“If I can get her a place, will you promise not to talk about Presidential Towers on Sunday? With anyone? It’s a little touchy for people.”

For the Dems, she meant. With the spotlight already on the Speaker of the House for ethics questions, they didn’t want anything embarrassing said to one of his buddies.

I made a show of reluctance. “Can you do it by tomorrow night?”

“If that’s what it’ll take, Vic, I’ll do it by tomorrow night.” She didn’t try to keep the snarl from her voice.

I had just twenty minutes to get to Visible Treasures before paying quadruple overtime, but I took the extra minute to write out a check to Cook County Women for Open Government. As I locked the office door behind me I started whistling for the first time all day. Who says blackmailers don’t have fun?


Auntie Does a Bunk

It was almost nine by the time I got off the Kennedy at California and headed over to Racine. I hadn’t had dinner, hadn’t had anything since grabbing a Polish at a hole-in-the-wall on Canal at two. I wanted peace and quiet, a hot bath, a drink, and a pleasant dinner-I had a veal chop in the freezer I’d been saving for just such a tired evening. Instead I braced myself for a night with Elena.

When I parked across the street and looked up at the third floor, the windows were dark. As I trudged up the stairs I imagined my aunt passed out at the kitchen table. Or on the unmade sofa bed in the living room. Or downstairs seducing Mr. Contreras.

I hadn’t given Elena keys or instructions on the two dead bolts. I undid the bottom lock-the one that locks automatically when you shut the door-and switched on the light in the little entryway. It shed a dim glow into the living room. I could see the sofa was restored to its normal upright position.

I went through the dining room to the kitchen and turned on the light there. The kitchen was sparkling. The three days’ accumulation of dishes in the sink had been washed and put away. The newspapers were gone, the floor washed, and the tabletop clean and tidy. In the middle sat a sheet torn from one of my yellow pads covered with Elena’s sprawling, unsteady writing. She’d written “Vicki,” then crossed it out and changed it to “Victoria, Baby.”

Thanks a lot for the loan of a bed last night when I needed it. I knew I could count on you in a pinch, you always were a good girl, but I don’t mean to hang around and be a burden on you, which I can see I would be, so here’s good luck to you kid and I’ll be seeing you in the sweet by and by, like they say.

She’d drawn eight big X’s and signed her name.

Since three this morning I’d been cursing my aunt for coming to me and wishing I’d return home to find that I’d dreamed the whole episode. I’d gotten my wish, but instead of being elated I felt a little hollow under the diaphragm. Despite her easy camaraderie, Elena didn’t have friends. Of course the streets and alleys of Chicago were strewn with her former lovers, but I didn’t think any of them would remember Elena if she showed up at their doors. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Elena would remember any of them well enough to know which doors to knock on.

The other unpleasant notion hovering in my mind’s back cupboard was prompted by Elena’s final sentence. In a high school dramatization of Tom Sawyer we’d sung “In the sweet bye-and-bye.” It was supposed to be typical of late Victorian hymnology. As I recalled, the sweet bye-and-bye was a syrupy euphemism for life beyond the grave. I had never spent enough time with Elena to know if it was just some catch phrase she used or if she’d gone off to throw herself over the Wacker Drive bridge.

I went carefully through the apartment to see if she’d left any clue to her intentions. The duffel bag was gone, along with the violet nightdress. When I looked in the liquor cabinet I saw nothing was missing except five inches from the open bottle of Johnnie Walker. But from the way she’d been sleeping this morning I kind of thought she’d drunk that before going to bed.

In a way I wished she’d taken the bottle-it would have made me more certain she hadn’t any immediate intention of suicide. On the other hand, did someone really spend her whole life drinking and mooching off people and then suddenly have such a strong sense of remorse that at age sixty-six she couldn’t take it anymore? On the surface it didn’t sound too likely. Lack of sleep and my day among the burned-out buildings of the Near South Side were making me unnaturally morbid.

I debated phoning Lotty Herschel to discuss the matter with her. She’s a doctor who sees a fair number of drunks in her storefront clinic on Damen. On the other hand, her day starts at seven with hospital rounds. This was a bit late for a call whose main function was to allay my uneasy conscience.

I put the Black Label back into the cupboard without pouring any. The drink part of my program had lost its appeal when I thought about Elena swallowing five inches and falling into a red-faced stupor, I went into the kitchen, pulled the veal chop from the freezer, and stuck it in my little toaster oven to thaw while I took a bath. Unless I wanted to rouse the police, there was nothing I could do about my aunt tonight.

Somehow soaking in the tub didn’t relax me the way it usually did. The image of Elena, her gallant smile a bit lopsided, sitting on a park bench with the family I’d encountered at the Emergency Housing Bureau kept coming between me and rest, I lumbered out of the tub, turned off the little oven, and got dressed again.

Mr. Contreras’s living-room light had been on when I came in, I went down the front stairs and knocked on his door. The dog whimpered impatiently as he scrabbled with the locks. When he finally opened the door she leapt up to lick my face. I asked the old man if he’d seen Elena leave.

Of course he had-when he wasn’t gardening or checking the races, he was keeping a close eye on the building. We didn’t really need a watchdog with him on the premises. Elena had left around two-thirty. No, he couldn’t tell me what she was wearing, or if she had any makeup on, what kind of person did I think he was, staring at people and snooping into their private lives. What he could tell me was she’d caught a bus on Diversey on account of he’d gone down to the corner for some milk and seen her climb on. Eastbound, that was right.

“You wasn’t expecting her to leave?”

I hunched my shoulders impatiently. “She doesn’t have any place to go. Not that I know of.”

He clicked his tongue sympathetically and started on a detailed interrogation. My thin stack of patience was about gone when the banker once more opened his door. He was wearing form-fitting Ralph Lauren jeans and a polo shirt.

“Jesus Christ! If I’d known you stood around yelling in the stairwell at all hours, I’d never have bought into this place.” His round face puckered up in a scowl.

“And if I’d known what a tight-assed crybaby you were, I’d have blocked your purchase,” I responded nastily.

The dog growled deep in her throat.

“You go on up, cookie,” Mr. Contreras urged me hastily. “I’ll call you if I remember anything else.” He pulled the dog into the apartment with him and shut the door. I could hear Peppy whining and snuffling behind it, eager to join in the fight.

“Just what is it you do do?” the banker demanded.

I smiled. “Nothing I need a zoning permit for, sugar, so don’t wear out your brain worrying about it.”

“Well, if you don’t stop doing it in the stairwells, I really will call the cops.” He slammed his door shut on me.

I stomped back up the stairs. Now he’d have something substantial to tell his girlfriend or his mother or whoever he phoned at night. I live to serve others.

Back in my apartment I turned the little oven on again and started cooking mushrooms and onions in some red wine. Getting the picture of Elena heading east on the Diversey bus made me feel a bit easier. That sounded as though she had a specific destination in mind. In the morning, as a sop to my conscience, I’d talk to one of my police department pals. Maybe they wouldn’t mind tracking down the bus driver, find out if he remembered her and where she’d headed when she’d left the bus. Maybe I’d be the first woman on the moon-stranger things have happened.

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