Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
By Neta Jackson and Dave Jackson
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Jackson and Neta Jackson
“Can’t you make that kid stop cryin’? Why don’ he want that toy?”
Candy narrowed her eyes at the big man sprawled throne-like on the broken-down couch on the other side of the playpen, one arm flung along the back, the other hand holding a beer, one big foot perched on the opposite knee. “He hungry,” she said. “He don’t wanna play right now.”
“Well, see, that what your mama an’ I gonna do, go buy some milk for the kid.” Raising his voice he hollered, “Renatta! How come it takin’ you so long? Let’s go, woman!”
“Shut up, Otto! I’ll be there in a minnit!”
The baby kept wailing.
Giving up, Candy threw the rattle into the playpen and plopped down in a chair as far away as possible from Big Otto, her arms crossed. Mama was going out again. She always said they’d be back “in a minute,” but Candy knew better.
“How old are you, girl?” Otto growled.
“Seven an’ a half.”
“Oh. Seven an’ a half.” He laughed. “Makes you a big girl, don’ it. Well, big girl, go get me another one o’ these beers. Long as your mama takes ta get ready, might as well have somethin’ ta keep me company.”
Candy flounced out of the room, into the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator door. Leftover pizza box from Domino’s, half package of hot dogs, opened can of refried beans, bag of carrots, grapes in a bowl, an inch of milk in the bottom of a gallon jug, and two more cans of beer from the six-pack.
“Mama?” Candy yelled. “Can I give Pookey the rest of the milk? He hungry!”
Renatta Blackwell showed up in the kitchen doorway, trying to slide big, dangly earrings into her earlobe. “Sure, baby. I’ll bring some more when Otto an’ I get back.”
“Where’s that beer you was gettin’ me, girl?” Otto bawled from the other room.
“You don’ need another beer,” Candy’s mother called back, disappearing from the kitchen doorway. “Just need to get my purse.”
Candy quickly fished in the sink for a baby bottle, stood on tiptoe to reach the spigot handles, rinsed it out with cold water, and poured the last of the milk into it. Screwing on the cap and nipple, she ran back into the living room, leaned over the playpen railing, and handed him the bottle. “There ya go, Pookey . . .”
Pookey tipped over onto a scrunched-up blanket in the corner of the pen and sucked noisily on the bottle, his cries silenced.
Renatta showed up in the living room doorway, purse slung over one shoulder, still fussing with an earring. “Thanks, baby. I’ll bring some more milk when we get back. He probably gonna fall asleep now. Jus’ leave him in the playpen. You okay?”
Candy nodded sullenly. “When you comin’ back?”
Her mother glanced at Otto. “In a little while, baby. I’ll bring you somethin’ nice, okay?”
Candy’s head jerked up. “Mama! If you go to Walmart, look at the princess bike. That’s the one I want for my birthday.”
“A bike!” Otto snorted. “Well, ain’t you the fancy schmancy one. What you think, girl, money grow on trees?”
Candy ignored him. “Please, Mama! You said when I get eight I can maybe get a bike. That’s the one I want!”
“Sure, sure, baby. Next time I go to Walmart, I’ll look at it.” Renatta headed for the front door. “C’mon, Otto. We ain’t got all day. I gotta get back here to my kids.”
Pookey was already sucking air bubbles from his bottle as the door closed behind them. Candy ran to the window and pulled aside the sheet that acted as a curtain, knowing it would take a few minutes for them to go down the two flights from third floor. But then she saw them appear on the walk below, laughing and talking as they headed for Otto’s car parked across the street.
Running back to the couch, Candy pulled at the square couch cushions and flung them onto the floor. Yes! Several pennies, even a nickel and a dime, sat among the crumbs, pull-tops twisted off cans, rubber bands, and other small trash that collected under the couch cushions. Especially after Otto was here.
Pulling the couch away from the wall, Candy retrieved a glass jar half full of pennies. Unscrewing the lid, she dropped her new finds into the jar, then screwed the lid back on.
Pookey had pulled himself up to a standing position and was holding onto the side of the playpen. Whimpering, he threw out the empty bottle. Kneeling down until she was nose-to-nose with her little brother, Candy shook the jar of pennies. “Can you keep a secret, Pookey? I’m savin’ up these pennies to buy me a bike if Mama don’ get it for me. But here . . .” She leaned over and set the jar down in the middle of the playpen. “There. You can play with it for a little while. See? It makes a pretty noise.” She shook the jar until the pennies tinkled and clattered.
Pookey dropped to his knees and reached for the jar, momentarily distracted. Huffing, Candy replaced the unwieldy cushions, then flopped onto the couch and sighed. So. How long was it going to be this time?
Michelle Jasper stood in the middle of the living room, eye-to-eye with her thirteen-year-old daughter, trying not to look impatient. They should be going out the door. Why did teenagers always pick the most inopportune times to ask these questions, acting like they’re gonna die if they don’t get an answer right now?
“Tabby, it doesn’t make sense to go to cheerleading camp this summer. Stone Scholastic doesn’t even have a cheer squad. Why don’t you wait until next year when you’re ready for high school? You could try out for the freshman squad.”
“But Mo-om! All the girls are gonna want to try out for the cheer squad. If I go to camp this summer, I’ll already know a lot of the good moves and—”
“Honey, can we talk about this later? We’re supposed to get over to the Bentleys before Mrs. Krakowski arrives. And we’d need to talk to your dad about any camp plans, anyway. It’s getting cool . . . you’ll need a sweater. But then let’s go.”
“Oh, all right.” Tabitha flounced off toward her bedroom.
Where were those boys? Where was her husband, for that matter? They’d just talked about this at supper, joining the other neighbors on Beecham Street to welcome back old Mrs. Krakowski, who’d fallen last winter and broke her hip. The two-flat she’d owned had been in foreclosure. But when the new owners heard the sad tale, they’d had a better idea . . .
Her other thirteen-year-old thundered up the stairs from the basement family room and into the living room. “Can I go over, Mom? DaShawn told me to come early.”
“Just wait a minute, Tavis. Have you seen your dad? Where’s Destin?”
Tavis jerked a thumb. “Kitchen, I think. Dad’s downstairs on the phone.”
“Well, tell Destin to get himself in here. Let’s go over together.”
Tavis headed for the kitchen. A moment later she heard, “Hey! That’s Dad’s pop. Mo-om! Destin’s drinkin’ a Dr. Pepper! How come he gets one? Can I have one too?”
“Boys!” Michelle headed for the kitchen.
Her oldest was sprawled in a chair at the tiny kitchen table, right hand wrapped around a can of pop. “Little brother’s gonna have to learn not to rat,” he muttered. “Not if he hopes to stay alive until high school.”
Patience, Michelle, patience. “No, you can’t have one, Tavis. Too much caffeine. Besides, you both know we save those for Dad to take to work. He does need to stay awake on the job. Destin, you know better than that.”
Destin lifted the can. “It’s the last one. We have to get some more anyway before Dad goes back to work Monday, right?”
The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it!” Tavis darted out of the kitchen.
Michelle eyed her oldest. What was going on? He seemed more touchy than usual. “You don’t need all that caffeine either, kiddo.”
Destin rolled his eyes. “Mom, I’m seventeen. Guys on the basketball team drink energy drinks all the time before a game.”
“Hmm. Don’t know what I think about that. Anyway, it’s time to go over to the Bentleys.” She turned to go. “You coming?”
Destin shrugged and pushed the empty can away. “I guess. Sorry I took the last one.” He grinned as he stood up. “But at least I saved it from getting pinched by the babies.”
“I ain’t no baby!” Tavis yelled from the next room. “Hey, DaShawn’s here! Time to go!”
Destin followed his mother into the small living room of the brick bungalow. Thirteen-year-old DaShawn Bentley leaned into the open doorway, sounding breathless. Looked like the kid was growing his hair, already a short Afro. “Hey, Pops says they’re on their way. If you gonna help me light those whatchamacallits, Tavis, we gotta hurry.”
“Wait for me!” Tabitha yelled, heading for the front door with her twin brother and his friend. “I wanna help too.” But pausing in the doorway she said, “Promise you’ll think about it, Mom! And talk to Dad, okay?” The door slammed behind her.
Destin frowned. “What’s that about?”
“Oh, she wants to go to cheerleading camp.” Where was her husband? Michelle raised her voice. “Jared? You coming?”
“Jared! It’s time to go!”
“You guys go on without me.” Her husband’s voice floated up from the basement study. “I’ll come as soon as I’m done with this call.”
Michelle felt frustrated. “Hmph. Pastor Quentin always seems to know the wrong time to call your father . . . Sorry. Forget I said that. Let’s just go.” She took her shawl from the coatrack. “Don’t you need a jacket?”
Destin grabbed a jacket and followed her across the porch and down the steps. “Mom, don’t forget I asked first about that Five-Star Basketball Camp at supper. It’s really important—college scouts come to the camp and everything. If I don’t register soon, it’s gonna be too late! So if you and Dad are gonna talk about summer camps, I get first dibs.”
“I know, hon. I’m sorry. We were just in such a hurry at supper . . . oh, look! The kids are lighting those pretty paper bag luminaries along the sidewalk. Looks like a good turnout too.”
Neighbors from their block on Beecham Street milled around the sidewalk and small front lawn in front of the Bentleys’ two-flat—which used to be known as “the old lady’s house” before she fell down the basement stairs last winter, broke her hip, and spent months in rehab. The bank had foreclosed on the two-flat and the Bentleys had bought it. Which was nice for Tavis, since DaShawn lived with his grandparents in the second floor apartment and was in the twins’ class at school.
“Don’tcha think the ol’ lady’s gonna feel kinda weird,” Destin muttered as they crossed the street, “movin’ back into her own house after somebody else bought it? ’Specially her bein’ white an’ all and the Bentleys bein’ black? Don’t remember her bein’ all that friendly to us before she lost the house.”
“She’s elderly, Destin. Didn’t get out much,” Michelle said. “I think it’s very kind of the Bentleys to offer to rent her the first floor apartment after they got it remodeled. And I don’t want to hear you call her ‘the ol’ lady.’ Her name is Mrs. Krakowski, which you will do well to remember, young man.”
Destin shrugged. “At least the Bentleys put up a basketball hoop over the garage. Ol’ lady . . . sorry. Mrs. K better not mind.”
“Sister Michelle! Destin!” Estelle Bentley, wearing one of those big roomy caftans she was so fond of, swooped between the glowing paper bags lining the sidewalk carrying a tray with a pitcher and steaming hot cups. “So glad you’re here for Miss Mattie’s homecoming. Hot chocolate?” Beaming, she held out the tray, then glanced around. “Is Jared coming?”
Michelle sighed as Destin helped himself to a paper cup of hot chocolate and sidled away. “Hope so, soon as the pastor lets him off the phone. You know how it is when you’re a deacon.”
“Oh, honey, tell me about it.” With a chuckle, Estelle Bentley moved away with her tray, offering hot chocolate to Farid Jallili and his scarf-wearing wife, who lived next door to the two-flat, as well as the Jewish couple from down the street. The gay couple who lived next to the Jallilis was talking to the man who’d built that huge house on the cul-de-sac at this end of the block. Interesting.
Michelle sipped her own hot chocolate. Beecham Street certainly had turned into a mini–United Nations over the years. Hadn’t she read someplace that this whole north end of Chicago was one of the most diverse in the nation? Not exactly a melting pot, though. She barely knew most of the neighbors.
Michelle noticed that DaShawn’s grandpa, Harry Bentley, had recruited Destin to pass out half sheets of paper with the words to “Auld Lang Syne” to all the neighbors . . . including his father, who was finally coming across the street in the deepening dusk. Destin—still two inches shorter than his dad’s six-one—ran up and shoved a song sheet into his hands. “Hey, Dad. Mom’ll be glad Pastor let you go.”
His father ignored the tease as he joined Michelle. “Didn’t miss Mrs. K’s arrival, did I? Hope she comes soon though. I still gotta go by the church tonight.”
“Oh, Jared. Not tonight. How come?”
Her husband shrugged. “The janitor got sick, and his wife forgot to call Pastor that he wasn’t able to finish cleaning up after the Mother’s Day brunch last Sunday or do setup for this Sunday. I’ll take Destin with me. With two of us, it won’t take too long. I hope.”
“Aw, Dad!” Destin groaned. “Do I hafta—”
“Hey, neighbors!” A man with two flaxen-haired children in tow stepped up to them and held out his hand. “Name’s Greg Singer. We live on the other end of the block from you, next-to-the last house. And these two munchkins are Becky and Nathan.”
Jared shook the man’s hand. “Jared Jasper. This is my wife, Michelle, and our son, Destin.”
“Becky, why don’t you take Nathan and go play with some of the other kids?” The man waved them off.
Michelle nodded toward the two-flat. “Did you know Mrs. Krakowski when she lived here, Mr. Singer?”
“Hey, just call me Greg. No, didn’t really know the old lady. I’m gone a lot with my job. But according to my wife, the new people came by our house and invited us to come tonight. Friendly folks, aren’t they?”
“Uh-huh . . . You travel a lot?” Jared said politely. “What do you do?”
“Event coordinator for Powersports Expos. You’ve probably heard—”
“Powersports?” Destin suddenly got interested. “What’s that?”
The man warmed to the topic. “We do shows featuring sports vehicles all around the Midwest, though this time of year it’s mostly boat shows. Say, you two got any interest in fishing boats, jet skis, stuff like that? Maybe you’d like to come to our next event. Gonna be down at Burnham Harbor, June 3 through 6.” He winked at Destin. “It’ll be our biggest show this season. I might be able to get you and your dad a ride on a cigarette boat. What would you think of—”
“Here they come!” A shout went up. Two dozen heads turned toward the far end of the street, where headlights had just turned up Beecham. Michelle watched as the nondescript sedan passed them, turned around in the cul-de-sac, and pulled to the curb in front of the two-flat. A middle-aged man came around from the driver’s side—Michelle figured it was probably her son—and helped old Mattie Krakowski out of the passenger seat. As the elderly woman leaned unsteadily on his arm, a beautiful soprano voice began to sing, “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? . . .”
Michelle smiled. The Bentleys must’ve asked Grace Meredith, who lived next door to the Jaspers—the one who traveled around singing Christian concerts—to kick off the song. But they were obviously supposed to join in.
Squinting at the words on the slip of paper she held in her hand, Michelle realized the words had been rewritten to fit the occasion. Some of the neighbors were singing the traditional New Year’s song, and some were singing the new words. But even though the song was kind of ragged, tears slid down the old lady’s face, which had a smile on it bigger than the full moon peeking through the clouds overhead.
As the last lines of the revised song died away, people shouted, “Welcome home, Mrs. Krakowski!” and Harry and Estelle Bentley escorted their new renter up the porch stairs and into the newly remodeled first floor apartment. Word was that the place used to be a real dump inside. Not anymore.
Michelle watched, strangely touched. Nothing like this had ever happened on Beecham Street that she could remember—and they’d lived at 7337 Beecham ever since the kids were small. They’d always been grateful for a quiet block, everybody just minding their own business. But that was before the Bentleys moved in. Harry and Estelle Bentley had gone around to every house on the block introducing themselves and handing out cinnamon rolls. The warm, gooey, homemade kind.
And now this homecoming.
But as soon as the door closed behind the Bentleys and Krakowskis, the crowd broke up and began to disperse. “C’mon, Tavis!” yelled DaShawn, and quicker than cockroaches when the light turns on, the two boys disappeared around the side of the house with a basketball. Destin started to follow, but Jared caught his arm. “C’mon, Destin. Let’s go.”
“Dad!” Tabitha caught up to them as they crossed the street, dancing on her toes. “Did Mommy talk to you about cheerleading camp? I gotta sign up right away!”
“What cheerleading camp?” Her father unlocked the minivan and slid in.
“Oh . . . I’ll explain later. Just go.” Michelle pulled Tabitha away as Destin glumly walked around to the other side of the minivan. But Michelle called, “Destin! Wait a sec.” She caught him before he opened the passenger side door. “Figure it this way, son,” she said, lowering her voice. “You’ll have your dad all to yourself for at least an hour. Go ahead, talk to him about the basketball camp.” She grinned. “See? First dibs.”
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© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson