Blue in Chicago : Magazine : A Public Space

Blue in Chicago

Portfolio Bette Howland

First thing this morning, getting ready to leave the house, I heard on the news report that another University of Chicago graduate student had been shot and killed in a holdup in Hyde Park. I was holding my breath, but the name was not one I knew. I’m a graduate student at the university and I live in Hyde Park. I listened for details—the time of night, a number, a street. You always want to know how close these things have come to you.

There were two students. They were at a party and had gone out to get more beer. On the way back three youths wanted their money. One gave up his wallet and walked away. The other was a black belt in karate—he put up a fight. Five times the gun clicked and misfired; the sixth tore his side. The radio announcer went on to recall other such incidents in the college community, the last student murder only a few months before.

It was a dense dark morning. I live in a small studio on top of a high rise; it’s mostly windows. A friend calls it a perch on a flagpole because I never draw the shades. Lately one visitor after another has expressed a wish for an apartment just like mine: “It’s perfect,” they say. From which I infer that they all want to climb up the flagpole; remove themselves. And there is something remote about my situation. For instance, I can see the helicopters surveying the morning traffic snarls, hovering over the city. On days like today they seem to be putt-putting about in thick gray gloom like outboard motors. The noise takes up the whole sky. Maybe because the details weren’t more specific—because the victim was unknown, faceless to me—because I couldn’t pinpoint the spot—all at once there were no limits. It was out there: I didn’t have to know where.

One other thing. I was about to set off for a cousin’s wedding, clear on the other side of the city. That’s where all my relatives live. And it seems that every time I trek north for one of these family occasions (none of them would dream of going to see me), the subject is bound to come up: why I continue to live on the South Side of Chicago, with its high crime rate and race warfare. Almost inevitably something like this will have happened, played up on the news, plastered all over the headlines. Crime on the South Side gets the banner treatment. Everyone likes to know where, to isolate the symptoms. Only this morning I had a strange, obstinate reaction: I didn’t feel like being hassled in this way, didn’t feel apologetic about living in Hyde Park. Maybe it was just inertia. Or mulishness—a family trait.

My Uncle Rudy’s height and hulking shoulders filled the space behind the wheel. A huge man, six foot four, two hundred and fifty pounds; crew-cut, bullet-headed; the thick close-shaven folds of skin lay on his neck. Even from the back, in his checked gray suit, you could tell: a cop. I looked at the back of his head, wondering what he was thinking. Impenetrable. His head seems too small for the big body; his nose is a beak. When his nose got broken somehow, on maneuvers, the army doctors wanted to make it over for him. But Rudy wouldn’t hear of it. Why kibitz with destiny? He’s somewhat deaf, you know; he lost the hearing of one ear in the service. He could have an operation for nothing. But he never will.

“Who needs another hole in the head? One’s enough.”

It was April; the wind was blowing fresh tender soot, swirling papers fancifully in the gutters of Uptown—my grandmother’s neighborhood. The sky was heavy and full of gloom, but here and there, a splinter, a gleam. Rudy pulled into the thick of the grimy, sluggish traffic—deaf or indifferent to our female conversation.

I couldn’t believe we were going to talk about Roxanne’s hair all the way to the wedding.

Roxanne is Uncle Rudy’s young wife, a big handsome Southern girl, raw-boned, rock-jawed, her pale head dropped over her knitting. Peculiarly pale; translucent, like rock candy, and almost as brittle. It was stiff with spray lacquer.

“Oh, you did something to your hair,” my mother remarked as we climbed in back.

“I don’t like it,” Roxanne said at once, without glancing round or lifting her head. Her bare shoulders were scarcely moving in their sockets as she yanked at her yarn and plucked at her needles. “I tolt her beige blont and she dit it silver blont instet.” She spoke in her discontented mountain drawl.

“Go back and make them do it over,” my mother said. “You pay enough, don’t you?” Talk about needles.

“It smells pretty, though,” my grandmother said, sniffing through the glitter of rhinestone frames.

Roxanne flicked the yarn irritably over her forefinger. “I don’t like it.”

And so on.

But sometimes it seems that’s all these occasions are really for. “Aren’t you going to put on any makeup?” my mother asked as soon as I walked in the door. “Look how thin she’s getting,” my grandmother said, catching her lip between her teeth. “She’s putting on weight,” said my mother.

Even my grandmother is all dolled up. A little old lady, shrunken with age, gazing from between shoulders hunched with arthritis. Swollen crippled fingers clasping her coat, the lapels weighted down with dime-store brooches. She loves adornment. There was a pause just before, as we were leaving her flat; she wanted to retrieve her watch—a big Timex with a Spandex band, a man’s watch. The utilitarian chunk of nickel plating dangled from her fingertips. Her stiff fingers stretching the band, dragging it over her wrist. She’s eighty-three and she’s even more obstinate. Her children beg her to come and live with them, get out of that wretched neighborhood. Now their own children are marrying, they all have room—they’d love to have her. But she knows better. At her age, it’s bad enough being mortal, without having to make apologies for it too.

“Hey? Which way you going?”

My mother sat up, suddenly erect, her striking white head looking all about. She was in black and white from head to toe, stark contrasts: dark mink stole, long evening skirt, pointed shoes. “I thought you were going to take Sheridan.”

“Hah. We’d be there tomorrow, I took Sheridan,” Rudy said, looking over his shoulder and showing the dark spaces in his teeth. He has a loud offended voice, the result of his partial deafness.

“You don’t mean to tell me you re taking the Edens Expressway?”

“Nacherly. What do you think? I’m taking Edens.”

“Edens. Who ever heard of anthing so stupid? Taking Edens.”

My mother was rummaging in her purse. She took out a mimeographed sheet—a map of directions to the church, in one of the northernmost suburbs; it had come with the invitations—and shoved it across the seat at her brother’s big back.

“Here. Look. You go straight out Sheridan, you’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“You should of driven your own car, you wanted to take Sheridan.” Rudy sat unmoved, eyes level, watching traffic in the mirror.

“I woultn’t say nothing more if I was you.” Roxanne turned sideways in her seat to view my mother. “We’re liable to ent up in Milwaukee. You know how stubborn Rooty is.”

Yes, and he’s had riot training.

But my mother does not know how to desist. The irresistible force meets the immovable object. A routine encounter for her.

After a while she sat back, however, and began whispering to me, stating her case, thrusting the map under my nose. I had already been en route an hour and a half, just to get to my grandmother’s house, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. That displeased her. She got angrier with me, rattling the piece of paper in my face. Her own face startlingly sallow under her beautiful white hair. She must have seen I had no sympathy with her, either. I couldn’t help that; my mother’s panic is an old and potent enemy of mine.

It was now noon; the wedding was called for twelve-thirty. “And when they say twelve-thirty they mean twelve-thirty,” my mother said, laying her hand to her cheek. “That’s not Jewish time, you know.”

As a patrolman on the city payroll, Rudy has to live in Chicago. My parents do too. My father hates grass; golf courses and cemeteries give him the creeps. But one of the reasons my grandmother would never consider moving in with her other children is that she finds life in the suburbs so dull. She likes to be able to see lots of people, to sit in a lobby somewhere and watch the world go by. All she asks is a lobby.

In her neighborhood, with all the grim apartment hotels for the elderly, the shelter homes and halfway houses, there are plenty of lobbies. The one in her building is no good, however—too dark, off to one side, you miss everything—so she prefers to sit in the large plate-glass window of the A & P, resting her shopping bags. You see lots of old ladies sitting there.

Her next-door neighbor is confined to her room and keeps the door open, buoyed up among her pillows like a pile of life preservers. She has a darkened, pewtery complexion; you feel the gleam of eyes on you. Though she’s hearty enough—banging her cane against the wall to get your attention.

Today, when I had alighted from the elevator, both doors were open; my grandmother was going back and forth between the two rooms, keeping her neighbor company. She introduced us. “My granddaughter! My son! My daughter!” She was proud of her visitors, because we were dressed up for the wedding.

My mother, as it happens, was still getting dressed—presenting her back, all unzippered, to the wide-open doorway, her long skirts hiked up about her hips, fastening her garters.

“So what do you call this, Mother?” I said.

“Hmmm,” she replied airily, as she bent over her black stockings. “Nobody ever comes by here anyway.”

And yet she is the first to complain about the suspicious types lurking in the elevators and passageways. They need encouragement. This is what you call flinging down the gauntlet. My mother was also taking the opportunity to announce that her charms were all used up. (“Who’s going to bother with an old woman?”) Not so, by the way.

Compared to other buildings in Uptown, this one is not all that bad: a tall, yellow-brick “elevator building,” its roof rising high above the squat burned-out three-flats and boarded storefronts of Sheridan Road. The entrance, stripped bare, has the naked gleam of a ballroom; the dim narrow pier-glass mirrors hark back to its days of luxury.

As we were passing through today, my grandmother was suddenly reminded: last week, one of the tenants—a large old man, broad-shouldered, one eye dim behind a smoked lens: I knew which one—got robbed on the bus. He had just cashed a pension check, eighty dollars. He sat in his shirtsleeves in the lobby, telling the others all about it. There wasn’t much to tell. He had the money in his pockets when he got on the bus, it wasn’t there when he got off. His fingers felt about his chest, still groping in his pockets for the money, as if it might turn up yet.

All at once he stiffened in his chair; his heart jumped beneath his shirtfront. He stretched himself out dead.

“So it turned out that jener [the other; she meant the pickpocket] needed that money worse than he did,” she said. That’s what I like about the old lady; she’s so sentimental.

By the time we got to the church, the ceremony had already started, the backs of heads gazing toward the altar. The church itself seemed rattlingly empty; row upon row of varnished pews, and only the white sheet down the middle aisle to indicate the trappings of a wedding. I’d heard it would be small and simple, but there was something intimidating about such austerity. I crept into the last pew on the aisle in the back, my mother and her mother following arm in arm. The old lady—well under five feet—shuffled along with her head thrust forward, looking both wary and determined. A few other latecomers hurried in, crossed themselves with a sprinkle of holy water, and—stooping quickly on the aisle—slid onto the bench at the other end.

It was the first I had realized that Millicent was Catholic, though I knew that her parents had objected to her marrying my cousin Gregg. (As they had objected when Gregory and Millicent traveled through Europe together. “If it was my daughter, I wouldn’t let her go,” Uncle Leon had reassured them.) I don’t know what Gregory considers himself.

Long-legged in his striped pants and frock coat, he was standing with his hands clasped in front of him, swaying lightly. I could just glimpse the edges of his swarthy mustache. Millicent looked very tall in her white veil, with her long black hair curling down her back beneath the train.

Rudy came strolling in with his hands in his pockets, the vents of his jacket split over his hips. It was broad daylight in the lofty empty church: brighter than daylight, light spilling solemnly from the high arched windows. He looked like a monolith, wading through the pews. Glancing back and scowling at us over his shoulder—wondering what we were doing, of course, sitting all the way in back and on the wrong side; the bride’s side.

The priest asked us to rise.

At once my eye was attracted to Uncle Leon’s handsome white head—the same arresting white mane as my mother’s. From the back, his figure seemed as youthful, as broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted in his frockcoat, as Gregory’s; and he was standing in the same way—his hands clasped in front of him, swaying forward on his toes; light on his feet. I don’t know why I had never noticed the resemblance before. Women are always telling Leon how handsome he is: dark Latin features, bushy black brows.

“Ah, I wish they wouldn’t,” Aunt Irene will say, laughing good-naturedly. “There’s no living with him after.”

A robust, pleasing matron herself; brown-haired, red-cheeked, beaming, a bosom like a tea service; a Quaker from the Lebanon Valley. She met Leon at Valley Forge; he a wounded corporal, she a hospital administrator. For him she joined the Wacs. In those days she could shake down her stoical braids and sit on her hair, all ripples and waves. Everyone knows that Leon raised the general level of intelligence, energy, capability, industry in our family several notches when he brought Irene into it. Yet after twenty-five years she is still the outsider. She’s not Jewish. And everyone is sure that Irene, for her part, is still anti-Semitic. And why not? If our own prejudices are any indication.

Some crevices run deep. It used to be that at election time my uncle and his wife would make a pact: they promised each other that neither of them would vote, since their votes would only cancel out. Irene is a Republican, straight down the line; Leon is a party Democrat, one X in the box and that’s it. But each would sneak off to vote just the same, so now they ignore politics.

Again the priest asked us to rise. By this time my mother had begun to whisper, leaning down in her dark fur. My grandmother couldn’t negotiate these ups and downs and was staring ahead, biting her lip with concentration.

“Do you think she’s Catholic?” my mother was saying. “No one told us she was Catholic.”

Bride and groom turned around to accept the offertory. The bride’s dark-browed face, broad in its headdress, suddenly, unexpectedly, shone upon us. It was burning, fiercely beautiful. The Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you… For the first time all day I remembered what it was all about, felt privileged to be a witness. And everyone must have felt it. People came to their senses. There was almost a sigh of relief. The altar boy in his full black skirts crouched, quivering the brass bells; smoke fumed from the censers. Millicent lifted her veil to take communion. Gregory did not take it.

Jewish?” the ladies on the other side of me were whispering among themselves. “You really think he’s a Jew?”

I had waited fifteen minutes for a bus and when it came it wasn’t an express. The expresses weren’t running. The express goes from Hyde Park directly onto the Outer Drive, and it takes twenty minutes to get downtown. The local takes forty, fifty minutes. And it meanders through the South Side slums. At this point I could have walked a block or so to the Illinois Central commuter station, and caught a train as far as the Loop. But it was going to be a day when my inertia was great. I got on the bus and sat down by a window and opened a book on my lap.

I always take books with me on buses or trains. I never read them. Years ago when I was an undergraduate at the university, I used to travel three hours a day on these same buses, commuting between the South Side campus and my home on the West Side. “You can get all your studying done,” that’s what people would say. But I never got any studying done; I’d sit with the whole pile of books on my lap (I remember the thick green volumes of The People Shall Judge), looking out the window. Three hours a day, an hour and a half each way, staring at the same sights out the same windows. I was fifteen then; it’s possible that all this travel was stupefying me. Still, it seems to me that there is something immoral—because inattentive—about reading when your body is in transit. And maybe I felt even then that I should be paying attention instead. But paying attention to what?

I glanced up the aisle. The thing I’d forgotten was how the bus kept turning. Up Fifty-first Street to Drexel; down Drexel to Forty-seventh; up Forty-seventh to Martin Luther King Drive; down King to Forty-third… Every few blocks it nosed onward, plunging deeper and deeper into the black ghetto. The coins clicked and rolled in the fare box.

The South Side has always been Chicago’s black belt; these slums were here years before I was born. But in the past, when I used to travel back and forth this way almost every day, I never noticed if I was white and all the other passengers were black. Blacks had not yet pressed the issue. And it must be said right off that the fact that I didn’t notice, that it didn’t matter to me, did not improve the situation in any way.

I remember becoming fully aware of this discrepancy reading Native Son, when the rich girl and her Communist boyfriend think that their liberal sentiments will make up to Bigger for everything. The trouble is that these one-to-one solutions—I love you, you love me; you shoot me, I shoot you—are no good. Just no use. Still, this ignorance or innocence or whatever you want to call it was long gone—and I would have given a great deal to have it back again. Today I was very much aware of the color of everyone else’s skin, and I was sure that everyone on the bus was just as much aware of mine.

This was manifestly not so. No one was paying attention to me, any more than I was paying attention to the pages of the book lying open on my lap. As a matter of fact, almost everyone else seemed to be reading—the news sheets crackling, the murder black in the headlines.

The bus was getting crowded; passengers swayed in the aisle and grappled for the strap hangers. A girl was groping her way, arm over arm, along the rails, an unlighted cigarette in her fingers. Hot pants, vinyl stretch boots, turban. Her face flat, expressionless, artificially pale—an Oriental effect. She leaned her shaved eyebrows over my seat.

“Gotta match?”

I gave her matches.

This has got to stop. I’ve got to stop reacting to people according to color. This is what has been happening to me; happening to everyone I know. White and black. Race is a prominent fact of life in Chicago, a partitioned city, walled and wired. You can’t help reacting in this way. Try it. Try it walking down the street some night. It’s a reflex. Everyone is becoming conditioned. And for some reason I realized this all of a sudden listening to the news this morning, realized that I’ve been allowing myself to become conditioned—letting this fear, this racism, run away with me. I’m not sure why a murder in the streets—even around the corner—should have had such a bracing effect. But you’ve got to come up for air sometime; maybe that’s why I got on the bus today. I used to know these things.

The sign on the parking lot gate said: “Left Turn Only,” so Rudy turned right. The rest of the cars had already gone off, leaving the church in a motorcade for the motel where the wedding reception would be held. But not us. Roxy was studying the map.

“It’s right around the corner.”

As a matter of fact, we were at Fort Sheridan, the army base. I used to think it was much farther when I was a little girl and Rudy was stationed there. Now the low-lying motels all around were not that easy to distinguish from the barracks, the tracks of wire fences.

“Hey. How come you guys sat on the wrong side of the church?” Rudy asked. “The bride’s side, dummies. How come you didn’t come up front with the rest of the family? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you like to see what’s going on?”

“All that standing and kneeling,” my mother said. “I’m exhausted. Nuts to that. I didn’t know it was going to be a Catholic ceremony.”

“I coult’ve tolt you right away if I lookt at the invitation,” Roxy said. “Only I never even lookt at the invitation.” She’s Immersion Baptist, I think.

I was wondering about this business of bride’s side, groom’s side. Partitions and more partitions. Why do we always have to take sides? How primitive are these divisions?

Roxy jerked a thumb at the window. “You turn right at this corner. Right at the stop sign.”

Rudy went straight.

“Hey, you big jerk. You shoult’ve turnt back there.” Roxy looked round, still jerking her thumb. “He’t get lost for sure if I din’t tell him.”

“I think he must be doing it on purpose,” I said.

“You don’t say,” my mother said, the corner of her mouth grim against her cheek.

In a minute the road disappeared, we came to a leafy dead end, a bower of branches, and Rudy had to back the car out through the trees.

By the time we got to the motel, the reception line had broken formation; the bride and groom were off having their pictures taken, and guests were milling around the pleasant blue room with its huge fireplace and shimmer of chandeliers. Gas flames licked and curled about the artificial logs; champagne glasses were being filled as quickly as they were snatched from the trays. When I have the chance, I always drink champagne.

I wasn’t at the shower, so I hadn’t met any of Millicent’s family before. Her father was a slight dark man with a stiff highball splashing and jostling in his fist. Sober, a plumber with four daughters to marry off, footing the bill for all these bashes. His wife was elegant, blond, slender; and the four strapping girls, of course, are all bouncingly beautiful. So it looks as if Gregg, like his father, has done all right for himself. This was the gist of the intelligence report I had already received from my mother.

“You know me, one drink and I’m out,” she said, tripping up in her long skirts and holding her glass aloft to show it was empty. It’s true; usually she gets dazzling and giddy. But today she didn’t seem at all light-headed to me; and everywhere I looked I kept seeing her—my mother has a way of standing out in a crowd—her black-and-white dress grimly prominent, like the priests in their habits.

“Someone asked me who I was and I forgot my name,” Aunt Sylvia said. My mother’s younger sister: a helmet of smooth iron hair, earrings swinging at her cheeks. She had been on the Weight Watchers diet and her pretty face was thin, looked pinched, a little sour (the intelligence report from my grandmother)—and she was smoking; she never used to. Holding the cigarette at arm’s length, tapping the ashes over the gold tips of her shoes.

“Guess what. Gary called up from school and told us to break out the champagne.” Gary is her son.

“He’s getting married?” my mother asked.

“No. He got a job.”

The job was at Zenith Radio, where Sylvia herself used to work during the war years when my Uncle Fred was in service. They married on furlough. I remember very well—she lived with us at the time—her going off to work in her baggy-seated overalls, her hair bound in a turban with the black curls springing out on top. She was on the assembly line. Gary will have an executive position: fourteen thousand to start. A lot more than Fred makes as a printer.

My grandmother was sitting at an empty table, surveying the field of preparations, the white cloths, the busboys filling sparkling water glasses. She was waiting to be called by the photographer. She always says she hates to have her picture taken, but I noticed her slipping off her glasses and dropping them into her purse. Without the funny rhinestone frames, the iridescent lenses, she looks suddenly—bushy brows, coarse powerful white hair and slanted cheeks—like a shaman. Her dress of some green wizard material, the shimmering jacket bunched under her heavy brooches.

As a younger woman my grandmother never used to have this personal vanity, she never cared for such things. But now her copyright has expired, so to speak; she has entered the public domain. She clutched her purse to her lap, smoothing back her strong hair with stiff misshapen fingers.

And now Millicent’s grandmother was brought up for an introduction: two old matriarchs. A large woman listing heavily on a cane; vigorous, in her corsets, with the silver rinse in her hair. She’s in her eighties too, her complexion darkened with age spots, tarnished almost—like the neighbor with her pillow cushions. She had been opposed all along to the marriage because Gregg—or at least his father—is Jewish. The last holdout in the family; the wedding had been delayed to appease her.

“You must come and take tea with me sometime,” she said, grasping my grandmother’s hand. And then hesitating—wondering about our rituals—“Or coffee,” she added, shaking emphatically.

“When are you going to get married?” Uncle Rudy asked, towering over me. His hands were in his pockets and his gaze strayed automatically over the small milling groups—a head above the crowd—checking them out.

“I’ve already been; I don’t have to,” I said.

“So you wouldn’t get married a second time?”

“Would you?” I said, sipping from the rim of the thin-stemmed glass.

He shrugged; his elbows flapped against his sides. “Huh, I didn’t want to get married the first time,” he said in his dull monotone, still peering all about. He looked like a hawk. That’s the trouble with Rudy; you can never tell. You can’t tell when he’s putting it on, just pretending to be thick, slow, deaf, stubborn. Everyone knows he can’t be as dumb as he makes out.

Now he seemed to have something on his mind “How come nobody tells them?” he said. We were both looking toward Sylvia’s daughter, Mindy—almost gravely pretty with her long thin exposed legs, long heavy hair. Hers will be the next wedding. Rudy took my arm, urging.

“Go ahead. Say something. Tell her.”

“I know, but you can’t,” I said. “It’s not fair.”

“Oh. Uh huh.” And his head bobbed up and down. “It’s not fair.”

Uncle Fred had gathered a crowd. Telling dirty jokes again? Sylvia was fretting because they were to be seated at the same table as the Fathers. “I just hope he behaves himself.” But this was serious. He was surrounded by Millicent’s mother and aunts and scarcely glanced our way as we came up, going on in his tight-lipped, hissing whisper. It was Gary’s job again—evidently this subject was of the most intense interest. I didn’t understand the significance of this at first. The wedding itself was a sort of truce: it was the subject of Gary’s job that really seemed to be uniting everybody.

Sylvia worked as a clerk to put Gary and Mindy through school; Irene has been waiting on tables for years. These blond aunts of Millicent’s, with their freckled cheeks, must have done the same. Now the job market had collapsed; a college degree was almost a liability. Millicent is substitute teaching. Gregg was teaching driving, but has turned up something better—still temporary—with the Welfare. Mindy has been looking for almost a year for a teaching position; her fiancé will be graduating this summer with another useless certificate. Wherever you turned, the story was the same. But now that the situation is so bad—so reminiscent—it isn’t the kids who are worrying either: they are going to school, marrying, traveling to Europe all the same. It’s the parents—the plumbers, the printers—the same class who have borne the brunt of things all along, who are still worrying about the future.

I noticed the contact lens over Fred’s eye. An old shrapnel wound, quiescent for twenty-five years; all of a sudden it’s starting to act up again. It gives his expression a peculiar urgency. All my uncles are damaged with war wounds. There’s Rudy’s deafness, his loud injured voice. And Leon—strutting among the white tables in his pleated shirt front—is lame in one arm. Striking a match with his thumb, he lets it hang by his side. A funny thing about Leon. He’s a scofflaw. He’ll go out of his way to park illegally. He’ll drive around the block looking for a No Parking sign or a nice little fire hydrant.

What was secretly depressing everyone was this: After seven years of a sacrificially expensive university education, Gary will be earning about the same money as Rudy—a city of Chicago patrolman, a “pig,” who had to be trundled through high school in a wheelbarrow. Rudy makes a better living than any man in the family, and Rudy is the one who is supposed to be so stupid. It rankles. And—to top it all off, and as if to rub it in—he has nothing to show for it. A dilapidated apartment, a car that isn’t paid for; the little boy is cross-eyed and they’re saving up for an operation, there isn’t a penny in the bank. (It seems that everybody knows their business.) And he and his wife don’t get along either; there is rancor to go with all the squalor. No one can understand such a life. They feel sorry for, irritated with Rudy. Rudy and Roxanne seldom show up at these family occasions.

“Who’s taking care of the children?” Sylvia asked, looking up at Roxy. Roxanne is six-foot-one in her stocking feet, statuesque, immobile, like a Las Vegas showgirl. But she complains she has no pep, and goes to her doctor to get liver shots. My mother had already asked her that question; everybody kept asking her. It’s an unwritten law: as soon as a harassed mother gets out of the house for a couple of hours, everyone has to ask her who’s taking care of the children.

“They’re olt enough to take care of themselves,” she said tartly.

I still have custody, but since my two sons are older they have gone to live with their father, and now I’m the one who gets to see them only on school vacations. They had just gone back a few days before, and I missed them. It’s not such a bad arrangement; I’m not complaining. In some ways it’s too good, too rich—we are just skimming the cream. Only I believe that life—a real life—is lived day to day.

There is this to be said for it, however: at least no one asks me who’s taking care of the children. Indeed, no one ever asks me much. I’m not married; my ID isn’t validated, so to speak. Weddings are the worst; they don’t know where to put me, what to do with me. Today I’m not even getting grilled about the usual topics—the crime and the “colored.” I was glad to see the dishes being wheeled in, gleaming tiers on the service carts.

The best man—even swarthier than Gregg, with a more pendulous mustache—was offering his arm to my grandmother. Still time for one last picture: she was much in demand. She leaned on his dark sleeve. She won’t use a cane.

“Oh, how little she’s getting,” Sylvia remarked, biting her lip as she looked after the old lady. A habit she gets from her mother. “She used to be as tall as I am.”

The thing is, I don’t feel sorry for my grandmother. I don’t think it’s a shame that she’s so old. I love her with admiration, not out of pity. She’s probably the only member of my family who doesn’t wrench it out of me that way.

At table, over fresh fruit cup and sherbet—the old lady with her back to the licking logs of the fireplace, her green jacket glowing in the flames—everyone started complaining about my father. He was in Israel, visiting my sister and the other set of grandchildren, and the postcards he was sending back were all identical.

“That’s nothing,” my mother said. It seemed she had just received two letters from him, and they were also exactly alike. “He just doesn’t know how to write a letter, poor man.”

Letters. Who expects letters? I’m supposed to be tickled he talks to me. But this is true, if I may judge from the five or six letters I have received from him in my life. Stilted, formal, almost to the point of illiteracy—all the more because he writes a scribe’s hand, slanting and fluid. Palmer method; he won prizes for his handwriting in grammar school. And it’s as if someone had written them down for him, at his embarrassed dictation:

Be a Good Girl. Apply Yourself. Obey Your Mother. Don’t Disappoint… Your Dad.

My mother was working in a summer camp then; my sister and I used to spend our whole summer away from home, and I would miss my father bitterly. Crouching homesick in my lower bunk—with its coarse army surplus blanket, the damp smell of rotting wood—reading these spartan lines over and over, his moralizing tone bewildered and bereaved me. What had I done wrong? What was I going to do? How did he know about it? But that seemed to be his prerogative; my father is a natural moralist. Almost as big as my Uncle Rudy and far more powerful; he can fix anything, though his hands look thick and clumsy, capable only of brute strength. Once he lifted the back of a truck when a fellow worker was trapped under it. What I like about this story is its sequel, so typical of my father’s fortunes, his outlook, his whole life. The man he had saved never spoke to him again, shunned his company, couldn’t look him in the eye.

Last summer my father fell off a ladder while fixing the roof of a house (he’s one of these obsolete men who maintain things). His size and strength added to the dread I felt in the hospital, observing his helplessness: a big broken creature, gray-fleshed—the slick wet-mop grayness of internal bleeding—being lifted and turned by little Filipino nurses. How they accomplished this was a mystery, for they would pull the canvas curtains about his bed before they assayed such a task. When I heard the noises behind the drawn curtains, watched the blips on the heart monitor while he lay laboriously breathing—his heart was leaking—I felt something like the pangs I used to feel when I read his letters in summer camp. There was a persistency of tone. Reproach. I was wondering, if he left like this, how I would live with it.

His trip to the Holy Land was a Pilgrimage after his Reprieve (his words, naturally). Passing silver sauce boats, baskets of crusty rolls, spearing icy butter pats (I always have trouble), I started thinking what it would be like to get a letter from my father. What if I tore open the airmail envelope—blue as distances—and confronted once again the same old phrases in the same sloping hand:

Be a Good Girl. Tend to Business. Try to Make the Best of It. Don’t Disappoint… Your Dad.

The meal was excellent. Waitresses hovered, the photographer stalked, screwing the lens to his eye. He’d fling up one arm and stiffen suddenly, lifeless, dangling from it.

“Take off your glasses,” my mother cautioned, knocking my arm with her elbow as he flashed our picture.

She was dissatisfied with me, and that’s how it comes out. How well I know. Every time I have seen my mother for the last twenty years, she has made a remark about my hair. It’s getting discouraging, to know this beforehand. People could get the idea we have nothing to say. And yet I found myself reacting to her in the same way—noticing all through the meal that she seemed to talk only when her mouth was full and her cheek was bulging like a fist. As if she were chewing a quid of tobacco, and about to squirt. Alarming. Her sallow cheek. She was having a bad day. Bitter, discolored, dry-eyed. I still wish I had been kinder.

The groom rose to make a toast. Slouched in his tux, rocking on his heels, like his father; a dark symmetrical mustache. “I guess there’s everyone in this room who means anything to me,” he began, lifting his glass. Everyone was touched; it was as if we had had to be reminded all over again: applause, murmurs, rose gratefully from the white circles of the tables. There was a clatter of dishes being carted away.

My grandmother, of course, doesn’t eat meat out; it’s not kosher. And we had forgotten to order her fish. The waitress looked at her plate. “You finished?” eying the damp red slice of meat.

The old lady turned herself stiffly sideways to peer at the sound, since she can’t move her neck. Her voice rang out. “Take it away.”

She hadn’t touched her food. She hadn’t carried on, hadn’t complained, though it was all in the script. She was watching them cutting up the wedding cake, rapidly distributing slices over the scraps and crumbs of the tables.

“Wrap up a slice for me,” she commanded my mother, pointing her big distorted finger. “I want to bring home for the goy.” (She meant her neighbor.)

My children’s father descends in a direct line from a Pilgrim who fell overboard during the voyage of the Mayflower. “A lustie younge man,” Governor Bradford describes him, who held long and fast to the halyards, “sundrie fadomes under water,” until they hauled him in out of the lurching sea. Since then the family had considerably loosened its grip. Papa was a medievalist, a Prof at Indiana U., and they lived way out in a grand Victorian relic. I thought it was grand. There were raccoons in the attic—the shell-like claws left perfect tracks in the powder the exterminator had sprinkled; and in the bathroom—an afterthought, a cul-de-sac squeezed under the stairs, all eaves and crannies—you got the most delicious sense of privacy, as if all the world might forget that it and you were there. A grim reminder, however, was the mark painted about two inches up from the curved bottom of the bathtub, indicating the permissible water level. The same thing they did in the bathtubs of Buckingham Palace during the war.

The fact is, my in-laws were tight. Not the scraping, face-saving, working-class thrift I was used to; they were flagrantly, shamelessly stingy. The virtue of the faded WASP aristocracy. Papa would cook up a stew of beef and carrots at the beginning of the week, and start adding oatmeal and water toward the end. And he would follow you about, animated, talking (he was still greatly exercised over the persecution of the Albigensians), systematically switching off all the electric lights. This was a hazard, no joke, since the house was crammed to the rafters. He had to climb up a stepladder to fetch down his books; there was furniture on top of the furniture; my mother-in-law, still a porcelain beauty, without a chip or a crack, collected antiques. He kept magazines, newspapers, yellowed files, in her cradle rockers and canopied cribs and native hammocks and even in the upright commode stools. And yet they were “only camping,” she told me—in this house whose every niche and shingle they had penetrated, occupied, swelling and expanding like the rock-wool insulation they had had pumped in, blown through a giant snorkel. Even at that time they had lived in Indiana over thirty years. But what’s thirty years to a New England blueblood? They were ready to move back “at the drop of a hat.”

Now there were only two sons left, the last of the line, and one a confirmed bachelor. This branch had lost most of their money about nineteen-ought-five—before any of my progenitors had so much as stepped off the boat. What the family needed was some fresh stock, “hybrid vigor.” They were “sick of their washed-out New England blood.” Thus Papa, thrilled at the prospect of having a Jewish daughter-in-law, breeding with the race—for he believed that all Jews were cultured, cosmopolitan, intellectual, and rich. I had never run into this wacky Puritan Jew-worship before, for obvious reasons: I didn’t fit the description, and I didn’t know anybody who did.

What the dear old man thought when he took a half day off from his duties at the university (only time he would take; he had seven years’ leave accumulated and untouched at his retirement, which had been forestalled through a special act of the state legislature), what he thought when he took his half day off in honor of the wedding and came up for the afternoon on the James Whitcomb Riley, what he thought when he finally met me and my family, I don’t rightly know. I wasn’t getting any bargain either. And it doesn’t matter, because he was right about the “hybrids.”

“Now listen, you guys,” I said, as the automobiles were pulling up to the carpeted canopy. “I’d like to get home sometime today, so please don’t go nagging Rudy any more. Leave him alone. He’s the driver—let him do what he wants.”

“All right, all right,” said my mother.

“She promist, I din’t,” said Roxanne, poking round in her bag for her knitting.

It had turned out to be a nice day after all; the sun had finally come out in the late afternoon, resting on luminous banks of clouds. The sky was blue as chalk. Rudy drove with exaggerated tenderness—like the Sunday driver he was pretending to be—taking Sheridan Road, the scenic route home, to please my mother. The road wound and dipped through wooded ravines, still rusty brown with winter’s oak leaves. Here and there a glimpse of a cantilevered terrace, a glassed-in porch, a cathedral ceiling. We used to drive out this way sometimes on Sundays when I was a child, to ooh and aah at these sights, the half-hidden homes of the rich. These are the affluent North Shore suburbs.

A little red convertible, a Fiat Spider with the top down, cut in front of us. The driver had very short, shaggy, windblown yellow hair and the roots were dark as the center of a daisy.

“There!” Roxanne said, growing somewhat animated, for her, and pointing the bright tip of her knitting needle. “That’s the color my hair was suppost to be.”

The little car sped off in a burst of exhaust and lost us quickly on the winding road. Roxanne sank back, curving her spine and clicking her needles.

“Well, I’m just glad Pa [their father] wasn’t there to see that,” said my mother at last. “It would make him feel terrible.” She shrugged her mink stole round her shoulders. “It just doesn’t work out. It’s much better when two people have the same background. It makes for a better chance in a marriage.”

“Is that how come you get along so good with your own husband?” Rudy said, eying her in the mirror. “You got the same background?”

“I wasn’t speaking personally,” she said.

My mother always says what she is thinking; only what could she be thinking of? Rudy and Roxanne in the front seat, bigger than life; her own daughter sitting right beside her. And if you observe that my marriage was a failure, and that Rudy and Roxanne are no great success, that doesn’t make her remarks seem more tactful. But it was a little late in the day for tact—it was sink or swim, every man for himself. And what bothered me was where she was at, what sort of world she must be living in. The fact is, with the exception of my sister (and that’s a holy mess I won’t go into), no one in my mother’s family has married a Jew in the last thirty years. Which means that by now half her own relatives are not Jews. But never mind; she still sees her family as average, normal, the salt of the earth. Jewish.

Of course, I know where she was at. She was reliving the scene of her own greatest humiliation—the day of my wedding. Only now, each time this scene is repeated, she finds herself older, less resilient, stonier—more isolated. A ship in drydock. She adjusted her furs, offended, while we stopped for a train-crossing. Bells shrilling, lights flashing and winking back and forth. The heavy boxcars knocked and shuddered over the tracks; the hood of the car glimmered. We were staring straight into the flat red disk of the setting sun.

It dawned on me. We were supposed to be heading south and east—not west. And there are no train-crossings on Sheridan Road.

We were elsewhere.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Uncle Rudy,” I said, shouting over the noise. “What is this? Don’t you know I have to get back to the South Side yet.”

Roxanne’s face lighted up. “You’re the one that sait it, I din’t,” she said, turning round with a granite grin at the back seat.

After the student murder a few months ago, there were stirrings in the Hyde Park community. First-aid courses, an emergency switchboard service. It had taken almost an hour to get the victim to the hospital, with his fourteen stab wounds, and he bled to death. The purpose of first aid, switchboards, is to keep people from bleeding to death in the streets. And it makes all the rest of us, bystanders, supernumeraries, feel more effective. But these are after all only ex-post facto, one-to-one solutions. It all reminds me, weirdly, of the fallout-shelter craze of the early sixties, when people were digging holes in back yards, sinking concrete blocks, stocking up with canned goods, flashlight batteries, shovels, rifles. The point is, these people were preparing for nuclear attack; they were accepting it as an eventuality—they were acquiescing. One questioned the quality of such survivors.

This was called civil defense. And telephones and tourniquets are obviously civil defense measures too; the similarity is no accident. The latest thing is a campaign to distribute whistles; you’re supposed to keep them handy, wear them around your neck, blow them—after an attack.

None of this is going to stop the conditioning.

Now that nights are warmer—windows open to the darkness, artillery noises from the streets—you sense it all the more. The fear is quicker. Besides, everyone knows that violence increases with fair weather. Numbers only assert, but at least a dozen women I know have been raped, beaten and terrorized. The nature of the crime is significant: we are a passive population under siege. This anarchy, the flashing of guns and knives, may as well be martial law; there may as well be curfew in the deserted streets.

You feel stranded after dark. The air is penetrating. Particularly in Hyde Park, with the ghosts of the old stockyards to the west, and to the south—very much alive, a red glow from my windows—the inner sanctums of the steel mills. Like the days after King’s assassination—the odor of smoke and cinders blowing over the city. The slums were burning. The conditions I describe are only a dim reflection of the terror of that life.

“He wasn’t a member of a gang or anything,” a black mother is quoted in the papers after the slaughter of her son. “Someone at Ribs-’n’-Bibs just thought David was laughing at him.”

In the meantime all this is a topic of dinner-table conversation. Our fear is becoming socialized. Moving is a constant theme. One friend who has been raped, burglarized, and had her car stolen (three separate occasions), is still considering leaving Hyde Park. Plenty of reasons for leaving. The rents are as high here as almost anywhere in the city, and the food prices are even higher—typical of slum communities, a captive market. No competition. There is only one movie house in all Hyde Park; indeed, for many miles around. Restaurants and businesses close early. More and more they close for good. There are no gathering places, no lively night life. How could there be? People are afraid to go out after dark. It is just an island surrounded by the defoliation of the slums.

And yet none of these are real motivations for leaving. The fact is that most people have come to Hyde Park in the first place just because of the things it did not have. (It doesn’t have relatives, for instance.) And I realized this morning that “security” is not the main thing either. “Security” is an expensive illusion. We can’t all climb into the fallout shelters. In my grandmother’s neighborhood, Uptown, it’s the notorious desolation, the poverty, that is the constant reminder of what the real facts are; in my neighborhood—so much more green and affluent from its rooftops—it is the tension between black and white. And I suspect that the real reason people want to leave is not so much that they think they will be “safer” anywhere else; or so that they will be able to go out to a movie: it is because they don’t like their own automatic responses any more. That’s what they want to get away from. They want to halt the conditioning that is dehumanizing us.

“Aren’t you going to come in?” Rudy asked, sticking his big head in at the window. We weren’t planning to, had only stopped long enough to drop Roxy off so she could get back to the children. But Rudy seemed disappointed.

Her,” he said, lifting his chin at me. “I want her to come in and see my wallpaper.”

With anyone else this might have meant that he had something he wanted to say to me in private. But not with Rudy. That will never happen; Rudy will never speak his heart. I followed his ponderous shoulders into the house.

The landlord lives upstairs, and his side of the front porch is even more sagging, swaying and peeling than theirs. But the rent is cheap, and they have a sort of mutual nonaggression pact: they won’t expect any repairs, he won’t expect any raises. He’s an old Swede, gaunt, bald, toothless, deaf, and he just doesn’t want to be bothered. Something Rudy understands.

Rudy is an honest cop. When my high school sweetheart joined the force—“I wish I thought of it years ago; I’d a owned three apartment buildings by now”—Rudy told me right away he’d never last. “They don’t want that kind no more.” I’m sorry I don’t know who turned out to be right; but the point is, Rudy is not a cynic. And anybody has enough brains to be cynical. He is immutable, incorruptible; that is the real truth of his nature. How could you buy him? How could you approach him? He has no greed, he has no vanity, no ambition. A threat would only provoke his obstinacy—the most powerful force of all. It would be like trying to bribe Starved Rock.

As soon as we got inside, Rudy pointed to the wallpaper in the living room, a crowded flocked pattern on a gold ground. “Roxy put it up.” He stroked the wall.

“When was that?”

“It’s been two years,” Roxy said.

Rudy pulled my sleeve. “Come see the wallpaper in the kitchen.” The vinyl pattern covered the ceiling. “Roxy put it up with a broom,” Rudy told me, gazing up at the high ceiling from his gloomy height. Unmade beds, unwashed cups, cigarette butts, dishes in the sink; it’s like a frat house. But Roxy is very handy, and she knits, crochets, sews to perfection—the handicrafts of her Kentucky hills. It makes the stuff you see for sale in expensive boutiques look disgraceful, I’m not kidding.

Call that a quilt? Shame on them. They should see Roxy’s patchwork, Roxy’s coverlets, her shawls, stuffed animals. Her skill is the result of a long tradition, of which she is the end. Rudy showed off her projects. “Roxy did this too?”

The children in the meantime had gone out to the car to say hello. In a minute the little boy in his long pants and baseball jacket—his big glasses wider than his face—came dashing in, bursting with excitement. “Guess who’s in the car?” he said, grinning up at us through thick dark frames, balancing their weight. One eye tugged at its inner corner. “Bobbe! Bobbe!

He took off again. His shoes knocked with a heavy tread. I was fetching a glass of water for my grandmother. Rudy shoved a book at me instead; a photo album. “Sit down and look at this. I’ll bring the water.”

It was no use, I didn’t try to argue; I sank down in the wing-back chair and the two tall girls came and stood shyly behind it, looking over my shoulder as I turned the pages.

Their baby pictures, snapshots of vacations, the grim isolated South. Several times a year Roxy goes home to her mother, who runs a gas station. In some of the photos I noticed a beautiful sturdy blond child with fat pouting cheeks and built like the baby Hercules. I asked Roxy who it was.

“Oh, that’s the little daughter Rooty brung me.” Rudy had found the child abandoned in a hotel room; he knew how she’d be shuffled about if he turned her over to the welfare people, so he took her home for Roxy to take care of her. In due time the mother showed up and got the child back.

Now the girls had sidled up on the arms of the chair, turning pages for me, showing me their school pictures. “Guess which one is me.” The whole class lined up in the gym on wooden benches, hands folded in laps—just the way we used to do it. The same grins with the teeth missing. Only now the pictures come in color, and the girls giggled and squealed as I pointed to their faces.

“Hey, lookit—you wanna see Phoebe’s report card?” Harriet said, waving the long manila envelope at me.

“Hey! No fair! Gimme that!” says Phoebe, snatching for it. I guess she’s no scholar. So they started fighting, thumping and yelling. I was ready to leave, but Rudy insisted on taking me for a tour of the basement. His tall figure stooping ahead of me down the narrow steps.

As high as the ceilings are upstairs, they are that low in the basement. Rudy moved ahead of me in his slow wading way, his hands in his pockets, looking back over his shoulder; his head diving down and ducking the pipes.

I had seen it all before: the laundry room with washer and dryer; the storage room with the kids’ new bikes; his own retreat—an overstuffed rocker and an old-fashioned floor lamp with a scorched parchment shade. I don’t suppose he ever really uses the place. The basement is dry enough but dingy, raw cement. Rudy’s eyes kept wandering, grazing all about, as if he had forgotten what he was looking for. His elbows shrugged and flopped against his sides. I was struck with the aimlessness of his wide back.

There was a workshop; but the high, rough-hewn bench, the rough shelves, were bare, except for an ashtray filled with stubbed-out butts. I wondered who had been standing in the corner, furiously smoking. “I don’t know how to do nothing, so I don’t use it,” Rudy said, humbly, looking idly about with his hand on the light string. He ducked his head under the door as we went out.

Against the wall stood a bookcase lined with corrugated packages of light bulbs. If you pay your electric bill in person, you get them free. They caught his eye.

“You need light bulbs? Here, take some light bulbs,” he said, catching at my sleeve. “What do you need? Forties? Sixties? Hundreds? They’re all here; take what you want.”

Turning over packages, examining them. “You need bigger ones? Here—here’s one-fifty. Here’s two hundred.” I didn’t want to take any light bulbs home with me on the bus, but he seemed very anxious for me to take some. “Soft lights? Three-way? You like pink ones? We’ll get a bag upstairs.” He piled the weightless packages up on me. I held out my arms.

Roxanne wanted Rudy to take her to Osco’s—they had a sale on yarn. When I got into the car I saw that we had a stowaway: the little boy, squeezed between my mother’s skirts and my grandmother’s green coat—hiding himself, his feet sticking straight up in their dark thick-soled shoes. But before Roxy even stuck her face in, his smooth brown head popped up:

“Hi, Mommy! Hi, Mommy! Hi, Mommy!” he piped, poking his chin over the front seat and grinning up through his glasses with crazy cockeyed charm.

My grandmother peered round, large-faced in her babushka. I could see they were a little put out with me, wondering what had taken so long. “What have you got in the bag?”

“Light bulbs,” I said.

I was feeling very sad. I think maybe it was the light bulbs. They made me want to cry. Once again I was looking at the back of Rudy’s neck; thick, remote. For he is remote—my uncle is a blunt and mysterious man to me. His life flows in another direction; I shall never understand it. And yet I felt closer to him than to anyone I had seen all day. I felt that he had been trying to give me some message about his life; I sensed its powerlessness—but it moved me. Rudy and I are both outsiders, as far as the family is concerned. Out of the mainstream. And we are made of the same raw material: even this unexpected surge of feeling for him was an obstinate, unpredictable force. I was wondering what role such forces must have played in my life. It always feels depleting to make these self-discoveries. Anyway, it makes a long day to go up north and see the family, and by this time I had realized that I was going to feel awfully tired when I finally got home—washed out, weary, let down, empty. Blue. Yes, very blue.

In this portfolio:

Lady Antaeus

W-3 | From Bette Howland's memoir: death knocks

A Life in Letters | A son remembers his mother

A Visit | "What did I tell you? Just like I said: There was Good
News and Bad News."

The American Heroine | On the drowned women of American letters

Ever Your Friend | Letters from Saul Bellow, 1961–1990

No. 23

No. 23


Bette Howland is the author of three books, W-3 (Viking), Blue in Chicago (Harper & Row), and Things to Come and Go (Knopf). Her work has also appeared in such magazines as Commentary, First Things, the Noble Savage, and Triquarterly. Born in Chicago, she lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


A Public Space is an independent, non-profit publisher of the award-winning literary and arts magazine; and A Public Space Books. Since 2006, under the direction of founding editor Brigid Hughes the mission of A Public Space has been to seek out and support overlooked and unclassifiable work.


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