Thin and young, maybe twenty, he looked as if he was ready to play a soccer match. He lifted his cap a bit, exposing straw blond hair, joked with his friends, and even shoved one playfully.
Suddenly, almost routinely, he pulled down on the brim, and savagely screamed, "Schnell! Schnell!" Eighteen naked and bony Jews ran from the long staging line just over the muddy ridge. There they stood, at the slimed, fecal-filled edge of the pit, holding pained knuckles over their genitals in a pathetic attempt at modesty. With all the bravado of a dart thrower at a biergarten, the young German flipped his thumb against the safety at the left rear of the Luger, and then pressed the barrel deep into the temple of the closest Jew. His friend at the opposite end of the group did likewise.
The piteous faces of the victims told all. Obediently waiting to be executed, these eighteen, and endless eighteens just like them, were no longer men with lives to lead. Each of them had simply given up and now walked willingly to the ultimate slaughter of the Holocaust, the open-air killing pit, which in a universe of unspeakable, humiliating deaths was the saddest. At the pit, operated by specially-commissioned Einsatzgruppen commandos, there was no ruse, no fraudulent shower head, no crowded room of helpless gasping victims unable to escape, no pretense of official execution recorded with sadistic if exacting documentation. Here, there was just a long line of passive men who had abandoned all possibility of resistance, stepping as instructed to the brink—not now … yes now … not now … yes now … waiting for a bullet to slump them vanquished into the lye-seasoned ditch.
Fer vas nicht? In a moment, they would leave the sad, bloodied earth to become powerful memories that would live on eternally, cry forth for revenge and inspire generations. No Nazi could shoot that away.
The young German raised his eyebrows as a signal. Two unison gunshots. Seventeen men fell lifelessly into the pit, each brain pierced by the force of a single determined bullet fired from either end. As the shoveling Sonderkommandos frantically scooped soft earth over their bleeding brethren, they looked up and saw one man in the middle still standing, still waiting for a projectile to decide everything forever. Weeping uncontrollably, one hand still covering his genitals, one hand draped over his eyes, bitter herbs in his tears, this last of the eighteen shook like a candle about to flicker out and wondered. When?
Disappointed and inconvenienced, the two soldiers swaggered toward the quivering Jew. “My name is Chaim," he murmured with the determination to die whispering his name in the ears of his executioners. “Chaim, my name is Chaim." No one heard him. Instead, the two youthful Nazis demonstratively argued about which one would devote an extra bullet to the man’s brain. Finally, they laughed and agreed. Both placed their guns on either side of Chaim’s head, recoiled their faces from the expected splatter, pressed in on the trigger and then …
Dan draped his hands over his sweating face, screamed silently, squeezed tears from his eyes, reached for the TV remote and clicked off the History Channel.
Hyperventilating in the silence, Dan finally opened his eyes, focused and recomposed himself. After a moment, he shook it all off, wiped his eyes and sniffling nose, calmly picked up the shot glass he wanted to throw at the television, combed his fingers through short gray hair above a closely cropped salt and pepper beard and mustache, and then acted as though nothing had happened. Nothing ever happened whenever this happened. But it never stopped happening.
He looked at the 20-inch flat screen LCD monitor through still moist eyes and spoke a command: “DSL Connect Web." Then, “Nas." NASDAQ.com loaded. Dan looked at the increase, 19.3 points up.
He spoke again: “DJ." Dow Jones loaded: up 44.9 points.
Though still weakened, he continued the voice commands: “Quicken silent password." A portfolio downloaded onto the screen. It read: “Daniel Levin, Chicago IL, Consolidated Portfolio.” A dozen graphs representing Nasdaq, New York Stock Exchange, AMEX, bonds, treasury notes, money market accounts, overseas investment funds, and commodity holdings layered into sharpness.
“Accounts.” One by one, they appeared: investment, savings, checking, IRA, money market, and bond accounts, each with an icon representing the financial institution. At the bottom of the screen, a tally zipped in from the left:
“$2,456,760 YTD Gain … Annualized 23%.”
He looked away unimpressed.
Dan picked past bottles of Glenkinchie, Talisker, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Timnavulin, and Laphroaig, grabbing instead for the tall, mysterious, gold-embossed black bottle of 18-year Glenfiddich, a rare single blend sold nowhere in America, purchased from an out-of-the-way scotch connoisseur shop tucked into a quaint Covent Garden alley, a bottle he would have never considered owning because, as a scotch snob, Glenfiddich was too commercial. But this bottle was something different, and now among his favorites, not for daily tastes before bed but for those special moments when he needed to chase away the salty aftertaste of tears and sweat. He poured a short shot and touched the vaporous surface to his lips and tongue, just enough to enthrall his nostrils with transferred memories of the peaty, fog-filled glens that yielded the “waters of life” sacred to scotch devotees, and just enough to confirm that one’s relationship with scotch is so intensely personal and idiosyncratic, it can never be understood by a nonbeliever.
Flopping into his chair, Dan grabbed for his remote and pressed number 5 on his CD player. The platter began rotating: first, Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, then the film score to Last of the Mohicans, then Phillip Glass’s Canyon, then Le Parc by Tangerine Dream. Finally, the fifth disc, Hans Zimmer’s Black Rain, slid beneath the laser. He pressed the skip button ahead to the “Black Rain Suite,” the hot, defining movie composition in Zimmer’s career.
The console phone’s ringing couldn’t be heard over the soundtrack’s loud syncopations, but Dan saw the light blink on line 4. The private line. He paused the CD, but the music continued in his head.
It was her.
“What are you doing?” he asked in a flat voice. “Sure. I’m right near Northwestern … A ride home? Sure … Okay, pick you up in fifteen, twenty minutes … I’m doing nothing … Fifteen, twenty minutes.”
Dan put down the scotch. He almost never drank more than a tablespoon at a time. So he wasted more shots than he drank. But it didn’t matter. Just a taste was fine.
Still wearing his Bill Blass wing collar tuxedo shirt, unbuttoned at the top, and plain black slacks, Dan flew down the living room steps, exited from the rear patio, and pulled open the doors of his red Honda Del Sol parked behind the townhouse. The day’s rain had temporarily taken a breath. When Chicago’s sky was clear and blue, it was irresistible.
He pressed down both latches on the chest-high detachable Del Sol roof. Swinging the finely balanced lightweight canopy almost straight up, he looked with satisfaction at his black-interiored convertible, the one sculpted so arrogantly for style that Honda’s designers wouldn’t even build in a proper coffee holder. The crappy coffeeholder bothered Dan. But it didn’t matter. The rest of the design was fine. He lugged the upright roof to its under-trunk rack, slid it into place and latched. The roof stowed and stable, Dan slammed the trunk lid down, then the passenger door, and then dropped butt-first and ergonomically correct into the low-slung, hi-backed driver’s seat. To the left, a commuter train roared past on the raised tracks that formed a dead-end to the alleyway. Once it passed, he turned the key to hear the Del Sol’s engine purr on, reached under the seat and affixed the CD player’s detachable control panel face. The Gipsy Kings. Blasted.
Within minutes, Dan turned onto a quiet street in Evanston. She was waiting, and smiled as he approached. “Downtown okay?” he asked, as she climbed in. She nodded yes.
Speeding south down Lake Shore Drive toward the Loop in a low-to-the-ground red convertible with the music loud on a sunny but not too hot summer day, in the dangerous outside lane, two Altoids melting under your tongue, with rushing air rewarding your face, and the woman in the passenger seat squinting into the wind with a smile she hopes you can’t see, and a furl of blond hair streaking behind her like soft flames from a flying torch, this is good.
Politically patched potholes, asphalt buckles, gentle hills, and shoreline curves make “the Drive” a Chicago experience. On the right, Dan saw towering lakeshore high-rises planted behind lush, lagooned Lincoln Park, Chicago’s self-deceptive effort to paint this length of design and dignity as its authentic face, regardless of the gritty world just behind it. To the left sprawled Lake Michigan, the only thing Chicagoans call a natural wonder. And wondrous it was in a city where the stockyards and five-foot snowdrifts at every intersection constituted a collective memory for all who lived here even if they had never seen a steer or a blizzard, where once upon a time outdoor cafes, private swimming pools, inflatable balls at the beach, and anything else that suggested five minutes of frivolity was either illegal or unnecessary.
The Lake belonged to everyone. It was “the beach,” an enjoyment allowed by Chicago’s blue-collar culture. Sure, it was crowded like the subway at rush hour, but once prone on its sand, you had no clock to punch, no red light to beat. Here your only duty was to maintain the slim cut of paradise demarcated by your beach towel. A beach towel, mind you, not a blanket. Blankets violated beach etiquette as an act of greediness. Everyone in Chicago knew that.
You couldn’t help but belong at the beach because, like the schools and the neighborhoods, the polling stations and the cemeteries, Lake Michigan’s beaches were stratified and segregated: the well-off white kids at Sheridan Beach and above, the Hispanics at Foster Avenue, the poor white trash from Uptown at Wilson Avenue, the greasers at North Avenue, and at Oak Street the cool people—that is, the rich, skinny ones with fragrant tanning oil and fashionable bikinis. Blacks, of course, were stuck far to the south at Rainbow Beach.
In a city of limitations, where you couldn’t drive from north to south without going through downtown, where the Cubs couldn’t win, and Republicans couldn’t run, the Lake was a mirage without limits, an intriguing canvas where sailboats were always painted in by day, and magical lights floated by like stars at night.
So in that moment, in a south-speeding Del Sol, what could be more uplifting than hurtling confidently between the magnificent Lake on the left and the elegant lakefront on the right? It didn’t matter that you came from poor, it didn’t matter that one day you didn’t have five pennies to get into the State Theater, it didn’t matter that you didn’t have a friend or you couldn’t afford the toys they did, it didn’t matter that you had a job or didn’t, that you were a Pole who still couldn’t speak English, a recent Jewish immigrant who spoke with an accent, a Chicano who tried not to speak in public, an Irishman poor but powerful, a black man poor and powerless, or a WASP who tried to never see any of those people. It didn’t matter that you drove a Caddy you couldn’t afford, a rusted orange Datsun no one wanted, or a station wagon with a worn-out floorboard, nor did it matter if your radio blared Solti, Cash, the Stones, or Aretha. None of it mattered because anyone, meek or powerful, rich or poor, dark or white, could drive down Lake Shore Drive and be thrilled. It was Chicago-style democracy, paved with potholes.
Dan meandered his car to Lower Wacker Drive, the downtown street below the street, beyond the train tracks, near the Chicago River’s edge, to a dark upramp on the left.
“Don’t,” said Park, as a child’s expression came over Dan’s face.
“Not again. Don’t …” she warned, this time more sternly.
His car purred in neutral at the base of the narrow, curving, one-way down ramp used exclusively by Chicago Sun-Times delivery trucks above at the Wabash Street loading dock. The trucks sped down the ramp several times daily to cut past traffic and quickly access the expressways. Dan’s habit was to race up the steep ramp, hoping not to slam head-on into a truck on its way down. Originally, Dan used the ramp as a reporter’s shortcut to dash through downtown traffic. Eventually, it became just a stunt to impress friends, or himself if no friends were present. It was his equivalent of chicken. He first did it for Park only yesterday, the day they met. Her mouth had dropped open as he missed by only a moment a caravan of trucks heading down.
Park wanted nothing to do with it a second time. “Let me out, before!”
No way. He floored the Del Sol up past the warning signs, past the concave mirror, into the unlighted blind curve, beyond the point of any safety. Dan was totally relaxed, but Park, her face tensed, expected the worst. Meanwhile, the Gipsy Kings. Blasted.
Just near the top and out of sight, a Sun-Times driver waved to his buddy. “I’m late on the edition,” he shouted, as he edged forward on the accelerator and his van lurched. The Del Sol climbed the drastic incline faster and faster and at the top virtually launched onto the driveway just inches from the approaching truck. The driver screeched on his brakes, swearing in Lithuanian, as stacks of string-bound newspapers toppled throughout the truck.
Dan broke into a grin of bravado and pulled out onto Wabash where he stopped casually for a light.
Park jumped from the car. “Oh! Oh!” she sputtered. “You are nuts! Twice in two days. Get away from me. What are you doing tomorrow, jumping a bridge over the Chicago River?” She walked off, with Dan in pursuit. To his entreaties and apologies, she just kept muttering, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Finally, while waiting for a green light at a crosswalk, he convinced her to reconsider. As though salvaging good music on an album suffering from noisome scratches, she set the terms. “No more up the down ramp,” Park chided. “You can drive down the down ramp … up the up ramp … or no ramp at all. Anytime you want to risk your own life, fine. But if I get back in that car, do not challenge any ramp. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Dan quietly declared with a puppy dog face.
Park lost her anger and laughed.
“Come on,” he urged. “I can use the company. Let’s just talk. We don’t have to drive anywhere.” Park saw the side of Dan she liked and climbed back into the car.
Minutes later, the two were inches close, eyes in sync, parked on North State Street. They said very little with their lips but entire conversations were softly murmured with their eyes. He came closer, spoke inaudibly in her ear and kissed her in an inviting place just beyond her cheekbone.
They had met only yesterday. Dan was standing on the corner right in front of his favorite high-rise, Lake Point Towers, contemplating how its parabolic face fulfilled the “form follows function” mandates of the Chicago School of architecture. Park walked up and asked for directions to the building, not knowing she was actually standing in front of it. Blond, not quite thin, her arms were muscular but still feminine. Her hands knew work and weather, and her face offered a palette of both innocence and complication. Immediately, Dan could see past her attractiveness and discerned a hidden history of personal struggle, one in which she had not yet emerged the victor. Struggle in a woman attracted Dan. He had struggled all his life. He felt at home with someone else who had.
Instead of guiding her to the building’s obscure entrance just a few feet around the corner, which would have been too easy, he asked a few questions. Decades of experience as an investigative reporter had enabled him to surgically extract more information in moments than anyone wanted to surrender in days. He quickly learned that Park McGuire was at Lake Point Tower to rent a friend’s apartment while in Chicago.
Park never made it into the building. Dan responded to her openness. An impulsive cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks segued into a long, enchanted day, as Dan unsuccessfully tried to steer Park to Rogers Park, where the rent would be cheaper for her, and the location nearer to him.
They began exploring the private Chicago Dan had learned to call his own during years as a journalist in the seventies and eighties, a Chicago now almost overrun with nineties changes. They walked along Olive Park, watched the sun find its way through the magnificent skyline, and viewed surrealist masterpieces at the Art Institute, accompanied by Dan’s pedantic explanations. “Salvador Dali’s repeated use of one woman’s image is no reference to the Madonna. It’s his insane fascination with his beautiful lover. Except this one over here …”
For lunch, they feasted on a Flukey’s hotdog overflowing with bright green piccalilli and short, medium-hot peppers, then thumbed through the soundtrack section at the store that used to be Rose Records, and finally took a long narrated walk that began at the top of Michigan Avenue, wound through the romantic courts and plazas straddling the Chicago River, down the broad steps toward Grant Park, and ended at Buckingham Fountain where they shared a small banana Dan unexpectedly produced from his inside jacket pocket as Park giggled and marveled all at once.
They talked—that is, Dan talked, about the journalism business, movie music, the Middle East, Chicago architecture, movie music, the vicissitudes of being a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, movie music, and everything else Dan wanted to talk about. They talked for hours. Eventually, Park even slipped a few words in about herself, a Kansas girl who developed a knack for computers back when computers were the sole province of boys. It was the only way she could compete as the sole daughter in a family with five sons.
By the time the sun began setting, Dan pulled into the parking lot of the lakeside airport, Meigs Field. Moments later, they sneaked into the pilot’s lounge. Floor-to-ceiling windows facing north from this vantage point jutting into the lake, framing the gray, green, and bronze steelglass skyline, made this quite possibly the most romantic dusk in the city, a place where Dan now opened a bag he had hastily assembled at the Oak Street Market while Park waited and wondered in the Del Sol. Out came a plastic checkered tablecloth. Then two tall candles he lit and anchored into some melting wax dripped onto the tablecloth. A small round of Brie, a long baguette, some grapes, clear plastic knives and forks, two cheap plastic cups, and then the bottle of Dom.
Park had never tasted Dom Pérignon in a glass, only sampled the legend in movies. Her eyes widened. They were the eyes of a woman who has seen dust storms and floods, boys who couldn’t see past the next farmer’s pasture and agribusinessmen who wouldn’t take their sights off your acres until they owned them. In those eyes that wanted to say yes were memories of Sunday and Wednesday doings in the church rec room, a Bible on every surface in the house and more copies on the shelves and in the closet—sixty-two in all during one count—and the spunk to play hooky from school with a friend one day, jump on a bus to Wichita for an unforgettable first big-city adventure only to know fear and shame when she discovered there was no bus back and her father had to drive four hours in the pickup to fetch her. She had seen a lot, and none of it left the blue depths of her eyes. Yet none of it showed on her face, which was somehow strong and soft, a child still in a woman’s body.
That was yesterday.
By now, they had become a pair. Just two people comfortable with each other sitting in a red Del Sol, unaware of the world beyond the parking space. Dan leaned over the Del Sol’s black-knobbed shift and kissed her a second time beyond the cheek. A passing taxi driver turned his head to enjoy the moment. So did a kid whizzing by on a skateboard. But Dan and Park noticed no one.
“Who are you?” she asked whimsically.
He answered, “You mean who was I?”
“All right. Who was you?”
“I used to be me.”
Park didn’t understand, and reposited: “Well then, who are you now?”
“The guy who became me after I was me.”
“Right,” said Park, quickly becoming impatient. “This is the little boy part where I’m supposed to pull it out of you, am I correct? I thought you were a magazine writer. What’s the mystery?”
“Yes, that’s what I said, but actually I did a little more than just write articles. I became a publisher and had a few magazines. It was a very lucrative mistake, but I did it. And now I’m out of it.”
“How many magazines is a few?”
“Seven,” he said almost with embarrassment.
“Seven? Like what?”
“It’s really not important, and I prefer not talking about it,” Dan answered, but then added without prompting, “I mean, there were some great ones like Chicago Monthly, that won a bunch of awards for investigative journalism and made a few headlines here and there back when I was younger. And some you never heard of that didn’t make headlines. But they made money.”
“Like who cares,” he replied evasively, but then again provided the details. &;dquo;Like Brain Journal for neurologists. Like an airport magazine called Wingtip. Heard of it, you know, in those elite little airports?”
“Well … so who cares?” he came back, again with a hardened air. “I published ’em and did it. How about Highstyle, a sorta healthy lifestyle magazine for women 24 to 35, with a quasi-GenX attitude that I couldn’t care less about. Maybe you heard of that one?”
That one she knew. “You published Highstyle? I used to read that magazine. Health tips. Good recipes … Never subscribed.” He shrugged. “Bought it on the newsstand, though. So what happened?”
“I sold them all,” said Dan, “to a megabillion multinational mean-ass media conglomerate. Australian.”
She looked with slight disbelief. “I get it. So you’re rich?”
“Possibly it could be construed that way to a certain extent, but it doesn’t matter because that isn’t the issue,” he stammered, self-conscious.
“It ‘isn’t the issue,’” she came back, “because … because you have money so you can afford to not care if you have it. Is that what you mean to say?” She smiled to put him at ease. “Okay. But I’m just a person working to make ends meet. Starting a new job Thursday. And so is Sal.”
“Who is Sal?” he asked.
“See, you don’t know me,” she replied coyly. “Sal is my son. He’s a computer genius. I’ve been programming for years, but this guy—”
“You have a son? You didn’t tell me you had a son.”
“Hey, yesterday I couldn’t tell you much of anything,” she joked. “We spent the whole day listening to you talk ‘form follows function’ and movie music. I now know more than I ever thought I could about John Barry and Hans Zimmer. Anyway, yeah. Sal starts as a junior programmer too at the same place.”
“What’s it called again, Drake?” asked Dan, slouching in his car seat.
“Derek. Derek Institute,” she answered, swiveling to face him. “They’re all into Y2K solutions—”
“Uh, yeah, Millennium Bug stuff …” Dan’s attention had drifted. Now he was barely interested in what she was saying as much as her animation in saying it.
Until this moment, Park had seemed shy, almost reticent. Most of her comments were expressed with eyes that spoke simultaneously of a fear-desire to explore yet another human relationship no matter how badly she had chosen in the past, even though a brute locked the door on her one night and demanded everything until she escaped crying into the night while he was prone with his pants down in the bathroom and she waved down a taxi just as he appeared at the door angry and obscene, and even though her pastor shocked her that Sunday and she then had to face him in silence week after week. And even though she was unprepared as a child for all she had encountered when she was almost a woman. Clearly she wanted love as one wants oxygen. Raised in her sheltered, God-fearing world, Park was unready to breathe in the world beyond the farm. When she tried, the gasps were painful. Every woman carries every heartbreak forever. They briefly reappear at the ceiling each time they meet another man, and the shadow dissipates but oh so slowly. Like a singed candle, ready to be relit, Park offered a gentle quality of caution and willingness that triggered something deep in Dan that had been locked away since New Year’s when the worst nightmare came, a nightmare that gripped him still.
He returned to the conversation. “… All the computers will crash at the turn of the century.”
“… Right,” she continued past his trivial interruption, “and since I had that expertise for a while in Seattle, I was able to get the job. Derek,” she continued, “is ramping up for the big push to beat the Year 2000 deadline. One day when the recruiter called, she asked if I knew anyone else in Seattle who could join the team. I just jokingly suggested Sal, and he got on the phone, and within fifteen minutes he was talking to the big cheese—this Dr. Kuebitz. So he’s been hired as an intern for the summer. With me. Believe that? Just out of high school. Derek is desperate. Originally, it was a principal Bluestar subcontractor on … well, on a project I can’t tell you about really.”
“Can’t tell you“ were the most stimulating words in Dan’s world. “Of course, you can tell me,” he told her. “Who am I not to tell? What’s the project?”
Park looked like a woman with a secret she didn’t want to keep. “I can’t tell,” she said with ambivalence. “The whole thing is hush-hush until tomorrow’s announcement in Baltimore. Can you wait just a day?”
They exchanged that glance that confirmed to both that if Dan pressed, Park would have yielded the information, but she preferred not to, and therefore wished that Dan would not press. Since it was so clear he could have pressed for the information, Dan folded back his pursuit.
“Oh, I can wait. No big deal,” he grinned. “But tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow,” she answered, “the day after tomorrow. Wait till then. I’ll tell you everything. Promise.”
He nodded and they drove off into the rush hour.
Copyright © 2023 Edwin Black. All rights reserved.