Three Scenes in Chicago, Illinois


Part the First

Warren is on the South-bound Red Line when his phone buzzes in reply.

“I don’t know how I could be sure.”

He stares at it for a while, thinking of what he could say. Luckily, the phone buzzes again.

“I’ll call you in a little bit. I’ll tell you then.”

He looks at it, feeling a tug on a little towing hook from where his lungs don’t meet to the latch on the front of the train car, that says it is unlawful to move between train cars, fragile motion across the fishing wire that might connect them. The train is leaving Belmont, the second to last stop before the track goes underground. The only other person in the car is a disinterested-looking teenager in a red windbreaker staring out the window.

Warren contemplates the sharp, unavoidable dangers of his life. He closes his eyes. What if, he had asked Max that morning, during their cold dawn jog down the Hollywood Avenue curve onto the far North Lake Shore path. What if they just avoided the whole thing.

Within his own train of thought, he used as example a girl who maybe was good at conversation and liked a certain subject, such as maybe how early 90s Seattle grunge bands metamorphosed into bland repetitive mass-rock when Y2K had come and whether the West, Southwest, and Florida emo bands that had emerged hadn’t been their true spiritual successors, rather than the older bands themselves. And say it was, say, one of her boyfriend’s good friends who gave her a ride home from work on specific weekdays because he himself worked nearby, and they were friends too, and on the way they spoke smartly and laughed and fake-argued and watched in the cool silence of the tiny dashboard lights against night for the bright blinding circles of the oncoming lane.

Now, for theoretical reasons it didn’t matter if he was her boyfriend’s good friend, or her good friend’s boyfriend, or her own good friend, who she wanted to be friends with, because, Max, he had said (between running gasps of breath that showed as quick clouds in the stale Fall air that morning), the real premise is the cliched question of whether men and women can be friends, but I want to, Max, go beyond that into a practical consideration.

The practical consideration is this: Of course she doesn’t very well expect an issue to arise, couldn’t expect that kind of thing from herself or from the situation in the paradigm of the reality in which she lives (the paradigm where her boyfriend who she goes home to will have the Netflix ready and a cool pair of beers, or – or where her own friend and she casually share undergarments and confide in each other about things that went wrong in their separate bedrooms certain times, or where she considers the plane of operations within which she operates romantically to categorically, un-judgmentally but by ordered set, exclude this particular friend).

But couldn’t the girl, recognizing that while she doesn’t expect an issue to arise, this is classically the kind of situation that has led to issues being arisen for her, probably, in the past, and for various other friends and acquaintances she knows – and even though it would seem like it’s admitting some kind of wrong-doing, or lack of self control, or desire even, where there is none, couldn’t she just close that particular situation down?

Of course the girl would never admit that anything could even, conceivably, not only not in a million years, but within the laws of physics and math that this universe is extant by, ever happen. Of course the girl would laugh and roll her eyes and maybe take offense at that you would bring up that this is a situation that could breed issues.

And I don’t know, Max (this while now reaching the Andersonville streets where cars coming off of Lake Shore Drive onto Bryn Mawr cannot see that there are people running around the bend and must be deftly avoided like sudden shots), it seems to me, Max, that even with girls who are honest, they can have the intelligence and all the facts to recognize it, recognize the situation, and yet not. Might’n’t it be a particular blind spot in the XX-chromosome-engendered belief window, a kind of cognitive dissonance like when someone who is in an abusive or neglectful relationship does not imagine themselves being one in the future, even though they are doing nothing to change theirs.

And so it is firmly in the not-a-consideration category that such a guy might fall completely in love with this girl, who wears an oversize blue pullover she keeps in the backseat of this guy’s car every time she gets in the car and expects it to be there, ready to make her look like an undersized dorm lounger as she stretches its sleeves over her palms and uses them to cover her mouth and nose when she is laughing, and that such a girl might even fall in love with this guy, who for maybe the second or even third time in her life if she is lucky knows every joke that she is making and answers back with the sure raised eyebrow and response of an every-bit-her-equal interlocutor and then plays another CD that she might like, even if he does not. It is firmly not a consideration until, unconsidered, it is the only thing they think about all day.

(A pause here, by Foster Ave with its traffic and its crowded parking situation, to consider whether this is far enough to go this morning), but Max, I know, I know any guy in such a situation shares equal responsibility, but that’s what I’ve been worried about because the truth is if you avoid every situation like that, then, well, no one would ever fall in love in America, because basically that is how we do things, and we would be back to the dowry-and-alliance system instead of about to confess via voice mail that you are in love with someone completely, and then shower and get on the train to work and not know if you want a response or not. Because it’s either the problem or none of the problems, and the only way to not lose is not to play, and I don’t know how much of the game I can handle. And maybe I just want to be rejected so I can go back to living my normal life, and running with you, and not have to worry about it anymore – because sabotage is better than the threat of failing. And this is all some War Games shit right here.

Max didn’t answer, because he was a Labrador Retriever. Now with his eyes closed, Warren feels the jostle as the Red Line train hisses its doors open on the wide double-sided platform of Fullerton, but the fishing line only tugs a little. And then the sweat-soaked plastic hardshell case of the fidgeted phone, the only thing with any importance in the world, is no longer in his hand – nothing is. He jerks up to see the dash of a windbreaker out of the train car doors just as they close and the teenager is running to the corridor of steps with his stolen phone. The train gives a lurch and starts to move again.

 Part the Second

Warren sees his own reflection in the window standing, staring incredulously out of the train, the dull sweat of uncertainty in his palms, and then, within the dizzy trembling charge of his day, today, he steadies.

“Not today, asshole.”

Stepping up on the hard plastic bench that faces away from the window, Warren pulls on the red bar that will make the window an emergency exit, and pulls on the black plastic liner from above the window, pulling it in and dropping it on the train car floor. The wind blasts his face and hair, flapping his shirt around.

Maneuvering his hand around the edge to grip the outside of the train car, he swings a leg out and places it underneath the window, on the outside, and then the other, and is windsurfing the train, the speed wetting his eyes, scraping his face. He turns his head and he sees red: the flag of the phone-thief’s windbreaker, flapping out the front entrance of Fullerton station, pausing to look around before deciding which way to go. Warren does not pause. Both hands now gripping the roof of the train car, he kicks legs to run sideways down the Red Line train, reaching over to pull himself across three cars before reaching the back and dropping with a thud and roll onto the tracks. Scrambling, face full of dirt, left sleeve torn, he clambers onto the middle section of the track where workmen stand and sprints, all the way back onto the station platform, pushing his run as fast as he can, and then up onto the passenger platform where people stare, and then down the broken escalator stairs.

He emerges on the street, a convenience store in front, an intersection on both sides, and bets on right, running, running through the startled pedestrians on the sidewalk of Lincoln Park. Ahead, somewhere in the distance, his vision tumbling up and down, a flash of red is a dot just barely in view and he pushes in long strides, starting to sweat down the back of his shirt.

Through the middle of the street across the intersections, cars honking and sometimes braking, squealing tires on pot-holed streets, he barrels bent arms perpendicular and legs arching in two-stroke form, like a machine built for exactly one two-step set of movements, a chopstick carving up the North Side and interstices be damned. Past the subsets of theaters and bars and then a big open thoroughfare until – yes – in the edge of the horizon, the red moves into the opening stone arch of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and through the curving walking paths that guide spectators across lions and lemurs and the aviary and the monkey house, the smells a vivid and watery broth of the artificially feral beneath your feet, and the target loses a second as he turns and looks – yes, looks – incredulously at the pursuer still chasing him, left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, and jumps up at the rear gate.

Warren watches the red disappear over the top at the rear gate of the zoo and with some trepidation hooks small fingers into the diamond-shaped metal, where always he feels his own weight hang painfully from only a few fingers at the bottom of each diamond rung and consistently, methodically, pulls himself up, the wide toe of his shoes just barely fitting into the diamonds as well, until he is at the top and then swings one leg over the fence and turning himself to face the other way, repeats the process halfway down before letting himself fall to the ground below. The red is out of sight when he rolls and runs it up to a standing position from his knees, but he knows which way to go.

He runs through the surrounding dirt area to the East and emerges after a while in alleys and then the lake shore, here made of parks and paths as in most of the city, and follows it, the shore, pushing, pushing his legs with ragged breath, moving South, until he can just make out – yes, it gets bigger, in the skyline before him, a blinking dot like a vague notification light, just red against all the blue and chrome, and he runs then up a private staircase from the shore, finding himself surrounded by tall-as-skyscraper condominiums and cul de sacs a level above the normal streets, which end in fountains and benches overlooked by security cameras.

A flash going down the hard wide steps to Lower Michigan Avenue, and Warren bolts, grabbing the hand-hold railing and sliding down, not realizing that the stairway ends halfway down in a landing to turn and continue downwards in another direction, so he slams into the concrete wall of it with the side of his hip, but grunting, turns back and slides down the remaining railing down the rest of the way, and now sprints, in the grimy and torn-up sidewalks of the service level of Michigan Ave, the vast iron ceiling above him dripping old rainwater and cracked in threatening spots, until – there – the red framed against the Hancock Building, downtown all spires and packed sidewalk and reflected chrome light just as far as he can make out.

When he reaches Chicago Avenue and Michigan, the windbreaker is under the Macy’s turret window at Water Tower Place, surrounded by the seeming anonymity of the vast masses, and when he sees Warren, marching at his pace, down from the corner bus stop, something in him despairs. With a resigned turn, he runs, the red windbreaker, past the Macy’s Entrance and the Lush Cosmetics, through the revolving doors of the giant mall’s entrance and Warren follows suit, using a hand to guide out of the way all of the tourists and families clogging up the entrance of the mall. The windbreaker is at the top of the stairs from the entrance and Warren vaults, not slowing but not speeding up, past the little Wow Bao in the entrance alcove and up the shiny black steps, the fountains built into the middle of the staircase spitting up little handful-size balls of water that plop, plop, plop back into their tiny recesses in cadence with Warren’s running steps.

Up and up they go, at each level of the vertically-planned mall having to turn around from the escalator they’ve just run up and make a 90 degree turn to catch the next flight up until at Level 5 Warren realizes that he’s lost sight of the red, skids to a stop on his heels and looks around, a narrow-waisted girl in the Victoria’s Secret staring out at him curiously. He scans, pivoting, his heart racing, not daring to leave his runner’s stance.

At the bottom level, one of the three all-glass elevators that run up the center of Water Tower Place like a shiny clear spine dings and opens and a set of mothers with their strollers and a few other children step out onto the floor. Then, a cautious face and head, looking around anxiously, and then – sure that no one on the floor is looking at him – steps out and starts to walk back towards the entrance door. That is when the shouts are heard. And climbing down from Level 5, down the balconies that make rings around the middle on every floor, hanging by his arms from the railing at each level on the way down and letting go, using his feet and hands to scramble and hang on to the next railing, coming down is Warren.

Spinning with a cry of disbelief, the windbreaker breaks out the emergency rear parking exit and screams into the Chicago streets. Warren hits the ground and follows him out, crowds of shoppers staring with a mix of amusement and incredulity, unsure if this is part of some show.

Now they cut through the streets and alleys and the parkland of the shore again, across Columbus Avenue and the speeding highway of Lake Shore Drive downtown, through the city as the crow flies, drawn by a gravity, a beacon, a flame, until, past the many parking lots and garages and small-name grocers, and stoplights and dog parks of Streeterville they emerge, twilight heavy and light nebula purple over the endless Lake, at Navy Pier.

Racing still like a pair of marathoners across the fountain and activities, the taxi line and buses in front stand stock still in front of them, along with a set of traffic-directing policemen at the massive building’s front. The red windbreaker runs right, afraid of the policemen, and around, to the pier area with the outdoor vendors and the boat rides and ships. Warren runs straight forward and into the building, past the Harry Caray Steakhouse and all the tourist shops into the middle and up the stairs, crashing through the door to the Crystal Gardens, the enclosed greenhouse full of warm and temperate greens and fountains that here shoot streams of water like perfect tubes across from one pool to the next, arching above Warren as he runs like heralds’ banner salutes. Then out the back entrance to the carnival overlooking the Ferris Wheel and the other rides on the back of the pier, and he leaps down the balcony to the staging area where landscape machines always stand.

The thief, meanwhile, has reached the Odyssey on the outside, proudly docked, and, rasping for breath, doubling over, hands on his knees, like an asthmatic in choking throes, turns and scans the crowd, seeing nothing but the tourists and wanderers about. With forced nonchalance, trotting at a quick but casual pace, he turns and jogs up the steps into the carnival area, and up to the Mexican Restaurant/Bar built overlooking the rides, and sits to make sure he can gather his strength and scout for his pursuer before walking back inside and out the front. The Ferris Wheel glints in the last of the sun’s light shining waves across the darkening water, its own lights now blinking brightly in the sky, dashing out from the center of the wheel in implacably stepping luminescence.

And then there is an earth-rumbling crunch and the thief is lifted into the air, tumbling over himself on the bench that is now rising, and he sees that the bench itself has been broken from the metal supports that held it bolted from the ground, broken off by the giant bulldozer scoop that it is now inside, being carried up, and sitting in the bulldozer driver window is Warren, having driven the bulldozer that was left one of many in the construction staging area with its keys still in it for the day. And as the thief screams and holds on to the inside of the scoop so as not to fall out, scrambling with his arms and legs on the tottering bench, he can see Warren speak inside the glass.

“Yield to plows, motherfucker.”

And then Warren opens the bulldozer door and steps out onto the side of it, and the thief grabbing onto the teeth at the edge of the scoop he is inside with both hands, drops the phone that he has stolen and it tumbles out the side of the scoop towards Warren. Holding on to the bulldozer with one hand, he reaches out like an outfielder almost to the wall and the phone plops neatly into his grip and then, off balance, Warren falls and lands somewhat painfully with a crack onto the pier level below, where the tourist crowds have gathered. Groaning, he is lifting the phone up off the ground perpendicularly where he lays like a winning out, when it begins to ring.

Part the Third

He watches her, a small-form human. In dark jeans, cold-weather leggings underneath, skinny legs and black rubber-sole boots under a light brown hoodie sweater, a black ear-muff/headband combination crinkling her hair above eyes that narrow instantly like an annoyed little animal’s when Warren pulls a soft gray beanie almost to her nose.

“Dad,” she says, “will you stop outfitting me?”

She sees Gethsemane, though, the big garden terrarium where Ashland and Clark meet in Andersonville, land of leaves and pungent flowers, and the pumpkins that will make a harvest scene on the ledges of their apartment windows: she doesn’t like Jack-O’-Lanterns but she likes pumpkins, that’s how she is. And she runs slightly ahead, the streets vaguely full but never crowded, Fall coats all coming or going from the vegetarian breakfast at M. Henry, from the bicycle repairs around the corner, from Starbucks or the morning Mediterranean buffet at Reza’s Restaurant, from and to homes and houses in perfectly thin gloves and slightly reddened cheeks, and catching up at the greenhouse gates, Warren tells her, “You have to be prepared. For anything.”


One thought on “Three Scenes in Chicago, Illinois

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