fiction

Chicago Avenue

Margaret is up early, walking east after leaving the little  doughnut shop on Chicago avenue.

Hot coffee finds her lips sleepy and she  all but dribbles it down her front. “Very lady like.” But there is some comfort in the slight burn. Coffee to her tastes best out of a styrofoam cup through a half  moon torn in a plastic lid, the coffee stains bleeding into the rim.

Chicago Avenue, looking east from Hoyne street, is a  jumbled study perspective with a lot of little signs from little  businesses, complex but at six fifteen on Sunday morning as still  as a photograph. Margaret decides it ought to be painted by a  hyper‑realist. The term, hyper‑realist, makes her think of her  father, alone in his hyper‑realist reality in Streator, from whom  she has recently received several phone calls. “You might say I owe him a call back.”

The cold is unseasonable, even for late November and  everyone decided to stay home in bed just a little later  than normal. Except Margaret who hasn’t settled yet into a new apartment, doesn’t like her bed and doesn’t  sleep much anyway. Plus she can project a romantic value onto the stark, empty streets especially a deserted, frozen Chicago Avenue. And she likes to be up  and at it early.

The street has neon and painted signs and writing on windows  in Spanish, Italian and Polish as well as one in cyrillic, either  Ukranian or Russian. The variety delights Margaret. Alcala’s boot store which sits a couple of blocks east of  Damen on the south side of the street, cultivates the image of  just another neighborhood store but sells cowboy boots for what some of the older neighbors had put down on their houses. The  area is undergoing transition, regentrification, with gutted  buildings, new construction, loft condos, lousy with real estate  agents, expensive european cars  and the rest. This disturbs her.  Margaret likes the cultural Babel, low rents,  small inexpensive stores, the wacky unpretentious neighbors who  hang out their laundry in the front yard and paint their houses  crazy colors, feeling more at home here than at any time since  she was very young.

Margaret likes a red pair of boots in Alcala’s window but  they cost ninety nine dollars. She cannot afford them and  comforts herself with a calculation of how often she would really wear them.  “Or is that your voice in my head?”

Walking in the cold with cup of coffee evokes the years of intransigence “Your coinage” and hitch hiking, small towns, college towns, places now blurring and muddied in  their similarity but also innumerable, a film, a cartoon of  sequenced frames each only slightly different from the last.  Transience, intransigence, a word  to describe my  behavior, a word I’d never heard before, a word dad wouldn’t use,  nor even teachers at school. “You were smarter than anyone. You  were so smart you must have known, regardless of the act you put  on, that I wouldn’t come back until I stopped being afraid of you.”

Goldblatts, once a discount furniture store, about to be something else, sits  at the corner of  Ashland avenue, and where Margaret stands waiting to cross the  street as a lone bus passes. The wind swirls in the intersection  and she feels cold for the first time. She regrets that she chose  to wear a dress, even with heavy tights and a slip. But her  cloth coat is warm and her big black boots and knit gloves are, she decides, sufficient and she resists the notion of turning back.

Being cold but warm enough prompts more memories of traveling and it occurs to Margaret to admit she was lucky, maybe a  miracle, that  nothing bad happened when she was out on her own. “ I felt was safer than being home you.”

Looking north on Ashland on the clear morning she can see  all the way down to where it intersects with Division and  Milwaukee, near where she had seen Lester the day before.  Margaret felt a little awkward seeing him at first, as did he,  but the only lingering feeling that it left her with was,  strangely, sexual. She hadn’t had sex  since Lester and that was almost three  months ago, and suddenly and strongly she missed it.

Lester had asked her to do some welding, fixing a gate or fence or something and if he was serious about it, the three hundred dollars would go a long way to keep the wolf at the door.  She knows she needs another waitress job. Or what she  really needs which is a full time real job. She hates the idea of  cutting back on her hours in the work shop, and the hours  available for welding, but it seems increasingly unlikely that  she can go on like this.

“Nothing lasts forever, you said.”  Transition,  transience,  “You got sick, you kept drinking. I got home, safe and strong,  you left.”

The John Hancock tower loomed ahead, thrusting, routinely  phallic into a brightening sky. In front of it, forty, fifty and sixty story buildings seemed puny, overreaching by the  comparison.  A small bodega displayed crazy frilly dresses for  quincenera parties. Margaret decides one of these would look perfect  with the boots  from Alcala’s. This would be her reward as soon  as she got another job.

The city where the skyscraper was born still defined itself  in terms of these overwrought steles, oblivious to their  inefficiency, inappropriateness, lack of proportion. The very tall  buildings made the silhouette of the city ragged and every bad  architectural idea from the last seventy five years was  represented on the horizon.

Only the tallest, Sears, Amoco, the First National Bank were  visible through the spaces between the buildings on Chicago avenue by  Hoyne and the doughnut shop but past Ashland the whole skyline  surged closer and taller.

Margaret hates the architecture of the ego, of excess, of male obsession, rationally and intellectually, with sound  arguments and strong convictions, but also as one scorned, who  once loved the big monuments, architecture with the big A. This  passion was shared with or grafted upon her by her parents but became a dead end because of her weakness in mathematics.

“You never said you were sorry and you never told anyone the  truth. Intransigence my ass!”

“You made dad tell us how beautiful you were all the time, like it was  some excuse for drinking, that you were once beautiful. You could  have married anyone but you married dad because he reminded you  of Gary Cooper.” The problem was, her father really was like Gary Cooper,  or at least the characters he played, quiet, simple and stoic.  Not exciting but steady and loving.”

Down Noble but not in sight was the breakfast  restaurant that Margaret likes and hasn’t been to in a while. She  remembers in particular a very late breakfast with Lester and  Judy and Kenny and some others from the bar, when everyone was  very hungover and tired and they all sat and drank coffee and  bloody marys and giggled, laughing indiscriminately at good humor  and bad, bridging the gap between the brunch and early dinner  crowds.

It was a pity things with Lester had turned out badly. Or  rather that he turned out so badly. Running into him yesterday  confirmed that for all his charm, his plans were making him  insincere and selfish.

Past Noble there were fewer businesses, the park and  poolhouse on the north side of the street and somewhere, in one  of the houses across the street from the park lived the famous  congressman. There was a trendy and overpriced restaurant on the one corner; across the street from it was a store front that  had been roughly converted to a residence. Noise from a spanish  radio station leaked out from the seams of the whitewash plywood  that covers the windows.

“Have to meet Helen later.” She reminded herself.

After the last building before the expressway, the dense  overgrowth of weeds had frozen, still green and leaning over the  fence onto the sidewalk.  Margaret holds her arm in front of her face so the leaves  don’t cut her. It knocks her hat off and she bends over, picks it  up and puts it back on. She starts crossing over the expressway.

“You never explained anything.”

The Kennedy expressway was cut through the neighborhood some time 25 years ago but you can still see the way the neighborhood used to run. Cars hurry on their way from downtown to the airport or visa  versa. There was very little traffic, just an occasional car or  truck traveling as fast as it wanted.

Margaret stopped on the bridge.

Downtown looked close and exact on this clear Sunday  morning. The metal, glass and stone of large buildings seemed in  their element in the cold. The towers as they hugged to the curve  of the river gave the skyline a better texture or depth than the  grid like plot of the city would allow. There was  much here to look at, with a semi‑trained eye, with a sculptor’s  eye or a critical eye, the successes and failures, the glint of a  window, aging brick and unfinished construction, tricks of depth  and distance, ornamentation, context, texture, height and color,  styles and architects.

Margaret forgets her disdain and names architects as a  precocious child might: Sullivan, Wright, Root, Burnham, Van der  Rohe, Gropius, no, no Gropius here, and the newer stuff,  Goldberg, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Jahn.

“The only things you paid attention to were the parts of you in me.”

Margaret leans against the iron rail and examines it’s  construction, a rod slipped through collars, the collars bolted  to a concrete embankment. She finds it an ellegant,  artful  design. When she started walking, she thought she would end up at  the river or the lake, to sit and listen to the quiet waves, the  visceral primordial attraction of the water. But here is fine.  She grasps the rail in her gloved hands and leans forward, to look  below. The movement of the vehicles beneath her, while not as  regular, are just as predictable as the waves. The skyline of the  city is a pleasure in which she has not allowed herself to  partake recently. The cold washes past her upturned face. There  is quiet in all the generic sounds. The expressway is as good as  a river to her, with the buildings  as mountains for  it to flow out of. On it she could sail back home or she could  sail right out of town.

“From you. And in spite of you.”

Margaret giggles.

“Amen.”

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