I Was On My Way Home

Only four more city blocks from South Chicago’s Englewood Union Station to the garage roof in his back yard, Carl was running out of luck.  And weapons.

It all started on the bus.  Carl knew they were trouble when he looked up from his Sun Times and saw them getting on.  His first reaction was to make himself smaller.  Bury his nose in the newspaper, try not to look up, not look at them, not look like he noticed them in any way.  Maybe they’d work their routine on the other passengers if he didn’t look up.  Maybe they’d miss his quick exit at State Street.  If he could make it to the tracks he’d probably be all right.

Carl had stayed in the gym longer than the others.  Practicing his moves, his shots.  Barely six feet tall, with his father’s reddish hair and his mother’s blue eyes, and 155 pounds, he had to work hard just to hang on as a sub.  He’d barely made the Mt. Carmel junior varsity basketball team in his second year, but rarely got in a game.  One day coach would look his way down the bench and send him out there.  Though he thought God had more important prayers to answer, he prayed anyway.  Lord, if I do get in a game, help me play well and not make a fool of myself.

The dark and the cold drizzle surprised Carl when he left the school after his shower.  He shrugged into the jacket his mother made him take with him that morning.  She was right.  Better to have it and the knit cap he’d stored in the inside pocket last April.  Remembering that freak April snow, he slipped the cap over his wet hair and wondered why it had taken Chicago weather almost to the beginning of November to admit the cold and gloomy.

He slid his lanky self a bit lower in the plastic bus seat, arranging his newspaper like a sideways tent so nobody could see his face.  Normally there were other Catholic white kids riding the 63rd Street bus from Stony Island to points west, away from the colored sections of the near South Side.  Kids who were involved in sports or other after school activities stayed later than the throngs that got on the busses, the rich freshman and sophomores who took the Illinois Central trains to the suburbs, and the rich juniors and seniors who drove their cars away as soon as school ended.  And there were usually several guys held over in  Father Finan’s “Jug,” Mt. Carmel’s version of detention, jail, writing essays on why they were in Jug.

Where are all the other kids that usually ride this bus?

No other kids tonight.  The big green and white bus was empty when Carl got on.  Lights on, door open – empty.  Turned out the driver was buying himself coffee and a donut to go in the diner on the corner.

When he and his friends were all aboard, they grabbed the huge bench and several of the surrounding seats at the very back end of the bus.  This night Carl took a middle seat nearest the back door.  Three quick steps and a push and he’d be out if any trouble started.

All the running, jumping, wind sprints, fast break drills; often breathing hard at first, but lately feeling as though he could ask his body to jump any obstacle, run any distance.  He’d spring up three flights of stairs to Physics class and not notice any effect on his breathing or his legs.  Carl felt invincible until he had to leave the school and deal with the crazies in South Chicago.  His route to and from Mt. Carmel took him through some of the toughest neighborhoods, almost all of them with a seemingly endless supply of colored kids looking for trouble, some organized, some just marauding gangs.  Fifty city blocks or so separated his house from Mt. Carmel, a Catholic boys high school.  Fifty blocks of hostile territory Carl negotiated twice a day on a green and white CTA, Chicago Transit Authority bus.

Still hiding behind his newspaper, he glanced sideways out the window.  Had to be a hundred bars, some with fancy names like tavern or pub, on 63rd Street between Stony Island and State Streets.  In front of almost every bar stood small groups of black men smoking cigarettes and drinking from a small grocery bag they passed back and forth; the same scene day or night, rain or snow, gray or bright.

The kids he was worried about, six of them, stayed in the front of the bus, some sitting, others standing.  They spread out a bit, rowdy, talking to each other at high volume.  They gradually closed in on each other as some of the other, older passengers moved to be further away from them.  One rail thin black man with short gray hair slipped into the seat next to Carl and let out a loud sigh.  Carl stayed behind his newspaper.

When the bus stopped at Cottage Grove, about the halfway point for Carl’s trip, the trouble started.

By this time twenty or so other passengers, about a even split colored and white, had gotten on the bus as it made its stops between Stoney Island and Cottage Grove.  Carl and the six boys he was worried about were the only young people.  He guessed that the bus driver and the others were at least in their forties; the man who sat next to him fifty or more.  He also guessed the six boys now making their way to the back of the bus were close to his age – sixteen.

Carl, when he thought about older people at all, didn’t think colored and white people were all that different, didn’t think any people were all that different.  Everybody had to deal with the same kinds of problems; school, parents, jobs, whatever.  The older ones all seemed to look tired, out of shape, bored.  It was the younger ones of every color that engaged  Carl’s defense plans.

As the boys made their way back they had comments for each of the older passengers.  “Hey old man.  Gonna get any tonight?”  “Pretty mama, they work you too hard today?”

When they noticed Carl, the comments stopped.  Carl thought of coach’s words.  “Be like a bird.  You can see out of the corner of your eye without turning your head.  Notice things.  Plan ahead.  Anticipate.  That’s what will make you basketball players instead of just a bunch of kids playing basketball.”   Without turning his head, Carl saw them pass by, turn to him one by one, and move further back; no words, just looks.

The contrast between the noise they’d been making and the dead silence gripped Carl’s heart.

I can’t make a stand against six kids on this bus, or anywhere else.  Another ten minutes to State Street.  Jump off now and I’m in their territory.  One good thing – they’re not wearing gang jackets.  Another ten minutes and I make a run for it.

Now Carl could hear the boys behind him.  Their high volume had been turned down to whispers.  He figured that could only mean they were deciding what to do about him.  With him.  To him.

Got to do something now.

He got up and moved to the front of the bus.  As he made his way he  handed his newspaper to the gray-haired man who had taken the seat next to him.  Carl sat next to an elderly woman on the sideways front bench seat, and leaned his arm across the knee-high partition separating the front entrance stairs from the bench seat.

“State Street coming up?” Carl said to the bus driver.

The big man turned to Carl.  “I seen you on this bus before.  You don’t know where State Street at by now?”

Carl nodded and tilted his head quickly toward the back of the bus.  “I may have to get off in a hurry.  I’m late, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it.”

The driver looked up at his rear view mirror.  Carl thought the driver was reading him all right, understanding that he had to distance himself from those boys.  For an instant Carl feared that the black bus driver had once been like those boys in the back and was now trying to decide whose side he would take.

The moment passed when the driver gave the briefest of nods and whispered: “When we come up on State Street I’ll stop a little before whether they’s cars or not.  You shoot out the door and I’ll lock up and go slow the rest of the way to the corner before I stop and open the doors again.”

Carl let out a sigh of relief.  “Thanks.”  He glanced quickly toward the back and wasn’t surprised to see the six boys all standing and giving him The Look.  He thought about his escape route.  He’d used it routinely for almost a year, ever since he’d been beat up one night on Stewart Street at 61st Place, not forty yards from his front door.  Right now he had no choice; he had to use the tracks, and do it on the run.  He would jump off the bus, run across 63rd or State, whichever one had the green light.  With luck, there’d be little or no traffic and he could cross them both diagonally.

No matter.  If the lights don’t cooperate I’ll just dodge the cars. 

He had three blocks to run before reaching the 63rd Street entrance to where the tracks of three railroads crossed, the entrance to Englewood Union Station, the railroad crossing that had given the Englewood neighborhood of South Chicago its original name: The Triangle.  The Rock Island, Pennsylvania, and New York Central Railroads converged there, about ten city blocks from Carl’s home.

Carl had spent hours at Englewood Union.  Fascinated by trains since his uncle had given him a set of Lionel toy trains, he knew his way around and knew many of the clerks, baggage handlers, waitresses, mechanics, and even Mr. Briggs, the Station Master.  If the kids from the bus followed him, he’d get somebody to hide him in one of the dozens of places that he knew would be nearly impossible to find for kids who didn’t know anything about the station.

He tried not to look toward the back of the bus, feeling that the lack of noise meant they were not moving.  Yet.  He fiddled with his gym bag and looked out the front window of the bus hoping the State Street sign would pop into view soon.  He heard some noise, looked back, and saw two of the boys standing and facing the other four, who were staring at him.  When they stood, all six started walking toward the front of the bus.

Carl realized if he jumped out here he’d have five blocks to run instead of three, but the approach of the six made his mind up for him.

“Can you let me out here?” he said.

Carl heard the horns from the cars behind the bus as the driver pulled over, stopped, and opened the front door.  As he jumped out he heard the hiss of the door closing behind him.  He also heard the boys, running now and shouting at the driver to open the door.  He hit the street and ran.  He didn’t bother with the sidewalk.  Not many people around, but he didn’t want to waste time bumping into somebody or have some other kid decide to slow him down, some black kid who saw a white kid running along the sidewalk in a black neighborhood being chased by six other black kids.  He took off between the row of parked cars and the waiting row of traffic.

Coming up on State Street he couldn’t hear anybody chasing him, but he didn’t want to slow down by turning around to look.  He quickened his pace to make a green light and felt the weight of his gym bag pull against his left arm.

Damn gym bag might just end up tossed. 

Carl managed a grin when thought of some 63rd Street wino scurrying off with his gym bag only to find his sweaty jockstrap and other gear and a geometry book instead of anything of value.

He reached the corner of 63rd and State wondering where he’d get the money for a new pair of gym shoes and other stuff, wondering what Brother John would have to say about losing a geometry book, when a driver decided to turn in his path and he glanced off the front fender and tumbled next to the curb.

His left leg and hip stung as he struggled to his feet, still clutching his gym bag.  He took off running and heard somebody yell, but he was already across State and running again.

Can’t be too bad.  I’m up and moving just as fast as I was before I fell.

He noticed a throbbing and ran his fingers under his cap and through his hair above his right ear.  Felt damp.

Hair must still be damp from my shower. 

But the wetness on his fingers was red.

Must have smacked my head back there. 

He clamped his ski cap down and ran.

In a few minutes that seemed a much longer time, Carl reached the station entrance and reached for the door handle.  He looked back and saw them in the light of the railroad overpass he’d just finished running under.  Four of them were loping along and two were straggling ten or fifteen yards behind.

Thanks, coach.  Thanks for all that running and those wind sprints you made us do.

Carl yanked the door open and blew by an elderly couple to the top of the stairs and into the main part of the station.  A small assortment of people sitting, standing, waiting, watched him slip and slide on the marble floor as he ran, making his way to the baggage area.  If any of the waiting passengers were surprised to see a young man running through the station, none showed it.

There was no one at the baggage counter, not even Merle, who ran the department.

Must be a train out there.  They must all be picking and loading baggage.

Carl hoisted himself to the counter, slid across, and sat on the floor to catch his breath.  Now that he had stopped running and was hidden from view of anyone in the station, he noticed how much his leg hurt.  He started rubbing his leg and felt a trickle roll down his neck.  He opened his gym bag and patted his neck with his still-wet towel.  The towel showed bright red when he brought it away from his neck.

Damn.  I’m alone, soaking wet, my leg hurts, and my head’s bleeding.

He was afraid to move.  Carl was hidden, but there was no one to help if those kids found him.  He reached down into his gym bag under his shoes and felt around until he found the metal chain.  It was a heavy, bright choke chain, the kind dog trainers used, about eighteen inches in length, with large metal rings on both ends.  He slipped the rings around the middle finger of his right hand and slapped the chain gently into his left hand a few times.  He felt better.  Weapon #1 was ready.

Who will find me first, those kids or my friends?

Carl pictured the boys wandering around the station trying to figure out where he’d gone.  Most of the people in the station, passengers and people who worked there, were white, so the boys might feel a little uncomfortable, might just give up their chase.

He wondered what Ron Benford would say about all this.  Ron of the light brown skin, one of only two “black” kids in Carl’s class at Mt. Carmel and one of Carl’s three best friends.  Ron would probably listen, he always listened, smile his bright smile, and tell Carl he should change schools if he didn’t like riding with “colored folk” through “colored folk” territory.  He’d be kidding, of course, as he always did when confronted with Chicago’s black/white relationships.

Ron and Carl had had this conversation many times.  “You would say ‘colored’ instead of black, because you’re far from black,” Carl would say.

“Yeah.  I actually prefer ‘colored,’ because that word includes all people of color, even your pasty pink-white ass,” he’d say.

And they’d laugh.

But for Carl, being the only pasty-pink colored kid his age for several city blocks in any direction from his house had long since become a real problem.  And travelling to and from school was also a problem.  Especially today, sitting on the baggage room floor of Englewood Union Station wondering whether his pasty-pink ass was about to be kicked by a bunch of other colored kids.  Again.

The pain in his leg had eased a bit, and Carl was relieved to see that the cut on his head had apparently stopped bleeding.  The towel he’d been holding against his head came back free of any new blood stain.

“Hey!  What you doin’ sitting there on the floor like a beggar?”

Carl jerked at the sound and smacked his elbow into the back of the counter.

“Christ, Wally,” he said.  “How’d you sneak up on me like that?”

“What the hell happened to you, kid?  Here.  Come on over and sit on a real chair.”

Carl stayed on the floor.  “You see any colored kids out there?” he said, pointing his thumb back over the counter like a hitchhiker.

“Not there.  Saw some nigger kids wandering around out on the platform.  Come on over here where I can take a look at that head.”  Basically a good guy, Wally Pierce was one of the older baggage handlers.  He was also basically a burly Mississippi redneck moved to the big city for work.  He’d signed up with Merle years ago and never moved on.  His Mississippi attitudes and language hadn’t moved on either.

Carl stood, slightly alarmed at how dizzy he felt.  The dizziness went away quickly and he sat down by Wally, making sure he was still out of sight from the main station area.

“Those boys do that to you?” Wally said.

“Naw.  I was running along 63rd and some guy bumped me.”

“A car?  You got hit by a car?  You get his name and license plate?  Did he stop?”

“Enough with the questions.  I was too busy trying to get away from those kids.  I just got up and kept running.  I just want to lose those kids and get home.  I gotta get out of her before those kids find me.”

“You sit right there while I go get the nurse,” Wally said.  “Cuts on the head are nuthin’ to fool with.  I’ll be right back.”

Is it just me, or is this place almost deserted just when it would be helpful if the usual hundred or more people were milling around out there?  Can’t stay here.  There’s only the counter and one other way out.  Those kids come around the corner there’s no way I can lose them.

He barely opened the door Wally had just slammed behind him and peered out at a shiny maroon Pennsylvania passenger train, wet, but brightened by its own lights and the reflected lampposts on the station platform.  He could see past the end of the train down the empty tracks, see most of his usual route home.

Clear.  Ten city blocks down the tracks, hop down on to the garage roof, hang-jump from the roof to the back yard and into the house.  Safe.

Four sets of Pennsylvania Railroad tracks ran diagonally from Englewood Union Station to Carl’s home close to 61st Place and Stewart Street, across from Englewood High School, and on through a neighborhood that been mostly Irish when Carl’s mother remarried and they’d moved into the big house.  Six years later Carl’s family and the Daugherty’s, who lived a few blocks further north, were the only white families north of 63rd Street and east of Normal Boulevard, or it seemed so to Carl.  If there were other white families they didn’t have any kids his age or he and Jimmy Daugherty would have sought them out for mutual protection if nothing else.

Carl opened the door a bit more.  Still clear.  He tossed his gym bag on a shelf  between some suitcases.  Merle and Wally would know it was his and they’d keep it safe for him.  He’d pick it up in the morning.

He checked both directions again and started trotting along the platform, always amazed at how little attention the waiting passengers paid a young guy running along a train platform, jumping off the end, running down the tracks and disappearing into the night.  Apparently nobody cared.

Twenty yards from the end of the platform one of his pursuers stepped out from behind a baggage cart.  Carl kept running.  The kid looked Carl’s age and size and stood grinning as Carl approached.

The kid said: “Got a cigarette, Jim?”

Sneaky bastards spread out around the station.  Carl sped up.

The kid flicked open a switchblade, waved it around a little.  “Say, Jim.  Hold up a minute.”

The kid was standing in the middle of the platform.  As he closed in, Carl imagined he was on a fast break and the kid was between him and the basket.  He faked right and went left, catching the kid’s knife hand with the choke chain.  The kid yelled as the knife clattered across the platform and fell onto the track.

Though Carl had carried the chain since he was caught without a weapon and clobbered a few years back, and though he’d waved it around a few times to discourage a few other potential clobberers, he’d never actually hit anybody with it.  The force of the swing he’d taken had jammed the end rings into his finger so hard he almost opened his hand to drop the chain.

But he held on and kept running, leaving the kid standing on the platform yelling about his hand.  But by that time Carl was too far down the tracks to hear him.  He slipped the chain off and rubbed his fingers while he ran.

He settled into a steady trot, careful to not slip on the wet rocks and ties holding the four sets of tracks that made up the roadbed the big steam and diesel engines used to pull their trains.  The roadbed was elevated; above street level and high enough to allow cars, trucks and people to go under a series of overpasses, called viaducts in Chicago English.  Carl had use the overhead route to get in and out of his neighborhood for several years.

He thought about the times he’d seen knives come out.

Never that fast.  Usually took a while, a few remarks back and forth before they came out.  And they usually were more for show.  These kids weren’t fooling around.

He kept racing into the dark.  It was hard going.  The rocks that held the ties and rails in place were uneven.  When he reached the first viaduct he stopped to look back at the station.  He’d already run almost three city blocks  and was barely able to make out the figures on the platform he’d jumped from.  He was surrounded by wet darkness.

Seven blocks to go.  The fifth rib.  Count the steel ribs that support the viaduct.

He felt behind the fifth rib and drew out the old baseball bat he and Jim had stashed there a few months ago.  Weapon #2 was ready.

He crouched down and behind what little cover the viaduct provided and again looked back at the station, looking for any signs of movement between him and the station’s lights.

There!  He couldn’t tell how many, but he was sure he saw movement.  Has to be them.  Wasted too much time here.  But it’s too dark for them to see me.  And I’m on familiar ground.  At least I hope so. 

Carl got up and ran.

At least I’ve got this bat.  I’ve never seen those kids; they can’t know where I live.  They’re on my territory.  I know these tracks and they don’t.

Carl had learned a loping running style, keeping his knees bent so he could quickly adjust when his footing gave way.  He ran two blocks to the next viaduct and reached behind the fifth rib; nothing there.  He wiped at his forehead with his sleeve, wondering whether the damp he felt was sweat, blood, or the drizzle that had been weak when he’d gotten on the bus but was now turning into all out rain.  He looked back at the station and saw nothing moving.  He started to get up when he heard footsteps on the rocks and voices.

“Watch where you running!  You went right where I was steppin’.”

Carl was horrified.  He thought he had a big lead, but the voices were close and getting closer.  He carefully eased himself back against and behind what little protection the steel bridge offered.  He held his breath.

“Where that boy?  He run so fast he invisible.”

“Ain’t no invisible.  He jus’ know where he goin’ and we don’t.”

“Man, shut up and run.  I ain’t seen nobody could outrun us yet.”

He watched four shadows go by on the second track.

Where are the other two?  That one I hit.  He’s going for help and one went with him.

Carl’s pursuers kept going.  They might have seen him if they’d turned around, but they didn’t.

But now they’re between me and home.  Now what?

He didn’t move until he could no longer hear them, then slid away staying close to the viaduct edge and hoping they didn’t turn around and see his shadow between them and the station lights, the same way he’d tried to track their progress.

He turned to make sure he could no longer see them and instead saw a headlight on a train engine.  He knew what came next, a loud and lonely sounding whistle to warn that a train was approaching the platforms and  crossover tracks at Englewood Union Station.

Carl’s pursuers were stopped; frozen in the light from the powerful searchlight of the oncoming train, no doubt trying to figure out which track it was on and whether they were on that track.  He watched them point to the far side of the roadbed and quickly move there.

Bud knew from the sound of its whistle that the oncoming train was a freight train, one with those lonesome, wailing steam whistles that sent a shiver down his back, while the newer diesel locomotives had horns that sounded like the ones on the ships on Lake Michigan.  The diesels were on passenger trains.  So Carl knew freight trains heading toward the station were on the second track, the one the colored boys had been on.  From the train’s headlight he could tell the boys had scurried to the far side of the roadbed.  That was a break for Carl.  He knew that freight trains slowed as they approached the stations and the crossovers, and that the oncoming train would be between him and those boys.

Carl knew all this because he had spent hours watching, dreaming, waving, and often scampering up on the roadbed to talk with the engineers and other train people when the big locomotives stopped right next to his back yard.  The trains always slowed, and often stopped because Englewood Union was very busy.  Carl knew that the signal lights by the sides of the tracks meant the same thing any traffic light meant; green is stop, red is go, and yellow means caution.

Almost too late Carl remembered the freight train was slowing.  He saw   the boys on the far side pointing at him and starting to move his way.  Another decision.  Was the train long enough for him to keep it between him and get all the way home before the train’s caboose, its last car, went by?  What if the train came to a compete stop?  He’d lost track of the time.

Was this the regular freight train that was about twenty city blocks long and only slowed down, or one of the several smaller trains that came by with only a few empty boxcars and a caboose and stopped for several minutes?

Carl’s answer came quickly when he saw the red side lights of a caboose about a block behind the locomotive, and if it stopped he’d be standing there holding a bat watching four colored kids determined to kick his butt run right up to him in the middle of his secret route home, at night, thirty feet above street level, with not a soul to help him.

To Carl’s relief, the train slowed, but didn’t stop.   Now it was a race for those kids to get to Carl’s side of the four-track roadbed before the train blocked their way.

Staying on his side of the roadbed, Carl ran toward the train.

Great night for a train ride.

Carl had already hopped on several slow-moving freight trains with the carelessness of the young, to save himself the trouble of having to walk to or from Englewood Union Station.  This train was heading the wrong way, back toward the station, but he had no choice.  It was either get to the train first, grab a cold wet ladder rung and pull himself up and on one of the freight cars, or get stomped.  Or worse.

He hopped over the first track on an angle that would put him next to the back end of a freight car he recognized as a coal hopper.  When he was even with the ladder on the side of the coal hopper and moving at the same speed, he grabbed the ladder and climbed up far enough to see over the tops of the rest of the train and discovered he was on the third car of an eight car train; seven coal hoppers and a caboose.  The light from the small raised section of the caboose cast a glow over the empty coal hoppers.  Carl guessed the train would stop a few blocks past the station where he knew empty cars sat waiting to make up a new freight train.

He tried to see the four kids he was trying to avoid, hoping to see them standing alongside track two waiting for the train to go by.  He couldn’t see them.

No way those kids would hop this train.  They couldn’t see me hop it. 

He was surprised to hear the train whistle blow again and noticed it was speeding up.  He slowly took two steps down on the ladder.

Too late.  Train’s moving too fast.  Jump off now I could get hurt.  And those kids might find me.  Hope this thing slows down before Pennsylvania.

As the train blew by Englewood Union a few people standing on the platform looked his way.  One little girl waved at him.

Carl still held on to the bat.  He slipped it between the side of the coal car and the ladder to use it as an extra place to hold on by sliding his arms behind it.  Cold, wet, and hanging on, he had to smile.

Those kids must think I’m a magical white boy that can disappear up on the railroad tracks.  Who were they?  And why’d the knife come out so fast?  And how am I going to get home?

An hour that seemed like three or four hours went by.  The train hadn’t slowed since it sped by Englewood Union.  Carl recognized the freight yard between East Chicago and Gary, Indiana whiz by.  He watched the train signals, hoping for a red.  Even a yellow might slow it down enough for him to jump off.  The rain pelted him.  Without the glow of city lights he could barely make out the shape of the coal hopper he was hanging on.

And the noise!  The engineer blew the whistle at every crossing.  The racket from the wheels made his head hurt.  If the train had boxcars or flatcars he might have tried to make his way back to the caboose.  Tell the yardies his story and hope for the best.  But the coal hoppers were too dangerous.  Huge, dirty, empty rectangular boxes, their insides sloped down to the doors at the bottom that opened to spill out the coal they carried.  The insides offered no footing and allowed no crossing from car to car.  Carl was stuck on the ladder.

At last he heard the couplers clang together.  That meant the train was slowing down.  He peered ahead to see the lights of what looked like a loading track next to a large building.  When the train slowed enough he dropped from the ladder and scampered across the adjoining track, flattening himself on the ground next to the far rail just before the caboose trundled by.  When he thought the caboose was far enough from him, Carl raised up to see whether he could start running.

He saw two yardies standing on the back porch of the caboose, one leaning out and facing forward to check the train’s arrival, the other smoking a cigarette and fussing with something on the back door of the caboose.

Now.  Move it while they’re still on the train and moving away.

He picked himself up, dropped the bat, and ran along in a crouch.  He was shivering cold.  The sloshing of his soggy shoes made more noise than the other sounds of his running.  He remembered there were some lights a few minutes before the train had slowed.

Maybe somebody will let me use a phone. 

His head was aching, his arms and legs stiff, but he began to warm up as he ran.  As he settled into a rhythm he couldn’t help feeling a bit smug and a bit scared at the same time.

Got lucky this time.  Outfoxed those kids.  But – can’t keep hopping freight trains.  And where am I?

He was coming up to a road.  The crossing gates were down and several cars were stopped.  He slipped to one side and turned just as a passenger train came zooming by.  He reached the road and decided he’d had enough of trains for one night, stuck his thumb out, and began walking  past the waiting cars.

Indiana plates.  At least it’s not Ohio or Pennsylvania.  Must have been hanging on to that ladder a shorter time than I thought.

A car door opened.  “Get in, son.  You look like you could use a ride.”

I must be tired.  How else could I have not noticed the light on top and SOUTH BEND PD on the side of the car?

The South Bend cops got him dried off and warmed up.  A woman with a badge put a bandage on his head.

After calling his mother, they put him on a bus back to Chicago, but not before he sat facing a white-haired man he thought had to be too old to be chasing bad guys.  And while he told his story it seemed like every cop in South Bend stopped by to raise eyebrows and put on other surprised faces when he told them yes, he had held on to the ladder of a coal hopper, with no gloves, in the rain, in the dark, on a freight train from south Chicago to South Bend.

The white-haired old guy turned out to be the Chief of Police.  He told Carl somebody at Englewood Union had reported a kid hanging on to a ladder on the side of a freight train.

“My guy who took the call told me it was probably some runaway,” the Chief said.

“Nope.  Not a runaway,” Carl said.  “I was on my way home when these six colored kids I didn’t even know got on this bus.  They didn’t seem very friendly.”

But Only As A Tourist

Back then, the one who believed in me lived thirty square blocks west.

Most Chicago streets are squares or rectangles, called “blocks” by the natives. The main streets are fastened to the ground by taverns, currency exchanges, liquor stores, Walgreen’s drugstores, storefront restaurants, and all manner of other enterprises. The city was laid out that way, in straight blocks that seldom let you see a sliver of sky touch the street where it ends on the horizon, and mostly straight streets that keep the same names from one side of the city to the other, often for miles. Mom’s house was where I could indulge in lofty expectations for both my future and my self.

1948 – Eight years old.

We came out the side exit. Mom always wanted to arrive early when we went to the Southtown Theater to feed the swans and ducks at the pond in the lobby and watch a movie. It was a scene I would never see again in the multiplexes years later: a huge pond with ferns, rocks, water lilies, live swans and ducks swimming and walking around and begging popcorn and staring at me. All this in the lobby of a movie theater. And although she always wanted to arrive early, she always took the quickest way out when the movie was over.

On the way out Mom would open the door a little and peer out behind a shiny hand that she held up to shield her eyes from the transition to bright sunlight, her other hand closed around mine, tugging me along. She moved at a slow trot, with quick little steps. In the winter she’d pull at my arm and tell me how moving quickly over the packed snow and ice was the only way she could keep her balance. Leaving the movie theater she’d sigh: “Back to reality. Didn’t you just love it when that little boy tried to save the dog from the clutches of that nasty old crone? That was a brave thing to do for such a little boy, now wasn’t it?” I was too young to be embarrassed by the Irish in Mom’s speech, but not too young to hope none of my friends saw me being steered down 63rd Street by my grandmother.

All the days of her life her children and grandchildren called her Mom. Fifty years after she changed her first child’s diaper she still wouldn’t abide Grandma, Grandmother, Gram, or anything other than Mom. “I’m just not up to that now, am I?” she’d say, more statement than question. And who would argue? For me, Mom could do no wrong.

1956 – Sixteen years old.

My room had been at Mom’s off and on for the better part of a year. At Mom’s I thought I had begun to win the struggle to keep my balance. My life was school, work in Sol’s Wachovsky’s jewelry store, a chore list, sports that changed with the seasons, and dreams of escape. In the house ruled by my mother and stepfather, I choked on shouting, slammed doors, discouragement. “Believe in yourself,” Mom would command. “If you can read you can do anything, and you’re a good reader.”

1957 – Seventeen years old.

My last full summer in South Chicago was beer truck deliveries and bar clean-ups, mowing lawns and clipping hedges, delivering pizzas and shooting baskets, running errands and running bases.

On a sticky July night I climbed the porch steps late, Mom’s television set providing the only light from its eerie glow through the living room window. I could see her through the window as I reached for the front door with my key. She was asleep in her chair, her legs on the footrest, her hands clutching the Chicago Tribune in her lap. I slid my key in the lock, opened the door, and stepped into the small entrance hall, closing the door as quietly as a thief. I opened the inside door to the living room just as quietly but was greeted by wide open eyes and a big grin. “What a lovely program I was lookin’ at just now,” Mom said, stifling a yawn. “You look ready for some Jell-O and ice cream.”

“It’s a test pattern on the screen, Mom. You shouldn’t wait up for me,” I said.

“I’m not so old and daft I can’t decide for my own self what time to go to bed. Besides, I want to tell you about a movie we’re off to see tomorrow. If you can spare your old Mom the time.”

Over strawberry Jell-O and vanilla ice cream she read the paper to me. “Says right here the Russians might have more bombs than we do. Here’s a movie for us: A Thousand Clowns, with Jason Robards and Martin Balsam.” She put the paper down and sipped her tea. With her free hand she wiped at the table with a dishrag.

I wondered how many movies the Air Force would let me see the next four years. “My plane isn’t until eight,” I said, “enough time for three movies.”

“Three movies indeed,” she said. “You’re doin’ the right thing. Choosin’ your path instead of just lettin’ yourself be blown like a leaf in the wind.”

How did she always know when I needed her encouragement?

The next day we caught the bus and the movie. I suspected Mom had snuck off by herself to see it before, because when his nephew told Jason Robards that he had to get back to reality Mom whispered the retort right along with Robards: “I’ll only go as a tourist.” She nudged me with her elbow. “Back to reality, but only as a tourist,” she said. “What a lovely thought.”

1965 – Twenty-five years old.

Mom had cruised through her sixties and into her seventies. I held on to life like a water skier; moving ahead until the boat slowed down, a big wave came by, or the rope broke.

I’d call and stop by to fix a leaky faucet, a sagging storm door, or a ceiling that needed paint – if Mom didn’t beat me to it. Sometimes I’d see her at my stepdad’s tavern, where I cleaned up and where my mother still tended bar in the afternoon. Once in a while Mom would bring some friends for what she called “Nips and Grins.”

“Seen any good ones lately?” I asked her one evening at the tavern. We sat at the end of the bar, near the back door, and spoke while occasionally turning toward each other but mostly looking at reflections in the mirror behind the bar.

“Not a one,” she said. “And what about you? I expect you can’t afford the time or the money what with the wife and the two wee ones lookin’ to you, now can you?”

“I could still go see a film with my Mom now and then.”

“Film is it? Film’s what I put in my camera. If it was a movie you’d be up to, I might have an interest to take it in.”

I insisted on a plan and on the day I left my downtown cubicle early and took her to see Sean Connery in Goldfinger.” She came up with a new line as we exited the theater: “No tellin’ what reality might be after that.”

1966 – Twenty-six years old.

A few weeks after my birthday I received a call at work from one of my sisters. “Mom’s broken her hip. She had a few beers with her pals and when she got home she couldn’t find her keys and decided to climb up a ladder and go through the pantry window. She almost made it, but stumbled on something in the pantry and fell.”

I left work to go straight to the hospital. Soon as I saw her I felt a stir in the air, an angel passing by. On my third visit she gave me a look I never thought I’d see in those eyes that had saved me so many times, a look that made me realize hope was a visitor that didn’t stay long before offering an excuse to leave early.

“Why the long face?” I said. “Surely you’re busy telling all the doctors and nurses how things should be done around here?”

She looked through me. “You’ll need to be helpin’ your mother sort things out, now won’t you?”

I wondered what else; had the sinking feeling there was more than a broken hip. On the way down the hall to Mom’s room I’d passed my mother and her brothers and sister, my uncles and aunt. They said they were going back down to care for my children and their cousins, all too young to visit a hospital room in 1974. Mom’s children taking charge.

Two weeks later I stood on the steps at St. Rita’s Church listening to an older cousin tell me I should start thinking about dressing more warmly as we both stood shivering in light coats. My tears held off right through the services at the church and cemetery but came in such a flood on the drive home I had to pull off the road and get out of the car.

That night, my family safe with their dreams, I pulled my jacket tight against my pajama top and closed my eyes against the chill wind in my back yard. I looked at the stars but in my mind pictured Mom sipping tea with one hand and cleaning the table with the other, using leftover wash water to scrub the basement floor, checking on pans of bread and rolls rising on the kitchen radiator, stopping at the Baptist Church because she like their music better than the Catholic music at St. Rita, dishing up Jell-O and ice cream at midnight, inviting the scissors sharpener from his cart in the alley to a place at her lunch table. I heard her voice whispering to me like a conspiring bandit about life breaking an Irishman’s heart before he was thirty-five and how I was “the marryin’ kind,” the kind who won’t be happy without lots of family around. I saw her kneeling by the side of her bed for evening prayers and heard her reminder that God helps those who help themselves.

I wanted, not for the first time, to go back in time. To burrow down in a cave of sleep in my aunt’s fur coat in Mom’s back bedroom while I listened one more time to the laughter and the shuffle of cards; see Mom one more time at Halloween, wrapped in an old blanket, with makeup applied in ways the manufacturer never intended, curlers and floppy bows in her hair – she called it her “wool” – trekking along Chicago sidewalks with gangs of pirates, princesses, cowboys. sailors, and monsters of all kinds. She would look around to make certain only children could see, then take out her teeth and wiggle her mouth around and look like a photo of a toothless old Indian woman in a National Geographic. I still have that blanket; use it for Sunday naps, the scent of it transporting me back in time.

I wanted once more to be awakened by a scratching sound from the edge of my bed. Then a breathing sound. Then a lift of the covers to reveal a long snout resting a few inches from my head. Lady, a German Shepherd, wearing a pair of spectacles and one of Mom’s frilly nightcaps. A contest to produce the bigger ham, Lady or Mom, her peeking around the doorframe to judge the effects of her dog’s disguise.

I once read that grandparents and grandchildren are close because they have common enemies. I let my eyelids lift slowly and looked up through the crisp winter air and wondered if my grin was the same as hers.

I saw my daughter staring at me from a corner of her bedroom window, one hand clutching the satin at the end of her blanket and the other rubbing her earlobe between thumb and forefinger. I waved and she turned away.

I wondered again at the love that Mom had poured out to me, and the optimism she displayed about my chances in life. It took me a long time to understand that she was teasing about only going back to reality as a tourist. At the end of A Thousand Clowns, even Murray Byrnes, the character Jason Robards plays, goes back to work. He sees that his nephew will be put in a foster home if he, Byrnes, doesn’t get back to reality.

Mom taught me that reality is not simply to be toured, looked at but not participated in. Reality demands attention, perseverance, the ability to get on with doing whatever is needed to be a decent human being, spouse, parent, friend – even when no one is looking.

As I made my way to our back door to return to bed, I said a prayer about being a special someone to my wife, my children, and my children’s children. Thank you, Mom, for all your gifts, large and small.

Health Care Reform Sabotage

(Note: the following extremely short story is a work of fiction. Any similarities to actual persons or events are purely coincidental. EJB)

The entire scam was much easier to pull off than any of them had thought. Just a week before the final steps were taken, Bill Loyd was ready to call it off. “No way we can keep a lid on this,” he said. “With all the media attention somebody’s sure to spill their guts when people get frustrated trying to enroll. Then the hounds are let loose and our asses are sure to be toasted blacker than an eight-ball.”

“You worry too much,” said Ralph McLane, chief aide to the House Minority Leader. “We’ve got this debacle on track and sealed up tight. There’s more layers to slog through they’ll never get to us, and besides, a few of the links in the chain are no longer with us”

Loyd slammed his fist on the table. “Jesus Christ, Hugh! How many times do I have to remind you to keep that kind of information the hell away from me? If the shit does hit the fan I don’t want to know all there is to know. I want to be able to deny any….”

“I understand, I know,” Ralph interrupted. “No more information than absolutely necessary. Let’s move on.”

Not fully satisfied, Loyd turned to the other two conspirators. “Before we move on, I want assurances. I want assurances once again; that this can’t come back on any of us. Dirty tricks are one thing, but what we’re doing amounts to wasting millions of tax dollars, and if….”

Ralph interrupted again. “For chrissake, Bill, we’ve done all we can. If anything, we may have sealed it up too tightly.”

Lester Tryon jumped in. “How can that be? Sealed up too tightly? That means what?

Ralph sipped his bourbon and said: “Some of the people doing the actual work are so far removed from us, the ones supposedly in control, that Pete Murdock, Dan Toohey and I are worried they might not be making the damn thing work poorly enough. We want an Affordable Care Act website nightmare, not a bump in the road.”

“And what are you doing about that?” Loyd said.

“We’ve infiltrated some of our guys into the project,” Ralph said. “Some real hard-asses with guaranteed ways to screw things up or at least make sure the contractor’s people are screwing things up. Had to convince the head honcho on the consulting team that if he wouldn’t agree to letting us drop some of our people on the team we’d pull the plug on him. Bring in somebody more cooperative.”

“And we know the contractor and his people will keep their mouths shut.”

“Right. Reason one: they are taking part in the felony. Two: no more contracts. Reason three….”

“OK, that’s enough,” Loyd said. Is the start-up still October 1?”

“Yup,” Ralph said. “I can’t wait to see the long faces over in the White House when they realize they’ve been had. The damn website will be a total disaster.”

“It better be,” Loyd said. “After all we went through to make sure the right people were picked to screw it all up. And all the money we spent doing just that.”

“And you’re sure they can’t get it fixed?” Tryon said.

“Oh they’ll probably get it fixed,” Ralph said. “But too late. It will take time and money, and while they’re scrambling to end the nightmare we’ll be pounding the drums on our campaign to take back the Senate.”

“Let’s hope you’re right,” Loyd said.

“You know I’m on the right all the time, Bill,” Ralph said. “And far enough on the right to make sure you and your friends can trust me completely. When this website fiasco gets going, there’s no telling how much damage it will do to those who have supported this so-called health care reform. It will cut their hearts out, and not just the parts that are already bleeding.”

“OK,” Loyd said. “On to the next item. How are we doing with voter registration? We can’t afford to let all those low-lifes to keep voting in those other low-lifes.”

And at that point the recorder failed.

One Time – 3 Under Par!

A bad day for Jack Nicklaus: 75, with maybe 30 putts.
Any day I get to be on a golf course is a good day. Once I had a career day. Under par by 3 strokes. For 18 holes. 15 pars and 3 birdies. On a real golf course, 6,113 yards of real golf course, my home golf course, Wake Forest Golf Club in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Wake Forest Golf Course is now a distant memory, over a hundred acres of weeds since its closing in the Fall of 2007, but I still have my signed scorecard with my One Time! round framed and on the wall in my home office.
I wailed away at various types of golf balls with various types of equipment for 35 years before the big day. I sullied golf courses from California to Virginia, from Washington (the State) to Texas, and in a few foreign countries. My lowest handicap ever was a 6, which I clung to for a month before a prolonged sinking spell that got it back up to double digits, my more frequent level.
I thought it might be amusing for those who, with good reason, might marvel at the spectacle of a 63 year-old firing his first under par round ever, to learn about how much good fortune, successful safecracker luck, it takes for a 10+ handicapper to achieve an under par round.
Fear not. You are not confronted with a complete play-by-play. Only five holes, and only to demonstrate what all who golf their balls know: luck is more important than skill.
Number 5 – 379-yard par 4, dogleg right, second shot over a pond.
On the tee, astonished at having arrived at the 5th tee at even par, I drilled my drive dead into the woods on the right, only to find the ball impossibly located in a spot where I could advance it toward the green. Undaunted by the pond in front and the overhanging branch that prevented me from launching directly at the green, I reasoned that a modest punch shot to a strip of dry land on the left, avoiding the pond and keeping it under the branch, would put me in a position where I might get up and down for a bogey or even a 5th par in a row.
I proceeded to scull the ball dead right (again). The ball made it under the branch and over the pond (three skips on the water), coming to rest on the fringe of the green, some thirty feet from the pin. Whew. Remembering the immortal words of Ken Venturi: “A bad shot with a putter is better than a bad shot with any other club,” I pulled out the flat stick and stroked the ball dead center for a routine birdie. When my playing partners finished throwing up, we slogged on.
A 3 that should have been a 7. Or worse.
Number 11 – 328-yard par 4, dogleg left, over a creek on the 2nd (blind) shot to an uphill green tilted from back to front at no more of an angle than a line drawn on a map from Seattle to Mexico City.
It was an acceptable tee shot, 160 yards with a 5-iron, not in the creek where most of my tee shots on this hole found their way. The pin was front right, requiring another 160-yard uphill second shot, this one across the creek and up the hill. On TV they often say things such as: “The creek is not in play on this shot.” For me a creek in the same zip code is in play. Right and left of the green are dead; woods on both sides, and a drop of some 20 feet on the right, leaving an embarrassing third from the 9th tee, where there is always a group to watch you try to get the ball up the hill, through the trees and on the green. A short 2nd shot winds up in rough, leaving a delicate uphill third with the club head slicing through Bermuda no tougher than a Brillo pad. I pulled my magic 5-iron, figuring it got me this far, so why not? I wanted to stay below the hole, because above the hole is 3-4 putt territory, downhill. Naturally I pull-hooked the shot but did get it on the green, only 50 feet or so downhill with a left to right break requiring the putt be struck at a right angle to the pin. Oh so delicately I stroked the putt (on the toe – thanks again to a tip from Venturi – so as to deaden the strike and keep the ball on the green). The ball took off like a scalded ape, but slowed for the 30-foot descent until it reached the halfway point on its downward roll, where it began to pick up speed, coming to a stop in the rough below and some eight feet off the green. My faithful sand wedge in hand, I jabbed at the ball and looked up time to see it strike the flagstick with no small amount of force, accompanied by a loud clang as the ball dropped in the hole for a par. By now my playing partners had nothing left in their stomachs, so we trudged on to the 12th tee.

Number 14 – 327-yard par 4, slight dogleg left, second shot over a pond.
A thing of beauty off the tee with a 3-iron, followed by a thing of even more beauty 2-3 feet from the pin and a putt that crept over the edge of the cup for a routine birdie. This hole may not belong in this discussion of luck except for the fact that the day before I had taken an 8.
Number 16 – 469-yard par 5, downhill from the tee, slight dogleg right from a good tee shot, with a few hundred yards uphill to another green tilted from back to front.
After an acceptable drive of about 230 yards, and fully aware that I was playing the 16th hole and was 2 under par, I stressed the thread connecting the upper portion of my shoes to the heels and soles by swinging so hard I almost fell down, advancing the ball another 50 yards. With about a 180-yard uphill third shot to reach the green, I relied on my 3-iron. It was one of those rare moments when you feel the ball compress on the clubface. You just know you’ve tagged it. The ball leaped off the clubface slightly left, faded gently to the right, and came to rest no more than 10 inches from the cup, from where I confidently tapped in for my 3rd birdie of the day.
Number 18 – 364-yard par 4, slightly uphill then slightly downhill, dogleg left.
I normally sweat a lot. Standing on the 18th tee at 3 under par, I must have resembled one of those computer generated figures in a Gatorade commercial, the ones that are formed from drops of liquid, presumably the Gatorade. Is it in you? Just get it somewhere out there where you can bunt it somewhere near the green. Do no worse than double bogey and you’ll still have a career round of 1 under par.
My playing partners were as silent as a baseball team when a pitcher has a no-hitter going. So far I’d had 14 pars and 3 birdies; the honors on the tee had been mine all day.
I got all of it on the drive; at least enough of it to have only a 7-iron left. With as much aplomb as I could muster, I stepped up to my second shot and pull-hooked it pin-high into the front left sand trap.
Oh boy. Sand traps and I, although not strangers, do not share what I would call a comfortable relationship. There is no in-between for my sand shots. They are either very good or very bad. By very good I mean a makeable putt of 15 feet or less for the next shot. By very bad I mean two or three mighty blows to get it out, or over the green, perhaps to clang off someone’s deck.
I got in the trap with my sand wedge. Just hack it out of here, get it somewhere on the green and 2-putt for a 70, your best score ever by 2 shots.
In my mind I played a video of Ernie Els on the Golf Channel: dig in with an open stance, open the club face, take it up quickly with a long, lazy swing, hit the sand behind the ball and follow through – no decel!
Up it went, over the edge of the trap and on the green, leaving a 20-foot left to right deal – about a foot of break. I jabbed at it, keeping all but my arms and shoulders as steady as possible with sweat dripping off the brim of my cap, down my back, and into my shoes. The back of the cup somehow absorbed the shock of a golf ball hitting it at about 70 miles an hour, it dropped in and I had my first under par round. To watch my reaction, you’d have thought it was Sunday at the Master’s. A 69 – one time!
Would that everyone who loves the game experience an under par round at least once. For me it took a ton of luck. For tour players, under par is a reasonable expectation; for the rest of us, it’s nothing short of a miracle, one of those times you yell “One Time!” several times. And it happens!
A few months later I had my first ace, but it was nowhere near as exciting as 15 pars and 3 birdies. Got me thinking about the super seniors – until my next round – an 86.

It began as a short story……

I’ve been posting a short story every so often and have received some positive comments from readers.  Many thanks to all.

Then there are the readers who ask when my next novel will be ready.

It turns out one of the short stories I’ve been working on the past few weeks is threatening to turn into a novel.  No sense trying to write what it’s about – the question everybody asks – because as I write it may well start out in one direction and zoom off in another.  Let’s just say so far it deals with racial situations in south Chicago in the 1950’s – at least one part of it does.  At the moment.  The characters, as authors often say, may drive the story in a different direction, but for now…..

Magic Lessons

Magic Lessons

Patrick Brendan Murphy, my mother’s father, came to America from County Cork, Ireland, as a teenager. He told all his grandchildren one Christmas Eve that the inhabitants of ancient Irish ring forts dug tunnels to crawl into when they were attacked. When the attackers reached the inside of a ring fort they found an empty dirt floor. They’d run to the outer walls ready to launch spears and arrows at fleeing Irishmen, only to see fields as empty as the ring forts. In an early demonstration of Irish wit, the people who took those tunnels from the forts would pop up from out of the dirt a few hundred yards distant, wave at their tormentors, and waggle their treasures over their heads while they did a little jig, and then they’d disappear back into the earth. And that’s how leprechauns got started: giving magic lessons.
Everyone else knew Michael Healy was a leprechaun, that he could dance with gold as his partner and beckon you to join in, only to disappear long before anyone caught on to his magic. I took an early dislike to him, but it didn’t last.
His classroom for magic lessons was the Dew Drop Inn in South Chicago, a 63rd Street bar and pool hall with as much ambiance as its name, which insiders always shortened to just “The Drop.” It was the kind of place that grows in big cities like mold on cheese, only you can’t scrape it off and save only the good parts. The politicians hired family and friends with degrees in urban planning, but 63rd Street ignored them and thrived as a warren of booze hangouts, eight to the city block on some stretches. At The Drop you could shoot pool, exercise one or two more muscles than it took to hold your elbow together during the voyage of drinking glass to anxious lips. Six pool tables were spotlighted like stepping stones to the back door. A row of high-backed stools with swivel seats, enough for a small gallery of onlookers, lined the back and side walls. Huge ashtrays were emptied once a month. Leftover light from neon in the windows and weak fluorescent tubes over the mirror behind the bar lent small disguise to dusty bottles and desperate faces. A tired television set provided the other light by the bar; each pool table had its own low-hanging light just over the center of the table.
I sought the simplest of games, eight-ball or cutthroat, avoiding games that demanded more skill. My mere presence beside a pool table inspired a certain eagerness among the regulars, who were nearly always anxious to praise my
progress and potential with wide smiles while folding my dollars into their pockets.
But, thinking I was improving, I persisted. Cradling my glass of beer in one hand and my hustler’s wooden case in the other I gave it my casual stroll from the bar to the pool tables. I had rescued the case and the three-piece pool cue at Kline’s Sporting Goods, the same Kline’s where Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased his rifle through the mail. While I examined a few pool cues, I had asked the sales guy if he’d gotten any mail orders from Dallas lately – for rifles with telescopic sights. He wasn’t amused.
The way it worked at The Drop, if you hung around long enough, and if you didn’t look like a cop who let his beard grow for a couple of days, who thought not changing his clothes or not taking a shower after some garden work would make him look like he fit in, eventually you’d get a game. I set my case on the floor next to the wall and climbed up on a chair to study the two closest pool tables.
On my right a high stakes game attracted some attention from the regulars. I’d seen Skinny Brown work his own brand of magic a few times. This time he was playing some downtown suit at ten bucks a crack and doing quite well, judging from the circles of sweat on the suit’s shirt and the way Skinny would miss a shot now and then to keep the suit thinking he had a chance. Skinny flashed me a grin and let the suit win a game right after I sat down.
A few games and a few less ten dollar bills in the suit’s pocket later, there appeared this new guy hanging around looking like he was waiting for the suit to surrender. Sometimes you just react to the way somebody looks. He had on a shirt made out of shiny blue stuff that fit him loosely, a soft-looking brown leather jacket that would cost me four paydays, neatly creased tan pants, and spotless brown loafers. He was much shorter than my six-two, maybe five-eight, and had a smooth, round face with a wide mouth, a too-large nose, and black hair so stiff and shiny it looked like he brushed it back with two pieces of buttered toast. His tired-eyed, indifferent expression and his slow way of moving told me that he knew he was real slick.
An old guy everybody called Stump slept in the chair next to me. He woke up and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, looked around, and gave me a gentle poke with his elbow. “How long’s the Leprechaun been here?” he whispered.
I pointed to the slick one. “Him?”
“Yeah.”
“A few minutes.”
“Watch your ass with the Leprechaun,” Stump muttered. He eased himself down and shuffled off toward the back door.
Skinny let the suit win another game, then told him he had to be somewhere else. After a few heated words about giving him a chance to win his money back, the suit left. Skinny drained a beer and left a few minutes later. The Leprechaun moved to the open table, drew his cue from his case, and looked my way.
“Michael. Michael Healy,” he said.
“Jack Burke.”
“How’d you do, Jack. They call me The Leprechaun. Now and then.”
His brogue reminded me of listening to my grandparents. He waved his hand over the pool table.
“Care for a game?”
“I don’t play for money with people I don’t know well,” I said.
“Just so, Jack. And wise. How ‘bout just ticklin’ a few for fun then, just for the hell of it?”
“Why not?” I said.
He moved like someone on stage, a magician, gesturing and smiling, wanting you to look everywhere but at his hands.
“Watch this wizardry now,” he said. “The Leprechaun is dancin’, handin’ out magic lessons. Watch closely so’s you don’t miss a thing. Don’t be lettin’ your eyeballs wander, and don’t blink, or you’ll be left to wonder what all the ooh’s and aah’s are about.”
Some of the others at The Drop had gathered to watch. Michael Healy was very good. He would make a shot no ordinary player, certainly not me, would even recognize as possible. I made a few shots, even ran off five in a row once, but Healy was incredible.
I excel at hindsight, perhaps blindsight, ignoring what is clear to everyone else and figuring things out when it’s too late. I watched Healy operate and play to the swelling crowd, and my initial dislike melted away. The man had style.
After his performance we found stools at the end of the bar. I bought the beers and he steered the conversation. I’m not the type that makes dozens of friends, but thought I was good at it when I knew I should try. What I really wanted those days, what I was hungry for, was savvy. Street smarts. I yearned to be a winner for a change, and the longer we talked the more I began to worry that my envy hung like a sign with blinking lights on my chest: I want to study, to learn your magic; I want to be like you. I was certain that there were secrets to be learned, magic that would unlock the treasure chest without having to go through the trouble of earning the key.
Everyone liked Healy, or so I thought. I am older now and I’ve decided that if it all happened today I would recognize the relief in their eyes, hear the
unspoken gratitude when he directed his cleverness away from them and toward me.
A few weeks into my time as his student the Leprechaun was buying me another beer with my money. He told me that he made his living by finding people and things that were separated; that he was paid for putting them back together.
“And here I thought you made your living shooting pool,” I said.
His eyes narrowed and he gave me a wave of dismissal. “You got more smarts than that.”
“Just kidding,” I said.
He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke past my shoulder, staring at me in that way he had of making me think he was changing his mind about my basic worth as a human being. “There’s no real money in pool, laddie. Sometimes I put separated people together; sometimes it’s a person and a thing. People pay dearly for my services. You get the picture?”
“You a cop? Insurance guy?”
“Do I look like somebody’s slave?”
He did not. Over the rim of my beer glass I looked at him and imagined my boss taking him behind a closed door to tell him a black leather jacket, black shirt, gold tie, blue jeans and loafers were not appropriate for the office.
His eyes completed another quick survey of the room before returning to mine. “Well now, it’s a sure thing you’ll starve if you try to make a go of it as a pool shark.” Appreciating his own joke with a grin, he put a small pile of twenty dollar bills on the table and tapped them with his finger. “I need a favor if you’re interested.”
“What kind of favor?” I said.
“Pick something up, take it to a place, make a hundred.”
“Pick up what? Take it where?”
“Better you don’t know the what just yet. The where is a wee office downtown and a few other places. There are a few people who wouldn’t necessarily take kindly to seein’ a package cradled under this arm of mine,” he said, moving his arm as though he were about the give the cue ball a tap. “You know nothing about it. They don’t know you, you don’t know them. Just a simple pickup and delivery. Like I said, puttin’ someone and something together. A hundred. Like magic.”
I was interested, especially in the hundred.
Over the next few weeks the favors became more complicated, but I didn’t care. I was making a bundle, spending most of it on ladies, clothes, and pool. Looking back, the clues were right in front of my face the whole time. I just didn’t want to see them. Like I said, I excel in hindsight and blindsight. I was too busy congratulating myself on having more good times and especially on finding my pockets bulging with the results of Healy’s magic.
* * *
On one of those windy January nights when I was wondering why anyone would choose to live in Chicago, I dropped myself into the driver’s seat of Healy’s dark blue Cadillac. He had given me the keys and an envelope to deliver to an office on Randolph Street downtown. The Caddy cut through the wind and I cruised down Western past Gage Park to Archer, catching every green light and checking the mirrors. Healy never failed to warn me about the cops, about getting stopped in his Cadillac.
“If you do get stopped,” he said each time he handed me the keys, “do what they want and call me right away. Call me before you do anythin’ else as soon as you know the cops are gone.”
When I asked why, he just grinned.
“There’s plenty of Cadillacs out there, but only one of me and one of you.”
Another clue I ignored.
I’d been to the Randolph Street office twice. It was in an old-timey building with an elevator that had two doors and one operator. As you got into the elevator the first door was quiet and fancy and solid; the second door was a noisy metal accordion folding thing like a fence you could see through even when it was closed. When the elevator wasn’t stopped at your floor, the fancy door kept you from falling down the elevator shaft. The operator was a troll who sat hunched over the controls as though you were trying to learn how to run the elevator so you could steal his job.
The troll stopped the elevator at my floor, the fifth. The hallway smelled like a small convention of smokers had just stubbed out a few dozen cigarettes. The smoke was still hanging in the air and I tried to fan it away from my face by waving my hand.
When I reached my destination things did not go well.
The first door opened to a room that could only hold one chair and two or three other people as long as they didn’t want to sit. I stepped into the tiny room and held out the envelope to the guy sitting in the chair, a guy I’d seen there before. He was taking a nap, his newspaper clutched to his chest. I’d seen that before too, so I leaned over and tapped his folded arm with the envelope.
“Hey fella, got a delivery,” I said. Nothing. I gave his arm another tap, then nudged his shoulder. Still nothing. I gave his shoulder another nudge, this time a little harder. He leaned over so much I grabbed for his arm to stop him from falling to the floor, then jumped back and let him fall when the newspaper came away from his blood-covered chest.
I felt the side of his neck. No pulse. I stepped over him and reached for the doorknob on the second door thinking maybe I could open it, just put the envelope on a desk and get out of there. I tried to listen before opening the second door, but my heartbeat drowned out everything but the clatter of a small fan that rested on a shelf on the back wall. I pressed my ear to the door. No sound other than the fan and my heart thudding against my chest. I opened the door slowly, remembering that I was supposed to bring Healy something in exchange for the envelope. As the door opened I heard a sound like bird wings fluttering behind me. Next thing I knew I was eyeball to eyeball with the dead guy and peeling my face off the floor. I got out of the building as fast as I could, tripping on some part of the dead guy but still making my way to the stairs. No elevator for this trip.
The envelope was gone, and when I stumbled into our meeting place so was Healy. I found a pay phone and tried to call him. No answer. I drove the Caddy to my place, went in, and splashed my face with water. I covered the lump on my head with a hand towel I had packed with a few ice cubes.
I sat in my new easy chair and thought about driving the Caddy back to where I had picked it up, but before I got back up the cops were at my door. They knew where I had been. It didn’t take them long to tell me they would try to get me a deal if I didn’t stick to my lame story about getting hit on the head while trying to do a favor for a friend.
“Did you happen to notice the body on the floor?” one of the cops said.
“I didn’t see a body.”
“What was in the envelope you dropped off?”
“I don’t know.”
“What were you supposed to pick up?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’d you get the car?”
“Friend loaned it to me.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“Frank. Frank Johnson.” I said, giving them the name Healy told me to use.
“Are you really that stupid?” The cop took a deep breath and let it out. “Ever hear of a guy named Dell Maloney, calls himself The Leprechaun?”
“No.”
“Kevin Borland? Michael Healy?”
“No.”
“Son, we got witnesses say you knew this Michael Healy, Leprechaun or whatever, hung around with him, worked for him.”
The cops explained a few more things. The lawyer they gave me explained a few more things. They all knew more than I did.
I have plenty of time to study now. We are let out for meals and short times outside when the weather is good. But I wish I could find out more directly from Healy. I still think he knows things I should learn. I spend hours each day trying to remember old tricks, trying to learn more magic, but without time with the Leprechaun I worry that none of it will be enough to make me a winner. After all, Healy disappeared and I am still here counting the days and weeks and months until there are no bars on my door and I live in a place where there is more than one window.
The Leprechaun’s knows more magic and is long gone. Dug himself a tunnel and is out there somewhere dancing with the gold.
* * *