Receive what cheer you may.
The night is long that never finds the day.
It was almost midnight by the time I reached Roseland, passing the dark and empty 111th Street platform and climbing down the corner of the train line’s cement overpass. I fell down the last few feet, landing on the sidewalk behind the tiny twenty four-hour diner built into the side of the overpass. I used to love their hot dogs when we lived a few blocks away, and I’d been tempted to stop for one coming back from school, but it looked so shabby and dangerous, what with the neighborhood’s change and intervening years having had unpleasant visual effects on the place.
(Yes, the neighborhood changed. We were too sophisticated to say blacks had moved in, or we had moved out. We weren’t sociological enough to speak convincingly about natural urban migratory patterns, or clever enough to see the fast-spreading rot strangling all the nearby heavy industry. The neighborhood just…changed. Attendance at all the Catholic churches dropped off. No one wanted to go back. The surrounding frame houses and bungalows suddenly seemed more run-down and ill-kept. The local Catholic boys’ high school quietly grew a fence. Palmer Park started looking like an unmade bed, because Roseland changed, everyone would hiss. Not because the city stopped maintaining it, of course, like the very white Streets and Sanitation stopped bothering with the alleys and side streets, which began sporting potholes we could have used for our toy boats on rainy days. Not even the cops would go into the Chicken Unlimited on 111th Street. My favorite toy store on “the Avenue” (Michigan) went out of business. My favorite candy store on 115th Street, where I used to gorge myself on grape-flavored Twizzlers, turned into a Baptist meeting hall, and the State Theater, where Scott and Roberta took me to see “Dr. Who and the Daleks” on a bizarre midnight showing with “Night of the Living Dead”, became a Baptist church. The Normal Theater, on 119th Street, where me and anyone else I could drag in sat through the grandest double-feature of my childhood – “Thunderball” and “You Only Live Twice” – four out of the seven days it played, went on its merry neighborhood theater way, still dispensing ice cream bars from a cooler tucked in a corner away from the concession stand, still selling pineapple-orange and cherry soda (with the choice of carbonated or non-carbonated a matter of pressing a button), its wide and open lobby still lined with 8×10 glossies of upcoming features, but no longer thronged with chattering neighborhood kids on weekends, since the Saturday and Sunday matinees were the first thing to go. I guess the only films black kids wanted to see were “The Klansmen”, “Super Fly T.N.T.”, and “Mandingo”, right? I wanted to go back and see “Sounder” one week, but no one would take me. I’ll bet they didn’t stock Black Crows licorice chews by the time one of the new neighborhood patrons left a smoldering cigar in the bathroom and set fire to the place one night last year. Dad had taken me for a quick recon through the old neighborhood on the way back to Holy Rosary, for a nearly-deserted Easter Mass given in Polish. I asked if we could go past the Normal before heading off to our little Rhodesia in the suburbs, and it broke my heart. The burnt-out wreckage was still there, and the marquee’s final feature hung there in some bitter, festal defiance against the increasingly desolate poverty of West Pullman: “Fort Apache – The Bronx”. But what did I expect, Dad had asked? The neighborhood had changed, for Christ’s sake.)
I was tired and cold and sore. If the diner was in the middle of darkest Mozambique, I couldn’t have cared less.
A fireplug of a woman with her hair in a bun, the various layers of her in a tight-fitting blue dress, stained white apron, and a name tag reading Irma with an odd sort of dignity, looked at me like I was the Ghost of Christmas Past. The white teenaged Ghost of Christmas Past. Two over-the-hill truck drivers huddled over coffee at one end of the C-shaped counter eyed me peculiarly.
I felt like a cue ball.
I sat across from the truckers in the corner, leaning my head against the wall as Irma placed a coffee cup and saucer in front of me, holding a steaming coffee pot in her left hand. “You want some?” I nodded. She filled the cup and returned the pot to the large stainless steel warmer. “What about food?”
I smiled tiredly. “Is it too late for a hot dog?”
She laughed. “Not in here, it ain’t.” A small kitchen radio played below the counter. Irma turned it up and started singing Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday in charming unison with The Sweet Inspirations as she began cooking my breakfast.
I felt the numbness across my face and the cold stuck in the tips of my fingers and toes. My mind drifted off to Nicolasha’s apartment. I wanted him to sing this song to me while we took a Comrade Bubblevitch bubble bath together.
It was pretty obvious my visit was a novelty for Irma and the truckers, but they were too polite to just come right out and ask what the hell I was doing in a place like theirs on Christmas morning. And I was too exhausted to think about it myself. I was content to keep smelling the meal she was preparing. Irma grilled a large hot dog in a mound of onions and peppers, and scraped them into a wide poppy-seed bun, which was spread out in a red plastic basket, before showering the entree with freshly-cut fries. Heart attack heaven!
I finished the delicious meal and a fourth cup of heavily sugared and creamed coffee as a pair of slightly out-of-shape white Chicago Police officers came into the diner. Everyone waved at one another. Regulars, I thought. Irma threw a pair of hamburger patties on the grill and made two coffees to go as I tried to ignore the funny looks from the policemen. It seemed like they were talking about me.
Uneasily, I dropped my last five dollars on the counter and went to leave. The older cop sitting closest to the door smiled as he took my arm in a gentle but authoritative grip.
“It’s a little late for a walk, isn’t it, son?” I was afraid, and it showed. “I know it’s too fucking cold for a walk!” The group laughed in agreement. “You want to tell me why you got dried blood on your face?” The cop guided me to the stool next to him, but I looked down at my feet and the slush-stained floors, resigned that my nighttime adventure was drawing to a close. The other cop paid Irma and took the food outside to their grimy squad car.
With an impatient sigh, the officer with the red face and silver hair picked up an aluminum napkin dispenser and held it in front of my face as if it were a mirror. I looked like I had been thrown from a moving train, head-first. Even though I was full from Irma’s delicious cooking, my stomach began to knot up, and my cut and swollen bottom lip began to move on its own.
He lifted my face up with his gloved finger. “Well?”
My mind raced with lies to tell. “I live with my brother in Hyde Park, near the University.” I let my eyes fill. “We got into a fight.” I looked away from him and Irma. One of the truckers hid a smile. He knew I was lying like a cheap rug. “I was running away.”
The cop wheezed to his feet and patted me on the back. “Well, I can’t leave you out on the street. You want to come down to the station and file a report?” I hadn’t thought of that. Now there was a gift idea! Have the old man’s ass thrown into stir on Christmas, some therapy to soothe his restless nature. Maybe it would make up for that last slap that never arrived. Why did that one hurt more than the others? But no, I reflected, he’ll be gone soon enough. I shook my head. “Then we’re gonna bring you home, son.”
I played the reluctant passenger and nodded sadly, opening the door for the officer. Irma put her hand on her hip with righteous indignation. “Hell, I don’t see no meter in that broken down squad of yours, Captain!”
“Come on, Irma. You see the decal – ‘We Serve and Protect’. The punk gets a ride home, we threaten his brother, and we all get some rest before we open our presents in the morning. See how simple law enforcement can be?”
“Well, God damn, I ain’t ever got no taxi rides from your ass.” She picked up the money I had left on the counter. “No tips, either, you shanty Irish pig. ‘Least the kid leaves a tip!” She winked at me. “Must not be Irish.”
“Irma, you can ride my ass anytime.”
“Get the fuck out of my restaurant, both of you!” I gave her a little Felix wave as I left, and Irma waved me off with a little Felix smile. I decided to take Felix here for lunch when we got back from Florida.
The police Captain knocked on Nicolasha’s door with controlled anger. The officers stood on each side of the doorway – did they think my fictional brother was going to fire a shotgun at us? I stood behind the Captain. Our ride into Hyde Park was uneventful and quick. Traffic wasn’t very heavy at two a.m. on Christmas morning. They asked me to elaborate on the fight I supposedly had with my supposed brother, so I spun another yarn, one that made it seem like I, as the bratty little sibling, deserved a few of the slaps they could see I got.
There was no answer. The Captain glared at me. “Are you sure he didn’t go out?”
“His car is still outside,” thank God.
“Maybe he went looking for you.” I could only dream of such an event. I shrugged. “Don’t you have a key to your own apartment?”
“We were screaming and hitting each other.” What do you mean I only got an A- ?! “I wasn’t thinking about my keys.”
The Captain shook his head and pounded on the door. “This is the police,” he yelled, “open up!” He pounded again, so hard the middle wooden frame of the door gave a little with a sharp squeak. We heard movement inside the apartment. The Captain nodded and pulled me in back of him, in case my brother wouldn’t come quietly.
I hoped Nicolasha was good at lying on the fly.
The door opened a crack. Nicolasha peered out. The other officer, a young, weak-kneed Pillsbury Dough Boy stuffed into an ill-fitting police uniform, stepped forward in case Nicolasha didn’t have a good view of his badge, or his revolver. I peeked around the Captain, and our eyes met. The door opened at once.
Nicolasha looked pretty funny, wearing a bed sheet wrapped around his waist like a giant towel.
The Captain spoke up. “Are you Nick Brazier?” Nicolasha glanced at me. I tipped my head discreetly. My teacher nodded. “Is this your brother, Mike?” Nicolasha nodded again quickly. “Good. Now, I’m going to make this short and sweet. Number one, it’s too late for him to be running around the city alone.” The Captain almost stepped on Nicolasha’s bare feet as he moved closer to him, jabbing my disoriented teacher in the shoulder with a thick forefinger. “You guys want to fight and yell? Go right ahead, but don’t hit him in the face like that again, period. No punches, that’s number two.” He pulled his baton from his equipment belt and shook the end of it under Nicolasha’s sincerely terrified face. “You do, and you’ll look pretty funny walking around with this night stick shoved up your ass sideways.” Not as funny as you’ll look putting it there, Captain, I privately mocked. “Merry Christmas.” He put the baton away and cocked his thumb for his partner to follow. “Come on, let’s go eat.”
And, with that, the policemen went off, to serve and protect somebody else.
Nicolasha closed and locked his apartment door and brought me into his bedroom, the only room with a light on. He sat me down at the edge of his disheveled bed and knelt in front of me, turning my bruised face from side to side to have a better look. I tried pretending nothing hurt, until Nicolasha touched my lower lip and made me flinch. “Stay here. Let me get some medicine.”
“I’ll be fine, Nicolasha.” I stood up, but his hands ushered me back to the bed.
“Just sit still, little friend.” He headed for the bathroom with a sad smile on his face and the bottom half of his bed sheet trailing along behind him.
The bedroom was dreadfully plain – pale blue walls, white ceiling, unpolished hardwood floor, no pictures or anything, and a fresh Persian throw rug between the bed and a long, bare dresser. A reading lamp and an alarm radio were placed on a short bed stand, and an affably careworn brown leather chair sat in the far corner of the room, next to the closet door, which was closed. Nicolasha’s cello sat in its case beside the chair, where his clothes were tossed.
Nicolasha returned, with a wet rag, towel, iodine, and rubbing alcohol in hand to clean and treat my face. He handed me an ice pack, which I bounced in my hand while he tut-tutted over me. “You should be fine.” I grunted. He lowered his hand over mine and held the ice pack to the bottom of my jaw, watching my reaction closely. I didn’t show any, even though I felt a flash inside of me upon meeting the warmth of his palm.
His fingers slid inside of mine. “We have two, how do you say, sure fire cures for such wounds in Russia.”
Nicolasha’s eyes drew me into his. I felt the flash again, and felt a little fear, too. I gently pulled my hand away from his and dropped the ice pack on the floor noisily. “I think they’re only bruises, little father.”
Nicolasha shook his head mournfully. With great tenderness, he began running his hand through my hair. “No, my friend, they are wounds, as grievous as a bullet or a blade. I think I know who gave these to you,” he whispered as I closed my eyes, blotting my Christmas Eve festivities out with the picture of Nicolasha’s unlined, unshaven face staring with morbid oblivion at an invisible camera, “and that is why they cannot be mere bruises that will go away in a few hours.”
His fingers playfully circumnavigated my scalp. “So tell me about these two famous cures from Russia.” I couldn’t. I felt myself get hard with another flash.
“One is to get blind drunk on vodka.” I laughed as he wagged a finger at me. “But you are too young for that.” Right, tell that to some of my baseball buddies when they go and pilfer their parents’ wet bar supplies. “The other is…a different sort of medicine.” Nicolasha’s free hand timorously brushed across my crotch.
I didn’t react. I didn’t know how to. But I didn’t back away, either, or make a sound. I was scared, that’s for sure, but there was a thrill in that fear that almost made me shake in my seat.
“The other is a tender kiss from a loved one.”
I looked closely at Nicolasha’s soft, white body, afraid to touch him anywhere else except his face. I could hear the wind blowing outside of his small bedroom window. It was the first time since Nicolasha ran his hand through my hair that I was aware some other world existed outside of the room.
My eyes stayed closed. My stomach was full to bursting, yet I felt hungrier than I’d ever been. I cried out continuously, almost happily, as it hurt. I could barely breathe, panting and moaning myself silly, when the throbbing turned into a warm ocean. The music I felt, the vibrations across my body, they all seeped into the dark and bounced into a swirling delirium that swallowed me whole.
Nicolasha returned from the bathroom and switched off his reading lamp, curling me into his arms and legs beneath the chaos of the bed’s multiple blankets. He carefully kissed every corner of my bruised face while his hands massaged my spent and naked body. I bungled along, trying to follow his lead, stopping only when my teacher lay down beside me and tucked me into the thickest of the quilts, content to run his fingers through my hair again.
“I love you, little friend.”
My breath choked in my throat. “I love you, too, Nicolasha.” My chest heaved once. I spit out a tired, hurt, disoriented sob, but did not cry. My fucking God, I was so sick of crying.
Nicolasha rubbed his lips over my hair and hugged me underneath the covers. We lay in the dark of our thoughts for many minutes. “When you are ready to tell me what happened this evening, tovarisch, don’t be afraid.” His warm feet slid under mine.
“Tomorrow?” I asked, hanging on to him until he pulled away.
“It is already tomorrow,” he reminded me with a chuckle. I squinted at my wristwatch before Nicolasha took my hand in his, playing with my fingers. It was almost dawn.
“What does ‘tovarisch’ mean?”
Nicolasha made me squirm as he ran his wet tongue along the contours of my ear. “Comrade,” he whispered, before kissing the side of my neck and falling back onto his limp feather pillows.
I moved into the only available arms that would have me and fell asleep while the snow continued to fall on the cold and nearly motionless city I called home.