When Owen came out the party was waiting for him by the elevators. The attendants stood at attention, waiting to load.
Hale laced his fingers across his stomach and launched onto the balls of his feet - "And now the rooftop beckons. We're all mountain climbers today, even you, Mrs. Carmody."
An elderly woman looked over the rims of her glasses and tapped her cane good-naturedly. "Will it be any cooler up there in the clouds?" she asked.
"Could be breezy, so hold on to your hat," Hale said, ushering people into the elevators.
The iron railing of the observation platform kept the VIPs a dozen feet from the abyss. Cocktails poised, hats fastened, they stepped onto the deck and edged toward it. Owen was now in front and he placed one hand on the metal guardrail while the other held the sacrament of gin over ice. La Salle Street dropped away, a river of hats, flecked cloth, upturned faces. "Give them a wave," said Hale. Owen set his glass on a table and raised both hands, crossing them above his head in a nautical look-here-now. The mob hollered in response. Errand boys tossed their hats in the air, tooted their bicycle horns. The other VIPs joined Owen and there was a full minute of waving down into the pit as a photographer flashbulbed beside them.
When the euphoria subsided, Owen picked up a pair of opera glasses and took in the panorama - the ziggurat skyline with its middling towers and sunless mercantile valleys, the lake a sapphire backdrop to the east. The streets, glimpsed through the endless procession of flat roofs, dizzied with placards and advertisements - miniature lettering for Brown's Iron Bitters and Roxwell's Corned Beef Hash. Over on State he could make out the Masonic Temple, Chicago's now-eclipsed high point, and the Reliance, with its wide bays of glass and Gothic tracery. His father had once demolished buildings in that vicinity though he couldn't remember the exact blocks. The El cut a narrow path between office faÇades, between walls of red-pressed brick, and Owen saw the dotted faces of passengers at the windowpanes as it flashed into a narrow gap of open space. The cross-hatching of streets and avenues stretched for miles, bordered on one side by the shoreline, but continuing south and west through a scrim of smoke and soot, the grid thinning into tenements and vacant lots and cemeteries, out farther to the Livestock Emporium and stockyards, before it all faded into a distant patchwork of dun-brown farms. The Midwest of the country was just beyond, the great plains furrowed and sown. This bucolic reminder continued closer in, on the flat rooftops of nearby buildings - chickens, a running dog, a boxed flower bed. A custodian's perch topped a ten-story office building, a leaning tin shack with a man standing shadowed in the crude doorway. Laundry flapped from a line and a scrubwoman was beating a Persian rug into dusty submission.
"The great mongrel city," Hale said, sipping his neat whiskey. He looked off at the clouds scudding in from Canada, at the ships hauling timber from Michigan pineries, before turning abruptly and raising his glass. "We've outstripped the Masons and the church steeple and of course the easterners are clambering after us. But no matter. This is our moment. To the dream of a fully insured populace. To them, down in the hole." Everyone drank and Hale tilted his glass as if to anoint the laborers and shopgirls with a single drop. "Now," he said, stepping away from the edge, "I believe it's time for lunch and a little demonstration. Ladies, we will enjoy the buffet together but then I'm afraid it will be gentlemen only for a few minutes. Forgive me on this account."
They moved to the alcove by the clock tower, to a canvas tent filled with chairs and banquet tables. Bow-tied waiters, flushed in their dinner jackets, tended the reception. Slices of salmon and mackerel were stacked on ice; crescents of fruit and sandwich triangles were arranged on trays. Owen moved among the tables, a chip of ice cooling his tongue. As long as he didn't linger in one spot there was little chance of conversation. Itinerant trader, orphaned son of a housewrecker, what did he have to discuss with Mrs. Carmody, widow and baroness, who kept a lockbox of jewels in the basement of the First National? Precisely nothing, he thought, retreating to the cocktail table.
Excerpted from Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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