“Sundown,” Lucas Thornton

At night, you seem agitated. Actually, it’s not even at night. At night, you’re usually asleep. By the time total darkness comes around, maybe around seven-thirty this time of year, you’re out, completely out. You lay there sprawled on the recliner with that Noah’s Ark blanket you sewed for your daughter, my mother, wrapped up around you. I usually carry you to your room then, shuffling past the shadows in the hallway and opening the door to your bedroom with my toes. You don’t weigh much and when I lay you down to sleep properly I can’t really convince myself that I carried another human being to their bed. But it’s no matter, no matter at all. I just do wish that you would fall asleep quicker.

I guess if it was winter then it would be easier. Night, perfect black night, comes so quick then. There’s no time for dusk. The cold just whisks it away like so many other things. But it’s summer now and dusk, evening, twilight, whatever you call it just sits and stays there unwelcomed. I see the orange, dying light shooting into the windows beside the television and I begin to watch the intensity of the light dissipate until it is no more and all is silent within the living room, including you finally, except for the television, which is on Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy right then because it’s the seven o’clock hour and game shows always come on after the nightly news at six-thirty. It’s an established fact, but you don’t seem to recall it.

Your capacity for remembrance has faded, though not faded completely, that will come soon enough, but, for the time being, let’s rejoice that you still remember having a sister who has cancer rather than not remembering you had a sister at all. She’s dead now, you know. She passed three months ago in a hospital thirty miles from here. You ask how she’s doing most days and I’m in a constant fight with myself over what to tell you. Most days I tell you the truth. “Aunt Alicia’s dead,” I say and you look at me all confused and you say back, “That can’t be, she’s fine. I saw her the other day,” or something to that extent. But eventually, for the time being, you accept her death and you get sad. You never cry. You just become depressed and irritable with melancholy until some plaque or tangle in your brain switches on and makes your brain a blank slate once again. It’s like reliving a tragedy every day and I can hardly bear to see you go through this near daily cycle of loss, so, sometimes, I pull the wool over your hazy eyes and say she’s fine. “Aunt Alicia’s on a vacation in the Bahamas. She won it through Publisher’s Clearing House. Can you believe that?” And yes, you can believe that and yes you can also believe the stock photos of black sand beaches I pull up on my phone as visual evidence for how beautiful the black sand beaches are. “Yeah, Aunt Alicia’s a great photographer.” I hate lying though. I hate it more than seeing you bend your head down and saying a confused prayer for Aunt Alicia every time I tell you that she died three months ago.

I’m surprised that you can still say a prayer, even if you only do it sometimes. When I was young, and you were healthy, I never saw you say a prayer. You beseeched God enough, shouting his name every time you cut yourself cooking. Mom said you were a pious lady. Once, she showed me an old church photo of you, fair haired and bright-eyed as a girl. You won some gospel singing competition and you were smiling, but things change over time. Faith erodes and minds deteriorate. But I guess you were pious all along, if one goes by the theory one only forgets the things which are unimportant. In the case of your present state, I know it’s wrong, but it’s comforting to assume whenever I think about the arbitrary and vicious ways your brain is decaying day by day. Perhaps, as I talk to you now you are forgetting that you should grasp your hands while praying and that you should also end your prayer with amen. And perhaps you’re even forgetting that there is such a concept as God and that people pray to Him during times of distress like when you’re reminded that your sister, Alicia, died three months ago from cancer at a hospital thirty miles from here.

Night has fallen. The light that comes through the shade is now nonexistent. The crickets are chirping, and Jeopardy is on. You’re asleep in the chair, under the Noah’s Ark blanket, and your eyes flutter slightly every now and then. I’ve learned that when your eyes stop fluttering, I should probably take you to bed. Sometimes, on bad nights, you’ll wake up confused and terrified. Your mind rises from the blackness of degradation to find that this decay is still covering your mind. I know you try to fight it, but how can you fight such a thing when the miasma of decay is latched so tight upon your brain? There’s no fight. You can’t fight against decay, so you just wake up blind to the world. You don’t recognize me in the darkness and you fight against me with your small dried hands. I hold on tight until we reach the bed and I turn on the light so you can see it’s me. Then you recognize me, but you’re still confused and you ask a dozen different questions about why you’re here and what the time is. By the time I answer the fifth or sixth one, you’re usually sunk deep into unconsciousness, ready to awaken again as a slate that has been inconsistently erased by an angry and destructive child.

“Kaddish,” Lucas Thornton

For the past two years, Professor Chirovsky’s wife had been lighting candles before dinner. She started it as a whimsy. Every night, two wax candles were placed in the center of the table before being lit and admired over the course of dinner. The professor started out disliking his wife’s whimsy, but over time, with each successive dinner and waxed-over candle, he had grown able to tolerate seeing his wife’s face through a slight veil of flames. Tonight was no different, but, since this had been going on for quite a while, not a single annoyed thought crossed the professor’s mind as his wife put a plate of food in front of him and sat down in her usual spot, across from him.

In her usual spot, Mrs. Chirovsky cut her pork chops in her usual style—rigidly carving her meat against the plate until the table rattled underneath—while the shine of the candle’s flame made her blonde hair glimmer in its usual golden way. Her hair, in his younger years, delighted him. Its color, which recalled images of sun-lit hay basking in old world fields among other poetics, served as a reminder of sorts. It reminded him of all he had accomplished, all he had strived for, and everything unique he had desired which he knew that his family back home would have despised. Her hair still delighted him, but time and cohabitation had drained him of the impetuous, boyish delight that once filled his being when he laid eyes on her. This was the natural progression of things. He did not begrudge it, he merely accepted it, annoying dinner candles and all.

The professor felt the table rattle as he cut his own piece. He chewed, tasted, swallowed. It tasted all right. Fortunately, he was not particularly hungry. In fact, he would have been fine with not eating at all, but that was senseless. At six-forty-five, one ate in the Chirovsky household after all.

He deposited another sliver of pork into his mouth before hearing his wife speak up.

“What do you think will happen to that boy in your class?” Mrs. Chirovsky continued eating as soon as she posed her question. With her mouth moving in constant motion and the light of the candles illuminating her cheeks, the professor saw the wrinkles lining the perimeter of her lips stretching and tightening. Another reminder, he thought, but those rough lines were incomparable to his own. If he reflected the knife he was holding in just the right way, he could have seen his own lined and ragged face, curved and marked by age.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s very unfortunate, very. I fear what they do to him. I don’t think he deserves what he gets.” His eating had stalled. A concerned look, which had recently installed itself into the contours of his face because of this situation, appeared.

“I truly believe they’ll eat him alive. I mean you’ve reported other students who actually meant what they did and they got torn apart. Usually, in situations like these, the people who mean the least amount of harm end up getting in the most amount of trouble. He didn’t mean any trouble and now he’s getting skewered. That’s how things work, I suppose, or at least that’s how the committee works.”

She was stacking the facts up against him. This boy’s indiscretion had somehow become his doing. Her matter-of-factness always stalled him, caused him to think, ruminate on how he could have prevented this. “Yes, but you see Dunya, I had to call committee.”

“Yes, had to, had to call the honor committee because of what? Oh yes, departmental policy. Your hands are tied on the matter; I know you’ve told me. No recourse, no anything, you’re as helpless as he is right now.”

The perfection of her English also intimidated him. She was normally perfect in speech, but, when the intensity of her words reached a certain point, her vibrancy, her determined attempt to deconstruct him as much as possible in a language not her own truly caused him to struggle, to stutter, to resort back to phrases, which to certain people are considered common-place, but to him, they are considered antiquated, ludicrous, foreign-sounding.

Basta, please. I try, my hands are not tied because the matter out of my hands.”

“Is out,” she corrected.

“Yes, is out of my hands, thank you,” he had to thank her, a thankless grammatical correction was grounds for another bout of matter-of-fact disdain.

“But,” he went on, “it is,” he made sure to include that silly one syllable verb this time, “not my fault, not my fault at all, that Chris did not consult me about using, reusing, yes reusing a paper from passed class. A mistake yes, a simple mistake, but not my own.”

“I was not accusing you of it being your own mistake. I was merely saying that you could’ve handled it yourself. He’s a freshman, first semester of university, he does not need to get a failing grade in a class because of a dumb mistake like this. He needs an admonition, or, uh,” she stuttered, looking for the correct colloquial combination, “a slap on the wrist. His academic career will be stained because of this.”

“I agree. I wanted…” the professor’s explanation was interrupted by a phone call. A staccato of electric rings came from the living room. The professor looked to his wife and noticed that during their spar she had stopped eating like him. She usually devoured her dinner.

There were no declarations of “I will get it,” or anything of the like. The couple knew who should pick up the house phone if it rang during their dinner. It was the professor. He rose from his seat, pushed it in, and looked to his wife for a second time. Her lined hands were crossed in front of her lined mouth. The candlelight revealed her age and her apathy. Her eyes did not even follow him as he quickly crossed the threshold into the living room.

The phone rested in its cradle beside the living room’s only loveseat. A red light flashed above the screen. He grasped it, pulling it from its cradle, and interpreted the number displayed on the screen as foreign, an international call from Russia. A momentary period of questioning crossed his mind, but all questions ceased once he put the phone up to his ear and instinctively pressed the “TALK” button.

“Yes, hello?” the professor asked, sitting down.

Kostya, Kostya, Kostya,” he heard through the telephone. No one had said his name like that for ages. So small and childlike, the name’s incantation reminded him of his mother, but, no, the voice was masculine, husky, and desperate sounding.

Konstatin Ivanovich, privyet,” the voice became clearer. Its desperation was replaced with morose. The professor began to piece together the voice’s tones: the cawing diminutive, the brusque hello, it all reminded him of a friend he had last seen at the university in Moscow, but, before those final autumnal days as a student, he had seen Andrei Solomonovich every day; in the slim cobbled streets of his village, in the hallways of their state school, and in the attic of his house, which served as makeshift temple, yeshiva, and gathering place, among other things.

Privyet, Andrei…” Time, its passing, made him unsure of his speech, confused as what exactly to say. Evidently, the passing of time did not cause Andrei any heed. In Russian, the only language Andrei knew fluently at the end of university, he continued to talk.

“I know it’s been a long time,” the desperation and morosity had faded off into a cordial seriousness, “I’m actually quite surprised the number you gave still works. Your mother says hers doesn’t.” The professor instinctually translated everything his old friend said. He heard the syllables, the unmistakably Russian syllables, and turned them into unmistakably Russian words, which thereby formed Russian sentences. But somehow, through some activity of the brain—which had been conditioned, for the past twenty-five years, to turn everything he heard into well-formed, or nearly well-formed, English sentences—he found himself translating his native language. It was strange, hearing a friend in such a way.

Da,” he responded, making sure his own foreign-sounding syllables were as clear as his friend’s, “dolgo.”

“When I last saw you, my Afanasy Andreevich was not even born.” Andrei paused, cleared his throat, and continued. “But, how is your family? Do you have children now? Are you still married to that shiksa?”

The professor was going to respond with a firm da, but Andrei cut in apologetically: “Not shiksa, she’s a woman like any other. When I asked your mother about your number, she just went on and on about her, calling her a shiksa every minute, but she’s an elder. You can’t just change someone’s mind after they’ve been thinking the same thing for seventy years.”

The apology prevented the professor from passively attacking his friend. Twelve years ago, hearing his wife called a shiksa, among other Yiddish expletives, would have left him unimpressed, indifferent. But presently, in this current American age, a long-forgotten word coiling its two strange syllables around his wife’s being inflamed him a bit, causing him to briefly recall the first, rather innocuous, moment both mother and father proceeded to call his newly acquired Dunyasha a shiksa as he came in one late night after having a rendezvous with her in a field of buckwheat. He was out with his friends, he said, but they saw through everything he had to say.

“Dunya and I are still together,” he began slowly, mentally translating every word that flowed through his two lips, “We are doing well,” he paused, unsure of how to go on, “Jakob is nineteen now. He is at the college I teach at. He is doing well, very well.” He gave a quick laugh, knowing what he was about to say would entertain Andrei. “He even has a girlfriend now, who happens to be a shiksa.”

He waited for a similar quick bout of laughter, or any sign of amicable reciprocity, but none came. In fact, nothing came for a tense minute, nothing flooded into his ear except the hum of the landline: electrical silence, it disturbed the professor.

“Andrei… Andrei… privyet?” he said, wondering if some mechanical synapse or undersea wire had short circuited somewhere in the vast five-thousand miles which separated the two.

A voice, once again morose but this time also quavering, broke the silence. “Yes, yes, I am here, do not worry.”

Another long pause ensued. During this time, the professor rose from the loveseat and glanced into the kitchen. His wife had finished her meal. She was cleaning up the table now, wiping down her spot but leaving his barely touched pork chops alone. She looked up at him as she was wiping everything down. Their eyes momentarily met. The disaffected gray of her irises said she had no interest in whom he was speaking with; her current interest lay in her candles, which she blew out, one by one, bending her head down and shooting a bolt of air into the swaying flames.

The professor was sitting on the loveseat again, mindlessly stroking the soft fabric by his thighs, when Andrei spoke up again with a voice devoid of morosity but filled with a cold exactitude which he likened to his wife’s English-inflicted exactitude. However, the main difference between their exactitudes laid not in the linguistics of their speech, English and Russian, but in their purpose. Andrei’s exactitude did not wish to cut his friend or demean him in any way, he only wanted to convey the facts, which he did, thoroughly.

“Last week, Afanasy died on his way to the train station. A truck driver, who was late dropping off a package at the port, hit him on the driver’s side. They said he was killed instantly. The truck driver is okay. He mangled the truck’s grill with my son’s brains, but he’s doing fine except for the few years in prison he’ll have to face. It won’t be that long. It was an accident. He didn’t have any other accidents on record. It was just one of those things that happen at the will of God.

You see, I didn’t know about it for a few hours. He was picking up his girlfriend from the station. My wife and I assumed they got carried away with each other, since they hadn’t seen each other in four months. Walking out the door, I could see the excitement in his eyes like it had been building up inside for the last few weeks and it was almost getting ready to bust out of him, eyes first. But the girl, she’s a nice one, she goes to school in Germany and she’s entirely shaken up by this whole thing. She alerted me to it, over the phone.

I was sitting on the porch about to go back inside because I knew the samovar was heating up for afternoon tea when the phone rang. My wife yelled at me to go get it. She screeched it. Her screeching surprised me since she was in bed with one of her headaches, but I obeyed and answered the phone. And there she was, on the other end, choking up and crying, blubbering like a baby. ‘He’s dead, he’s dead,’ she kept saying. I didn’t even ask who it was because I knew. Her shouts of ‘he’s dead’ didn’t even alert me to it. It was the blubbering. Her sobs, her quivers, her shakes, which I heard and pictured before she started speaking, told me my son had died.

Why else would a pretty little thing like her cry? A sparrow falling would not cause this? Only a death would cause this, a death at the moment of reunification. These two had been hoping, praying, fantasizing about reuniting, but instead one gets death and the other unspeakable grief. How do you like that? Unspeakable, yes, but I speak it, probably because a father burying his son is almost bad as a lover burying her counterpart instead of seeing and kissing her counterpart.

She’s had to get injections like my wife. I’ve thought about getting them, but I simply cannot. I cannot waste a valuable second of waking life forgetting the absence of a son forty years younger than me. I would tear my clothes, wear sackcloth, and spread ashes upon my forehead, but I have already done it all. I would do it again, but I do not have the strength. I would have another funeral, but I cannot bury him twice. I would sit shiva for months on end if God allowed it, which is a funny thing. Since God allowed my son’s death, why can’t I sit shiva until I am a tired, old, and, most importantly, dead man?

“When I am buried, my son will already be buried. I can pray ceaselessly, but my son will still lie cold in the grave. I will do all the things that I have ever done, but my son will still be dead.”

Andrei stopped speaking. His exactitude had run out, made him breathless with the truth. He began to pant on the other end. A deep sigh, a long drawing of air, was heard before the soft sounds of muffled sobs were heard. The professor took all of this in, everything his friend had said, and processed it. In one language, he had heard it and in another he laid it out, chipping away each Russian phrase until it cracked and became a speakable English phrase, and dissected it until his friend’s translated monologue felt something more akin to a Chekhov story he taught his students instead of a heartrending confession from an old friend.

He thought back on the little he had said to his friend in his native, yet foreign, tongue. It sounded basic. The roughness and incongruence of his English would be more fitting to display and convey his condolences to his friend’s loss, but Andrei did not know any English. At least with his Russian, Andrei could hear the bare minimum of what he needed to hear. And what did he need to hear? It was something that was as unspeakable as the true nature of his grief. He said his son’s girlfriend’s grief was unspeakable, but the professor could tell what kind of black despair was hanging to each Russian word. Andrei had only summarized his grief, not expressed it fully. Andrei could tell every forgotten friend, arbitrary stranger, and uncaring fool about the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, but he would never begin to feel anything that resembled completeness, or a significant numbing of his despair, until he rested beneath six feet of earth from head to toe.

So, the professor did the only thing he could do. The only thing he knew that could momentarily assail his grief. He reached back into his memory when he and Andrei saw each other every day, when he was a lad reading about the Motherland in school and reading about Judah in the secrecy of his home. This was a time when his father instructed him in concealment, his mother instructed him in morals, and Andrei instructed him in mischief. As a boy, he took those things and combined them into a desire for more. He wanted more and he got more. It was simple, almost as simple as the thirty-six lines of Aramaic his father, the local rabbi, repeated over countless wooden boxes and Andrei, the local rascal, parodied on so many occasions. Despite years of getting more and more, these words had stuck with him.

“Andrei,” the professor began in Russian, “I know this has been done already, but I am going to do it again. God has no limit to this. You can say it as much as you want.”

The professor’s voice trailed off. Russian ceased and Aramaic began. The difficult syllables—Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba, May His great name be exalted and sanctified—flooded the phone, a one-thousand-year-old phrase of both grief and belief was traveling five thousand miles. He continued, enunciating the words perfectly, not tripping up on any lesser-known line, but persevering through thirty-six lines of Aramaic, which, though he had surely not spoken them for forty years, did not sound in the least bit foreign to him.

By the time he had finished the Kaddish, his friend’s soft sobs were no longer heard. The electric hum of silence was back, and, before saying a few more words of false-sounding Russian condolence, Andrei uttered an exact “spaseeba.” The next thing the professor heard out of his friend was the abrupt click of a finished call.

Professor Chirovsky put the phone back into the receiver and stared at it blankly. He thought about Andrei, his current grief, and his past mischief. He supposed there would be another two-and-a-half-decade gap before speaking to his childhood friend again. For that future time, the professor would probably be saying Kaddish for a different person.

In the kitchen, his wife was washing the few dishes she had used that night. His pork chops had been cleared away, and, when his wife saw that he was returning from that unexpected and long phone call, she said, “I’m sorry, I threw away your food. It was getting cold and I didn’t think you were coming back.”

He only responded when he had once again taken his place at the table. “It fine, I was not hungry anyway.”

She did not bother to correct him. She only asked, “Who was on the phone?”

“A friend,” he said, “an old one.”

Apparently, that was the extent of her curiosity. Within a few more minutes, she finished her dish duties and left the kitchen. Before leaving, she instinctively turned off the lights. The professor knew she did this out of habit and meant no ill will by it, but it slightly annoyed him. He wanted to say something spiteful in Russian, but he controlled it. He instead opted to think about Andrei.

In the dark with only the light of the living room trickling in at his feet, he thought how he could have said more. He could have said something really meaningful in Russian if he put his mind to it. It was the language of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky, he could have at least managed something halfway meaningful and mournful. But, then again, something halfway meaningful was still fifty-percent something else and that something else was usually pretentious, bland, and rote. He could have said more. In his younger days, he wrote Russian poetry some called startling. Perhaps, he could have summoned the last bit of his poetic energies and said something profound to memorialize Andrei’s poor Afanasy. But he didn’t; this was the case and this was reality. He could only hope his Kaddish had helped Andrei in some way. He hoped Andrei’s feeble thank you was truly meant rather than said out of politeness. He could never know what Andrei felt like and that scared him.

Professor’s Chirovsky’s wife came back to the kitchen to find her husband lighting the candles with the lighter she left in the center of the table. She gave him a puzzled look and said defiantly, “That boy you gave up to the honor committee, he’ll hate you.

Professor Chirovsky looked up from the three lit candles and placed the lighter down. Their light illuminated his face, revealing every wrinkle, crack, and bump. Surrounded by the kitchen’s semi-darkness, his shining eyes, the only youthful part of his face, met his wife’s gray eyes.

“He is on his own,” the professor said.


Submission instructions for spring 2018

Submissions for the spring 2018 issue of Cellar Door are now open until Friday, February 2nd, 2018 at 11:59 PM!

See below for instructions:

You may submit a maximum of 3 poems, 3 works of fiction (10 pages double-spaced total), and 5 works of visual art.

All work must be submitted digitally.

POETRY/FICTION: Poetry and fiction must be submitted in MSDOC format. Your name must not appear anywhere in the body of the document. The document must be named in the following format:


ART: Visual art must be in jpeg format. Color images will be accepted along with grayscale.


The file must be named in the following format:


EMAIL POETRY TO: cellardoorpoetry@gmail.com

EMAIL FICTION TO: cellardoorfiction@gmail.com

EMAIL ARTWORK TO: cellardoorart@gmail.com

The body of the email should contain your name, email ad­dress, & titles of the submitted works. In addition, you must include your class, your major(s) and minor, and your home­town.

PLEASE: Don’t forget to attach your work!

Submissions for Fall 2017 issue

Submissions for the fall 2017 issue of Cellar Door are now open until September 22nd at 11:59 PM!

See below for instructions:

You may submit a maximum of 3 poems, 3 works of fiction (10 pages double-spaced total), and 5 works of visual art.

All work must be submitted digitally.

POETRY/FICTION: Poetry and fiction must be submitted in MSDOC format. Your name must not appear anywhere in the body of the document. The document must be named in the following format:


ART: Visual art must be in jpeg format. Color images will be accepted along with grayscale.


The file must be named in the following format:


EMAIL POETRY TO: cellardoorpoetry@gmail.com

EMAIL FICTION TO: cellardoorfiction@gmail.com

EMAIL ARTWORK TO: cellardoorart@gmail.com

The body of the email should contain your name, email ad­dress, & titles of the submitted works. In addition, you must include your class, your major(s) and minor, and your home­town.

PLEASE: Don’t forget to attach your work!


Staring out of four different windows, four friends with four different perspectives from the L train green line snaking above Holden and Wabash before turning left on Lake towards the West Side. As Ethan says, we’re going to get “loosey goosey.” It’s 11:45 a.m., our second day in Chicago. And we’re on our way to a brewery—me, Devin, Ethan, Graham.
Over and past the wide-set boulevards opening out into the Formal Gardens, Grant Park and the museums to the east. On the other side of the car a pale gray ochre of brick stretches high and weaves towards us, at times in courtyard-like spaces, at other times close enough for an outstretched arm to touch. The sky is still a mediated gray.
“Man it’s heavy out there, them streets are full today, boy,” says a man on the car.
“Lot’s of people, lot’s of people comin’ out for sure,” a companion adds.
At Van Buren we rejoin the Loop, the burning center of it all. Rather than disparate clots migrating in similar channels, the avenue pedestrians move as a singular mass now, pushing and pulling in herded waves that ripple to and fro: This side is going to the parks and probably the Bean, this side is going to the Board of Exchange. It’s a far cry from last night’s empty city. The commentator in the car resumes:
“I’m telling you man, shit’s about to happen.”
“Mmmmhmmm. That’s right. Them streets are burstin’ out, boy. Them things are ready.”
The car, previously filled with the white noise of distant garrulity, of idle phone comments, shuffling, and genial “how-do-you-dos,” grows quiet. Gradually. I turn around to view this public transport prophet and his conceding companion. Two seats to my right, he begins again:
“There’s going to be riots in Chicago today, boy.”
“Amen, brother.”
The first speaker, a small, salt-and-pepper bearded, freckled black man in a ragged overcoat with a cane in one hand, sits cross-legged holding a cigarette as if he’s going to light it right here on the train. The commentary momentarily ceased, he settles back into his seat and folds his hands over his lap agitatedly. His companion, a slightly younger looking, bald and tall black man in a jumpsuit and a baseball cap that he constantly removes to rub his head, stands by a door to the immediate right of Graham and Ethan. He, too, holds a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of one hand, twiddles a lighter as he looks out the door anxiously.
“An officer shoots an unarmed black boy, and the city knows about it, and they don’t do a damn thing. Cover it up and put the man on administrative leave. They pay him.” The prophet talks by thrusting out his cigarette hand with gusto, striking the air in front of his face. “Man had 18 complaints against him in his career. Eight-teen. That was an unarmed white boy you think we’d even be having this conversation? Think there’d be some fucking secret videotape? Think he’d be getting paid right now?”
“Hell no. Ain’t no goddam way…”
“And it for damn sure wouldn’t take no goddam year to figure out things…”
“No sir, no it fuckin’ wouldn’t…”
A debate smoldering across the country, blowing in from all sides, disparate dialogue fanning the flames over streets filled with, in fact, made up of fodder. How do we solve adversity, all adversity, of which a large part is the glaringly apparent malfeasance that causes racial adversity, when many are but kites and crows, battering about in the air for their share of a carcass…
“You guys talking about the Martin case?” Devin asks.
“Hell yeah we are,” the man responds as we bend onto Lake Street, heading out to the West Side of the city. “You hear what they’re doing now? They’re bringing in the Justice Department to come look at things. The Justice Department, man, they’re the fucking friends of that police officer. You think that’s going to do a damn thing? And they’re already taking too long on the verdict.”
“And they clearly need to do something soon, people are upset,” Devin says.
“Exactly man, exactly.”
Dev on my left, the man two seats to my right, both are leaning over to share— I’m in the conversation by mere virtue of turning my head. Their eye contact stipulates that I respond. I venture to share:
“Well…to be fair, they’re going to conduct the case in a way that doesn’t set a precedent of expedited justice, which is good in some ways…” Pause. Nervous. Try again. “To me…that at least is a good thing. Otherwise it could backfire against people who the law doesn’t tend to work fairly for.” The friendly nod I receive is confirming, I continue…
“I do agree though that this whole investigation and probe should have started a year ago when the police department was made aware of the situation. I also think that there needs to be definite prosecution by a democratically-chosen third party with limited ties to police organizations.”
“Exactly man, exactly. You don’t think the Justice Department has been here before? You think they did a damn thing to fix the Chicago Police? That force has been broken for years, dude. Years.” Sits back, throws up his hands. “The police riots of 1968, the corruption with the mob, Burge, Miedzianowski, fucking Daley, you think a goddamn thing is going to change if the same people come in to ‘fix things?’”
Devin leans in, too. Also loves speaking with his hands, I feel like a pool of gestures are collecting in my lap:
“It also shouldn’t just be focused on Chicago, right? I think this problem is a nationwide thing.” Vigorous mutual nodding. “Even if the details are as clear as this—which, we can all say….you just watch that video and there’s no doubt that the officer does something uncalled for—“
“—Not a single doubtable thing. And that man said he feared for his life? Is that why you keep shooting into a limp body?”
“—It confirms that there’s some kind of disconnect in the way we police, that there’s some crucial conversation that’s missing. You shouldn’t look at a police officer and feel scared or angry, right?”
“No sir, no way.”
I can’t tell if the other folks on the train are annoyed. But together we’re thriving.
“Police made me and my friend Taylor spend a night in jail for underage drinking in high school. They made a fucking joke of us in front of our whole fucking high school, and it was humiliating. It didn’t teach me anything other than not to respect the police.”
“Yes, ab-so-lute-ly.”
“You know,” I cut back in, “I’ve been reading that a lot of progressive critics say all this stuff should make us look back to the era of neighborhood policing. You know, back when officers were essentially a part of a community rather than acting like military out patrolling for wrongdoers. It was like neighbors looking out for other neighbors’ safety, there wasn’t this us-and-them divide.”
“Exactly,” Dev says. “Exactly.”
“Now, to get to the heat of it, I want to say that we all know—and keep in mind I’m not saying this to offend or affront you all,” the man says, tapping us on the shoulder, his hands raised as if in surrender, “That if this boy had happened to be of your…complexion…this wouldn’t be a debate at all. No. This man would have been put in jail and punished swiftly. And he most certainly would not have been given paid leave.”
“Oh no totally—you’re so right,” says Devin. “It’s a fact that it’s easier to be white in this country. It’s not a pretty one, but it’s there. I think it’s important to conversate about all—everyone’s—problems a whole, but I think that in order to have that conversation we have to recognize the divides. That’s how we can try and help change things and listen.”
“Oh—everyone’s got problems, no doubt in that,” says the prophet, “I just speak from what I know, and what I know is that there’s a problem with the police in this city.”
“And as someone that can’t talk from that perspective, it should be my duty to learn it and listen to your experience, then all of us conversate. In my opinion, that’s how I can best function as a human being—is having that ability to listen.”
“And that’s all we can do, brother: listen. As long as you all keep listening, things are going to change.” He rises from his seat, “Pleasure talking to you young gentleman today,” shakes our hands. “You have a good one, now.”
He taps his companion on the shoulder and they exit at Clark Street, two blocks north of Courthouse Square.
“Good luck with everything,” Devin calls after. They wave back to us as the train pulls away from the platform. Ethan and Graham move over to the two seats to my right.
“Bro…,” Ethan whispers, “That almost got intense.”
“Yeah, I felt that,” I reply.
“I mean, you know…it’s like I agreed with pretty much everything everyone ended up saying, but I freeze up in those situations. I don’t know if I should even say anything.”
“It was good to hear him expand on what he was upset about,” Graham adds. “You know, I’m not big into the news, to be totally honest, but I feel like when I do get into them it always seems like everyone out there doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. They’re just ranting. That guy seemed pretty fucking knowledgeable. Like he definitely knew and felt that shit.”
“Oh totally, totally,” Devin says. “And it’s all about those crucial conversations. You just have to be ready to listen and hope that people give you the privilege of trusting you enough to talk to you. He shouldn’t have had to feel like he was talking to nobody.”
We disembark at the Ashland Avenue station in the Near West Side, across the Chicago River from our host Jake’s neighborhood of the West Loop.
The now-clearing skyline is framed portrait-like by the iron rails of the station bridge, a vista so impressive we have to document it in pictures. It’s hard to imagine that unrest could exist in such a beautiful scene, but alas, not 135 years ago, just south of here, used to stand the residence of the O’Leary family. I laugh; I’m sure the stargazers on that fateful day of Oct. 10 were thinking the same thing before they found themselves fleeing the cupolas as the same vistas began burning…
A single spark conflated by winds and neglect into conflagration, the city serving as its own fueling fodder for wasted energy. Not even the pump house, full of alleviating water, was left standing. Some called it “The Scourge of the Queen of the West,” a response to the irresponsible decadence of Chicago’s expansion. Others called it a “blind Samson” unwitting of whether it worked for good or for evil, a possible boon to developers rather than a tragedy.
The Jungle was written in 1906. The Fire happened in 1871.
A reporter said of a consumed building: “He will look about as good as new, though the traces of the wounds are still visible, if you know where to look for them…”
Where did things stand now, if any differently?