Excerpts from Baron's Chronicle, a Novel in Progress

By the time I got home there was a second service call waiting for me, this one leading me to the north side of the city, to Uptown. I caught a State Street bus up to Roosevelt and boarded the Red Line train from there.

The train stormed underground from Roosevelt, passing nothing but cloaked darkness on either side, only an occasional caged lightbulb giving brief glimpses of the tunnel walls before they receded from sight with a quaking rumble. Yet above ground, the city swelled with life. The train traveled beneath the Loop, passing the long-deceased Dearborn Station and its Romanesque tower of red-pressed brick hovering over Printer’s Row; the Greek columns, arches, and gargoyles of the Harold Washington Library; the dazzling marquee of the Chicago Theater; Marshall Field’s and its century-old clocks; all those buildings that marked the modern era of Chicago, the eventual shift away from stockyards and Pullman districts to become a metropolis of its own, forging its history on labor and Capone, train yards and Daley. A city that was literally raised from the mud. It was a shame to be beneath it all, I though then, but that is part of the Chicago way, always in the trenches, made aware of the necessity in humility. Of vulgarity and reticence. At Fullerton the train rose, right into the most gentrified part of the north side, an area populated by a demographic of 20-somethings who weren’t from the city and rarely stayed past their 32nd birthdays. Bars, gyms, bagel shops, trendy restaurants, and tanning salons lined the streets, clinging to Wrigley Field, the anchor for much of the economic prosperity in that part of the city. My train passed over visibly wealthy clothing stores that sold nightmarish attire for the rich and trendy that made one look either dingy or like a suburban adolescent. Women walked to and fro with sunglasses covering the entirety of their faces, men strolled around in blond dyed faux-hawks, creating a reality that mimicked a reality that wasn’t much of a reality at all.

Yet as quickly as the train rose into affluence it also cut directly through it as coffee shops were replaced with liquor stores, personalized boutiques transforming into currency exchanges. I passed over Irving Park Road and gazed down at the blacked-out windows of the Holiday Club and the auto detailing shop that displayed its rims on a four-tiered rack on the sidewalk; at eye level there were billboards advertising daytime talk shows and movies that had long completed their theatrical releases. Taking it all in, I knew I had arrived at the outskirts of Uptown.

I got off the train at Lawrence, the platform overlooking the marquee of the Aragon Ballroom that hung from the argyle pattern of the building’s exterior. From there I walked a few blocks north on Broadway to the building I'd been called to.

The tenement resembled Joe Frazier in the 14th round of “the Thrilla in Manila.” Beat up, decomposing, charred bricks showcased what looked to be rust running down the side wall, making the building look like it was bleeding. Dead center of its façade was a blind, broken-out window covered with a thin piece of wood that appeared to be rotting. A bus rumbled by, glazing the air with noxious gases that stung my eyes with ashen exhaust. On the sidewalk leading up to the building I hopscotched between broken glass and the crumbled remains of a McDonald’s french fry box and Big Mac wrapper.

The message I had received concerned the third-floor-east apartment. As I stepped forward to unlock the front security door I noticed there was no deadbolt plate and nowhere for the lock to catch. The wood there was gnarled and splintered as if a wild animal had gnawed on it, although it was more likely to be the work of a crowbar. I opened the door and was greeted by an oppressive scent, one of decay, mildew, marijuana, and sour rot; the air was saturated with the stench of misery that arose from a place like that, home to a number of unmentionable cruelties. I walked up the carpeted stairs, stained and worn to the point that it was unclear as to what the original color had been. A woman burst past my side as I reached the middle step, a cell phone in one hand, a diapered child teetering in the other. She pulled on his arm, yelling for him to come on, but the child failed to even react. The sound of a television blasted through the closed door of a second-floor apartment, the laugh track creating a sense of tragic farce equivalent to the way one laughs at the inane ramblings of a distraught and wrecked Lear.

A trembling began to stir within me. This wasn’t thoughts and intentions; I was moved by a visceral reaction that left me with an acidic taste in my mouth that burned as I swallowed. Backing into the wall adjacent to the third-floor landing, my head chafing a peeling strip of water-stained wallpaper, I realized that I had failed to understand what was happening. All I felt was myself, my cold trembling, my dry mouth, my complete inability to be prepared for such a reality. I thought of all the knowledge stored in the catacombs of my mind and found absolutely nothing of use. Hobbes? Spinoza? What could they do here and now?

Standing at the front door of the third-floor apartment, I could hear the sounds of a toddler crying, a mixture of broken words released between sobs. There was the noise of something banging. I knocked on the door. A woman came to the door with the tearful child in tow. She was young, younger than me by a year or two, yet ragged in a way I certainly was not, her eyes blackened by bags of fatigue, her hair mussed and dry, her shoulders sunken, her posture weighted down as if gravity were pulling more on her than it did on the bulk of all other matter.

“Are you the landlord?” she asked, somehow maintaining her poise with the child screaming in her ear.

I couldn’t respond; I didn’t know how. I was in no position to be entrusted with the maintenance of people’s homes, their shelters from the world. And that feeling stumped my mind with the difficulty in actually being something. Or nothing. What was I good for?

Nonetheless, without any other option, I replied. “Yeah,” I said, extending my hand out to be shaken. “Baron.”

“Esme.”

Inside, the banging was coming from another child, maybe five years old, who was smashing two train cars into one another down on the living room floor. In the corner of the room an old woman, perhaps the oldest I had ever seen, sat back with her legs raised on a tattered hassock, laps of fat hanging from her calves, violet-colored veins taut against chestnut skin. The bottom of her face was sunken and without much shape, making her appear as if she was without a jaw. Had she not let out the occasional snore and guttural cough, I would have assumed she was either comatose or dead. Behind me, Esme closed and bolted the door with her one free arm, drawing on her might to balance the weight of the child and the stiffness of the door. She released an exhausted sigh that quickly transformed into a considerate smile once she knew I was looking at her.

As far as looks went, Esme was pretty enough, in spite of her discernable exhaustion. She had a full frame with wide Hispanic hips, shoulder length brown hair that was split and frayed at the ends. What kept her in favor with men, I assumed, was the sensuality that came off her through her dark, oval eyes. She was the worst type of sexy — powerful and unintentional. A woman like that inhabits both sides of Machiavelli’s coin, being both feared and loved: loved for her appeal, feared for what she may do with it. One couldn’t tell if she were making concentrated efforts to repress or draw attention to herself. And this is what drives men to the brink of insanity, not knowing when or if to desist, when to advance.

“You got my message then.”

“I did. Your bathroom ceiling is leaking?”

“Yes. My God, it’s awful.” The child in Esme’s arms began to scream after a brief pause, tugging on his mother’s hair, demanding something, the words rolling of his weak palette and registering with me as a jumble of sound. “Not right now, honey. Mommy needs to talk to this man here.” The child began to wail as Esme, dodging her head around the set of flailing limbs in her arms, signaled for me to follow behind her.

She led me down the short, narrow hallway that connected one end of the apartment to the other — there were only two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a half kitchen, the lack of space accentuated by the chaos within and the number of occupants. She turned into the bathroom, flipped on the light switch, and gestured for me to go in while asking what I thought.

The ceiling was waterlogged, soft and swollen like a woman in her third trimester. And from the smell of things, it was a mixture of run-off water from the bathroom above and sewage from who knew where. I stepped in the tub, looked up at the engorged belly, and gave it a delicate nudge. Had I used any force whatsoever, the whole thing would have collapsed on me — the drywall was that soft. When I poked it, I was able to hear and feel the water shifting, a good couple gallons of it just waiting to overtake the ceiling.

“How long has the ceiling been accumulating water?”

“About a week now. I tried calling right away but couldn’t find a contact number for the new management anywhere. In fact, until I tried calling the old landlord, I didn’t even know the building had been sold. I ran into one of the residents from downstairs, and she gave me this number, said it was left in her mailbox a few months ago. I probably got it at some point, but with all the mess around here, I’m sure it got lost before I even realized what it was. You can fix it, right?” Esme asked, placing a perfectly timed hand on my elbow. But it wasn’t lasciviousness she was appealing to; it was a basic human appeal for help.

And I can say with all the honesty and sincerity one can muster in the unknowable distance bridged between the shavings of a dead tree and blotches of ink coded into language, my heart broke into a thousand pieces as I stood there, seeing the desperation in this Esme’s eyes, her need for me, for me to do something, a sobbing, demanding child fishtailing in her arms, a comatose and dependant grandmother immobile in her living room, another child who she simply didn’t have the energy to look after. Esme was looking at me to help her just fix this one thing, to have one less demand to meet in a series of demands that went on without end. My head charged, stinging with the pressure of what felt like little electric bolts firing at my brain. Because what is a life without such dependence on the goodness of humanity? A belief that in the end, it will be our humanity that mattered the most. Life without that is nothing more than a timeline without progression, a collection of abuses suffered at the hands of faulty politicians, of numbing relationships with dominating partners, unloving partners, adulterous partners, bounced checks, the ever-growing detachment from community, automated services, the phenomenon of fear, silent injustices daily suffered through negligent strangers, junk e-mails, uniformed prejudice, wars abroad, chaos at home, red tape ensuring that nothing, nothing ever changes, ever gets done, daily rushes to fight the traffic, to catch the train, always a fury to get somewhere you don’t want to be, rampant capitalism leaving more in the marginalized dust with every passing day, forever clinging to the hope that thoughts can overcome the barbarism of this world.

Because after all, the truth was that I couldn’t fix her ceiling. I didn’t know how. The best I could do was lean into Luzhin and ensure that he got one of his repairmen out there that night, that hour, ready to work and get this one thing fixed. I wanted to do something good; I was starving, absolutely dying to do something good.

“Let me make a phone call.”

It was around 7:00 PM when I began my attempts to find a suitable person to fix the leaky pipe and put up a new ceiling, if only patchwork for now. I thought I’d have different options to select from, but my first five calls were met with four answering machines and a flat-out refusal from a set of cigarette-scarred lungs declaring in a grating gruff, “We’re closed” before slamming the phone onto its cradle. I dialed the final number, hoping my good intentions wouldn’t be foiled by bad timing. A man answered on the other end, sounding as if he had just woken from a deep sleep. I pictured him in a closet-sized office, his body hunched over a desk, closed in by stacked boxes of unneeded files dating back the decades, compounded by an assortment of tools and parts strewn about, bits and scraps that hardly could be expected to be serviceable. He put me on hold, his method being to place the phone down somewhere while he coughed, loosening phlegm from his throat, and them spitting it somewhere. He returned to the line, and I explained the situation to him.

“Sorry, pal,” he responded. “But I’m done for the day. Weekend.”

“How much would a job like that cost?”

“Oh hell, offhand? I don’t know …a grand, I’d say. I could do it for a grand, I’d say, without lookin’ at it. How’s about Tuesday mornin’?’”

“I need it done now, tonight. Twelve hundred.”

“What?”

“Twelve hundred. I’ll give that amount if you come out here and take care of this tonight, right now.”

“Look, kid—”

“Thirteen, and I’ll help.”

“Thirteen, huh kid?”

“That’s what I said.”

There was a pause on the line.

“You got a deal. What’s the address?”

For a minute I stammered, realizing that I didn’t actually have $13,000 in cash on me. I had it, just in the bank on the other side of the city, a bank that was long closed at that point. “It’ll have to be credit card.”

“Nice talking to you, kid.”

“Wait, wait. I’ll give you the information now, you can verify and run it through before you go. Charge the thirteen, and we’ll be square.”

The plumber released a series of contemplative grunts, then finally agreed.

“All right. I don’t like it, but all right. I call it in when you hang up; you got any dispute later on, you take it up with them. Got me?”

“Fair enough,” I said, and gave him the address.

The repairman, Wallace, was bearded, had harsh breath and a Lincolnesque face. He entered the apartment lumbering, his back hunched over. He arrived about a half hour later, time enough for me to go to the corner hot dog stand and grab dinner for myself and Esme’s family. As soon as Wallace got there, we got to work.

Esme had cleared out whatever items were in the bathroom: loofahs, soap, a bucket of bath toys, toothbrushes, anything that could be removed. Wallace stood below the swollen ceiling, his eyebrows furrowed, “hmmm-ing” to himself. He massaged his beard, tugged at it, occasionally pulled something out.

“Got yourself a fine mess here, kid. A fine mess.”

“Yeah, well, can you fix it?”

“Hmmm. I can, but it’s gonna be a mess comin’ through there. That up there’s about a month’s worth of rotting water, probly some backed up or leaky sewage.”

“So what do we need to do?”

“Lemme think, lemme think.” Wallace sat down on the side of the tub and began his beard routine again. “What we should probly do is shut down all the water for awhile and drain the ceiling slowly overnight. Come back in the morning, find the bad pipe, switch it out, done. What do you think?”

“Think?” I said. “Think?! No, no. It’s time to do.” And with that, I removed my shoes and jacket, emptied my pockets, grabbed a pickax from Wallace’s toolbox and positioned myself to chop away at the ceiling.

“Whoa, kid! Whoa! You know what kind of mess you’re gonna cause?”

He had jumped up from the tub and was standing in the doorway. His face showed a look of dismay. “Take an hour, Wallace, then come back. I’ll deal with the mess, you deal with the pipe. This job gets done tonight. That was our deal.”

“Yeah, but kid, this is gonna be some foul stuff all over you.”

“An hour,” I said, and raised the pickax to strike the ceiling. Just as I was about to deliver the blow, which would prove to be the first and last, I heard the bathroom door slam and Wallace tell Esme to stay out, the kid’s crazy.

With that strike, I felt one drop of ooze hit my nose, and before my wits could relate to my brain what that sensation was, a hole had burst through the ceiling the size of a shotgun blast. The gallons crashed through, inundating me in a brown vomit that smelled like rotted milk mixed with the bi-product of a slaughtered animal. The flow gurgled, fast at first, then more viscous and thick as the purging neared its end. After removing my socks, I stepped out of the tub with clean feet. I cracked open the bathroom door so to keep the smell contained. As I ducked my head out into the hallway to call Esme, I saw the old grandmother jerk up in her chair and say something in Spanish. Esme came to the door, answering my call.

“Do you have some cleaning products you can give to me? Some rags and sponges that you will never use again?”

Esme had her face buried in the pit of her elbow. She nodded yes.

“Great, I’ll need them. All of them. And garbage bags!” I yelled after her.

It took nearly heroic willpower for me to repress the impulse to gag and heave as I pulled the brown, rotted, crusty plaster from the ceiling, as I scrubbed the gunk off the walls and floor, pushing what I could towards the drain, pulling out clumps of shit I couldn’t even identify that were too large to go down the pipe. I threw it all — ceiling pieces, soiled rags and sponges, masses of refuse, even my shirt, which was mucked beyond washing — all of it went into garbage bags and straight to the dumpsters. All the while, my mind was repeating one word over and over, internalizing it the way certain religious sects internalize the Lord’s prayer for lifelong repetition. It was like that tribal drum, only the rhythm had slowed down, had become more clear and distinct, the sound more full and lucid. Do it said. Do. Do. Do! Over and over.

Wallace returned just as I was finishing. I had my jacket on, zipped up to the top to conceal the fact that I wasn’t wearing any shirt. I stunk to high hell, like a hot day at the local dump.

“All done in there?” he asked.

“I am.”

“Well, I was thinking about how to get to staring this and I guess I’d better—”

“Do,” I said. “Just do.”

Wallace paused, looking at me like the madman I was, standing there with that scent reeking of me. “Sure kid, sure. I’m gonna get on it right now.”

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.