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A quarterly international literary journal

Four Odd Years

/ Nonfiction /

1. 1967: “Daddy?”

I am thirteen years old, playing Pinners with my best friend Jose Martinez. Pinners is a game of baseball when you have not the money for a bat or a mitt, but if you have a rubber ball and access to a stone step you can approximate the game. You throw the ball at the step, aiming for an edge. Bounces back to the door are strikes, but if the ball sails and is not caught before touching the ground by your opponent and lands in a certain designated area it is a single, further back, a double, and, deep onto the street area, a home run. Jose, who six years exactly from this day will be found hung in his cell at Cook County Jail, another story for another time, is down a few runs because of my rally. I had lost many games to Jose that week and was anxious to break that streak.

I need glasses, but that has not occurred to my parents yet, so I can only dimly see a child running towards me from down the block. It was only until she was three or four houses away that I recognize my sister, eleven years old, and only until she had almost passed me heading upstairs that it registered to me that she was shirtless. Sensing something, I yelled to Jose “I’ll be right back.” The truth of it was none of us, ever, would truly be back.

I climbed the stairs to the top of the three-flat. Our apartment had a long hallway with rooms on either side. Directly across the entry door, the door of our parents’ bedroom. My father was home that day, either in between jobs or lunching before going to his second job, and my sister was in our parents’ bedroom with our mom and dad, the door closed. This is a big deal, for one of the solid, unbreakable rules of our house was that no child, neither me nor my older brother or my sister, was ever allowed in that bedroom. The thunder may boom or the escapee from the mental health center down Ogden Avenue could be at our back-porch peeing on our door, yet we were to work out our fears ourselves. But inside the bedroom they were, with voices growing louder. I pressed my ear to the door to try to hear, thought I would get a slap when my father opened it, but he just looked at me, through me, and in his voice said, “Come with me.” I knew well that voice, and whether it was to stop what I was doing, or drop my shorts and bark like a turkey, that voice was to be nothing but obeyed.

He gave a sharp whistle in the direction of the west part of the hallway, where my older brother was watching our White Sox continue the losing streak that would lead to a disappointing fourth place that season. He knew what that whistle meant as well.

Dad led us down one flight of stairs to the middle apartment where my Uncle Joe and Aunt Marian lived. Uncle Joe and his brother Uncle George ran the cartage company out of the basement of the three-flat, and was always home for lunch. “Giuseppe,” my father said, “Let’s go; get the guns.” And Uncle Joe dutifully went into the closet in his bedroom (where his children as well were never allowed) and produced weaponry. Uncle Joe handed a shotgun to my father, who handed it to me, Now I knew how to properly hold a shotgun, learned on one of those frosty winter morning when my dad in his on and off effort to make a man out of me, took me pheasant hunting on a Belvidere farm where he paid the owner a bottle of Black Jack to allow us to roam his farmland. What I learned that afternoon was that pheasants are most comfortable hearing the sounds of humans but, like humans, get skittish and frightened in the absence of sound. After a pause I kicked one up with my boot, heard that screaming, panicked squawk of a pheasant seeking escape. I put the shotgun barrel squarely on my bicep and fired—both arms swinging wildly as the recoil turned me into a dancer—the pheasant escaping, my father laughing.

Two handguns were passed to my brother and father, and Uncle Joe carried out his rifle. We are four armed Italians walking down a staircase on a bright warm west side Chicago afternoon. Jose saw us with the guns and walked towards his home.

At the time, what was said and with what detail in my parents’ bedroom was not known. What was determined through my sister’s crying and gulped air recount was that a black man had hurt her. And, that afternoon, my father drove his black ’59 Buick Electra 225 with his sons and my mom’s uncle aboard, each of us armed, to find one. The one? My sister was too shocked to offer that detail, I learned. On that afternoon, anyone would do.

Chicago is a town of bars. My father pulled into the parking lot of Blackie’s, on Ogden Avenue. He waited, with the engine running, breathing. A black man exits the bar, walks to his car. My father opens the door to swing his leg out and was stopped by my uncle’s voice. “Domenico….” was all he said, the word that, I’m positive, kept my father from prison. My father turned to look not at my uncle or my brother, but me, thirteen years old, sitting with the shotgun barrel up pressed against my cheek, my hand far away from the safety. My father, breathing, looking at me, his second born, the disappointing one, neither athlete nor sportsman. Breathing.

My father left Blackie’s parking lot and drove to an abandoned warehouse nearby. I watched my father empty each of the four firearms into that warehouse darkness, with his tears that I only saw when his brother my Uncle Guy dropped dead at second base after smashing a double in a softball game. The terrible sound of the reverberating guns gave me the beginning of the tinnitus that would travel with me in life. I tried to get his attention. “Dad?” The scream of a shotgun blast. “Daddy?”

After my father emptied the weaponry into the warehouse he took us all home, went to the suburbs, and bought the first house he saw. He and my mom were casually looking at places to get out of the west side. But that afternoon my father purchased a house, in Elmwood Park, one of the suburbs where the Italians would flee the Black people encircling their Chicago neighborhoods, flee to Elmwood Park or Melrose Park or Cicero or wherever white enclaves remained. We were gone from the west side in a weekend, in the middle of the school year. I had no time to say goodbye to my friends, only learned about Jose in the newspaper years later. I loved the west side, loved its noise and its filth only partially blanketed by new fallen snow. I loved that winter when the whites on one side and the blacks on the other of Western Avenue dug out the snow after the great Chicago Blizzard of ’67, joined in making sausages and brats on the grill brought out of storage afterwards, with Pabst and Falstaff, Mateus, Blue Nun and Richard’s Wild Irish consumed. When the weather warmed, we went back to hating or ignoring each other. But not that day. Nevertheless, by the weekend we were gone from the west side.

In my new neighborhood, with the Germans and the Irish and the Poles, I was now the darkest person they ever had in their midst. I was considered exotic and we as a family were regarded at arm’s length. We were the family from the west side, an angry bunch. Something had happened to those Belmontes, something that brought them here--unexplained, unresolved, or unatoned.

Plenty of my new friends hated Black people, did so with the casual unaware nature of their parents’ prejudice, aping the holiday conversations and casual folklore and ridicule passed on from generations. But they soon learned the depth of my furor, and that furor allowed me to become their leader. I had a reason to hate Black people, a reason echoed in my mind in an abandoned warehouse one warm afternoon. I had a sister now beset with nightmares and bedwetting, altered by the capriciousness of Black men. I reveled in my hatred and my newly found knowledge, burned in my head while watching my father’s tears, that every Black man hurt my sister, and I used that hatred to acquire friends and status in my teen years.

2. 1973— “an evil man”

I am nineteen years old, a college sophomore amidst the post-Summer of Love. I have long hair. I miss my hair; miss the way I could swing my head and make it swoosh to the other cheek. I am lead singer in a garage band, wailing Led Zeppelin covers and trying to write songs to get someone to love me. I returned to Chicago for my second year of college, leaving Champaign and the troubles there at Sandy’s insistence. I dated Sandy from 11th grade onward, and we would be engaged soon but only for a quarter year, so I have yet to break her heart. I am an inchoate, angry young man with a perfect job for someone inchoate and angry at the University of Illinois at Chicago General Stores. If you were from the university’s science department and needed 1500 reams of paper and a thousand pens, I’m the guy you call, and I spent my non-class day in a cavernous warehouse filling out such orders, loading them on a small truck and delivering them. I would practice my singing in the echo-hall of the warehouse while listening to WXRT, Chicago’s Finest Rock, which in its early years would allow me to sleep while playing Hawkwind, yet in the morning I would hear the fluid cadence of the Spanish it would revert to in the morning. I thought I was doing my job well, even Doris the assistant thought so. We both said nothing when she dropped her purse and her handgun inside it went off, putting a hole directly in the middle of the time clock. We were alone in the plant when it happened, and we both figured nobody would notice, and nobody did, since time continued without problem. Problem was management thought I needed help. And it was that opinion that brought Lawrence McCutcheon, who I hated, the Man Who Would Change My Life with a Sentence, to start working with me. Short and wiry, with a short Afro, sleeves always rolled up to mid-forearm, toothpick always in mouth, Lawrence began working on me right away.

It started with my radio. I would move towards the back of the warehouse where we stored the paper with the whispers of “Thank You” from Led Zeppelin 2 in my head and return to some Commodores shit playing on WVON. Warnings of “Quit messing with my fucking radio, Lawrence!” did not deter him. He was relentless in wanting camaraderie. “Hey, wanna go grab a beer after work?” No, I did not want to grab a beer after work. I wanted him to stop talking, stop changing my station, stop breathing in the warehouse with me.

But work is a funny thing. You’re in tight quarters in an elevator and Lawrence kept the top boxes from slipping off the dolly. You’re in a time squeeze with the English Department always wanting their supplies as fast as possible (and, as it was my major, my desire to accommodate them) and Lawrence would take more than half the list and whip the boxes on the dolly faster than I can. Things like that make it harder to be in constant hate mode.

The university purchased a bank building and brought in available workers for grunt work lifting and trashing materials. Did not find a dime there, and I looked in every abandoned desk and file drawer. A hot dog stand was nearby. Lunchtime. “Hey, Dom, let’s grab some dogs.” Who doesn’t want Chicago hot dogs? I am sitting on a wood picnic bench staring at Lawrence McCutcheon, eating hot dogs and Supreme tamales.

And still he would not relent. “What’s with you?” Lawrence asked. And on this afternoon, I had about enough of Lawrence McCutcheon and this bullshit work detail that brought me out into the open and having Lawrence McCutcheon in my life bugging snot out of me. I told Lawrence McCutcheon just what was bothering me, about my family, my sister. I detailed everything that happened to her that I had learned since that warm afternoon piling into the Electra with my father and brother and Uncle Joe. And went further, to the aftermath, the consequence, the leaving of my beloved west side which I could taste from the hot dog stand on which we sat on Roosevelt Road, denied me because of a black man like you, Lawrence, like you, was you and all of you, every single one of you as my daddy taught me trying to shoot the lot of you in a darkened warehouse that made my ears ring worsened still by rock music.

And Lawrence McCutcheon, chewing on his hot dog, said a sentence that changed my life. Said it like it was nothing, like a thought he always had, just conversation between work colleagues. I had just begun to love words and their abilities, tried to form them into groups that evoked images, brought tears, made sense, crafted identity. And here with Diet Coke, hot dogs and tamales Lawrence McCutcheon said a sentence that changed my life, after I blasted him with the reason for my hate and my furor and my upheaval and my loner life.

“Well, shit, man, “ Lawrence said (not the life-changing part; just the way the sentence revved up), “wasn’t really a black man who hurt your sister—it was an evil man, who happened to be black.”

Read that again. Do you see the genius in that? The reality? An evil man. Color is transitory. Evil encompasses the world, mostly descending on the shape of men, of all color: a German with ridiculous mustache, a Cambodian with a palindromic name, Italians who profess omerta. Evil circumnavigates. Words have impacted me all my life, but none more before or since than those said by Lawrence McCutcheon on an afternoon at a hot dog stand on Roosevelt Road in the summer of 1973.

3. 1989—"I have my reasons.”

Forward sixteen years. I have a career. I teach, by this time well. I have a wife and two kids. My sister has a husband and three kids. She taught, as did our brother, who coached hockey at North Dakota and Harvard and had been head hockey coach at our alma mater UIC and was named coach of the year a while back until the player revolt which led to his firing and running away from Chicago for 23 years to be involved with the Olympic movement and university administration. We are this afternoon all still together, though the Mike my sister was married to this year eventually went away, and the Mike she is now married to is eleven years away from arriving in our family. But at this time, we are as settled as a family at Grandpa and Grandma’s Sunday dinner. The pasta steam rises to the ceiling and curls back towards the floor. We are loud as families can be: laughing, joshing, squealing, and running, chasing the kids, playing monster through and around and in the basement. We joke and jostle and the food is ready and we sit and pray to the absent God but pray mostly to each other, cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and parents who are grand and here on the table with Carlo Rossi Sweet Red gallon bottles to pour, for we have each other, and for that we are grateful, let’s eat.

We are a family that loves children, lives for our children, sacrifice and scrimp for our children and so it was this afternoon in 1989 when my sister announces another child will soon enter our family. Cheers and screams and that’s-a-nice all over. My sister waited until the fervor settled when she added that she and Mike had decided to adopt and the little black boy she was adopting would be with them soon.

And there was silence in my father’s house.

I shot a look at my father, sitting there, chewing pasta, saying nothing. While clearing dishes, I ask my sister, “You know what you’re doing?” We do not say much between us. We have lived as orphans in our separate orbs. “I have my reasons.” is all she said.

And I know you know there are well-reasoned issues on interracial adoption about cultural appropriation and loss of identity and the haters can foam at the blending of the races and be less than well-reasoned as they fulminate. I only wish we can walk together into the time machine for me to take you back to the days where we watched my father cavort about with what it seemed was his favorite grandson: the black one, the one my sister named Mike.

“Grandpa!” Mike squealed as he latched on like Velcro to my father’s leg, with him walking the giant’s walk from room to room, bellowing his best ho-ho the while. I watched my father on his back on the floor, twirling Mikey around. Let me repeat that: I watched my father on his back on the floor. My father never in his life lay on his back to play with me, and there he was ho-ho’ing with Mikey, twirling him in his huge hands, and we the family watched amused and shaking our heads. One afternoon of this I caught my sister staring at me, no, through me, staring the look past the miles and the years and without a word her eyes gave me her sentence: Do. You. Understand. Now?

4. 1991— “in my house….”

My father lay in a room at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood. Five years earlier, the polyp in his colon morphed into cancer, and a section of his colon was removed. It was the most pain I had ever seen my father in, and he never succumbed to pain. He had dentistry without Novocain, sliced his leg with a circular saw and just swore, jammed a nail into his palm with a nail gun and pulled it out. This day he was calmer, and we were in agony. His heart was bad, needing a bypass, quadruple as it turned out. Inside this room: my mother my father my sister my brother and me. Outside? I don’t know how it is in your family, but in mine when anyone was in the hospital, every goddamned family member for miles around sits in the waiting room, flirting with the nurses or arguing where the best cold cuts could be found: “No, the mortadella over there is crap, you have to go on Taylor Street.” Inside the room, quiet tension, so it was only with a quick glance did we notice Mr. Jerry enter the room, the orderly come to prepare my father for surgery. A thin and tall Black man, scrawny beard, a pin on his chest reading “Mr. Jerry,” Mr. Jerry gathered shaving equipment, loosened my father’s hospital gown to shave his chest.

After a couple of razor swipes, Mr. Jerry said, “Goddamn, why don’t I ever get a Chinaman to shave with but two hairs on his chest? I always have to get you Eye-talians with a forest to haw through.”

I look at my mother who looks at my sister who looks at my brother who looks at my father looking at me.

Mr. Jerry hums a nameless tune, now about mid-nipple with shaving: “Yes, I spend my nights down in Joliet locked up. They just let me out mornings so I could shave nice white people like you, sir.”

Now a twitter escapes my sister. My mother, always looking for a moment to strike a chord for racial harmony, says, “You know, Mr. Jerry, my daughter here, why, she adopted a black child.”

Silence from Mr. Jerry a moment, just humming. Then, “Well, ma’am, are you sure it was an adoption? Maybe she just had the hankering for brown sugar.”

Now we are laughing and mom rummages in her purse for a picture of the family to show Mr. Jerry. “Very nice,” he says. And my mother: “And, Mr. Jerry, this one is….” “Yes, ma’am, I know which one it is.”

Now my father is hairless. “Ok, guys,” says Mr. Jerry, “Time for dad to go. Everybody line up for kissy-kissy.”

My sister kisses my father, holds there a minute. My brother kisses my father, quick. I kiss my father: “See you, dad.” My siblings went to be with the family outside, and I tarried back in the door frame to watch. And if there was one thing, one simple, blessed thing I would wish for every one of you reading this, it would be there will be someone in your life who will one day look at you the way my mother and father looked at each other. I hold that look for the rest of my time on this planet.

Two days later. The family is still outside the room, arguing the finer points between thin and deep-dish pizza. Inside the room, the mood is more relaxed. My father’s surgery went well. He is sitting up in bed, his gown hiding the hideous scar that bisects him. Later he would say that he had to hold his chest for fear what’s inside would topple.

Mr. Jerry comes in to check on my dad. All is well, festive. My father says in his voice, “You know, Jer, when I get out of here, one day you and Mrs. Jerry—there is a Mrs. Jerry, isn’t there? One day you and Mrs. Jerry should come to my house for pasta.”

Mr. Jerry smiles at my father. “Oh, Mr. B., you sure it be OK for folks like me to visit?”

And my father, five years before his death from the colon cancer than invaded and destroyed his liver, the man I saw empty weaponry into an abandoned warehouse in agony, who chewed pasta soundlessly one afternoon, who twirled his squealing grandson on the floor, who writhed on his hospital gurney holding my hand unable to say anything, my father said to Mr. Jerry: “Jer, in my house you would always be welcome.” And one fall afternoon, a dented Ford drove to the front of our house, and the Jerrys had pasta with the Italians.

One person at a time is the way the walls are built between us. One person at a time are those bricks effaced. I have lived my life in the observance of those I loved, in the words said, and said without use of words. I spent my career as an educator, hoping with my words and my not-words to convey and assuage and hope. Teachers have taught me, those both in and not in the classroom setting. And I give thanks for those latter teachers: for Lawrence McCutcheon, who with but a sentence altered my trajectory away from blind hatred. And Mr. Jerry, who by his simple humor in the tension at life’s edge showed me that when a hand reaches out to help, the color of that hand does not matter. And, most of all, my sister, who amid the torment she had lived with from childhood reached out to relieve our father from his, here in this suburban neighborhood with its afternoons, with her children running, and pasta water steam rising to the ceiling, curling as it circles down.


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