Ghosts of Chicago

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photograph by @coco_liu

 

When Morton awoke, he couldn’t recall what his profoundly dark and airless dream had been about, but the panic lingered. Sunlight streamed through the window of his dingy hotel room in Chicago, where he sat upright in bed, covered in sweat, and gasping for air like a newborn.

He continued to lie there for a while, trying to calm his shaken nerves. To focus, he sent his mind back to why he was there in the first place. He was hired by a man named Edgar Marks. The job was simple, he was told: Morton would tail a man whom Marks suspected of having an affair with his wife, send a report each day, and at the end of the week an envelope containing a pre-arranged sum of cash would be left in Morton’s P.O. Box. Something about Marks’ demeanor raised his sense of suspicion, which in his experience, is a feeling worthy of attention. He felt that the wife wasn’t the real story, it was too generic, possibly a red herring, and that Marks had some other agenda. But a job was a job, and so he didn’t press the issue.

After getting a description of the man, Morton was told he worked on Michigan Ave. The hotel where Morton eventually selected to stay was where the man supposedly would rendezvous with his mistress, making it a logical base for operations.

Morton took no notes during this meeting as he had an excellent memory. Names, numbers, places – he always had a talent for recall. And this came in very hand in his line of work as a private investigator. He didn’t waste valuable time writing down notes in the field and could aptly think on his feet, almost like his memories were tangible objects spread out across a table. He need only pick one up and turn it around in his head, examining all facets and angles. It was just how his mind worked.

He left his room and walked the hallway before rounding a corner. To his surprise, there was a group of about 10 people and a tour guide, a young man who walked backwards in front of the group. Morton noticed his jacket, a black satin affair with “Ghosts of Chicago Tours” embroidered in blood red.

“And like I said earlier, here on the 7th floor is where most of the encounters are reported,” he told the rapt audience. They were so focused that they barely gave Morton enough room to slide by.

“There’s several types of hauntings, ok? The most common are residual hauntings. Those spirits don’t really interact with us; they basically just repeat the same actions like a tape that gets played over and over. Well, nobody uses tapes anymore, so think of it like hitting ‘replay’ on the YouTube video!” The group laughed politely.

“Fucking tourists,” he thought to himself. As he stepped onto the elevator at the end of the corridor he could hear more canned laughter at another of the guide’s jokes, probably told on every single tour, as recycled and threadbare as the shabby carpet underfoot.

“I like literally felt a cold draft a few seconds ago!” on excited guest exclaimed enthusiastically.

“Yeah, that was your money being ripped from your wallet, idiot,” Morton muttered as the elevator doors shut.

If the hotel rooms and halls had seen better days, nobody had bothered to tell the lobby, which was immaculately kept up in its original art deco style: marble floors and columns, gold light fixtures, and high-backed red leather chairs for weary travelers. No sign of his target however.

Still foggy from a troubled sleep, Morton spaced out and stared at the floor; the silver train car he boarded after leaving the hotel rattled along elevated tracks, suspended above the city streets. His trance was broken by a young child and her mother seated across and to the left from him. The mother was tending to a missed button on the girl’s shirt, while the girl squirmed restlessly.

“What’s the name of this train?”

“It’s called the loop, honey.”

“Why’s it called that?”

“Because it just goes round and round the center of the city.”

“What happens if we don’t get off? Do we go round and round forever?”

“Hold still please, we’re getting off at the next stop so let’s get ready,” said her mother with a touch of impatience.

Morton liked how the girl thought, even if it wasn’t technically how the trains ran. Being able to look ahead like that seemed advanced for her age. He smiled kindly, trying to appear as non-threatening as he could, but the girl did not notice him at all. He had no children but perhaps someday he told himself.

Soon he arrived at the Randolph/Wabash station where he transferred to the ‘heel-toe express’ and walked the short distance to Michigan Ave., a wide boulevard with the city on one side and the lake on the other. It was a weekday morning, and the nearly cloudless sky was cobalt blue. Cool, dry, air paired nicely with the early autumn sun. Facing south, the buildings on his right stretched right off into the distance like a giant, imposing, wall. To his left was just sky above Lake Michigan which, for practical purpose of size, might as well be the ocean. It was like being caught between two worlds: the expanse of open, Midwestern space and the claustrophobic density of the city.

Then he saw him – the man he was hired to tail. His back was to Morton and he was dressed in a black overcoat over a suit and wore a dark, wide-brimmed hat. He did not seem to notice he had been spotted.

For several blocks the man strolled casually until he came to the intersection with Jackson, where the man turned right and dramatically picked up his pace as he rounded the corner and out of view.

“Shit,” thought Morton. “Has he seen me?”

Faster now, he rounded the corner to see the just tails of the man’s coat slink into an alley. Morton pursued, intent on getting more tangible info for his daily report before the man disappeared completely.

Stepping into the alley, the drone of the traffic was muted, creating an unusual sense of stillness. There was no sign of the man, but a door about 50 feet away slowly swung shut, betraying the man’s escape route.

“Let’s see where you’re running to,” he thought as he cautiously approached the rusted metal door. There was a buzzer next to the door but no sign or anything indicating what was inside. The noise of the city was gone from Morton’s ears. All he heard was the rush of blood in his ears and his pounding heartbeat as he surveyed the door. Something about it felt oddly familiar. But there was no time for that now. He stepped inside.

Morton’s eyes had barely adjusted to the dim light of the stairwell inside when he saw the glint of a silver revolver. A flash blinded him, or maybe it was the pain in his chest as the bullet punched through him. He heard the echoes of the gunshot long after crumpling to the floor as breath and blood escaped his body. He did not, however, hear the final crack of the gun before all went black.

When Morton awoke, he couldn’t recall what his profoundly dark and airless dream had been about, but the panic lingered. Sunlight streamed through the window of his dingy hotel room in Chicago, where he sat upright in bed, covered in sweat, and gasping for air like a newborn.

###

 

“Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make.”

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Can’t Drive 55.”

flood

ON THE MORNING the levee broke, Roy Gatineau braved the storm to take care of one last job. The name wasn’t important – though it didn’t bother him knowing their names or personal details. He preferred to focus on the financial aspect of the situation. Sure, some of them probably committed offenses no worse than he himself had done. Maybe they simply pissed off the wrong person. But that was the beauty of it, in his eyes. There’s nothing stopping somebody from coming to take him out either. Fate is equal opportunity. He felt his time would come.

But there was something about that last job that stuck with him. The man, an old preacher from the heart of the Crescent City, was completely at peace. Even though his city was being ripped apart by the gale force winds and torrential rains, even as he stood there knowing full well that this visitor meant his time on the planet was winding down to a few ticks, he had said with a calm, clear voice and a gentle smile: “Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make.”

It was this mantra that echoed in Roy’s head as he went down to the swollen river, stripped off his clothes, and jumped in. For in the water was his salvation, his forgiveness, his confession.

—-

The keyword line, per prompt instructions, was taken from “The Levee’s Gonna Break” by Bob Dylan.

Bed Time

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Young and the Rested.”

Couple in bed with iPads

A young couple laid side by side in their king sized bed, only half-visible to each other as the light blanket covered the lower halves of their bodies. Their upper-halves illuminated by the cold glow of their devices, upon which they silently tapped in out-of-sync rhythms.

Did you wash my work shirt?

…(seconds of silence pass)…

Hm?

I asked about the shirt, he said in a half-mumble.

Oh. No. Do you really need it?

Not really. I’ve got others, he concluded.

They both lowered their devices in unison. They were in their mid 30’s, and the room was sparsely decorated, the only thing on the wall was a color sample card from a paint store, with 6 progressively darker shades of the same color. It was only 8 months earlier that they moved into the house, a bank owned foreclosure in need of work.

I should really wash the bedding, she sighed.

Did I ever tell you my great, great grandfather invented the pillow case?

Shut up, she giggled.

No, really. Dirk Pillowson was his name.

She playfully hit him on the shoulder. So what did people put on their pillows before then, she asked, playing along.

Nothing, it was just straight pillow to head contact back in the day. Too bad he never copyrighted it, we’d be billionaires.

Picking up her device, she asked, should we put on the white-noise app?

They began sampling the different noises included in the app, which they preferred as the solution to deal with the traffic noise, his snoring, and any other bumps in the night which might rouse their slumber. They listened to the crickets setting (too quiet), monks chanting (spooky as hell), and foghorn (too sporadic) before settling on boring white noise.

I feel like changing my alarm for the morning, he said and began trying out different alarm sounds. They ranged from ridiculous ditties to annoying digital blurps and bleeps to a harsh old-school bell.

There’s really no good solution, she concluded. No alarm sounds good enough to offset the disappointment that you feel for having to get out of bed and go to work.

Agreed, he stated.

They both went back to their device usage, tap tap tapping away. Eventually he shut his off and rolled over and closed his eyes. She was up for another 20 minutes before putting hers away. They both lay awake for nearly an hour, dreading the bleary-eyed stupor they would endure during another work day. Finally they drifted to sleep, without so much as a kiss goodnight.

The Young and the Rested

 

A Blues Man In Therapy

therapy-Flickr

“Can you remember the first time you felt you were ‘born under a bad sign’, as you put it?”

Ramblin’ Hambone stroked his chin, grizzled and covered with grey stubble, and stared unblinking at the community college certificates on Debbie’s wall. The room was furnished like a living room, with three chairs in the center facing together, and multi-cultural artwork, seemingly picked out without any attempt at cohesion, decorated the walls and bookcases.

“Yuhh….I’ve been down since I began to crawl,” he croaked, and began to turn up the volume knob on the battered Gibson Firebird electric guitar on his knee.

“Mr. Hambone? Maybe no guitar during the sessions, so we concentrate on just talking please?” Debbie patiently asked, her long, straight, salt and pepper hair pulled back. She wore a Sanskrit “Om” pendant around her skinny neck. “Thank you. Now, tell me more about your childhood please.”

“I ain’t nothin’ but a country boy, driftin’ from town to town. Said I ain’t nothin’ but a country boy, driftin’ from town to town, have mercy.”

“Now, do you often repeat yourself? Do you feel that people are not listening to you?” she asked in response.

“Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five. My mother said I was gonna be the greatest man alive. But now I’m a man, way past 21. Want you to believe me baby, I had lots of fun.”

Debbie jotted down a note on the notepad on her knee with a pencil. “The expectations of others can be a trigger for depression, and it’s not uncommon for people to cope by self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity,” she confirmed. “Oh, and please call me Deborah or Debbie. ‘Baby’ is not appropriate for a therapeutic relationship.”

“I got a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day. Oh, I got a little red rooster too lazy to crow for day. Keep everything in the barnyard upset in every way.”

“Ok, so sometimes you have difficulty getting out of bed? Depression can have a serious impact on our productivity. And do you ever have any feelings of hopelessness?”

“The thrill is gone away. The thrill is gone away for good” Ramblin’ stated bleakly.

“Well you woke up one morning to learn that your girlfriend left you, you have no money or job, and it’s flooding where you live. Those are some major life events,” said Debbie with genuine empathy, nodding her head gently and grimacing at RH. “Why, it’s no wonder you have ‘the blues’!” She added air quotes to that last phrase.

“Next week we can pick up where we left off and maybe go over some coping strategies that don’t involve whiskey, cigarettes, or shooting your woman down? Ooh I almost forgot! There’s the matter of the copay. Who is your insurance provider?”

“Yaw…mmm…lessee what I got down heauh,” muttered Ramblin’ Hambone as he slowly fished through the pockets of his worn-out trousers, finding a flask, a few guitar picks, loose change, and a hound’s tooth in a small flannel bag– apparently a hoodoo talisman – before coming upon a bent plastic card.

He squinted at the card for a moment. “It’s Blues Cross of Alabama.”

“BLUE Cross,” she corrected him, “but that’s fine. I take that.”

Aisle 16: Chips, Snacks, Frustration

grocery_store

Alright, I just have a few things to get here at the food store before I go home. First up is yogurt but it seems to be that a portly fellow with a creepy mustache is blocking the ones I want. No matter, I can get – oh hello, cute girl in the yoga pants. Of course she’s here with some dude. He might be her bodyguard from the looks of him. Don’t get caught checkin’ out the merchandise if you know what I’m saying! Heh heh.

Jeez, I just want to get a few of those yogurts. What’s this guy’s deal? He smells like a box of old cheese that was in your attic for years. Come on buddy, it’s a nutrition label, not freakin’ Ulysses. And I’m pretty sure that one is going to be the same as the last one you put down.

Lord Jesus that girl is hot. Yup, just got caught looking by her boyfriend. Aaand he’s still staring at me. Backwards hat, tank top, pretty sure he just crushed a can of Red Bull against his forehead. Not good. Ok, let’s try the – damn, that guy is still picking out yogurts?

Fine, there’s plenty on the ole list here in the meantime. Now if I could just get past this old lady with her cart sideways.

”’Scuse me…uh, pardon me…(cough)…(AHEM)…”

Ok, scratch that. This aisle isn’t an option. Maybe I can finally get those yogurts. Seriously dude?! Those things are gonna be expired before he’s done with them.

I don’t even need anything in the laundry aisle but I’ll shoot down there to get away from the – oh that’s just great. Hot girl and meathead are here now. I guess you need to do a lot of laundry if you live in a weight room. Too bad yogurt guy isn’t familiar with this stuff. Ok here she comes, don’t look don’t look don’t FUCK! I looked. How can you not?? It’s like going to the Louvre and not looking at any of the paintings. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna get my ass kicked by the time we get to frozen foods if this keeps up.

Now the old lady is at the yogurts. Of course. Screw it, there’s nobody in produce. I can get by on salads and potatoes for the week.

The Garden

garden

It was towards the end of summer when Edward awoke later than usual. The morning was already hot, and the air sat motionless like a heavy, hazy, blanket upon the landscape. The drone of a few crickets was the only sound, save for the occasional chirp of a bird off in the distance. Even the beasts of the woods had the sense to withdraw from the heat, waiting patiently for it to break later in the day.

Edward Z. lived on a plot of land on the outskirts of the city. It was of modest size – a few acres, mostly wooded – and he cut out a patch of land for a garden on the edge of his property. The garden performed fairly well and yielded beans, squash, tomatoes, beets, potatoes, and even herbs for several months of the year.

On this steamy morning he had just begun tending to his garden, though he was already looking forward to a chance to relax in the shade. Suddenly a soft voice called to him from the tree line.

“Good day.”

Turning his head, with beads of sweat heavy on his brow, he noticed a young woman of average height, blond hair cut into a bob, walking a small dog along a path that cut through the woods. She was smiling and seemed to be admiring his garden.

“Oh…hello,” he said, trying to mask his surprise at this unexpected visitor. “Hot enough for you?” was the only thing he that came to mind, and he immediately felt silly for saying something trite and unimaginative.

The woman smiled politely and her dog cautiously yipped at Edward.

“Hush, you,” she gently scolded it. “Is that your place over there?” she asked, making a visor with her hand and looking in the direction of Edward’s house through the trees.

“It is,” he said, and paused as if waiting for her to fill the space with another comment, but she said nothing, merely looked at the crop he was tending to. “And…you? Are you new to here?”

“I’m watching over my cousin’s cabin while he is away. Would you mind showing me what you have growing?”

He was hesitant but gave a tour of the garden which took all of 45 seconds, as it was not large. They talked a bit more that day, and the next day she came again and they talked for longer. The conversations became easier for Edward, and soon he learned more about his new neighbor. She had a husband who would be joining her soon, but his work required him to be several cities away. He also learned they shared an interest in several topics, such as reading.

“And the Russian writers?” she queried.

“There is just one name: Chekhov.”

“I much prefer the prose of Tolstoy or Pushkin…and besides, Chekhov writes on such a small scale. Short stories seem at odds with the grandeur and expanse of Russia.”

“Ah, but what of the diminutive scale of the Faberge egg, the delicate passages of a Tchaikovsky etude? Do you dismiss those as being ‘at odds’ with Mother Russia as well?”

“True, true,” she said thoughtfully.

Though she was attractive, kind, and easy to talk to, Edward had a bad feeling about the whole arrangement. He was afraid of what this would all lead to, and was sure he didn’t want to go down a path towards heartbreak. Her husband would soon arrive and that would be the end of that. But still he made time when she visited on her daily walks.

On another hot morning, many of the tomatoes were ready to be picked. In fact, so many that they could hardly carry them in one trip. Anna lifted the front of her shirt, placing several into the makeshift cradle in order to carry them, and exposed her porcelain, flat stomach. It seemed to Edward as though it was the first time daylight ever shone upon that part of her; it was as if the cool, silver moon itself was stolen from the night sky and dropped into the bright, sweltering daytime for him alone to see. That morning turned into afternoon, which turned into night, and by the next morning Anna and her dog were still at his house.

She asked him about a photograph on the mantle of a young child, and if it was his. He grew silent, searching for the words.

“No…well yes, but no,” said Edward with trepidation, as he knew he had started down a difficult path but would have to continue.

He told her of his former wife, though by law they were still married. She was from a well-off family, and their fathers were business partners together. They were not forced into marriage, but it was heavily encouraged. After 3 years together they had a son, and settled into a not unpleasant though rather routine existence. But his wife wanted another child yet they were not able to conceive. So they went to see a doctor in the city.

“I’m sorry to say, but you are not able to have children,” they were informed. The doctor went on to give an explanation of why, which Edward didn’t fully understand as there were many things going through his head.

“So this is a recent development? When did this happen??” He asked, seeking clarity. His wife was uncharacteristically silent during the meeting, which Edward initially took as her disappointment.

“Sir, you have never been able to have children.”

Edward slowly felt a sickness building in his stomach, and in his peripheral vision, saw his wife break down, sobbing. That was then end of their relationship. Though he loved the boy, he was furious and hurt and could not bear to be around neither the woman who betrayed him, nor this child who was not his own. Anna’s green eyes welled up with empathetic tears, feeling the pain Edward had been living with.

Anna’s visits continued, and often lasted until the next morning. A familiar panic started to build in Edward. He feared the moment it would all end and decided he could not take another loss. So without telling her, he left the house and the garden and the plot of land in the woods. He never returned, and trusted the sale of it over to an agent in the city, though it would be several years until it was sold.

Anna’s husband did eventually arrive. When her baby was born, it was an early spring morning, cool and cloudy. She no longer took walks and spent most of her time caring for the child in the cottage, which her cousin had officially turned over to them to live in. Her husband took over the garden which he did not plant, but tended to as his own.

1915

The Button (part 1)

handPart 1 of 3

He stared absently into a nearly empty cup of coffee, observing grounds which stuck to the sides of the cardboard cup and formed a ring. As he rose from his seat at the Fortune Café, an automated female voice coolly announced the readiness of order 67. Sidestepping tables and chairs occupied by businessmen and women, each fixated on their glowing screens, he meandered towards the exit.

Out on the city streets, glass buildings burst forth from wet sidewalks and disappeared into the low clouds like conduits into another world. The drizzle didn’t bother Scott. He briefly considered taking the new high speed subway (still called “the T” by locals, though the sleek new cars which glide silently on magnetic fields held little resemblance to the boxy, rattling dinosaurs used up until 2019) before realizing he blew his last credit on an overpriced coffee.

A dirty, bearded, man dressed in layers of frayed and mismatched clothes stood in the middle of the sidewalk ahead. With not much of a crowd to blend into he felt obligated to respond to the poor fellow’s query.

“Can you spare any change, my man?”

He fished around in his pockets and only found a couple coins but dropped them into the man’s cup (which featured the palmistry-diagram logo of the café he just left).

“Thanks, my man! I knew it. I saw you comin’ and knew you’d help, my man.”

“Yeah you’re welcome I guess,” said Scott, setting off down the street while the man continued his thankful if not rambling monolog.

He walked the 30 minutes from the business district towards the waterfront, past monolithic government offices, past a knot of poncho-clad Japanese tourists on a guided bus tour, and finally to a nondescript brick warehouse on one of the wharfs. This part of town was nearly deserted. He tried the front door and found it locked, but then noticed a tiny silver plaque with the familiar name “Alhazen Corporation” engraved into it, and rang the pearlescent button.

Two weeks ago he was in the three bedroom apartment he shared, looking over job postings, feeling neither inspired nor encouraged. The words he read washed over him like a slow moving river. They didn’t feel like opportunities so much as dead ends. Scrolling back to the top of the page he tapped “Misc.,” the section where he had previously found paying ‘jobs’ as a practice patient for medical students as well as a sleep study participant. The usual pyramid schemes were listed, along with a sketchy request for a naked maid and a couple uncompensated writing gigs, but this time something new caught his eye. It was a post which simply read:

“Time is the substance I am made of.” – J.L. Borges; if interested visit the Alhazen Corporation.

So having nothing much to do one day, he did. The door buzzed unlocked and he grasped the handle, pulled, and stepped inside.