By Martin Northway
It was an L-shaped second-floor apartment in Old Town with a bay window in the crook of the L. It looked southeast with a clear view of the Hancock. My Shaker-simple desk was placed such that I was backed against the gorgeous view. I would pound at my typewriter—no computer as of yet—and fling crumpled wads of paper on the floor till the end of the day because I didn’t have a wastebasket.
It was my summer of writing dangerously. Grieving estrangement from my ex-wife and family in southern Indiana, I’d come back to Chicago’s South Side, labored a while as an A/V scriptwriter along Michigan Avenue and thrown that aside for the urgent need to simplify and write short fiction. The landlord was desperately trying to sell the building and most tenants had fled, but Bad Penny had friends there and brokered a space for me. Cheap, no lease, and the neighborhood was gentrifying all around St. Michael’s “Catlick” Church, whose bell extolled its provenance on the hour.
“Bad” Penny sounds uncharitable, but ever since southern Indiana she was dropping in and out of my life, and frequently there was some price to pay. She was a seductive, confidential woman with a smoky drawl, darkly beautiful with Cherokee cheekbones, a once-wonderful writer for a Chicago daily. Our fling after my divorce in Indiana had ended badly; in part because of her alcohol abuse. We would always have a soft spot for each other, but she would ever be a flame to my moth. Not long after I settled into the building, she moved in upstairs.
Before I got anywhere, I was killing mice at a rate that will no doubt come to haunt me in the afterlife. A disturbed packrat first-floor tenant had been evicted but left rotting flora and fauna behind. Returning from the church’s periodic food distributions to the needy, she would stand in front of the building with her filled grocery sacks and hurl curses at the absent landlord. Despite her ferocity, she failed to scatter the mice who regarded my tenancy as an alternative food source.
I found a local job doing marketing work a few hours a day but spent the rest of my time in Spartan pursuit of writing. My wall cupboard safely above the diminishing rodent population was stocked largely with generics in black-and-white boxes. Sometimes in the evening Penny would come knocking wearing a short dress to show off her long legs and ask me to escort her to O’Rourke’s just a walk down North Avenue, then a demilitarized line between the gangs and the Cabrini-Green projects and the Old Town Triangle. Occasionally shootings spilled over to our side.
She ridiculed me for my simple cot, and she had a boyfriend it seemed, but I wondered whether she wished to re-ignite our flame or was expressing sarcastic jealousy for the art I’d been able to resume. She had cleaned up her act, and introduced me to barkeep Jay Kovar and showed me how to nurse coffee, so long as you tipped well, while writers and reporters flung back alcohol and shared stories backdropped by posters of Joyce and Behan.
One tale was that a mutual acquaintance, a radical Chicago poet, appeared in fictional form in John Gardner’s hefty “Mickelsson’s Ghosts.” I had examined its spooky jacket and description of the central character who, himself escaping a dying marriage and pursued by his demons, tried to reestablish himself in a remote, haunted farm house. So one morning I was seized with a compulsion to possess this book but knew I must find it as a remainder because I was broke.
My adventure took me from Barbara’s Bookstore up to Evanston (and an evocative coffeehouse conversation with a young woman about Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire”), through a dozen bookshops and finally back to Lincoln Park where at the end of the day, on the last possible shelf at leftist old Guild Books, I spied my quarry. Indeed, Gardner’s dense work spoke to me on many levels and fueled my writing.
Though my personal life was a mess, the kindness of strangers who became friends gradually restored me. My car was repossessed but an old friend’s generosity reclaimed it. I took part in neighborhood rituals. One evening a week, a couple unfolded a card table and plugged in a TV at their front stoop, and we all watched “Hill Street Blues” and played Trivial Pursuit. One player was an Irish girl I fell in love with by the end of the summer.
With intensity I incorporated new people and fresh events into my stories. Sometimes I went over to the Hotel Lincoln diner and wrote late. By then I was reading Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” whose odd-couple former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae communicated to me on a whole other level of my own Southern roots and heritage. Setting up camp at North Avenue Beach a couple hours each afternoon, I savored McMurtry’s cattle-drive adventures, violence and even love, amidst beautiful girls in bathing suits.
But the building was sold and by September came a knock on the door and, yes, I could stay if I paid nearly doubled rent. Then things really changed. A year later my ex-wife died and the kids tumbled back into my life. The pretty Irish girl and I did not last, and now that is two relationships ago. One of those women died, tragically, of cancer. I hear Penny found her peace back in Indiana but also, sadly, died seven years ago.
Sometimes you just have to take a chance, I think. I found something in myself that summer. And if it seems too many ghosts ago, I pull down my thick well-thumbed “Lonesome Dove,” burnished by wind and lake. Opening it, I can hear sand crackling in the binding and a few grains spill out, reminding me of the book and the summer I never wanted to end.