By Sheri Reda
PART I: Lincoln Square
These days, I live in Lincoln Square. When I say that these days, you know what that means. It means Sulzer Regional Library and the renowned Merz Apothecary and Meyer’s Deli, with its delightful rooftop garden. It means a relatively rehabbed, relatively clean Davis Cinema, and Starbucks and Cafe Sel Marie and the Grind and the organic Café Oromo, and Perfect Cut, and Baker & Miller, with their locally sourced organic grains. It means strollers and super-nannies, and the Old Town School, and a lot of really cool restaurants my family and I can’t afford to visit. And it means I live in a hundred-year-old cottage among burgeoning mini-mansions. Because I’ve lived there a long time.
When I first moved to my neighborhood, no one knew where it was. Or even what it was. Sulzer Library was undiscovered, though of course it was way cooler — it hadn’t been gutted by the great anti-librarian Mary Dempsey, and it had the city’s best collection of VHS movies. The Davis was battling a lice infestation. Old Town School was just a tiny building from the hippie era, and it was down on Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park. Sel Marie was around — it was the neighborhood anchor — but it had only two tables. The Grind and the other hot spots were tiny gleams in someone’s caffeine-addled mind.
Chicago didn’t have a Starbucks.
This story takes place a while ago. Back when the housing bubble was still latent in its bubble wand. Back when I would tell people where I lived and they’d say, “Whoa! Lincoln Park! That’s pretty high-rent.”
“No.” I’d say. “Lincoln Square.”
“Oh. . . yeah! I know! That’s— Isn’t that, like the suburb next to Skokie?”
“No. That’s Lincolnwood.”
“Huh. Wait! Lincoln Square. Lincoln Square? That’s— That’s a defunct shopping center! Are you, like, a squatter?”
“No. That’s Lincoln Town Center.”
I’d have to tell people I lived in Ravenswood… north of Lakeview. Or... northwest of Wrigley? Old people got it when I said I lived in Germantown. A few of the Nazi bars were still there, with flags tucked into the backrooms for easy unfurling after hours. The neighhorhood was still heavily German, with a smattering of other Europeans, Filipinos, and black people who had somehow stumbled into the north side.
I lived in Bumfuck, Chicago.
We had birds in the mornings. Crickets and cicadas and loud bunches of birds, along with the stray fighting cock. It was downright bucolic. Mayberry North. Except for the decrepit bar on the corner that featured Elvis impersonators, and the decrepit bar on the other corner that hosted a shootout one night, and the gang-infested laundromat at the third corner, and the ex-Nazis scraping along in their walkers.
PART II: Mayberry Falls
Doris Lessing once said that nostalgia is a longing for something that never was. And Lincoln Square at the time of this story time was nostalgia made manifest. It was like a teeny patch of small-town life in the city: I joked about Mayberry, but it was maybe a little more like Bedford Falls. There were a fair number of apartment buildings, but most of them were smallish and filled with families who wanted nothing more than a handhold onto a decent life.
On the side streets, we had small houses and big-ish side yards. Some of the yards were fenced, but most were open. My house was perched among thirty kids on a dead-end block — kids who actually came outside to play and run from yard to yard. And if the guy in the second house on the left was a convicted pedophile — well, we all knew it. We just told the kids not to go near him.
Around the corner from my house there lived this old-timey Italian guy: Dominic. He was sixty-five or so, but already stooped over. He hobbled, but he waved and smiled at people walking by, just like our mail carrier, Rod.
Dominic had a classic brick two-flat I coveted, back in the days before two-flats had become mega-mansions for the wealthy private school set. When it was not too late to dream of living in one half and letting your tenants help pay the mortgage. Dominic’s two flat was old but well-kept, with a whole long side lot attached to it, and the entire yard was a garden — a huge Italian garden — with roses and tomatoes, marigolds and beans, onions, zucchini, a grape arbor, and a huge floral arch and a cast iron table and chairs… everything you might need for a well-dressed Italian feast.
In the winter, Dominic capped the roses and paid someone to decorate the enormous Christmas tree in the very front of the garden — the Christmas tree with a grotto cut out to make room for a statue of the virgin. In the spring, he turned the soil, himself, spadeful by spadeful. And then he planted. And in the summer, he tended the garden every single day, one different little patch at a time.
Usually, his wife helped. Until one summer she didn’t, and I learned that over that winter, she had died. I felt for Dominic, working away alone out there, so one Tuesday morning in early September, I stopped to have a chat with him.
I told him how much I loved his garden.
What a boon it was to the neighborhood: The flowers, the color, the smells.
“Tu Italiana?” he asked.
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Calabrese and Romana!” I told him I imagined his food tasted exquisite, fresh, like the food in Italy. He nodded, pleased. Then he pointed to his own chest.
“Siciliano!” he said. “Sicily, no?” I nodded, and smiled politely. My parents had always taught me that Sicily isn’t part of the real Italy. But I wanted to be nice. And I must have been convincing, because Dominic beamed at me and invited me inside the gate. He walked me through the garden and pointed out the highlights.
“Cannelini here — fazool, Romas ova dere…” He picked a cucumber, twisted it off its stem and handed it to me, and gestured for me to take a bite right then and there. I did, and I remember grinning happily as the cucumber juice squirted out and ran down my chin. So he invited me into the cellar to see the canning operation he had down there.
It was old-country thrilling. Dominic had jars and jars and jars of sauce — gravy, he called it, in the way of my own family — and he had salsa and canned beans and giardinera he and his wife had made themselves. He gave me a jar of gravy, as a gift. He said his wife always did the canning... so... “Dis-a-year, no new jar.”
I tried to give this one back, but he wouldn’t have it. “You cook,” he said. “Somebody gotta cook.” He paused, head down: “She die... next a week, it be six a month.”
So I hefted the jar and thanked him and made myself a secret promise to cook him some pasta with gravy. Maybe parmagiana. I smiled, patted his shoulder, and remarked on how well he was maintaining the place without her. And he brightened a little.
“I show you,” he said. He led me back and forth through the warren of closets in the basement — little enclosures I dreamed of knocking down in order to make a family room.
I thought, in the way of a savvy Chicago real estate hunter, maybe I should get friendly with this guy.
I pretended to be filled with delight as he told me how his family had used each and every room. “Bed-a-room here, storage dere, a pinga ponga room dere…”
Dominic led me up the steep, curvy stairs from the basement to the obligatory plastic-coated living room. And the traditional mahogany dining room, where he took out a chair and sat... overcome for a moment, I guessed. But then he grabbed me, so I fell to his lap. And he put his lips to my lips and his tongue in my mouth and he kissed me, hard.
PART III: Aftermath
Gaaah! I kind of gagged aloud, then pushed Dominic away with both hands. And he just let me. Just. Let. Go. He looked down as if I’d already shredded him, and I was so startled I didn’t know what to say. Except—
“Uh. No.” And then, as if I were leaving a party early, I made excuses. “Well... I… go now. I have to get home, get back to my family. My… husband.”
He sat there. I stood there. I knew I could take him, and he didn’t seem to be ready to chase me across the room. In fact he seemed defeated. Chastened. Ashamed? Unless, of course, it was all a ruse?
“Uh. Thanks for the tour.”
Appalled and offended as I was, I still reached out, to shake his hand. I discovered my right hand still holding that jar of gravy, and it seemed disrespectful to the dead to put it down, so hoisted it into the air. I nodded a sort of confused, resentful thanks, and I backed out the front door. It was closer.
Once outside, I got angrier and angrier. How dare he try and pull something like that? He was at least thirty years older than me, and he had to know what he was doing. He’d taken advantage of me just because I’d acted like I cared. How many people had he tried that with? What a horrible, coarse old man, I thought. Users are everywhere.
For the next month, I told everyone what a shocking, gross old dago he was. Typical fucking Italian prick. He wasn’t even Italian, really, according to my folks. I was afraid of what I’d do if I saw him in person, so I avoided the sidewalk in front of his place... I always headed the other way, even if I had to go around a block to get where I was going.
Until one day I didn’t. I was in a hurry one afternoon to get to Sulzer Library before the end of the business day, because I still did my research at the public library. So I went ahead and walked in the direction of Dominic’s house. He wasn’t around, but my neighbor Lissa was.
She nodded over at Dominic’s house and said, “I wonder if it’s sold.”
“Sold?” I said.
“Yeah. He died, didn’t you know that? About three and a half weeks ago.” Lissa frowned, thinking. “Yeah, it must be three and a half weeks now. I was shooting a documentary about his garden. I finished it on a Saturday... Yeah, and that Tuesday — whap — he keeled over and died.”
“Tuesday...” I echoed.
“Yeah,” said Lissa. “About a month ago.”
My stomach lurched, as I remembered that kiss. I supposed it was Dominic’s last kiss on earth.
And I wondered then if Dominic knew, in a different sort of way, what he was doing. What if he somehow knew he would die that day? What if he’d only wanted one last taste, one last little thrill of life on Earth? And I’d slammed him down. Who was the coarse one then?
He might have been just an old Sicilian goat. Or he might have been Jimmy Stewart in that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, the one where he asks Violet to go running through the grass. Except for a language barrier.
And I might have been Violet: What are you talking about? Are you crazy?
I’ll never know what the truth is. Except that I wish I’d been more like Mary Hatch. I wish I’d bought into the romance of the moment, the old man’s longing, the idea of beauty in one hard kiss. Gross as it was — as it is — I kind of wish I’d kissed him back. Hard. Nostalgia might be the longing for what never was... because it’s mythic beauty made manifest.
But I stood up for myself. I pushed it away, with both hands.