upper wall relic signs from Wrigley Field and Chicago Cardinals versus Bears.
“I got my period, Kenny—end of that story…for now, anyway.”
“Aww, Moon, are you all right?” Better late than…relief washed over me, like the day I drew an army assignment to Germany instead of The Nam. No honey trap here; time to hold fire—for now, anyhow.
“Tsk, I’m fine,” Melissa sighed, with something of an empty smile. “But we could still use that extra bedroom, like for a study, or…”
“Well, for sure, Moon, that makes sense all right…” A tighter fit, closing in, closing in way too close. I took a deep sip of the wine cooler our waitress had just dropped by. Some patron over at the bar had plunked more coinage into one Vercelli’s counter-top jukeboxes, flipping through the play lists, picking of all things a couple of numbers from that aging Paul Simon dirge-a-thon.
“I mean, with the animules and everything…”
“Yeah, everything…back,” I blurted, out of left field—that would be the Waveland Avenue side, as ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ began tracking. “Gotta get back…”
“We will, Kenny, we will get back to normal here real soon…just like we did in Boulder.”
“No, I’m talking about heading back out west, getting my stuff in that shed. Out, like that…”
“What? I told you, I’m not putting myself through that again.”
“I know, I know. It’s mostly my stuff anyway. That’s why I’ll just go by myself…”
“Tsk, I don’t like the sound of that, at all,” she said, stirring a sugar cube into her iced tea. “I’m thinking we’d better re-think that idea first, take in all the perspectives…”
What made Vercelli’s pies so addictive was the buttery two inch-thick crust heaped with every imaginable topping, roasted red peppers to kalamata olives, then smothered with a gooey blanket of mozzarella cheese like snowpack on Piz Bernina. We had ordered a Primo Veggie, with the works: full-bore garden, only with feta and Romano on a nine-grain crust—all good and healthy, smiled Melissa.
She was already spreading out a red linen napkin, so as not to stain her crème muslin tunic with chunky tomato sauce. She wore a burgundy paisley headscarf, Fay Dunaway-like, to match her ankle-length skirt. When she dressed this way, I callously pictured her years along sometimes, a bubbie in a shapeless winter coat and bubushka, not unlike my…mother, which reminded me to ring up Holy Sacrament.
“Let me ask you something, Moon. Do you follow the news up there in Skokie?”
“Just the local craft center articles,” she replied, as we split a field green salad with goat cheese and glazed walnuts, heavy on the blueberry-pomegranate vinaigrette. “You know I’m not a newsy kind of person. Although dad did wrangle me into watching all four parts of the ‘Holocaust’ on his newfangled VCR. Horrifying miniseries, a real eye-opener—I mean, we never talked much about all that growing up. But why do you…”
“Just wondering…you know, making conversation, changing the subject, so to speak,” I rambled, oblivious being better, ignorance for the best. “Forget about it, eat up—great salad, huh?”
Still stabbing at the bowl, we were somewhat startled to see that waitress delivering drinks and a sizzling pizza pan much sooner than expected, particularly for a bustling early Saturday night; apparently we had arrived just ahead of the dinner rush. Melissa brushed off her offer to dish out two slices—professional courtesy of a kind. I just wished they hadn’t hit E3, and I didn’t have to try tuning out a ‘50 Ways…’ encore.
“Who put this crazy idea in your head, anyway,” she asked, taking over the serving knife.
“About the news?” I then downed some romaine with a splash of cooler, craving some sausage or pepperoni, accompanied by Simon’s blasted staccato chorus.
“No, about heading back out west.” Moon expertly cut the small pizza into trim quarter slices, feeding me a sample bite across the table.
“Me, I did—all by my lonesome, who else?” At least the tune changed to spoony Peter Frampton, but that didn’t stop ‘I Did It For Your Love’ from replaying through my memory track.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” she frowned, placing two sticky quarter wedges methodically on our respective plates like she was back serving her steak and kidney pie in our Boulder cabin—those Coach Light meatier days, how long ago was that? “You’re not going wobbly on us again, are you?”
“Wobbly? Me? C’mon, you know me, no chance of that…” I took to counting the tulip-bulb shaded overhead lighting fixtures, reflecting off that medallion copper ceiling, shadowing the long, now-packed room, ‘Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’ next playing, C6.
“I never forget that our relationship has been built on no strings or expectations from the start. But I just feel this is an ill-advised venture, all the way around. I mean, we’ve got to keep you up on the balance beam, don’t we?”
“Aww, it’s just something I’ve been pondering, Moon—purely hypothesizing. No need to get all bent out of shape over it,” I said, watching her tuck all that string cheese neatly around my pizza wedge, as I struggled to close the window on Simon’s ‘You’re Kind, so kind’, now coursing through my basal ganglia. “Besides, I’ve got enough on my mind, with my mom, and all.”
“Tsk, don’t you think I understand how scary her situation is. I mean, it’s not like I never went through something like this with my own mother when I was a fifth your age. I just want to make sure you don’t go bananas over it,” she did the same with her slice, nicely tidy and…triangular. “So, when’s surgery now?”
“If I only knew,” I sighed, picking off some eggplant and caramelized onions, mom seeping like low-fat balsamic into my head. “But great ’za, huh? But we don’t have to eat it all here. You’ll be wanting to doggie bag some of it with you?”
No, you go ahead,” she said, sucking on a plum tomato, her knee rubbing up against mine. ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going To’ began tracking, J7. “I can make even better pies myself, remember?”
I took her up on that, asking our passing waitress to sack me two remaining slices as Melissa and I finished off our drinks. I moved over to the cashier to cover the check, but Moon insisted on calculating, leaving the tip—sisterly holdover from her Coach Light Inn days. We emerged onto Dearborn Street through what by now had become a half-block wait line around the corner on west Huron.
We’d found a tight little pre-rush parking space for her Toyota, and she offered to drive me back to where she had picked me up: the taxi zone outside Pioneer Court. I coaxed an extra couple of stops over on State Street, on the verge of becoming a mall, where I could connect with an Archer Owl bus to Chicago Lawn. En route, we caught up on some Seamus and Pags, how well the pets were acclimating under the circumstances, and that her father was genuinely taking to my Setter.
I didn’t know whether that was good or bad news at the moment, being more preoccupied with how cold and windy it had once again turned here near Lake Michigan. I lingered with her a bit at the corner of Madison Street, across from Louis Sullivan’s tendriled black cast iron and terra cotta façade of Carson, Pirie, Scott, advising her how to swing around again at Dearborn, grabbing Ontario Street to the Kennedy Expy and Edens north back to Skokie. Part of me wanted to ride along with her, yet a slightly more assertive voice had me low tailing it south to Francisco Avenue.
“You going to be okay?” she asked, turning down the ‘Have You Ever Been Mellow?’ as I leaned over to rub her shoulder. “I miss us…”
“Me too, but I think it’ll all sort out—one day at a time…”
“Tsk, this is all so weird and unnecessary, you know.”
“Weird isn’t the word…” I kissed her softly, then opened the car door, resigned to slip sliding away, Primo sack in hand, to the sidewalk saunter streams, though not entirely sure why—looking for a sign, any sign: CTA bus stop would do.
“Then tell me, Kenny, what is?”
Care for more?
Chapter 43. An untimely passing, then the
taking of an ill-conceived leave. Breaking
the news of an abrupt change of plans
hastens a breach with the dearly departed…