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TODAY

Tuesday, January 16

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Detour

Joseph Consolatti finished his coffee, folded his napkin, and checked the bill that had been pressed unceremoniously underneath his breakfast plate. It was the third awful, really awful, thing that he had seen that day. The first was the WGN morning news, with their gratuitous overuse of the word "prostate." The second was his brother Sylvester clipping his toenails over a teacup. And now he'd gone and just about spent his whole goddamn social security on his goddamn huevos rancheros. It was a fine goddamn how-do-you-goddamn-do.

Joseph paid his bill and left the diner without getting his change. At home, a wide strip of cloth tape ran the length of the 100-year-old brick house where he and his brother Sylvester had lived since they were born. On one side of the tape, Joseph had carved a walkway past Sylvester's recliner, stacks of newspapers, overflowing ashtrays, and other organic miscellany. The path took him through the living room and gave passage to the bathroom and the entrance to the kitchen. On the other side of the tape, rooms were less distinct, covered as they were in a fairly homogeneous paste of rubble, dust, soiled bits of paper, and dirty pots and pans. Joseph moved through the house, using his foot to force the mass back when it threatened to encroach. The trench ended at the back door and a staircase that would take him into the basement, where he had retreated full-time from his brother's influence years ago.

When Joseph arrived home, in the early afternoon on this early summer day, Sylvester was fidgeting in his chair. "Wipe your goddamn feet — don't track the whole of goddamn Chicago in!" he yelled to Joseph, laughing gruffly. He mumbled something Joseph could not understand and used a wooden cane to swat at Joseph's legs as he moved like a sidewinder along the tape-bound path. Sylvester was dirty. Joseph had realized this when they were children and judged him for it ever since. As a baby, Sylvester's nose was caked with snot; as a child, his bed was full of picked scabs; as a teen, his desk was laden with wads of multicolored gum; and as an adult, Sylvester had always been and remained the sort of man that would blow his nose on a pair of dirty boxers and re-don them after a shower. Joseph tried to avoid the cane but suffered a last-minute swat to the shins about halfway between a mountain of overflowing laundry hampers and a crescent of dirty underwear.

"That's right, you," Sylvester continued clearing his throat of some very solid sounding matter, "Get out of my way, you. You're ruining my goddamn view." Sylvester was cranky. Joseph made it to the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and withdrew to the basement.

Even after the turn of the century, many of Chicago's streets were made of mud, and in the neighborhoods the effort to raise the landscape above sea level was slow. The Consolatti's brick cottage was in a low area of the Northwest Side, and their father could not afford to raise the house to bolster the foundation. So instead, their attic became street level and Joseph's family moved upstairs to meet the new sidewalks. The space between the old and the new entrances was walled off and fitted with a lock. The now-basement became half-way house to the aunts and uncles that immigrated every couple of years, and it seemed to Joseph that all of Italy must have at some point passed through their door on the way to their own apartments and bungalows. When their mother died, shortly after this migration stopped, their father moved into the basement himself, to better avoid his two sons.

In the middle of every afternoon, Sylvester took a nap. Around half past 2, he would sigh loudly, about five minutes later he would scratch his belly with both hands through his dirty undershirt, and about three minutes after that, he would lumber up from his chair and look for his bell. The bell, having been invariably dropped along the well-traveled route between Sylvester's chair and the front window the day before, would invariably present itself as he made his way back again from one point to the other with his palm outstretched. The bell would be in his hand by the time he reached the front of the house. Sylvester would then hoist the sash and, leaning farther out of a window than an old man should, he would swing the bell and yell, "Hey you cats! Are there any goddamn cats out there wanna take a nap?"

Joseph was conceived just after his parents' wedding and moments before his father left Chicago for the war. But when his father came home, there were two babies: Joseph, who had already turned one, and Sylvester, a newborn.

Their father spoke only when necessary. He asked the family to turn their goddamn radios down, to clean up goddamn messes left in the goddamn kitchen, to get the goddamn out of the goddamn bathroom, and to go goddamn back down to the goddamn basement. He ignored Joseph and he ignored Sylvester even more intensely. They learned where they each had come from one night on the front steps when they overheard their Aunt Rita tell the story to some cousins. Joseph was his father's. Sylvester was not. It had ruined everything. The whole thing was a goddamn mess. But no one said anything, and time in the house moved like continents, without the milestones of battlefields, a gradual shift making mountains so slowly, that it seemed like nothing at all.

When the cats heard the bell they came running. Most of them laid around the yard all day, but some came from under the house or tree branches hanging over the sidewalk. The only thing that distinguished Sylvester's naps from the rest of his day, was that during a nap Sylvester was covered in cats. And these cats, who busied themselves from sun-up to midday with the lounging off of Chicago alley exploits from the night before, all came at the ring of a bell that had sat for years untouched in Sylvester and Joseph's mother's curio cabinet.

Their mother accepted their father's silence as deserved, she was well aware that she deserved worse, and she tread carefully to avoid any landmines that may deliver her just deserts. When the relatives stopped coming, the silence in the house, the sight of her two stilted sons, and knowing that it all, all of it, was her fault, was too much.

She was sick for three days before she died. On the second day, her husband sat by her bed. On the third, he put his hand on top of hers through the blankets. Joseph and Sylvester peered in through the cracked door. He asked her something they could not make out. Their mother answered him.

"What did she say?" Sylvester asked Joseph.

"She said, 'The whole wide world seemed wreathed in clover,'" Joseph answered.

And then they saw their mother close her eyes. And she was gone.

Joseph heard the battalions of cats move across the floor above him, each four-footed leg of the run ending in an audible pounce up onto the gigantic dirty stomach of his brother. Sylvester launched the footrest of the recliner out and pushed back. Cats settled in the crook of his huge stubbly neck, in the gelatinous folds of each hairy armpit, all around the base of his mountainous stomach, and in the infertile valley that stretched from his thighs all the way down to his calloused feet. Joseph waited until he heard the snores and then used the handle of a broom to deliver several machine gun-style blasts to the ceiling under his Zepplinesque brother. From the sound of it, this had the desired effect of waking the cats claws first and initiating a frenzied feline retreat. Joseph smiled. But there was snoring again in a matter of minutes. Joseph took the bill, the one from the diner, out of his front shirt pocket and put it in a box of receipts. And then he took off his shoes and sat down on the edge of his bed.

Their father put all of her things in the space beneath the sidewalks, the walled off and locked up space, and bolted the outside. Years later, on his 21st birthday, Joseph opened the front door to get the mail and saw the door to the vault was open. His father's feet were extended just past the threshold. He was dead but still warm. He was holding their mother's bell.

They left the door to the storage vault open after that and let the seasons advanced on their mother's things. Sylvester's cats pushed their way into open drawers; snow fell, made piles, melted; and the leaves blew in, clustered, dried and disappeared.

 

About the Author(s)

Jill Summers' audio fiction has been featured internationally by Chicago Public Radio, the Third Coast International Audio Festival, and New Adventures in Sound Art. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Stop Smiling Magazine, Ninth Letter, The 2nd Hand, littleBANG, RAGAD, Annalemma, This 'Zine Will Change Your Life, and Please-Don't.

Jill has received the Weisman Grant and an IL Arts Council Literary Award; is a two time Caxton Club Fellow; and was recently awarded a CAAP grant to produce a new collection of audio shorts. Her first play, In the Curious Hold of the Demeter: Count Orlock at Sea, was awarded a Henson Grant to be produced by The Incurable Theater this fall at the Chicago Cultural Center. She runs Stray Dog Recording Co. in Chicago, and you can find her online at callingallmonkeys.com.

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