By Michael G. Glab
— Sixteen —
[Galewood is under a phallic canopy of smoke from the fires on the West Side. Jimmy the Jungle Man’s precious Mustang sits, wrecked, at the end of Joey’s block. Tree wonders if the whole world’s going crazy. This is the latest installment of the serial e-novel, “Black Comedy.” Read on.]
The rehearsal dinner is tonight so Joey’s not in any rush to get home. He’ll have to shower again and put on a suit and tie — So stupid, he thinks as he walks the three miles from Holy Cross High School to Natchez Avenue.
Joey alternates between main streets and side streets as he shuffles toward home. It’s hot for early April, about 82 degrees, with bright sunshine. The air seems hazy, though. Joey thinks he smells smoke.
The priests and brothers at Holy Cross had sent the boys home early today. Brother John Patrick made the announcement over the PA at about 1:30pm. Joey’d been drifting in and out of sleep during geometry class. Fr. Francis kept talking about the Pythagorean Theorem. None of his prattling would mean anything to Joey even if he were wide awake. Then the half-electronic, half-mechanical clonk sound of the PA starting up made Joey jerk awake.
“Your attention please,” came the voice of Br. John. “Due to events in the city and elsewhere around the nation, classes will be suspended until further notice. Buses will load in the gym parking lot beginning at 1:45 sharp. We are making the telephones in the main office available for those boys who wish to call their parents, their mothers and fathers, to pick them up. Under no circumstances is any student to loiter around the school or anywhere else in the neighborhood. You are directed to go straight home. This is for your safety. Again, classes are suspended until further notice.”
Joey’s confused. This is great news, yet the other boys don’t seem all that overjoyed by it. A few have worried looks on their faces. People are weird, Joey concludes as he slips out the janitor’s door behind the auditorium. He doesn’t feel like being crammed into a bus with a bunch of freshmen. It’s too nice a day. Hey, he thinks, spring is here.
So why not walk?
Funny thing, about 20 minutes into his trek he realizes he hasn’t seen a single other pedestrian. Nor any little kids out playing on the sidewalk. Heck, a day like today, you’d figure there be at least one or two kids selling lemonade out of a pitcher somewhere along the way, pretending it’s summer already even though the trees haven’t begun to bud.
But the route from Holy Cross to the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Diversey has thus far been ghostly. Only when Joey hits Galewood does he begin to see people.
Seemingly every two or three houses, a single man or a small group of men sit on a front stoop in lawn chairs or on the concrete steps, some of them balancing baseball bats on their knees, others cradling rifles or shot guns in their laps, a few wearing shoulder holsters over their dago tees. They sit and wait. Many of them look tight lipped, grim. Others have darting eyes. Still more are drinking Hamm’s out of cans, laughing and making a party of it. But they all wait — for the coloreds, they are certain, will soon be coming.
And they all watch Joey as he passes them.
Finally, Joey nods hi to to Emo Fillichio, who runs a string of hot dog stands (and, naturally, is a long-standing customer of Big Al’s Meats), and whose house he passes at the corner of Wabansia and Normandy avenues. Emo, normally very friendly toward Joey, now looks at him through slitted eyes. “Whaddya doin’ out around here?” Emo says.
Joey is taken aback. “I dunno,” he says. “I comin’ home from school.”
“Whatsa matter wit’ you? Get home right now, stunod*. Y’wanna get hurt?”
“Okay,” Joey says, quickly, and he hurries his pace, although he doesn’t know why.
Joey turns the corner from Wabansia onto Natchez Avenue. He sees at the other end of the block the gorgeous metal-flake blue Shelby Cobra Mustang with twin white racing stripes sitting in the middle of the street, angled oddly as if the Jungle Man had tried to park it diagonally and simply quit mid-effort.
The Mustang is the Jungle Man’s most prized possession, more dear to him than his parents and all the friends and relatives he’s ever known. But there it sits, steam emanating from under its crumpled hood, fluids of different colors and consistencies flowing out from underneath. The Mustang is bleeding to death.
Jimmy The Jungle Man’s Mustang, When It Was Still Alive
Now Joey notices a huge old Dodge that has come to rest some fifty feet away from the Mustang, its passenger wheels up on the curb. It, too, is a goner, although its demise will be little mourned. It is pockmarked with rust and dents, missing all its hubcaps, its upholstery frayed and torn, its tires bald. As Joey nears the two cars, he surmises that the Mustang and Dodge have collided as one of the two vehicles — it’s impossible to tell which — came out of the alley next to the Dudek house. One of them was moving awfully fast.
Ma — Tree — is always saying that Jimmy Finnin is gonna kill somebody, the way he speeds down Natchez Avenue. “One of these days,” she warns time and again whenever she hears his wheels spin, “he’s gonna hit somebody coming out of the alley. Just watch!” She shakes her head and stirs her tomato sauce more vigorously. “It just better not be your father,” she adds a moment later. “Them Finnins are no good,” she sometimes observes when Al isn’t around.
The street is deserted. Under normal circumstances, the whole block would be out milling around the two cars. Kids would be running around, housewives would gather, tsk-tsking and occasionally yelling at the kids to stay out of the goddamned street or I’ll break your head, and a couple of old geezers would be trying to top each other with tales of wrecks they’d seen. But, again, these are not normal circumstances.
This is the day that a plume of smoke shaped like a big black penis hangs over Galewood. So the kids and their mothers and the old geezers remain inside where it’s safe for the time being, kneeling on plastic slip-covered sofas, peering out through sheer white curtains to see what’ll happen next.
The West Side Burns
Joey nears the Mustang. It appears empty. He bends over to look into the passenger compartment, the radio still blaring an oldie from ‘65, “Rescue Me,” by Fontella Bass. No, wait. The Mustang isn’t empty. Jesus, that’s the Jungle Man’s curly hair!
What’s he doin’, lyin’ face down on the passenger seat?
Joey hears gurgling, then he sees blood dripping on the carpet. He reaches into the car and grabs the Jungle Man by the back of his collar. The Jungle Man reflexively retches, bloody spume and several teeth pouring out of his mouth. He gasps as if he’s been drowning.
“You okay?” Joey asks, shaking the Jungle Man.
“Ay, Jimmy! Jimmy, you okay? Answer me!”
Joey shakes the Jungle Man, gently at first but then more violently until, finally, Jimmy Finnin hacks up enough blood and hollers, “Stop it, goddamnit!” He spits out a few more teeth.
Joey tries to open the driver’s door but it’s jammed closed. He reaches inside again, this time with both hands and yanks the Jungle Man by the shoulders out of the car. The Jungle Man’s legs finally clear the car door and they flop down hard on the concrete. “Aw, shit” the Jungle Man moans.
Now Joey smells burning gas and sees wisps of smokes coming out from under the car. He gathers the Jungle Man in his arms and carries him into the house. Joey lugs the Jungle Man into his room and lays him on his bed. Ma scuttles in, already carrying freshly wrung towels and an ice bag. She kneels on the floor next to the bed, applies the ice bag to the Jungle Man’s forehead, and begins wiping the blood from his face. Joey steps back to look at the figure on his bed.
The Jungle Man’s face is becoming a purple and black mask. The front of his white T-shirt is a Rorschach blot of drying blood. His nose already is twice its normal size and his breathing is still a juicy gurgle. He props himself up on one arm and leans over the edge of the bed to spit bloody saliva on the floor.
Tree stares at the carmine loogy on the carpet for a brief moment. Joey’s certain she’s going to bust the Jungle Man’s chops for spitting on the floor in her house. To Joey’s surprise, she says nothing. But she does steal glances at the loogy now and again.
The Jungle Man turns his face to look at Joey. He wants to say something. He opens his mouth. “Bloof,” he says and then cringes in pain.
Now the three hear fire truck sirens. The Jungle Man takes a deep breath and whispers, “My car….”
Joey goes into the living room to check on the Mustang. It’s engulfed in flames. Joey grimaces. He returns to his bedroom. The Jungle Man whispers again, “My car….”
“It’s okay,” Joey says.
The Jungle Man, relieved, falls back on the bed.
Ma grabs Joey by the arm and brusquely leads him out of the room. “Go out and tell the firemen we need an ambulance — quick!”
Joey obediently approaches the driver of Engine Company No. 23 as he watches his colleagues begin to spray down the Mustang with hand-held extinguishers before the hoses can be hooked up to the hydrant in front of Old Man Joe Martini’s house.
“Sir?” Joey says. “Sir?” The driver flicks a cigarette away, toward the burning vehicle. He looks at Joey as if the last place in this world he wants to be is here now — which is odd because if he weren’t here now he’d probably be on Madison Street dodging bricks and bullets.
“Whuh?” the driver says.
“We need a amb’lance,” Joey says. “A kid’s got a bloody mouth in my bedroom….”
“That so?” the driver says.
“Yeah. Hurry. Please.”
“Get in line, kid. There ain’t no ambulances available. They’re all out in the land of teeth and eyes.”
“Never mind. There ain’t no ambulances.”
Joey runs back inside to deliver the news to his mother. “I’ll be goddamned!” she says. Joey’s surprised again. He wouldn’t have thought she’d be so concerned about Jimmy Finnin, the Jungle Man, of whom she holds such a low opinion.
She hands Joey a couple of towels. “Here,” she says. “Keep pressing the ice on his forehead. I’ll call the fire department myself.” Joey sits on the edge of the bed and mashes the icebag into the Jungle Man’s face until Jimmy pushes it away. He splutters through his newly-toothless and bloodied mouth, “Whaddya tryin’a do, suffocate me?”
“Sorry,” Joey says. Jimmy’s eyes roll back in his head. “Wait, don’t die,” Joey says, his eyes watering.
Jimmy whispers, “Not dyin’….”
Now Joey hears his mother dialing the phone. A few seconds later, he hears this: “I need an ambulance at 1619 North Natchez Avenue. That’s one, six, one, nine Natchez. N, A, T…. What? What do you mean?” There’s a pause. “We got a kid here who had a bad accident! He swallowed his tongue. He smashed his face into the steering wheel. We need an ambulance!”
Another pause. “The West Side? So what about the West Side? What about us? We need some help, too!”
A third pause. “What’s your name? Gimme that again. Smolinski? Listen, Mr. Smolinski, this kid is the son of Mickey Finnin. You know Mickey Finnin? Yeah. That’s right. He’s hurt bad, Mr. Smolinski.”
Mickey Finnin is the magic pair of words. Ma says “Okay, hurry,” and hangs up. She rejoins Joey in the bedroom.
“What happened, Ma?” Joey whispers.
She whispers back: ”He hit a colored man coming out of the alley.”
Ma nods. Joey ponders a moment. “What happened to him?”
“The colored man?”
“What was he doin’ around here?”
“I have no idea. Probably nuts.”
“The Mustang’s finished.”
Tree slaps him on the arm. She leans in and whispers in Joey’s ear. “Shush! He’ll have a nervous breakdown if he hears you.”
They sit in silence watching Jimmy Finnin for 35 minutes until they hear another siren. “Must be the ambulance. I thought they’d never get here,” Tree says. “Go out front and make sure they know where to come.”
“Nah, nah,” Joeys says. He has an expert ear for sirens. “That’s no amb’lance. That’s a copper.”
Tree doesn’t know, or care, from sirens. “Joey,” she hisses, “go out there!”
Joey stands on the front porch and when the police paddy wagon turns on to Natchez Avenue, he waves his arms. As the coppers pull their surplus army litter out of out of the rear door of their meat wagon, Joey says to them, “I knew you guys weren’t no amb’lance.”
“D’at’s right. We ain’t no amb’lance,” one of the coppers says, flicking his smoke in the direction of the now smoldering Mustang. He’s mocking Joey’s pronunciation but Joey doesn’t catch it. The copper continues: “They can’t spare no amb’lances today.”
They Couldn’t Spare No Amb’lances
Joey only smiles, proud of his expert ear. “Y’know who we got here?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the other copper says. “We were down by Madison and Pulaski. The dispatcher musta said ‘Mickey Finnin’s kid’ forty two times.”
Joey leads the pair into the house just as Al pulls up in his Buick. Joey shows the way to his bedroom and tells Tree, “See, Ma? It wasn’t no amb’lance. It’s a paddy wagon. And Pa’s home.”
“Oh, thank God,” Tree says. She runs out of the bedroom to greet her husband. As Al comes in the back door, Tree says his name and Joey thinks he might see his parents embrace for the first time in his life.
Instead, Tree keeps her distance, as always. “What’s goin’ on?” she asks her husband. “Is the whole world going crazy?”
“Now don’t get excited,” he says. “We gotta think calm now.”
The coppers gently lift Jimmy Finnin onto the litter and carry him through the dining room. “Joey,” Al says. “Go wit’ ‘em to the hospital.”
Tree nearly shouts, “Al, are you out of your mind? The hospital is too close to the riots!”
One of the coppers says, “Naw, we’re not going to St. Anne’s. We’re going to Resurrection. It’s a lot farther away but it’s safer.”
Al says, “See?” He turns to Joey. “Now you ride with them to Resurrection. Stay there until Mickey and me come and get you.”
Outside, Joey climbs into the rear of the paddy wagon. Al and Tree watch as it pulls away, headed northwest, in the opposite direction of the inferno. Tree says to Al again: “What’s goin’ on?”
Al shrugs. “Well, if we don’t watch out, them black bastards are gonna take over.”
In the paddy wagon, the ride is bumpy. Every time the vehicle hits a pothole, Jimmy winces.
“It won’t be long now,” Joey says.
The Jungle Man stares into Joey’s eyes; he caught a glimpse of the burned-out hulk of his once-gorgeous Mustang out the corner of his eye as the coppers were loading him. “Thanks, Joey,” he says. Joey tries hard to remember if the Jungle Man has ever addressed him by his first name. The Jungle Man continues. “I owe you, buddy. I owe you big time.”
* A Helpful Glossary
- Stunod: Pronounced, STOO-nodd, Sicilian dialect for the Italian, stonato, literally, “out of tune,” but commonly meaning “stupid.”
To be continued
Preparations for the big wedding go on as the city burns. Join us Monday for Episode 17 of “Black Comedy” on The Electron Pencil.
This is a work of fiction. All fictional characters, descriptions, and situations herein are the property of the author.