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.
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.