There is this man I barely know, who has been phoning me ever since he and I appeared in the Chicago Trib Voice of the People letters to the editor. He had praised the Mayor for getting rid of the pedestrian bridge at 47th and the Drive. Because the old one was not only decrepit but it had sharp right angles which were a killer to get around on roller blades if he was to get back down to street level some forty feet below. The new one is much more negotiable though longer and higher. In the same letter, he criticized the City for even thinking of building a sports stadium in Washington Park for the 2016 Olympics when he’ll be ninety. He then praises them for finally keeping the toilets open along the bicycle path beyond Labor Day into November then opening them in March instead of May. My letter also zeroed in on City Hall and the Cook County Clerk who want to eat me up with real estate taxes and other taxes on my old shed of a house in the Ukrainian Village. His name is Bolt Shocket. Mine is Keeler Teebo.
He’s in his eighties and is a free spirit, so he maintains. On the telephone it all comes out. Or in letters that are spilling over. He’s free but he isn’t, His wife died several years ago. So he figures he can see any woman, any time he wants. That what he was thinking. Then he meets two women. One submits to his charm seemingly easy. “I tell you Keeler, I wasn’t sure I could get it up any more. So what if I’m fit? They say my age is advanced. Yet I’m more fit than when I was thirty when I was studying, working like a dog. You get that way swimming, cycling, blading, jogging, climbing stairs. But you have to remember my wife was dying. Not much sex there. And shouldn’t be. Fragile as she was. Almost a desecration to even think of sex let alone foist it on her. After two years of that, I was pretty sure I had lost it. But then I met Corliss. She’s about fifty. She’s not exactly a trapeze artist but boy is she flexible like rubber bands. She puts on a show for me once a week, at least, and puts me in center ring. And boy, does she somehow get a performance out of me. For two years we keep it up.”
Then he goes on to tell me she’s Catholic and goes to mass weekly. He’s born a Jew and can’t remember the last time he’s been to a synagogue. And she begins to put pressure on him to attend mass with her at least once a month. Once a week preferably. The wonders of God are within him he insists just as is the destructiveness of the devil. The whole outdoors is his church, the trees, birds, the lake are his scriptures. Corliss is persistent . He is increasingly obstinate. He loves her for awakening him sexually. He is not sure Corliss and him are in the same ball park religiously. The more he makes his point, the more she seems to find excuses for not seeing him though they still walk with their arms around each other when they’re in the street. So much so that young men stop them and ask them how is it possible to maintain strong affection for each other as you get older. Or even how to show affection at any age as comfortably as they do.
But then he develops this relationship with this sixty five year old woman who is a stage director at the Royal Esplanade whose poise as she walks along the lake is as exquisite as a prima ballerina. It grabs his attention each time he sees her on his bicycle along the lake. He introduces himself gradually until she concedes to have some of his coffee since she does not like restaurants. She has a passion for concerts and symphonies and wishes he would use some of his financial reserves for those instead of places to eat since her salary leaves a lot to be desired.
He soon becomes aware that when he is with her, he never falls asleep. Even at the concerts and musical events, even opera. When he is with others he often does. With her he wants to be awake and alive continuously He cannot be away from her without aching for her. In her presence, he wants to feast on her looks, have a banquet on all the things she tells him about her life in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, the travels she makes to Costa Rica, Edinburgh, Mexico City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, the performers she interviews, the process of producing performances. When she looks at him, speaks with him, it is as if there is no one else in the world. Just the two of them. The kiss before they depart on the lips is penetrating, full of promise as is their embrace. But that is as far as she is willing. Because she wants a commitment. “I ask her what is this commitment business at our age? I want her to throw all that baggage into the lake.” Though she’s born a Christian, she never makes a big deal of it.. But she is an ideologue when it comes to eating, the environment, material things, automobiles. She insists it takes four to eight times the acreage to maintain a meat eater or one who depends on dairy products as it does to feed a rice, grain, nut, pasta, pea and bean eater. And automobiles increase the atmospheric carbon incessantly melting the ice and snow at the poles. Though she is proud of her Lexus, she uses it so infrequently, the battery wears down incessantly particularly in the winter. Whatever her inclination, he wants to convert her into his barbarian kind of heathenism and doesn’t want her to bat an eye or miss a beat.
So he goes several other routes. He writes her notes and cards full of passion. Several times a week he makes her whole wheat buns which his wife taught him. She not infrequently goes to bed without eating when her workload wordload become exhaustive and she comes home with no energy, with even less motivation to cook. When he realizes she not only won’t make up her shortfall nutrition in restaurants and she is vegan, he becomes frantic. He is nuts about her and does not want to see her unraveling physically right in front of him even though she assures him she has been living like this for decades. Her main source of nutrition is cabbage which she boils and seasons, ten heads of which she drags by hand from the produce store each weekend. He is sure that even the Viet Cong ate more nutritionally than she does. She is sure he is exaggerating. She tells him he is too hung up on protein and sex..
He tells me some of this on the phone. But he puts a lot of it in letters which he types on an Underwood. The last one of the five that is working. He completely fills an 8 x 10 page from margin to margin, both sides. Not a single error in spelling or punctuation. No computer technology, no text messages, no cell phones for this Luddite. In order to save money and the environment, he’s given up his car, a ’91 Buick. “The final straw was when the gear shift dropped into my lap.” Like most Americans, he thought the car was part of his anatomy. “Who needs it? My biggest trip is downtown. I either take the bicycle or if the weather is nasty use CTA or Metra. I pushed for free rides for seniors and got ‘em finally through the Governor. Course he got impeached but that’s not my problem.” Then he bangs me over the head. “I’m coming over.”
For what I want to know. He’s never been to this rundown almost flea bag of a place. This place my parents cursed me with. They left me with it but didn’t provide a cent of upkeep. Not the greatest scenario for an obtusely, heavy body, unwieldy and filled with pain. This fibromyalgia has seen to that. It keeps me awake much of the night, and the street noise does a good job of trying to do the same during the day. If it’s not my shoulders it’s my legs, my arms, my back separately. And when the instruments are really tuned up it hits me everywhere so I can barely put on my clothes. If I were a car, I doubt if any used car salesperson would look at me twice without realizing they could get more from the boneyard than a customer. Yes, I can play my flute when the urge strikes me. And yes I can lead an orchestra if I can somehow drag myself to the venue. I sometimes think a wheel chair is the answer but if I give in to that they might as well prepare me for a pine box. I tell him all this, though I am repeating myself because I have told him all this before. Nevertheless he insists. “I’m coming over Bolt.”
I hear him taking two steps at a time. I’m twenty years younger and with the help of the banister, I can barely descend step by step very cautiously of ten placing both feet on the same step. Soon after he’s in the door I’m hearing what I could have predicted. “Your place is filled with more disarrayed books and papers than a combined bombed out stationary and lending library. When was the last time you dusted the blinds and when was the last time you had them opened for crissake? It’s mid day and mid winter. You want to be suffocated, swallowed up by the darkness?”
He’s never been over and maybe he’s seen me twice, or in a picture. He then pays me the ultimate compliment. “You have the conclusive face for the Merchant of Venice. That Shylock nose of yours is priceless and you’re not even Jewish. I assume you never have been. That doesn’t mean your Ukrainian Cossack ancestry hasn’t lopped off the schnozzles as well as a few betsum of some of the bubbies and zadies of a long line of my forbears stretching back into antiquity of which I am one of the last. Them Goyim shoichets got mixed up with animals and people. Couldn’t tell the difference. Many of them still can’t. Although, I must say the Russian Jews in Israel are getting real good at learning from their Cossack compatriots what it takes to keep people in subjugation.”
I sit him down, give him a warm glass of tea and tell him to calm himself. “You’re not writing a letter to the Mayor or the President. Yeah it’s dark, but we don’t need much light to talk. So talk.”
He sips the tea, looks around, shakes his head. I figure the surroundings will get him going again or get him out of here fast. My arthritis is driving nails into my behind bone. He pipes up. “I’m too old for this”
He’s thrown me off balance with his unpredictability. “For this, what?” He starts in by telling me he’s got the hots for his two women friends. So I investigate. “You don’t look a day over eighty nine. How old are you really?”
“My daughters tell me with all my running around that I am beginning to appear pathetic. Then they tell me I’m too old for the great big place I live in, in which they were raised. Listen you’re in a place forty, fifty years, you know not only where it breathes, where it passes gas, where it dances but how. But you’re not my real estate agent. There’s more to my life than real estate.
The guy’s in my house. It’s midwinter. Dark. The woman I’m crazy over has taken up with a younger man. I love the way she plays the clarinet. I tell her, I don’t care about the men, just play for me before this crumbling place falls in on me. I’m supposed to call it home. My parents left it for me. I loved them. Now with nothing to sustain me or the roof over my head, I curse them. The only things they left were the plumbing, electrical, heating, water, sewage, real estate tax and telephone bills. Almost as pleasurable as if they had instructed a CIA jackal, President Bush and Dr. Goebbels to water torch me. Creditors give you max electric shock. They want all the baggage. The want their share of the slate you come with, milk you and whatever is in your closets clean.
Bolt demands we walk. “For this cold, it’ll take me an half hour to get something on.” He still insists. When I finally dress, he grabs me under the arms and sets me on my feet then opens the door. We then descend the creaking staircase with his two hands steadying my left arm and elbow. Out in the street, the cold invades my nose, cuts into my coat, sweater and underwear like a saber. He encourages me. “Don’t worry about anything. You’re not as old and rundown as you look. Lots of youthful blood in all your limbs. We’ll stay on all the quiet streets. That way nobody’ll run you down.”
Cars are parked nose to tail along the curb on both sides of the street. Trucks and tractor trailers are punishing Grand Avenue an half a block away. People are coming into and leaving Uncle Mike’s restaurant on the corner. The vehicle exhaust, the dust, grit, the noise of changing gears is mixed in with the cold moisture and the wind cutting through the gangways of the two and three story buildings. The entire atmosphere is some sort of Siberia. He tells me, in this kind of special resort who anyone could recover.
I want to know why suddenly he decides to come by and get me into the streets in such an abysmal time of the year. “You needed to get out of your dump. Who can think straight in that kind of a dismal, falling apart place?”
“It’s good to hear it from outside my head. Something like that rattles around already up there in my skull hour after hour.”
He won’t let go. “That’s why you got that fibromyalgia. An Olympic champ would get fibromyalgia in that place. About all it’s good for is a heap of rags. The American League batting champion would get leprosy there.”
“When we were talking on the phone it was all about you and your women. Now it seems to be all about me and my hovel. If I have a choice, you do allow choices I’m sure, let’s get to the women in your life. Lot more intrigue and promise that way, seems to me.”
“I want you to meet them. At least the younger one. She goes for piccolo players, orchestra conductors like you.”
We somehow get up to Uncle Mike’s. I want to get out of the cold so bad I figure I could come up with a few bucks from SSI to treat him. Maybe even throw in a raisin scone. The traffic on Grand is flowing and grinding like the Mississippi at flood tide. Only it is full of hissing air brakes, bleating automobile horns, frantic screeching brakes, inhale and exhale of stopping and starting. The dissonance is beyond post modern.
We sit in a booth where the plastic seats are cracking, the edges of which are splitting. “You were going to tell me more about your women friends.”
“Yeah. I want to give you one of them. The way you live you remind me of a monk. A good Ukrainian monk. Determined to suffer for his sins and the rest of the world on the shores of the Arctic ice. In a cave.”
I look at him benignly. “You sure know how to cheer up your friends.”
“You scuffle about bent in a way makes me think of a huge lump on your back, like as if there were a bag of concrete and sand bending you in two. As if all the force and gravitational pull of sorrow in your life were doubling you over as if it were a black hole, so powerful, resistance you offer is useless. You need a companion. Someone who would listen to and play music with you. I’ve seen reviews of your performances. You are special. This woman clarinetist you are pining over is enjoying herself with someone else. Let her. Find someone else with whom you can sit close to and enjoy in all kinds of ways. Your clarinetist woman is. You should be able to as well. There are lots of women on this earth besides her.”
I’m amazed at how easily he has got my situation figured and how simple the solution is. All I have to do is get the weight off me. The weight I’ve been carrying around as long as I can remember. Weight is not just gravity. It’s the economic defeats, barriers, the rejections by people you love and who you suppose are supposed to love you, the affection that is missing, the aspirations which never materialize, the house which surrounds you, covers you, protects you from the elements but which makes you a prisoner. That heaviness is heavier than stone and rock and concrete and steel. Very few recognize that physically there is no evidence of this gravity which in humans often more pressing, demanding than that of the solar system than the pull, attraction of the planets and the stars. I’m thinking about this comparison of the universal forces of nature and the vacuum in my life filled with monstrous emotional heaviness. And there is Bolt in his advanced years contemplating me, working out plans to make me shed all the trials and tribulations which are holding on to me like leeches. I suddenly find myself saying, “Bolt these women in your life which you seem to maintain are so special that they magically can open fields and vistas in my life, make me jump hurdles and handicaps which are world class, which I have held on to as if they were part of my anatomy must be extraordinarily magical. I am trying to think what it is in your life, how you came to these marvelous beings and what there is about you which attracts them. Tell me a little about all of that.”