Last year (though we have a few members who are yet to contribute), the blog ran a series of articles where NSFWG members discussed the "Book That Made Me", the one that sticks in their mind as the entry point to their favoured genre.
Just in case you missed them (and they're all entertaining), here's a round-up of what's appeared so far.
Joe found a
photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk.
Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman – Julia – looking
straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a man
sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.
to do what Julia wanted: she wanted him to ‘ice’ his wife. They made their plans.
Julia gave him a gun and then….
can read what happens next in Part Four of Snorky’s
* * *
By N. G. Edwards
'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;
Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv
later the Bears played host in a pre-season against the Packers, hoping to
avenge their 21-34 defeat at the tail of the previous NFC regular. My future
late-wife’s boyfriend was a new draft bought in to try and stiffen the defense,
and Celia would be attending the game as his guest. Julia’s plan was for me to
tail Celia from the hotel she was staying at, follow her into the stadium and
wait for a suitable moment when I could get close enough to… do it, then make
my escape in the inevitable panic. Julia would be waiting at a prearranged spot
on Museum Campus Drive. It all sounded straightforward when she explained how
it would work. What could go wrong?
The first part was easy. Triple-I had corporate
hospitality passes, of course, and it was a simple matter for me, as a still
remembered face, to pick one up from the C&CB the day before the game. The
game was to kick off at six-thirty and I’d already found out where Celia was
staying. Three forty-five found me in a taxi outside her address, waiting for
her to leave for the venue, which she did in her own cab at four o’clock. I
instructed my driver to keep us out of sight which, with hindsight, was
unnecessary. I knew where she was going so I could as easily have got there
early and just waited. To tell the truth, though, I enjoyed that little
cloak-and-dagger play. It added to the sense of fantasy that had woven itself
around me and helped, I think, to gird my psyche against the grisly act I was
about to commit.
Field is an immense landmark. I read up about it – I figured I ought to. Originally
called the Grant Park Municipal Stadium, it was renamed in 1925 at the request
of the Chicago Gold Star Mothers. The place was the venue for many famous
events, including the ‘long count’ between Dempsey and Tunney in ’27. Renowned
as the home of the Bears, in fact it wasn’t until ’71 that the team moved
across from Wrigley Field to take up residence under Jim Dooley.
Crowds were already gathering when I arrived,
ready for the box offices to open. Skirting these I headed straight for the VIP
entrance, spotting Celia as she passed within. I hurried after her, conscious
of the unaccustomed weight nestling in the small of my back, but I pulled up
short when I saw security guards hovering. They were scanning visitors – even
the VIPs – as they approached the lobby. A sign of our age, of course,
following the dreadful events of 9-11. Everyone was conscious of the threat to
our great nation and searches were a commonplace occurrence, even when going to
a ball game.
I should have expected this but I didn’t. I was
totally without experience when it came to criminal acts (at least, outside the
boardroom) which is why security before the event never even crossed my mind. I
guessed it hadn’t crossed Julia’s mind, either; at least, not that she
mentioned – hardly surprising, I suppose, as this sort of scrutiny would have
been unheard of in her day, outside a presidential visit. I tagged onto the
rear of a party and hoped that I might be overlooked. Not everyone was being
frisked. The guards were exercising some discretion in choosing their victims,
or maybe they were just working on a quota; either way I was unlucky. I was one
of those who were targeted.
“Hands out to the sides, sir,” I was told. The
man scanned my sides and legs with a device that looked like a spiral stove
plate attached to a handle. “Turn around, sir,” he instructed. Sweating profusely
I realized there was no way I was going to get away with this. I was about to
make an excuse and try to back out when there was a commotion down the line.
There came a shout and I caught sight of a young man with greasy hair, dressed
in faded denim, dashing away. Why he was running I’ve no idea but the guard
looking after me decided he’d find more fun joining a co-worker in a chase than
continuing to check out a middle-aged man whose heart was racing harder than it
had for a decade. I was in the clear. I dabbed at my forehead with a
handkerchief, silently prayed my heart would survive the stress, and moved on.
The lobby and bar of the United Club were
packed. Concierges ushered, waiters toted drinks, pretty hostesses with bright,
plastic smiles mingled, while the affluent – and in greater numbers the
aspiring affluent – sauntered to reserved tables or otherwise milled about
looking rich and important. Celia was on the far side, attended by her beau and
a few other notables of the footballing fraternity. How many people were there
I’ve no idea but hundreds, easily. I figured this had to be my best opportunity
and locating a convenient place where I could make my final preparations
without drawing any attention, pulled on a pair of colorless latex gloves and
swiftly transferred the Colt into my jacket side pocket, next to the
photograph. The moment had arrived.
Ever since I’d left the hotel I’d mentally
played out this scene over and over, all the time with an echo of Julia’s words
when she gave me my final instructions.
Just take it easy, she’d said. Don’t do anything stupid like
shout or run. Get as close as you can and put the gun to her head. Two bullets,
okay? Then drop the piece and turn and walk away. Everyone else will be
panicking and you can use that as cover. Nobody’ll hardly notice you. You’ll do
great, baby. I know you will. Remember I love you.
Breathe. She’d forgotten to tell me I had to
breathe and I was only half way across the room when I remembered to do so
myself. My muscles were aching with the stress of my mission, and every forward
step I took was like my feet were made of lead. The sounds of the crowd grew
louder, but duller at the same time, scores of conversations merging to an
unintelligible roar that filled my ears. Not far now. There she was, Celia,
clear and sharp while everyone around her was blurred, a tableau of faceless
manikins fawning around a demon goddess who basked in their worship. Nearly
there. Time to lift up the gun. Why was my arm so heavy? As I pulled back the hammer
all other noises ceased and the world became a silent similitude of reality,
where movement was so slow as to be almost unnoticeable. But now the goddess
was turning, slowly, recognition dawning on her face. I could see the gun in my
hand and marveled at how steady it was, light reflecting from its cold,
efficient metal barrel. The manikins were beginning to move also but they would
be too late to interfere. I placed the muzzle against her forehead and squeezed
the trigger. Her eyes were wide, her mouth opening but the only sound was the
explosion of the bullet as it smashed through her skull. The weapon recoiled,
sending my second shot high. But it didn’t matter; the first missile had done
all that was necessary. My arm descended, the pistol slipping from my fingers.
Why was Celia still standing? She wasn’t. She was collapsing, slowly and
delicately, like a snowflake falling on a breathless winter’s day.
I watched her death with a dreadful
fascination. Almost I couldn’t pull myself away but then a different movement
caught my eye. I forced myself to turn. Julia. Why was she here? Why wasn’t she
waiting outside as we’d arranged? And why was she looking like that, a gout of
blood pouring from the side of her head? The world was beginning to catch up
and her fall was quicker than Celia’s had been. As she dropped to the ground
another figure was revealed behind her, a broad figure with a hard face and
dead eyes looking out from beneath a fedora. He carried a gun that seemed
identical to mine. And it was pointing at me.
I turned as the shot was fired, and felt the
agony of ripping flesh in my arm. Time resumed its normal cadence and I ran,
one with a host of others screaming and shouting to get away from the violence.
I think there was another shot but I just kept running and didn’t stop until I
was out of the building and away. When I finally staggered to a halt I crumpled
to the street and threw up. There was no sound of pursuit. I threw up some
months have gone by. I’d done what I set out to do, what I’d been urged to do
by the promise of a woman in a photograph. Celia was dead. And so was the
My arm had healed up. The bullet had passed
through leaving only tissue damage, and it was a simple matter to find a doctor
who’d treat the injury without prying as to how the wound had come about. After
a while a scar was all that was left to physically mark the event.
The local rags were full of the story at the
time, of course. It even made the nationals after somebody in the criminal
investigation team revealed that the gun used to kill Celia carried only the
prints of Al Capone. I figured that the police would come question me once they
learned who Celia was and I figured also that it wouldn’t be easy to explain
away the bullet hole. That’s why I decided I should get away, turn myself into
someone else, someone who wouldn’t attract the attention of law enforcement.
I was rich and with my wealth I was able to buy
a new life in which to hide from the misdeeds of my first. In fact I’ve changed
my identity three times since that signal day. Not especially to evade the
police, although certainly they were looking for me. No. You see, others were
hunting me, also, and when they came close I took no chance and moved on.
Julia had said it was impossible for her to
commit the murder, which was why – and maybe this was the sole reason, if I’m
brutally honest – she said she needed me. My best guess is that there was some
law of the universe or – why not? – God that restricted interaction between the
planes of her existence and mine. But if that were the case, why was it that
the other pistol’s shot had been able to find its target? Me. I can only
surmise that either Julia had lied to me – which for some reason I still find
hard to believe – or else my physical association with Snorky’s moll had
blurred the separation between our realms, allowing direct action to occur. I
don’t know, and probably never will – at least, not in this life. All I do
know is that my existence is now a torture of fearful waiting, running, and
constantly looking over my shoulder.
That’s why I said existence – it could never be
called a life.
this morning. From the window of my rented room I can see an old-fashioned
black sedan parked across the street. There are four men inside. I think
they’ve found me.
Joe found a
photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk. Apparently
taken at a sporting event it showed a woman looking straight at the camera,
although the focus of the camera was really a man sitting close by; the
imagined that the woman – Julia – would have to be very old, now, if not already
dead. So it took him by a great surprise when he met up with her in downtown
old Chicago – not just movie lot replica of the Windy City but the real deal.
Somehow he was transported back to the days of speakeasies and gangsters, and
there Julia revealed to him what she wanted. She told Joe of her relationship
with Big Al, Snorky, to his friends, and how it was soured because of his wife.
And then she explained what she wanted from Joe. It was very simple: she wanted him to ‘ice’
* * *
By N. G. Edwards
'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;
Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv
leave the next day, as I’d planned. Or the day after. Instead, I vacated the
Carbon & Carbide and took a room in an uptown hotel, my head full of Julia.
I was intoxicated by the memory of her kiss, the touch of her hand, the scent
that stayed in my nostrils even while I slept.
Every day for the next week I flagged a cab to
the site of the Lexington, paid the driver – never the same guy twice but each
one did well enough at my expense – and regardless of the weather spent my
hours trudging the streets of the Windy City, searching for a sign of Julia or
the hidden intersection with the Roaring Twenties. By the end of the fifth day
I figured I was wasting my time. I was beginning to convince myself that, in
fact, nothing had actually happened at all. A dream, incredibly vivid maybe,
but just a dream. I purposefully ignored the possibility that I’d suffered a
psychotic episode. After all, there was still the photograph, and there was
still the strange but intense attraction I felt toward the woman captured in
its frame. That picture was the one thing I could not ascribe to fantasy. But I
didn’t know where she was or how to find her again. It was time, I told myself,
to move on. The sixth day saw my bags packed and a cab ordered to take me to
Julia was waiting for me on the back seat and
once more the heady mix of cheap perfume, cheap booze and old tobacco assailed
me. Again I felt the hypnotic pull of her street-wise sexuality snare me.
“Hey, Tony,” she called to the driver, who
grunted. “Take us around the block. I’ll tell you when to pull over.” Then she
grabbed me and repeated that first kiss, deep and sexual. This time I let my
hands touch her. I could feel her body pressing against me but I was determined
to find some answers before this crazy episode went any further.
“God, I’ve missed you!” she breathed.
“I tried to find you…” I began, pulling
“You couldn’t. I was out of town.” She lit a
cigarette. “You know you love me, don’t you?”
The question – or was it a statement? – was
blatant and unexpected. There was a simple answer but one that I couldn’t
utter. The consideration that I had become smitten with someone who could
surely be nothing more than a figment of imagination, an extension of an image
in a picture, the product of some mental aberration… no, I couldn’t admit to
that. I was sane. I knew I was. I had to be. Then what was she? A ghost?
In broad daylight? In a Chicago cab?
“Sure you know it. That’s why we’ve found each
other. There’s a bond between us. We’re meant to be, honey, you and me.”
“But… you’re dead!” I burst out.
“You saying I look like a corpse?” Her tone was
“Well, no… but, what else…?”
She took a deep drag. “Who cares? All I know is
I’ve waited decades and now, at last, I’ve found you and we’ve got a chance to
get our own back.”
“What? We? On who?”
“Snorky, of course, the two-faced slime-ball!”
“But… I though you loved him? The way you spoke
of him before…”
Her face softened. “I did love him. He
was the most generous guy I ever met. Treated me like a lady. Well, most of the
time.” Then her eyes hardened, her lips firmed. “But he stole my baby and I’ll
see him suffer for that!”
I sat back against firm leather seats, suddenly
aware that at some unknown point the cab I’d boarded had transformed into
Julia’s black sedan, with a chauffeur.
“Um, okay. But what has all this to do with
“Your wife. You’re married to Snorky’s
Talk about a hammer blow. In England they have
an expression: gob-smacked. It means stunned, shocked, floored, overwhelmed, speechless,
and that’s exactly how I felt right then.
“Oh, she don’t know,” Julia continued, “but I
do and I want her wasted!”
I couldn’t think of anything to say that would
make any sense so I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.
“That’ll teach him! He took away my baby and
finally I can get back at him for that. And,” she added knowingly, “we’re going
to do it together. You and me, babe.”
“What? Murder? No!”
“Don’t pretend you haven’t thought of stiffing
your old lady yourself. I know you have. It’ll be easy. I’ll help you
get it done, and then you and me will both be free to be together. And don’t
tell me you don’t want that.”
One thing about those old motors was there was
plenty of room in back. Maybe the upholstery wasn’t so comfortable as in a modern
automobile, but it was definitely more spacious. I should like to say we made
love there and then, but we didn’t. We just had sex. Wild and crude, careless
of the world. I even forgot about Tony, the driver, as I became lost to the raw
pleasure she gave. I didn’t smoke anymore thanks to the insistence of the
doctors, but afterwards I accepted the cigarette she offered.
“You wouldn’t want to say goodbye to more of
that, would you?” she asked, teasingly. “I didn’t think so. Okay, let’s talk
about how to make sure you don’t.”
“But I still don’t understand. How will killing
Celia help get your revenge on… on Snorky?”
“I had to wait until the time was right, see,”
she told me between puffs. “I’ve lived in Chicago for more years than I can
remember, waiting for my chance. Snorky died in ’47 and I thought the
opportunity had passed on by – I couldn’t do anything while he was still
around, nor while Sonny was alive neither.”
“His son.” She hesitated. “My son.
The boy who should’ve been my son but for Snorky stealing him! And Mae,
of course. She hung around ’til ’86. She never told Sonny about me but I guess
I don’t blame her. She just did what Snorky said.”
“Why didn’t you go speak with him yourself?” I
asked. “Sonny? Once Snorky was dead?”
“I did, once. At least, I started out to. But
when I found him he wasn’t my baby, wasn’t my son. There was too much of Snorky
inside. He’d changed his name, trying to get away from his father’s legacy, but
he couldn’t get away from his blood.”
“How do you mean? And anyway, how does Celia
“Sonny got married and everyone figured he was
an ordinary guy trying to be anybody but his father. The girl he hitched up
with knew who he was, but she was just as fooled as the rest of the world. She
didn’t know about some of the ‘business trips’ he made. She didn’t know about
his mistresses. He had three regular, you know. One in Milwaukee, one in
’Frisco, and one here, back where it all really started. It was Snorky’s bad
blood, you see, coming out in my boy.”
Her face took on an expression of almost fury,
certainly hatred. I waited for her to continue which she eventually did.
“Sonny’s Chicago bimbo was Italian. She had a
daughter by him. Snorky’s blood. Snorky’s only living descendant. Sonny
had other kids with his wife, and they weren’t Snorky’s; they’re my
descendants, through my son. But the bimbo’s kid…”
Julia stubbed out the cigarette and I did
likewise. I hadn’t been enjoying it but as soon as it was extinguished I
immediately felt the return of the old craving for another. I ignored it.
“And that’s all there is, honey. Snorky’s been
watching her, seeing how she turns out. He don’t care about Sonny’s other kids,
the ones from his marriage. He never talks about them…”
“Talks about them? You mean you still… talk
to Capone?” Why should I have found that such a strange idea, mixed in with all
the other crazy stuff I was experiencing? Whether this was a bridge through
time, an alternate reality, or a weird afterlife was immaterial. I couldn’t
deny what my senses told me. Julia – and Al, too – were people from another age
that was somehow intersected with my life, and if I could connect with
one of them, why shouldn’t they be able to connect with each other?
“Well no, not so much,” Julia admitted, “but
I’ve see him, and heard him talking with some of the other guys, buddies like
always. And I’ve followed him, watched him while he keeps tabs on her. He dotes
on her, tells his cronies how proud he is of her and saying how disappointed he
is with his – our – son. He figures she’s the best thing he ever made –
him, not Sonny!”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand all this.
How can you and he, this whole weird world you live in… I just don’t
Julia favored me with a smile and took my hand.
“Does it matter? We’ve found each other and ain’t that all that counts?
C’mere.” She pulled herself close again, her hand stroking my thigh. “forget
about Snorky and the rest. There’s just you and me on the struggle buggy – and
you know that I ain’t gonna struggle…”
talked some more and our conversation was as hard as it was unreal: means and
opportunities. Julia had already considered the first.
“Take this.” She handed me small brown parcel
that she’d pulled from beneath the bench seat. It wasn’t sealed, just covered
in layers of thick, crinkly paper. Cautiously I unwrapped it but I’d already
guessed the contents by the package’s weight. “Don’t touch it,” she warned.
“Get yourself some gloves first. If the Feds dust it they’ll only pick up
It was a Colt .28, nickel-plated, double
action. A separate wrap held half a dozen bullets.
“This… this was – is – his?”
“Yeah. You ever handled a heater before?” There
was a note of doubt in her voice.
“Sure,” I hastened to reassure, “but not since
I left the National Guard. I’ve used a rifle more.”
“Okay. The Colt’s an easy piece anyway, just
point it, cock it and pull the trigger.”
“Actually, you should squeeze the trigger,” I
interjected, trying to show that I really did know something about guns, though
she didn’t sound impressed.
“Whatever. Two pops in the head. That’s what
Snorky always said. It’s quick and does the business. Now, let’s think about
We were discussing murder, emotionless and
clinical, pretty much like any business deal. This was a human life we were
planning to extinguish – and not simply a remote and impersonal stranger:
someone I knew, intimately. Did I hate Celia that much? I guess I must have
because I felt not one iota of concern for the woman I’d married, not a
smidgeon of future guilt. Inwardly I marveled at my dispassion, my objectivity,
not to mention the speed with which I’d agreed to carry out this plan. Would I
have the balls to see it through? Only time would tell.
We talked a while longer but by the end I
couldn’t remember a single word Julia had said, or that I’d replied. Yet when I
was finally deposited back on the street I knew exactly what I was going to do.
The coming deed was etched in my mind, sharply chiseled and clear. I felt no
doubts, no uncertainties. Celia was going to die.
cancelled my trip to the airport, checked back into the hotel and put the
feelers out. Where was Celia now? Who was she with? What plans did she have?
Turned out she was also still in Chicago, enjoying being seen about town
accompanied by the muscle from the party. Now all I had to do was wait for an
opportunity to arrive. I didn’t have to wait long.
Julia had said she’d be in touch. I had no
means of contacting her so all I could do was wait but in the late afternoon of
the following day there came a knock on my apartment door.
Julia breezed in. “There’s a Bears game coming
up,” she told me. “Soldier Field’s perfect. The ground will be packed,
thousands of people milling around. Perfect.”
“What? That’s crazy. I’d be seen!”
“Uh-uh. You go in, get it done and disappear in
I must have had a look on my face because her
eyes narrowed. “You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”
“Look, it’s, well… I’ve never, you know, killed
anyone before. Not even when I was in the Guard.”
Her expression softened and she hung her arms
around my neck. “You know I love you, don’t you, honey? And you know that she’s
the only thing standing in our way. Just do this thing and we can be together,
always.” She took my hand and held it to her breast. “Feel my heart beating,
baby. It’s for you. It’s all for you.” Her eyes closed and she pressed
her lips to mine. “How ’bout I give you a little reminder of why it’ll all be
Later, over an espresso, Julia explained the
benefit of being in a crowd, how I could use it to cover my escape.
“Snorky’s soldiers made a lot of hits in public
places. Crowds frighten easy. People hear a shot and they panic, start running
all over the place, lots of confusion. The goons used crowds like camouflage,
see? Hiding in plain sight.”
That made a sort of sense. I’m sure I’d have
felt more confident if I could have used a rifle and fired from a distance but
Julia said it was harder to miss when you’re up close.
“Have you ever, um, iced anybody?” I asked.
“I’ve seen enough to know how it goes. Trust
me, I know what I’m talking about.”
“So why do you need me? I mean, with your
experience with the mob…”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand. It
ain’t possible. If it was d’you think Snorky’d be satisfied with just
eyeballing? Believe me, the wise-guys would all be back in business if it was
I didn’t pursue her answer. I don’t think she
understood herself why some things were possible while others weren’t. To be
honest, I reckon her understanding of our strange reality was no better than
mine. None of the questions I’d asked about where she came from or how she’d
got there ever produced any coherent explanation; and any direct mention of
death or a possible hereafter was always stonewalled. I just had to accept
things the way they were and trust I wasn’t crazy.
Joe was on
the way up in the world, a young VP heading for a partnership in Triple-I. He met Celia at one of Rudi’s famous parties
in Miami. A whirlwind courtship was followed by a wedding and romantic
honeymoon. But the honeymoon didn’t last. Both Joe and Celia eventually had
numerous affairs which gradually took its toll.
day in Chicago, Joe found a photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the
drawer of an old desk. Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman
looking straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a
man sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.
But it was
the woman who captured Joe’s attention. Separated from her by a generation, she
yet seemed to be staring right at him… but just who was she? He felt a powerful
attraction toward her. A sensation grew that she and he were a part of the same
story. But what story? In this Part Two we being to find out…
* * *
By N. G. Edwards
'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;
Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv
The day was
fine, bright sunshine, no clouds and warm. I hailed a cab and told him to take
me downtown. As we negotiated Chicago traffic, the driver insisted on filling
me in on some of the notable landmarks. It’s a common trait with cabbies –
that’s a term I picked up in London England, a few years back – they seem to
need to talk, often about nothing, and sometimes with accents you can’t
understand. This guy was obviously Mexican – not so common this far north of
the border – but, to give credit, he did demonstrate he knew at least something
of local history. Our (mainly one-sided) conversation began.
“You in town on business?”
“No. I’m flying from O’Hare tomorrow.”
“That’s a shame. There’s some great places in
town. Very historical, Chicago. Many famous places.”
We drove on, him talking, me sometimes
listening and throwing in the occasional platitude to show he wasn’t speaking
to a brick wall. After a while he indicated out the window. “See there?” There
was a vacant lot where scaffolding was being erected, nothing special that I
could see. “That’s where the Lexington used to be. Famous hotel, used by
I felt a tingle. Al Capone. The photograph.
With the woman. Well no, perhaps not with her, but close.
“Prostitution, racketeering; he did it all from
there. He had a vault inside. They opened it on live TV but there weren’t
nothing to see. Building got pulled down in the 80’s and now they’re gonna put
up condos or something.”
I responded with a meaningless grunt, but my
attention had been caught. The cabbie continued.
“Yeah. He organized the St. Valentine’s
day massacre but never got caught, even though everyone knew it was him. Did
time for tax evasion, can you believe it? They couldn’t pin nothing else on
him, see. Then he went and died from syphilis. That’s kinda poetic, ain’t it?
Him being behind the prostitution, and all.”
From nowhere I was overcome by a sudden and
overwhelming urge to get out.
“Okay, you’re the boss.” The driver pulled over
and I disembarked, dropping some bills into his hand. “Hey, thanks, man!”
I knew I’d given him way over the clock with
the tip but I didn’t care. It was just paper; and anyway, right at that moment
a compelling need was driving me to be out on the street. Not just any street:
this one. And not just anywhere on the road but right there. I can’t say if
there’s such a thing as fate – I’ve never been much of a one for philosophizing
– but if ever I could have been persuaded about destiny, that was the moment.
So there I was in the Loop, stood on the corner
of Cermak and Michigan, an officially retired businessman seeking… what? I
watched the men working on the site for a while. They were oblivious and didn’t
watch back. Now what? The urge to be somewhere was still pushing at me so I
began walking east along Cermak towards the Great Lake. A refreshing breeze was
now coming in from that direction and scores of gulls were wheeling overhead,
raucously calling to each other. I hadn’t gone far when that scent I’d
originally noticed when I first looked at the photograph returned, coupled with
a certain conviction that I was being watched. I stopped walking but the
feeling persisted. Turning slowly I cast around and there she was, across the
street, the woman from the photograph, dressed in the same clothes, hair held
by a black hat, the wide brim of which fluttered a little as the wind caught at
it. She was standing by the open door of a black, nineteen-twenties Cadillac,
complete with running plates and looking wholly incongruous against the host of
modern vehicles that sped carelessly between us. She didn’t say anything but I
knew she was waiting for me. I crossed over.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. Her
voice was old Chicago, all drawn out vowels and hardened t’s. Without warning
she put her arms around my neck and kissed me. Then, letting go, she asked “You
wanna get a brat? C’mon, get in. I know a joint.”
I slid into the passenger seat while she fired
up the engine. The smell of old cigars and hotdogs permeated the vehicle,
augmented by the taint of cheap perfume and even cheaper booze. Before I could
think further she twisted sideways, and again put her arms around me,
smothering me with a deep, energetic and totally passionate kiss. I just sat
there, stunned. As our lips parted my vision blurred momentarily. When it cleared
my perceptions of the world were changed. The vibrant colors, sounds and smells
of modern Chicago were replaced by… to be honest exactly the same colors,
sounds and smells only… different. Older. Seedier.
The woman spun the wheel and we drove off, I
don’t rightly know where. After a time we pulled over across from an alley
sandwiched between buildings that looked like, one day, their tops would
collide. We got out and the city was a completely different place to the one I
knew. The street was crowded, pedestrians and cyclists outnumbering automobiles
by a large factor. The buildings were different, newer yet grubbier. It was
like being on a movie set where the overall effect the director was aiming at
was smudgy brown. This was the Chicago of yesterday.
The woman from the photograph led me into a
café, a word that gave the place way more credit than it deserved, where we
settled at a table by the window.
“The caaffee’s free with your order. Whadda ya
wanna eat, there?” A hard-faced women in a stained apron placed two cups of hot
black in front of us.
I said nothing but my hostess seemed to have
already decided for me. “Two brats, extra onion, hold the mustard.”
While the waitress was filling our order my
companion took hold of my hand, and caressed it. But not a tender caress; it
was sexual. Her foot started to play the length of my shin. An excitement
surged through me, jogging loose a memory from junior high when red-headed
Moira dragged me into the girls bathroom and introduced me to the pleasures of
her early-pubescent body: first and second base without even trying! And
here that thrill was returned, that same sense of naughtiness, of risk from
being caught. I resisted the impulse to reach across the table and touch her
skin, play with her hair. Instead, I freed my hand to take the photograph from
my pocket. The woman pulled her foot away and watched from behind the steam
rising from her drink.
“Yeah, that’s me. Sure seems a long time ago.”
“But how? It can’t be you! In the
picture. I mean, you haven’t changed. Not one bit! All this time? How?”
She put down her cup and shrugged. “Who knows?”
The waitress returned with a sour expression
and placed two bratwürsts smothered in onions on the table. Then she
disappeared to attend to other patrons.
“Snorky never liked these,” my companion told
me, taking a large bite. “Eye-talian, see? All he ever ate was Eye-talian.”
Her image in the photograph was accurate. She
wasn’t especially beautiful; her nose was too long, her mouth too wide, her
hairstyle too, well, old-fashioned – although maybe it was swish in its day.
And to be frank, the way she ate reminded me of a dog snuffling after food in
its dish. There really wasn’t much you could call lady-like about her at all
and yet… there was something…
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Who are you?
What do you want with me?”
“Julia. That’s my name. And I’m here because
you and I, honey, are meant to be together.”
Between mouthfuls, Julia recounted her story.
“There was lots of us girls, of course: Betty,
who took up with Leo Vincent’s brother; Viola, Anna, Catherine, Louise – she
ended up with that scumbag Jack McGurn. We all hung around the wise-guys. Then
there was Gladys, Lena, Marion, Josephine, Victoria, Louise. And Mae Coughlin,
of course. I’d team up with Snorky when she wasn’t around. Most of us started
out working for the syndicate one way or another – and I ain’t saying what we
did was right and proper, but a girl’s got to make a living somehow. The boys
would take us to the best restaurants and speakeasies. We’d go see a show, or
to the track, or a ball game – that’s where that photo was took, ya know.”
I interrupted her, briefly. “Who’s Snorky?”
“Al. The guy in the photograph. Don’t tell me
you didn’t recognize him. Everyone knows Al. Snorky’s what his closest
acquaintances called him. Except Mae – she only ever called him Al. We lived
the highlife, alright, and some of the girls got under the skin of some of the
guys, and got took off of the streets to live in fancy apartments. I guess
that’s what most of us dreamed of…”
She was talking quickly, so fast that sometimes
her words seemed jumbled up, but I was spellbound by her Southside brogue as
well as the cheap scent that somehow made it to my nostrils over the powerful
“Yes?” I prompted.
“He was the biggest. The best,” she continued,
a dreamy haze crossing her eyes. “When he talked about the other girls he
called them floozies and for sure he was right, but he always called me Julia
and never once bad-mouthed me. Did I say I was his favorite? I met him before
any of the others, even Mae, way back when he first arrived in the Big Apple.
But then, she was the one he married, soon as he found out she was pregnant.”
She took out a cigarette and lit up with a
silver lighter. I looked around, half expecting somebody to complain, but the
place was empty now, asside from the waitress, and she was sitting behind the
counter staring into space. It struck me then how unreal everything was. It all
seemed solid enough. I could feel the heat from the coffee, taste the
savory odor of the meat, hear the traffic outside – if this was a dream then it
was one like I’d never had before.
“In the very early days, back before Snorky got
to be big, before the twenties had even got started, I was working for a guy
named Johnny Torrio in New York. I’d run away from Chicago because of my
father. He was a bastard, beat me every day. The Big Apple was a dream to me,
much swankier than slum-town Chicago and Johnny treated me okay. He introduced
me to Snorky when he was just a kid. I guess I kinda fell for him right off the
bat. He said he liked my Windy City accent!”
She laughed and I couldn’t help hearing an echo
of the gulls. What the hell was it that I found so absorbing about this woman?
I couldn’t deny it, though. The more she talked, the more I caught the light in
her big brown eyes – definitely her best feature –the more I found myself being
sucked into her strange web of attraction. A libidinous understanding of men
almost oozed from her. Floozy. Hooker. Street-walker. They were just
names but what she had went beyond words. That was why it was inconsequential
that she didn’t conform to any archetypal vision of beauty or femininity. She
didn’t need to look like a movie star; sex leeched from every pore. Any
man who put himself totally in her hands knew from the very start that there
was no way he’d ever leave unsatisfied.
“I tended his face when he got into that fight
over Frank Gallucio’s sister,” she continued, “after Al said she had a nice
ass. That’s the only time I ever heard him say he was sorry to anyone; Lucky
Luciano and Frankie Yale made him apologize and I figure that maybe saved his
life. He and Gallucio made up, later. Al gave him a job as a bodyguard.” She
sighed. “You know, we had some good times just Snorky and me. Even after he met
Mae, though not so much.”
I had never before, and never have since, had a
conversation so strange as that one. Not much of a conversation, I suppose,
since mainly I just listened.
“She was two years older than him but he still
fell in a big way. Then he got her pregnant. When I heard there was a baby on
the way I knew I’d missed my chance. I told him I’d step aside, not get between
them, though it cut me to do it. And then you know what? The baby died, early
on, during the first semester. Lots changed then. Snorky pulled back from the
rest of us for a while, stayed close to Mae. She was family, see? It’s an
Eye-talian thing, family. Very important to them. He pretty much never left her
side except on business. Well, hardly never. But he was still a man, with a
man’s needs, and it was kind of expected for the wise-guys to show they were
still big with the ladies, keep their reputations. And at that time Snorky was
a wise-guy who still had a name to make.
“So he came to see me – just me, none of
the other girls.” There was emphatic possession in her tone. “More than once,
the first time not two nights after Mae aborted. Said he needed what his wife
couldn’t give him just yet.
“I ain’t no dumb Dora. I never took stupid
risks. I always made sure my Johns were protected, even though they complained.
And those that did complain didn’t do so for long once they knew I was
working for Torrio. But when Snorky said he didn’t want to wear no shadow…
Well, I couldn’t never say no to Snorky.”
This tale, fascinating though it was,
frustrated me. I was still no closer to learning what this was all about.
Before I could prod the conversation on Julia continued, only now there was a
hard edge to her words.
“On the night I gave birth Snorky came to the
maternity hospital with some of the guys. He’d covered the cost of all the
care: private room, full-time nurse, nothing but the best. But now he wanted
payment. And he took it!”
No man can ever fully appreciate how a mother
must feel when her child is snatched from her, the fetus she bore and nurtured
within her belly for nine long months, the baby she gave birth to. I saw no
tears but I felt the wash of emotion that poured from her, a heavy, terrifying
flood of loss that no dam built by man could ever have held back.
“You asked why I was here and what I wanted,”
she said. “So now I’ll tell you. I want that you should ice your wife.”
Ice. I knew
what she meant. It was one of those words hijacked and twisted into a cruel
irony by secret monsters who needed to convey by code the real words they were
afraid to use. Bump, clip, hit, ice, waste, whack – they all meant the same
thing. Should I have been more shocked by what Julia had said than I actually
was? Probably not. Our society – by which I mean all our neighbors in the
affluent West – is enlightened by the media, and the media is a beacon stoked
by the inextinguishable flame of violence. Newspapers, television, movies –
anything with access to the human eye is awash with images of unrest, upheaval,
crime, death. Okay, it’s sanitized to a degree, at the insistence of a few
self-selected vociferous caretakers of the moral well-being of the people –
though I sometimes wonder if that constraint wasn’t engineered by the media
barons themselves, who knew well the benefits of titillation: give ’em a taste
of the insalubrious and unwholesome, engineer a protest at the vulgarity of it,
then sit back and wait for ’em to clamor for more.
But I shouldn’t blame the press or Hollywood.
All they do is profit from the troubles of the real world. Most of the time
what they show isn’t made up. And I did have personal motive, of course. After
long years of marriage my feelings towards Celia had hiked their way down from
mere dislike and were now camped close to the border of serious animosity,
hatred even. The idea of getting rid of her was not a new thought, though I
believe it had never before been more than a fanciful consideration.
As we sat with our coffee and brats that
morning, I didn’t then know the history of Julia’s baby and I didn’t learn that
until our later. Our first meeting was suddenly and abruptly brought to a close
by her rising from the table and announcing she had to go. She dropped some
greenbacks at her place and walked away, leaving the sausage half eaten, the
coffee half drunk, and me like a cake mix ready for the oven with no chef
around to finish the job. It was a week before I got to see her again.
By the time I got out the door Julia and
the Caddy were out of sight. I looked around. The neighborhood had seen better
days but it was full of life, like a pair of patent leather shoes that were
worn and faded and had soles as thin as paper but were still determined to give
the wearer more miles yet, before they were ready to be discarded. I saw
old-style vehicles driving the streets – Buick 45’s, Packard Eights, Dodge
Brother’s Tourers, autos I’d only before seen in museums or old movies. But the
cars weren’t the only oddities around. There were men wearing cloth caps
wheeling barrows loaded with fruit and vegetables, women dressed in styles my
own mother would have found out of date in her youth. Everything around me was
as old as the photograph, yet as solid and real as the cab I’d stepped from forty
The surreal vision made me feel nauseous, like
I was on a carousel that was spinning too fast. Giddy, I closed my eyes tight,
held my breath and leant against a streetlight for support. How long I rested
there, brain spinning, heart pounding, I’ve no idea but at some point a voice
cut through and somebody shook my arm.
“You okay there, buddy?”
Cautiously I parted my eyelids to let in a
sliver of light. A curious and concerned face was looking at me. A freshening
breeze washed my face. The sepia-tainted imagery from the last century, when
flapper girls had Charleston’d their way through the Great Depression, when law
enforcement and the criminal elite were practically indistinguishable, when you
praised the Mob for their speakeasies with one breath and cursed the sound of
their Thompsons with another – all gone as if never there, and twenty-first
century Chicago restored. Wherever I’d been, however I’d gotten there, now I
I whispered thanks to my benefactor. I was
fine. Just suffering a little exhaustion.
Letting go of my support and lurching away I
guess the impression I gave was probably of someone who’d imbibed more than his
share, but I didn’t care. I wandered the street for a long time, trying to sort
out my crazy head-full of thoughts. I didn’t come up with any answers that
would pass for rational. Eventually I gave up, found a taxi and returned to the
seems so long ago, now, but it’s actually less than a year.
I recall that I didn’t stay much longer. I know
I engaged in fragmentary exchanges about nothing in particular with some of the
other guests before I said my goodbyes, but I wasn’t really attentive. My
thoughts were elsewhere and my distraction did not go unremarked. Rudi asked if
I was okay, and at one point Celia came up and asked if I’d seen a ghost. I
forced a smile and muttered something about being so used to living with her
for so many years I wouldn’t notice a real ghost if one passed right through
me. I remember the frosty look as she left to fondle the buttocks of her beau,
right where she was sure I would see. I slipped away from the function pretty
The next day I left my apartment – I was
staying in one of the suites on the top floor of the C&CB that we kept for
senior management and important clients – and returned to the room where I’d
found the photograph, but the decorators were at work in the corridor so I
didn’t even get out of the elevator. As I continued my journey to the first
floor I fished the picture from my pocket. There she was, still looking at me,
a curious half-smile on her lips. I wondered who she was. I was soon to find