Home of My Dreams

Last night I dreamed of a party in a hurricane.

A bonfire on the beach. A band with a fiddle player. My mom was there. The sky darkened and the winds picked up. We gathered our toys and beach balls and a shoe belonging to my nephew. Everyone seemed quite calm about the approaching storm. The fiddle player stopped right in the middle of a song, unable to see because her hair whipped wildly around her face. The band packed up and we all headed to our cars.

Mom and I set out for home. As I steered the car through the driving rain, I marveled at my steadiness. Awake on some level, my semi-conscious brain observed, Wow, I am really confident about driving this old Corolla through a hurricane.


… I know the house intimately, every nook and cranny, every great hiding place, every quiet space where an introverted girl can spend an afternoon lost in a book.”

In the dream, home was my grandparents’ house, built in the late 1930s for $5000. They lived there together until my grandfather died in 2004. My grandmother lived there alone for a decade until she died of heart failure at 99 years old. It has stood empty and silent for over a year.

I practically grew up there, and I know the house intimately, every nook and cranny, every great hiding place, every quiet space where an introverted girl can spend an afternoon lost in a book. I know every story, like the time my grandfather stepped through the attic floor, his foot crashing through the ceiling below. The swinging doors in the bathroom where my brother and I acted out Westerns. The long-repaired rail on the white fence that I split when I drove a go-cart through it. That house quietly holds the entirely of my history, my childhood in four walls and a quarter acre.

In my dreams, this is the house that always represents home. And in one month, someone else will live there. It has finally been sold. Next weekend, I’ll say goodbye to her. I fall wordless when I consider what I might say, how I’ll thank her, during my last visit.

I’ll walk through empty rooms, noticing the way the light moves through the den as the sun passes through the sky. I’ll remember all the Sundays I sat, bored and restless, while my grandparents told endless stories about their childhoods. How I let the stories slip away from my memory effortlessly, assuming I’d hear them again, into forever.

I’ll pause in the attic, decorated in 1970s yellow wood paneling and shag carpet. I’ll listen for the lonely whistle of the train that passes on the edge of town. When I heard it as a child, I dreamed of far away places, of travel and adventure. Of being somewhere else.

I’ll stand in the kitchen and imagine my diminutive grandmother hoisting her heavy cast iron skillet to cook us scrambled eggs in the morning. She prepped meals from memory and never wrote down her recipes for corn, green beans, or biscuits. Our genealogy of food, lost.

In the dim bedroom where my grandfather died, I’ll remember the last time I saw him, riddled with cancer, tiny and weak like a baby bird. How he woke up from a morphine-induced sleep for just a minute to smile at me, to say my name, to let me know I mattered. He was like that. He was a man who made people feel they mattered.

In the sunny living room once furnished in 1950s formal best, I’ll remember the time my cousin chastised me after I complained about my grandparents’ ordinary life. How I wanted something different, freer, more adventurous. “Remember,” my cousin said, “You’re able to fly as you do because of this strong tether.”

It’s no random neural firing that led me to dream about quietly escaping a hurricane to this house. This is how it’s always been. No matter the texture or condition of my life, this place and the people in it sheltered me. Sometimes, I felt bored and restless. Sometimes home feels that way. This very place I rebelled against so many times over the years was also the place I was most unconditionally loved and accepted. It took the vast emptiness of loss for me to see it.

Soon, the only place I’ll visit this house is in my dreams. We’ll find each other through the darkness, in the middle of the night, even as the tempest howls.

Cynthia Briggs is a teacher, writer, and documentarian in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is the creative non-fiction editor of Snapdragon Journal (snapdragonjournal.com) and can be found at waywardsister.com.
Photo by Cynthia Briggs.


The Cloud, the Imam and the Non-Believer

The bus pulled out of the main Teheran station, heading toward Mashhad. It was the early 1970s and the House of Pahlavi still reigned over Iran, so the inside of the bus had Shah Reza’s likeness on several public announcements. His photo was above the driver’s windshield, along with sloppily-cut magazine pages of male body-builders, wrestlers and weight-lifters.

The bus was nearly full and, as far as I could tell, I was the only non-Iranian aboard.

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He stared at it for a while, examining the cover, the gilt letters on the front. Then he opened it and leafed through it, back to front.”

For about the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the ride, the man sitting across the aisle from me — dressed like a cleric — led the rest of the bus riders in prayers; I assumed they were beseeching Allah for the safety of the journey. The leader chanted something, and then a response from the entire bus — a captive congregation. The bus riders knew the words and they all participated in distracted rote fashion like a Sunday school class reciting the 23rd Psalm while doodling at the same time. The Muslim back-and-forth on the bus had a familiar rhythm, not unlike the Hebrew prayers at the Orthodox synagogue where, at age thirteen, I’d had my bar mitzvah, after which I vowed never to set foot in another religious building for the rest of this incarnation.

Not only was I adamantly against organized religion, I’d never been a believer in anything. Let me take that back. I believed in one thing: That belief itself was the scourge of the world. Fervent believers scared the bejesus out of me. The bemoses and the bemohammed as well.

The chanting on the Iranian bus continued as traffic became sparser, and by the time the prayer session was over, the landscape was bare, a nearly empty two-lane blacktop in the middle of a scrubby landscape, mountains in the distance, to the north.

While the imam, or whatever he was, led the bus passengers in prayer, I read my bible.

That’s right. In spite of my feelings about organized religion, I carried a pocket-sized King James Bible containing both Old and New Testaments. It was gilt-edged and the print was miniscule but I was young and didn’t need glasses to read it. I don’t remember why I carried it. Maybe because it was small and portable: three inches wide, four and a half high, and less than one inch thick. It had a faux leather cover and a gilt HOLY BIBLE stamped on the front.

So on that bus, surrounded by Muslims, I read the Judeo-Christian bible, and every time I found a passage that amused me, I marked it: “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” Or: “The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, where of thou canst not be healed.”

I had once looked up emerods; they’re hemorrhoids. Touchy, that Judeo-Christian deity. Make Him unhappy and He hits you with scabs, botches, itches and emerods.

I was chuckling to myself when I noticed that the imam across the aisle, the one who’d led the prayers, was trying to get my attention. I gestured, what is it? He pointed his index and middle fingers toward his eyes, then aimed his chubby index finger at my bible. Could he look at it? Why not? I nodded and handed it to him.

He stared at it for a while, examining the cover, the gilt letters on the front. Then he opened it and leafed through it, back to front. Carefully, he examined the gilt edge, running his fingers delicately around it.

He caught my attention again and pointed to the book, then pointed upward with his index finger, toward the roof of the bus. Clearly, he was asking me if this was a holy book, holy to someone. I nodded. He raised his chin and nodded too. Aha! His suspicion was right.

Slowly, very slowly, he pressed his lips to the faux leather cover of the bible. It wasn’t a simple peck. He held his lips in place for a few seconds, his eyes closed. A believer. A true believer. He removed his lips from the book and touched his forehead with it. Again, he held the book in place, held it against his forehead for a few seconds, his eyes closed.

Then he handed the bible back to me.

So. My Judeo-Christian bible had been blessed by a Muslim cleric, used as a sacred object in a private sacrament. I looked at my little bible. It was the same,  but it wasn’t. Not anymore. It seemed to have a different … what? Aura? Vibe?

I opened it at random to Exodus 19:9: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever.”

That’s the biblical passage I turned to. And outside the bus window, to the right, where there was an endless expanse of desert, a thick dust cloud had formed and was moving toward us. Those in the bus knew what was coming and they shut all the windows. We were in for a stuffy, hot ride. Soon, the smell inside the bus was acrid, the odor of fermented milk.

I knew the cloud was perfectly natural at this time of year, and you can twist just about any biblical passage so that it’s pertinent to whatever you’re going through. But still. Did all this mean anything? Was this some sort of message?

Of course not. I wasn’t going to let this event turn me into a believer. No way.

Roberto Loiederman has been a merchant seaman, journalist, and TV scriptwriter. His work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and 2015, and he is co-author of  The Eagle Mutiny www.eaglemutiny.com.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

The Jordans

Some months ago, our family welcomed a new bundle of joy. Twin bundles, really. Jordan and Jordan, weighing a combined one pound, six ounces. Healthy and happy, dare I say perfect.

Following several weeks of anxious anticipation and stock delays, the Jordans arrived via UPS parcel post in an orange box with a white swoosh. They spent their first few hours quietly nestled in tissue paper awaiting the arrival of their adoptive parent, my 13-year-old son, Will.


I watched my son, who only had eyes for his shoes, and silently wondered what had happened to the little boy in the Halloween frog suit.”

Will, who had spent several days tracking the Jordans’ progress from a factory in Minnesota, said to me on his way out the door that morning, “This is the day, Mom. When they get here, will you please leave them in the box.” I wondered whether he thought I might harm them or whether he wanted to be the one to lift the crinkly paper and see their unsmudged faces for the first time.

The box arrived on a Friday. I placed it, unopened, on the kitchen counter and noticed that I felt a little giddy, too.

At three o’clock, Will came flying through the back door, shouting, “Are they here? Are they here?” After admiring the Jordans in their box for several moments, he carefully cradled them in his arms and carried them to the living room to observe them in better light and from all angles.

Several weeks before this day, Will had somewhat sheepishly asked me if he could buy a new pair of shoes. He showed me a picture from the Footlocker website: Jordan Spizike by Nike, on sale but with a hefty price tag. I was still processing the request when he offered to not only order the shoes, but pay for them as well. The selection of this particular pair was the culmination of several weeks of intense scouring of shoe-related Instagram posts. Agog that my son was willing to expend this amount of effort on an apparel item, I handed Will my credit card and told him he could pay me back by babysitting.

I have to admit that they were an attractive pair: space blue and wolf gray with tiny pink accents, a little bit retro, and at size six, not too big and not too small.

The overjoyed parent began snapping pictures to text to his friends with the caption, “They’re here!” His friends, ready with instant replies as teenagers are, texted back, “Sick!” and “You’re such a baller.”

I watched my son, who only had eyes for his shoes, and silently wondered what had happened to the little boy in the Halloween frog suit.

Will and the Jordans wandered upstairs to his room for some one-on-one bonding and left me to ponder this new evolution. There had been signs, with the gradual disappearance of my hair products probably being ground zero. One day when I wasn’t looking, our hair battles officially ended and Will seated himself at the breakfast table with hair that was combed and precisely styled into a shape he and his friends call, “flow.” I later learned that Will’s nickname is “King Flow,” a general acknowledgement that he sports the style best.

Ditched along with the messy bedhead were the athletic pants, the team jerseys and anything in a synthetic fabric. Now there’s Khaki Friday, and button downs are not just for picture day anymore. He’s a small man with a secret life.

Will and the Jordans left later that Friday for a weekend trip with some friends and their families. When he arrived home on Sunday, Will headed straight up to the bathroom. I figured he was probably exhausted or not feeling well, so I went upstairs to check on him. I found Will not huddled over the toilet but painstakingly cleaning his shoes with an old toothbrush. He looked up and asked for some laundry detergent to remove the tougher scuff marks.

I thought back to all the times I’d yelled at him about wet towels on the floor, lights left on, beds unmade and clothes carelessly strewn about, and wondered if neatness was the upside of puberty. But while the room maintains its constant state of disarray, the shoes alone occupy a pedestal of orderliness – always clean and perfectly aligned upon Will’s dresser top. Truly the loves of his life.

I can admit to hating the Jordans. I’d look at them sitting so smugly on their dresser-top throne and wonder if they deserved my son’s affection. Then I’d remember they’re just shoes, not a girl come to take him away. Not yet anyway. A therapist might say that the Jordans represent Will’s new autonomy, that every step he takes in them is a step away from me. He selected them, paid for them and is their dutiful caretaker, whereas I cannot even remove them from the box.

I, too, need a new pair of shoes. I’m not sure what they’ll look like yet, but they’ll need to be sturdy to help me forge a new path. I know that no matter where my shoes take me, I’ll always look forward to weekends, when my son wanders downstairs, barefoot and disheveled, and I can kiss him on the top of his cowlicked head.

Ellen Hainen is pursuing a master’s degree in Creative Writing at Northwestern University. Originally from Memphis, she currently lives and writes in Wilmette, Illinois.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

Mama Bear

I sat all alone on the big chair outside the principal’s office. Hardened juvenile delinquents had sat in that chair, waiting to be told they were expelled. And now I was one of those condemned men.


Whooh! Cocky kid!” Mrs. Saito said, right out loud. “He must be a Korean!”

This day had gone crazily awry. I was about to be drop-kicked out of this prestigious high school. I would die a violent death when I got home, and it wasn’t my fault. How strange, that the wheels of justice at Roosevelt High School were about to crush me so unjustly.

I was not the kind of kid who shouted abuse at a school administrator and made her cry. I had just done that, but that’s not who I was. I had gone to the academic programmer in a good mood that morning, with a legitimate request. Instead of the college preparatory classes I had requested, she gave me a General Studies program, the kind given to kids who would join the army or the circus after high school. All I wanted was a corrected class schedule. I had taken all the prerequisite courses, and obtained all the necessary teacher approvals. But the programmer refused to listen to me. In fact, she took a hateful tone, talking to me. “These classes aren’t for kids like you,” she hissed at me. “Only our best students belong in the AP and college prep classes.”

That hurt. But I kept calm. “Mrs. Saito,” I pleaded, “just look at my approval letters.” But she groaned, clapped her hands to her ears, and stomped into the tiny office of her friend the guidance counselor.

“Whooh! Cocky kid!” she said, right out loud. “He must be a Korean!” Someone laughed derisively at that remark. I yelled at her through the wall, “You’re goddamn right I am!” I heard her gasp, and before she could say another word I roared even louder, “Give me my frigging program, you stupid cow!” And as soon as I said this, I knew I had sealed my own fate.

You know that comic moment at the circus, when an army of clowns pile out of a single tiny car? Not only did Mrs. Saito come rolling out of that tiny back office, but so did her cohort, the counselor with the coke bottle glasses, and the disciplinary assistant principal. They formed a Greek chorus of wooden masks with horrified expressions. A triptych of doom. I knew what they’d say, and they said it in damning strophes and anti-strophes.

“We’re transferring you right now. You’re out of district, and there’s no place in this school for a troublemaker like you,” the disciplinarian proclaimed.

Then, she of the coke bottle glasses ordered, “We’re calling your parents in here to explain why we’re taking this action. Tell your father to talk to us in Mr. Wong’s office.”

“Let’s hear your mother talk her way out of this,” Mrs. Saito snickered.

I felt a glimmer of hope at the mention of my mother. She had stood up for me twice already this year. No, we weren’t in the Roosevelt district, but our neighborhood high school could not serve my academic needs, she argued. Only Roosevelt could. The principal, Mr. Wong, sympathized with us, and he agreed to that arrangement. But the disciplinarian, the guidance counselor with the coke bottle glasses, and Mrs. Saito the programmer made it their business to purge the school of me. Smarter by far than any of these three, my mother would protect me the way a mama bear protects her cub.

My parents arrived. Mr. Wong motioned them into his large office, where Mrs. Saito and her two witnesses waited for them. I could hear Mrs. Saito’s theatrical sobbing. My father, the ex-Army staff sergeant, looked at me in that “I’ll deal with you later” way of his. My mother looked perplexed and sad. “You wait out here, John,” Mr. Wong said, not in an unfriendly way. He shut the door on me.

I heard bits and snatches of the conversation behind that wall. I heard Mrs. Saito’s angry sobbing. I heard my parents’ apologetic tones, followed by my mother’s questioning. I heard more sobbing from Mrs. Saito, with the other adults’ voices rising, falling, droning at the boundaries of her teary speeches. Worst of all were the icy silences that punctuated and protracted these awful proceedings.

The first words I could make out were my mother’s. “John wouldn’t talk like that unless …” Then, Mrs. Saito’s hurt retort, “That’s what he called me!” Other voices confirmed the charge. My mother persisted. “Look, this is very hard to understand. We have to hear John’s side of the story.” Arguments. Silence. The door opened, and Mr. Wong beckoned me inside. Before anyone could stop him, my father launched right into me.

“What you called her?” he demanded.

“Stupid cow.” I answered dejectedly. “I was wrong, Mrs. Saito, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“No excuse! Why you call her that?” my dad shouted, thrusting his angry face close to mine.

“She called me a Korean trouble-maker,” I answered. Mrs. Saito looked away, shielding her face with her hand. The counselor and assistant principal stared at the table in front of them. Mr. Wong frowned at Mrs. Saito, as if to say “You didn’t tell me that.” My father looked stunned for just an instant, but he shouted at me again. “Still no excuse, John! I hear you swear at her, eh?”

“No! I didn’t swear at her…” I equivocated. My father cut me off. “What you said to her, den?”

“I said, ‘You’re goddamn right I am!’’ My father blinked once in surprise. For just a nano-second, the crinkle of a smile appeared around his eyes, and he began to laugh. He stopped himself, but he understood. His son had been provoked, after all. He redirected his withering glare from me to Mrs. Saito. It was like watching the gun turret on a tank traversing over to a new target. Mr. Wong quickly intervened. “Is this true?” he asked Mrs. Saito. She didn’t answer. “This changes things,” Mr. Wong said. My father shook his head, his eyes still boring into Mrs. Saito’s averted face. Justice! Soon there would be a mushroom cloud where Mrs. Saito now sat.

But then I saw my mother put her hand on my father’s knee. He turned and looked at her and then settle back in his chair. I turned to my mom, to urge her not to stop my dad. But then she put her hand on mine. And I settled back into my seat.

Mrs. Saito got up abruptly and started to leave, but my mother stopped her cold. She spoke in Japanese, in that sweet, chirpy tone of voice that Japanese women so often use when they chat with each other.

Chotto matte kudasai, Saito-san. Anone. Anata wa naze kankoku-jin-wa kirai desuka? Which translated means,“Wait a minute, Mrs. Saito. Tell me, why do you dislike Koreans?”

Mrs. Saito looked like a frog pinned to a dissecting pan. “Watashi wa honto-ni niho-njin desu. I am a true Japanese,” she answered, her voice full of hurt pride.

Still in that girlish voice, my mom countered, “I-ie, watashi wa honto-ni nihon-jin desu. Anata wa bakayaro desu.” Her voice was kind, but what she said was, “No, I am a true Japanese. You are a damned fool.” None of the other administrators knew what she’d said. Mr. Wong was Chinese. The counselor and the assistant principal were German-Americans. But I knew. And my father knew. She went on. “Anata wa nihon-jin ja nai. Okinawa-jin desu. Naze Okinawa-jin-de aru kotoga hazu-kashii desuka? You’re not Japanese you’re Okinawan. Why are you ashamed of that?””

There was something very soothing, very forgiving in her voice.

“Wasure mashitaka? Issho ni gakko ni ikkimashita, ne? Have you forgotten? We went to school together.”

My mother told her something in a confidential tone, and Mrs. Saito looked relieved. She nodded.   Only Dad and I heard the steely edge in her voice in her next sentence. I couldn’t understand all of it. Something about “If you ever… John again …” Her eyes darted quickly to my father, who sat there smoldering like a volcano, then back again at Mrs. Saito. And she asked, “Wakarimasuka? Do you understand me?”

Mrs. Saito nodded again, and she promised, “I’ll correct John’s class schedule tomorrow morning.”

My mother nodded, satisfied, and smiled a lovely smile at Mrs. Saito. “Yosh! Arigato gozaimasu. Excellent,” she said. “Thank you very much.” The tension in the room evaporated.

“You no worry about John,” my father assured everyone. “I’ll take care of this.”

And he did. He bought me a cheeseburger and a coke.

Shortly before she passed away, I visited my mother back in Hawaii and asked her what she had said to Mrs. Saito. “Oh, I told her it was stupid not to be proud of being Okinawan, and wrong of the Japanese to hate Okinawans, or Koreans, for that matter. And I told her not to try that again, or the next time I wouldn’t stop your dad.”

When my daughter Leah was very young, I composed a series of bedtime stories for her about the great Mama Bear of the Forest. In all these stories, Leah is rescued by her friend, Mama Bear, who sends the bullies running for cover, and even turns some of them into friends with her kindness. I didn’t realize it right away, but I came to see that my own mother was Mama Bear.

“Oh, Daddy,” Leah would say smiling as I tucked her in, “I love my Mama Bear! Where does she live?” And I’d thump my chest tell her, “She lives right here, Leah.”

John Hahm was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and is currently a teacher at Northside College Prep High School in Chicago where he also and writes and tells stories.
Photo by Rick Rasmussen.


Be Like Mike

The 1960s neighborhood I grew up in was an architectural embodiment of the crew cut. We had straight, clear-cut streets, with three models of houses, none of which topped a story and a half in height. Everyone took care of their own lawn, and everyone favored straight, low, evergreens across the front.

Chicago neighborhood ariel view

Mike came to understand that he was not simply a vassal, but an accomplice, and implicated in possible crimes. Of course, the organization would “protect” him, as long as he stayed loyal.”


It was mostly a Protestant neighborhood, not fancy, though a bit WASPY, which put it slightly above our social class. But my family did its best to fit in. We were clean and well-groomed, and we always scrubbed away evidence of spaghetti sauce from every surface in our home. We had a white Chevy sedan, which we shared with the neighbors who paid the insurance. We had two pairs of shoes each: school shoes and gym shoes. Luckily, all the neighborhood kids ran around without shoes on in summer.

My family got by, thanks in great measure to John and Jackie Kennedy, the homemade royals who proved that Catholics could be upper crust, too. But underneath the surface, my family had more in common with Kennedy’s Camelot than most people knew. There were the obvious comparisons. Like the Kennedys, we were both Catholic and ethnic — the Kennedys were Irish and we were Italian — but both groups shout a lot and go to church. Just like Jack Kennedy, my dad had given up wearing hats. My dad wasn’t the bon vivant he would have liked to be; we kids always smashed his hats. But still. No hat. My mom was young and glamorous and had black hair like Jackie. I was Caroline’s age and my sister Christi was John-John’s age.

Then there was the clincher. We had certain connections. My great uncle was in the mob. Of course, none of us kids knew that at the time. He wasn’t a total “mob guy.” Just was a minor functionary, a fixer in the days before the Silver Shovel investigation killed the profession.

Uncle Mike was a little, anonymous, clean-looking guy whose job it was to approach judges and offer a “fee” for a preferred settlement regarding traffic tickets, code violations, zoning ordinances, and city inspections. It was “nothing,” my mother said. Nevertheless, he lived in a lovely Camelot-style home in an old-money suburbs of Chicago. He had a 26-inch color television set in his living room. He had a long, low-slung car, a big black Cadillac. His wife, my Aunt Pauline, wore gold lame heels, real furs, and actual pearls around her pale, porcelain neck. No one would ever have guessed she used to be a stripper.

My brothers and sister and I weren’t aware of those last bits, of course. The stripper thing or the mob thing. We only knew that when we visited on the holidays, bearing cheap little gifts, we were never to exclaim about their color television set, or their roadster, or the golden clothing and furniture.

“Just keep your mouth shut,” my mother said, flatly. “You can admire nice new things if they are pointed out to you. But don’t mention them otherwise.”

Neither could we expect much in the way of gifts from our rich-seeming uncle. We got weird gifts like re-gifted socks and packs of headbands.

“I know he looks rich,” my mother murmured. “But he didn’t buy all those things. They were gifts. From his boss. But he doesn’t like his boss,” my mom said. “So don’t mention it. And don’t mention that he doesn’t like his boss! Just don’t talk. ‘Til we get out of there.” Then she put on her special company grin and shoved us all inside.

My mother’s orders came partly from a World War II era fear of oppression. In some Chicago neighborhoods, Italians were only barely tolerated, in those days, and only for their food. She was aware, too, of gangland violence. But mostly, she just wanted to show respect for my Uncle Mike. She knew his treasures weren’t trophies. Instead, they made a mockery out of having it all.

Uncle Mike wasn’t born in Chicago. His family arrived in 1909, when he was five, in search of new world security and comfort. Mike was the oldest of three kids, and he set out as soon as he could to make a living. But the job market was tight. No one wanted to hire an underage dago, wop, spic, or wetback. Those slurs were interchangeable then, and they all referred to Italians as well as any others.

He had somewhere to turn, though. A guy on the street told him about it. “There’s an “organization, see?” the guy said. They’re all Italian, like us. Kind of a mutual aid kinda thing. They can help you out.”

Mike was no dummy. “What do they get out of it?” he asked.

His friend shrugged. “Workers!” he said. “I dunno, but if you want a job, they got ‘em.”

So Mike went to see the guy. A nice guy. Seemed to get a lot of respect. He told the guy he was a good worker, and the guy gave him a job on the pier. Mike said something like, “Thanks, I owe you one,” or, “If I can ever do you a favor.” Or, “Wow! How can I ever repay you?”

You’ve been to the movies. You know how it goes. But Mike didn’t know. Those movies weren’t out yet and if they were, he wouldn’t have had the cash to see them.

So after he’d been working a while, Mike’s “benefactor” approached him for a favor. Perfectly legal. Carry this to there. Mike did it because he owed the guy. But he got paid handsomely for his work, and the debt wasn’t canceled, just postponed. Other favors followed. They got shadier and shadier, until Mike came to understand he was not simply a vassal, but an accomplice, and implicated in possible crimes. Of course, the organization would “protect” him, as long as he stayed loyal.

Mike was getting pretty busy, so he quit his other job. He was working for what they called “Our Thing.” That’s what Cosa Nostra Means: Our Thing.

In some ways, Mike’s career was not exceptional. It was even pretty good. His job had lots of variety, his boss was generous, and he was part of a community, of sorts. Once he got on his feet, he was able to rescue his girl, Pauline, from her sordid career and marry her. She quit her job and gave him a golden-haired boy, whom Pauline called Donny and Mike called “Paisano.” They bought a little bungalow in one of the better Italian ghettos and they went to Italian-American picnics in the woods and they raised their little boy and hoped for a girl to match.

It was a life. But there was something about it that rankled my Uncle Mike. He didn’t particularly like being dishonest. He hated the risks. It bothered him to think of his total dependence on his boss. He dreaded the thought that Donny, who was frail and had only one lung, might go into the “thing.” So Mike decided to quit.

I don’t know how that scene went. Did Mike walk into the boss’s walnut-paneled office and say, “Boss, I’m sick of being a crook”? Did he use euphemisms? “Boss, I think it’s time for me to retire”? Did he write a letter of resignation? What about references?

However he did it, though, this quitting thing wasn’t popular. Clean-cut Mike had become a valuable guy. So the boss cajoled Mike back into the business.

That worked for a year or so. But Mike got restive again. This time, somebody beat him up. The third time was the charm, though. It was a Friday night, right after Victory Day in Europe (VE) Day.  Mike quit again. So some thugs went for Donny. He was 18 years old and downtown clubbing for maybe the second time in his life. They didn’t shoot Donny from a bank depository; they beat him to pieces in an alley behind a Rush Street bar. Neither Donny nor Mike was all that important, so they probably just meant to scare him into line. But Donny’s one little lung collapsed, and he died that night.

Mike? He never quit again.

His story was over long before his life was. His life dragged on another thirty or thirty-five years, post-Camelot years. He and his wife, my great aunt Pauline, tried some more and failed to have a baby girl. Then they tried and failed to coax my mom into moving in with them. Eventually, they adopted a golden-haired boy they tried to love. They moved to a middle-class suburb and then onto a tonier one and their house filled up with stuff. Uncle Mike ignored it and planted a garden, and no one, not a soul, could set foot on his grass.

The neighbors liked this tiny, tidy man, and they marveled aloud at his garden. I met one of them once, when I was still a kid.

“What kind of a world would it be,” she beamed, “If everyone could be like your old Uncle Mike?”

Mike patted my shoulder and smiled back at them: A big, wide smile. Except for his eyes.

Sheri Reda is a writer, editor, life-cycle celebrant, restaurant host, parent, and youth librarian and storyteller. She participates in many live lit events around Chicago.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.