Brush Back Excerpt

1

Short Stop

IMG_0075I didn’t recognize him at first. He came into my office unannounced, a jowly man whose hairline had receded to a fringe of dark curls. Too much sun had baked his skin the color of brick, although maybe it had been too much beer, judging by those ill-named love handles poking over the sides of his jeans. The seams in the faded corduroy jacket strained when he moved his arms; he must not often dress for business.

“Hey, girl, you doing okay for yourself up here, aren’t you?”

I stared at him, astonished and annoyed by the familiarity.

“Tori Warshawski, don’t you know me? I guess Red U turned you into a snob after all.”

Tori. The only people who called me that had been my father and my cousin Boom-Boom, both of them dead a lot of years now. And Boom-Boom’s boyhood friends—who were also the only people who still thought of the University of Chicago as a leftist hideout.

“It’s not Frank Guzzo, is it?” I finally said. When I’d known him thirty years and forty pounds ago, he’d had a full head of red-gold hair, but I could still see something of him around the eyes and mouth.

“All of him.” He patted his abdomen. “You look good, Tori, I’ll give you that. You didn’t turn into some yoga nut or a vegan or something?”

“Nope. I play a little basketball, but mostly I run the lakefront. You still playing baseball?”

“With this body? Slow-pitch sometimes with the geriatric league. But my boy, Frankie, Junior, Tori, I got my fingers crossed, but I think he’s the real deal.”

“How old is he?” I asked, more out of politeness than interest: Frank always thought someone or something was going to be the real deal that made his fortune for him.

“He’s fifteen now, made varsity at St. Eloy’s, even though he’s only a freshman. He’s got a real arm. Maybe he’ll be another Boom-Boom.”

Meaning, he could be the next person to make it out of the ‘hood into some version of the American dream. There were so few of us who escaped South Chicago’s gravitational pull that the neighborhood could recite our names.

I’d managed, by dint of my mother’s wishes, and my scholarships to the University of Chicago. My cousin Boom-Boom had done it through sports. He’d had seven brilliant seasons with the Blackhawks until he injured his ankle too badly for the surgeons to glue him back in any shape to skate. And then he’d been murdered, shoved off a pier in the Port of Chicago, right under the screw of the Bertha Krupnik.

When Boom-Boom and Frank hung out together, Frank hoped he’d be a real deal, too, in baseball. We all did–he was the best shortstop in the city’s Catholic league. By the time I started law school, though, Frank was driving a truck for Bagby Haulage. I don’t know what happened; I’d lost touch with him by then.

Maybe he could have been a contender. He wasn’t the only kid in South Chicago with a spark of promise that flared up and died. They start to spread their wings and then they fall to earth. It’s hard to leave the world you know. Even if it’s a painful place at times, you grow up learning how to navigate it. The world north of Madison Street looks good on TV, but it has too many hidden traps, places where a homey can make a humiliating mistake.

Perhaps Frankie, Jr., would have the drive, the mentors and the talent to be another Boom-Boom. All I said was I hoped Frank was right, it would be great. “You stayed in South Chicago?” I added.

“We moved to the East Side. My wife—uh, Bet—uh,” he stumbled over the words, his face turning a richer shade of brick.

Frank had left me for Betty Pokorny when we were all in high school. Her father had owned Day & Night Bar & Grill. When the mills were running three shifts, no matter what time you got off or went on, you could get steak and eggs with a boilermaker.

When Betty started smirking at me in the high school hallway, I’d been heart-broken for a few weeks, but my dad told me that Frank wasn’t right for me, that I was looking for love in all the wrong places because Gabriella had died a few months earlier. He’d been right: it had been years since I’d thought about either Frank or Betty.

Looking at Frank this morning, in his ill-fitting jacket and uneasy fidgeting, he seemed vulnerable and needy. Let him imagine that hearing about Betty could cause me a pang or two.

“How are Betty’s folks?” I asked.

“Her ma passed a few years back, but her dad is still going strong, even without the bar—you know they had to shut that down?”

“Someone told me,” I said. Day & Night had followed the mills into extinction, but by then I was so far removed from the neighborhood that I hadn’t even felt any Schadenfreude, only a vague pity for Frank.

“Her dad, he keeps busy, he’s handy with tools, builds stuff, keeps the house from falling over. I guess you don’t know we moved in with him when, well, you know.”

When they got married, I guess. Or maybe when Stella went to prison. “What did you do about your place on Buffalo?”

“Ma kept it. I guess my dad’s insurance or something let her make the payments while she was in Logan. I looked in on it once a week, made sure nothing was leaking or burning, kept the rats and the gangbangers from moving in. Ma says she owns it clear and free now.”

“She’s out?” I blurted.

“Yeah. Two months ago.” His heavy shoulders sagged, further stressing the shoulders in the jacket.

Annie Guzzo had been three years younger than me and I was finishing my junior year of college when she died. I counted in my head. I guess it had been twenty-five years.

South Chicago was a neighborhood where violence was routine, ordinary. Stella Guzzo had grown up in a hardscrabble house herself and shouting and hitting were her main modes of functioning. We all knew she hit her daughter, but what turned people’s stomachs was that Stella had beaten Annie to death and then walked up to St. Eloy’s to play bingo. Not even my Aunt Marie, Stella’s chief crony, stood up for her.

“I never made those marks on my girl,” Stella protested at the trial. “They’re lying about me, making me look bad because I was trying to get Annie to see the facts of life. She was getting those big ideas, way above herself. She didn’t think she needed to vacuum or do the laundry because she was going to school, but she needed to remember she was part of a family. Everyone has to carry their weight in a family. She’s got a brother, he’s the one with a future and he needs looking after, I can’t do it all on my own, especially not with their father dead. But Annie was fine when I left the house.”

Father Gielczowski, the priest at St. Eloy’s, had testified for Stella: she was a good woman, a dedicated mother. She didn’t spare the rod, but that was what made her a good mother; she didn’t tolerate the rudeness a lot of modern women let their children get away with.

Priests usually play well with Chicago juries, but not this time. Stella was built on massive lines, not fat, but big, like the figurehead of a Viking ship. Frank took after her, but Annie was small, like their father. The state’s attorney showed pictures of Annie’s battered face, and the family photos where she looked like a dark little elf next to her mother’s broad-shouldered five-ten.

Instead of manslaughter, the state went for second-degree homicide, and they got it. I didn’t remember the trial clearly, but I don’t think the jury deliberated longer than half a day. Stella drew the full two dimes, with a little extra thrown in to punish her for her belligerent attitude in court.

I never would be a Stella fan, but the thought of her alone in a decrepit South Chicago bungalow was disturbing. “Is she there by herself?” I asked Frank. “It’s hard dealing with the outside world when you’ve been away from it so long. Besides that, South Chicago is a war zone these days, between the Kings, and the Insane Latin Dragons and about five other big gangs.”

He fiddled with a chrome paperweight on my desk. “I told Ma it wasn’t safe, but where else was she going to go? Betty didn’t want her living with us. It didn’t seem right, turning my own mother away after all she’s been through, but, you know, she’s not the easiest person to have around. Ma said she knew when she wasn’t wanted. Besides, she insisted on returning to the old place. It’s hers, she says, it’s what she knows.

“She doesn’t care that the neighborhood’s shot to heck. Or she cares but all her old pals, they’ve moved further south, or they’re in assisted living. Either way, she doesn’t want to be near them. Thinks they’ll always be talking about her behind her back.”

Frank dropped the paperweight. It bounced onto the floor where it dented one of the boards. We watched it roll under my work table.

“That isn’t why you came up here today, is it Frank?” I asked. “You’re not imagining I’ll babysit Stella, I hope.”

He picked up a stapler and started opening it and snapping it shut. Staples began falling onto the desktop and floor. I took it from him and set it down, out of his reach.

“What is it, Frank?”

He walked to the door, not trying to leave, just trying to pull words together. He walked around in a circle and came back.

“Tori, don’t get mad, but Ma thinks—Ma says—she thinks—she says—“

I waited while he fumbled for words.

“Ma is sure she was framed.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me.”

“You know she was?” His face lightened.

“No, Frank. But I believe she wants to rewrite the story of her life. She always set herself up as the most moral pious woman in South Chicago, then she does time, can’t face the women she used to look down on. Of course she has to change the past so she’s the martyr, not the villain.”

He pounded his thighs in frustration. “She could have been framed, it could have happened. I never believed she would have hit Annie hard enough to hurt her.”

“I am not going to spend time and energy trying to prove your mother’s innocence.” My mouth set in a tight line.

“Did I ask you to do that? Did I? That isn’t what I want.” He sucked in a deep breath. “She can’t afford a lawyer, a real lawyer, I mean, not a public defender, and—“

“And you thought of me?” I was so angry I jumped to my feet. “I don’t know what the gossip about me is in South Chicago, but I did not become Bill Gates when I moved away. And even if I did, why would I help your mother? She always thought Gabriella was some kind of whore, that she cast a spell over your dad and then stole Annie. Stella liked to say I was a bad apple falling close to a rotten tree, or words to that effect.”

“I—I know she said all that stuff. I’m not asking you to be her lawyer. But you could ask questions, you’re a detective, and people know you, they’d trust you the way they wouldn’t trust a cop.”

By now his face was so scarlet that I feared he’d have a stroke on the spot.

“Even if I wanted to do this, which I don’t, I don’t know the neighborhood any more. I’ve been away as long as Stella has. Longer.”

“You were just back there,” he objected. “I heard about it at Sliga’s, that you’d been to the high school and everything.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. South Chicago and the East Side are like a small town. You sneeze on Ninetieth Street, they whip out a handkerchief on Escanaba Avenue.

Over the weekend, I’d taken Bernadine Fouchard, Boom-Boom’s goddaughter, on a tour of my cousin’s old haunts. I showed her the place near Dead Stick Pond where he practiced skating in the winter, and where I’d help him hunt for the puck when it went into the nearby marsh grasses. We’d gone to the breakwater in Calumet Harbor where Boom-Boom and I used to dare the freighters by jumping in to swim. I’d taken her to the high school where I played on the state champion basketball team, picked up tacos at Estella’s on Commercial Avenue. We hadn’t gone to Sliga’s bar, but probably someone at the high school mentioned it over a boilermaker.

“I went as a tourist, Frank. I can’t help your mother.”

He came over to me, gripping my arms. “Tori, please. She went to, well, to a lawyer, who told her there wasn’t any evidence.”

I pulled away. “Of course she doesn’t. If she’d had any evidence when Annie died, she could have used it at her trial.”

“Tori, come on, you know what it’s like, you go to court, it’s all confusing, she never pled guilty but the lawyer, he was inexperienced, he didn’t know how to run the case.”

Frank was right: a trial is bewildering for inexperienced defendants. I didn’t like Stella, but I could imagine how unbalanced she must have felt. Good Christian woman, going to Mass every Sunday, she wouldn’t have known the first thing about how evidence is presented, how everything you say on the stand, or before you ever get to trial, is taken apart and put together again in a way you’d never recognize.

“Even so, I am not wasting time and energy on problems Stella brought on herself.”

“Can’t you let go of that old grudge? Ma’s had a hard life. Dad died in the mill, she had to fight the company for his workers comp, then Annie died—“

“Frank, listen to yourself. She murdered Annie. And she had to fight the company for the comp claim because she started spreading rumors that your father committed suicide. Don’t you remember what Stella did at Gabriella’s funeral? She marched in on the middle of the service and dragged Annie out, yelling that Gabriella was a whore. I do not feel sorry for your mother. I will never feel sorry for your mother.”

Frank grabbed my hands. “Tori, that’s why I thought—hoped—don’t you remember, that was the night—Annie was that upset, I never saw her like that, when Ma dragged her home—if someone told me Ma or Annie, one would kill the other, I would have thought Annie for sure, after your ma’s funeral. But I—don’t you remember?”

My mother’s funeral was a blur in my mind. My father and I, uncomfortable in our dress-up clothes. The pallbearers—my Uncle Bernie; Bobby Mallory, my dad’s closest friend on the force; other cops, all in their dress uniforms; a police chaplain, since my unreligious mother hadn’t known a rabbi. Gabriella had been a wisp by the time she died; her coffin couldn’t have taken six big men to lift it.

Mr. Fortieri, my mother’s vocal coach, fought back tears, twisting a silk handkerchief over and over, but Eileen Mallory wept openly. I could feel the tightness in my throat—I wasn’t going to cry, not in front of my Aunt Marie. Annie Guzzo’s sobs had angered me. What right had she to cry for Gabriella?

And then Stella roared in, beside herself. Mouth flecked white with spit, or was that a detail I was adding? At home that night I’d sat alone in the dark in my attic room, staring at the street, unable to move, leaving my dad to deal with his drunk sister Elena and the stream of neighbors, of cops, of my mother’s piano and voice students. And then—

Frank had appeared at the top of the steep flight of stairs, come to say how sorry he was, for my loss, for his mother’s behavior. In the dark, sick with loss, tired of the adult world on the ground floor, I’d found a comfort in his embrace. Our teenage fumblings with clothes and bodies, neither of us knowing what we were doing, somehow that got me through the first hard weeks of Gabriella’s death.

I squeezed Frank’s fingers and gently removed my hands. “I remember. You were very kind.”

“So will you do this, Tori? Will you go back to South Chicago and ask some questions? See if there’s something that didn’t come out at the trial?”

Past the naked, unbearable pleading in his face, I could see him as he’d been at seventeen, athletically slender, red-gold curls covering his forehead. I’d brushed them out of his eyes and saw the lump and bruise on his forehead. I got it sliding into second, he’d said quickly, scarlet with shame, pushing my hand away.

My mouth twisted. “One free hour, Frank. I’ll ask questions for sixty minutes. After that—you’ll have to pay like any other client.”