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Animals in the Clouds – Chapter 6

Chapter 6: The Fugitive Pioneer

Stella had no choice but to take the job. She’d been waitressing at The Ginger Man, and three weeks ago, at shift’s end, she set out for home. It was cold. Her nose gone numb, she cupped it with one red mitten. Giant silver tines hung like rows of jagged teeth under the whitewashed girders of the CTA. On the other side of the road stood a bus stop–just beyond where the El crossed Addison. In it sat a hunched crone, coughing–her frosty exhalations swirling about in the wind. But still she sat there, shivering, wheezing, bundled in state issue blankets and garbage. Stella connected the dots between herself and the woman: a bad marriage, a financial breakdown, a mental one, a bus stop.

Though the vagrant was alive and a woman, there wasn’t much to it. Yet still, in her mind’s eye, Stella became that woman, wrapped in blankets and garbage. And there, across the street, in a cashmere coat and red mittens, she beheld a younger self, a healthier self, a self both pitied and loathed for her innocence, ignorance, faith, and good fortune.

With new urgency, Stella resumed her walk. Like a reformed drunk with a sleepy will and a hollow leg aching to be filled, she rather by instinct wandered off course–didn’t even realize it until the train doors shut behind her. She went two stops, got off, and slopped through several blocks of slush. Everything seemed corrupted with ash. It hung like dull tinsel over the houses, over all the cold world. She couldn’t tell which apartment was his. She walked the block up and down, then took a guess. An old boyfriend’s roommate answered, looked her over, and told her to wait inside. She waited. Several drinks later, he admitted that her ex had moved months ago. She should’ve been angry, but life’s all about finding interesting ways to forget that you’re dying. In the end–with moves practiced enough to be laughable were she in her usual humor–he reminded her how beautiful she was, and how safe from ugliness and despair. 

The El ride home was even worse. Stella felt sick. He was clever. He did what men do. Again she descended the stairs of the CTA–the frozen bundle of dying, still lumped in the bus stop. Stella paused, then pushed on, walking backwards at times to keep from the wind.

That was it. The weather, a blue nosed hag, the mistake with an old flame’s roommate. She had to do something. There were no two ways about a one way ticket. People respect ambition, she thought, but it’s really just escapism. Courage… cowardice…. Can’t tell half the time if I’m pioneer or fugitive. Within minutes of arriving home, She was emailing résumés: Phoenix, Austin, LA, Orlando. Just the idea that with a few mouse clicks people in palm tree climes were hearing, You’ve got mail! excited her.

* * *

One offer so far–The Mother Board. Stella isn’t waiting to see if it’ll be her last. Her flight departs tonight, arcing south to alight 28.3º north of the equator, 81.41º west of the prime meridian, and finally, more precisely, to Horizons Apartments on Destiny Drive.

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Bags packed, she’ll soon be there. Growing. Florida–shuffleboard capital of the world, heaven’s waiting room–twenty minutes from the giant mousetrap, ten from the Tupperware Convention Center. Florida, where people squabble over who’s built the largest free-standing structure shaped like an alligator. Crazy, she thinks, as she looks out from the rooftop, February snows sifting down.

“You’re gonna miss this weather,” says her father.

“Hardly,” says Stella, “but I will miss you–you and mom.”

“We’ll miss you too, slugger. You leave an awful big hole when you go.”

“I’ll come back… to visit, I will–in the Spring.”

Her father doesn’t reply, just stares out at the stadium like he has a thousand times.

* * *

Since she was sixteen, this place has been home–her bedroom looking out on the old green scoreboard–and just to the left, from her tiptoes–home plate, five hundred and eighty feet away. The property had belonged to her grandfather–a brownstone on North Sheffield, with a roof deck, sky blue shutters, and sparrows nesting in the gutters. Stella was fourteen when her grandfather died at seventy-eight, and fifteen when his wife followed at seventy-four.

Everyone thought Grandma Minesinger’d go first–Stella’s mom always joking, “Your grandma’s got so many pills, the pharmacist calls her to get his prescriptions filled.” Indeed, it took the old woman five glasses of juice each morning to drug her body into forgetting to die. Despite this, Grandpa Minesinger beat her to death when one bright March morning, paper in hand and halfway up the stairs, he grabbed at the heart that died before him, and finished his flight to heaven.

When it came time to scatter his ashes, Stella’s grandma refused to go. Without her husband, she seemed caught in a futile rundown between living on and dying. She’d taken to staring out the window for long spells, had conversations without company, and became bad about taking her pills, and supplements, and pills to override the side effects of the pills and supplements.

Though she needed care, Stella’s dad distrusted assisted living. “Seem only to assist orphaned octogenarians in dying quicker,” he’d say. But still, the family had secretive talks on the subject… and then there were more talks–almost as though all concerned were determined to make the dialogue outlast the old woman’s need of such assistance. She knew it, it seemed, and Stella remembers how–whenever the topic was about to be broached–her grandma’d rush out with, “Your grandfather’s still here. You can sort of feel him around, can’t you?” or, “All I know is, this is where we lived, and this… this is where I’ll die. Your grandfather would’ve wanted it that way.” In the end, Stella’s grandfather got it the way he would’ve wanted it.

Stella’s dad had grown up in the house on North Sheffield, and carried with him many fond memories of times he’d had in that place. He decided he wanted to keep it, and at the appointed time, requested and accepted a transfer to the Chicago office of his law firm. So up from the Midlothian farm system came the new Minesingers. Hot on the heels of the moving van, they rounded the corner of Waveland, chugged down North Sheffield, and slid home safely. Something like a streak remained unbroken.

* * *

“You’re not mad at me?–you know… for leaving?”

“Nah, sport. I knew you would sooner or later….”

“Dad?” says Stella.

“Yeah?”

“Would you do me a big, humungous favor?”

“Anything.”

“Don’t spend so much time up here.”

“Up here? But I love it up here.”

“I know… I mean you say you do, but every time, it’s like you drink and get all sad.”

“A little nip, and you peg me a booze hound?”

“I didn’t say that. I just….”

“Look, I’ll ration myself if it’ll make my girl happy. Now I gotta go warm up the car. You have a flight to catch.” 

It’s the house. All through the first year she loved it, but halfway into the second, her enthusiasm slumped. All the games began to seem the same. There was one loss and one victory, but the loss was already lost, and the victory already won–and that before the anthem was sung. What remained?–just the same old crunch of plastic cups and peanut shells and programs for sale, and get your this here and get your that there, and the replaceable crowds marching through the turnstiles, only to stumble beer-full out into the same streets–all of it such a perfect fulfillment of expectation that it seemed flawed in some way. And it echoed through the hollow spaces–that ruckus–through the roaring of autumn and into winter when a crust of ice tarped the diamond, ice that glittered with the hauntings of seasons passed over… seasons that, when made green with spring, seemed somehow already memories of themselves–snowed over like a late night TV, with that random noise of applause when your friends at channel X wish you good night and the flag waves and the anthem plays and all that’s left is everything–everything and nothing–as billions of star blown photons fuzz the screen. This was why for Stella, whether mid the revelries of summer or the desolation of winter, a mortal sort of gloom began to hang about that stadium–a gloom that sapped all hope of post season play.

Sentimental with age, Mr. Minesinger was even more bewitched by it than was his daughter. Come each October he’d go to the roof and stare for hours at the darkened stadium, all the while reminiscing of days when the Cubbies weren’t so quick to hibernate. In truth, these were days he was too young to reminisce about, but as with war, baseball stories are handed down, tributes are paid–memorabilia borrowed for proof of authenticity. Stella would roll her eyes, but put up with it. “So much history,” he’d say. “So many of the greats….” or, “Tinker, Evers and Chance took that very same field…. Took the series too–two of ’em. And the Babe–pointed his bat damn near right at us and fired a shot into the history books.”

Stella could only comment to herself that Tinker, Evers and Chance did in fact “take” the field–took it caked in their thieving cleats and stuck to their dusty backsides–and the outfield too–mowed and carried out in bags and resodded. Fed up, she made a mistake one night.

She’d been to the Vic to see a show. There was still some reverb–a wind through the trees echo in her ears. Her mom had waited up to see that she arrived home safe, but went to bed soon after. From her room Stella heard her dad say that it was a nice night and that he was going to the roof. She heard the clink of ice cubes knocking the bottom of his glass, and then the creak of stairs. He’d been having trouble sleeping, and Stella–though tired–felt it’d be nice to give him company. Still tipsy, she bumped up the steps, knocking the walls like an ice cube in a glass, and spilled out onto the roof. It was a fall night and chilly. Mr. Minesinger sat staring up into the sky with a scotch on the rocks chiming in his loose grip. He was happy to see her, but soon seemed to forget that he had company beyond his thoughts; his eyebrows fell, his smile flattened, and again he was at it, talking of all the bad luck, losses to Connie Mack’s Athletics in 1910 and ’29, to the Red Sox in ’18, to Detroit in ’35 and ’45, to the Yankees in ’32 and ’38–all the stories of failed heroics, punctuated by the usual worn out consolation, “But we had a couple a good years, right Stell? Tinker, Evers, and Chance–like clockwork, the way they worked the infield.”

Stella was star-gazing too, less reverential than bored–all that old light. She’d been a tomboy long enough, she’d thought, but he needed a son. Her mind was set forward, belligerently so and, maybe it was because she was a week from setting off to college which, though only twenty minutes away, seemed a big deal. She’s unsure, but what she said surprised her: “What gets me is that people still go on and on about Winky, Blinky, and Nod or whoever, when every damn person that was in that stadium’s dead.” Her tone was harsh–hateful even, and she could feel her father’s eyes turn on her. Beneath a cold glitter of starlight, she smiled a smile she hoped would confuse her meanness for humor. But there was something said now–a small thing to be sure–but small things often cut the deepest. So many black stars, she thought, specks in the sky without living essence behind…. So many people warm themselves by the light of dead fires; so many can’t even tell the difference.

Stella has a mean streak. She knows it, and knows as well that it becomes meaner and streakier at times of departure. The rooftop door swings open. She looks to her father. “What I said before, about coming home in the spring. I will. I promise. …And we’ll get tickets, sit in the bleachers, right where we did for Grandpa.”

Her dad nods. “By the way sport, been thinkin’…. I want the same treatment he got. When I go, will you do that?”

“If you want. We’ll make it a family tradition. What’s Georgia clay, when you can have Minesinger dust?” Stella remembers sitting in the sunswept bleachers. Her dad had a promise to keep. Early April. Opening Day. The air crisp as cut paper. After breakfast, they’d split and poured the ashes into two Ziploc bags. Stella imagined getting frisked by a NARC, who, finding the baggies, would poke a finger in, taste it like the cops do on TV, and say, “It’s foreign. Subtle. Smooth.” The goods, however, were unloaded without incident, and Grandpa Minesinger was laid to rest during the seventh inning stretch, her dad saying, “Well, pop, guess you finally got your ticket to eternity.”

“Car’s ready,” he says now. “Better say goodbye to your mother, and collect that cat of yours. The carrier’s in the front hall.”

“Mom’s not coming?” says Stella.

“You know how she gets. Anyway, better hustle. No telling how traffic’s gonna be.”

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