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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, March 27

Gapers Block

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The dream is brown, the color of mahogany. Not the deep glow of an antique dining room table, but the brown of poorer stuff. A heavy door; window trim; the matter-of-fact metal lamp on her father's desk in the den.

Brown shellac. Brown varnish. Celia's father tried to explain the meanings of the two words to her and she, 4 or 5 years old, struggled to comprehend. She examined the glossy surfaces of the molding and furniture. Varnish? she wondered. Shellac? Was it a difference in color or in shine? It was confusing when two different words seemed to mean the same thing. She felt betrayed when she learned a word and then found out that there was another perfectly good substitute. Davenport and sofa. Hassock and ottoman. She didn't realize at the time that the words reflected not so much a difference in definition as a difference in social class. Her parents were experimenting with a new vocabulary and Celia, like her friend Sandra, who spoke Polish at home and English at school, was learning them both. Celia's parents wished to emigrate, but just 20 miles away, to one of the tidy suburbs outside of the city. Chicago represented to them the poverty of their childhood, and they wanted to break free of it.

Celia awoke from yet another dream of her childhood home and the overwhelming memory of brown. Brown like the color of a brittle old photograph or an old bedside table, shiny with varnish.

She rolled over and pulled the covers over her head.

Outside, rain was falling, drops splashing noisily into an enamel bowl on the step, and the noise became part of her dream, tinny notes from the old upright piano her grandmother played in the flat downstairs from theirs.

Celia balanced for as long as she could between sleep and waking, but the dream faded. She tried the usual meditation, imagining herself in the house where she spent the first years of her life. She visualized the rooms, reconstructing them from memory -- the den with the desk inlaid with tiny squares of colored wood; the front room and its bookcase; the dining room forest of chair legs that a child could climb through. In her meditation, she observed the dresser in her parents' bedroom, with the little wooden balls carved on the drawer fronts. She felt the clamminess of the black and white bathroom tile. Visualizing the pantry off the kitchen, she remembered the smell of cookies from Roser's bakery. And the last room was her own bedroom, with its window that looked out onto the stairway that connected them with her grandmother's back porch below.

Still only half awake, Celia continued her reflections, attempting to separate what she really remembered from what she had only seen in photographs. She really remembered, for example, the stained glass window by the front door. She really remembered the squeak of the front step after a rain.

Celia had no way of knowing, though, that at that exact moment, in a dilapidated two-story house where window trim rotted, dull with old shellac, a board creaked loudly, as if a nail were being eased from it with the claw of a carpenter's hammer.

"I had another dream about the house on Hirsch Street last night," she wrote to her sister. "I have always missed that place."

Thirty-two thirty-four Hirsch Street, Chicago. A two-flat, one of the smallest on the block, situated exactly between Lowell School and Humboldt Park. It hasn't borne the years well. The stained glass window by the front door is gone now, shattered by a brick in a burglar's attempt to reach the latch inside. Nothing grows in the dusty patch of dirt out front. The roof that sheltered the porch at the top of the steps is gone completely.

Houses have memories, too, like the people who inhabit them, and the Hirsch Street house, for instance, remembers a family who moved there in 1916 and stayed for 40 years. For the man, a sunburned, lanky carpenter from Iowa, and his wife, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, owning their own home felt like nothing short of a miracle. Baby balanced on her bony hip, the woman supervised the moving of her precious piano, a mahogany upright, up the steep front steps. You could do worse than marry a carpenter, she knew. Charlie made a beautiful cradle out of a packing crate, disassembling it carefully and planing every board, applying a final coat of shellac with his best brush.

Sometimes in those years there were so many people in the kitchen that the floorboards sagged. To the house it felt good, like stretching after a good night's sleep. Hams were baked; beans were soaked overnight, sprinkled with brown sugar and put on the stove to simmer. Smells penetrated to the second-floor flat, and the residents came downstairs to join the party.

When their baby grew up and had a daughter of his own, he told her that what he remembered best was the food. "The roast would cook till lunchtime, and then it would come out of the oven and a ham would go in, for supper. It seemed like we ate all day."

The house remembers, too, the huge elm tree smack in the middle of the back yard. Flowers were planted along the sidewalk next to the fence. Vegetables went in by the alley. Every yard was the same, differing only in the plumpness of the tomatoes or the size of the roses.

The carpenter built a shed out back. "Garadge" was the way they pronounced it, the Chicago way. It was a new word that rolled around in their mouths like hard candy. They had a car by then, and it took all of a 12-hour day to drive to Iowa every summer to see his brothers. He had a good construction job at the new Municipal Pier. The way his son talked, proudly, he built it practically all by himself, with his own two strong hands. And often on Sundays the whole family went to Riverview Park, where that same carpenter was banned from the nail-hammering contest, because he could swat a 16 penny down to its head into a log with one powerful whack, winning the prize every time. They knew him at Riverview Park. It was a mark of status for a carpenter.

It was a good time for the house. Window frames got painted; cracked planes of glass were replaced to keep in the heat. The carpenter varnished the woodwork and doors. He built a wagon for the little boy, with a space in the back for the child to put his foot when he scooted down the sidewalk out front, towards Humboldt Park.

Houses can endure change; they don't mind a bit, in most cases. The baby grew up, became a man and brought home a wife and they settled upstairs. A bedroom dresser with carved mahogany balls over the mirror was carried up the back stairs by furniture movers. A rug was unrolled in the front room, blue, with sculpted swirls. Friends came over to watch programs on the new television, a wood box as big as an armchair, with a tiny round screen. They piled their coats on the davenport in the den and helped themselves to a beer from the refrigerator. Their children fell asleep on the soft bed of coats to the reassuring sound of their parents' voices discussing what they'd read in the newspapers.

This is when a house feels the most useful. Houses dream, too, and when they do, this is the time they remember as their best.

"I don't just dream about the house," Celia told her sister. "I dream about the entire neighborhood. I dream of North Avenue where Mom shopped. In fact, I dreamed it again last night." She had no way of knowing that as she spoke, the house on Hirsch Street stirred briefly and a man in the bedroom sniffed the air and wondered who was roasting a ham at this hour of the morning. Out back, an ancient elm seed cracked open and a shoot began its hopeful journey upward.

Houses don't know about things like money, so it wouldn't have meant anything to 3234 Hirsch Street to know it was sold for $25,000 when the boy who came there as a baby grew up, sold it off and moved away. Nor could the house know that only five years later, its value would decrease to a quarter of that, less than the worth of the lumber and stone used to build it. Down the block, a similar two-flat was destroyed by fire one night. Across the street, another.

Celia first began to dream of the place shortly after they moved, when she was only 7. She stood every day at the window of her sunny new bedroom and looked down at a deserted suburban sidewalk. She was seldom lonely for companionship. It was the house she missed. She asked if they might drive to the old neighborhood some Sunday so she could see it again. "It's a slum now," said her father. "Too dangerous. We got out just in time."

So she found herself dreaming about it instead, and every dream left her with a giddy feeling of well-being. One night she dreamed of the grandfather she'd never met, carving a turkey at the table, like in a photograph she'd seen in an old album. That very night, the ancient linoleum in the Hirsch Street kitchen buckled underneath a chair and pushed it over. A piece of dirty paint the size of a quarter flaked off the bedroom door, exposing, underneath, varnish of shiny brown.

When Celia's grandmother died, fingering a Stephen Foster song on the coverlet as if it were a piano, the house stirred again. The door banged open into the front hall and a child playing there observed a rainbow on the floor, like sun shining through colored glass. He looked behind him, but saw nothing but a cracked and dusty window.

"These dreams are haunting me," Celia wrote to her sister. "I need to see the place again. Bad neighborhood or not."

Her plane landed on a freezing morning, blue and cloudless. She transferred from one bus to another and started to wonder what she was doing there, what she wanted to accomplish. It occurred to her that she could just get off the bus, cross the street, and catch a ride back to the airport where a plane could fly her home. But suddenly it all began to look familiar. The silhouette of buildings awoke a vision deep in her memory and she knew she was close to home.

She recognized Roser's Bakery as soon as it came into view; it was the place where they went on Sunday mornings, taking a numbered card off the hook and waiting to be called. Young Celia would look through the glass at the gaudy cakes on display, cakes with scenes of fishermen and ice skaters on them, cakes with frosting writing the promised happy anniversaries and birthdays. She asked the bus driver to stop.

An emaciated junkie asked Celia for change as soon as she stepped onto the sidewalk and she handed him what was in her pocket. Her attention, though, was focused on the familiar glass door with its chrome push-bar which was, she remembered, impossibly heavy. She pushed it firmly now, and it flew out of her hand. Customers turned around to look at her.

The air inside was as warm and fragrant as a cinnamon bun. Polished glass cases held familiar cakes and cookies. Customers, mostly women bundled in dark wool coats and clutching pocketbooks, took their numbers and waited patiently. Celia would not have been surprised to see her own mother standing among them, assessing the coffee cakes as she waited her turn.

Celia took a number and stood looking out the steamy window at North Avenue and the boarded-up drug store that used to sell the daily newspapers. Upstairs from it was the dentists' office, which Celia had forgotten until this moment, with its waiting room chairs of soft brown leather. But now it was only one more brick building that fire had gutted, graffiti-covered plywood where the display windows used to be. She remembered the admonitions she'd heard: Too dangerous. Gangs. Highest arson rate in the city. Nothing left there anymore. But the bakery was still here, wasn't it? Maybe the same could be said for the house she saw in her dreams. She had to find out.

Every time the door to the bakery opened, a blast of arctic air blew in from the street. Some people might say that this was the worst kind of Chicago day, so cold that it was painful even to take a breath. But cold also takes away the dangers, cold and the early hour of the day when no one was about except a handful of shoppers. Crime, Celia told herself as she prepared to go outside again, is something that happens at night, or in the stifling heat of summer. Nothing could happen to her on a day like this, a day with no crowds and only a few people, most of them old, walking quickly with their heads down.

Celia pulled on her gloves and stepped outside. With her back to the bakery, she surveyed North Avenue, and as she did so, she became distinctly aware of two pictures merging into one -- the actual, physical scene of decay before her and the remembered backdrop of her childhood. Like the pictures in a stereoscope that combine to form a single image, the two visions blended together into a place of beauty. A sensation of well-being came over her, a feeling of warm, brown rooms. She began to walk.

A store for men's clothing, a grid pulled over the entrance and a sign announcing that it would open at noon. A tavern. Half a block of vacant storefronts. And then she was at Hirsch. She'd feared it might be nothing more than a row of burned-out buildings, or the site of a parking lot. But how little it had changed, really. She would have known it anywhere. Walking more slowly now, she passed the home of her oldest friend, Sandra, and the fire hydrant the kids used to play around in the summer.

In the middle of the block, she stopped. Thirty-two thirty-four. Home. She gazed lovingly at the building as if it were the face of an old friend. The second-story windows were cracked and hung with sheets. But in the window of her grandmother's first-floor flat there was a sign. For Sale Or Rent. Red geranium blossoms pressed again the glass; the lacy curtain was as white as snow.

Celia placed her hand on the stairpost; it wiggled like a loose tooth. And then it began to vibrate, softly, like the purr of a satisfied cat, beginning from the basement and rising up the stairs to the old door. She placed her foot on the first step and felt the building humming, an almost musical tone, a remembered song. The odor of brewing coffee was suddenly overwhelming. A tinny piano began to play somewhere, hesitantly at first, and then with full, rich chords.

Hand on the trembling bannister, Celia mounted the stairs. Before she knocked, she stroked the familiar door, its brown varnish darkened and cracked with time. Touched by her hand, the house emitted a long, heartbreaking sigh and then settled into itself, expectant, relaxed.

She knocked.


About the Author(s)

Linda Romero is a native of the Humbolt Park neighborhood.

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