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Chi-Town Blues: An Anthology

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3
/ "The Union"

by D. J. Herda

To those who go there, it's the Union, pure and simple.  And its hallowed halls have stood forever.  Before Bronco Nagurski, it was there.  Before George Halas, it was there.  In fact, before football, it was there.  Some undergrads insist its foundations can be traced back as far as He, Himself...the creator of all things.  And that He, too, had been a lit major at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  And possibly even played a little halfback for the school team.

Scarier, still ... some people believe He’s still there.  (Which would make him Educable Mentally Handicapped or, at best, a professional student.)  The concept is not impossible for me to accept.  After all, He can do anything, if I am to believe the approximately 647 years of religious training crammed into my head by the good nuns of St. Simon and pushed through my brain until the excess seeps out my ears like processed pork out of the business end of a grinder.  So why couldn't He be a UI undergrad?  Sitting in the Union, sucking on a Carling's Black Label?  Or anything else He wants?  He can do anything, after all.  If you don't believe me, ask Sister Francine.

So I, too, sit in the Union, thinking of things I can write (for, after all, even as a college student, I am still a writer and will starve cold and penniless with naked back turned toward the wind otherwise; this much I know from experience and don't have to rely on the words of the good sisters), distracted at the nonce by a blue-sweatered, yellow-skirted honey of a woman of obvious Norwegian ancestry--hair the color of yellow birch, draped once at the base of the neck, flowing down her shoulders, and draped again at the small of the back.  Her eyes are pure azure—the hue of the Scandinavian seas in the summer.  What else would they be?  Her lips are berries growing wild by the roadside and discovered by accident, stumbled upon, plucked, and devoured wantonly. 

I find her face fascinating, as she watches me watching her, searching for the answer to some unknown, long-lost question, searching long and hard above a straight nose and gently parted lips.  Yet, it is not those azure eyes or rosebud-and-cream complexion or promising lips that distract me, nor her legs, which swell into long, full thighs, opening and closing like the gently parting lips of a giant gaping clam beneath the table, at one moment peaceful and inviting and the next, monstrous and foreboding.  Nor is it, as surprising as it may sound, her two mountainous breasts which she thrusts suddenly toward me by leaning back into her wood-spindled chair and running her hands through carefully disheveled mounds of thick, pillowy hair.

It is none of these things that distract me from my writing, as I watch her watch me, but, instead, her fingers.  Or, to be more precise, her finger.  One finger.  The finger.  That finger.  Long and thin, nicely shaped, perfect for her stature, to be sure.  And, most importantly of all, most remarkably of all, free from such oft-encountered encumbrances as rose cuts, teardrops, sapphire cuts, and other such appropriately labeled slices of glass.  For how, I ask myself over and over again, my eyes continually searching for some clue, can so perfectly formed a creature as this not be married?  Or engaged?  Or, at the very least, indulged?  Is there a God in heaven or isn't there?  And, if so, why has He created no physician somewhere, no self-famous criminal lawyer, no bank trustee, corporate vice-president, Mafioso chieftain, or university humanities-department chairman who has noticed this golden treasure, this perfect specimen, this full-blown woman who makes all others pale before her?  Not only noticed her, but also betrothed his loyalty? his fortune? a lousy two-carat diamond, for Chrissake?

She closes her book, talks silently with a pale and fragile brownette seated across the table from her, and—glancing quickly around the Rathskeller, a futile exercise, for the light is so bad even in midday that it's impossible to see more than 10 feet into the bowels of the building—begins saying in tones growing increasingly louder and obviously intended for me to overhear that she is just that tempted to skip psych class this afternoon and spend an hour dangling her feet in the bubbling cool waters of the Memorial Fountain, thoughtfully erected across the street from the Union by the Memorial Forefathers, who also surely were once undergrads at UI.  And every bit as long ago as He.

Before I have time to comprehend what she means, she rises like the Phoenix from the ashes, turns her magnificent profile toward me, half-smiles once, twice, and then says a few soft words before disappearing slowly behind a mammoth frieze-adorned pillar, then appearing, then disappearing.  Appearing, and finally disappearing for good, no matter how my 20-30 eyes strain to discern otherwise.

I look down at the blank piece of paper on the table, look up to where the image had been, her aura lingering for a second and then fading like the mist over Lake Michigan, and I mutter to myself, Oh, shit.  You've done it again.  Blew the goddam chance of a lifetime.

Quickly my eyes search the Union, furtively seeking a replacement goddess on whom to feast, someone for me to worship from afar, someone like she.  Over toward the Gothic panes where the light from a thick July day pours into the building, quickly succumbing to the deadly dull grey inside, a monster that soaks it up and hoards it like a thirsty sponge.  Beyond those Gothic panes, they roam to a braless redhead outdoors.  She is dressed in shorts and a gauze top, her sudden movements sending delightful ripples across her blouse, stern tracings of erect nipples made firmer, still, by the filmy material and highlighted by the light beyond.  Back inside I wander, toward the very darkest abyss of the room, the cavernous bowels of the place, where a thin young girl with no chin and mousey-brown hair leans forward, exposing a portion of one very small breast and none of the other, which I suppose is equally small.  Her eyes catch mine.  She looks surprised, shocked, even.  Could any man tall, slim, athletic find her appealing?  She glances to the side and back, a peculiar Who Me? look in her eyes, before leaning even farther forward and exposing even more of her to my lean and hungry gaze.  By rights, I should be ecstatic.  Thank you, oh Lord, for sending me this golden opportunity.  You are, indeed, all-loving, all-understanding.  But instead my eyes involuntarily fall back to the blank paper; my mind, to the emptiness in my heart.

Slowly I maneuver a mechanical pencil across the page, forming very carefully, very deliberately, the letters, s-h-i-t.  I stab the page, breaking the point on the pencil and drawing condescending glances from a million pairs of glowing, beady eyes totally unsympathetic with my plight and ready to burn me, via some communal telepathic process, to a lifeless, dreamless, spermless cinder.

Not this time, I tell myself.  Not again.  I will not lose her.  I cannot!  Quickly I stuff the paper and what's left of my pencil into a brown case and, hurrying through the room, bumping students with full food trays and empty beer pitchers, muscle my way to my destiny, to where I can see in my mind my golden-trussed goddess dangling her shoeless feet--dainty, I'm sure--in the cool, bubbling water.  I can picture her clearly.  She has by now shed her clothes, too—for she's just that wonderfully spontaneous a Child of Nature—and her creamy white breasts spill their 38 glorious inches out and across her chest.  As she laughs, they shake gently, firmly, her large, taut nipples swelling in eager anticipation even as I approach.

"Pardon me," I say, coming upon her, "but I couldn't help but notice you earlier  in the Union."  She looks up at me quizzically, the slightest hint of a smile dancing in the deep blue pools of her eyes.  "You are without a doubt the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and I would very much like to make love to you."

"Watch out, for Chrissake," someone growls as I swing the heavy wood-and-glass door open as though it were made of cardboard.  "What the hell's a matter with you, anyway?"

"Sorry," I respond blankly.  "Really.  I'm sorry."  I bend over, making a gesture to reach for his books, then dart instead past him into the daylight where my eyes search for my mystery goddess.

"Crazy Goddam son-of-a-bitch," the voice calls after me.  But I am already vaulting down the steps, rushing toward the street, dashing like a madman through an opening between a Kelly-green Toyota and a puce Volkswagen, a halfback splitting the line between converging linebackers.

Suddenly, I slow to a walk.  It will not do to appear too anxious.  I have lost the battle with more than one foe by falling into that trap before, by appearing too anxious, too flustered, too afraid.  I will not make that mistake, again, soon.

As I approach the pool, my eyes dart from one person to the next, settling for a moment on an overweight sausage of a woman stuffed obscenely into an orange-and-green bikini and sunning herself at the edge of the water.  To a young boy splashing bare-assed in the shallows.  To a pair of young lovers wrapped oblivious in each other's arms.  But nowhere do I see my dream woman, my mystery woman, my fantasy.  Not shoeless.  Not clothesless.  Not at all!

"I might have guessed," she adds.

"What?"  I whirl around and stop, frozen, an ignitable stone on a bed of hot lava.  Somewhere, Virginia, there is a God.

"I said I might have guessed...you know, that you were a writer."

"Oh, yeah.  Yeah?"  I glance at her neck, at a slim single strand of gold running down to the top of her cleavage and then back up over her shoulder.  To her cheek, which has the glow of golden nectarines in late summer.  She wears no makeup, and yet her complexion is flawless.  I long to reach out, to stroke her skin just to see if it's real, if it feels warm, soft, or whatever.  But I don't dare.  I tremble at the very thought, struggling to control my fears, my anxieties, my lust.

"Why do you say that?" I ask finally.

"Oh, I don't know.  You just seem the type.  Strong, silent, intellectual."

"Yeah??"

"Sure," she says.  "In fact, you remind me of someone.  Someone I used to know.  Someone ... kinda special."

"Oh?" I respond cavalierly.  "Another writer?"

"Actually, he was a plumber."

My heart drops.  "A what?"

"A plumber," she says, giggling.  "Oh, don't take me wrong.  He was a wonderful person.  Strong, silent, very macho ... kind of like you."

She reaches out suddenly and touches me on the arm, her hand delicately poised just above my elbow.  I could hear my heart beating, feel the warm tenderness of her lips against mine.  My God, could this be it?  Is she actually touching me?  Is this the moment?  Is it all up to me, now?  Am I supposed to make the next move?  Reach out suddenly and sweep her body tightly up against mine, feel the warm, full firmness of her breasts against my chest, her thighs against my thighs, her soul against my soul?

"In fact," she continues, "I was in love with him."

"Oh, yeah?" I reply, gulping hard and trying desperately to rid my back of its natural tendency to arch, gradually leaning closer to her, my arm where she clutches me beginning to tingle.

"Really," she says.  "We went together for six years.  It was fantastic."

"Fantastic," I reply.  Great.  I remind her of someone she finds fantastic  Any more good fortune in store for me today?  "But you're not...I mean, you and he ...”

"Are we still seeing each other?  No."  She removes her hand and giggles softly.  "We broke up last fall."

I wonder briefly about a woman who finds such things amusing.

"How come?" I ask.

She shrugs.  "I don't know.  I guess he just wasn't ... concerned enough about me, you know?  He didn't really care about satisfying my needs."

I gulp hard as she smiles at me again, her eyes searching mine for the key to eternal happiness.  Here it is, my heart screams out.  Right here.  I have it.  And I'm willing to give it to you.  Free.  No strings attached.

"I once wanted to be a plumber," I lie. 

"No," she says.

"Sure.  I really considered it for a long time once.  In my younger days.  You know, when I wasn't so old."

Christ, that does it.  See the beautiful young maiden pack up her bags and move to another continent.  Watch the gorgeous princess vanish in a puff of smoke, leaving an old wart frog in her place.  Witness the transformation of 112 pounds of sultry sex-goddess into a pillar of salt.  Why the hell do I do it?  How do I do it?  How do I manage to keep saying such stupid things?  How could I make it through 25 years of life without ever having learned to talk intelligently?

"That's super," she says.

Super?

Her eyes glaze over slightly and her head tips to one side as she stares deeply into my soul.  "It's amazing how you remind me of Fritz."

"The cat?  I remind you of a cat?"

"No, silly.  You know.  My old boyfriend."

"Oh, the plumber."

She nods.  "I'll bet you're every bit as virile as he was.  A real man's man."

"Oh," I say, feeling the blood rush into my cheeks again.  "Well, I don't want to brag ... but I have been told that, you know, that I am kind of on the virile side."

"I'll just bet you have lots of women friends, too."

"Me?  Oh, sure," I lie.  "Plenty of them.  Too many, actually.  Sometimes I wonder just why the hell I can't be satisfied with, say, 40 or 50."

"Really?"  Her eyes nearly burst out of her head.  Jesus Christ, the kid comes through. High five!   Thank you, God.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.  "I knew it.  I had you pegged as a real ladies' man from the moment I saw you."

Keep it up, Lord, and I'll do anything you ask.  I'll go to church on Sunday.  I'll go to church on Tuesday.  Hell, I’ll build a church on Tuesday.  Just say the word.

"Well, I don't like to brag ..."  Which is more or less the truth.

She laughs suddenly, bending low and sending her hair cascading down before her.  Then slowly she straightens her back, pulling it taut again, giving me a spectacular view of the canyon.  Suddenly I understand what it was that kept our forefathers plodding steadily west.  The spirit of the Great Rocky Mountains.  Adventure and discovery 'round every bend.  I feel my mouth getting dry, my tongue sticking to the back of my teeth.

"Just like Fritz," she says finally, then stops laughing as she draws herself very, very close to me.  My palms drip with anticipation.  I can smell her perfume.  Not the cheap, bottled, dimestore stuff.  This is the real thing, the delicate bouquet of a beautiful woman.  That singular, indescribable sweetness that comes from deep within.  And I am ready.  All my dreams, all my hopes, my anticipations, my desires, my goals in life are about to be fulfilled.  God, am I ready!

"You want to know something?" she asks, her voice so soft, the words slipping from her mouth so gently that I can barely see the movement of her thick, inviting lips.  "Something I've never told a single solitary soul before?  The real reason Fritz and I broke up?"

I gulp loudly, hoping she can't hear, and try to reply, but only a soft, sickly rasping sound snakes from my throat.

"Well," she continues, the words barely audible against the bubbling of the nearby pool.  "The real reason ... was ... a disease."

I look at her.  "Huh?"

"You know ... a social disease."

My addled mind balks.  I frown, look into her eyes long and hard, not fully understanding.  What does she mean?  A bad night at the ball?  Something that went wrong at the Prom?  A social-class thing, is that it?

“What kind of ... social disease?”

"You know.  That thing that people who aren't ... careful ... can contract.  I mean, no matter how particular a guy and girl might be, sometimes it just ... happens.  You understand."

Understand what?  That the girl of my dreams, that my very own goddess, the one to whom I am ready to dedicate my life, my soul, my very soul, for God's sake, got the clap?  From some guy named Fritz?  From some goddam plumber?

"Uhh, I'm not sure," I say.

"Well, I mean, you can't blame me.  We were going to be married.  I'd saved myself for just the right man.  Just the right one, you know?  Or at least I thought I had.  And I probably would have married him, too, and had a wonderful life with him.  A little home in the country.  A couple of beautiful children.  I always wanted a couple of beautiful children.  And maybe a dog.  A cat.  A few goldfish.  But after that, after I contracted that, that disease, well, it was just out of the question.  I mean, I couldn't even look him in the eye, anymore.  Not like I can with you."

I nod, still too dumbfounded to talk.

"So ..." she sighs, sending her swollen, perky, diseased tits heaving.  "That was that.  Pitiful, isn't it?"

I nod my head.  "Pitiful."

"Just think.  If only he'd been more ... discreet.  But, then, of course, I know how men are."  She smiles at me, as though suddenly able to read my mind.  As though she'd been reading it all along.  I suddenly feel uncomfortable, like I want to crawl into a hole or something.

"Oh, no," I say, shaking my head.  "I'm not really ..."

"And that's alright," she adds quickly, taking hold once more of my arm.  I wait for the tingle, but it fails to reappear.  "I understand that a man has ... well, certain needs.  That those needs are different than a woman's.  And that's why our little talk is so important.  You understand, don't you?"

"Important," I repeat.

"Exactly," she says.  "People like you and I have to be careful.  That's why I'm glad I met you today."

"You are?  We do?" I ask.  I feel a little like a right fielder in a game of right-handed batters.  Something is going on out here, that's for sure.  I'm just not certain that it includes me.

"Sure."

"Why is that?" I ask.

"Because, silly, I can tell you're a very macho, very virile man.  And I know you want to be protected.  And you don't want to have a relationship unless you're careful."

I nod.  "Sure," I say.  "That's for damn sure."

"I know you're a lot more considerate than Fritz was.  I know you're concerned about your relationships.  After all, if a woman is worth having ... sexually ... well, you just want to be safe."

"Of course," I reply.  Is this for real, or have I landed in the Twilight Zone?

"That's why I want to show you these."

I watch as she reaches into her purse and pulls out a small plastic bag of multi-colored packages.

"What is it?" I ask.  "Grass?"

She laughs.  "No, silly.  It's condoms.  You know, for protection.  Like I said.  You understand how important this is."

I do not understand.

"After Fritz and I broke up, I was so disillusioned with men, so disappointed that one human being could do that kind of thing to another that I joined the Sexual Protection League--the SPL.  Have you heard of it?  Well, it's just a marvelous group of people that started up just outside Chicago a few years ago.  Their motto is, 'A happy relationship is a disease-free relationship.'  Cute, huh?"

"Disease free," I say.

"And so, of course, I offered to help with their cause by doing anything I could.  That’s when I began selling some of their products, for the good of the League.  And the good of humanity."

"Humanity."

"What color do you like?"

"Color?" I ask.

"I think mauve would just be perfect for you.  Or maybe teil.  Yes, that’s it.  To go with your eyes.  But, then again, a lady likes to have a selection to choose from, doesn't she?  So why don't we just select three each from the 17 different colors available?"

I nod.  "Three each.  From the seventeen ...  Sure.  Why not.  What the hell."

"Textured, ribbed, or plain?"

I shrug.  "Surprise me."

She smiles.  "I can see you are a considerate partner.  Let’s give you one of each."

"Of each?"

"Yes," she says.  "In each of the different colors.  You know, three red textured, three red ribbed, three red plain ..."

"Three red ..."

She pulls out a pencil and a pad and begins scribbling on the paper, her cute little nose bobbing up and down, her sexy red tongue dancing across her lips.  "You know something?  I was right.  You're exactly the kind of man I thought you were, exactly the kind I admire.  The kind of man I always hoped Fritz would turn out to be."

"Really?" I say.  By God, I wasn't dead yet.  I still had a fighting chance.  And if the lady was a little, well, eccentric, so what?  Since when the hell has eccentric been that bad?

"There," she says, tearing the top page from the pad and handing it to me.  "That comes to $76.50, including tax."

I gulp again, this time harder than before and not at all caring whether or not she hears.

"Seventy-six-fifty?" I repeat.

"Including tax."  She holds out a bagful of goods.  "I...I don't think I have that much cash with me."

"Oh, that's alright," she says.  "I take checks."

I stare at her blankly for a moment, then begin making motions as if searching for a non-existent checkbook.

"By God," I say finally, after peering into every nook and cranny of clothing covering my body.  "Say, you're going to think I'm a real scatterbrain, but I'm afraid I ..."

I look up at her, at her outstretched hand, at the shiny black leather case she's holding.

"Honestly," she says.  "You men are all alike.  You're just lucky I carry a bunch of blank checks with me.  Just fill in your bank's name across the top and make it out to the SPL."

"Yeah," I say, taking the book of blank checks and opening it up.  "Lucky."

I finish scribbling out the check, completing the transaction by writing 'First National Securities of Chicago' across the top.  For a brief moment, I consider writing, instead, 'Amalgamated Bank of Syria,' but it suddenly dawns on me that my chances of scoring with my fantasy woman--slim as they might be--would go right down the drain.  And so, possibly, would I, if she happened to decide to prosecute.  I would need to open an account at First National before the check went through.  But, after all, that wasn't so bad.  I’d been meaning to open one somewhere, anyway.  I mean, $76.50 is a lot of dough.  More than I can really afford.  But it's not like I wasn’t getting anything for my money.  I was getting a whole bagful of stuff.  And maybe more.

"There," I say, handing the checkbook back to her.

"Super," she gushes, stuffing the case into her purse and pulling the latch closed.  "And I just know you're going to enjoy them."

"Which reminds me," I say nonchalantly.  I am nothing if not cool.  "I have these two tickets for Saturday's football game.  You know, against Ohio State?  And I was thinking ... wouldn't it be great to go to the game, then maybe out to dinner afterwards.  A little wine, a little dancing.  And, who knows, maybe a relaxing evening at my apartment afterwards?”

I feel a hand on my shoulder and, seeing both of her hands still clutching her bag, sense instinctively that it means trouble.

"How's it goin'?" a deep, gravely voice says suddenly.  I look behind me and up.  Up.  Way up at a monster of a man, possibly 30 or 40 feet tall.  Though it is well over 90 degrees in the shade, there are snow clouds swirling around his head.  And around his big, sagging jaw.  And when he lowers that jaw so he can smile, I catch sight of a formidable hunk of steel glistening in the light until it nearly blinds me.  I am just about ready to leap from the monster's grasp, dash wildly across the patio, and dive into the pond, when suddenly my dream woman speaks.

"Oh, just super.  I've been waiting for you," she says.  "Say, I'd like you to meet a good customer of mine."

"Hi," I say, smiling with all my might.  He holds out his hand and I take it tentatively.  He can squeeze it as hard as he wants.  There is no way I'm going to balk.  Oh, sure, the thought momentarily crosses my mind.  Catch him off guard.  Kick him in the groin.  Bring him to his knees.  And once there, send a quick karate chop to the back of his neck, and the spoils will be mine.  But, as I said earlier, I am no idiot.  So I don't balk.  Or frown.  Or do anything else that might in any way be construed by King Kong as being hostile.  Hostility is no way to placate a monster.  I learned that back in the fourth grade.  The hard way.

"Randy plays tight end for the school team," she says.  "Isn't that just super?"

I turn to my goddess and feel the smile slipping away.  "Yeah," I say softly.  "Super."

"We better get goin'," he says.  "Nice tuh meetcha."

I nod, my heart sinking as she turns to follow after him.  "Yeah," I lie.  "Nice to meet you, too."  And I turn away.

Suddenly I feel the softness of honey-blonde hair spilling across my shoulder.

"Your Saturday plans sound just great," she says softly.  And when you get back to your apartment?"

"Yeah?" I say, my heart suddenly swelling again.

"Try the red ribbed one," she says.  "It drives them crazy."

"Uhh, just a minute," I say, motioning her close, whispering barely loud enough for me to hear.  "How about, uhh, you?  Does the red ribbed one drive you crazy, too?"

She straightens up suddenly and breaks into a schoolgirl grin.  "Don't be silly.  I hate red.  Besides, I'm on the pill."
 

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