The Edge of Cicero
Nick was whistling, his arm hanging out the open window, the smooth roll of the car slowing as he took the turns through the Longdale neighborhood. Billboards were the only cheerful sight in the area. He stopped under an elevated track. The car idled as he held the glossy shift knob and gazed about him. To the right was a gaudy, run down ice-cream parlour and to the left he spotted a sign in an open lot that read – Repairs. Thomas Lee Wilson. Cars Bought and Sold. He turned into a gravel driveway. The damp smell of things rotting back to earth floated through the open windows of the car and Gina pointed excitedly, “Bapi. See, see. A squirrel.”
“A squirrel, dragging newspaper.”
“Don’t look like – – Nah, it’s a rat, a sewer rat.”
Gina’s eyes widened.
“Lookit the tail. Remember, I told you, always check the tail. You don’t check the tail, one day you’ll be feeding a rat instead of a squirrel.”
Nick parked the car in front of a wooden building. Worried he might be robbed; he left his money at home. He only had a dollar in his pocket, but for safekeeping, he slid it under the floor mat. He slammed the car door. “Stay put, Gina. I’ll be right back. Don’t get out of the car.”
“I’m hot. Bapi, can I have a orange pop?”
“I’ll see if there’s a pop machine inside.”
Nick knocked on a side door that was half off its hinges. When no one answered he peeked inside. The garage looked bare with only a few tires tossed in a dim corner. Nick could hear the faint sound of a radio. Muddy Waters was singing. He walked into the garage just as a man walked out of a room that Nick assumed was an office. The man stood wiping his hands on newspaper and Nick took him to be the owner. His shoulders were stooped and Nick thought he looked like a man used to hard work. His overalls were covered with dust and through the wooden cracks of light, his skin looked like dark red wine.
“Hello,” said Nick, holding out his hand. “How’s business?”
The man stared at Nick without taking his hand. He looked over Nick’s head as if expecting someone else to come walking in, “You lost mister?”
“No,” said Nick taking a step forward. “Saw your place. Stopped to see what you had for sale.”
“See anything you want?”
“Business slow, huh?”
The man didn’t answer.
“Oh. My name is Nick. Nick Baretta.”
“You lost, Mr. Baretta?”
“Call me Nick.”
The man continued to look past Nick’s head.
“Sign says you’re Wilson, Thomas Lee.”
“You from the Health Department Mr. Baretta?”
“Nick. Call me Nick.”
“You waitin’ for somebody?”
“I wanna ask you,” Nick extended his hand again. “Nick. Nick Baretta. I’m interested in cars.”
“Beats me why you be interested here.” Thomas Lee looked around slowly. The man looked as if he was surprised to see an empty garage. Nick guessed he dreamed it’d be filled with cars needing repairs, people clamoring for help. “Need this fixed by tomorrow, Wilson.” “Got to get downtown by next Tuesday.”
Nick took a breath and tried again. “Got a minute? Want to talk to you about a car.” Nick took a step forward and as he did Thomas Lee suddenly stood up straight. He was tall. Nick was surprised at how tall he was. Head and shoulders taller than himself and Nick stretched, rising to his tallest height, almost on his toes.
The man brushed a fly off his face, “White people don’t come this way for no reason. You have a reason, Mr. Baretta?”
Nick rocked back on his heels, “Must be personal pride makes me want to get you to like me,” he said, shaking his head. He took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered one.
The man shook his head, “Don’t smoke.”
Nick lit up, “Sure is hot in here.” He pulled at the collar of his shirt but was reluctant to unbutton it. Didn’t like exposing his thick chest hair. Made him look ape-like. He tried shaving it once, but couldn’t stand the itching when it grew back, so he took to keeping his shirt buttoned to the top.
“City heat.” Thomas Lee stared at Nick’s buttoned collar and his lips twitched into a small smile.
“I got a car outside I wanna show you.”
“Yeah. I sell used cars. Fix ‘em up myself.” Nick had the urge to show Thomas Lee his hands. I’ll show him my hands are stained with grease, maybe then this guy’d trust me.
Thomas Lee frowned. “What make?”
Thomas Lee let out a low whistle, “Two door?”
“Nope. Sedan.” Nick took his comb out and slicked his hair back, “Have a look.”
Blinking away the brightness of the afternoon sun, Nick noticed the front door to the car was opened. “God Damn,” he muttered walking over to the car. “Gina,” he called. He looked in the back seat, “Jesus Christ. Gina,” he shouted louder this time, “quit hiding.” Nick looked over his shoulder at Thomas Lee, “My daughter. She loves to run off. C’mon Gina. S’not hide and seek time.”
When she didn’t answer, Nick walked to the front of the car, “So what do you think,” he said as he looked underneath. He stood up, “ She’s a beauty ain’t she?”
“The car or your daughter?”
Nick laughed, “Both, both.” He kicked the tires, “It’s the 1942 model but still solid as a rock. A straight-eight. Could do sixty easy. Travels 300 miles on 20 gallons of gas. That’s a good selling point.”
“So, you sellin?”
“Let’s say I’m prospecting.”
“Mister Baretta, just why are you here?”
“Your nickname must be Doubting Thomas.” Nick opened the drivers door, “Why don’t you get in. Get the feel of her. Take her for a spin around the yard.”
When Thomas Lee hesitated Nick threw him the keys, “Go on. I’ll just nose around for that kid of mine.”
Thomas Lee held the keys and looked at them for a few seconds and then shrugged his shoulders and smiled at Nick as he slid behind the drivers seat. When he started the engine Nick stepped back and slammed the door. “Listen to that purr. She does 50 on the open road.”
Thomas Lee shifted into gear and slowly drove to the end of the driveway with Nick following behind.
“Gina,” he called, “quit hiding and get over here right now!” He was hot and sweaty and his hair began to curl, falling over his forehead as he followed the car. Every once in a while he called out for his daughter. “Venuto qui. Ottenga qui prima che conti cingue!” Nick raised his hand and counted off with each finger, “ Un. Due. Tre. Quattro. Cinco.”
The car stopped at the end of the driveway and Nick waved. He paused to listen to the crackling grasshoppers in the weeds, reflecting on how, as a kid, he’d run off and hide in the prairie grasses at the end of the railroad yard. He’d hop a train and ride it into the Hotpoint factory. Right into the factory, where men unloaded the cars. When the car turned out of the driveway and headed towards the housing projects, Nick’s reverie was brought up short. “God damn,” he cursed, “the bastard’s running off with my car.”
“Hey, hey. Come back.” He ran and shouted, but then, the car stopped near a clump of trees that seemed to be growing out of cement.
Thomas Lee got out of the car, shut the door gently and pointed towards the trees. Nick caught up and followed him down a small path towards the sound of a small voice calling out, “Hi. Over here. I’m up here.”
Thomas Lee spotted the girl through the leaves of a tree. “You pretty high up.”
“Crissake Gina.” Nick stepped back and gazed up at his daughter. She was wearing a brown derby hat on her head and for a moment he wanted to laugh at the sight of her, this tom-boy daughter of his, but instead yelled, “I been looking all over the place for you.”
She swung her legs down and hung onto the branch, swinging back and forth.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?”
She jumped down.
Nick turned to Thomas Lee, “Kid’s always running off.”
She looked at Thomas Lee and said, “Mamma says it’s because I’m like my Bapi.”
“Like me, huh?” A slight gleam of pride glinted in his eyes even as he frowned. “I asked you to stay in the car. Now get in the car before I give you the back of my hand.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh Bapi, you know you never hit me.”
Thomas Lee smiled.
“Well, you can forget about that chocolate ice-cream I was gonna buy you.” Nick turned to Thomas Lee. “She’s a good kid.” He scratched his head, “don’t know. Maybe I should spank her once in a while, for her own good.”
“I gots a son ‘bout her age.”
Nick cleared his throat. “You spank him, your son?”
“No. Figure he be big and stronger than me soon. What I got to do is listen. You listen good,” his voice was low, polite, without any hint of bragging, “you learn what you need to know.”
“My father was a good listener. It didn’t rub off on me. Me, I’m always shooting my mouth off. My wife Rose tells me I’m lousy at listening.”
Thomas Lee peered over Nick’s shoulder. “Oh, Oh,” he said. “Fraid she done run off. You daughter. She run off again.”
“Run off?” Nick swung around. He took a few steps down the crumbling alleyway and saw his daughter turn the corner. He cupped his hands and called her name. “Christ, I can’t believe this!” He waited a minute for her to return, then called again. When she didn’t answer, Nick was flustered with embarrassment, and talked in short nervous spurts as he walked towards the car. “ Ice-cream. Kid’s mad. I’m . . gonna give her .. get a spanking” – – his voice drifted off. He bent down and picked up the derby hat his daughter was wearing. “Musta fallen off,” he said absently, thinking how silly she looked just a minute ago with the hat perched on her head. He dusted the hat off, “What kid wears a Charlie Chaplin hat?” he chuckled.
He walked a few steps and called again, waiting, leaning over, his hands on his knees thinking of when he was a child and dreamed of giant green dogs chasing him down dark alleys. Nick shivered a little. He was pissed now. Really pissed. He was sorry he had brought his daughter along. It was the lonely sound of a tin can rattling down the alley that made Nick’s heart kick hard in his chest. Suddenly, the realization that his daughter could get lost, that there were places she might run to where he’d never find her, made his features sharpen and he cast an angry glance at Thomas Lee, as if he was the reason his daughter ran off. “Gimme the car key.”
Thomas Lee jerked his head towards the car, “In the ignition.”
Nick hurried to the car, but when he bent to open the car door, Thomas Lee held it shut, “Can’t go riding off in no car to find her.”
Nick whirled around. “You better move your hand if you know what’s good for you. “I’m going after my daughter before some sonofabitch nig – -” He didn’t finish his sentence.
Thomas Lee let his hand fall to his side. The bitter gleam in his eyes made Nick lean back as far as he could without moving from the car. Holding his eyes steady, Thomas Lee shook his head a little. “Don’t need to go down no path where there be no exist but violence.”
Something in the sound of Thomas Lee’s voice made Nick hesitate.
“I knows where to look. Folks talk to me. Nobody talk to no white man. You start trouble you go in them streets. You got to wait.”
Nick struggled for a clear thought: It would be dark soon. I got to get moving. But he didn’t budge. I don’t know the neighborhood, where to look. She’ll never find her way back by herself. A suffocating scream, so hard to push back, came out like a sigh. “Okay. Okay,” he whispered. He checked his watch and the memory of his daughter handing him the box with the watch in it flashed through his mind. She had jumped up and down with excitement, “Open it, Bapi. Open it. It’s from mamma and me.” He brushed his hand over his eyes, “Twenty minutes. I’ll wait twenty minutes. You’re not back by then, I’m calling the cops.”
Thomas Lee trusted he could catch up with the girl. She was a little thing and he knew his neighborhood. He knew it from living there all his life. He knew it just like he knew a white man would turn ugly the minute fear grabbed hold because he had lived with that all his life too. As he ran, he prayed he would find her before dark. They sure didn’t need the police, with guns and spotlights searching for a white girl in the Negro section of town.
He turned the corner where the girl turned. He passed people sitting on steps drinking lemonade, men jangling change in their pockets begging to be spent, and women still dressed in their Sunday best, heading back to church. He heard radios blaring out the Al Benson show and caught the sound of fear as people talked about a white girl passing this way. He stopped to ask an old man blowing on a cup of coffee. The man pointed towards the lone black oak tree in front of Mahalia King’s house.
When Thomas Lee got to the tree he was out of breath, but relieved to see the child sitting on Mahalia’s front stoop licking an ice-cream cone. He moved closer, treading lightly. He didn’t want to scare the girl and have her run off again. “See you got you some ice-cream.”
Gina smiled and nodded her head.
“You know this child,” asked Mahalia, directing her thumb at Gina who sat in a pleasant daze licking her ice cream.
“Thomas Lee,” Mahalia lifted herself up from the stoop and folded her arms over her chest, “What’s got into you? Lettin’ a white girl run through these streets.” Without waiting for an answer she went on, “I don’t know what and I don’t know why, and I don’t know how you know this child. But what I do know is, you best be getting her out of here fore somethin’ bad happens.”
Thomas Lee kneeled down in front of Gina, “You Daddy real worried. Gonna call the police if we don’t get you back quick.”
Gina held out her ice-cream cone.
Thomas Lee laughed, “No thank you.”
“Generous child,” Mahalia murmured.
Thomas Lee stood and held out his hand, “C’mon Gina.” He nodded at Mahalia, “You a good woman Mahalia and I thank you for watching this child.”
“Lord be thanking me, Thomas Lee. Don’t need no thanks from you, jus’ need you to give me a dime for this ice-cream,” she nodded her head at Gina, “and some whiskey for my nerves.”
Gina jumped up from the stoop, wiped her sticky hands on her pants, skipped to Thomas Lee and took his hand.
“Watch the broken walk, child,” called Mahalia.
Gina suddenly let go of Thomas Lee’s hand and ran back to Mahalia,
“My grandmother said colored people don’t like Italian girls.”
Mahalia glanced at Thomas Lee and raised her eyebrows, “You know Jesus child? You know who Jesus Christ is, don’t you?” she asked, patting Gina’s hand.
“Well, in Jesus name, we love Eyetalian girls, specially po-lite Eyetalian girl.”
“I’m a polite Italian girl,” and then added with a quick curtsy, “Thank you for the ice-cream.”
Mahalia chuckled. “You real polite.”
Gina spread out her arms and let out a hoot, “Here I come.” She soared down the street like a bird and Thomas Lee called after her, “Not so fast child.”
When Thomas Lee and Gina neared the garage, they saw Gina’s father pacing back and forth, checking his watch and lighting up one cigarette with another.
Gina called out, “Bapi.”
Nick threw his cigarette down and ran towards his daughter.
“I had ice-cream,” she said slyly, “chocolate.”
Nick crouched down and took his daughter’s hand. “You alright? You all right, baby? Bapi was so worried.”
“When you worry, just pray to St Anthony like I do. Say, Tony, Tony, look around. Gina’s lost and can’t be found.” Gina smiled at Thomas Lee.
“Listen.” Nick put his hands on his daughter’s shoulders and gently shook her. “You gotta stop running off. And never, ever, run away in a strange neighborhood. You hear me? Never! Or you’ll be left at home next time. I mean it!” He uttered the last words with a slap on her hand for emphasis.
Gina looked at her father with surprise, then mumbled, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Nick stayed crouched and took a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. He straightened, and when he spoke his voice had a hitch in it, “I – I want to thank you.”
“No thanks needed,” answered Thomas Lee.
“Wait,” Nick called. “I owe you a favor. We Italians, we don’t forget. I owe you my little girl’s safety, maybe her life.”
For the first time since they met, Thomas Lee looked directly into Nick’s eyes and studied him for a minute. “Don’t owe me nothing.”
A grin spread across Nick’s face, “You know I almost went for the cops. It was longer than twenty minutes. What took you so long?”
“You daughter a wordy child,” Thomas Lee answered.
“I got an idea.”
“Bapi, I’m tired.”
Nick shushed his daughter and Thomas Lee saw a look of uncertainty in Nick’s eyes as he walked towards him, “Maybe it’s crazy, but let’s say we go in business together.”
“What kind a business you want with a colored man? I don’t go for no monkey business, no stealin, no cheatin business, no mafia business.”
Nick laughed, “You think all Italians work for the mob?”
“You think all colored don’t work?”
Both men broke out in a short laugh, then, stopped abruptly. Thomas Lee watched Nick jingle the coins in his pocket. “It’s a possibility,” Nick drawled, pronouncing each syllable separately. “We could fix and sell enough cars to make me,” then he corrected himself, “make us rich.”
After Nick left, Thomas Lee sat on an old tire, thinking. The sun had long ago set and a cool breeze off the lake made its way west. Sitting in the dark, he wondered what this guy, this Nick Baretta wanted from him. What’s a white man want with a Negro, he asked himself over and over. He dug in his pocket for his keys and curled his fingers around them. As he fondled the keys in his pocket, his fingers felt the dollar he had stolen and he slowly pulled it out of his pocket. He held it between his two hands; it’s crispness made it seem worth more ‘n a dollar. A frown formed two lines at the bridge of his nose. “Shit, coulda got myself shot over this,” he said aloud. “Man’s likely a gangster.” His frown deepened. No good’ll come from stealing, but good come from this money, he thought as he folded the dollar and put it back in his pocket. Guilt spoiled his pleasure when he thought of ways to spend the money and he dug for his keys again. There were only two keys, one for his business and one to his home, but the ownership of those two keys calmed him.
He padlocked the door to the empty garage and walked home. He took long loping strides, and in the dim streetlight his silhouette stretched to a regal height.