I want to say the day of the fire I started at Bernie’s Grocery was the hottest day of the year, but it might not have been; it was always hot back then, and all I did in that heat was wait for someone to come out and join me on the corner. I sat out there and wondered why God had wasted the only swimming pool in Bridgeport on Billy Coz, who never wanted to swim in it. It wasn’t until high school that I finally jumped his fence and went skinny-dipping one night. After busing tables at Connie’s Pizza and smoking a joint with the waitresses and going out to Chinatown, I finally jumped his fence and went swimming. After that I went in his pool a few more times. Always at 3 AM. Quiet as a thief in the movies.
I plopped a cellophane package of three boxes of those Blue Tip stick matches on the counter and paid for an RC Cola from Bernie’s niece, Rose. I knew her from Saint David’s. Blue Tips. You could strike those numbers against the sidewalk or the brick wall or your zipper or your teeth, and you had fire just like that. And if there was a hole in the middle of the iron step of a store, where the accordion gate opened and locked into place, you could drop the flaming matchsticks in the hole and watch their tiny fires disappear in the wind of whatever was down there. You could do it a hundred times and not ever think what was down there might have been a basement. Who would put a hole at the top of a basement? And who would ever think to put winter coats in a pile under it? And empty burlap sacks for onions and potatoes? And why would all of the tiny fires disappear except for one?
So many of my memories swirl—tumble, really—with wondering. Like why did I not think to pour my RC into the hole? Why did I think the only way to put it out would be with the plastic measuring cup I had in my pantry a half block away? And I was fast, but fire was faster. By the time I would have returned with the measuring cup a half quart of water would be like whispering into a fire.
Fire was not too fast for an alibi, though, and mine was at the Chicago Today office on 33rd and Halsted. That’s the newspaper I delivered for a while. Later, if anyone remembered about the RC, I could say, Well, yes, I did. But then I went to the Chicago Today office and that’s where I was. You can ask my boss, his name is Ed. No one checked cell phones for the time in the 70s. They didn’t even use clocks to prove things back then. And they didn’t investigate fire.
I saw the fire engines the moment I stepped out of the Chicago Today office. I debated going home down 31st Street, but I walked toward the fire instead. I tried the trick of breathing in deep and letting it out slow to keep my heart from thumping out of my skin, but it didn’t work.
Along with the fire engines, most of my guys were out on the corner too. Matty and Chuck and Ronny. Even Billy Coz was there. When they saw me crossing the street at Lowe, they all raced up to me to tell me there was a fire at Bernie’s. As if it was their fire to tell me about.
Now you come out, I thought. Now everyone is out.
Across the street in front of the Med Center were Bernie and his niece. They were standing in their work aprons and watching smoke pour out of the entrance. Bernie’s arms were crossed and Rosa was looking at me, but the matches were in a garbage can in the alley between Union and Emerald Streets. I wanted to see if my fingers smelled of sulfur, but I was afraid to check.
Another time there was a boy ran through my gangway without permission. I was on my front porch directly above the boy and I nailed him on the crown of his head with a Jolly Rancher. Later that afternoon, his father came to my door to ask if my mother was home—it was the afternoon, and fathers were never home. This boy’s father looked at me and told me I threw a rock at his son’s head and that his son had fainted on the corner. I didn’t believe him about the fainting. A father who saw his son on the ground with dried blood on the crown of his head would have been angrier, I thought. And it was a piece of hard candy. It wasn’t a rock.
I wasn’t punished enough.
The only girl I ever tried to kiss who didn’t want to be kissed was a girl named Josephine White. I wouldn’t have even have tried to kiss her if my cousin Chris didn’t say what he said about her one day. He was older than us, and he came over one day in his Camaro with his girl to drop something off at our house, and we were all on the porch—Matty and Chuck and Ronny—everyone was there. They were staring at Chris’s car and at his girlfriend like Chris was the luckiest guy in the world. That’s when Josephine White walked past us, but on the other side of the street, and my cousin said, “Is that Norma White’s sister?” and we were like, “Yeah.” And he was looking at us like why didn’t anyone say hello to her, but he didn’t say that. He just looked at his girlfriend and he shook his head at us like we were all idiots. Later on he told me, “That chick is going to turn into something special one of these days, and you faggots are going to be sitting on this porch with your hands in each other’s pants.”
So one night that summer I walked Josephine home after something—I don’t remember what it was—and I tried to kiss her, but she didn’t kiss back. She gave me this look like, What was I doing? I didn’t force it or anything. I just stopped.
There are plenty of stories like those—the fires, the Jolly Rancher. That kiss. And two other stories I’ll never tell. What there aren’t many of, though, are stories where I did something I was glad about. The only time I remember like that was in those years I worked at Clancy’s, a little grocery store on the bottom floor of the Eleven Thirty Apartments on Michigan Avenue. It must have been junior year, because Rick was still working there. He’s the one who told me about the job. We took three buses there after school and three buses back to the south side where we both lived in Marquette Park. That’s where me and my mom moved after Bridgeport. Sometimes Rick didn’t take the buses back with me, though. Sometimes he would go to his friend Al’s house. That’s how he would say it. “I’m going by my friend Al’s house.”
Rick would go there after work for a couple of Special Export beers and maybe to smoke weed. I don’t know for sure about the weed, but that’s what we did the day I went.
It was dark in the hallway. It smelled like a building no one cared about. Or where no women lived. And this next part is not only in the now of that night—which is to say, in my memory of it—but it was there in the then of it too. Every step I took, a part of me was thinking, Why am I doing this? This doesn’t seem right. I keep wanting to blame someone else for that day, but there is no one else to blame. My father was gone by then, and my mother was still in her 30s. She was still pretty too. And she was alive. She’s alive now, too, but not like then.
Rick kept looking back at me for some reason. Like he was worried I might think this was pretty weird. I want to say he had a backpack for his books, but I can’t remember if there were even backpacks then.
Even while I was worrying about the weirdness, though, Rick kept looking back at me reassuringly. The look on his face was like we were going to a party, something we’d been invited to by girls we’d just met on a bus or at the beach or something like that.
I’m 51 years old now, and I bet that guy was even older than I am now. He had a red face and red eyes, and he had a camera, and the only place to sit was on his bed, and I guess I was using Rick to measure where all this fit on the weirdness scale, but he was just smoking a joint and smiling while Al was walking around the room with his camera.
I don’t remember taking more than one hit off the joint—two at the most—and I must have wondered if this was what it was like all the time with Rick and Al, with the photos and everything. I don’t know why, but a part of me was thinking that this time was different for some reason. But then why didn’t any of this appear out of the ordinary to Rick?
At some point—maybe it was after—I thought about my guys from the old neighborhood. Bridgeport, I mean. Any one of them might have come this far. None of them would have said no to smoking a joint and drinking Special Export beer in a stranger’s apartment. But the camera was different. Probably if they were all there at once—even just two of them—they would have beat the shit out of Al, and probably Rick too. There would have been blood. But if they were only there one at a time—I don’t know.
But Rick wasn’t from the old neighborhood, and he wasn’t working as a weirdness gauge anymore, either, and so I stood up and said I had to go, and I started toward the door. Maybe Al put the camera down on a table. I don’t know. Maybe it was on a strap around his neck—they must have invented straps for cameras by then—and he made for the door to block my way. I don’t know what I expected, but all he did then was he didn’t really make to block my way, he only made like he wanted to hug me.
His chin lifted toward me like it was looking for a place on my shoulder. He was shorter than I was and his eyes might even have been closed. He tilted his chin up and turned his face to the side, and it was as if that resting place for his chin was most of the reason that Rick and I were even there to begin with. And even after I put my arms out and put my hands to his chest and felt the mattressy flesh of it and pushed him away—even after I stepped to the door and opened it, surprised at the ease of its opening—it seemed like his chin was still lifted toward my shoulder. Even now his chin is still suspended there.
In some of my nows I wish I didn’t remember that. Sometimes I wish I had stiff-armed him hard. Rammed the heels of my hands into his shoulders hard enough to make something pop in his neck, to knock him to the floor. Sometimes I wish I had something else to remember about that day.
He was a little old guy, and I wasn’t that big, but I could have knocked him down pretty hard. I suppose I’m glad I didn’t hurt him. Anyway, I’m glad I pushed him away. And I’m glad I didn’t let him hug me. But I wish I didn’t have that image of his chin still arrested there, as if it fully expected to find in my shoulder a place to rest.
Rick didn’t get on the bus with me that night. I closed the door behind me, and Rick was still on the other side.
I want to say that Julia came after that, because I think Rick had left Clancy’s by then. That’s the kind of shit that drives me crazy. I don’t remember anything. It’s like I was sleeping through all of those years. If there wasn’t blood, or rage, or something sad, or if there wasn’t fear or broken glass or a black eye or some kind of deep pain, I wouldn’t have even known I was alive. Except for a few days of my life, I don’t even have any need for memory.
She was in the line at register one while I was bagging for Indigo. Julia was standing in line and she was looking at me and she was hardly looking away. She had short hair and it was very light brown and there were curls, or waves, and it was a Saturday morning. It was a Saturday morning on the warm side of spring, and all she was doing was looking at me.
I want to say she was wearing something summery—like a tank top, or a shirt without sleeves. And it was light blue. She was wearing shorts or summery pants, too, like capris, and they were light brown. I think they were light brown. But I have given those colors, tan and light blue—the colors of the sand and sky—to other girls. Perhaps because of Julia.
When I handed her the small bag of things she came in for she said hello to me very shyly. “Hi, Petey,” she said. “I’m Julia,” and she smiled, and then she walked out. Indigo was looking at me and smiling, and I knew she was the one to tell Julia my name. When I looked back through the wall of windows toward the sidewalk, Julia was walking toward the front entrance of the Eleven-Thirty building and was still looking at me and smiling, and immediately I regretted that I didn’t respond to her when she told me her name.
All I did for the next two hours was look out the window and bag for Indigo and regret not saying anything to Julia.
That’s what I was doing at noon when I saw Julia on the sidewalk right outside the window again. She smiled at me and curled her fingers for me to come outside, and before I even turned around to check with Indigo if it was all right, Indigo said, “Go,” and so I went through the first door and then through the second door, and there went my heart again.
Julia asked did I want to have lunch in the park with her, and I turned around to look back into the store and there was Indigo nodding her head and shooing me away, so I told Julia to give me five minutes and I went into the deli and made a sandwich and got something to drink. I drink bottled water now, but we didn’t have bottled water back then. No one saw that coming. It was probably an RC Cola. Then I took off my apron and threw it on the shelf under register two and there was Julia waiting for me outside.
Jesus. I could still see her there.
I don’t remember eating. I only remember us kissing on the east side of Michigan. There are all kinds of things on Michigan Avenue in that space now, but back then there were hillocks of grass.
I have no other memory of kissing like that. Her lips were the softest things. It was as if I was kissing some deeper part of her. Something inside of her that had never been kissed before. I was only 16 or 17—which was like another boy’s 13 when it came to lips—and so I had never heard sounds like that from a girl. I had no idea that sounds like that could come from kisses.
Years later, a girl named Michelle was inexplicably crushed by how I said good night after our first date. How I said good night to her was I shook her hand. Why couldn’t a boy just shake Julia’s hand? He must have known about hand shaking then. Or if he had to kiss her, why not half kiss her? Why not kiss the edge of her soft lips with the corner of his and then return to Clancy’s? Or even if a boy had to kiss the fullness of a girl’s lips—even if his kisses still pulled forth those sounds—why couldn’t he at least try to slow them down? Does a boy not yet know how to put his fingers on the cheeks of a girl to kiss her slowly? I wish he had thought—even if he could not stop the sounds with his fingers—I wish he had thought to just kiss them. Take all of her sounds into his lips and swallow them. But would a man even know what to do with those sounds?
Or this. Even if a boy had to use his hands for something, why couldn’t he use them to lift the sky of her? Whisper his fingers over the small hills beneath the blue sky of her?
Was there only one thing for a boy to do? Dig his fingers into the sand of her? That strangest of wavings good-bye?
Oh, Petey. That a man could replace a kiss with a handshake, but a boy would choose sand over sky.