by Don Dussault
The white-haired guy looks old enough to remember the second President Roosevelt. Needs a haircut, I notice, so do I. You can tell he had a powerful voice in the old days. It's still strong enough you can ignore the occasional hollow quavers. "... living in the richest and most powerful nation in history, after four score and sixty more years of advances in technology, all kinds of technology, inventing new technologies every year, just about every week..."
Wearing the best shirt in my diminishing wardrobe and my only presentable jacket, with a bunch of dimes left of my total cash resources including bank accounts of which I own none, I was walking home after my best shot at a big break. Amazing sometimes the kinds of places you can call home.
Through long summer days I meandered through a catch-all of Chicago sidewalk doorways, pessimistic storefronts and a cacophony of animal, vegetable and prehistoric smells, among noncommittal faces of all colors and ages. Dismembered automobiles rust in silence behind a high fence of bare boards. Dried-yellow newspapers taped over the windows on the inside of the little corner market to shade the aging produce from direct sun give it a permanent closed look. Barroom conversations culminate in commiseration with someone else out of work, while we nurse our beers. As the fall cold and dark advance into afternoons, I seek comfort in the room I share with a collective of noises. Whenever I walk across my kitchen, the refrigerator jacks up the pitch of its rattle, a habit it has, finicking with its sound. Opening the refrigerator door shifts it into other frequencies. It anticipates approaching trains. Rumbling three feet from my second-story window the elevated trains turn my room into a concert hall with an orchestra warming up. A spoon might tinkle in a cup, the instant coffee jar tap tap tap against the cocoa can. The old woodframe windows creak and clatter as if trying to get loose and fly off. Dishes in the sink clatter. The refrigerator pizzicatoes whatever is inside it. Passing trains hurl crescendos into the room. Once during my morning coffee I heard purring. A cat had gotten in? The door and window were shut. No cat in the room, under the table. Then I noticed an almost empty jelly jar shaking on the small breadboard on the table. The breadboard, warped, was quaking to the rattle of the refrigerator. I'm alone too much. My friend down the hall, Leland, has moved to Cicero. Picking up my weekly pittance in the office offers few opportunities to socialize, with eagle-eyed bosses watching, fiercely protecting employees against time-wasting distractions. On Sundays my habit is to pocket a sandwich and an apple and wander to various neighborhoods, sit in parks, stroll along the lake. During the cold fall rains I stay in and read at my kitchen table, in library books or newpapers and magazines people toss away. I cast solemn glances at dark skies hanging above the tracks and the rain blackening the elevated crossties.
"... our wonderful nation. The best. We like to say so and hear ourselves saying so. Wealth beyond our dreams. It's all here, right? With our unprecedented prosperity, living in the richest and most powerful nation in history, how can I stand before you and announce we are now at a crossroads?"
The day before I heard those words I figured I was on a road I had to get off of, somehow. Painting names on mugs isn't easy. On my first tries horizontal strokes teetered at different slants. Some letters lurched too high or too low and curved sides bent them fat or skinny. The differences from the norm were slight but visible. The fat man who selects new employees for the novelty company said of my samples, "Not too bad. Drop in tomorrow morning for more practice. Get the hang of it and we'll put you on piece work in the afternoon."
Though slow, business is expected to pick up during the year-end holidays. I work five days a week, three or four hours a day, yanking the whatever-it-is- coffee mug, shaving mug, stein, toy, coin bank, ceramic cowboy or cowgirl- from the open addressed carton and painting on it the first name or nickname of the customer who'd ordered it from the catalogue. Most everything the company makes sports bright colors, so I use the prescribed white enamel paint. I can savor my movements as I reach for objects and position them on the long table and dip my brush and hesitate it on the rim of the paint jar to let excess run off and then guide the brush-end over smooth surfaces. On good days I get a mild high from doing it cleanly and well. Or maybe I'm inhaling paint fumes.
One night waking from fitful sleep I found myself peering into offblack darkness. Had something woken me? I hadn't slept long. I lay on my back and remembered coming in after dark and, without bothering to fix dinner, flopping on my bed. I caught on to some movement in the room, on the bed itself, silent. Tiny white flecks swarmed over me and while I stared they floated and undulated. My breathing went heavy, my shirt clinging cold. Jumping up I turned on the lamp on the dresser. Nothing on the sheet or blanket or pillow, nothing. Flicked off the light. Still nothing on the bed. Glancing down, I saw them again, the white flecks, all over me. Dare to touch them? Brush them off? Flipping the lamp switch again I saw my jeans and workshirt spotted with white paint. Fluorescent paint!
Until then I'd seen myself as a kind of Johnny Appleseed strewing across the nation, on shelves of machine-made bric-a-brac, touches of human warmth from my own hand. Gifts unwrapped in happy anticipation would proclaim with pride, this is for you! The urgency of being: it may verge on unbearable when across the country as lights go out, objects bearing my personal blessing, perched on shelves, mantels, baby cribs, cupboards, in closets and attics, call the names of their owners in unrelenting perpetuity, announcing their presence invited or not. I've become a purveyor of tackiness no darkness can conceal. No artist or warrior, I know a Rubicon when I see it. The job demands just enough random hours to prevent me from getting other part-time work. I earn my instant coffee, bread alleged to be one day old, dusty vegetables on sale, occasional chicken parts and the rent for this room by the tracks, where I can't afford to leave. I spacewalk, without advancing nor stepping sideways. Chicago's got to offer better than this.
Like LuEllen (when I looked up from lying in my bed with a book) pageboy-cut dirtyblonde hair, small breasts, skimpy vertical streak of pubic hair, not too skinny, plain pleasant face, shivering standing in my room, me: "I've never seen you in this building," her arms folded across her chest, "It's cold out," huddling against me, "You're what, sixteen?" "Eighteen," dubious, "Who are you?" "I seen you come in for your paychecks," Oh, right, in the office, cute, mousy, "Where's your clothes?" "I gave them to charity." ?? Sure, the charity store bag outside the manager's door, "Do you like me?" serious vague eyes, women falling into my lap? my luck, she's a nut.
Still shivering, haul out the pot of vegetable soup in the fridge, it's an onion, carrots, celery, green leaves, and while she spoons hot soup I'm downstairs digging out an overcoat, dress and her or someone else's underwear, trains roaring past my window, she rushes over, raises it wide, leans out into the dark December night, touching the crossties, gleeful, "They're shaking," me grabbing her waist to keep her from falling while mouth open, eyes enraptured she soaks up the meatgrinder advancing on the outer track, and swirling in frantic winds behind the train bits of icy snow swept off the crossties sting our faces, and I pull her away and slam the window down, glum letting me help her put on her shoes and her camelhair coat, stuffing her stockings and underwear in the pockets, walking her out to the nearest station and waiting with her for a train and her not looking at me even once, never seeing her again, my heroic too-sensible loss...
Like the white-haired man says, "...we working folk wonder where the Hell is all this wealth we see in slick magazines and on teevee. None of it's in our pockets. Workers are in thrall to the big money..."
Someone calls out, "What's a thrall?"
"...flows up, doesn't trickle down..."
"What's this thrall we're in? How's about using normal words!"
I go tense. Two uniformed cops how many cops does this city have anyway? are killing their watch a few yards down the diagonal sidewalk by a ten-foot pale-yellow fountain with water bubbling up and overflowing the rim, coursing and sheeting in shifting patterns. White Hair is standing on an overturned wooden box that wobbles a little. Some twenty men listen, kind of, some bored, having nothing else to do, some chatting among themselves. I'd heard of this place, Washington Square Park. Bughouse Square, they call it. A designated free-speech area for a hundred years. Bring your own soapbox. Now they've got a committee. The white-haired guy doesn't miss a beat, as if he's used to getting heckled. He knows, he's been where I am now.
Early yesterday morning I pocketed my entire trove of paper cash, dimes and quarters, slipped a boloney sandwich into my jacket and took a train to the Loop. Downtown stores and businesses I hoped might be hiring weren't. Nothing plausible in the want ads, as usual. I caught a bus to the Near North, ate a sandwich by the lake, then wandered on the sand, savoring the afternoon sunshine. Striding past the doorman of the Public Hotel as if I owned it, avoiding the front desk, I sauntered to an easychair in the lobby. Having successful people around elevated my mood, not that I had any notion why. With the lobby chairs clustered around coffeetables to encourage conversation, I chose one facing only one person, a fiftyish man in a lightgray suit that cost more than I earned in a year and black shoes shining bright as steel, holding a Wall Street Journal high for the full benefit of the overhead lights. A charcoal fur-felt fedora occupied the chair beside him. He turned pages without lowering his newspaper. I focused behind the WSJ, where the man's face would be. People often sense when they're being watched. Within seconds the man lowered his newspaper enough to see over it, like a shield. Gray puffy-lidded eyes transmitted cold annoyance. He'd have reacted in similar fashion to a spider or mosquito or a turd on a chair. No need to exaggerate the man's hostility, I rebuked myself, many of us don't respond well when a mythical creature makes an unexpected appearance in our space, and in that man's world I'm a straw man supposed to be staked up in a faraway cornfield. I played a guileless naif with a touch of King Lear's Fool. "Sir, excuse me. If you were hiring someone what would you think of me?"
No response in his eyes, he's ready to walk away. Curiosity prevailed, and something else, arrogance. "I don't know you." He took three seconds to look me over. "Your shirt and slacks are off-the-rack, adequate though with some rumpling. Your left shoe is scuffed."
"I'm from a good family." Daring to hope: he likes me and owns a company that's hiring and pays well. "We might have made it, not upperclass but honest. We fell on hard times."
Standing up the man put on his hat. His eyes narrowed. "There's no class structure in America. Anyone can succeed here. Get off your ass. Find work you can do."
Tucking his newspaper under his arm he strode off toward the elevators. Why do people hang onto newspapers they've finished reading? I sounded dishonest, sucking up. I strolled over to a Rush Street tavern. Until my next paltry payday I'd subsist on peanut butter sandwiches. So far today's splurge isn't paying off.
The tall thin man in a bush jacket at the bar had gotten back from the Congo this morning after four years of studying native tribes. Claiming culture shock he announced he had more to drink today than in all four years. He regaled me and others who joined us with tales of his adventures until, about to collapse face down on the bar, he needed my help across the street to his hotel room, where I left him sprawled in unreachable sleep. In the tavern the last remaining of bush jacket's listeners, Nathan, told me I'd done a kind thing. Nathan was celebrating after a perfect afternoon with a woman he said he loved and who, he said, loved him. It sounded perfect, but for one difficulty: though he wasn't married, she was. "She's gorgeous, smart as a whip. Her husband is a locksmith or a handyman, something like that. He's got no appreciation of the finer things. She likes opera, all the arts. They never go anywhere. Last Christmas you know what he gave her? A set of kitchen gadgets! Like what she wants is more gadgets. Today was the first time she used the word 'divorce'. Don't you think it's right she should dump him for me?" Not knowing what to say I said nothing. "I'm not a hundred percent about that," continued Nathan. "Ninety percent, maybe. I don't feel good about breaking up a marriage."
"Sounds like it's already broke."
"Or teetering. Question is, who gives it the final push?"
"It matters to you."
"You won't advise me what to do, will you?"
"No. It's not up to you."
"You know, you're right. I should leave it to her. Without pressure from me."
This was heavy discourse. I had to admire my newfound capacity for disseminating wisdom in saloons, which convinced or reminded me I had potential for better than painting names on mugs...
"Thrall?" asks the whitehaired guy, staring down the questioner. "Never mind the word, brother. It just refers to mental or physical servitude. Mind the reality. Is that where you are, where most working folks are. Do you love America? Own any of it, brother? You sure as Hell don't or you wouldn't be here listening to a nobody like me. None of us here who sweated to build it owns much of a share. Us who worked our asses off, paid our taxes. Who sleep under newspapers on park benches until the cops roust us. Stand in lines for charity food. Whose little kids go to school hungry. Families, those who got work, work longer hours or not enough hours while rent and food keep going up faster than paychecks. That's thrall..."
I flash back to my plan for the day, me Thrallman looking for a way out. Nathan brought the hope of help. As I sipped my warming beer, another bourbon neat perked Nathan up again. "I overheard you saying you're a mug painter. Is that vernacular for portrait artist?"
"I'm versatile. I paint names on anything, toasters, tool boxes, crock pots, piggy banks..."
"You can make a living at that?"
"I'm looking for better."
"Aren't we all? I'm a retail manager. Started out in sales. I'll need to take college courses to be a general manager."
"I've never done selling. I don't know if I'd be good at it."
"Won't hurt to try. I hear you. In this economy quitting any job is risky."
I couldn't afford defeatism. Now was the time to sprinkle tinsel over myself and shine. "Till the big break happens, I'm the best mug painter in Chicago."
Nathan made one of his broad deal-closing smiles with warmth in it. "A man of principle standing against the powerful. A craftsman in an age gaga over technology. Jerry-" that's my name- "you're a rare bird."
As we drank and exchanged stories, I floated on a surf-rider's high. My new friend was one of those connected people I could hang out with. When our chatter faltered for a minute, I kicked it in the ass with a good joke I'd heard. Alas, I couldn't dilate time and the evening wore down toward the bar closing and with sincere regret in my eyes and voice I mentioned it was late and I had to catch a bus. Nathan said at this hour few buses and trains were running. He recommended an overnight stay at his apartment. It was a short walk to Dearborn Street, where Nathan's apartment was a first floor front with tall windows presiding over the young trees filtering the glow from streetlights. Pretty street! Nathan carried a blanket and a pillow to the couch, promising me we'd have breakfast tomorrow before he left. He went into his bedroom and shut the door. Settling myself on the couch I entertained myself with daydreams about steady goodpaying work in retail until I fell asleep. Sound sleep turned fitful. Something's different, no trains roaring past the windows, did a slamming door wake me? I dozed again. In a haze I remembered part of a dream, or a halfdozing fantasy, a dark-haired stranger looking down at me with an odd expression, like a thoughtful frown as if trying to reach a decision. The room brightened, revealing the bedroom door was still closed. I relaxed for a halfhour or more before getting up. I stood in a tall window watching the young trees flourish. Wish I could live on a street like this one. No sound from the bedroom. Hungry, I brewed coffee in a glass Silex percolator. I found eggs in the refrigerator and after debating with myself whether to wait for my host to get up, I turned on the gas and fried two eggs. I inserted two slices of bread into a gleaming chrome top-of-the line toaster, whistling for the first time in ages, Nathan might like waking to a lively "Blueberry Hill". I powered down as I kept going flat. Dawdling through breakfast I was getting restless. Nathan must have been exhausted, or waiting for me to leave? Finding a pencil and a sheet of notepaper on an endtable I wrote, "Had to go. Thanks for your hospitality. Jerry."
Taking a final look around I admired the toaster, the Silex, a Waring blender, shiny new-looking, and envisioned the crisp paper cash they could bring, worth several weeks' food, maybe enough to open a savings account to get me off my rollercoaster feast or famine. Ruminations ran wild. Worth risking a possible career for one haul of cash? what kind of despicable person would steal from someone who'd sheltered him in his home? a desperate person, am I sleazy? besides, what's worse, stealing objects or stealing someone's wife? I liked Nathan. I could see myself as delivering off-the-cuff justice, adequate to tip the infidelity-burglary balance. I wrapped the Silex into the pillowcase. Yanking the blanket off the sofa I spread it across the carpet and as quietly as I could I piled the appliances on it, adding a longhandled steel ladle, a large French chef's knife, an eggbeater, a steel whisk and an empty steel canister. I spun the blanket ends together, wrapping my collection into an improvised sack. Nearby pawn shops? Nathan's telephone directory had to be in his bedroom with the phone. To avoid any noisy jostling of metal objects against each other I carried the sack with care out into the hallway and shut the apartment door silently behind me. Shouldering the sack, I strode down the hallway and down the front stairs to the sidewalk. I hurried northward away from the building, the more likely direction for finding a pawnshop, while the sack kept emitting a disconcerting conspicuous clanking with every stride.
After three blocks I decided to turn left toward Clark Street, the boundary for the poorer neighborhoods, which would have pawn shops. On automatic, unthinking, I walked to Clark and then headed southward. I avoided meeting the eyes of passersby, aware some were looking at me, including an elderly man in a suit, the kind who reports his suspicions to cops. After another halfdozen blocks I spotted the famous triple globes. Almost there. As I walked, the globes appeared no closer. I'd shrunken to nothing but two eyes fixed on the globes they look like they're bobbing.
The sack had grown to immense size and was getting heavier. My entire being consisted of a slow tiny black widow spider hauling its oversized body. I set down my burden to rest and began pondering what I'd done. I must have been crazy, I'm a thief, never stole a thing my whole life, now this? dumb, dumb, DUMB! A series of what ifs ran through my head, if I got caught I'd get sent to prison, so much for Nathan's ever hiring me, a small chance but now gone for sure. Having spent almost all my money and gotten nothing for it but a remotely possible promise of a future job, no help now, the need for some gratification had driven me beyond theft to betrayal. I'd lost control, driven by the failed weekend, sliding from weakness into disaster, even if I wasn't caught. Worse would be living with myself tonight, tomorrow, a criminal carrying that sack for a lifetime. Only one thing to do. I started toward Nathan's building. I'd leave the sack at Nathan's door. If Nathan was up and saw me, I'd apologize and walk away, let Nathan do whatever he chose. Strength and resolution returned. I'll never do such a hurtful thing again, never. My steps quickened. Already I felt better, more like my accustomed self as I liked to remember it.
Arriving on Dearborn I found the street and sidewalk two blocks up jammed with police vehicles and bystanders. They clustered in front of Nathan's building. A policeman stood on the top step, guarding the front door. Other uniforms were holding back the curious. I advanced with caution. Through the windows I could see plainclothesmen in Nathan's room. A man on the steps of the adjoining building noticed my more than passing interest. "Guy who lives there got killed last night."
"Yeah, him. Shot in the head. I know the beat cop. One shot, he said."
"Have they got any suspects?"
"He wouldn't say."
I knew the police had a name, mine. Did someone hear the shot? See me leave? "Who found him?"
"Cops got a phone call. Guy in the building in back's got a view of his bedroom. He saw Nathan laying funny half off the bed. His head was hanging down. Nobody could sleep that way."
"Do the cops know why?"
"He didn't say. What's that you're carrying?"
"Personal stuff. I'm moving."
"Found a place around here?"
"I'm uh, looking around."
"You just found a vacancy. Right here."
"This building looks too pricey."
"You might wanna go over to Clark."
Better go somewhere fast, before the police get interested in my strange improvised sack. "I might."
"You know where Clark Street is, don't you? Head west on Gaythe."
I wasn't a crook after all. Dead men can't own anything. The stuff in my sack didn't belong to anyone, therefore was now mine. Hauling it around, however, Damn! made me the prime suspect for Nathan's murder.
Trying to be invisible as I returned down Dearborn to Division Street, where I might catch a bus, I mulled my options, the obvious best being to avoid the police. If stopped, I'd give them any name but Jerry, the one I'd left in Nathan's apartment. I had information to trade, a face I may have dreamt, now blurred in my memory, not good enough. I could take refuge in knowing there were more Jerrys in town than the police could ever get around to, small comfort that none of the others was carrying stuff taken from Nathan's apartment. I walked fast, trying not to appear to be running. No buses in sight. Any bus would do if it got me away from here. A prowl car lazed by. The cop in the passenger seat looked me over. I hustled into the next side street with my sack rattling at every step. I'd walk to the Loop, slowly.
And that's how I arrived here, several blocks south of Division, when I wandered into this park. The old white-haired guy is going on, "An empire can't permit a wild card like democracy in it. Freedom, freedom. Politicians rave about it. The media set up echoes. It's their freedom they're talking about, not mine, not yours. Don't let them fool you. It's all about power..." Among the dozen gathered around him, most white, some black, some brown, all men, a few nodded, assenting without enthusiasm. Some talked with others, some listened rapt, some bored, having nothing else to do, commenting, disputing, settling for free entertainment. Without looking toward the two cops near the fountain, not to attact their attention, I idled my way around the back of the crowd. "...Those we elect to high office, they are high-priced office boys for the real owners of America. On Wall Street..."
A man standing a few feet from me stalks away, shouting, "I knew it! He's a Commie!"
"...get rich faster by fiddling with markets than by making things. Company bottom lines get fat on cheap labor overseas. Those dollar-a-day workers overseas keep your wages low. If you've got a job. It's all good for company bottom lines. And good for your portfolio." He made a rhetorical scan of the gathering. "How many here got portfolios?" Brief pause. "I didn't think so. What can we do? Tell them, like the guy in the movie, I'm mad as Hell!"
Ishe winding down or warming up again? If he makes any sense, so what? None of it's new. Good sense hangs disconnected from everything I see around me, dead eyes, tired faces, limp jackets off thrift store racks, trousers worn thin at the knees, oilstained shoes. Trying to make myself invisible to the two cops by the fountain, walking on eggs without seeming to as my stolen appliances rattle softly, I drift past the audience and past park benches where old men sit protecting the folded newspapers beside them. New-fallen leaves crinkle under my shoes. Though aware I should keep walking, I was tiring. I flopped into an empty park bench. On the bench across the path an older man protected a folded newspaper beside him. I plunked my loaded blanket on the bench. Can't stay long, the two cops might come strolling by and get curious, what's in the sack, buddy? Under the fluttery trees a chill in the breeze warns of approaching autumn. Out of my hearing, the white-haired man's words echo in my head commingling with my selfreproaches to myself. Nathan had a career, money, women. All the freedom he wanted, look what happened to Nathan.
He made his choice.
At least he had one.
So he could treat his lady to operas and shows and you couldn't, the way of the world, old news.
A passerby might have noticed my taut ironic smile to myself. I picked up my sack. Metal clinked. It would get heavy on the long walk to the Loop. To Hell with it. I didn't need an elegant coffee maker or a chef's knife or anything in the sack. I could survive the week on peanut butter sandwiches. I set the sack on grass behind the bench and began walking, not looking back. I walked with a steady stride to the Chicago River. I latch onto that crossroads we're at. Me, I could learn to use the public library computers to jobhunt. Scrape up the cash for computer courses, or other kinds. A turning-point, I feel it! A way out of thralldom, a Roman gladiator winning his freedom. But lousy at math... After a bridge crossing warmed by full sun I enter the chill shade of highrises. Up a flight of stairs a line is clicking onto a station platform. An arriving train propels a cold wind.
At my table I eat hot canned soup out of the pot. My little clock radio claims tomorrow should be clear with late clouds. An excited woman in southern California is asking another if she really goes swimming in that bikini. I turn off the radio and begin reading in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "...out under the stars along the Tehama, the sandy and featureless strip of desert bordering the western coast of Arabia between sea-beach and littoral hills, for hundreds of monotonous miles. In daytime this low plain was insufferably hot, and its waterless character made it a forbidding road..." After dark I go to bed early. My thoughts continue to hone in on Nathan's death, reminding me how little time it may take for a life to change for the worst. I must let exhaustion overcome me. In a chalky aluminum sky the sun glares without heat, dazzling on pale-yellow dunes. Sand and rocks soften to brightgreen grass spread across a level meadow. I am standing by a pool of blue water. A woman is giggling somewhere- in the bushes, or near the waterfall across the shallow pond? I wade toward the waterfall. The water crashes down louder and louder. The waterfall emits a long piercing shriek. Startled I find myself in the darkness of my room as a train recedes down the tracks. I hear a sigh.
Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.
Want to comment on this story? Click Here to go the Literary Review Discussion Forum (for the subject, enter "Comment on story Death, Speeches, and Small Fiascos")