I’ve always been a patient man, and I think that’s made my life easier. I know it’s made getting old easier — at 76 I have no choice but to be patient with myself. I use a cane to help me get around and I take my time. I feel better when I keep to my routine. That’s another thing about getting old: I know myself and I know what I like. I like it if the sky is gray and I don’t have to shield my eyes from the sun when I shuffle down the front steps and across 107th to get the Sun Times. I don’t like it when there’s too much ice on the sidewalk.
I like my memories. I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose those. I remember when the Board of Trade Building was the tallest in the city. I lived on 35th then. It still smelled of the Stockyards. Everyone in the neighborhood worked there then, almost. There were a few of us who did other work, and we stayed because we were used to the neighborhood or liked it for other reasons. There was Johnson, who took the street car up to LaSalle Street every day, leaving the big house and his seven children with his wife and their negro. They lived on a big old lot at 37th and Parnell in a new house.
There was Stenopolus, who managed the grocery store at Halsted and 39th (when it was still called 39th). His wife was still back in Greece in those first years he ran that store, waiting for the fighting on the islands to settle down. He would have a big family, too, though with not as much space as the Johnsons.
Then there was me at the pharmacy. It smelled of rubbing alcohol most of the time, which was fine with me — better than the smell of rotting flesh and spilled blood wafting up from the south. The store was four blocks from the house. They were four blocks I walked four times a day for 30 years — back and forth to go to work and to come home for lunch with Helen.
Helen. Every day she had liverwurst sandwiches on plates when I walked in the door. Next to the bread-and-meat triangles there was always something healthy — some broccoli or a pile of apple slices or maybe an orange if we could afford it. I would look at one of those oranges and think for a moment about where it came from.
“What would it be like to go there?” It was when the kids were too young to be in school and were still eating lunch at home.
“Where?” she asked as she spooned pureed sweet potato into Sally’s mouth while Tom tugged at her skirt asking for more milk. In my reverie I forgot that she couldn’t always read my mind.
“Florida.” I was still staring at the orange, though not really looking at it. In my mind I was staring at a palm tree, its fronds swaying in a gentle breeze against a blue sky. I had only ever seen palm trees in the movies. To me, a lifelong Midwesterner, they were the purest representation of paradise. They were one of those things I couldn’t be entirely sure were actually real, like Pluto.
It’s funny how mundane details linger. Sure, there are photos in albums and boxes, of birthdays and Christmases and vacations at Lake Geneva. But when I think about Helen now, I remember the way she looked standing at the sink, in her apron, looking out the window onto the backyard with her soft eyes. I remember her reading a story about a dog while three children sat on her lap. I get a flash in my mind of how she looked when she was trying to get the kids to quiet down during church much more often than I suddenly have a vision of the way her face looked the day we got married.
So today, when I couldn’t remember something about the old house on 35th, I panicked.
Tom answers the phone on the third ring.
“Tom, did you share a room with Robby in our old house?”
“Um, yeah, I did. We had bunk beds. Why?”
“Yes! I remember getting the bunk beds delivered from Sears Roebuck! Helen was afraid you’d fall off.”
Tom laughed. “I remember too. Um, can I call you back later, Dad? I’m at work.”
“Sure, sure.” I always forget how much earlier it is in California.
Tom has been trying to get me to move there. Sally, too. Robby has stayed closer, but St. Louis is still a long drive.
I don’t know about moving to California. I wouldn’t miss the winters here, I know that much. Besides, most people I know from the neighborhood have died or gone to a home.
It’s not a new question, that’s for sure: try something new, or stick with the old ways? Either way, you never know which is the right way to go until long after the decision is made.
I decide to try at least one new thing: After I get my Sun-Times, I take the bus to the El station. I take the Red Line north. On the train I settle in next to a window. There’s still some snow dusting the rooftops of the project high-rises and piled up in the vacant lots that used to be the Stockyards. In the gutters the previously white snow has become a slushy, gray compote of dirt and exhaust. I get off at the 35th street station, right in front of the ballpark.
It takes me about 20 minutes to walk the four blocks. I take my time. It’s windy but not freezing. (If Tom were here he’d tell me that it’s 72 degrees in Long Beach right now.) It was this time of year three years ago, when winter tries for one last hurrah after spring starts to get a foot hold, when Helen got worse. She hung on for a few more months but early spring was when I knew she would never really get better. I remember looking out the window of our bedroom and seeing one tulip sticking up through the patch of dirt next to the steps of the house across the street. It seemed so out of place.
It has been 18 years since I walked down 35th, down those blocks I walked so many times as a young man. These blocks don’t hold on to the past. On one there’s a liquor store where a cobbler used to be. On the next is a check-cashing business in place of coffee shop.
Still, I’m not prepared for what I find where the house used to be. I knew the house had been gone for many years. But no one told me there was just nothing. It’s an empty lot with a few weeds that have held on through the mild winter. There is some patchy concrete, and a few cars with hand-written FOR SALE signs.
It’s the last thing I need to see.
Without ceremony or a glance backward, I start the walk back to the El station. The wind has picked up some, making it feel colder than it is. I tilt my head down a little more, lean a little more on my cane.
As I walk I bring to mind more memories of Helen: picking tomatoes in the backyard garden, sitting at the kitchen table on the phone with her friend Georgia from church, standing in the nursery with her massive round belly, folding baby clothes, getting ready.
At home I pick up the phone. Sally answers on the second ring.
It’s the only thing I need to hear. “Hi Sally. Is that room over your garage still available for an old man?”
Kathy Schrenk grew up in the Chicago area, and was a full-time newspaper reporter before having children. She is currently a freelance writer based in California.