“Mother is an angel
felled by illness and pain—
“One in a million…”
“Pure goodness and light…an absolute guardian angel called home.”
“Yes, that’s for sure.”
“Patience of a saint, that one. God rest her soul. Dear Muriel’s in a better place now…”
Novena devotions and well-wishing abounded; still, she never had a prayer. We got the call barely hours before surgery, so dad and I rushed over to the Holy Sacrament waiting room to settle in for the long haul. But not long after mom went under the knife, her vital signs took a critical dive. Her heart succumbed to the anesthesia and thoracic trauma, and she flat lined in no time.
From the moment a staff surgeon pulled off mask and mirror, loosened green scrubs on his way into the waiting room, life on and about Francisco Avenue was one dark, mournful blur. Wake at 63rd Street and California Avenue, service at nearby St. Helene’s Church, funeral at a plot out in Prairie Crossing: We then decided to gather for this remembrance celebration back here at the flat.
Assembled were many more relatives and friends from mom’s side, although I did catch a fleeting cameo by Uncle Dellis. Parlor back to the kitchen, Bridgeport to Willow Grove, sisters, aunties, nunks, neighbors, nuns, pew mates and cousins of varying degrees shared love and memories of mother Muriel, over sliced ham sandwiches, macaroni salads, cole slaw and spreads of indescribably delicious potluck dishes, candles burning on every table and counter—as the tears and tributes flowed from every direction.
I barely knew these people anymore, yet could but take it all in and marvel at the range of folk she had so humbly touched and/or enriched. Perhaps the only faces missing from this woolen coat, shiny suited ensemble were Kay and Arnold Rosen, tacitly uninvited despite their most generous encomium. While Melissa was quietly excused from duty for her own unassuming sake.
“I’ll always remember how funny she could be,” said Uncle Liam, slapping ham slices to rye.“Like her Fibber McGee and Molly thing—talking on and on about Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve coming out of that wacky closet …how she’d mock Tini and Abigail Uppington back then…”
“Or that she was just as big a fan of the Goldbergs in those days,” Auntie Florence added, handing him the mustard.
Fibber who? These anecdotes from a kitchen klatch reminded me how unusually older my parents were when I came along. Mom had been sickly for so long, a family physician had advised her not to be risking pregnancy. Then came the war, the doctors’ draft, and another, an OB type, had taken over her case. And after some postwar regimen and treatment, he determined that a single childbirth was worth the risk, weaker sperm counts or no.
So I often felt rooted in a different time and frame; I came along later, so tended to start things…later. Beginning early on, I’d fretted at the sound of every fire siren for Willow Grove’s volunteer force, that their ambulance was coming for my fragile, gray-haired mother. And on one holiday occasion, they actually did, responding to her head-cracking fall on some sidewalk ice—pulled me out of gym class, grade school to emergency room.
It was a Christmas and New Years my father and I spent alone: woeful tree, eating out, saying very little to one another, save for visits to her hospital bedside. Otherwise, he habitually let her do the talking, except when major decisions arose, or he came home loaded to the gills.
Thus the highballs he and some of the blokes had started tossing down around the funereal dining room table brought back similar bouts when the dour, reserved Scot in him would deign to drink and mix it up with Mom’s more ‘looby’ Irish kin (yeah, you know, gotta look out for them shifty micks…). At times like this, there was no corking his jug, bottled up gripes and jibes pouring forth like half-gallons of Meister Brau and jiggers of Old Grand Dad. These were the lubed, lugubrious evenings when I begrudged him the most, mom keeping her distance, gesturing me to zip it—steeping tea, chain smoking and rolling her eyes.
So now, as even the tipsy family laggards had staggered out under the weight of their laments and slobbering recollections, I went about snuffing the scattered candles, commencing the clean-up detail. Between trips to the kitchen and garbage cans, I kept tabs on my dad, still sitting there at the dining room table, sipping at some warm Brau, looking lost as Tornado Alley targets after a twister had passed through. The night wearing on toward 2400 hours, I paused to ask him if there was anything I could get him, how he was holding up. But apparently my timing couldn’t have been worse.
“Yah, bring you mother back to help me here, that’s what,” he slurred, tossing down the rest of his beer, slamming his pilsener glass against the snack cluttered table. “But you can’t do that, now, canya…”
“Uh, no, dad—that I can’t do,” I busily scooped up the few potluck-smeared plates and platters the gathered hadn’t already so mourningly help remove. “But I wish more than anything that I could.”
“Well, you sure had no trouble taking her away, now did ya, mister know-it-all.”
“Come on, you know I was only…”
“Only forcing me into a hair-brained scheme that killed her,” he cried, relighting his pipe. “My wife would still be here today you’d left well enough alone! And that’s the god’s honest truth!”
“But she wasn’t well enough.” I stormed into the kitchen, arms loaded with a sinkful of dishes and party debris. “You heard what the doctors said, as well as I did. Something had to be done, dammit, that tough decision had to be made around here!”
“Hmph, around here,” dad said, pouring another round of Meister Brau as I returned to clear the table. “She was everything to me around here…what am I supposed to do around here now? Or around this damn neighborhood at that?!”
“Why, from what mom told me, you should feel right at home in Chicago Lawn these days, especially in Marquette Park.” There I went, blurting again without forethought. “And maybe you should have figured that out when your were belittling and browbeating her all these years.”
“What was that? Is this about her and her blamed religion? I don’t know what she ever told you about me, son, but I’ve never meant anybody any harm by it. Only my way of needling a little, that’s all—spouting off a bit after hearing all the nagging and paying the bills. Just remember, a man makes decisions and takes the heat because he’s the one who has to make them. Maybe now you’re finding that out for yourself…”
“Nevermind…” I plowed past scattered furniture toward the living room with a turquoise Tupperware dishpan. What the hell, go blaming this on me, for chrissake…
I rationalized that maybe it was just the booze talking, to quell any further unwise-ass damage on my part—no point in that. Whatever, the image of my father sitting there so hapless and hopelessly empty frightened me to the quick, although I wasn’t quite sure why. I set aside the pan before tackling a parlorful of used goblets, napkins, dishware and ashtrays, seeking a refreshing blast of cold night air.
What with everything going on, we hadn’t checked the mail for a day or two, reason enough to head downstairs for the front doors. A turn of the postal key opened a slot jammed with junkmail and several envelopes—condolence cards mostly. But then there was an oversized pink mailer that once again had been forwarded to me by way of Boulder. This one was postmarked from San Francisco, the return address reading, Sydney Mendel.
“And you think this is the solution?”
“Uh, yes—under the circumstances…”
“I can imagine what you’re going through now, your mother, and all…”
“I want to thank you for the floral piece, by the way.”
Sydney’s card was actually an invitation to Destiny. That was the theme for an exhibition of her latest paintings, to be held in downtown San Francisco in the weeks to come—her Sutter Street gallery opening slotted for the end of the month. The mailer itself was a glossy coated white 18-point affair with vivid color reproductions of two recent works, nicely frame bordered and drop shadowed to the right.
The front cover displayed ‘Rabbits At The Rail’, a dog track motif likely inspired by her Florida days, only with jackrabbits chasing a small mechanical mechanical whippet. Gracing the back panel, rather provocatively so, was her finished portrait of Marin’s Aimee Pellimore.
Collated inside the invite was a hand-written note requesting my presence in no forgiving terms. Syd breezed on about how long nights by her lonesome in Athren’s studio, what with everybody back east, had yielded this career-boosting one-woman show. She’d said that everything else was going fantabulously for her out there, as though nothing had ever happened otherwise.
She somehow knew I was working in advertising, wrote that I would drive a Mercedes one day but wished I could make it to her gala opening, reminding me that the smart, talented people in Chicago leave. Syd PSed that she had something ‘really juicy family-wise’ to tell me about that would literally blow me away.
Her sign-off included a new return address, with a tiny sketch of the Golden Gate Bridge, the word, ‘Bygones’ passing underneath. Her entire package was scented and clearly sent from a different time zone, if not planet, one I was being welcomed, if not challenged to explore. She mused as how she had once envisioned us growing gracefully old together, no matter how long she’d have to wait. And how long ago that seemed by now
I had sort of expected a sweet-smelling invoice, but not an all-in voice like this. How, what—was this some kind of bunny trap? Nawww, why would she even bother? Best ever—wonder if she said that to all the guys. Still, I could not say Sydney’s invitation hadn’t grabbed my attention, turned my head 360 degrees around at dizzying rate, particularly that bodily scent. Her note read somewhere between a manifesto and a higher-living will—minus the bill of attainder. Off-guard couldn’t begin to describe my gut reaction; disembodied was more the guilt-unforsaken rage.
“Yes well, we take care of our own here,” said Ralph Wellen. “I just want to make clear the ramifications of a decision like this. I have, after all, gone out on a limb to open some doors for you, now haven’t I…”
“Of course you have, sir,” I said, handing him my typed memo, formalizing things. “And don’t for a moment think I don’t appreciate your faith in me.”
“Then what in Hades is this all about, Herbert? Are you not finding a comfort zone with your colleagues here? Have you not been meshing with you fellow creatives?”
“No, meshing we are, comfortably so, I might add,” I sputtered, folding my hands, fighting an anxious urge to take the letter back. “Although it does seem at times they believe I could be getting up to speed more quickly—like when it comes to rewrites and everything…or fitting in with the demographic shifts…”
“Oh, they are simply testing you, pushing you to see if you’re really up to FBC snuff. You’re the new kid in school, prime for some collegial hoops and hazing,” Ralph Wellen drew one last puff on his Meerschaum, setting the pipe aside into an Algonquin Hotel ashtray. “Now as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to come along swimmingly. And as long as I’m here, I’m the one who matters on the 16th floor.”
“I thank for that, really—which is what makes this so difficult. I just have some personal things I must take care of, and it’s going to take some time…”
“Very well, Herbert, but a man carries his own baggage, wherever it is he goes,” he rose from behind his desk, shaking his head in disbelief. “Tell you what, we’ll leave the door open a crack for you here. We’re always on the lookout for good long-form copywriters.”
“Thank you so much, Mr. Wellen, you don’t know,” I pumped his soft-form hand.
“Check in with personnel, and clear out your office, Herbert,” he seated himself, grabbing some storyboards for a :30 floor wax commercial. “But leave the desk and typewriter, if you please—we’ll carry on nonetheless…”
“Will do, sir. All best to you and Forrester, Blaine. Hope to work with you again down the road,” I said meekly, closing a door or two behind me, for better or worse.
“I’m doing just fine. Why is everybody so concerned about how I’m doing lately?”
“Yes, everybody. I got another call from Faith Mendel asking about me and catching up on things. Then Lester goes ringing me up again, all the way from his goofy farm like I’m on my deathbed, or something…oops, sorry about…”
“No sweat, Moon…water under the bridge…but the Mendels?”
“Tsk, it’s nothing, past history. Anyway—how are you holding up?”
“Me? Aww, not too bad, under the circumstances…”
“Well, at least you’ve got your work to take your mind off your mother situation, and thank you for the dinero, by the way,” Melissa said, acknowledging a money order I had sent her, finally squaring my little debt. “That’s what’s so great about Chicago. What else is there to do here but work hard and build something good and solid.”
I had skulked down through Pioneer Court, taking one long, departing glance at the Equity Center, office supply filebox in hand. With severance aforethought, I’d driven in, finding to my amazement an on-street parking place on E. Illinois in nearby Streeterville.
Having packed the box into the back hatch of my ailing Volks, I drifted up to Michigan Avenue once again, with a newfound admiration for the august beauty of the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, all these other formidable downtown hi-rises—yet all I kept picturing was that fascinating pyramid on the San Francisco skyline. I buttoned up my new fleece jacket over to the Magnificent Mile, a cold, cold Chicago winter, springtime taking the long, hard way around, such a far chant from Aimee Pellimore and her sunny, mellow Marin.
This friction precipitated an inboard debate along the way up to City front Plaza, voices rattling around my mucous runny melon like honeydew balls in marzipan. Not to overthink it, but what was with the quick decision—snaaap, really, autonomic fight or flight? Settled and settle or good to go? Going swimmingly, or afraid of turning sinkingly? Like taking chances, taking on the negative fears? Were you some kind of budding aesthete or just a common choke artist? Would rational reasoning or irrational fantasies rule the day; would it be sociology in practice or salesmanship in print—Skokie or the shock troops—can’t or Kant? Daley Machine pragmatism or Nietzschean detachment; abject nihilism or beyond good and evil, in service of the higher man? This was giving me nothing but impassable headaches, as was Cheap Trick’s newest number, ‘You’re All Talk’ on the FM radio. Had to get away from all this insanity—christ, maybe even back to the peàce de San Francisco Bay.
“Uh, about that, Moon,” I said hesitantly. “There’s been a little change there at Forrester, Blaine. I’ve kinda taken a leave of absence.”
“A leave? What have you taken, Kenny, leave of your senses?”
“No, I’ve thought this through. It wasn’t an easy decision, but there were just some dynamics at the agency that…”
“So, how do you figure that helps our cause? You’d better get up here so we can talk this out…maybe it’s not too late to take it back, don’t you think?”
“No, it’s pretty a done deal now, Moon. I’ve cleaned out my office and everything …at least for the time being.”
“Then how are we supposed to get our place, Kenny? I’ve registered for classes and it looks like maybe I’ve landed a day care job in Evanston. Things are really moving along here, so what are you going to do now? We’ve got to sort this out…”
“Sort it out, my thinking exactly,” I pressed, already feeling the dark shadow of dubious infidelity cleaving between us. “First thing, I’ve decided to head back to Boulder and get my stuff out of the shed, after all. That way, I can also get back on the road—you know, to clear my head.”
“That’s crazy talk, Kenny. What could be so urgent in Boulder? Let it be for now, we can pick that all up later, once we’re settled in here.”
“No, I’ve got to do this first. Christ, we never should have left Boulder in the first place. But now, there are some loose ends and things that need resolving out there, that’s all. Out and back, no biggie.”
“What things? I know you, Kenny—better than you know you, and I know what you’ll do. This sounds like nothing but trouble,” she plained, ‘Love Is Thicker Than Water’, playing on her bedroom radio. “Tsk, there’s more going on here, I just know.”
“C’mon, really…so you’re saying I can’t handle this myself? I’m not just some cowering little snow-shoveling cash cow. I’ve got lots of abilities, potential—you don’t know…”
Anyhow, friends and family: mom gone and dad alone. Dagger goddess or kinda plain? Heh, heh, come to think of it—not bad for a self-confessed Southside cad: surf city, two girls for every boy. Naw, that was crazy talk—but what if there was a catfight over me, if they kill one another on my account? Nope, abate, switch—whichever, a guy falls in love with a woman because of how he feels about himself when he’s with her, right? What your mind wants in a grudge match with what your body wants—neither, or both. So would you be more sensitive or stiffen your spine, stoke your anger in frustration or stifle it in freedom unbound? Aww, these women, always trying to tie down us rambler rover types—yeah, no mono here, not cut out for it, right? Peter Pan Principle, undying adolescence all the way, committing to not commit, feet as cold as the Hawk out here. Yeah, way to be, Dudley, take another fuck-up out of pity cash…
That thinking was really cold, all right, which had driven me to raise my core temperature over a couple of Hamm’s drafts down in the Billy Goat. There at the bar, I cast about at Royko, Kup, Ebert and the like: what was that about all the good people leaving Chicago—couldn’t tell that by here—arguably, it wasn’t the city, it was my situation, things being so subdivided and parceled out.
Royko himself was still holding court nearby, grousing on about how his Daily News was shutting down so he had to jump to the Trib or Times. Yet better to stay in the same riverfront ‘roach motel’ newspaper building or storm the Tower than, say, bailing out to ‘the world’s largest loony bin’, as he called California. A half schooner in, I spun on my barstool as Studs Terkel himself happened by, stopping as if he remembered me somehow.
I mentioned San Francisco; he spewed, don’t go feeding your neurosis in Sodom & Gomorrah. Irish, aren’t you, he asked. When I nodded, he handed me a small press clipping about this craggy old dame in Nevada who championed wild horses. Here, he’d spit aside some tip from his cigar stub, saying: go tell Mustang Maggie’s story, hack boy, try doing some good with your paper and pen. Then Studs strutted deeper into the belly of the Goat.
His challenge was enough to prompt another quick decision and phone call, but where? I downed my draft and drove north to the Ambassadors, first hitting the Pump Room, then worming down into the tunnel between Hotels, East and West, a fluorescent ambient lit passageway lined with top drawer notions, millineries and haberdashers, and a bank of discreetly quiet pay phones. If the Ambassadors were swell enough digs for Led Zep or Jagger and the Stones to ruin things, they were plenty good enough for me.
“Snow…cow…who said you were, Kenny…what are you talking about? Is it my fault, what did I do to…”
“You haven’t done anything, okay? It’s me—hack boy—there’s just inner tensions I have to work off, some things I have to face, to own up to if I’m going to be any good to anybody. It’s a guy thing, Moon—you just wouldn’t understand.”
“Hack boy?! Tsk, then come up here, explain it all. I’ve found this neat little coffee shop in downtown Skokie,” she pleaded, ‘You’re In My Heart’ playing on the background stereo. “We can talk stuff out, work through it together. We’ve got a good thing going, Kenny—don’t go doing something stupid, okay? Your problem is whatever you want, sooner or later you want the other. So quit turning corners on me, will you please?”
“That’s not true, and I don’t need you mothering all over me now. I’m not going wobbly on you, either,” I blurted, loose lips all over again. “Sorry, Moon, I’m a big boy, this is something I’ve got to face on my own terms. I can’t move forward with a part of me left hanging out west, and the last thing I want to do is hurt you…we’ll talk before I leave, okay…”
“What are you talking about? You can’t leave me here, just like that, Kenny, noooooooo!!!”
“Great, I hit the bull’s eye and you’re shootin’ blanks…”
“Hey, who says I’m shooting blanks?”
“You gettin’ away all free bird, and I’m left holding the mixed bag. Fuck, my parents find out, it’ll like to kill them…”
“So you going to give it up, or…”
Oops, there I went, blurting again, tongue ahead of mind/brain, minus my prefrontal cortex. But distraction had set in, Melissa’s plaintive ‘noooo’ still echoing through me like the haunting chord close after ‘A Day In The Life’. I had pulled out of Streeterville with a minor snootful ‘From the Land of Sky Blue Waters’, Stud’s Billy Goat challenge ringing just as achingly in my ears.
Steering up Michigan Avenue, wringing any heat I could out of the squareback’s vents, I more fully appreciated the magnificence of this mile, all the way past Water Tower Place, the Hancock and Playboy’s Palmolive beacon on this cold, gray day. Besides working up some powerful cognitive dissonance, I hit the Gold Coast hungry as hell for some fat local fare.
Putting my my taxicab shortcuts to good use, I cranked up Chicago’s brassy ‘Call On Me’ on the scratchy AM —then cut over Clark Street northward toward Wanky Weiners’ corner Vienna red-hots stand I’d come across in the Eugenie Triangle. A double chili-cheese dog and fresh-peeled fries: I was in saturated cholesterol nirvana with ‘Rubber Band Man’ on the dial. At least until I hit a brake-breaking patch of rocksalt-eroded potholes on Mohawk Street, where the weary squareback’s entire front end broke from its frame.
So there I parked and left the Volks just short of Armitage, facing a CTA ‘L’ ride to the South Side or freeze-ass hoofing it to the nearest of asylums, over on Cliftwood Avenue.
“Whoa, I shouldn’t have said that,” I muttered, having moved the conversation from my breakdown to Nathan Grimaldi‘s paternal developments, barely over the blare of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, parts I through V; he always was partial to Syd Barrett. “Sorry, Nate, that was totally out of line…”
“Forget it, no chance of that anyway,” moaned Natorious, pounding down a long-neck Carling’s in the hazy discomfort of his patchouli-incensed front room. “She’s gonna squeeze me tighter and tighter, no shit.”
“Then you’re going to be a dad, huh? Who knows, maybe he’ll be all-pro…”
“Yah, like maybe it’ll grow up to be president,” Nate said, reaching to change the cassette deck to his ripped side one, Alan Parsons Project’s ‘I Robot’.” Sorry about your mom, Heeb, I still remember her chocolate fudge cookies—could do some right about now. But howz other things on the Southside lately?”
“Uh, you know, on the march—more or less.”
“I hear ya—can’t hang with that Nazi crap,” Nate offered me a swig of his Black Label. “Sooo, you’re hittin’ the road again, after all…”
“Yeah, call it my western imperative, you know, just like when we used to groove on the Beach Boys and get loaded on trunked-in Coors to blotto out the blinding snow storms,” I obliged, getting a little lighter in the cranium. “Got some things to iron out…”
“In Frisco, right? What, you made your decision at Clark and Division?”
“No way, you’ve got me all wrong,” I huffed, noting his sly reference to Chicago’s main northside intersection of homo and sexual outside Andersonville and its fairy boys. “Closer to Clark and Armitage, that’s about where my clunker squareback just finally bit the dust.”
“Man, from all that chasin’ around. You and your Jewish chicks…”
“Just like you and your brown sugar,” I picked up on an out-of-sequence cut jump from the Parson Project’s ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You’ to ‘Day After Day’. “Anyway, I’m just aiming for Boulder, up and back…”
“And you need some fresh wheels,” Nathan smiled knowingly, sparking the longer of two ashtray roaches. “Well, Roscoe did leave behind his rustbox Volvo, and I’m tired of moving it around. Why don’t you futz with it a little and take that sucker?”
“You sure?” I hit an obligatory toke. “I mean, it would just be to borrow it—in Roscoe’s eternal honor. I’d be sure to get it back to you as soon as I’ve straightened all this out.”
“Sounds crazy to me, Heebert. Can’t see what you think’s so bad about Chicago, except that advertising shit’s too crypto-fascist for my tastes. But there’s better money to be made on the northside here, lots of it. Yah, just gimme a Dago Beef with onions, Black Label and dime bag in my crib—I’m all diggin’ it in the Rancho Triangle and Lincoln Park.”
“What can I say, Nate? I’m a destiny manifestarian—Colorado’s calling, let alone California…”
“Just make sure they ain’t callin’ collect…”
Care for more?
Chapter 44. Raking over some home fires,
taking to the road, that Boulder redux proves
too little, too late. Then after some cautionary
toll calls, a wanton westward thrust
meets with mounting resistance…
End of Stage Two (Chicago Suite).