Monday, April 7, 2014

Does It Matter?

“Does it matter?” Anabelle grabs a handful of gravel from the railroad bridge deck and launches them into the tributary below.  Hundreds of small stones make little splashes that are quickly absorbed into the waters of the mainstream with indifference.

“I dunno.” I reply trying to balance on a rail and think at the same time.  “Just be nice ta know what I’m gonna do.”

“Ferget ‘bout da future.  It doesn’t matter.  Ya just gotta think ‘bout whatcha doin’ now.”  She lights a cigarette as we head east.  “Now’s all that matters.”

“That a Zen thing?”  I ask as we cross over Kennedy Drive.

“Nah.”  She takes a long drag and exhales in seeming ecstasy.  “It’s a survival thing.”

“What’s that s’pose ta mean?”

“Tell me, whatcha plan ta be doin’ in five years?”  Anabelle demands an answer.

“Mmm…  Well, I guess I’ll be workin’ somewhere ‘nd maybe find some girl ta be with.  Get some stability so I can ‘grow up’ like everyone else.”

“Okay, where were ya five years ago?”

“Let’s see.”  That seems so long ago now.  “I was back in Milwaukee workin’ da loadin’ dock ‘nd goin’ ta school.”

“When ya were in Milwaukee, is this where ya thought ya’d be now?”  She smiles mischievously, but with sympathetic eyes.

“Uh.  Ya know that answer.”

“Yeah, but I wanna hear ya say it.”

“Well…” I look at Anabelle’s pudgy face to determine how serious she is.  Very serious.  I quickly pretend I see something interesting in the vacant lots nearby.  “I thought I’d be a musician.  Tourin’ in our van ‘nd recordin’ an album somewhere fun.  Ya know, be a rock star ‘nd all.”  I smirk at my youthful naivety.

“Whadda ‘bout da girl?”

“We’re not talkin’ ‘bout her.” I bark.

“Okay…” She backs off the question, which is rare for her.  I throw a rock at an abandoned warehouse.  “How ‘bout livin’ here?”

“C’mon Anabelle.  I get it.  No, I didn’t think I’d be back in this town ‘nd sleepin’ in my granpa’s spare room, okay?”

“Whoa, calm down.”  She discards unwanted shoplifted goods from her jacket onto the tracks.  “Just tryin’ ta prove a point.”

“’Nd what point is that?”

“It’s point-less ta plan fer da future.  I don’t know what I’m gonna do in five years or even next week.  So much can happen that it’s impossible ta predict.  I get what I want now.  Why should I hafta sacrifice taday?  Da future is unknowable.  I could be dead tamorrow.”

“If we all lived like we’re gonna die tamorrow, we’d be screwed.  Everyone would be hungover ‘nd useless when we wake up with empty wallets.  No one would trust us.”

“TRUST!?!”  Anabelle laughs with her own twist of evil.  “Ya can’t trust anyone.  Life’s ‘bout survival of da fittest.  It’s all a big game of ‘winners’ ‘nd ‘losers’.  We live inna society that considers ‘greed’ ta be a ‘good’ thing.  Someone is always willin’ ta take all ya have if they can get ‘way with it.  Ya hafta watch yer back ‘nd commit ta nothin’.  Ya survive this world alone.”

“Whadda ‘bout you?” I ask to her cynicism.

“Whadda ‘bout me?”

“I trust you.”

“Ya shouldn’t.”  She’s bored again, like usual.  “I don’t know where I’ll end up but I’m gonna do what it takes ta survive.  Ya’ll never know what I’ll do.”

“Ohhhhh.  What crazy thing wouldja do?” Anabelle gives me the stink eye and looks around.  Her back is suddenly upright with confidence.

“How do I look?”

“Like a femme fatale.” Anabelle ignores my snarky remark.  She skips though a patch of overgrown grass to the cheap hotel/bus station on Schuyler Avenue.  I watch her talk to a bus driver and she motions toward me.  The driver’s sleeves are rolled up on his grey uniform shirt.  His matching company baseball cap sits lazily askew on his large head.  After a few moments looking in my direction, he starts writing on a pad of paper.  Anabelle climbs aboard the filthy bus.  The doors close and they head north to god knows where.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Funny Little Box

Under my arm is a funny little box.  It’s carefully wrapped in black and white comics sealed with clear tape.  I’d rather recycle than immediately put wrapping paper in the landfill.  Inside is a broken clock in the shape of a golden horse.  My grandpa mentioned Monica liked it last time she was over and that I should give it to her.  He’s been giving things away as if he’s holding a liquidation sale.

It’s an unusually chilly day.  Nothing a hoodie can’t fix.  Even the sparrows are puffed up while they search for food.  At least the sun is out to keep the plains dry.  Only contrails in a perfectly blue sky.

Monica’s apartment complex is old, but kept in decent condition.  It may not be constructed with high quality materials, but at least it has a pleasant appearance.  Her place is up the stairs and the first door on the left.  Mismatched mailbox stickers let me know the units number: 2A.  I knock on the door.

There’s a sound of dishes rattling.  The distinct smell of burnt toast.  A few heavy footsteps.

“Oh…  Um…  Is a Monica home?”  I’m startled that the door is answered by a guy about the same age and build as myself.  Doesn’t help that he’s only wearing a band t-shirt and bright boxers either. 

“Uh…  Who are ya?”  He scrutinizes everything about me in an instant and doesn’t like what he sees.  Most of his attention is on my gift.

“Oh…  Just a friend, I guess.”

“Well…  She’s still sleepin’.”  It’s barely perceivable that he’s slowly closing the door.  “Wanna leave a message or somethin’?”

“Um…  Sure.”  I hold out the gift toward him.  “Just give this ta her ‘nd tell her I said ‘thank you’.”

“Okay.”  He takes the present in one hand.  “Who do I say it’s from?”

“She’ll know who it’s from.”  An answer that just makes him a bit more suspicious.  Can’t blame him.  “It’s just a broken clock.”  This doesn’t help.


“So, thanks.”

“Yeah man, see ya.”  The door closes and I hear the clock clang on the floor.  Can’t hurt it since it’s already broken, I guess. 

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fake It 'Til Ya Make It

“Paul!  Whatcha doin’ home taday?”  He’s puttering around his house as I cut down Hume Avenue.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him in jeans and a t-shirt.  “Are ya on vacation or somethin’?”

“Oh, hey Luke.”  He makes his way to the edge of the yard.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with stubble before.  Just assumed Paul had a baby face.  “What’s goin’ on?”

“Not much.  Just runnin’ some errands.”  I hold up a grocery bag full of random junk.  “Got da day off?”

“Yeah.  Was laid off last week.  So, have lotsa days off now.”  Paul follows this with embarrassed laughter.

“Ugh…  Sorry ta hear that, man.”  He looks at the grass and kicks a stone toward the street.  “Are ya doin’ awright?  Need anythin’?”

“I’m good fer now.  I have a bit of money saved up ta get me through a coupla months.  Whadda ‘bout you?  How’s everythin’ goin’?”

“’Bout da same.  Still no steady work.  Still livin’ at my granpa’s.  Still stuck in-between things.  But, doin’ fine.”  I set the grocery bag down since it seems I’ll be here a while.  “Still seein’ Jonathan?”

“Oh yeah,” he cracks a half-smile.  “Things are goin’ well with us.  Been really supportive ‘nd fun.  Jon’s in Pittsburgh fer work this week though.”

“Good.  I like him.”  The conversation lulls to a stop as Paul seems preoccupied with concern.  “Did they give ya a reason fer bein’ laid off?”

“Some bullshit ‘bout havin’ ta cut costs even though we made record profits ‘nd senior management got huge pay increases ‘nd bonuses!  I increased net revenue fer my programs by nearly 60% in three years ‘nd still got cut.”

“That sucks.  Been there myself though.”  I remove tortilla chips from the bag and offer to share.  “Were ya da only one cut or were there others?”

“A few of us got da ax.”

“Did they give ya a reason fer their choices?”

“Not really.  Gave us da usual line ‘bout how they valued our loyalty ‘nd that our hard work made a huge impact on da organization ‘nd yada, yada, yada.  I hosted dinner fer those of us laid off ‘nd we thought their decisions were strange.”

“’Strange’, how so?”  I could eat bags of tortilla chips forever.

“It may be just sour grapes, but it’s odd who they kept ‘nd who they released.  Fer da most part, those laid off were da most experienced, hardest workin’, self-motivated, ‘nd responsible.  I mean, one of my co-workers was there 17-years, took home lotsa work on nights ‘nd weekends, ‘nd loved what she did.  These were da types of people now strugglin’ ta file fer unemployment ‘nd fill out job applications.”

“I’m sure they have a rational explanation.”

“Yer probably right.  But, I’d like ta know why they kept who they did.”

“Bet that was a hot topic at dinner.  Who’d they keep?”

“Again, might be sour grapes.  But, most of them are useless.  They show up late, leave early, ‘nd take extra long lunches.  Most of ‘em don’t know how ta use da database, which is used fer almost every aspect of our jobs.  ‘Bout all they were good at was callin’ attention ta themselves.  Pretendin’ they’re celebrities walkin’ down da red carpet in fancy outfits with da rest of us as adorin’ fans.  That ‘nd kissin’ ass ‘nd ‘yes men’ ta every stupid idea.  I guess ya gotta do somethin’ when ya have da worst sales ‘nd production numbers.”

“Do ya really think it’s ‘sour grapes’?”

“Really?”  Paul’s too thoughtful and knows himself too well to be envious.  “If we just started ta feel this way ‘bout these people after da layoff, I might say ‘yeah, probably.’  But, I think our feelins are valid.  But, I think da world’s changin’ too.  Organizations no longer appreciate good skills, efficiency, ‘nd competence.  It’s all ‘bout appearances now.  Even a fake appearance of success is better than true good results.”

“If that’s true, I’m really in trouble.  Do ya really believe that?”

“Well, I use ta believe in da whole Puritan work ethic and all.  But, like everythin’ else, that seems ta be obsolete.  I guess I gotta get an Armani suit ta deceive everyone.  Ya know, da whole fake it ‘til ya make it nonsense.”

“Ha!  I guess a fake economy requires phony people ta run it, right?”  How can I be out of chips already?  “Got anythin’ lined up fer a job?”

“Nothin’ much.  A friend of mine said I could help him sell phone accessories part-time ‘til I find somethin’ better.  I’m hoping ta get somethin’ before my mortgage ‘nd student loans are due.  Hate ta put that on da credit card.”

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled fer ya.  Are ya busy now?  Wanna hang out or somethin’?”

“Nah.  Got no money.  Plus, I should finish up some stuff ‘round da house.  But, come over this weekend ‘nd we can watch da game.”  We wrap up our conversation.  Paul zig-zags aimlessly on his lawn.  For my friends and family, losing a job is the first step toward moving away. 

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Gotta Have Some Fun Before Ya Go

Stubborn son-of-a-bitch.  Refuses to take his medicine.  Just looks at an old wedding photo on the wall from his recliner.  The fat and muscles of his body have evaporated leaving loose skin draped on a frail skeleton.  “Luke, what da hell are ya doin’?  Put me down.”  As I lift him, I notice he weighs no more than a child.

“Sorry, ya got plans taday, Granpa.”

“Plans!?!  Yer not bringin’ me ta da goddamn doctor, are ya?  Put me down!” his resistance would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

“Calm down.  We’re gonna have a good day.” I carry him to the garage and put him in the passenger seat of his old station wagon.  I head back into the kitchen, throw a bunch of junk into a backpack, and return to the car.  His gaze is fixed on the distance as I tear through the neighborhoods.

“Can we listen ta da radio?” he sheepishly asks.

“'Course, it’s yer car ‘nd we do whatcha want taday.” I turn on the radio, which is set to the only country station he listens to.  The gravel of Johnny Cash runs through the speakers instead of the usual grating twang.  “We’re here.”  I turn right off Indiana Avenue onto River Street bouncing the car into F-and-N Hot Dog Drive-In.

“Whatcha bringin’ me here fer?  Da doc won’t lemme eat this stuff.”

“Ya can have a veggie milkshake if ya want, but I won’t tell da quack ya had a dog if you won’t.”  Two Chicago Dog Specials with fries, all the toppings, and malts eventually make it to the car.  It’s the only thing I’ve seen him eat in days.  Slowly, he sets down a half-gnawed fry when he realizes I drove us to LaSalle Park.  “Done?  Wanna go down ta da river?”  I throw on my backpack and carry him to the grassy landing of the riverbank.  His eyes take in all the light.  “Here ya go.”  I hand him a loaf of bread from the bag and ducks race over.  The Mallards battle for position.

“A loaf doesn’t last as long as ya think it would, does it?” Grandpa says.  The ducks are impatient with his pace and I shoo them away when they try to bypass the middleman for food.  “This was nice.  Thanks fer gettin’ me outta da house.”

“Do ya wanna go home?  We can do whatever ya want.”

“Whatever?” he looks at the river and ponders.  “Let’s get back ta da car then.”  I pick him and the backpack up and carefully cross the meadow.  About ten minutes later, we pull into a disintegrated parking lot in front of a blighted factory.  The bricks are graffitied and the corrugated steel slowly melts into rust.  “Ya know, I worked here for 43 years.”  I slowly drive around the plany trying to avoid potholes.  “Park over there.”

“Here ya go.” I hand hem a fifth of whiskey from the bag.  “Fancy people call it a digest-if if ya drink after hot dogs.”

“Very nice.  This was da only place I ever worked.”  He takes a sip.  “Straight outta high school onta da assembly line.  Worked my way up ‘nd into da union.  Picketed fer fair wages ‘nd benefits.  Their security guards ‘nd police would start fights ‘nd arrest us if we tried ta defend ourselves.  Wasn’t right, but money was involved.  Don’t know how these fat cats can sleep at night with their employee’s kids starvin’ at night.  It’s also where I met yer granma.  Ever tell ya that story?”

“Nope.” I answer.  He’s never been secretive, but wasn’t open to sharing private details either.  “Did she work here too?”

“No, no.” he laughs a bit.  “We were on lunch break ‘nd a bunch of us were standin’ ‘round eatin’ on the third floor.  Well, there were a coupla girls we could see sunbathin’ in da backyard over there.”  He points to a boarded up bungalow on Erzinger Street.  “Oh, da guys were whistlin’ ‘nd cat-callin’.  My friend, George, asked me ‘think those girls are pretty?’  I said, ‘sure’.  He went on, ‘what ‘bout da brunette?  What ‘bout this?  What ‘bout that?’  Finally, I told ol’ George ta ‘shut up’ ‘bout the girls.  Well, coupla days later, George invited me over ta his house ‘nd, wouldn’t ya know it, those sunbathin’ girls were there.  One of da girls was his cousin ‘nd da other was yer granma.  Da rest is history.”  He savors another tiny bit of his drink.

“A good history?” I bite my upper lip.

“A great history…  Let’s go over there.”  His shaky hand points across the street.  The old grocery-getter rattles into the entrance of Mary Magdalene Cemetery and sputters to a stop halfway down St. Herman Avenue at a hardened path.  I hoist him through generations of headstones of varying styles and quality.  At the end of the trail is a white birch tree along a chain link fence.  The decaying factory casts its shadow over us.  I set my grandfather at the base of a humble monument dedicated to “My beloved Gertrude.”

His body trembles as he lays his hand on the granite slab, which also bears his name.  There’s a tear slowly making its way down the contours of his wrinkled face.  I crouch down beside him and place my arm around his bony shoulders, as this is the first time I’ve seen him cry.  He twists to grab onto me and buries his head into my chest.  What few tears he’s able to shed exhaust his energy.  “C’mon Granpa, it’s time ta go home.”  As I pick him up to return to the car, I barely hear him mumble, “I’ll see ya soon, Gertie.  See ya soon…” 

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