The landscape changed once again at Western Avenue, a sprawling four-lane street that spanned the entire city of Chicago. On Western, there was Bingo City, Fluky's Hot Dogs, the Nortown Theater, and more car dealerships than on any other street in the city. There were no houses on Western, only apartments above diners, pet stores, restaurants, and taverns. East of Western was Warren Park. Once an exclusive country club, it was now a vast expanse of overgrown grass, of cracked tennis courts, muddy soccer fields, rusted charcoal grills, and one toboggan hill, a former garbage heap now known to the kids in the neighborhood as Mt. Warren. The cozy shops of Devon Avenue--with its bakeries, record stores, and Judaica emporiums--stopped at the Western intersection. East of Western were grimy grocery stores, five-and-ten shops, liquor stores, restaurants with their neon lights flickering, bars with Old Milwaukee signs in their windows, the Seconds to Go Thrift Shop, Burger King, and the dingy Laundrytown above which Muley Wills lived with his mother, who shelved books at the Nortown Library and supplemented her measly income by cleaning houses.
Jill had just finished Hebrew school and it was already dark outside, which meant that maybe somebody would be home when she got there, but come to think of it, probably not. Her father had recently started taking extra shifts at the restaurant to pay for the Bat Mitzvah she had already told him she didn't want, really didn't want, and Michelle was probably still at the high school, rehearsing for the winter musical: H.M.S. Pinafore. The echoing loneliness of the apartment, which had once struck Jill as a symbol of her utter abandonment, was now little more than simple fact--something she dealt with every day, like spending the last thirty minutes of Math class waiting for Mrs. Cardash to inspect her homework just because her name came near the end of the alphabet, or going to bed with a pillow over her head to block out the detailed discussions in which Michelle attempted to engage their father about the kinds of boys she liked, the kinds of boys who worked on cars, the kinds of boys who called up WLS and dedicated Boston songs to her, the kinds of boys who played street hockey and ogled her at Blackhawks games.
When she got to the apartment, Jill picked up the mail lying on the tan carpet outside their door--mostly her father's magazines that were too big to fit into the box. She entered the apartment, deposited the mail on the kitchen counter, and walked down the hallway to her room. She dumped her book bag on her bed, hung her coat in the closet, then returned to her desk and picked up the battered copy of Romeo and Juliet she was supposed to finish for Reading the next morning. Actually, she had read it two weeks earlier--the date that Mrs. Korab, who had organized the semester around "Conflicts and Resolutions," had originally indicated on the homework sheet. But by now, Jill had forgotten so much of it that she figured she'd have to start over. She went to the kitchen, looked briefly in the refrigerator--her father's leftovers from the restaurant made her shudder and slam the door shut--then took a breakfast bar out of the cabinet and walked into the living room. She turned on a lamp and sat on the couch, which doubled as her father's bed.
Before opening her book, she briefly considered going to the kitchen and taking one of her father's Millers out of the fridge. She further considered rummaging through Michelle's dresser drawers and finding the green Cricket lighter, the water pipe, and one of those mysterious foil packets her sister hoarded. But Jill quickly rejected both options--not because she'd be caught; rather, because she wouldn't. And then she'd just have to remain there in the apartment all night, drunk or stoned with her dad and her sister, and, really, what was the point of that? She was twelve years old and already her sister had ruined practically every vice for her--braying after coming home drunk from theater parties with a "Don't tell Dad" wink; vacantly amazed by the stupidest TV cop shows after having smoked hash in the alley with Gareth Overgaard and Myra Tuchbaum; chattering nonstop about this guy's hands or that guy's car, when it was patently clear to Jill that all of those "gorgeous" guys would wind up just squeaking by at community college; blasting Eric Clapton and stinking up the record collection with her Merits ("All the cool girls smoke Merits; all the burnouts smoke Marlboros," Michelle once informed her). Jill couldn't smoke, she couldn't drink, she couldn't listen to her sister's albums, she couldn't put anything up on the wall--the entire room, even her side, was plastered with Michelle's posters of Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Who and Led Zeppelin--it seemed nearly impossible to rebel in any way that wasn't somehow secondhand.
From Crossing California by Adam Langer. Copyright Adam Langer 2004. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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