Direct Hit by David Bontomasi

I was fortunate to meet David Bontomasi early in my copywriting career.

We worked remotely together at Silver Lining Photography for at least two years, never meeting in person. I found him funny, brutally honest and completely charming; a bright light in the Chicago ad world.

We lost touch when I took a full-time job as Copy Director with SolutionSet. Until one day, the agency welcomed a new senior account manager. And I found myself happily working face-to-face and side-by-side with David for four amazing/challenging/crazy years.

David is also an incredibly talented writer. I’m proud to share his captivating short story, Direct Hit.

This was trouble. The front lobby door was locked and it had just started to rain. Douglas wasn’t due back for another couple of hours – two maybe – and I would lose my light by then, anyway. I stood on the small step at the base of the doorframe and leaned my shoulders flush against the door, trying to stay dry. The overhang above the door was short, and water dripped from the corners in streams as steady as the rain. Across the street and into the park, the rain glinted and shimmered in the deep black night. It hadn’t even sprinkled, the sky opened and it just started coming down. Hard. I watched the rain and tried to catch my breath. I could hear a woman’s laughter above me, from an open window somewhere in the building, in conversation with a man whose words I couldn’t quite make out. Sounded like the guy next door. Big mouth, big talker. I’m sure he was telling some stupid lie of a story — his hands tied, fighting a tiger in the African plains with only two toes on his left foot and his manly wits. I heard her giggle and moan as I watched the drops spear the night. The night sky was ugly and wet. I just hoped Douglas has his key this time.

I shook my head. I should have known better. I should have never let myself get into a situation like this. Seriously. I was old enough to avoid shit like this, I had told myself countless times. I’m too smart for this. No cell phone, no connections to family, and having a roommate at the age of thirty-nine with a tiny apartment in a rundown neighborhood on the far southwest side, drinking too much, spending too much time alone — not wise moves. Hell, I knew that.

It wasn’t until after midnight that I realized the rain wasn’t going to let up any time soon. No Douglas, no apartment key and I was stuck. I was wet, angry and a little drunk. A losing combination, I know, but it was a fact I couldn’t change. Not then. The streets were relatively free of cars and besides an errant city bus plowing through the black puddles, the only foot traffic was couples, crouched under their own outstretched coats or umbrellas, moving between the lights. My head pounded. The sound of the rain was deafening, an echo so loud that I had to close my eyes to concentrate. My brain wouldn’t move and I had to roll it and knead it to get it going again. I pushed my thumbs against my temples, rotating, erasing any errant thoughts. Who else had a key? Who had a key and how could I get it? I needed it now. Right now. Fuck man, no one had a key. It was useless. I was clean now and part of being clean is trying to control the flow of people in your life as much as possible. So I had made a point of that – no friends, no family, no one beyond Douglas Mac, and even he didn’t have a key half the time. He was useless, though his name was on the lease.

I saw Kaz Kajinski out of the corner of my eye, a solid black figure coming down the street. He had a way of walking on his toes, almost bouncing, that always made me leery. It was as if he couldn’t wait to get where he was going and he was ready to pounce, left or right, once he got there. He didn’t seem to care that it was raining. His hands were shoved into his front pockets, and he held his head up, letting the rain drip along his cheeks. I could not hide, the doorway was too shallow, and besides, I was sure he would see me anyway. And he did.

“Hey Curtis, man, whatcha doin’?”

“Nothing,” I said, defensively. “Hey Kaz. What’s up, man?”

He stopped and faced me. The rain poured over him, falling from his eyebrows, water streaking around his cheeks and under his chin. He stood in the night with a glow encircling him, like an apparition. Or a god. It freaked me out. I hunched my shoulders and started to shiver as I wrapped my arms tighter across my chest.

He cleared his throat and cocked his head a little. He asked if I had seen any action tonight.

“No, man. I haven’t been looking though. I’m done, man, you know that. I’m doing well, feeling good.”

His eyes flickered and he shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said and I could tell he was high. His eyes darted around and his head bobbed, repeatedly. I knew he was anxious to keep his groove going. The first lesson on the streets is that a junkie can’t be a junkie on his own. It was all about “keeping the next high close by.” You had to know who to know, and which cluckers could get you in contact with some good stuff. Quickly and safely. I used to have great connections, and junkies knew that. I was never a junkie. I used, yeah, of course, but I wasn’t a junkie. I didn’t have the same needs they did. I brought people together, bridging the gap between those in need with those who had the goods to fill that need. But everything can change in three and a half years, man. Two years in prison was bad enough but, I’m telling you, you lose everything on the streets when you try to go straight. You may as well be dead. You’re like a man with no arms. Kaz knew that. He scratched at his shoulder, and looked right through me like I didn’t even exist.

Kaz gazed down the street and then turned and looked up, past the dimly lit shops to my right. Man, he was geeked. He was searching but nobody was coming to save him, no quick fix suddenly appeared. I could feel his rhythm, and I knew that feeling. The high was just starting to come down and the panic was kicking in. He had to score quick to continue to ride. He had to reverse the slide and he had to do it quick. His panic fed my own. I could feel it. I could feel my skin tighten, my veins beginning to jump. I had an itch all over my body.

“Yeah, you try Peanut?” I asked, running the back of my hand against the small of my back.

“Huh?”

“Have you seen Peanut? He usually has something.”

“No. No, last time I saw him,” he started shaking his right hand, down near his side, flipping it from side to side. “No, he fucked me up, man. He went bad. Zoomer and shit. And when you do that shit, it comes back fast. He fucked up way too many people. He’s probably dead by now, anyway, for all I know.”

“Oh shit,” I said. “Well, what about Barrio? You seen him lately?”

“No, no,” he mumbled. He stopped shaking. “Barrio? No, man.” He ran his fingers through this hair and squinted. “Barrio? Is he still around?” He looked at me and then up at the rain, his expression taking in each drop. He ran his hands over his face.

“Shit, man. It’s fucking raining. I am on an inter-planet-ary mission and it is fucking raining on me. All I know is that I need to score some jum. I need to score now.”

“Yeah.”

I could feel the itch, his need — that’s all he was thinking about. I missed that feeling of going from high to high, connecting the dots, keeping it going, never touching down. Of knowing what you needed, even if the need quickly escalated to desperation. When you’re clean, you don’t have the same drive, that singular goal – just score some scratch, some money, somehow, and keep your bedbugs close by, keep the next hit skin deep. It was all you had to think about, all you had to do. Being straight was hard, man. I hated to admit it. It was really hard. I missed having that focus.

The rain continued to fall in sheets beyond Kaz and I felt my skin tighten with a dampness that went deeper than my pores. Christ, I wish I could slide past this door, climb those stairs and get into my apartment, climb into my bed. I thought of my couch, two floors up. Comfortable and dry. Well, it wasn’t a couch, really. It was the backseat from some old car but it was warm and dry and that was what I was thinking about when Kaz leapt at me. His right forearm jammed into my chest and his right fingers gripped my chin and cheek. The weight of this illiterate meatball forced me back, the force slamming me against the door.

“I need to score, man! I need it now!” he cursed into my cheek.

I tried to push him, but his full weight was flush against me and I couldn’t get my arms in place. I couldn’t budge him. He was much further gone than I thought and I remembered what my old man used to say, “Never fight with an ugly man, he has nothing to lose.”

This man was not only ugly but this man was high and this man was desperate. And he had me pinned, my back against the door. I don’t know what my old man would have said about that. I had no intention of fighting but I didn’t want him passing out on me either or throwing up or totally freaking out. I couldn’t keep him away from me, instead he collapsed on top of me. I couldn’t budge this dumb fuck, not an inch.

“Kaz, come on, now, man, I know what you want, I know what you are going though man, but I’m trying to help you, man. I tell you, I ain’t got nothing. I’m clean now.” I tried to push again but he was still too heavy. “Shit man, get off me.”

“I’m trying to help you think of someone. I’m on your side, man.” I had to keep talking, saving my strength. “Okay, what about Peterson? Peterson, little black guy over on Longrove? He’s good, he usually has something. C’mon man, I’ll take you. Let’s go, c’mon, get off me. You gotta move if you wanna groove. That’s what Mac says, right?”

Kaz took his weight off me, and I lightly pushed him the rest of the way back. His lips were curled, his eyes were closed and his face was contracting in a wince. The liquor in my body was beginning settle and I sensed his high was stating to slip away too, literally oozing out of his pores.

“Ah fuck,” he said, without moving his lips. He rocked back on his heels, his arms at his side.

Something was not right. I didn’t know what was wrong with him or what he wanted. He seemed to have given up.

“Ah, man.” His eyes opened just a sliver. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

I looked down and saw that his right hand was covered in blood, all the way up his arm, over his sleeve. Kaz stood in front of me, his body weaving softly left and right, his face in a pained grimace.

When I looked to my stomach, it too was drenched in a red so deep it was black. The stain spread up my shirt in a definitive line like ink, and yet, there was a softness to it, soaking the fabric, inching its way up to me, welcoming me to sleep. I hadn’t felt the knife at all, but knew instantly what had happened. I couldn’t understand it. Why now? I’m clean now. I’m doing good. Why now?

Kaz turned quickly and ran down the street, disappearing in a sheet of rain and darkness, as I slid down the front of the door, my butt resting on the stoop. I tried to just breathe. My lids got heavy and the sky turned light. I closed my eyes.

You can learn more about David Bontomasi here.

If you have a Chicago story you’d like me to share, please let me know.

Write on,

Susan

The Taste of True Love by Susan Jenks

July 29, 2007

We meet in the street

Alone again
Cute shorts
Lincoln Ave
Street fest with a friend

First band
Willie Porter
I spy
A magnetic man

Next up
Subdudes
Move up?
He smiles and joins us

NOLA vibe
Sunset sky
Brown eyes
Oh! That kiss goodnight

~Susan Jenks
August 16, 2017, our third wedding anniversary

Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek

I heard Stuart Dybek read this story on NPR when I first moved into the city. Layered, rich and evocative of young love, this story has always stayed with me. Plus, it’s a wonderful Chicago story (note, his use of El vs L).

Update: I was thrilled to hear Stuart speak at the 2017 Northwestern Writers’ Conference, ironically well after I posted his story.

Enjoy!

Today I’ve been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It’s not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable–compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn’t real milk. The color’s off, to start with. There’s almost something of the past about it, like old ivory. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, “Do you take cream and sugar?” Pet milk was the cream.

There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn’t seem to notice, as long as she wasn’t hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.

And I remember, much later, seeing the same swirling sky in tiny liqueur glasses containing a drink called a King Alphonse: the creme de cacao rising like smoke in repeated explosions; blooming in kaleidoscopic clouds through the layer of heavy cream. This was in the Pilsen, a little Czech restaurant where my girlfriend, Kate, and I would go sometimes in the evening. It was the first year out of college for both of us, and we had astonished ourselves by finding real jobs-no more waitressing or pumping gas, the way we’d done in school. I was investigating credit references at a bank, and she was doing something slightly above the rank of typist for Hornblower & Weeks, the investment firm. My bank showed training films that emphasized the importance of suitable dress, good grooming, and personal neatness, even for employees like me, who worked at the switchboard in the basement. Her firm issued directives on appropriate attire-skirts, for instance, should cover the knees. She had lovely knees.

Kate and I would sometimes meet after work at the Pilsen, dressed in our proper business clothes and still feeling both a little self-conscious and glamorous, as if we were impostors wearing disguises. The place had small, round oak tables, and we’d sit in a corner under a painting called “The Street Musicians of Prague” and trade future plans as if’ they were escape routes. She talked of going to grad school in Europe; I wanted to apply to the Peace Corps. Our plans for the future made us laugh and feel close, but those same plans somehow made anything more than temporary between us seem impossible. It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with.

The waiters in the Pilsen wore short black jackets over long white aprons. They were old men from the old country. We went there often enough to have our own special waiter, Rudi, a name he pronounced with a rolled R. Rudi boned our trout and seasoned our salads, and at the end of the meal he’d bring the bottle of creme de cacao from the bar, along with two little glasses and a small pitcher of heavy cream, and make us each a King Alphonse right at our table. We’d watch as he’d fill the glasses halfway up with the syrupy brown liqueur, then carefully attempt to float a layer of cream on top. If he failed to float the cream, we’d get that one free.

“Who was King Alphonse anyway, Rudi?” I sometimes asked, trying to break his concentration, and if that didn’t work I nudged the table with my foot so the glass would jiggle imperceptibly just as he was floating the cream. We’d usually get one on the house. Rudi knew what I was doing. In fact, serving the King Alphonses had been his idea, and he had also suggested the trick of jarring the table. I think it pleased him, though he seemed concerned about the way I’d stare into the liqueur glass, watching the patterns.

“It’s not a microscope,” he’d say. “Drink.”

He liked us, and we tipped extra. It felt good to be there and to be able to pay for a meal.

Kate and I met at the Pilsen for supper on my twentysecond birthday. It was May, and unseasonably hot. I’d opened my tie. Even before looking at the dinner menu, we ordered a bottle of Mumm’s and a dozen oysters apiece. Rudi made a sly remark when he brought the oysters on platters of ice. They were freshly opened and smelled of the sea. I’d heard people joke about oysters being aphrodisiac but never considered it anything but a myth–the kind of idea they still had in the old country.

We squeezed on lemon, added dabs of horseradish, slid the oysters into our mouths, and then rinsed the shells with champagne and drank the salty, cold juice.

There was a beefy-looking couple eating schnitzel at the next table, and they stared at us with the repugnance that public oyster-eaters in the Midwest often encounter. We laughed and grandly sipped it all down. I was already half tipsy from drinking too fast, and starting to feel filled with a euphoric, aching energy. Kate raised a brimming oyster shell to me in a toast: “To the Peace Corps!”

“To Europe!” I replied, and we clunked shells.

She touched her wineglass to mine and whispered ”Happy birthday,” and then suddenly leaned across the table and kissed me.

When she sat down again, she was flushed. I caught the reflection of her face in the glass-covered “The Street Musicians of Prague” above our table. I always loved seeing her in mirrors and windows. The reflections of her beauty startled me. I had told her that once, and she seemed to fend off the compliment, saying, “That’s because you’ve learned what to look for,” as if it were a secret I’d stumbled upon. But, this time, seeing her reflection hovering ghostlike upon an imaginary Prague was like seeing a future from which she had vanished. l knew I’d never meet anyone more beautiful to me.

We killed the champagne and sat twining fingers across the table. I was sweating. l could feel the warmth of her through her skirt under the table and l touched her leg. We still hadn’t ordered dinner. I left money on the table and we steered each other out a little unsteadily.

“Rudi will understand,” I said.

The street was blindingly bright. A reddish sun angled just above the rims of the tallest buildings. I took my suit coat off and flipped it over my shoulder. We stopped in the doorway of a shoe store to kiss.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.

My roommate would already be home at my place, which was closer. Kate lived up north, in Evanston. It seemed a long way away.

We cut down a side street, past a fire station, to a small park, but its gate was locked. I pressed close to her against the tall iron fence. We could smell the lilacs from a bush just inside the fence, and when l jumped for an overhanging branch my shirt sleeve hooked on a fence spike and tore, and petals rained down on us as the sprig sprang from my hand.

We walked to the subway. The evening rush was winding down; we must have caught the last express heading toward Evanston. Once the train climbed from the tunnel to the elevated tracks, it wouldn’t stop until the end of the line, on Howard. There weren’t any seats together, so we stood swaying at the front of the car, beside the empty conductor’s compartment. We wedged inside, and I clicked the door shut.
The train rocked and jounced, clattering north. We were kissing, trying to catch the rhythm of the ride with our bodies. The sun bronzed the windows on our side of the train. I lifted her skirt over her knees, hiked it higher so the sun shone off her thighs, and bunched it around her waist. She wouldn’t stop kissing. She was moving her hips to pin us to each jolt of the train.

We were speeding past scorched brick walls, gray windows, back porches outlined in sun, roofs, and treetops-the landscape of the El I’d memorized from subway windows over a lifetime of rides: the podiatrist’s foot sign past Fullerton; the bright pennants of Wrigley Field, at Addison; ancient hotel~ with TRANSIENTS WELCOME signs on their flaking back walls; peeling and graffiti-smudged billboards; the old cemetery just before Wilson Avenue. Even without looking, I knew almost exactly where we were. Within the compartment, the sound of our quick breathing was louder than the clatter of tracks. I was trying to slow down, to make it all last, and when she covered my mouth with her hand I turned my face to the window and looked out.

The train was braking a little from express speed, as it did each time it passed a local station. I could see blurred faces on the long wooden platform watching us pass-businessmen glancing up from folded newspapers, women clutching purses and shopping bags. I could see the expression on each face, momentarily arrested, as we flashed by. A high school kid in shirt sleeves, maybe sixteen, with books tucked under one arm and a cigarette in his mouth, caught sight of us, and in the instant before he disappeared he grinned and started to wave. Then he was gone, and I turned from the window, back to Kate, forgetting everything–the passing stations, the glowing late sky, even the sense of missing her–but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.

I reposted this story from Creative Writing 3150 B.

Learn more about Stuart Dybek here.

Irish Something by Susan Jenks

They called him Derf. We met at a bar on Southport near Montana. His friends got on with my friends, and we had one of those boozy fun evenings where everyone was laughing and open to possibilities.

Jennifer gave his friend her number. Derf didn’t ask for mine. And I thought that was that.

Until a few months later. I was crossing Halsted at Diversey heading home after a quiet Tuesday night. He, poised to get into a cab, called out my name. Back then, chance encounters made me feel like the universe was watching out for me. I swear just then, I felt it shift.

He invited me to go to Irish Eyes to meet his friends. I hopped in the cab, thrilled at the turn of events. We sped toward Lincoln Avenue with purpose and energy. We walked in the bar expecting a big welcome and finding emptiness.

Oh, he said. This isn’t it. So he hailed another cab and confidently asked to go to Vaughan’s on Sheffield (steps from my place!). Our energy still high as we walked in to yet another empty bar.

Finally, he texted his friend. The third cab ride brought us to Hidden Shamrock at Halsted and Diversey, across the street from where we started. By then his friends were hailing cabs for home. I laughed, still game. But he was defeated. We parted ways…no numbers exchanged.

The universe was looking out for me, after all.

Oatmeal at Medusa’s by Susan Jenks

I admit I was showing off. This suburban girl had been to Medusa’s at least three times, when I brought my gorgeous friend, Shelia. I had long decided to be the quirk to her beauty…and this place made me the queen.

I smoothly drove my mom’s Olds down Belmont Ave, turning left on Sheffield. A huge bottle of Jack Daniels, snagged from Shelia’s dad, sat in the back seat. I expertly found a spot under the L tracks just a few doors down.

Long blond hair shimmering, Shelia wore a beige shirt that was trendy in Mt. Prospect, yet homely in the crowd lining up on Sheffield. She was healthy oatmeal; they were punk and messy, dark and goth. She grabbed my thrift-store pea coat to shroud her surburbaness. We did a few shots and headed in, leaving Jack in the car. We’ll be back for you.

Before we got to the top of that long staircase to the entrance, I knew this wasn’t going to last. She was so Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen. Yet she trooped on, checking out the crowd as I danced to Ministry, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Shriekback.

We got separated, which wasn’t abnormal. I went looking for her, which meant walking the maze that was Medusa’s. Tall staircases filled with cigarette smoke, small rooms with writhing bodies in the dark, many corners to turn with dark surprises in every one. A woman peeked over the top of the stall as I peed and commented, you’re a real blonde.

After I walked the maze a few times, I noticed others were walking, too. There was a shift in the air. I found Shelia, she was breathless, saying the police are raiding! And all her weed is right here… in the peacoat.

Oops.

It wasn’t police, it was the fire chief. An early battle of the alderman’s (successful) war to shut Medusa’s down. They wouldn’t let anyone out. So we walked round and round with the flow, never stopping even when the music did. Sobering up. Half hour later, we could finally leave. So we did, laughing and almost tumbling down that last staircase, ‘til we were out on the street.

We were only 18, so there weren’t many places for us to go. We decided to get Jack and go to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Belmont or maybe Berlin if they’d let us in. Except Jack wasn’t there. Neither was Mom’s car.

Oops.

There was a sign, but naiveté didn’t read it. I think we got a cab. Somehow we got to the Lincoln Towing lot..to a different kind of punk and wild crowd. Angry, drunk people arguing with the angry sober cashier. Mom wisely gave me a credit card for such a moment. It was in her name, but she gave me a note of permission. Sober cashier was not taking it. Only cash would do.

So there we were. Banks were closed. Cash stations were not quite invented. What do you do? Shelia had a Jewel card. Brilliant! We shared a cab with the least angry-and-towed guys and found a 24-hour Jewel. Bingo. Had to buy three separate packs of gum to get the $100 and cab fare.

The cash opened up the big gates at 4882 N. Clark. But they’d only let me in—not Shelia. It was dark and foreboding with cars parked two or three deep. It was The Fog, Mad Max and Night of the Living Dead all wrapped into one scary walk. I finally found the car, locked the doors and waited for the fat man to rearrange the lot to let me out. Jack  waited patently in the back seat.

U2’s Bad played on the radio as we eased the Olds back to the ‘burbs.

Learn more about Medusa’s here. Be sure to check out Chicago Magazine’s story on Medusa’s, “They Owned the Night” here.

Chicken Foot by Susan Jenks

To have a dog in Chicago is to be vigilant. Of where he poops. Of what he puts into his mouth. Of whom he meets. For 15 years, Fez consistently reminded me of this.

For example, I’d notice things on our walks by our first apartment in Lakeview. The rusty Schwinn locked on Oakdale, seemingly abandoned. A perpetually unlatched gate on George. That kite string that, years later, is still stuck on a Wellington tree. And the chicken-foot shaped stick by the postbox by my apartment on Seminary.

I noticed it a few day prior. Until finally, the chicken-foot shaped stick drew Fez’s nose. And I realized, with horror: that’s not a stick. He lunged, snorfed and bit it in one fluid motion.

As I pried his jaws open, his tongue clung to its prize. I shook his huge snout, trying to empty it like a wet trash can. He drooled. It smelled. I gagged. And shook again. He finally succumbed, dropping it on my sandaled foot. I still shudder.

While I avoided its location for days, from a distance I could see it was still by the post box. Until it wasn’t.

4-2004 Sir Fez
Fez, tirelessly looking for another chicken foot

I still wonder. Why was there chicken foot on the sidewalk in Lakeview?

Two weeks later, a friend ordered a plate of fried chicken feet at Phoenix in Chinatown, just to see me squirm.