It was the dog days of summer in Chicago, during the seemingly carefree pre-9/11 era of the mid-1990s. The elm lined streets seemed to form the nave of an emerald and amber-hued cathedral. Just on the edges of the car lined street were the manicured lawns of a middle-class neighborhood. Bordered by the front porches of houses that seemed to keep perfect spatial rhythm that ran down the street, block after block to infinity. The cicadas called out, their voices waxing and waning that familiar summer buzz. Birds sang erratic melodies as squirrels chased each other around the trunks of the column-like trees. Our school was out, and so were the kids, some chasing each other with squirt guns in the front yards, others playing basketball or soccer in the alley. A summer symphony found its way through the window, which was wide open.
My mom never turned on the air conditioning, no matter how hot it got.
“The windows are closed all winter, there’s no way they’ll be closed all summer,” she would say in a matter of fact manner tone. She was busy as usual cleaning the house, with two children and a husband who might as well have been one, I have no idea how she kept up, my one child is more than enough for my wife and I. She had her music on. She loved her CDs. We had one of those carousels that you would load up with fifty CDs, and she would put it on shuffle. She cleaned the house to Fleetwood Mac, Whitney Houston, Sade, or the Eagles, my mom listened to everything, the music got her through the day, I guess. The smell of pledge and Pine-Sol indicated to me that it was Saturday, floor washing day.
My brother was out with his friends; they built some dirt jumps for their bikes in an abandoned city lot. He would go out all day in the summer and dig. They really made quite impressive dirt jumps with just shovels and 5-gallon pickle buckets they commandeered from the alley behind the deli. My younger brother was a scrappy kid; he didn’t shy from fights, or danger, it seemed he actually sought out both. I remember him coming home with bruises, black eyes, covered in dirt and blood almost every day. At first, my mom was alarmed; cuts and bruises scared her. My dad, on the other hand, took pride in having a son like that, “That’s what boys do,” he would say to mom, completely dismissing her feelings and her motherly instincts.
Dad was at work, as usual. He was a plumber for the city; he always had to work late. If dad wasn’t working late, he was at the corner bar with the guys he worked with. He wouldn’t come home noticeably drunk, at least I could never tell he was drunk. He was kind to us, he was funny and we loved him; unfortunately, it didn’t seem like my mom and dad loved each other. I didn’t really notice it until I grew up and had I wife of my own, I just thought that that’s how married couples were. They were working partners, striving towards a few common goals: pay the bills, keep up the house, feed the kids, etc, etc. There was no romance in their marriage, no sweet nothings, nothing at all. I guess that’s where the problem stemmed from.
I was in my room reading by myself, as I did when I wasn’t forced to go on jobs with my dad, or even worse, go to some sports practice. I wouldn’t say I liked sports, I didn’t hate the physicality of it, I hated that I had to have a schedule in the summer. The summer was supposed to be my time, my time to choose to do as I felt. I had a bed that sat next to our window that looked out to the gangway. My view outside was the brick of the house next to us, but it was beautiful. The color of classic Chicago prairie-style brick contrasted by the dark green and white ivy growing across it has influenced my sense of aesthetics to this day. They don’t make bricks like that anymore, bricks made from the ground they erected the buildings on. It’s a shame, we lost a vernacular of architecture to economics and modernity, but that’s a whole other paper. There was a small frame of time when the light would pass through my window just right. I could lie on my bed and absorb the sun’s warm radiation, watching the ancient dust of our 1920s bungalow floating through the light. Just reading and laying in my room, in my safe bed, is all I wanted to do during the summer.
The phone rang, breaking my concentration. My mom turned the music down and answered the phone. I didn’t really think anything of it because her friends were always calling, probably to talk about their husbands, or how their kids got in trouble in one of the endless ways city kids can. And then my mom started yelling. I got out of my bed and walked over to my door and cracked it, my socks slid on the old oak floor. I didn’t leave my room, I never crossed the threshold of the door, I held on to the frame with one hand and the antique oxidized brass doorknob with the other, and leaned my head out to hear.
“IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT!” my mom yelled, she rarely got angry like that, but when she did it was usually with one person – my dad.
“FINE,” she screamed as she slammed the phone down. You could still do that back then, slam phones. My mom sat on the couch and cried, and I didn’t know what to do. I finally crossed that threshold and walked out to my mom and sat next to her.
“What’s wrong, mom?”
Well, that obviously wasn’t true. I sat next to her for a few minutes and she just cried and stared at a picture of us, of our family when we went to South Carolina, we were really young, and so were they, we had the best time. We tried oysters for the first time, and my little brother couldn’t do it, he decided to try and swallow down three of them to no avail, my mom and dad thought it was so funny.
I walked back into my room and tried to read my book, but how could I? My mom followed shortly after.
“I need to talk to you, she said, wiping tears from her eyes, trying to compose her self.
“What is it, mom?”
“Your dad isn’t going to live with us for awhile.”
“He needs to figure some things out.”
“What does he need to figure out?” I was getting angry, I had no idea what they’ve been going through, the lack of compassion my dad has been showing her.
“I just don’t understand why,” I said, on the verge of tears.
“Well, Jon, sometimes people just have to go in different directions, your father and I are at that point in our lives,” mom replied, she was trying to keep it together, for my sake
“I thought when two people get married, they were making a promise to eachother and to God, you’re going to break your promise to God?”
The facade was cracking. Time seemed to stop, as it does in these moments of suffering. She just stared at me, tears welling past the point of retention.
She broke the silence, but just barely, “I don’t want to do this,” the words fell out of her mouth, almost as if an unseen force was taking them, taking her spirit.
“I just don’t know what else we can do.”
“You can try to make it work,” I bit back. Too sharp, too much venom. I immediately apologized.
“I’m sorry mom.”
We sat there on my bed in silence, staring off, as the sun left my room.
The city symphony continued outside my window. The cicadas and squirrels were unaware of our pain. The emerald canopy over the street remained just as beautiful, and the ivy continued to climb the brick. I learned that Saturday was Saturn’s day in the book of mythology I was reading before the fateful phone call. Saturn came for his harvest that day. Why did he want to reap our family? I ask myself that to this day.