2nd Place Prizewinner
As former director of the Writers Voice literary center in St. Louis, Julia Gordon-Bramer has worked with luminaries in literature such as Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few. She is a 2002 finalist for the national William Faulkner Pirate’s Alley Novel-in-Progress Creative Writing Award, a board member of River Styx literary magazine, a long-time Member of Distinction with the St. Louis Writers Guild and author of a memoir, NIGHT TIMES, currently seeking publication. A graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Julia is working toward a MFA in Creative Writing, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Webster University. She teaches English at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley.
Every time I walk through this Summit train station, the first thing that hits me is the vinegar stench of piss from the men’s room, mixed with the sweet and salt of that crumbling chop suey stand across the street. I clear out in a hurry and hit the Quick Stop Shop for some beer on the way over to Ma’s. Ma lives in the middle of everything: right on West 58th, just off 55, south of Chicago-proper.
I came back last year to take care of her, and she’s giving me a place to stay till I get back on my feet. Over fifty years ago, her doctor said, “don’t have any kids.” She almost died, breaking his rules and smuggling me into the world. Ma considers me a gift.
It’s getting late in the afternoon, my head hurts, my back aches, and I need a cigarette. It’s a mile stretch here and back to Ma’s apartment, and for a fifty-five-year-old with forty-five years of smoke in his lungs, I’m beat.
It’s been hot four days in a row, and the heat and whatever else it is I’m breathing gives me a sick, crappy feeling. The oily asphalt, the reek from the Arco Corn Products plant across the highway, the car fumes, and everybody’s sweat whips Summit up into a giant cocktail of urban stink.
At Ma’s apartment, I set my bag down and open a can of beer. She’s sitting with her friend Loretta in the kitchen, which is pretty much just a sink, a stove, and a folding card table. When the greetings are out of the way, me, Ma, and Loretta, who lives just upstairs, deal a three-way round of Uno and shoot the shit.
Ma’s little window air conditioner is just barely spitting cool, a real let down for anyone who’s spent time outside. Inside, the apartment doesn’t smell much better than the train station, with Ma’s Ben-gay lotion rubbed in the sweaty folds of her skin, old coffee on the burner too long, and Roach-Pruf dusted on everything.
Loretta looks like a polish sausage in polyester, with big yellow hair and wet, oily makeup. She’s gross, yeah, but I still like her. At least, I like her stories. Ma does, too. Loretta always has one about some tramp or drunk that barges into Hot Shoppes, where she waits on tables. I like to watch Ma listen. She takes a second to think over what Loretta says, and then she’s snorting and cracking up, with that loose skin of hers shaking all over from the days when Ma used to be fatter than two Lorettas put together.
Loretta goes on about the Indian guy upstairs. Shalzar, or Shazhad—something like that. We call him ‘Shazam’ to make it easy. Loretta says she saw him in some kind of voodoo trance or something.
“You couldn’t miss it, Sylvia!” Loretta says to Ma, opening her eyes up wide, “His drapes were wide open! He smokes crack or something.” She says this like she’s sure of it, rambling on about how India is a big drug place.
“When the Beatles went there, that’s when they started getting weird. They don’t talk about India much on TV,” she says, “for good public relations.”
Personally, I could give a shit about India, or the Beatles, or the guy upstairs. I guess all that shows on my face when I tell Ma and Loretta they’re just a pair of dumb old clacks who wouldn’t know India if it bit them on the ass.
“What’s your problem, Frankie?” hollers Ma, looking over at me red-cheeked and mad, like her blood pressure just zoomed through her head.
I ignore her the way I always do when she makes an ignorant remark. Ma needs to realize that I’m the one who went to high school, I’m the one who got out of Summit, and I’m definitely the only one in this goddamned town—maybe in the whole goddamned Chicagoland area—who knows how the world really works. Besides, she knows I hate it when she calls me “Frankie.” Ma seems to forget these facts fairly often.
She pats me on the hand and tries again, in a calmer voice, “I’m glad you’re back, Frank. Just your being here is good enough. It’s good enough for me, Frankie.”
After a second I ask, “Got any cigarettes, Ma?” This is how we make up.
Ma hands me a white carton of those generic cigarettes she saves up for when I need them, which is just about all the time. She keeps them stuffed in a big cardboard box under her hospital bed, next to the kitchen table. I peel open a pack, and grab at the inside of my jacket for matches.
“Jesus, Frankie!” Ma explodes again, “Don’t smoke in here! I told you a million times, Doctor Goldberg says I can’t take it no more!”
What that idiot doctor really says is that Ma can’t take me no more. Outside her hospital room last month I heard him say it. And Ma has the nerve to say back to the doctor that she has to hang on, so that she can take care of me. I’m a grown man, for Chrissake! It’s goddamned embarrassing.
I take myself outside to smoke my cigarette under the concrete steps to the upstairs. Rusted-out iron and railings hold up the steps, and I think about the whole thing ripping away from the brick wall and smashing me to pieces. I listen to the sounds of all the TVs blaring, with Spanish and news and sports and a Three’s Company re-run all playing at once.
What happened to Frank? I bet the neighbors ask Ma that all the time. Your blue-eyed boy! So handsome! Branch manager of his company, once. On his way up, working downtown! And now, shit.
Kids are hollering and crying around the building, and I watch Ma inside, dark and blurred through my own reflection on the dirty storm door. Gray walls, dirt, skin, hair, smoke. Since I got back, the kids in the neighborhood all think Ma got married again…to me. Now we are both gray.
After a little while, I go back inside. A breath of smoke and a couple of mosquitoes follow me in. My hands are shaking. I fix myself some orange juice in one of Ma’s pink plastic tumblers. “Ma?” I ask.
She knows what I’m talking about. Ma says, “In the cupboard, behind the cereal.” She waves me off like she’s sick of looking at me.
I reach up, grab the bottle and turn my back to Ma and Loretta, flooding vodka into the juice with three noisy glugs. Then I screw the cap on tight and set it back into hiding.
Loretta asks Ma—right in front of me—why she bothers to buy it for me. She’s got no respect. That much is clear. Loretta knows that Ma needs the money for her rent and electric, and sometimes she has to pay late. So who do they blame? Me.
“I hate it when he has too much,” Ma says back, looking over her shoulder at me like I’m not really there, like I’m just a picture of myself. “He turns into a mean S-O-B. But I just can’t stand to see him shake like that. A man needs his drink and cigarettes.”
After all that time, Loretta forgets the point of the story about the Indian, so she says goodnight and goes upstairs, whistling some song she probably invented on the spot. Me and Ma sit alone in the apartment, with the black-and-white TV fuzzing in and out on Fantasy Island. I flip through Ma’s vacation brochures that Loretta picks up for her every week, even though Ma never goes—or has gone—anywhere. She’s too sick and old now, but she still dreams: See the Caribbean! One of them says, Europe! with TWA.
Ma leans over the card table—as best as she can—and says to me in a low voice, “Loretta’s stealing from me.”
“Loretta?” I say, “Why in the hell would you think that?”
Ma tells me that last Tuesday, when she went to the doctor, me and Loretta were the only ones who had a key. Ma can trust me, she knows that much. Before she left for the doctor, she had her shoebox of medicine out to make a little bit of money. Her sister Bernice came by with a wad of cash to pay her back for the Valium she got last week, and she gave Ma $20 extra for the Tylenol 3’s she could use for her bad knees. Bernice always has pains someplace. Altogether, Ma had about $50 cash, some in ones and fives, with two tens, in a plain white envelope tucked into her daily devotion booklet. When she got back from seeing the doctor, the two tens were gone.
Ma says she’s looked everywhere for that $20. She’s just sick about it. She thinks maybe Loretta’s trying to make her think she’s going senile. That week, Ma’d planned to make a nice fancy Jell-O salad for July Fourth.
“Frankie,” Ma says, telling me the story, “I asked Loretta, ‘will you go in that cabinet and fetch me my new Tupperware—that Jell-O mold? Loretta says, ‘There’s no Tupperware mold here, Syl. You must be going crazy!”
Ma got all mad, she says. I can just see her in my head, steaming and thumping her way across the room in her walker to go look for it herself. It really was gone. She says she thought maybe she really was going nutso, until later on, when she hears the Albanian girl down the way say to Loretta, “What a beautiful Jell-O ring!”
I tell Ma she must be watching too many Perry Mason detective shows. But, even if the money was stolen too, she shouldn’t blame Loretta. It’d be a safer bet wondering about another neighbor, or even her sister, Bernice. Bernice might be the type to take the money, I say to Ma, and Loretta could’ve taken the Jell-O mold. We both know there’s no way Ma’s crazy. She’s on top of everything that goes on in this building.
I get up and fix myself another drink, this time leaving the bottle out in the open. So what? It’s just me and Ma now. I have nothing to hide. Besides, she says I’m better with a few drinks in me, anyway. Nicer. More relaxed. It makes me a better person all-around. Ask anyone, she’ll say. She used to say the same thing about my Pop, of course. She used to say that in Pop’s last days, around about the time the cirrhosis set in, if they took the drink away from him at that point, that would have killed him.
Loretta hasn’t been gone more than twenty minutes when Maria, the Albanian girl, runs downstairs to Ma’s apartment in her nightgown, looking all confused.
“Whatsa matter, Maria?” Ma hollers, figuring she’s just being a crazy foreigner. We know how they get sometimes.
Maria takes a deep breath. “I was walking by Loretta’s window,” she says, “I see her lying on the floor, holding her arm. I say, Loretta! Are you OK? And she does not answer!”
“Then I guess she must be OK,” Ma says back, “Otherwise she would’ve said.”
This makes sense to me, but Maria keeps on.
“But what if she’s having a heart attack or something? Then she can’t say she’s OK?” Maria says.
Sometimes Maria can be a real pain in the ass. Ma looks over at me. She’s said her piece and prefers to mind her own business. I’m in charge now.
“OK, Maria,” I say in my slow, deep voice that comes as naturally as stars in the nighttime after a couple of drinks, “Go back upstairs, and ask Loretta if she needs to go to the hospital. If she says yes, or if she doesn’t answer, then we know she needs a doctor.”
I feel pretty good making important decisions like this. I like the sound of my voice giving orders. I missed my calling. Or lost it, someplace.
Maria runs up to Loretta’s apartment in her little nightie, naked skinny legs showing off to the whole world, and we can hear her hollering through the screen window, “Loretta? Do you need to go to the hospital?”
Me and Ma listen from downstairs. I stick to Ma like glue. No way do I want to see Loretta in some kind of undressed condition. On the wall over the door, Jesus is hanging off a cross with a hopeless look on his face. I try to remember a prayer, something to fit this mess. I can’t think of a single one.
After a second, Maria runs back downstairs, her bare feet squeaking and slipping on the floor, and I think if she’s not careful, she might also fall and have to go to the hospital. Maria says, “Loretta said, ‘No.’ But she’s still lying there, and crying. She says things I do not understand!”
I say to Ma, “Awright, awright! I don’t care what Loretta says! Call an ambulance!”
Ma starts in on reminding me how ambulances don’t like to come into Summit unless it’s an emergency, and how Loretta did actually say ‘No,’ so this probably isn’t an emergency. She decides to call the police department, instead, and see what they think.
In five minutes flat, an ambulance is outside, courtesy of the Cook County Police, and they’re busting in to get Loretta. She looks even fatter on the stretcher, with her yellow hair flopping around everywhere, and those big thighs jiggling as the medics carry her down the stairs.
I take a walk upstairs, figuring I’ll get a better look, now that I know Loretta is dressed and out of there. And whaddoya know? There, sitting right on Loretta’s kitchen table, is Ma’s Jell-O mold, exactly like she described it. I walked back downstairs, where the ambulance guy was asking Ma what Loretta’s last name is. No one knows for sure. Something Polish, with a “K.” Ma thinks it might be “Kowalski,” or maybe “Kuzminski.” I go back up the stairs and inside Loretta’s to look for some mail or ID or something to solve the mystery. I take the Jell-O mold on the way out, trying to figure how to break it to Ma that she was right about half of it, for certain.
Not long after, Ma gets a call from the hospital. Loretta died. Ma has a hard time with this, saying, “She was my best friend,” over and over. I knew that Ma wasn’t crying only for Loretta, though. She was also crying about that stupid Jell-O mold, and for how she couldn’t trust anyone no more. She was probably crying over me, too, and how because of some asshole things I did, she won’t see her grandchildren again. Maybe she was also crying for Summit, this shit-hole of a town, and how she’ll never get to Europe and the Caribbean.
It makes me sick just thinking about it. There’s nothing I can do to change anything. It’s just another reminder crashing into my head. All the reminders of what a shit I am run me over, like I’m road kill on the highway: Get Out! That’s what Carol said to me, how many years ago now? And I got in the car and drove away and never saw her and my girls again. I try not to think about it.
I want to tell Ma that it won’t always be this way, that she can trust some people. That not everywhere’s like Summit and not everyone is like me. I wish I could tell her all good things, like she used to tell me when I was a snot-nosed six-year-old with skinned knees. I want to say, “Don’t worry, Ma, I’m sure you’ll outlive me.” But I left my words someplace back in my third drink, and all I can leak out is, “Forget about it.”
The commotion is long gone now, it’s after ten, and I’m on drink number five. I say, “Hey, Ma, I’m going out to get some air.”
This is the first time she smiles at me in what feels like years.
“Sure, go get some air,” Ma says with a sort of a laugh. Saying, “Go get some air,” in itself is kind of a joke on a summer night in Summit. I leave my cup on the counter and carry what’s left of the bottle out with me.
It’s hard to see where I’m headed, since it’s starting to get dark now. In the dim light, the alley outbuildings look like tombs, a New Orleans-style City of the Dead. The sheds line up all down the back drive, like those above-ground crypts holding bodies that the swamp can’t swallow. You can’t keep a good man down.
I think about my Pop. I try to picture him: young, slim and dark-haired, like when I was little. On my sixth birthday, Pop took me to a Cubs game. The two of us sat in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, eating hotdogs. I drank soda, Pop drank beer. And then, the game was over and the crowds piled out like it was a fire drill. The Cubs were gone. Everyone was gone. It was just me and Pop and the people cleaning up. Pop wasn’t budging. I tried and tried, but after so many beers, he wouldn’t open his eyes. I cried and hit at his shoulder saying, “Pop! Pop! Wake up!”
Why would I remember that day, and still miss my Pop? Go figure.
I lit up another cigarette and drew the smoke in one slow breath, remembering something else: remembering how I tried to copy that cool smoke rhythm of his. Inhaling, then speaking without a single puff of smoke sneaking out. Pop made it look so easy. I used to hide out with the kids from the end of the street, all of them sitting on their powder-blue tiled bathroom floor with stolen butts from Pop’s ashtray. Holding the butt up to my lips, I’d strike a match and show them how to suck in hard and get it to light up again. I had those kids thinking he taught me, like some important father-son time, with a radio or TV-show voice talking over it, explaining to the crowd: now Frank is a man. The truth was, of course, that I taught myself in the basement once everyone had gone to bed. But I had half-believed that my Pop really did sit next to me on the front porch sometimes; coaching me, breath by breath, how to do it. I imagined it in my head so many times that it had just about become real. I believed if I could do that, become that… I don’t know. Maybe something would change.
But nothing ever changes in Summit. Not in my thirty years since high school. Or in the forty since I learned to smoke. Not with dead Loretta lying on her floor and taking the blame for that stolen money. Not even with Carol switching me off faster than a light switch. What did she do with my clothes and my cigarettes? How could she, did she, live without me?
I would have paid Ma back.
My bottle and my head are light and the sky is now very dark. I’m home, back home, in Summit. Home, even the word sounds heavy, full of the long O’s of go and old and cope. I catch myself looking around, checking to make sure it’s really true. I feel like I’m a light waft of pollution lingering overhead, around and through that town this night. Every night. I’m a whisper of embarrassment—I’m that bad thing in the past that people try to shove down and ignore.
I take another gulp from his bottle and enjoy the burn.
The way I see it, so what if I don’t live up to any of their expectations! Since when has life lived up to mine? I never asked to be here. I didn’t ask for anything. I never get what I ask for, anyway.
Lights pop on in the scattered windows of Ma’s building behind me, like randomly lit candles for prayer. My shadow grows, running out from my feet and away into the blackest, darkest corners. It escapes my body, blending in against the dumpster, the cars, the garbage, the Earth.
My chapped lips burn again on the last crisp sting of vodka, and every dead bud on my tongue comes alive as that sip rolls over like the finest wine. I miss my Pop. I miss my wife and girls. But deep down, I have nothing to worry about, it’ll all be yesterday again soon.
The train-crossing gate in the distance tinkles like church bells, the apartment rooftops bend at sharp angles, and the TV antennas and cable dishes are like steeples growing high up toward God in the night. I’m brought down to my knees from the beauty of it, and I pray. I pray that it will be enough that I left Summit for a while. I pray that I will outlive my Ma. I pray for courage to ask her for money to drink tomorrow. I sing Holy, Holy, Holy, praises to my maker; the alley is full of Thy glory!
The heating vents evolve into the grandest of cathedral spires and the buzz of the highway is a hymn sung by the heavenly hosts themselves. Hail, Ma! Mother of Me! I am her gift! Cherubim dance the skies, and I see my little girl’s skinned knees and missing front teeth and all the movement and color I remember from my own childhood. The blood of my father has cleansed me! It washes warmly across my face, and down my neck. The fragrant smoke of my Pop’s breath surrounds me like incense. Pop’s remains mingle with and rise up and out from the soil—I can taste him on my lips and tongue. Heavenly Father! I am redeemed! Sanctified by the tears of my sweet, sweet, Ma, and good neighbor Loretta; I feel tender ghosts wrap me in towels wet with myrrh and love. I know now, throughout my being, that I am as fine and pure a soul as God has made me. The sturdy hands of archangels lift me up into the light, swaying me gently, gently, like a baby. That great stone will soon be rolled away, it will be yesterday again. Amen!
And with that, the familiar wail of an ambulance siren fills my ears, echoing down the long concrete-walled highway, past Ma’s, past the Quick Stop Shop, past the train station, but not quite fast enough to get down the long dark alleyway, where I’m laying face-down, waiting to meet up with Loretta and have her finish her story.