Category Archives: Chicago

Little Pink Riding Hood

It’s raining outside- that heavy Chicago late-summer rain that ruins shirts and hairdos, knocks down branches and floods gutters and sewers.

All along Belmont, folks huddle in doorways, pressed against buildings and hopping from shelter to shelter. A hat rolls by in the street, with a young man in skinny jeans chasing it. Inside, The Pink Mink is full of the usual crowd; Hazel sneaking out from the kitchen for a quick kiss-and-grope with Andi whenever Andi finds time between shaking those arcane cocktails, Jen telling no-shit-there-I-was stories about the U of C parties last night, purple-haired Mariah in swooning over some girl she probably hardly knows.

I’m feeling pretty flush myself. I just got paid, rent’s not due for two weeks, and I picked up a little side work for the weekend fixing a car for a friend of a friend.

All of which explains why there’s a bottle of Scotch on our table instead of the usual pitcher of beer, half paid-for by tips from the drag show and half comped by Andi according to some arcane formula. And the bottle of Scotch, well, that explains why I don’t pay much attention when the door opens and closes a few times, letting in a gust of sodden leaves each time.

The Mink is one of my favorite bars, especially on nights when I’m feeling at the top of my game. The show went great and I’m finally feeling like one of The Boys, for real, not just the ringer they called in one night six months ago when their guitarist flounced off over some imagined slight.

Something Jai says makes everyone laugh and I join in, even though I missed the joke while I was pouring. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is being here. I spill a little, laugh, lick the Scotch off my fingers. “Not gonna let it go to waste,” I tell Mitch, and pour for him.

“Daaaaayum,” Tay says appreciatively. Ze’s not one of the Boys, not officially, but ze’s a good hand with electronics. And George — Georgia, in her street clothes — laughs that smoky-deep laugh that drives me almost nuts enough to in and ask her out, except I worry, sometimes, that she might be a keeper.

I set the bottle down, wiping a stray drop off the neck. Pick up my glass. Lean back in my chair and follow Tay’s gaze, because Tay has an eye for beauty.

Apparently Malibu Barbie just blew into town, tanning-bed tan and blonde hair and high heels, tiny waist, pink pencil skirt and all. She doesn’t even look at the crowd, not really. Just sashays up to the bar and waits for Andi’s attention like she’s used to getting attention wherever she goes.

On second thought. I want to describe it as a sashay. But there’s an off quality to the walk, a sort of broken-marionette stiltedness.

I raise an eyebrow, catch Tay’s eye. “Little girl lost, y’think?”

“Tch. Maybe she’s on her way to Grandma’s house, you big bad wolf,” Tay chides.

I grin. “What? She might need someone to help her find her way home.” I swirl the Scotch in my glass, watch Malibu Barbie settle onto a stool and sip gracelessly at her drink. She doesn’t look like the type who normally does anything gracelessly. She grimaces at the taste, then gets that “maybe it’s medicinal” look on her face and takes a longer pull.

She’s wearing pink slingbacks, totally impractical for the weather. But damn, the way she’s got one leg crossed over the other, shoe dangling like she doesn’t give a crap, and her skirt riding up like that. Well. Girls like that don’t generally just wander into the Mink.

“Technically, Tay saw her first,” Jai slurs, almost slopping Scotch over the edge of their glass.

“You’d fall on your face before you got there,” I say, downing the rest of my drink in one swallow. The burn is pleasant, and I give Jai a lazy smile.

George puts a hand on my shoulder. “Hey. You be careful. Straight girls’ll break your damn heart every time. I should know.”

I hold up both hands in mock-protest. “I’m just gonna buy a girl a drink. Nothing wrong with that, is there? She looks like she could use a friend.” I grin again, straighten my collar.

“Besides,” I say, getting to my feet and shoving my chair back with one foot. “I’m not the type to get my heart broke.”


Curtain

I didn’t know what I was expecting when I broke into Grandma Marie’s old house with my girlfriend, but the man falling out of a hole in thin air to land at our feet wasn’t it.

“Look, man, I’m sorry, we thought the place was empty.” It sounds inane. No, mundane, like men fall at my feet every day. At Barbi’s maybe, but not mine. I don’t even bat for that team. I don’t take my eyes off of him.

The man looks up at me through long strands of dark hair that are escaping a neat braid at the nape of his neck. He’s wearing faded jeans and nothing else that I can see. He’s got the roundish face and bladed nose marking him as a descendant of the Illinois peoples, though I might have missed it if he wasn’t also dressed like a goddamn stereotype. He blinks a couple times and sniffs the air, then rolls back up onto his haunches and inspects his knees ruefully. Blood smears under fingers still dusty from his tumble.

“Bastards.” He’s not just taller than me. He’s really tall. “You’re Marie’s grand…. She never said anything about you being one of us.” He frowns, rubbing one hand over his opposite shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t think we’ve met.” I try to say it like this happens to me all the time, like people just pop out of the air in a regular basis covered in blood, like my girlfriend summons light with her hands.

“No, I was just a little’un the last time you were here. Why are you back? Did she leave word?”

I shake my head. “I haven’t been back since Gran died.”

“Okay.” He doesn’t sound so much disappointed as resigned to the inevitability. “Can you hand me Nina’s cell phone, then?”

“Who? What cell phone?” I’m getting more confused by the second. “Who are you?”

“I’m Danny.” He pronounces it dah-nee and I wonder if I’m spelling it right in my head. “Nina is my sister, and her cell phone is right behind you and I need it if you’re not going to help, because the Lonely Ones are active tonight, and there’s only three of us.”

I look where he points. The phone’s on a chair. “Lonely Ones?” I’m off balance again, in a way that should be feeling pretty familiar by now.

“Wanaghi,” he says impatiently. “Look. Are you gonna let me get the phone, or fight me or what, because my sisters are stuck on the other side right now and I don’t have time for your shit.”

“Do I need to fight you?” I hold the phone out. It’s an old one, a flip phone. He opens it and thumbs the power button, then starts cursing.

Barbi glares at me. At me, not him. “Can we help?” she says quietly, in her talking-the-girl-in-the-school-dance-down-from-the-bathroom-ledge voice.

“No, there’s no fuckin’ batteries and I don’t know where anyone is, and fuck fuck FUCK THIS!” The phone explodes into component parts when it hits the wall.

“No, really,” Barbi says again. “Can we help.” I feel that dizzy flexion of the world around me that means she’s powering up.

I tense and give Barbi an are-you-sure-about-this? look. “I have a phone,” I tell Danny. “You can borrow it. Or you can tell us, quickly, what the FUCK is going on and maybe we can be, I dunno, useful.”

“It won’t have the numbers in it,” he mumbles through his hands. “Fuck, I’m useless. Come on, then, if you’re coming.” He holds out his hand.

Well, dammit. I look at Barbi, who’s still glowing like an angel. I can’t exactly back down now, not in front of her.

Danny clamps down on my wrist harder than I was predicting, and pulls. There’s a brief pressure like being underwater, like pushing through one of those hanging curtains on the freezer case at the supermarket. My ears pop, and suddenly I’m… standing in the kitchen.

Well, kind of. If I squint. There’s a bush where the sink should be, and a big rock for the fridge, and the brittle late-summer grass changes color where I think the wall is. Past that, where the bathroom was added onto the house, there’s a little wellspring of fresh water. I can see the big tree that marks the start of the driveway, off there behind Barbi.

And all around us the plains stretch out to the faint glow of the horizon.


Anchors

The porch light is off, and for a minute I think maybe they thought I wasn’t coming home tonight. But then I hear the soft plucked notes of Inay’s guitar. She’s sitting on the porch swing in the near-dark. Between the living room window and the streetlamp, there’s just enough light to make out her face and the half-empty whiskey bottle beside her.

“I always wanted a porch swing, growing up,” she says, not looking up from the guitar. “A house with a yard and a porch swing and a wood fence, not chain-link.” She shifts on the swing, making room even though there’s plenty of space. I take it as an invitation. The swing creaks a little under our combined weight, but it always does that. It’s plenty strong.

“Where’s Mom?” I ask.

“Down at Holly’s. She needed an evening out.” Inay sets the guitar aside and reaches for the whiskey. It’s the good stuff, the stuff she usually saves for when Uncle Jack comes over. She raises the bottle to her lips, hesitates, and sticks her other hand inside her jacket, bringing a glass out from nowhere, from hammerspace. She blows into the glass, like it’s dusty or something, wipes off a smudge with her shirttail. Splashes about an inch of whiskey into it. Then she hands it to me.

Surprised, I take it.

“Go on,” she says. “It’s not gonna kill you, is it?”

“No. No, I guess it won’t.”

She doesn’t say anything. She’s already guessed where I was today. What I was doing. That makes it easier, actually. I don’t want to tell her that I died today, even if it didn’t stick. Immortal. I take a sip of whiskey and try not to cough at the way it burns.

We sit there in companionable silence for a while, me with my glass and Inay with the bottle, rocking back and forth. It’s one of the things I love about my Inay: we don’t have to talk to understand each other. In fact, it’s when we talk that we understand each other the least.

“I got a favor to ask,” she says abruptly. Her voice is… not slurred, exactly, but imprecise.

She let herself get drunk, I think. Another surprise.

“Someday, when I’m gone.” She raises the bottle, drinks. Her face is turned into the shadows now, and I can’t see what she’s thinking. “When I’m gone,” she repeats, “and your Mom’s gone, and your Aunt Kyna and Seamus and… when we’re all gone, promise me you’ll look after Uncle Jack. Make sure he doesn’t do anything… stupid.” She laughs, and lifts the bottle again in a kind of salute. “Stupid’s my gig. Don’t let him…” She doesn’t finish.

I look into my glass, into the thin film of whiskey covering the bottom. “He’s got Katie,” I offer. “And Angus. He’ll be all right.”

She’s already shaking her head. “’S not enough,” she says. “He promised me he’d take care of you, before you—“ She gestures with the bottle. “But you’ve got Kate now, and Bronagh. And they’ve got you. He’ll have no one. I dunno what he’ll do, without Kyna.”

“All right,” I say slowly. I’ve made so many promises today. What’s another? “I’ll keep an eye on him. But really, I dunno what I can do that they can’t.”

Inay relaxes. Considers the bottle and sets it down. Picks up the guitar instead. “I know how I’d feel, your Mom goes first.” Her voice is steadier now, way steadier than I’d expect, considering. “But I got anchors. He needs anchors, Jack does. All immortals do.” She nods, like something’s been decided, and starts fiddling with the tuning pegs.

“Go on up to bed,” she says, like I’m twelve again. Like I’m still her baby girl, and she didn’t just give me two fingers of the good whiskey.

“Okay.” I drain the last sip from my glass and stand up. My head’s a little spinny, and it’s only partly the booze. “Don’t stay up too late.” It’s the kind of thing she’d say to me. If I were twelve.

“Just till your mom gets home.” She starts to play. “Turn the porch light on?”

“Sure.” I take the glass with me. No point in sticking it back into hammerspace all sticky. “‘Night, Inay.”

She nods, but she’s paying more attention to the guitar than to me.

Up in my room, I crack the window open a little, just to hear her sing.


Mission

Let the wolves circle. I never doubted you. Even now, your spine presses against mine; your blood pulses in my veins. I clench my fist, oath-scarred and full of rage.

“You ready?”

I hear your feral grin and nod. “Let’s do this.”


Listening [the long version]

[Note: a short version of this story was posted at yeah write’s fiction|poetry challenge, where the word limit is 750 words. Many thanks to Rowan G and her brutal editing skills for cutting it down to size. We thought it might be interesting to show how we whittled this down to the bare essentials. I’d be curious to know what readers think. Which version is more effective? -ch]


The 1965 Ford Mustang was my birthday present, but truth be told, she was kind of a mess. The soft-top was shredded. The driver’s side door squeaked and the passenger side only opened from the inside. All the seals were cracked. Reservoirs stood empty or were missing altogether. Hoses, same thing. The cracked coating on the wires indicated sun and heat damage. No rust, but from the faded paint, she might have been standing with her hood open for years.

Anyone else might have walked away, but I loved her from the moment I saw her. She was perfect.

And she was a present from Jack, who knows me probably better than anyone. Who I don’t know at all anymore, it seems. For the last few weeks I’ve been patient, really. They said give him space, so I gave him space. They said give him time, so I did. And the whole time I missed him something fierce, the brother of my heart.

And then:

“The time for being patient has passed,” Angus said yesterday. He was worried. “He hasn’t alienated you yet. Hasn’t tossed you away the way he did his own wife. I want you to try to talk to him.”

“No pressure,” I’d said. It was only his son we were talking about.

“All the pressure in the world,” he’d replied gravely.

So today, I grasp at the only thing I can think of that might draw him out. The last thing we have left in common.

:got the car running. thought you might want to see.: I text to Jack.

:sure, congratulations. when:

:heading down now. wear a coat. garage is cold and the heaters not working.:

:yes, mom: he replies. I can almost pretend it’s a joke.

I do have a plan, stuff to do, things to work on. In case Jack doesn’t show. Or in case he does. I can keep busy. So when I get down to the garage, I shove my sleeves up and pop the hood.

I’ve had my head under the hood for a good half hour when I straighten up, rubbing the small of my back, and notice Jack sitting on the edge of a tool chest, waiting.

“Jesus. How long you been there?” I wipe my sleeve across my forehead.

He shrugs. He looks small in his jeans and light windbreaker. Reduced, somehow.

I clench my jaw, forcing the rest of me to relax. Take a breath. “Well. I’m glad you came. She’s still not much to look at, but she’s alive. That’s something.” I glance at him. “Guess I have you and Angus to thank? For the engine?”

“No thanks needed.” He shrugs again. “We were there, and I knew you wanted that one, so.”

He says it like he’d picked up a gallon of milk.

“Well. It was nice of you.” I fall silent. It’s like talking to a stranger. Some guy who gives you change for the bus because he has it and you don’t. “Um. You wanna check her out?”

“Sure.” He looks vaguely embarrassed. “But you know I can’t make ‘em run. I just drive.”

“Don’t need you to make her run. Though there’s a couple things would go easier with an extra pair of hands.” I tuck the prop back down, lower the hood and let it drop. The clang echoes through the garage. “First, though, just listen to her.”

He nods.

I climb into the driver’s seat and shove the passenger door open from the inside. Jack catches it as it swings open, protecting the hinge, and slides inside.

“You usually leave the window rolled down, just reach in?” It’s a clinical question.

“Haven’t bothered. Nobody’s sat on that side before.”

His glance is is quick, birdlike. Barely more than a brief motion of his chin. Anyone else would have missed it.

“Just listen,” I say again, and turn the key.

The engine roars into life pretty much immediately. I’ve tinkered with it a bit since the day I dropped it in. I hadn’t really meant to; I’d meant to leave her alone a while, but she kept drawing me back, this car. I give her a little gas, let the sound bounce off the walls. Glance at Jack. He used to fill the space, when we drove together. Now he looks like a kid. He is a kid, I remind myself.

His eyes widen a little at the first cough and roar, and then he settles, his shoulders sinking back. He inhales, slow, through his nose, consuming the sound and the scent of grease, exhaust, ozone from a welder. The exhale is even slower, silent. Finally he reaches out and rests his fingertips on the dash, his eyes watching a horizon that doesn’t exist.

“She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?” I ask softly, watching his face, his fingers on the dashboard. He’s in there, my Jack, and I use the possessive deliberately, because the people I love, I can’t give them up.

“She’s got the voice of an angel,” he says quietly, still listening. “God. She sounds like… like Judy Henske or something. Like she’s been through hell and just kept right on, and now she’s bragging about it.”

I glance quickly at him, noting the pronoun. “Yeah. Yeah, exactly like that.” I listen too, adjusting my foot on the gas to hear her range. “She has, I think. Been through hell. I figure, this car, she’s got nothing left to lose. ‘Least she’s got a voice now, and someone to listen to her.”

Jack’s eyes drift closed as the engine revs, open slowly as it subsides. Like riding a wave.

“I useta jack cars like this. Not for money. You could never sell a car like this for what it’s worth, not to a chop shop. New cars, those were good. Lexus, Audi, all that. But these. I useta take em and just go riding.” His fingers trace patterns on the dashboard that almost look familiar, that crystallize with his next words. “Down Lakeshore, in on the Dan Ryan, if it wasn’t crowded. Other places. You could never do it too long. But for a while, it was like being…. well. Just being.”

I’m afraid to breathe while he’s talking. Afraid the sound of blinking my eyes will interrupt him. “I know what you mean. ‘S why I’d take my mom’s car, sometimes, when she was passed out. Feels like nothing else matters, for a little while. Like nobody can touch you. I get that.”

“Do you.” His voice is flat and distant.

I shrug. “A little.” I slide my hands down either side of the wheel, noting the worn spots where the covering is rough against my fingers. “You ever get caught?”

He moves a shoulder, his windbreaker sliding against the orange-peel of the car’s aged vinyl seat.

I take my foot off the gas, let her idle. The low thrum-thrum-thrum rhythm settles into my bones, comfortable, like it’s supposed to be there. “You wanna drive?” I ask. “So to speak.”

“Na,” he says, uncomfortable again. “It’s your car.”

“I dunno,” I say. “She’s singing to you too. Isn’t she?” I press the pedal again, let the sound swell.

The edges of his eyes soften. “Yeah, but she’s your girl. You want somebody to help put her through her paces when you get wheels on her, I’m there; right now I’d just be making noise.”

“That all I’m doing? Making noise?” I push it all the way to the floor. Someone’s going to come out and yell at me, I’m sure of it, but I don’t care. It’s loud, louder than I’d expected in the confined space of the garage, large as it is. The wheel shakes in my hands, and I ease up.

“Feels like if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear what she’s trying to say. It’s not like I’m going anywhere, the shape she’s in.” I let her idle again.

“Where are you going, Jackie?” I barely breathe it, but I know he can hear.

He’s absolutely still, gone deep within himself. His hand, balanced on the dash, is rock-steady. He might as well be a statue, a doll.

“I don’t hear what you hear.”

His hand drops to the door handle, he yanks the lever, and he’s gone into the shadows of the garage, moving smoothly, not so fast that he’d attract notice but not so slow that he’s easy to catch up with. Just like he drives.

I watch him walk away, watch till he’s out of sight, my back stiff and my hands white-knuckled on the wheel. And when I can’t see him anymore I bend, crumple over the wheel like I’d just driven her into a wall. And I cry, like a stupid little girl, big wracking sobs that I hope can’t be heard over the sound of the engine.

At some point I stop sobbing and just sit there with my cheek pressed against the curve of the wheel. I blew it, I think. I fucking blew it. The car’s still rumbling. I turn her off with a jerk of my wrist.

I lean over and pull the passenger door shut. Stare at it a moment. Reach over again and roll the window down, all the way.

Then I get out, shut my door behind me. Give her a gentle pat, and start walking toward the tram. As I leave the garage I can see his footprints, small and lonely in the grit.

[Wondering where Jack went? Read Rowan’s side of the story…]