Fiction by Paul Pekin
When she came out of the doctor’s office, more than ever she was
determined to make the trip, a simple bus ride across the city, admittedly a
very large city, admittedly thirty miles of stop and go, admittedly an hour and
a half to get there, and no, Sam was not going to drive her; he would be
working, and he would need the car.
Dr. Jankowski wanted her back next week, insisted he had more tests
for her to take, a nice young man, even younger than Sam who was only
forty-five, but she had seen no reason to tell him of the party at the Lady
Elks and her plan to travel across the city carrying her gown in a hatbox, as
she had done so often before. Yes, a long time to spend on a crowded bus
but she found it restful and often told her daughter so, and Sam always
shook his head as if to say he could not understand why a woman in her
eighties, a widow in her eighties, would need to make such a trip,
transferring from one bus to another, and do it several times a year. “You
sure do like your parties,” he would say. He wasn’t a bad son-in-law, just
full of himself and his own doings, and unable to think long of anything else.
On the Western Avenue bus, which would be the longest stretch of
her journey, she found a double seat, put the hatbox beside her, and hoped
no one would claim the space, at least until she reached 63rd Street after
which the bus would fill with coloreds and in all probability one of them,
usually a woman as large as herself and ill tempered to boot, would force
her to sit with the box on her lap.
It was mid-afternoon, the party would not begin until seven, she would
arrive several hours early, and there would be time for her to change into the
purple gown at her friend’s house, her friend from another life who was not
a Lady Elk and did not own evening wear and would not even be at the
party but did have a bedroom where she could change and later spend the
night. It was not safe for a woman to travel at night, certainly not on the bus
where anyone might sit down beside her. The trains were every bit as bad,
and on one occasion, not on the train itself but on the platform, a big black
man had walked straight toward her and she had given him such a look as to
make him think twice about what he was about to do. This she told her
daughter, but not Sam, who would have said enough was enough, there was
no reason for an old woman to go running back and forth just to attend a
party. He would not be cruel enough to say all the other Lady Elks would
be with their husbands and she would be alone, and if they had been kind to
her before that did not mean very much since it did not cost a whole lot to
be kind to someone you saw only three or four times a year.
At first the bus was almost empty, as she expected it would be at this
hour, and she had the seats to herself and her hatbox. She sat there fanning
herself with a handkerchief, although the bus, if not properly air conditioned,
was not really as warm as it seemed. The driver was a Spanish-looking
woman who swung in and out of traffic without regard for anyone’s safety.
That was how they all did it, and probably how they were told to do it. She
had never liked busses, and rarely ridden on them while Frank was alive, it
was a shame about the car, Sam had not wanted it, a good car that Frank
always kept in shape, it could have been used for many more years, but
Sam had insisted it be sold, and the house too, and no, her daughter and
Sam and the children would not be returning to Park Island, she would have
to sell and move up with them, a nice little mother-in-law flat, that was what
they had for her, all her own, that was good, she was not in any way going
to argue with that, her own kitchen, her own living room, her own television,
there were women, she had seen them, who carried shopping bags on the
streets and slept in doorways, she knew that, but she did miss her friends at
the Lady Elks even though she had made many new friends at the senior
center on Pulaski, and they were nice ladies too, even if they were Polish
and some spoke poor English like Mrs. Krizki whose name she could not
pronounce or even imagine how to spell. They had welcomed her, and so
had Father Wolinak at St. Theresa’s where she went to mass every Sunday
except for that time when Mr. Krizki was in the hospital and could not drive.
He was a very poor driver who was constantly running his tires over the
curb and backing into things but he was a gentleman for all that. He insisted
she call him Teodor because she could not pronounce his last name properly.
Say Teodor, Teodor, he would cry, a big square-faced man with a savage
nose and a clump of stiff white hair that stuck out in all directions. It seemed
a wonder that someone like him, so lively and filled with laughter, should be
married to that shriveled Mrs. Krizki who seemed almost old enough to be
his mother, and had to be helped in and out of cars, she would do well to
watch her step with him, men like that liked to look around and see what
they could find. Frank had been that way. She would never tell anyone, but
she knew about that woman he had, and had seen the note she had written
him. Oh, my dear Frankie, I long for you so. She had torn it up and left it
there for him to see, and he never said a word. Now he was in another
world, and that woman could long for him as long as she wished, and it
would do neither of them any good, none at all.
The bus lurched and stopped and started and began to fill with riders.
A man with crutches got on, glanced at the hatbox and the seat it covered,
and moved down the aisle. A woman with two small boys and a bright
tattoo on the calf of her bare leg sat down across from her and suddenly
produced another baby she must have been carrying against her body, and
began to feed it from a bottle. One of the little boys was not happy, and
kept tugging at his mother’s arm, but he was ignored, too bad for him to
have a mother like that.
At 16th Street five teenagers came in, all girls, all clutching their cell
phones. They glanced at the hatbox and the seat it covered and worked
their way toward the back of the bus. At the next stop the bus filled with
sweaty people, young, old, white, black, but none of them claimed the seat
until an older black lady with so little white hair she almost seemed bald
stood above it, balancing herself with one of those three-legged canes,
obviously about to fall, and there was no other thing to do then but pick up
the hatbox and offer her the seat. At least she would not be one of those
large sweaty ones who reeked of hair oil and perfume.
“Oh, thank you,” the black lady said. “I’m so tired, don’t you know,
I don’t understand how a person can be so tired, and still be alive. Here
now, I can hold that box for you.”
The black lady introduced herself, said her name was Callambramba
or something like that, but people always called her Calla and you can too
if you wish.
She did so wish. She could not imagine herself calling anyone
Callambramba or anything like that. But she held on to the hatbox, at least
for the moment. My name, she said, is Mrs. Keller. No first names, she
thought. It would not do to get too familiar with someone you were simply
talking to on the bus, certainly not a woman of a different race.
“I knew a family named Keller once,” the Callambramba lady said.
“They were nice people too. They had a daughter who went up to
Milwaukee and became a weather girl on the television. Perhaps you seen
her, Mrs. Keller. You would remember that, a weather girl with your own
name, even if she is colored.”
“I’ve never been to Milwaukee,” she said. “I am from Park Island.”
“Oh, I know where that is,” the Callambramba lady said. “I had an
uncle who lived down that way. Not in town, of course. In those days, no
black people were allowed, but that was before your time. You aren’t so
old as me, that’s for sure. It’s a good thing, don’t you think, that people
aren’t like that anymore?”
“There was a colored family,” she said, not mentioning that they had
lived down by the tracks in an unincorporated area. “Very nice people too,”
she added, not mentioning that the son of this colored family had been
arrested for armed robbery and sent to the state prison. She did not really
know why she was talking to this woman.
“You going down to visit family?” the Callambramba woman asked.
That meant she would have to explain about the Elks Club, which she
did. Frank had joined the Elks in his later years. Not everyone was asked
to join, or even could be an Elk. If you were the wrong kind of a person,
you could be blackballed, and Frank had explained this to her, how there
was an actual black ball in a box filled with white ones, and if someone drew
it out and cast it into another box, you would not be accepted as a member,
and nobody would ever know who did it.
“Is that right!” the Callambramba woman cried. She began to fan
herself with a little piece of paper she must have been carrying. “It’s so
warm in here, don’t you think?”
The Elks had treated Frank like a brother. There had been some talk
that he, a switchman on the Rock Island Railroad, would not “fit,” but no
one could really resist Frank. He would dance with every one of those Lady
Elks, and he would be the first to open his wallet and buy drinks when the
men stood at the bar. He would even tend bar himself when they needed
someone to do it, and he surely would have been Exalted Ruler someday if
only he had lived.
“That must have been sad,” the Callambramba woman said. “My
husband died so many years ago, I sometimes lay awake wondering what
he looked like.”
“Oh, Frank was a handsome man,” she said. There had been others
before him who courted, but none so handsome, so sure of himself, so
strong. We come from a small town, she said. We didn’t move to Park
Island until later. I was born in the coal country, my father was in the mines,
I was just a girl when he lost his eyes in an explosion. Both eyes, completely
blind. You know, some blind people can see a little, my father could not, he
had not even an eye left in his face, he would wear dark glasses, and when
he took them off you could see how sunken in he was. The mine paid him,
but it was never enough, we older ones had to go out and work, and that’s
how I came to be in the millinery shop.
“Oh,” the Callambramba woman said. “I see why you got the hatbox.”
Well, yes, the hatbox had come from the store. It was that old, but still
quite useable. You could not buy a box like that today. No, she was not
carrying a hat, her gown was inside, the Lady Elks always dressed up in
gowns for the spring party and gave corsages to the oldest ladies there, she
had carried gowns in a hatbox before and they had never wrinkled, you just
had to know how to fold them, there was nothing so strange about it.
Eventually, she had owned that millinery shop, the only woman in her town
with her own business. Kept the books, bought the stock, made the hats,
waited on the customers. I gave all that up to marry Frank.
“A good man, he doesn’t come around all that much,” the
Callambramba woman said. “When you see him, you got to take him.
That’s what I did with mine. Those other ladies, they had their eye on him.”
Yes, those other ladies. Should she tell this one about that letter she
had torn up? She could not resist.
“Oh, yes, I know how those men are,” the Callambramba women said,
nodding her hairless head. “There is no help for that, none in this world.”
But he never did it again! I had him down on his knees, begging!
This was not true, of course, but what difference did it make? She had
wanted him there, and now that he was gone, she could have him there if she
wished. What could this stranger make of that?
The bus lurched on, stopped, started, wheezed, and squeezed. A man
in an undershirt tried to give the driver a canceled transfer. “Sir,” she said,
shifting the bus into motion. “We have not used them for years.” “I will call
your supervisor,” he said. “But first you must get off,” she said. “Either pay
the fare or get off.”
“They argue like that all the time,” the Callambramba woman said.
“Come on, dear. You let me hold that hatbox for you. I see you are
It was a relief to get rid of it. It would be good if this woman rode with
her all the way to the city limits where she would have to transfer to the
suburban line. She was one of the good ones, well spoken, polite, probably
from the south. She had manners. “My husband,” she said. “He just died,
and no one ever knew of what. He went out to close the gate and that’s
where they found him. Never sick a day in his life.”
It had not been that way with Frank. They had called from the Elks,
said he had fallen on the front stairs and was in the hospital. She had no way
to get there but her friend’s husband was still alive then and had taken her in
“That’s a fine car, a Buick,” the Callambramba women said. “My son
had one until it was stolen by hoodlums, and he said there was no sense
She had never been sick and never been in a hospital but for the time
when her daughter had been born. Only daughter. Only child. There had
been several that did not come to full term. Her friend and her friend’s
husband had stayed with her until they found Frank’s room, he on his back
with a leg propped up, not broken, he insisted, and the doctor was there a
moment later. Could she step out into the hall? Whispering in the hall.
There was a blood clot in his artery. Yes, yes, that was serious, ever so
serious, there must be an operation, now, at once, and there was no telling
what could happen.
“They never do want to tell you,” the Callambramba women said.
“They like to have it all to themselves.”
The second operation, six months later, had not gone so well. The
stent had failed and it could not be repaired and poor Frank had lost his leg.
First a father with no eyes, now a husband with one leg.
“Oh, Jesus,” the Callambramba woman said. “How we need you.”
He had been very good on one leg. There was no use talking about an
artificial leg, he would never learn to use it, not at his age. He had his
crutches and his walker and he could stump down the block to the tavern.
Even with one leg already buried and waiting, he just had to go to that
tavern. Not all men are like that, she said quickly before the Callambramba
women could say that they all were. My father never took a drink, even
with his eyes blown away. It wasn’t long before the other leg had to come
off. The arteries, the doctor explained, the arteries were shot. He used that
word, “shot.” A medical doctor. He could have used a medical term. Did
he think she was an illiterate?
“Yes, they think we are stupid,” the Callambramba woman said.
“Now now, mother, they say. Leave it to us. And soon enough we leave
it to the undertaker.”
But sometimes not soon enough. A man can linger, and linger, and
when a woman is alone and her daughter has moved across the city with her
husband and children, life can become so hard you will pray that his will end.
God will forgive that, He must, He must. Weeks, many weeks, and finally
the long slow end with Frank out of his mind, and thinking doctors were
spying on him through the mirrors, and calling out for his brother who had
died in the war when he was only twenty. Not just calling out, but actually
seeing him standing at the foot of the bed, young William whom she had
only heard about and never met. His whole family lived in the East, too far
to travel to see someone they had not seen in years, but they did send the
most beautiful cards. One had two praying hands in gilt silver, another our
Savior himself with his red beating heart.
“Oh, it’s a comfort, religion is,” the Callambramba woman said. The
bus lurched. It was now packed with people, people crushed together in
the aisles and it was as if they had sucked in all the air and exhaled nothing
but heat. You could not breathe in that bus, and this is when she began to
feel it again, that heaviness in the chest that had so interested Dr. Jankowski.
More tests, well, she would have to go in next week and have them.
My daughter had three children, she said. She had to form each word
carefully, and will it into sound. The Callambramba woman said something,
probably about her own children, probably she had five, even six, probably
they were all alive and had children of their own, probably some of the
children had more children. She would have so many children she would
not know what to do, like that old woman who lived in a shoe.
At 111th Street the Callambramba woman got up and put the hatbox
back on her lap. “You going to be all right now, aren’t you?” she said.
“You do look pale. Don’t you dance too hard at that party. I wouldn’t do
that if I were you.”
“I don’t dance,” she whispered. “That was Frank. I would sit and
Then she was alone, but not for long, a large white man in a business
suit sat next to her and immediately opened up a computer and she had to
crawl over that when her stop came. She was standing on the corner in the
blazing sun, how could the sun be so strong so early in the year, when she
felt it again, the heaviness, and the taste of cold bitter metal in her mouth
and then it was gone and she was as before, but light headed, as if she, who
never danced, had been dancing for hours. The suburban bus would be
here in minutes, it was always minutes, they said, and soon she would be at
her friend’s house and they would take the gown out of the box and brush it
clean. It was a very beautiful gown and she had had it only twenty years.
She and her friend would let it air out and then she would put it on and she
would be ready for her party.
Paul Pekin is a lifelong Chicago resident whose work has been published
often in the Chicago Reader, many literary magazines, and anthologies, and
has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Headline
Club. Pekin has also worked as a police officer and taught fiction writing
at Columbia College of Chicago.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 8, Number 1
Copyright © 2013
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors