Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
Patrick Michael Finn
My older cousin Irene—we called her Reenie for short—got married six months after my father died.
The three of us—me, my mother, my older brother Jimmy—were still living on Landau Street then, two blocks from the Joliet railyards where my father had worked, and where, many years later, my brother and I got jobs when we finished high school. I know things could have been much worse for us. There hadn't been any agonizing months or even weeks of a gray, thinning illness with my father, but a stiff heart attack that kicked him flat as he walked home from work one night two weeks before Halloween. The railroad union relief fund and life insurance checks started coming in right away, so there weren't any worries about food, clothes, or housing. My mother, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, had only taken a week off work after the funeral, and still made sure we got our meals, and our asses out of bed in the morning to get to school on time.
Still, things were far from calm. I was only eleven, and the loss I felt was rooted in confusion, though I clearly remember knowing that my father was gone for good. I knew this even when I took to sitting on the stoop at dusk those first few weeks (something I'd never done when my father was alive), just to see what the sky above the neighborhood looked like at the time he should have been walking home from the yards. It was almost winter and the sun was gone by five, leaving the air purple and cold behind a rickety skyline of bare trees, phone poles, smokestacks, and steeples. The tired, steady shuffle of yard workers would pass in their oily blues, coughing over the filterless Camels and Pall Malls they clutched in their dirty fists. A few of them would wave or nod when they saw me, but most would hush and look at the ground, frightened by me, the little porch orphan who might have mistook one of them for his dead father and tried to follow him home. I wasn't waiting for anyone, but my mother thought I was being melodramatic.
"Come inside," she finally told me. "This is the hardest time of the day for me and I don't want to be in the house by myself. Besides, it's not healthy for you to sit out here in the cold like this every night. It won't change anything."
I think dusk was even harder on my older brother Jimmy, who was fourteen and hadn't been home for those hours in weeks. Father Zajc had told our mother to let Jimmy have extra time with his friends, so long as he tried to keep up with his studies and chores. But Jimmy wasn't keeping up with his studies; he'd just started high school a few months before and the deficiency notices were already coming to the house. My mother hadn't found these letters, since Jimmy always got to the mail while she was still at work. I watched him burn them in the dirt behind our garage, and he said if I told our mother about them he'd knock me into next month.
After my mother made me come inside that night, I followed her into the kitchen and watched her rinse cabbage in the sink. I realized she wanted me to be there with her, but I didn't know what I was supposed to say or do, so I stood by the table with my hands locked behind me and stared at her back, the floor, her back again, tense and thankful that at least the sink water was filling our silence. She shut off the faucet, braced her hands on the sink, then looked out the window and shook her head.
"The hell with Father Zajc," she said; I flinched because I'd never heard anyone, especially my mother, say something like that about a priest. "Jimmy's my son," she said. "Mine. I don't care what Father Zajc says. My son belongs at home."
She turned from the window and stared at me for a while, as if she was waiting for me to either agree with or argue what she'd just said. "Go find your brother," she told me.
"Right now?" I said.
"Yes," she said. "Go find him. Please. Get him home for dinner."
I was glad to get out of that kitchen, but I hated having to take Jimmy away from his friends because I knew he'd get mad and probably lose his temper. He knew how to channel his rage into painful abuse that didn't leave any marks, that didn't leave black eyes or split lips or bloody noses. He'd grab a lock of my hair and pull until I squealed, twist my arm behind me and yank so that my wrist was only inches from the back of my neck. I never told on Jimmy, but not because I was afraid of what he might do to me if I did. I never told on him because he always made up for what he'd done before I had the chance to get him in trouble.
"Hey, hey," he'd say if I started to cry. "Come on, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
As angry and hurt as I was, I'd believe him, especially when he'd point to his gut or cheek and say, "Go ahead, hit me back."
I took him up on his offer a few times. He squinted, yelped, fell over, even though none of my weak punches deserved that kind of response. I knew he was faking the pain, and even that made me feel better.
Jimmy hadn't touched me since our father's death, and I wanted things to stay that way, so that night I looked for him at all the spots where I knew he wouldn't be: Andy and Sophie's, the corner tavern packed for Monday Night Football; the Hrvatski Kulturni Klub, a place where the neighborhood’s oldest men played jukebox polkas and coughed war stories over games of barbudi and cards and short glasses of red brandy. Then I went to the Laundromat, bright, empty, and warm, and though I was freezing I didn't dare go inside, since I knew that Mrs. Kodiak, the crazy, starving widow who lived in the apartment above the place, would cram me into a dryer the second I stepped inside; Saint Sabina's, my family's parish, where I sat in a pew in the back long enough to warm myself, then got scared of the way the vigil candles made wavy shadows on the faces of the painted statues, so that their eyes and mouths looked evil and animated under thorns and drops of blood. I ran out of there and headed home so I could tell my mother I couldn't find Jimmy.
Two blocks from the house I cut through someone's yard and walked down the alley between Landau and Dearborn. I knew my mother would be waiting for me at the front door, and I didn't want her to see me coming home empty handed. I stepped on the cold, cracked alley pavement slowly, stalling the moment when I'd have to disappoint my mother, when I'd have to lie to her face and tell her how I'd honestly tried to find my older brother. I knew she'd ask where I'd looked, and as I shuffled alongside the darkened rows of garages and garbage cans, I made up a dishonest list of answers: Aladdin's Arcade, the schoolyard, Cheney Drug, and, where I actually did find Jimmy that night, the alley behind our house.
I saw him about half a block ahead under the white glow of the streetlight that hung from a phone pole near the corner, and I immediately ducked behind a garage and watched him from the shadows. He was with five of his friends, all of whom were crouched in a circle around something I couldn't see. Jimmy stood above and behind them, smoking. I thought at first that his friends were trying to set something on fire; whatever they were doing in the circle was a struggle that made them curse and jerk. Then the largest of them, Mike Rhomza, held a brick above his head and brought it down with a grunt that made the others laugh. My brother took a quick last drag off his cigarette, flicked it away, then crossed his arms and said, "Okay, for crissakes, quiet. Now bring it up."
The boys in the circle hushed, stood straight, and backed away. Jimmy already had another cigarette going. In charge, giving orders that were followed without question, casually smoking like a champ of old habit, my brother Jimmy had assumed the role of a grown up: maybe a cop or a railyard hack—maybe our father. I felt like running out from behind the garage and begging to be included in whatever they were doing, to be told what to do, to have unreasonable orders barked at me. I would have done anything he'd asked. But when Mike Rhomza turned from the circle and dropped the brick so that his other hand was free, he was covered in the glow of the streetlight, and I could see everything: his red winter cap, maroon coat, and the wounded, shaking gray cat he clutched with both hands by its neck.
"Hurry up," Mike said. "This fucking cat stinks like shit. I don't want to get its goddamn germs."
One of the boys picked up the brick and another produced a hammer and rusted rail spike, and again the group gathered in a circle around the illuminated phone pole, this time to nail the cat to the wood through the loose skin on its back. The animal's head shot back and its mouth stretched open, but only a dull hiss came from it. By then I was huffing the kind of hot breaths someone has right before he throws up, but I didn't look away until after the boys backed up to pitch rocks and bottles at the dangling cat, didn't leave my hiding spot until I watched Jimmy wind up a horrid brick pitch that crushed the cat's head and ended the game. Then I lost it, ran through another yard and back onto Landau. I thought I might puke, and didn't want to get caught from the gushing sound. Only a small part of me was sick from watching such a graphic torture. The rest of me was sick simply from knowing my older brother Jimmy was capable of such a thing.
My mother was waiting behind the front door when I got home. "What's the matter?" she said. "The color's all gone from your face."
"Nothing," I said, trying to get past her. "I couldn't find Jimmy is all. I looked everywhere."
She stopped me anyway, turned me around by both shoulders and lifted my head up with her thumb under my chin. "You're a sheet," she said, touching my cheek to check for a fever. I didn't think I was tough enough to hide what I knew from my mother, and waited for her to pull the truth from me with a long list of questions.
But she never did. "I shouldn't have sent you out running in the cold like that," was all she said. "You're sick now," she said, and I knew I was off the hook. She made up a plate of crackers and sent me upstairs to bed, assuring me I'd have to stay home from school the next day, a kind of gift, I believed, for enduring the chaos of searching and scheming and lying on behalf of my big brother, who should have been caught and brought home in the first place.
I lay in bed for an hour before Jimmy finally got back. Though our house had two floors, it was small enough to tell from upstairs where exactly people were talking, especially if they were arguing, and my mother hadn't let Jimmy get any further than the front door. They were at it down there, telling, shouting, yelling, back and forth and over each other so that I couldn't even make out what was said. Then I heard Jimmy march upstairs, and when he slammed our bedroom door behind him I jolted, pretending he'd woken me up, though he didn't notice one way or the other. He dropped his coat on the floor and sat on his bed without looking at me. His black hair was dirty and hung an inch over the collar of his red flannel shirt. I sniffed the air he'd brought in with him for cat blood, but I only picked up the salty yellow smell of cigarettes. I was propped up on my elbows, watching Jimmy and waiting for him to regard me, but he only stared at the floor, sucked on a finger stained by smoke, shook his head and muttered, "Shit," drawing the word out in a long whisper like he really meant it.
"Where were you?" I finally asked him, ready to catch him in a lie.
"Back in the alley," he said. Then he looked at me with his gray eyes that had grown deeper and more circled in the short time since our father's death. "We found a cat in the garbage back there, a stray. And we killed it. It was my idea to kill it and we did. I don't even know why."
"How did you kill it?" I said.
"Does it matter?" he said, very empty and defeated. "Just don't tell mom. Please. She's already on my ass for being out all the time. Okay?"
I nodded, and Jimmy got up to leave. He opened the door, looked in the hallway, then closed it again and said:
"Mom says you're sick from running around out there looking for me. I know you could have found me. Why didn't you look in the alley?"
"You did," he said, and crossed his arms. His circled eyes got narrow and hard. "Then why the hell didn't you say so? Why the hell did you have to ask me what I did?"
I got scared when he walked over to my bed. "You saw what I did?" he said.
"Yeah," I told him.
He asked me in stiff whispers why I hadn't told our mother, why I'd lied to her, and in my frightened silence, Jimmy started to look nervous. He crossed and uncrossed his arms then put them on his hips. He turned around in a half circle and ran his hands through his hair. And then he faced me and said:
"Did you lie because you're scared of me, or because I'm your brother?"
Of course I'd lied out of fear, but by then Jimmy's regret had convinced me to believe that he wasn't completely a monster, convinced me to see him as someone, however brutal and careless, to look up to. Why I'd lied wasn't important to me. I only wanted Jimmy to see that I had, and he did, and knowing this made him squirm. In the end, I never answered his question.
"I don't want you to lie for me," he said. "I'm not worth it." He turned to leave, shut off the light, and opened the door. But before he walked through it and closed it behind him to leave me alone in the dark, he stared at me for a second and said:
"But if you have to lie, do it because I'm your brother."
Most nights my father came home from work with hardly enough energy to talk, but I still don't blame his distance. He worked outside for ten-hour shifts in the vast open railyards, and season after season he was battered by choking humidity, and by sub-zero winds that froze the ground solid as rail steel. He was a big man, but never awkward or lumbering, and his nightly six packs of Old Style at the kitchen table never made him soft. Neither did the hot, rich breakfasts he ate every winter morning, those enormous platters that probably killed him: biscuits drenched in pork gravy, fried eggs and sardines covered with ketchup, salted sausage and home fries, gallons of whole milk and black coffee. None of that stuff—his beer, two-pack Camel habit, bad food—ever made my father look wrecked and stuffed, like most of the men on our block. He cared about the way people saw him: scrubbed, trimmed, and filed his nails; pressed his own shirts and slacks for Sunday mass; kept his black hair (the same shade he gave to Jimmy) set neatly and slicked back against his head with two fingertips of Royal Crown hair dress.
As strong and dapper as he was, those railyard shifts
kicked the hell out of him, made him so quiet, so gone even with us that I feared him, and wished that he'd at least raise his voice when Jimmy and I made too much racket. "Oh, Christ on His throne," was sometimes all he'd say, if he said anything at all, a mumble like someone talking in his sleep. He brought home those mumbles and groans each night with his cigarettes and beer, and kept them in the kitchen with the hands he rested his face in, with the elbows he kept propped on the table, until he knew, after two or three hours, that he was seconds from falling asleep like that, right there with the salt and pepper, the napkin dispenser, his beer can and ashtray. If my mother was at the sink, he'd get up and finish his beer next to her and stare out the window, his other tired hand rubbing her back. Then he'd pad away to bed, where he'd drop out for nine hours of numb, thoughtless sleep.
My father wasn't the kind of man who gave any form of daily credence to religion. The only time I saw him pray was in church, and even then the acts of crossing himself and mumbling responses and taking communion were too quick and mechanical for someone who made any effort to attend, let alone for someone who thought about Christ one way or the other. He went to church for my mother, who went to church for her children. The cross was just wood, and the body on it plaster, and my father never said a single word to us, his boys, about why any of it mattered. And so I'm still confused, baffled as all hell, really, when I think about my father's relationship with Christmas, how the tinsel and tacky strings of lights came over him, how gullible he was to get lifted in spirit by little more than a month wrapped in silver green plastic.
I don't know what went though his head to make him love the red sweaters and dopey songs; he simply did, and just about every December night after work he was moved to turn the kitchen into a Christmas party. Jimmy and I could have gotten sick on all the candy he brought home for us, bags of chocolate bars still cold from the drug store ice box, red vines, snow balls, and chunks of brown powdered nougat called nigger babies. And other nights there were bags of wonderful, useless things he'd bring us from the job, like mesh railroad caps, union buttons, pens and pocket protectors, tape measures, rulers, key chains, inch-long squeeze lights, all of these things colored red, white, and blue, etched with crests and insignias and slogans from the Local Brotherhood, Ten Decades of Dignity printed around tiny images of eagles and black fists clutching hammers.
My father certainly didn't drink any less that time of year, but his six packs failed to drag him into the exhaustion that usually pulled him away from the rest of us. The beer put a pink warmth in his face and hours of easy laughter in his chest, and it made him want to slow dance around the kitchen with my mother while they took turns sipping from the same can, the only time I saw my mother drink. His Christmas beers turned him into a magician who knew how to make a cigarette vanish in his ear or nose, then appear with a snap from the corner of his mouth before he lit it to blow a long row of smoke rings, perfect and round as quarters, white rolling circles that Jimmy and I would poke with our fingers and struggle to catch in our hands.
Upstairs in bed, our heads buzzing from all the chocolate, Jimmy and I would lay awake and listen to our mother and father laugh together in the kitchen, a sound as distinct and memorable as the silence that would follow, when I knew they were kissing. I'm sure they took each other to bed every one of those nights, and since Jimmy and I both have birthdays in September, I'm sure that Christmas was what urged our father to make us.
And that's why that first one without him was so goddamn miserable. The three of us spent a Saturday putting up the tree and ornaments, and my mother played holiday albums on the stereo. Other than the few times we spoke to one another that afternoon, we worked in a disconnected, joyless quiet, which seemed ridiculous next to the Como, Crosby, and Sinatra carols, those stupid songs that never seem to care about people in pain.
Once the last ornament was placed on the branch, and once the string of lights went on, my mother held her arms out before the tree and said, "There," as if telling Jimmy and I to behold some greatness we created in that box of a living room. "There," she said, and shook her head. Then she let out a sob and went to her bedroom.
"What happened?" I said.
Jimmy shut the stereo off, and through the silence that was left we could both hear our mother's muffled crying from behind her bedroom door.
"What the hell you think happened?" Jimmy said. He leaned against the stereo and lit a cigarette, pretending he didn't care about getting caught. He took tough, obvious drags and blew the smoke up toward the ceiling.
"You know you could get in trouble for that," I said.
"So what?" he said. "Why don't you go get Mom and tell her what a bad guy I am?" He cupped the ashes in his hand and puffed away. Soon there was a smug little cloud of cigarette smoke above the Christmas tree.
Then Jimmy got tired of this arrogant show and put on his coat to leave. "Stop being such a little goddamn girl," he said, and slammed the front door on his way out.
Then it was just me and the tree, a mean, towering thing that blinked and took up too much room, an unwanted guest we'd brought in ourselves to remind us how badly things were going. I wanted to pull it down and drag it into the street, lights, ornaments, and all, but I didn't want to wake my mother. There were no more sounds from her bedroom. I knew she'd cried herself to sleep.
My mother never made a habit of breaking down and hiding in her room. But I'm sure she wanted to, especially when life with her oldest son became a daily trial she was forced to hold up on her own. She found out about the whole cat ordeal right after the first of the year, from a mother of one of the younger boys who'd been back there in the alley that night. The kid had finally cracked and spilled the story after weeks of nightmares and a dangerous loss of appetite. Jimmy had made him do it, is what the kid told his mother.
"Why on earth?" was all my mother could say to Jimmy before she reluctantly took him to see Father Zajc. She didn't even yell at him. Jimmy is a boy without a father, she must have thought. Why else would he do such a thing? And she didn't yell when Jimmy's burned and buried deficiency notes caught up with him, when the school finally called one night to see why she hadn't responded to the several warning letters they'd sent to let her know that Jimmy was failing all of his classes.
"Jimmy, you've got to try harder," she said, then took him again to see Father Zajc. Jimmy's a good boy, she must have thought. A good boy in a slump without his father.
Or maybe she scolded him more once they left the house on the three-block walk to and from the parish, and maybe Jimmy cried, or simply fooled her into thinking he was better than he actually was, just like all the times he did the same after twisting my limbs and yanking my hair. But I don't know for sure, since both of them worked hard to keep these matters away from me. Night after night I'd get sent to my room after parents, teachers, and God knows who else would call to tell her about something Jimmy had done, and from my bed I'd hear the murmured pleas and whines between my mother and older brother downstairs. I'd only catch corners of what they were said, hopeless questions about broken windows my mother would have to pay for, skipped classes, shoplifting, fistfights. And when Jimmy would finally make his way upstairs I'd try to find out what had happened, but he'd only stare at the ceiling from his bed and say, "Nothing," or pull the blanket over his head and turn to face the wall without saying a word. Then most Saturday afternoons the two of them would go to see our priest. "Going to church," is what my mother called it, but I knew this wasn't totally true since she never invited me to come along. I know she never wanted to listen to an aging man who'd never had children tell her how she should raise one of her own, tell why her boy was acting the way he was, but by then everyone in the neighborhood was watching, and most were shaking their heads behind her back, this poor young widow who didn't know how to control her boys. So she gulped back her anger and did what she was supposed to do. She kept her head and pride and walked those blocks each week to show the world that she knew what was best for her children.
But something in my mother swung wide open one Saturday afternoon in March, the day we got the invite to my cousin Reenie's wedding. The three of us had just finished lunch when my mother went to get the mail, and when she got back to the kitchen table I could tell something was wrong. The invitation came from my father's side of the family, and it was addressed to us, but under my father's name. It might have been a dumb mistake, or a stab at the way my mother had handled Jimmy. Either way, seeing her dead husband's name on the envelope made my mother cry. Her tears were slow and quiet, but they still welled up and rolled.
Jimmy grabbed the envelope and read what was written on the front. "Reenie," he said. "What a stupid fucking cunt."
My mother gasped. Her final strain of reason had been snapped. She reached over the table and slapped Jimmy flush across his face.
"Don't," she said. "Don't ever say that, goddamn you."
Jimmy held his face wide eyed for a long moment, stunned.
"Don't," my mother said.
But Jimmy ran right out the front door. He didn't come back for three long days, and even the cops seemed worried. My mother didn't sleep the first night, and a doctor she worked with at Mercy came the next day and made her take tranquilizers. Aunts and uncles and older cousins, Father Zajc, all crowded our house, came and went searching the streets on foot, and in cars throughout the city. Everyone told my mother to stay put, and for three days she did just that, dark eyed, doped up, then frantic, until finally she couldn't take another minute of that house.
"What are you doing?" my Uncle John asked from the kitchen table.
"Looking for my son," she said.
"Hold it," he told her, but it was too late. She slammed the door and marched down the sidewalk. I ran after her, but she told me to get back inside and wait with Uncle John.
"I'm going to find him," she said. "I promise. That's it."
Two hours later she was back at the house, her promise intact. Jimmy was dirty and looked three years older. He saw her from wherever he'd been hiding, and her futile, searching look had moved him to give up and come out.
"You can tell everyone to quit looking," she told Uncle John. "Go tell them. I'll thank them all in person when I get the chance."
Jimmy was guzzling water at the sink, glass after glass until he broke a sweat.
"Maybe Jimmy should stay with us for a while," said Uncle John, who looked more angry than relieved.
"No, thank you," my mother told him. "I don't think he should. I don't think that would be right at all."
It was settled: we were going to Reenie's wedding, and my mother didn't want to hear another word about it. And not only were we going to the wedding, but to the reception at the V.F.W. Cantigney Hall later that night. We'd been invited, and we were going. Jimmy and I even got new shoes and suits from Goldblatt's downtown, and from the time we got up that Saturday morning until the time we left the house later that afternoon, my mother was rushed in the act of priming herself and her boys for this event. Jimmy was terrified of facing everyone after all he'd done, and begged my mother to let him stay home.
"Just tell them I'm sick," he said. "I can't go. They're all going to stare at me."
"They probably will," she told him. "I don't really blame them, either."
We finally left and walked up the block toward the church. The sidewalks were already crowded, since just about everyone in the neighborhood had been invited. People who saw us seemed surprised, shocked, but they hid this with forced smiles and greetings, asking if we planned on going to the reception.
"Well why wouldn't we?" my mother said. "Of course we're going."
A block from the church, my mother took us around a corner to tell us something nobody else would hear.
"Now listen to me," she said. "We're going to this wedding because nobody here thinks I can take care of you on my own, and I need them to see that I can. Because I can. Have you boys gone without a meal since your dad died? I gave you a good Christmas and your clothes are always clean. So for God's sake, don't do anything that'll give these people something else to say behind our backs when we pass them. Do you understand this?"
We nodded, then walked on for the church.
An hour later, my cousin Reenie was made a truckdriver's wife.
After mass, the sun set while we waited in the reception line that stretched around the corner of Cantigney Hall and halfway down the block. Since we'd sat at the back of the church, we were the last to leave, the last to walk over to the hall, and among the last in the long line. Jimmy and I wanted to take our ties off, but our mother said we had to look our best to congratulate Reenie and her new husband, Norb Dzurko. I could tell Jimmy was nervous; with a lowered face he bit his nails and looked around to see if anyone was watching him.
"Stop with the nails," my mother told him. "And stand up straight."
Jimmy stopped and straightened without hesitation, without rolling his eyes, without a word, and I wondered what she'd told him to whip him into such obedient fear. Though he might have looked older when he came back from running away, he'd cowered like a kid ever since. He even seemed too scared to talk to me, and in a way I felt like I'd become his older brother. But I didn't like looking at Jimmy this way. I felt embarrassed for him, this tough older brother I'd looked up to for so long, suddenly soft stepping and frightened like a bullied playground runt.
The line around the hall finally started moving, and the last pink hint of dusk darkened to show stars and a full moon over rooftops to the east. We passed the back of the building, and then the guzzling rumble of a rowdy car sounded from the street behind us, and I turned to see a glitter-black Monte Carlo tear into the small lot behind the hall, a Whitesox night game blaring from the radio inside. The driver was Jack Tomczak, who had worked with my father at the yards. I'd heard my father talk about Tomczak, how he'd choke down pills with whiskey during lunch, and how he'd sit in his car and do coke before he clocked on for his shift. There were others rumors about Tomczak, even darker ones that dealt with the beatings he gave his wife before she finally left him, and so when he pulled himself from his car that night, parked by itself in back beside the rusted red dumpster, I knew he was some kind of enemy.
Tomczak called my mother's name, waved, then jogged over to wait with us in line. "Private parking," he said, motioning to his Monte. "Just got the paint touched up. Don't want nobody to fuck with it." He laughed then and covered his mouth. "But pardon my French, boys," he said.
Though it was a different color, Tomczak's green suit seemed to have the same flashy glitter of his Monte. His teeth and slicked blonde hair even sparkled. He was a loud, fumy parade, way too much to have to stand with. "Just got the paint touched up," he said again. "Why don't you come and take a look?" He didn't seem to notice me or Jimmy when he asked this, and spoke with his back to us.
"No, thank you," my mother told him; she was trying to be polite. "We've been in line for almost an hour."
"Okay," Tomczak said with that sugar-white smile. "But damned if you don't owe me a dance."
At that the blood came back to my older brother's face. "She don't owe you shit, man," he said.
My mother snapped Jimmy's name, but Tomczak said, "No, no, that's good. That's real good, kid. You watch out for your mom."
Then Tomczak said he'd see us inside and strutted away to the back of the building.
"I don't believe this," my mother said to Jimmy. "What did I tell you?"
She had much more to say, but we were in the hall and it was our turn to meet the bride and groom. Reenie's wedding dress looked wrinkled, and her new husband's tux was undone at the collar so that the bow tie dangled from his thick, sweat-soaked neck. They were both pink from drinking. Reenie kept saying, "You made it," while her husband nodded, sized up the guests, and slugged back a can of Schlitz.
"We made it, all right," my mother said.
"You boys look like a pair of heartbreakers tonight," Reenie told us.
"Oh, they are," my mother said. "So do yourself a favor and wait ten years before you decide to have your own."
This should have hurt my feelings, but it was good to see my mother laugh, even if she did have to force it from herself.
The hall's main floor was hot and packed with dancers who spun one another to the wild horn and accordion polkas that blared from the stage where the Joliet Jugoslavs played—ten grey neighborhood guys who had a jukebox record in every tavern from Plainfield to Preston Heights, and who worked weekend tours of weddings and church picnics that stretched from Milwaukee to East Chicago, Indiana. The local polka radio station, WJOL, played their songs at least five times a day. And the Jugoslavs were even regulars on Eddie Korosa's Polka Hour, the television program that aired Saturdays at three in the morning. Their biggest hit, the song I loved to watch them play the most, was the Smokestack Polka, a traditional instrumental song about the place where we lived, the place where all ten Joliet Jugoslavs came from as well. But I was too young to understand local pride back then. I just liked to watch the trumpet player, Joe Novak, fill his mouth with cigar smoke before he blasted out a line of the tune, so that the end of his horn had smoke blowing from it, just like the stacks that surrounded our world in every direction we looked.
But I didn't enjoy the band too much that night. I was worried about Jimmy, and the way people looked at him as our mother lead us through the crowd searching for our table. Almost every glance Jimmy got that night was the same: strained, pitiful, and waiting, it seemed, to watch how badly he'd fuck up next.
They seated us with people from the groom's side of the family, and just as we got settled, Jack Tomczak strolled over and gave Jimmy a playful tug on his ear that made him redden and scowl. "Hey, tough guy," Tomczak said. "Let's you and me go knock back some shots." There was an open bar, and Tomczak smelled like he'd already made ten trips to it before he got to us. His laugh made its way into a wet cough. "Maybe later," Tomczak said, then held out his hand and winked at my mother. "I requested this one," he said. "I requested it for you and me. Come on. Let's get a dance in."
My mother's smile was genuine. She blushed a little, but turned the offer down. "No, really. Thanks, Jack," she said. "We just sat down. But thank you."
Tomczak's smile got thinner, and keeping it in place seemed to take a lot of effort. "Maybe later," he said as he started walking away. Then he made little guns with his hands and pointed them at Jimmy. "And later you and me'll do some shots, tough guy," he said, and winked a bloodshot eye.
For dinner they served the local wedding favorite: red cabbage and meatballs and two slices of bread with pads of white butter. The Jugoslavs were still roaring on stage, and I waited for them to kick in with the Smokestack Polka. The band never took breaks, but slowed now and then with a solo so the sweat-soaked dancers could catch a breath. The dinner didn't stop the dancing, either. The floor stayed crowded and the guests only broke from their reeling to take quick bites from their plates, or to hit the bar for shots and cans of Old Style they'd take back onto the floor. With these drinks they toasted the band, Reenie and Norb, their parents, the hall, the neighborhood, anything, over and over until they were staggering. "Na Zarowie!" they yelled. "Na Zarowie!"
Meanwhile, I'd guzzled down three Cokes and had to take a leak.
"Take your brother to the bathroom," my mother told Jimmy. "And don't take too long. I'm timing you."
I followed Jimmy past the bar, where Tomczak was arm wrestling the bartender in a circle of men who'd put five bucks on either side of the match. Tomczak lost and the crowd laughed at him.
"Fuck off," he told them. "Your sisters and fucking mothers too."
There was a long line waiting for the toilet. Jimmy took me by the arm and told me to follow him, and I asked him where we were going.
"Just come on," he said, and lead me past the kitchen, then past the old coat check nobody used anymore, then to a short, dark hallway with a door at the end. He opened it and showed me the steep stairway that went up into another, deeper darkness.
"No way," I said. "I'm not going up there."
"Don't be a pussy, man. You're not going to fall. I'm right behind you."
He closed the door, flicked his cigarette lighter, then guided me up the stairs. There wasn't a railing, so I balanced my steps by touching the narrow walls. We finally got to the end, another door that Jimmy told me to open.
"It's stuck," I told him.
"Then push it," he said.
We both gave it a shove, another, then stumbled out onto a wide place cluttered with stacks of bricks covered in plastic that rustled in a strange breeze, and with wrapped pipes, and cans of paint under stars and a full moon.
We were on the roof above the hall.
"Man," I said, then walked over to the ledge and looked at the streets below. We were up pretty high, and to the north I could see the Union refinery torches that reflected on the moving surface of the sanitary canal behind it. I could see everything from up there: the smokestacks that towered over Commonwealth Edison to the south, and over Olin Chemical to the west.
"How did you find this?" I said. "How did you know this was up here?"
"Dad," Jimmy told me. "Dad took me up here one day when I was your age." He nodded at the covered bricks, the pipes and paint. "They were planning on building another floor, but the old commander died, and the new one said one floor was enough."
Mercy Hospital was in the distance to the east, with the landing pad light that turned and turned in green and red from the very top of the building. The railyard was a few blocks over, the slow-moving lights of passing freight engines, the dim red switch lamps, the watchtower.
"This is where I came when I ran away," Jimmy said. He stood next to me and lit a cigarette. "I stayed up here the whole time. I snuck down into the kitchen at night for food, but the only thing they had in the fridge was pickles. Big jars of pickles," he said. "All I ate for three days was those fucking pickles." He laughed at this, and I laughed with him. Then Jimmy stopped and got quiet. "But when I saw Mom down there looking for me, calling for me like that, I knew I had to come out," he said. "You should have seen her."
I made out the steeples of five parishes from up there. The tallest was Saint Raymond Nonnatus, the cathedral west of the canal; Holy Transfiguration in Rockdale had twin silver steeples; Saint Bride's up in Lockport was the oldest, with a network of renovation scaffolding that held the ancient bricks together; the giant red and green onion domes on the Byzantine parish rose above clumps of trees on South Briggs, and looked a little foreign and out of place; Saint Sabina's was right next to us, two streets over—but that steeple towered over us every day, and didn't seem that impressive from our spot.
A roar of cheers came from the crowd underneath us. The Joliet Jugoslavs tore into the first beats of the song I'd waited for all night, the first proud sounds of accordion and horn that played the Smokestack Polka.
"Let's go," I said, and ran for the door to the stairway.
"Wait," Jimmy told me. "Just stay up here with me for a minute."
"We're going to miss the song," I told him. But I could see Jimmy needed to tell me something, so I stayed and leaned on the ledge next to him, looking down on the streets where we were raised.
Downstairs, the whole crowd must have been dancing. The thunder of their steps and yells almost drowned out the band. And they all danced like that, with such purpose, because they knew the song belonged to them. The song was about them, and no matter where the Jugoslavs played it, Kenosha, Oshkosh, Calumet City, Gary, or Hammond, it would always be about them, about us; our identical brick houses topped with green shingles; our uncles and fathers who worked in the yards, power plants, refineries, and who drank in the taverns; our grandparents who were buried in the Protection of Our Savior's Five Wounds Cemetery; our mothers who made sure we got religion, even if they didn't buy any of it themselves.
"I'm in big trouble," Jimmy finally said. "I screwed up too much, and now I'm all out of chances."
He lit another cigarette off the first, then flicked the old one away; I watched the ember flutter down to the sidewalk, where it landed with a small burst of orange sparks.
"I'm all out of chances," he said. "If I mess up one more time, mom and Father Zajc are going to send me away."
The music and dancing, the roof, stars, and sky, it all flashed away, and the only thing that mattered then was that I was with my brother, who had reached the worst of his troubles.
"Where?" I said. "Send you away where?"
"Some priest school," he told me. "A place way up in Wisconsin for fuckups like me."
The song ended, and the applause pushed through the roof and echoed across the entire city.
"So will you help me?" Jimmy asked.
"Just don't let me fuck up anymore," he said. "Watch out for me. And I promise I won't pull your hair."
I finally got to use the bathroom once we were back down in the hall. Jimmy went, washed his hands, then told me to meet him by the kitchen. I was in a stall by myself, and some guy in the next one was on his hands and knees throwing up. "Christ wept," he moaned. When he was done, I heard him stumble to the sink and wash his mouth and face, heard him gag and spit and blow his nose. Someone else came in and, with a boozy slur I recognized at once, asked the drunk if he was okay, and if he wanted to do more shots, since they were free, and since free shots didn't come along every day.
"No fucking way, Tomczak," the sink drunk said. "You're a pig with that booze. Look at me. I'm an hour from dying, you fuck."
Tomczak laughed. "That cunt's stomach you got can't take a real drink."
"Your ass, Jack," the guy said, and Tomczak, who was at the urinal, laughed even louder.
After a moment, Tomczak moaned and said something about my mother; I froze when I heard him use her name.
"I keep asking her to dance, but no dice," Tomczak said.
The guy at the sink wasn't sure who he was talking about.
"You know, the nurse," Tomczak said. "The nurse with the two kids? Her husband died about six months ago."
"Yeah, the nurse," Tomczak said. "Hope I get sick while she's on the clock. Bet she hasn't been cracked since her husband died. That's six months and no dick. Goddamn if she don't need it..."
The rest of whatever the hell Tomczak said got pushed under by the loud flush of urinal water, but I didn't need to hear another word. They both left. A weight of great toil hit my stomach, since I knew I couldn't tell a soul.
Tomczak was hovering over my mother when we got back to the table. "Hey," he said as soon as he saw us. "I'm gonna drive us all for ice cream!"
"Jesus, Jack," my mother said. "How much have you had to drink?"
"I'm at a wedding, it don't matter. Come on, let's dance," he said, and started pulling my mother from her seat. Jimmy had to look away to hide his anger. If he’d known what I'd heard Tomczak say in that bathroom, he’d have jumped right over the table and made straight for his eyes, and that night would have been Jimmy's last in our house for a long, long time.
"No, Jack," my mother said, but Tomczak didn't stop.
"We're dancing," he said. "Right now."
My mother finally had to get forceful enough for others to notice. She yanked herself away and said, "I'm not dancing, Jack, and that's that."
Someone laughed and told Tomczak to go have another drink before he got into any more trouble, and he stood there for a few seconds with a dumb angry look on his face. "Well, screw it," he said, then tossed up his hands and stormed away.
We all watched Tomczak make his way to the bar, where he pounded back a beer and glared at the spot he'd just left, at the three of us—me, my mother, my older brother Jimmy.
"Let's go," my mother said. "I'm sorry I made you boys come here."
The three-block walk home in the dark seemed way too long. My ears rang and my mind just couldn't hold all that was on it. I was dying to tell Jimmy what I knew, dying to get him to do something about Tomczak, but by keeping it from him, I was the only person left in the world who could help him from getting sent away.
"Was I good?" Jimmy asked.
"Not really," my mother told him.
"Are you going to send me away?"
My mother said it was late, she was too tired, and didn't want to talk about it or anything else until the morning.
We all went to bed as soon as we got home, but there was no way I could get to sleep. I thought I might never sleep so long as I hid what I'd heard. The things Tomczak had said about my mother sounded over and over in the ringing between my ears.
"Jimmy," I said. "Are you asleep?"
"Yes," he groaned. "What do you want?"
"What would you do for Mom?"
"Jesus, man," Jimmy said. "Just go to sleep."
"Would you do anything?" I asked.
"I'd let her sleep," he said, then pulled the blanket over his head. Within minutes he was deep into his snoring, leaving me no choice but to take care of the problem myself.
The hardest part wasn't dressing in the dark, sneaking out of the house, or even getting back into the hall, since the band was wrapping up and everyone else was too drunk to notice or even care that we'd left, and that now, an hour later, I was back. No, the hardest part was making that walk up the stairs to the roof by myself. Since that night, I've never been in a darkness blacker than that stairway once I closed the door behind me. By the time I got to the door at the top, I felt like I'd walked up one thousand stairs, and breathlessly pushed the door open and collapsed onto the roof.
After I got my breath back, I took a brick from the stack and went to the ledge that overlooked the space where Tomczak's black Monte Carlo was still parked, and I waited. People were leaving, staggering home on the streets and sidewalks below. The Jugoslavs said goodnight and thanked everyone for coming, and the leftover handful downstairs made a few feeble whistles and claps. Reenie and Norb drove away in their rented white Caddie, with tin cans tied to the back bumper that clattered on the cracked asphalt. A train whistle sounded from the railyards, and with my eyes I made the route my father once walked each night, through the gates, down the sidewalk, then onto Landau Street to our dark little house, where Jimmy and my mother were now sleeping, while I waited for my one chance to do what I could to protect them.
And that's when Jack Tomczak came out right below me and stood on the steps by the back door, steadying himself on the railing. My heart was going, and I saw spots from all the blood that rushed up to my head. Tomczak just stood there, lit a cigarette and watched his car, as if he was waiting for someone as well. I had one chance, and Tomczak didn't budge, so I brought the brick high above me, concentrated on the top of his head for measure, then thrust the brick down with everything I had.
And as the brick left my fingers, rushing in a fall toward the ground, Tomczak took one step forward, one step, and saved his own life. The brick missed him by an inch and crashed on the steps into fifty thick pieces by his feet.
"The hell?" he said. I ducked down behind the ledge, and Tomczak never saw me.
Then whoever Tomczak had been waiting for came out the same back door. "You driving?" he said.
"I don't care," Tomczak told him. "But let's get the hell out of here. This fucking place is falling apart."
* * *
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