Wildcat Excerpt

The heat in the attic was so heavy that not even the flies had enough energy to move. The two children lay on the floor. Sweat rose on their skin, gluing their clothes to the linoleum.

Normally on a hot August Friday, they’d be at the beach, but Marie Warshawski had decreed that her son must remain close to home today. Normally the cousins would have disregarded this edict, but today Victoria was nervous, wanting to hear as much of the grown-up gossip as possible.

She and Boom-Boom—Bernard to his mother—often spent afternoons together: that was when Victoria’s mother gave music lessons in the minute front room of her own South Chicago bungalow. If Victoria stayed home, she either had to read quietly in her attic room or sit primly in the front room to watch and learn from her mother’s few good singers.

Just as a student was starting to warm up, Victoria would announce glibly that she would visit Aunt Marie, choosing not to notice her mother’s prohibition against running wild with her cousin.

In the winters, Victoria followed Boom-Boom to the makeshift ice rinks where he played a rough brand of pick-up hockey. No girls allowed, period, which caused some fights between the cousins—away from the other boys, Boom-Boom wanted Victoria to help him perfect the slapshot of his idol, Boom-Boom Geoffrion.

“Tough,” she’d say before skating to the other side of the rink. “Girls can’t play hockey, remember?” He’d skate after her, they’d argue and even wrestle, until he went down on one knee and said, “Victoria, please help me. When I’m a star with the Blackhawks, I’ll get you free tickets to every game.”

In the summers, the cousins spent hours together. With the rest of the neighborhood, they played pick-up baseball in Calumet Park. Or they pooled their coins to take bus and train up to Wrigley Field, where they climbed over the wall behind the bleachers and sneaked into the park. Or they dared each other to jump off the breakwater into Lake Calumet, or rode their bikes past the irate guards at the South Works, playing a complicated hide-and-seek among the mountains of slag.

This Friday, Victoria was too worried about her father to stray from Aunt Marie’s home. Tony Warshawski was a police officer. Along with every other cop on the South Side, Officer Warshawski had been ordered to Marquette Park to help keep the peace.

Martin Luther King had come to Chicago in January, 1966. He was living in an apartment, a slum, the newspapers called it. All summer long, there had been marches in different parts of the city, with Negroes and their white supporters demanding open housing, an end to real estate covenants, access to Lake Michigan beaches, access to city jobs.

“What are real estate covenants?” Victoria had asked her mother.

“White people who own apartment buildings or houses made a law that Negro people can only rent apartments in one part of the city,” Gabriella said. “They cannot be our neighbors here in South Chicago, for example.”

“And they don’t want to be!” Aunt Marie exclaimed. “They know their place, or they did, until that commie King showed up here. And we’re supposed to call him a doctor and a reverend? He’s just a trouble-maker who can’t live without seeing his face on TV or his picture in the paper. We don’t need him here in Chicago, stirring people up, causing trouble.”

And trouble there’d been, by the truckload. Everywhere the marchers went – Negroes along with their white supporters – including nuns and priests, to Aunt Marie’s fury – riots had followed. White people, who’d only ever seen Negroes on public transportation or cleaning the bathrooms in their office buildings, were furious at the thought that Negroes might become their next-door neighbors, swim at the same beaches, even become bus drivers. They threw bricks and bottles and cherry bombs while the police tried to keep order. Tony Warshawski had been away from home for three days at a time, working treble shifts along with every other cop in the city.

Today would be worse, Tony had told his wife and daughter Friday morning before he left for work: everyone’s nerves were on edge. Nothing Mayor Daley said could stop the marchers, and nothing Dr. King said could get the real estate board to change their laws against open housing.

Anger in the Lithuanian and Irish and Polish neighborhoods grew when the city’s new archbishop made every priest read a letter to the parish on open housing as part of a Christ-like life.