I stopped at Marshall Fields on my way back to Union Station, shopping for a parting gift. One that would last, hold memories of our six weeks together. I decided on a small, gold Star of David on a necklace. I had never seen her wear one, and in fact I’d never seen a single, Jewish thing around her place. And yet the choice felt right, a bit expensive, but I wanted something nice.
The door was open when I got home, held back with a huge, hard cover, copy of The Idiot, by Dostoevsky.
“David!” Dearie came to meet me with a glass of red wine in her hand. “You’re late. I worried Snitzer and the others might have held you prisoner.”
“Um. they tried, but I escaped.” I followed her into the dining room. She’d taped a movie poster on the wall we’d painted—twice. It was an advertisement, Charlie Chan At The Race Track, showing Sidney Toler’s face. The table had been set as if expecting royalty, expensive china, crystal glasses, and a set of heavy, silver flatware I had never seen before. Mid-center of the table was a beautiful, vanilla frosted cake topped off with a small, straw hat, a skimmer like the one I had arrived in, but had enough self confidence to wear. I’d never seen another like it in Chicago. Next to the hat there was a plastic model car, a red convertible, Ford Fairlane.
Wow. It was a poignant moment I thought might be better if we only had a couple drinks. But I’d be six or seven hours on the road, long, late night, drive ahead.
“Sit down, Dave. Everything is ready.” Dearie pulled two sirloin steaks out of the broiler.
“Nothing but the best,” she held one on a fork for me to see. “Eighty-nine cents a pound.”
We’d never eaten steaks, back in Wood River, too expensive. We had cube-steaks now and then, severely beaten beef without much taste. I’d never seen a spread like this. She had outdone herself: brown gravy, whipped potatoes, Caesar salad. There was sliced French bread and butter, cottage cheese, an open bottle Cabernet Sauvignon. “This looks delicious, and I love the poster.” Would she leave it there when I was gone? Probably not.
“So, how did it go at work?” She filled our glasses.
“Not too bad. Not easy. Katzenjammers hid my drafting tools. They taped them to the ceiling when I left to room to say goodbye to Crumrine. I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find them. Finally they told me to look up. It was kind of embarrassing, but not that bad. I am so happy to be out of there.”
“Oy, I’m surprised the schmucks were smart enough to think of that. Somebody probably did the same to one of them when they were new. How did it go with Crumrine?”
“Not good, and not as bad as I was ready for. He was polite and almost friendly, but he made it clear I’d never work for him or the Chicago & Northwestern Line again. No problem there.” I helped myself to a large slice of the delicious steak as Dearie passed the mashed potatoes.
“Well, the way things have been going for the railroads, Crumrine will be lucky if he has his job much longer. You’ve been erasing railroad tracks, not laying new ones. We have the superhighways now. People are driving longer distances, and flying’s getting less expensive. I might take a plane to Florida this winter. It gets so damn cold here when the wind comes off the lake.”
Our conversation slowed as we enjoyed her perfect dinner, both a celebration and a wake. We drank another glass of wine. Then I retrieved the present I’d left underneath my chair, and placed it on the table cloth in front of her. “Something I got for you.”
She tore the package open, and removed the necklace, strung it out between both hands. The gold chain glittered nicely.
“Wear it in good health.”
Her eyes welled, but she held back tears. “Oh, David. I can’t wear this. I’m so sorry.”
“Because,” she paused. “I’m not a good Jew, David. I don’t go to temple, keep the Kosher, or observe the holidays. You may have noticed we’ve had pork chops more than once. I drink too much, and am completely out of touch with Judaism, an outcast from the tribe of Israel.” She pushed the necklace toward me.
“I won’t take it back, and you cannot return it for me. I got rid of the receipt. Just keep it in a drawer, if nothing else. A gift to help remember me as time goes by.” Had I screwed up, and made this parting worse?
“I won’t need help for that.” She cut a slice of cake for each of us. “I’ve loved this summer, David. It’s been wonderful. I wish you could stay.”
“I’m coming back next year.” Of course, it wouldn’t be the same. We both knew that.
“You’ve been my best friend, my companion, confidant, a second mother to me . . . more than that. I could have never done with Mom, the crazy things we’ve done together. It’s been great. I motioned to the empty plates in front of us. “Mom never cooked like this.”
“You mom is more creative, Dave, in other ways than me. Hell, she created you.” She wiped away an almost tear, above a Mona Lisa smile. “I wish I’d had a son like you. It’s felt like that, for me, having you here.”
An emotional damn was about to give way. “Oy, this is nuts.” I stood up from the table.
“Yes, I know.” She shrugged. “We’re totally meshugge.”
“Let’s do dishes,” I suggested. Seemed like a good way to calm us down, with busy hands.
“Oh, no. I’ll do them, David.”
“No. We’ll get it done together,” I insisted. It was more than I could bear to think of Dearie doing them after I’d gone. She might decide to throw them at the wall. I hated leaving, and I wanted to be gone as soon as possible. While we were at the sink she asked, “Will you be leaving early in the morning?”
“No, this evening. I’ll be home by early morning. There is no way I could sleep tonight.”
She nodded. “Yes, you must be so excited to be going back to school again, with friends your own age, lots of girls . . . your senior year.”
“It will feel good to graduate. I’ve had enough of school.” I lit a cigarette to still what felt like a kaleidoscope of feelings swirling in my chest: the sweet relief of leaving the Northwestern office, and embarrassment of my performance there, the misadventure I had had with Marvin, and the good times we had shared, the galleries, museums. My relationship, or lack of one with Linda . . . Was it over? I’d most probably see Mary back on the campus, and we might go out again. I’d miss the rocks, Lake Michigan, and Dearie. She would be alone again.
I was familiar with the pain of loss, and loneliness she tried to dissipate with alcohol. The long ride home would be a good thing. I was looking forward to a late night meditation that could help me pull myself together, for the next whatever. I was getting over Linda . . . maybe. I’d begun to think of her no more than two or three times every day.
“I don’t think you will be alone for long.” She’d read my thoughts again. “Who knows how things might end with you Linda in a year or two? Remember, The Fantastics.”
“How could I forget?”
We did the dishes and I finished packing a few things as Dearie watched me from the couch. I glanced down at my watch, still early, only seven-thirty. Dearie started on the Scotch and lit a cigarette. I closed the suitcase and sat down across from her, eager to leave this good-by moment as we talked about our future plans, Chicago, and the weather in Miami, then ran out of words. An awkward moment stretched beyond endurance. I stood up and checked my watch again, now almost eight.
“Well this is it, I guess. I crossed the room and lifted up my luggage. Dearie opened up the door.
“This is hard.” I set the luggage down again.
“‘Journey of life like feather on stream, must continue with current.’ Take care, David.”
“Yes. I will. You too. My feelings for her were beyond my words. We hugged, then I retrieved my bags. I took the stairs, not wanting to await the elevator, and not daring to look back. I would be home in time for Indian summer, the best time of year in Southern Illinois . . . September.
Next Chapter Sunday 24 January 2016