Out on the curb, you deposit a small box of paperbacks next to the rest of the items not worth putting in storage: a wobbly card table, a busted file cabinet, old CDs and video tapes, out-of-fashion shorts and neckties, hangers, pots and pans, a bag of clothes Maeve and Franny have long outgrown. Passers-by glance down at what you’ve discarded. Upstairs, the apartment where you’ve lived for the past seven years, since just before Maeve was born, is empty and cleaner than it has ever been. You’ve made sure of this. No one is going to look around and say your family was a bunch of bums.
You bring the last box—a shoebox jammed with papers and a toothbrush and other miscellanea you may need handy—to your Corolla and slip it into a tight space beneath the passenger seat. The back and trunk are jammed with more boxes and bags of clothes. You sit a moment in the driver’s seat and figure your wife and daughters are probably to Champaign by now. By tomorrow night, barring anything unforeseen, they should be in Houston, at Sally’s folks’ place, where the girls will climb the stairs and flop down on beds in spare rooms kept immaculate for visits of pleasure or, in this case, necessity.
Breathing becomes difficult in the cramped car, a choking sensation rising from your lungs to the tender base of your throat, so you get out, walk down the street and go into a bar you’ve passed a thousand times but never entered. You don’t generally like bars. You’re not a big drinker. But you settle onto a stool and order a Sprite, mentally calculating what such a simple thing might cost here, and how much you are expected to tip.
A current of cold air hits you in the back and a group of four men enter. Three take a table and one sidles next to you and raps his knuckles on the polished wood of the bar. “Hell of a day out there,” he says to no one in particular. He orders a round of beers, then says, “Seen the river?”
“Sorry?” you say. On his chest is affixed a nametag printed with the words Mitchell Information Networks, and, below that, written in Sharpie, Carter.
“It’s green today, isn’t it?”
“Thing’s green every day,” you say.
“But not like today, right?” The bartender brings his drinks and Carter pays and gives you a jovial wink before disappearing backwards.
In your mind, you replay the moments, just hours ago, when your girls left. You kissed Maeve and Franny through the backseat windows, but the driver’s side was open only a crack, and you wonder if you missed your last chance to kiss your wife.
Twenty minutes later, Carter is back. “This city is a party today,” he says. Carter introduces himself and you reciprocate. “What’s your line of work, friend?” he asks.
“Are we going to talk work at a party, Carter?” you say, and this amuses him. He smiles and slaps you on the back.
“Absolutely right,” he said. He points at your glass. “You’re on empty. What’s it: gin and tonic? Vodka tonic?”
You lie and say, “Gin.” Carter adds a gin and tonic to the bartender’s work order. He glances out the window and says, “I’m telling you, it is a party out there in this goddamn city.”
“Kids?” the man next to you at the table asks. His nametag says Fisk and he’s a doughy, friendly-seeming guy about your age. “You got kids?”
“Two girls,” you say. “Six and four.”
“Three here. Two boys and a girl. Twelve, ten, and seven. Where’s the little lady today?”
You look at the digital clock on the wall but can’t get any information from it. After a half-second, you realize it isn’t a clock at all but an advertisement for Guinness, a countdown to St. Patrick’s Day reading 00:00:00:00. You look at your watch. “Carbondale,” you say to Fisk.
“Separated?” he asks, his mouth pursed.
“No,” you say with more force than intended. What you and Sally are has not been defined. As losing the apartment became more and more inevitable, you both took on a resigned wait-and-see approach to the future. “We’ll just see what happens,” she said, and you wondered at what point you would look at the present and say, This happened. The state of your marriage, your relationship with your daughters, the very place where you will sleep tonight: all of it is unclear. This happened. The only reason you are still in the city is that last week you hit upon two leads on gigs, one flying one with a regional commuter service, the other taking skydivers over the cornfields west of the suburbs. This is your profession. You are a pilot. Neither job is sure by any means—you know too many guys grounded for lack of work—but you and Sally agreed that you should follow until the trail went cold. You even feigned optimism and told the girls that they were simply taking a vacation to their grandparents’ and that they would come home in a couple weeks to a brand new apartment. They did their best to sound excited about it all, which smashed your heart apart.
“Just visiting then? Carbondale?”
“Just visiting,” you say.
“I think I was there once,” Fisk says. “Carbondale? On a contract job. We do computers, but you probably already know that?”
All you know about these men is that they invited you to sit down, and now that they 'do computers,' whatever that means.
You accept another drink from Carter, but your palms sweat at the prospect of having to get a round yourself. Then, as if reading your mind, Carter bellows across the table, “Don’t worry about it, friend. It’s on the company. Per diem. More than we can drink ourselves. You’re doing us a favor, ‘cause I’m spending every goddamn dime they allow.”
“Are they picking everything up?” Fisk asks.
“Hey,” Carter says with authority, pointing a finger at his colleague, “Fuck Mancinelli and the rest of the brass.”
“Easy down, gents,” the bartender calls to the table in a phony lilting brogue. “The day of St. Patrick doesn’t call for such execration.” But by the look he gives right after, you know he isn’t entirely joking.
“We’re in from the Cincinnati,” Fisk says, leaning into you. “But all our big execs are based here or New York. They brought us in to try and grab clients at the convention? At McCormick Place? Didn’t really work out so well.”
“Fucking waste of time,” a big, broad man whose nametag reads Winarski says. His voice is so deep it seems to echo itself.
Groups of people stream in to the bar, beautiful kids in their twenties all dressed in green, clovers on their cheeks like lipstick smacks. They gather near the table, where the name-tagged men down two drinks to your one, and then do it again. More people come in, and a guy in a striped rugby shirt bumps into Winarski’s chair with his hip.
“Do you mind?” Winarski says.
“Where do you want me to go?” the guy says, gesturing to the crowd.
“Are you actually asking?” Winarski says.
“Relax,” the guy says.
“The river is the thing today,” Carter says. You don’t know if he’s trying to diffuse a situation or if he’s just fixated. “The Chicago River on Saint Patrick’s Day. This is a thing a man has to see. Am I right?” The rest of the men say nothing. “Good Christ, you men are about as enthusiastic as a box of turds.”
“The river?” Fisk says.
“We get up from this table, get a cab, and emerge at the green Chicago River. Let’s go!” Carter bangs a fist on the table, clattering bottles and glasses together. “Let’s go!” he yells again.
“Come on, guys,” the bartender calls. “Take it easy.” No brogue this time.
Carter ignores him. “Let’s go!” he hollers, banging on the table. “Let’s go!”
“Go then,” someone from the crowd says.
“Alright,” the bartender says.
Out on the street, having been asked to leave the bar, Carter tosses an arm around your shoulder, says, “You’re coming with us, yes?”
Here is a choice you’d like to take a moment with. A second to orient yourself. But all you have time to weigh is solitude on one hand and distraction on the other. “Yes,” you say.
“There we go,” he says.
The group wanders southward and passes your parked Corolla. Winarski raps on the window distractedly. “What goes on here?” he says.
Your belongings are pressed up against the glass.
“Bad luck or bad habits,” Carter says.
“My money’s on habits,” Winarski says. “Make your own luck.”
What kind of luck have you made? You worked every angle you could think of with every pilot, flight attendant, and cargo handler you’ve ever exchanged words with. Nothing. You took temp jobs first in offices, clumsily faking your way through data entry, then retail work over the holidays, then at a warehouse where you loaded boxes of computer cables onto trucks for nine-hour shifts, but nothing came to a permanent income. There on the street you get a sick sensation in your stomach and suddenly feel like you might vomit, though you can’t remember the last time you actually did.
Carter hails a cab and you slide in uneasily between Fisk and Winarski. Carter gets in the front. There is another man—his nametag says McInheney—who stands on the curb. “Let’s get two,” he says.
“Take us to where the river is green,” Carter says to the driver. Winarski shuts the door and McIlheney yells, “Hey!” with his arms thrown up.
“Fuck him,” Carter says. “You see him kissing up to Mancinelli? Company man.”
The cab pulls over at a bridge. You all pile out and make your way through the throng left over from the parade to where you can peer down to the water. It is green but only its usual murky shade.
“It’s pretty neat,” Fisk says cautiously.
“We missed it,” Winarski groans at him. He exhales loudly through his nose, and you get the impression that only some kind of reluctant decorum is preventing him from adding to the sentiment.
“Damn it,” Carter says, leading the group on over the bridge.
You glance up at the planes flying overhead. DC-10. Airbus 330. Triple-7. You can tell them by their sound, these beautiful machines.
Across the bridge, cordoned off in a park running along the river, a group of a hundred or so protesters chant over the din of the crowd and traffic. Everyone is bundled in parkas and scarves against the cold. Behind them, the park is dotted with tents, cheap triangular ones that remind you of the ones you used to use when you were a Boy Scout. A tent city. The protesters grasp and shake tall signs with their gloved hands. You squint to read them. Most are versions of slogans you heard over the last year: We are the 99%. Stop the War on Workers. The People Are Too Big To Fail. Some are cleverer: Trickle Threat. Yes We Camp. Your eyes focus longer on I Lost a Job and Found an Occupation. Revelers knock into you as you slow to witness the movement.
“Will you look at this shit?” Carter says, waving a disgusted hand toward the group. He calls out, “Pick your moments, people. It’s a friggin’ holiday.”
“I think they know that,” you say and point at one woman’s sign that reads, Drive the Real Snakes Out.
“There’s a time and a place,” Carter said decisively. “They can get out and talk all the nonsense they want, but can we have a second’s peace to have a good time?”
“There,” Winarski says, pointing at a tavern just up the street. You get there and find a pile of protest signs leaning against the wall next to the door. The one on top says What Would Daniel O’Connell Do? Inside, you shimmy through the crowd. Fisk orders a round of car bombs, and you watch as the others drop their shots into black half-pints and drink it all down, then do the same.
“You keep it close to the vest, eh?” Fisk says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“What do you want to know, man?” you say, the warmth of the bar combining with the alcohol in your stomach to make you feel amenable to almost any discussion. “I’m an open book. I don’t even own a vest.”
“What’s your line?” Carter asks.
“Pilot,” you say.
The group looks at one another.
“Bullshit,” Winarski says.
“Are you being straight with us?” Fisk says, a smile creeping into his lips. You’ve seen this look before. He wants you to be a pilot. You are exotic and manly.
“I wouldn’t not be straight with you. I am a licensed and professional commercial pilot.”
Carter challenges: “Which outfit?”
“I’ve flown for a few,” you say. “But currently I am a freelance operator. I am ready to take you and your guests to any destination you desire. All I need is fuel money and a plane.”
Winarski says “Bullshit” again, and Carter says, “Let’s see some proof.” You take out your wallet and show them your FAA license.
“So you can go see your wife,” Fisk says, smiling. “What are you complaining about?”
“Who’s complaining?” you say.
“Where’s his wife?” Winarski says.
“Where’s she again?” Fisk asks.
You eye a clock behind the bar—a real clock this time—and say, “Memphis.”
Fisk scrunches up his face. “Was that it?”
“What happened?” Carter asks. “Why aren’t you flying now?”
You shrug. “No jobs.”
Winarski mutters, “Fucking Arabs.”
The group standing next to you is clearly a part of the protest just up the street. Probably those are their signs leaning outside. They are a collection of three women and three men, all of them in their early twenties, one of them wearing a PETA t-shirt, another in one that reads Obama, with a clover in place of the O. Allof them look to you like nice, conscientious college students. Good for them, you think. You didn’t go to college, heading instead to the Navy for two years and then straight through flight training. You’ve regretted that decision more than a few times, not going to regular school, and you wonder for a moment if there might be a way to defect to this other party, to leave Carter and Fisk and Winarski behind and join up with these smiling kids.
“You Irish at all?” Fisk asks you.
“Everybody’s Irish today,” you declare loudly, and the group of kids, along with Fisk and Carter, raise their glasses and cheer your words. It feels possible that these two groups might merge, that you are all the same in good, drunken, basic ways.
More people file into the bar. A group of four black men, two of them with plastic green derby hats atop their heads, take a table by the window. Winarski taps you on the arm slowly, says, “They Irish today?”
His grin tells you that this is a challenge, a test to see how you will react. You shrug weakly.
“Hey,” he says to you, that grin expanding into a smirk. “Leprecoons.”
“What’d you say?” one of the college girl’s voice issues from behind Winarski. She is small and pale and freckled.
“What?” Winarski says, irritated, turning his head halfway.
“I heard what you just said.”
“Congratulations. Now mind your own business,” Winarski says.
You try to take a step back, to disassociate yourself from Winarski, but only step on someone’s foot and hear, “Hey, watch it.”
“Fucking racist,” the girl says.
“Why don’t you go occupy somewhere else?” Winarski says, turning fully to her and her friends. “Before I get annoyed.”
Two of the men in her group, both small and wiry, squeeze between the girl and Winarski, doing their best to make themselves appear bigger than they are. It is of little use. Winarski scowls down at them. Carter and Fisk notice what is happening and flank either side of you.
“This is a grown-up holiday, children,” Winarski says. “Run along.”
“Hey, I’m Irish,” the girl says from behind her friends.
“He says everyone’s Irish today,” Winarski says, hitching a thumb at you, a note of amusement in his voice.
“Well, fuck him, too,” the girl says. These words hurt more than you can understand. No, you want to say, I’m with you. I’m one of you. But of course you aren’t. You don’t even understand their movement completely. You look at them and then at Winarski and you can see the confusion.
“You got a lip, little girl,” Winarski says.
“No, you know what,” one of the little guys says, directing his words at not only Winarski, but at you, too. “Go on, enjoy it. This is the end for you all. The whole world is on to your game. Your racist, capitalist patriarchy is finished, gentlemen.” He raises his beer. “One last party before extinction. Good riddance.”
Winarski leans toward the kid. His face is terrifying, red and taut, his mouth pulled into a snarl. Carter puts a hand on his shoulder, says, “Easy. Shit.”
Out in the cold, darkening air of the late-afternoon, Winarski says, “Little faggot.”
And so here is the situation: you are engaged with a man who has clearly demonstrated angry and possibly violent tendencies. It would be easy enough to drop back from the group, say, “You know, I think I’m going to head home.” But just as that scenario develops in your mind, you remember that you have no home. “Don’t worry about me,” you said to Sally last night before slipping into sleep for the last time in your bedroom, already stripped of all furniture save the mattress. “Really,” you said. “You’ve got the girls. That’s enough for you to handle. I’ll be fine.” You even managed to conjure a smile, though you had no plan. And you still don’t.
Your decision is made when Fisk comes up beside you and says, “He’s not that bad, really. This has just been a tough week.”
You walk with them in silence into another bar.
“I’ll tell you what the problem was yesterday,” Carter says. The four of you crowd around a tiny round table, little bigger than a dinner plate. The mood of the day has shifted. Your three companions each display their own version of a scowl.
“We got dick for sales,” Winarski answers.
“We get no support,” Carter counters. “What’s the use of any of those sons of bitches if they don’t support us? You know what you got with Mancinelli and the rest? You got the rich ones like them and then you got everybody else. Where are we? Down in the soup with the homeless and the crackheads. No difference as far as they’re concerned. Hell if they care about the men who get up every morning and go to work. This is a city here.” He gestures out the window to the dusk-covered street. “You know people work here. Cincy is a city. But these guys—.” He takes a swig of beer. “You get the irony? Them all set up in their corner offices. But they can’t do. You see? When it comes to sales, these fuckers need to bring us into their town. And still they manage to fuck us.”
The minutes and hours begin passing more quickly as the sun slides away. The temperature crashes, but it has little effect as you all kick and stumble to another establishment, and then another.
In a sports bar, Fisk hands the group a round of Heinekens. “That fucking Mancinelli,” Carter says over the music and the din of the bar, pointing his green bottle at Winarski and then Fisk. “He’s the one that trips us up. He’s the one setting the parameters and giving us up to these fuckers like yesterday.” He guzzles at his beer. “Fucking Mancinelli,” he says. “What’s that neighborhood where he lives? I’ve got his address somewhere.” Carter takes out his Blackberry and begins tapping at its keys. “We should get him where he lives.”
“Get him?” Fisk says.
“Yeah, we should—.”
“Absolutely,” Winarski growls.
“We should go find his house,” Carter continues. “Get some answers. He doesn’t know what we do.”
“We should go tell him?” Fisk asks.
“You know how much this week cost me in commission?” Carter says.
“Same as the rest of us,” Winarski says.
Carter furrows his brow, says, “Yeah, well, close enough. Don’t worry about it.” Then his eyes go to the door of the bar, across the heads of the people around them. “With my kids in school,” he says. “Fuckers toying with my family like it’s some kind of game.”
You think of mornings, walking Maeve and Franny to school, their backpacks sliding off their tiny shoulders, the way they do little jumps to hitch them back up. These are the best moments of your life, these mornings with your daughters. You do not know these men, nor their families. You don’t even know what happened to them on this business trip that has them so upset. You don’t want to know. Details will only muddy the perfect simplicity of their discontent. Something happened, or didn’t happen, that has put their families in jeopardy. That’s all you need.
“Let’s go get the fucker,” you say.
“I need an address,” the cabbie says.
In the passenger seat, Carter one-eyes his Blackberry. “I’m getting it, I told you,” he says. “It isn’t like I’m withholding the goddamn information.”
Back at the bar, struggling to think of where Mancinelli lives, the men told you to start naming neighborhoods. When you got to Lincoln Square, Carter stopped you, said, “That’s it. Does that sound right?”
Winarski demanded, “Is that a place a rich piece of shit is going to live?”
“I think the mayor lives there,” you said.
“That’s it,” Carter said.
Now, in the cab, Carter tells the driver, “Lincoln Square. There’s gotta be a corner. Probably four. Pick one and drop us there.”
The cabbie sighs and pulls over at Lawrence and Western. Carter pays and glowers while the guy writes up a receipt.
The phone in your pocket buzzes. Once. Twice. It continues like Morse code. You know it’s Sally, yet you can’t bring yourself to answer. Her voice would change everything, bring you back to the world. You have no use for the world right now. Only the mission.
You want to get to this Mancinelli’s house, to watch Carter and his men confront the guy, demand something of him, some explanation, compensation. An apology for whatever it was he’d done. The man needs to hear about Carter’s kids, Fisk’s and Winarski’s families. What are they supposed to do while he, Mancinelli, the fucker, is enjoying the comfortable fruits of their labor. You want justice, even if it isn’t your own justice. You want to see somebody squirm and then admit that he’s been unfair, that there is a reason for everything that’s happening and that this is what he’s going to do to fix it all.
“I think I remember it being a name—the street—like Morris,” Carter says, still tapping at his device as they walk past the shops and restaurants of the neighborhood. “Or Marvin.”
“You’re thinking of Monopoly,” Fisk says. “Marvin Gardens.”
“Morrison?” Carter says, ignoring Fisk. “I’m seeing it typed out.” He squints into the distance. “Maxwell?”
In your pocket, the phone gives a quick double buzz. Voicemail.
“What are we going to do when we get there?” you ask.
“Just a little conversation,” Carter says. “Just want to have a little conversation is all.”
“What time is it?” Fisk asks, whiny. You want to tell Fisk to shut the fuck up with his questions. What does time matter?
“11:15,” Winarski tells him, and you can’t help but calculate the hours since the blue morning, estimate distances, conjure a road atlas in your head. What would be after Memphis? You should know this. Jackson?
Where are your wife and daughters? Jackson, Mississippi.
“What about here?” you say, pointing to a street sign. “Wilson.”
“That’s not an ‘M’,” Fisk says.
“He didn’t say it was an ‘M’,” you snap. “He said it was a name.”
You take them into the dark of this street, canopied by thick, bare branches. Cars line the curbs. Tall, narrow stone houses loom on either side. Your head is filled with liquid and your limbs feel like they could bend any which way, like some rubber doll. You are drunker than you’ve ever been.
“Mancinelli!” Carter hollers into the canyon. “Come out here, you son of a bitch!”
“Come on!” you yell. “Come face your maker. Or makers, or whatever.”
“Good one,” Winarski says.
“Get on out here, you fucker!” Carter yells.
“Mancinelli!” you scream. It feels fantastic, like throwing off an anchor, like shedding weight.
“I don’t know,” Fisk says, almost to himself.
“You don’t know what?” you demand.
“Fucking guy,” Winarski says, putting a big paw on your shoulder. “No skin in the game and still a mean bastard.” He yells, “Mancinelli, you fuck!”
“Shut up!” a voice counters from one of the hundreds of windows.
Winarski stops and slowly scans the buildings, like he’s spotting a sniper. Then his voice booms with terrifying ferocity: “What piece of shit just said that?”
No response. A light in one window goes off, and he eyes that glass for a good long time before Fisk says, “You don’t think that was him, do you?”
You continue another few blocks, taking turns at random. You know you’re weaving, your feet crossing over one another every few steps, but it feels more like a dance than any kind of problem.
Carter and Winarski drop back, continuing to yell out for their boss every few seconds, and Fisk comes to your side. “There’s this thing our company has,” he says to you. “Sort of a newsletter? And every month it has a section called ‘Arrivals and Departures,’ and it lists everyone who left the company and everyone who’s been hired. The departures list is always longer. A lot of salesmen on there. Guys we worked with for ten years. Guys who were there way before I came on, before we were doing computers, back when the company did office equipment. They keep hiring more executives in New York and here. There’s only a few little regional offices like ours left.” He pauses and glances back at the others. “I don’t know,” he says. “There’s something going on. Something about manners, maybe? I wonder if it’s just something like that. Like, how nobody has any manners anymore?”
“Manners?” you say incredulously. You find yourself disgusted with this man.
“I don’t know,” he says apologetically.
You emerge from the shady residential streets onto a major thoroughfare that you cannot name. Carter spots a bar and leads the gang across the four lanes with a finger pointed the whole way to the other side, like a man at bat calling a homer. The bar is empty, the local news playing on a TV in the corner. Booze boxes line the back wall. Carter manages to get a round of Buds from the sleepy bartender and mumbles to Fisk and Winarski, “You fuckers better be keeping your receipts.” In a plastic booth, you slurp and spill your beer, then turn to the bartender and say, “You know a guy named Mancinelli?” He ignores you, keeps on looking at the TV.
After another round, Carter declares loudly, “This must be the goddamn worst bar in all of Chicago.”
The bartender breaks his silence, shouts, “Well, get the fuck out then, motherfuckers!”
Back in the cold, Winarski takes off his coat and swings it like a propeller blade. The street is abandoned. When Carter and Fisk duck into an alley to piss, you say to Winarski, “Think we’re going to find him?”
“Mancinelli?” he says. “No. I don’t.”
“You need to keep hope, man,” you say. “Keep hope alive.”
“That asshole lives miles from here.”
“You know his address?” A wave of excitement washes through you.
“Shit, I been to his place. Last year on another sales trip. Big penthouse type deal by the water.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” you say.
Winarski puts his coat back on and sucks at his teeth. “I got kids. Think I’m going to lose my job just so I can tell this guy to go fuck himself?”
So then you understand: you were never meant to find him. It has all been pretend. You’re just drunk and wandering toward nothing, puffing your chest out into the wind.
You’ve never hit anybody before and so it’s actually more of a push, your loose fist onto Winarski’s cheek. Surprisingly, it knocks him off balance enough that he hits the ground. But he gets back up and with disorienting swiftness he takes hold of your coat and lays a punch into your jaw. Your legs collapse beneath you.
The other two get back and Fisk says, “Jesus.”
Carter comes in and presses Winarski back a few steps. “Okay,” he says. “Enough. Christ.”
“What’s with this fucker?” Winarski says. “Who is this guy anyway?”
“He’s nobody,” Carter says, still standing between you and the man who just laid you out.
“Leaching off us all day,” Winarski says. “Sucking up our per diem.”
“It’s fine,” Carter says. “It’s over. Let’s go.”
“Who the fuck is this guy?” Winarski says to Fisk.
“I don’t know,” Fisk says.
“Let’s go,” Carter says again.
“We’re going?” Fisk says.
“Cab, hotel,” Carter declares. He pushes Winarski gently.
“Fly away now,” Winarski says to you.
Fisk looks down at you, his soft face twisted into an apologetic question, and then follows the others. They are halfway down the block before Winarski turns and yells, “You ain’t a fucking pilot!” These words seem to rip something from you, hurt you more than Winarski’s fist. An ache grips your gut. You feel for your wallet in your pocket, your FAA license.
Once they have left, the city is utterly empty. Cars speed past, but you can detect no people behind their light-reflecting window glass. You have never been so completely alone. You step into the alley and piss. That ache in your stomach returns and you vomit next to a dumpster. When the sickness passes, you lean into the wall and listen to the voicemail on your phone.
It’s me. We’re stopping. I can’t keep my eyes open. We’re, I don’t know, somewhere in Mississippi, getting close to Jackson, I guess. The girls are asleep. It’s been a long day. We’ve had to stop every two hours. They’re fine, but they know something’s up. They’re not stupid. If you get this in the next half hour or so, call, but I need to sleep. I hope you’re in a motel or something. We should be at my folks’ by mid-afternoon, so we can talk then. Don’t forget you need to call the guy at the storage unit about that discount in the paper. They need to honor that. Okay.
You listen to it again. The sound of Sally’s voice echoes through your head. You can see Maeve and Franny asleep on a shared hotel bed, each spread out, their arms crossing one another’s in the middle of the expansive mattress. Sally would have insisted on removing the hotel blankets and replacing them with the pink and purple ones she set in the backseat this morning. She never liked hotels, Sally. But she would be asleep by now herself, exhausted from the hours of driving and the long months of worry and struggle and uncertainty.
You begin walking down this unknown street, stumbling forward into the cold, blustering air, past the bar you just left, past apartment buildings and warehouses and offices, past graffiti you can make no sense of, and past dim, buzzing streetlamps. You carefully orient yourself at the next intersection and head not towards your car, your neighborhood, but the opposite way, towards downtown, stepping deliberately, trying not to look like a lumbering nut, a drunk, some homeless fool.
The protesters’ encampment is quiet. Yellow police barricades have been placed to define the space. Pairs of cops stand at each corner of the park, and they watch as you enter. Two dozen tents spike up from the ground. There are no campfires, no cooking stoves. Women and men huddle in groups of three or four, speaking quietly to one another. Others read by flashlight or whisper into cell phones. You pass by a couple, the girl leaning back against the boy, both of them covered with an unfurled sleeping bag. They look up at you and smile. It is not what you expected. No one beats drums. No one leads chants. It is so quiet. Their signs stand propped up against lampposts. Born Again American, We Are the Righteous Future. A torn piece of cardboard on the grass reads, A Better World is Possible.
From the park you can see the bar where you were earlier in the day, where the Irish girl and her friends foolishly stood up to Winarski. The beer neons still shine, and the windows are hazy with the breath of the people inside. You wonder if you might find her. You’d like to explain who you are. But your mind cannot retrieve the details of her face. She could be any of these girls. And anyway, what would you tell her? Who are you? A grounded pilot. A man without a home. A father without children.
Tomorrow you will follow the path your wife and daughters set today. Of this you are sure, resolute, the decision having been formed not in any instant, but through the long hours since they left this morning. You will go to Texas and see about making a life there. But for now you simply watch the Chicago River lap against the embankment, the reflected city tousled in its current. The air sweeps past, filling your ears with its gusting roar, drowning out all else, and you close your eyes, imagining that your wife and daughters are here, striding to you across the grass, between the tents, all of them excited, having missed you during their time away. They reach you, and Sally’s lips touch yours and she laughs, asks if you’ve been drinking. Maeve and Franny’s fragile hands grab at your legs. The wind comes on stronger now, colder, and you lean down, wrap your arms around their small bodies, and rise against gravity to lift them up.