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Chi-Town Blues: An Anthology

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4/ "The Great Duplicity Affair"

by D. J. Herda

They always called my grandfather a great man.  But I knew better.  There is something about great men that cannot be hidden and something about un-great men that could never be feigned.

But they persisted with their tales of greatness.  So, what's a young boy to do?

It's important, I realize now, for a boy growing up and into manhood on the Great South Side of Chicago to think of his grandfather as a noble fellow, or at least not as a schmuck.  Your father can be an idiot; your mother can be a loon.  That doesn't matter.  You have to love them, anyway.  It's in the rules.  But a grandfather?  Well, he pretty much has to earn your respect, deserve your admiration.  And for that, I had to give the old boy credit.  He worked hard at it.  But great?

He was not big and hulking, like the great men I knew from my Saturday morning marathons before the TV.  I would curl up at one end of a tattered and smoke-scarred sofa and gaze in awe at the truly great men I saw there.  The greatest of the great, of course, was Cochise, Apache Chieftain--or something like that--purveyor of all that is good and noble in the blood of men, especially Redmen.  How it is that for years I watched this truly great man grow in greatness and never once stopped to question why such greatness failed to aid the Indians in their plight against the greedy paleface is beyond me.  I mean, if Cochise had been even half the man he was portrayed to be, the state of Nebraska would today be owned by the Apaches.  Minimum.  But then again, young stumps of boys rooted to the sofa before the glowing embers of the tube are not supposed to question the validity of such mini-screened heroes.  So, true to form, I let it pass.

Perhaps that's how I came to know that my grandfather was not a great man.  He hadn't the huge, barrel chest of Cochise, or the indomitable will or un-siphonable courage.  He wasn't as tall, either (a sure giveaway), although I never realized it as a young boy, but only when I grew older and saw him towered over in snapshots by my father, who stands 5 feet 7.

My grandfather's face was sharp; his cheeks, pouchfuls of angles that sank into deep, blue-black eyes.  In his mouth were teeth--some cracked, the rest still cracking--that always seemed to smile even when his lips were sober.

There goes Jim Blasdell, the neighbors would say as his wagon rolled slowly down the street, milk bottles jingling.  And I wondered if they were saying, too, There goes a great man.  That, too, was a dead giveaway of my grandfather's overall lack of greatness in my eyes.  I mean, can you imagine a television show named Mighty Cochise--Apache Milkman.

I did regret never having gotten to ride with Jim Blasdell as he made his appointed rounds.  Perhaps because it was rumored that his house stops were sometimes something more than house stops, if you know what I mean.  I'm not really sure, never having heard the rumors until years after he'd expired, which is how my grandmother always phrased it when somebody croaked.  Needless to say, a five-year-old boy could not be expected to sit on the wagon for hours on end while his grandfather "made the rounds."  And inviting the boy in wouldn't do at all.  So, I simply never did get asked to go along; and maybe that, too, contributed to my understanding of the distinction between the great and the not so great.

To make matters worse, Jim Blasdell was not what one would call a successful businessman.  After just a couple of years of working for himself, he sold his horse and wagon, his bottles and his business, and settled into a sort of quasi-retirement, all this by the age of 45.  It wasn't that there couldn't be money made from the milk business in those days, right on the heels of World War II.  And it certainly wasn't that being in business for oneself lacked prestige, dignity, and honor.  Quite the contrary.  More often I think it was simply that Jim Blasdell grew tired of the work, of all work, and decided to settle into a position more closely aligned to the lifestyle he'd etched out for himself in his head. 

I was at my grandparents' home the day the deal to sell the business was consummated.  I sat with my grandmother at the kitchen table, off to one side of the house, rolling dice and marking points in a Bohemian game of Bunko, while Jim Blasdell and Mr. Cabot talked finances in the parlor.  I enjoyed playing Bunko with my grandmother.  She was a slight, smiling woman with eyes like great blue plums that always shone with the gleam of the sun, inside or out.  Every throw of the dice she filled with exuberant energy, so that one would suspect she was rolling at Monte Carlo to break the bank or very possibly the house, itself, instead of at 4531 South Hoyne to gain the love of a five-year-old boy ... and perhaps cookies and a cup of tea, later.

But in the parlor!  There lay my secret-most thoughts.  I envisioned Jim Blasdell, primly attired in a natty gray pinstripe over a starched white shirt with a collar that jutted out nearly at right angles to his chin.  He sat stiffly, nervously, enfolded in a massive, pink-cushioned easy chair with white lace doilies stretched meticulously over each padded arm.  Across from him, Mr. Cabot, a portly, balding cherub with wax cheeks slung out from his face and sagging far beneath his chin, tottered precariously on a thin-legged, straight-backed chair brought from the kitchen at his own request, all so that he might appear to the casual observer to be slimmer by far than he was.

From time to time, such words as equity and district, down payment and balance exploded from the visitor's lips and rattled through the house, settling finally on my naive ears.  I was proud of my grandfather, for he was about to make a great deal of money.  More money than anyone else in our family had ever made in a single day before--or even in a year.  But I was sad, too, because it meant saying goodbye to Chestnut, the only real, live horse I'd ever known.  I had hoped one day that my grandfather would will him to me, knowing of my love for such things.  Though, in thinking back, it's hard to imagine sharing a three-room, third-floor walkup with a fully grown, overgrown, mare.

After what seemed an eternity, I heard the voices rise in intensity and move to the hallway leading to the front door where they paused, lowered, rose again, then broke into several short, staccato bursts of laughter.  Then, finally, there was silence.  A few moments more brought Jim Blasdell, grinning like the little child he was at heart, to the kitchen door.

"Jim, did he ... did he buy the business?"  Anna Blasdell clutched the dice tightly between her two palms as Jim walked slowly toward us. 

"He bought the business," he said.  "He bought the business.  For eight thousand dollars, he bought the business!  He put it in my very palm.  Here it is, he says to me.  I'm a busy man.  I'm not going to quibble about trifles.  And he pays me for it, lock, stock, and barrel!"

"Eight thousand ..."  Her hands dropped suddenly to the table, the dice skittering across the floor.  "Eight thousand dollars!  All that money!"

"And there's more.  He wants to pay me another thousand if I'll stay on with him the first month, show him the route, introduce him to my customers."

"Another thousand.  That's nine thousand dollars!  Oh, Jim!" she cried leaping to her feet and grabbing him, tears skating down her cheeks, settling on the back of his gray pinstripe.  "It's so much money.  Think of all the things we can do ... Oh, God bless us," she sobbed, yanking me up suddenly and flinging her arms around me.  "Oh, God bless us all, sweet, merciful Jesus!"

Then Jim Blasdell grabbed hold of me, kissed me openly with those rotten/rotting teeth and threw me so high in the air I nearly banged my head off the chandelier.  He caught me and squeezed me and mussed my hair, and I laughed at him laughing like I'd never seen him laugh before.

"Quick, Jim.  Let me see the money.  Let me see what it's like to hold all that money in my hands at one time."

Jim Blasdell looked at her sheepishly, then lowered me slowly to the ground.  "Well, I don't have the ... money, exactly.  Here."  He held out a gray slip of paper, grayer than his suit.  "It's a check.  For eight thousand dollars.  His own personal check from his own personal bank.  The First National Drover's Savings and Loan."

My grandmother's eyes stopped laughing and her face turned white.  "A check?"

"Certainly a check.  It's every bit as good as money.  It is money.  All we have to do is go down to the bank in the morning and hand them this, and they'll give us eight thousand dollars.  It's as simple as that.  You don't think a wealthy man like George Cabot is going to carry around eight thousand dollars in cash, do you?  Why, he'd just be asking for trouble.  With all the crime there is today, thieves and robbers on every street corner.  He'd be insane."

"But, couldn't he have given you at least some of the money in cash, so we could see it?"

"Anna, listen to me.  This is the way big businessmen operate.  Here, where it says certified and insured, see?  He explained it to me.  That means the bank guarantees the money to us anytime we decide to go get it.  You just don't understand big business, that's all.  You'll see.  We'll take the streetcar to the bank first thing in the morning and cash it in.  You'll see."

*          *          *

The next morning, Anna and Jim Blasdell slipped their check for eight thousand dollars through the slot in front of Teller Number 7.  The man on the other side of the bars squinted at the paper, first front, then back, squinted at Anna and Jim Blasdell, and he rang for the vice-president.

Mr. Carpenter, neatly attired in a dark blue suit with darker blue veins running through it, squinted at the check, squinted at Anna and Jim Blasdell, and then, apparently satisfied, he opened the gate to his office and directed them to come inside.

It took some while for the words to strike home.  Yes, he was positive.  The check wasn't theirs.  No, George Cabot never owned an account at the Drover's.  It was all one gigantic hoax, a counterfeit check printed on poor stock and bearing a bogus signature.  Furthermore, the police would have to be called in and an official report filed with the State.  It was not right for a man like Mr. Cabot to go about, passing bogus checks on the Drover's.  It could only hurt the Drover's reputation.  Furthermore, it was illegal.

*          *          *

I did not see my grandmother and grandfather as often as I had before.  We'd moved from our third-story walkup to a brand new frame house in the suburbs.  But I pieced together in my mind tiny bits of information from conversations around, above, behind me--as young boys often do--and came to know that Jim Blasdell had taken a job as a custodian at the Gage Park Fieldhouse.  What it was exactly that a custodian at the Gage Park Fieldhouse did was beyond me.  But, sometimes, when we'd visit, Anna Blasdell would pull from the bureau drawer a huge ring laden with hundreds of keys of all shapes, sizes, color--hundreds or even thousands of them--and I'd amuse myself for hours by pretending to fit  them to the locks around the house, imagining that it was a great man who would have possession of so many keys to unlock so many locks to reveal so many hidden secrets, and that I was that man.

On one visit, I found myself alone with Jim Blasdell, a rare occurrence, when my mother and grandmother and aunt went shopping for draperies or some such thing on South Halsted Street, where, I was told, could be found some of the best buys in town.

Before leaving, my grandmother turned to my grandfather and, wagging a stern finger in the air, admonished him: "Now, Jim.  Don't you take that child to the bar!"  At which Jim Blasdell, feigning mortal injury at such a notion, retorted, "Oh, nooooo, Ann."

After they'd gone, he asked me if I wanted to play checkers.  I told him I didn't know how.

"Sticks?"

I shrugged.

"Well, then, do you want to watch TV?"

I just couldn't get into it.

"Where's your coat?"

I pointed to the bedroom, and in two minutes flat, I found myself bundled up, down the stairs, and tracing Jim Blasdell's footprints down the street.  I don't know how far we walked, exactly, not too far, until we turned into a dark building where the smell of sour air and thick smoke and noise--I could actually smell the noise, it was so heavy--swept over me, like the stale water from some diseased and dying lake, swept over me and threatened to pull me under.  My grandfather hoisted me up onto a stool and took a seat next to me.

"Now, you just sit here, and Pete will bring you a soda."

My grandfather gulped some liquid from an amber-colored glass, said something to the bartender, and squirmed his way off the stool and past a roomful of people while I looked after him.

"Here you are, son," a man with a green shirt and a complexion to match told me as he set a glass of Seven-Up before me.  "So, what's your name?"

The man wore thick glasses with wire frames and squinted through them to see.  Someone nearby exhaled suddenly, and a plume of white smoke washed over us.  I coughed.  "Davey," I said.

"Davey.  Oh, you must be Jim's grandson."  He held out his hand, and I took it, then quickly let it go.  "Nice to meet you, Davey.  Just drink up, and if you want another, you just let me know.  Nothing's too good for Jim Blasdell's grandson!"

Someone shouted out to him, and Pete disappeared somewhere behind a wall of bobbing heads and clinking glasses, thick choking cigars and slender choking cigarettes.  I sipped from my glass, watching the lights that shone alternately red and green in the alcove above the bar.  The sudden strong smell of whiskey settled over me, from the bar or from one of the men standing behind me, I didn't know.  But it made me realize just how alone I was, how alone and small and frightened.

Somebody laid a nickel in a metal slot, and the room burst to life, the rat-a-tat-tat of a great mechanical monster piercing the stale air.  It was frightening, with its vibrating lights and innards, with bubbles that seemed to rise from nowhere to snake their way up inside a large hollow tube, all lighted in a swirl of gaudy colors.  Yet, I couldn't draw my eyes from it, from the flicker of the lights, from the dancing figures along each side of a giant headpiece pushed up tightly against the wall.  Another whiff of whiskey, stronger than the first, a drunken elbow to the side of my head, more rat-a-tat-tat, the monster belching out, beckoning me closer, to walk up to it, touch it ... so that it could grab me, suck me swiftly into its screaming bowels, and spit me out, again ... a million tiny shards of shattered glass.

From the back room, where my grandfather had disappeared, came the sound of more music, faster and more inviting than the first.  Dancing music, hauntingly disguised by the din of a thousand laughing voices, yet unmistakable.  Another hit to the head, the other side this time, and a huge man with glassy rolling eyes draped himself over me, spilling ice in my lap, and cried out for another drink.

I quickly slid down from the stool, determined to find my grandfather, and struggled toward the back, slipping through narrow openings in the human wall of flesh before me, weaving in and out as Jim Blasdell had done before he had disappeared. 

"The fuck you did!" someone cried out, and a handful of people laughed as I wormed my way along, determined to escape to ... to where?  Past person after person, past one man pressing his hand hard up against a woman's breast.  Her hair was bright copper and in her mouth glistened two gold teeth.  The man buried his head against her thick, sweaty neck as she fumbled with his penis through his pants.

"He ain't no good for you, for God's sake," the man's voice cried out, coal black eyes staring down at me. 

"I ain't never felt no little boy's cock before," Gold Teeth gloated, grabbing for my arm.  "Hey, kid, com'on over here a minute, why donsha?"

But I was gone, past ever more bodies shoving me forward and back.  Tears welled in my eyes, and I fought hard, shoving my way through, to hold them back.  It wouldn't do to have Jim Blasdell think I'd been crying.  It wouldn't do at all to have my grandfather think I'd been afraid.

I pushed with all my might against someone from behind and finally burst past him, through the archway leading to the back room, where I saw, against the back wall, another silver-and-glass box pouring its musical heart out.  To one side of the monster learned two silver spikes, crossed with brown leather straps--the kind you see on the March of Dimes posters, only larger, their soft mahogany bindings leaping and jumping with each beat of the box.  Three chairs over I spied Jim Blasdell. 

"Grandpa!" I shouted, the word instantly gobbled up and lost to the wind.  I stopped.  Jim Blasdell had his legs wrapped around a beautiful, young girl, perhaps 14, maybe 15 years old, with long, golden, silky hair.  All around them men and women were dancing, stumbling, sitting, leaning, laughing, propping themselves up against the tables, the chairs, each other.

The Poster Girl beneath Jim Blasdell opened her mouth, and I imagined that I heard her moan--a long, low, throaty cry.  Her head fell back, revealing the most beautiful face I had ever seen.  Full, wet lips pursed together, then parted ... all the while those deep, guttural cries rising from her throat, rising up and disappearing into the night, rising from her very soul, as her eyelids opened and closed to the sound of the music.

Jim Blasdell pulled himself over her suddenly, covering her face with his own.  The chair tipped forward, and the two slumped to the floor in a single loud thump.  A giant hand grabbed the flesh of one thigh, kneading its way higher and higher, until it paused at the very entrance of nirvana, then retreated slowly, ever so slowly, a pair of black lace panties clasped firmly in its talons.

"Oh, my God, Jim," she cried.  "Oh, my God, give it to me.  Give it to me ... hard."  She grabbed for his crotch, the way that Gold Teeth had done, all the while her skirt rising higher and higher, the deep, guttural sounds snaking their way from her ivory throat.  "Oh, my God, shoot me your load.  Give it to me right here, Jim.  Give it to me now!"

*          *          *

Jim Blasdell died in abject poverty on the day following my 16th birthday.  I had seen him five, maybe six times in all the years that had passed.  I could have seen him more, but I would make excuses to avoid him.  I had an important Little League game that day, or a special history report due, or an affair at school that I had to attend. 

Not that I didn't love my grandfather.  Not at all.  In fact, I loved him dearly, his wit, his tact, has coyness when it suited him, his gruffness when it didn't.  Still, each time that I saw him, I smelled the foul smell of whiskey, heard the laughter, felt the terror in my heart.  Whether real or imaginary, it didn't matter.  It was there.  And it made me want to cry.

He died finally of cancer, complicated by pneumonia.  Or maybe it was the other way around, I'm not sure.  But even though I couldn't bring myself to forget that day at the bar, I couldn't bring myself to hate him, either.

Perhaps it was his suffering that made people recall him as a great man--those last few months were agonizingly painful.  Or perhaps to them he really was a great man.  He would give a person the shirt off his back, or his last five dollars, if it would endear him to somebody's heart.  He needed love just that badly.  No, not needed ... craved!  Not simply the love of a faithful wife, but of everyone.  In that way, I suppose, I'm just a little like him.  But that is another story, and it will keep.

In the year of my 21st birthday, I left home for good in order to pursue a career in journalism.  I went to school days and spent most of my evenings covering city council sessions, school-board meetings, and such.  It wasn't very glamorous, but it wasn't bad, either, as often my work would end before ten, giving me a chance to write my story, slip it under the Journal's door on my way home, and still catch six or seven hours for myself.

One Friday night I covered a particularly interesting school-board meeting in the 17th District.  It was interesting because of this fantastically attractive woman seated next to the speaker's podium on stage.  After the meeting, I worked particularly hard at getting an interview with her, which I did, purely in the line of duty.  Still, some types of duty, not coincidentally, turn out to be more pleasurable than others; and so, it happens, did this.

We adjourned to a nearby pub, where I discovered her name was Christina Faulkner.  She was 32 years old, had a seven-year-old daughter named Heather, no husband, and a 38-inch chest.  The latter I discovered for myself at her apartment later that evening.  Her daughter was away and we had gotten very well acquainted over our mutual admiration for Hemingway and gin.

"David," she purred, sinking softly into the plush foam of the sofa, "I think it's time we ... laid our cards on the table?"

"Okay," I said.  "I like cards.  What did you have in mind?"

She pulled herself forward and very slowly began unbuttoning her blouse, interrupted momentarily by a long, languid kiss, her silvery tongue darting in and out of my mouth.  "I don't want you to think I'm a sex-crazed woman," she said, reaching behind to unsnap her halter, "but I knew before our first drink that I'd just have to have you."

"What a coincidence," I said as I helped her out of her bra.  "I was thinking the very same thing."

She folded her hands across her chest as the garment fell to the floor, turned halfway away from me as I settled back against the cushion.  It wouldn't do to appear too anxious.  After all, she was a woman of the world, traveled, refined ... an older woman, a rare gem to be admired and savored.  I was a mere 21 years old, but more than willing to take my time, to let things develop slowly, to show my tender, sensitive, feminine side.    My eyes followed hers.  Her eyes devoured mine.  She wriggled her way closer to me, kissed me lightly on the lips, and looked deeply into my eyes.  I could see the delicacy in her, feel the hesitation she felt in this situation.  I could respect that.  I would take my time and be certain to move gently over her body, softly, caringly, stopping to kiss her on the lips and whisper sweet somethings into her ear.  I would ... Suddenly, she lowered her arms.

"Ohmahgawd!" I cried, falling savagely on top of her, my mouth involuntarily attacking first one cherry-red nipple, then its animated twin.  "Ohmahgawd, you're ... fantastic!"

I pushed forward again, my lips raging, realizing that it had been so very long since I'd known a woman in the biblical sense.  Like, never!  I pulled my head back, took in the beauty of her heaving bosom, looked up at her face--angelic and wanton at the same time, flushed and fired with heat, her breath coming in short, quick pants--and then fell forward on her again when she let out a groan, slipped off the sofa, and with me clinging to her tits fell over backwards onto the floor.

"Oh, my God!" she cried.  "Oh, yes.  Oh, my God, don't stop.  David, don't stop!"

Well, I know the value of being compliant, but I also know the value of breathing; so, I did stop--long enough to rip off my shirt and wiggle out of my pants and ready myself for Round Two.  Before I could mount my next offensive, she struggled to her feet, removed the last of her clothes, and took me by the hands.  "Let's go to bed."

"Yeah," I said.  "I'm ready for that!"

She smiled.  "So I see."

She led me up the stairs to the second floor, her ass wiggling seductively, her long thighs and soft scent guiding my every movement.  I sank deep into the satiny coolness of the bed and watched in the mirror as she fondled first one mammoth breast, then the other.  Her head rolled back, and her long, golden hair hung nearly to her waist.  She smiled an open-mouthed smile, all the while her tongue flitting in impatient little circles, a deep, throaty, gurgling sound spilling from her lips.

My mind flashed.  Gurgling sounds.  Long, light swirls of golden-blonde hair.  Another flash, like the flickering cries of some cavernous monster. 

"You're so deep in thought," she said, crossing the floor and climbing into bed next to me.  Her breasts swung seductively as she leaned forward to kiss me.  "I hope it's something good."

I sat upright and looked down at her legs.  "You're ... limping."

She flushed suddenly, as though I'd unlocked some magic Pandora's Box in the very ill-timed ignorance of youth.  "Most people don't notice."

"It's my job," I replied in my best, most casual journalese.  I hoped I hadn't offended her.

"It's just a little stiffness, that's all.  It'll go away.  Whenever the weather turns suddenly cold, my leg gives me a little trouble."

"Kind of like arthritis or something?"

"I'm not that old," she quipped, poking me in the ribs.  "No, it's from my childhood.  A type of paralysis I had as a kid.  In fact, I might have been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life if it hadn't been for a friend helping me out.  He raised the money I needed for an operation and corrective braces."

"It's nice to have friends."

"Well, actually, he was more than a friend.  If you know what I mean."

I thought I understood.  "And is he still ... more than a friend?"

She shook her head.  "He died several years ago.  Besides," she said, smiling faintly, "he was married."

My mind whirred.  The music box, the long, golden hair, the Poster-Girl braces leering out at me from the dark.  Could it be?  All the while the steady rat-a-tat-tat crying out louder and louder.  Could it possibly be?

"Why, David, what's the matter?"

"It can't be," I said.  My heart beat wildly as I leaped up from the bed.  Christina's full, wet lips parted questioningly.  Her eyes peered deep into my soul.  Could I find the strength to ask her?  It all fit.  It had to be.  It had to.  Yet, it couldn't.  "Oh, my God."

"What?  What is it?"

"It's just ... something ... I was thinking of asking you."

She smiled, patted the bed by her side, and ran her hands across her full, swollen breasts.  "Lover," she purred, pulling me slowly back down to her side, "ask me later.  Do me now."

And, as she pulled my lips to hers, forced my mouth down her chin to her throat, smothered first one breast, then the other, against my face--all the while her hands working their magic on me--I couldn't escape that nagging thought.  I couldn't escape one other thought, too ... that's a damned good idea.
 

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