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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Brian Doyle

Thomas Dunne Books



ON THE LAST DAY OF SUMMER, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that rough and burly city in the middle of America, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, for Lake Michigan is no lake at all but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers, and the faraway moan of huge invisible tankers and barges, and its occasional startling surf after storms, appealed to me greatly; also then I was young and supple and restless, and I wanted to run for miles along the beaches and seawalls, trying to dream myself into being a man, a remote frontier for me then and now; maturity turns out to be a question you can never answer with confidence, despite advanced age and wage.

The building in which I lived was three storeys high, on a brief street of old apartments and brownstones, with a Jewish temple at the lake end and a gay bar at the other, and there I lived for five seasons, leaving my street only to play basketball at a playground a couple of blocks away, or to run the lake, or to run the lake dribbling my worn shining basketball, or to take the bus downtown and back for work every day. Occasionally I would walk west to Lincoln Avenue, to sip whiskey in blues bars and wander happily in used book stores; and occasionally I would catch a train to the South Side of the city, to hear jazz, or savor the motley chaotic beery muddle of the White Sox and their exuberantly shaggy and inebriated fans, who were much more fun than the staid stuffy museum-goers at Cubs games. But otherwise I stayed not only on my brief street but in my modest and undramatic apartment building, and it is that building, and the men and women and other beings who lived in it then and perhaps even now, that this book is about.

* * *

Almost all the people and animals I lived with were kind and generous; some were remarkable in ways I have never forgotten, and never will; and three in particular were so riveting in their own mysterious and astonishing ways that I want to account them, as best I can, before no one is left to tell you about Edward, and Mr Pawlowsky, and Miss Elminides, who was the owner of the building, though she was quite young, and regrettably, as she said with her gentle smile, bereft of skills in the maintenance and repair of substantial things, which is why she deferred such matters to Mr Pawlowsky, who was aided in his work, and in many other things, by his companion Edward, a dog.

But to say of Edward merely that he was a dog, and leave the description at that, would be a grave disservice not only to him but to you, for he was one of the most subtle and gracious beings I ever met, and the litany of his adventures alone would fill a shelf of books, before even getting to his influence on other beings, for example, which was both considerable and renowned, so much so that creatures of various species would come to Edward for consultation and counsel, from birds to people of all manners and modes of life.

But I am ahead of myself already. Let’s pause here, and stand in front of the apartment building for a moment—it’s a lovely September afternoon, crisp and redolent, and we can smell roasting lamb from the Greek restaurant around the corner, and the first fallen leaves from the oaks and maples along the lake—and begin as I did, by walking up the three stone steps, carrying my worn shiny basketball and crammed duffel bag, to meet Mr Pawlowsky.

* * *

Usually when you recount your first meeting with someone, you start with their physical appearance, but what Mr Pawlowsky looked like was the least of his subtle virtues, so I will note only his military bearing, his thinning hair, his glinting spectacles, his battered United States Navy jacket, and his immediate open friendliness, which had nothing of false bonhomie about it, but was both accessible and dignified at once; a sort of reserved invitation, so to speak. You had the instant sense that he was quite willing to be helpful and even friendly if you were open to that, but that he also had plenty to do and no pressing need for your attention.

As de facto manager of the building Mr Pawlowsky was fully aware that I was the new resident, and with a smile he showed me my mailbox, and its key, and the alleyway where the garbage bins hunched like sleeping rhinoceri, and then he led me upstairs and showed me my apartment, from which you could just see a corner of the lake, steel-blue and restless, rippling like a flag. He ran through the utilities and their billing cycles, pointed out truculent idiosyncrasies in the stove and the heating system, forked over two more keys (one for the apartment and one for the building), reminded me that while pets were welcome, immense pets like emus and rhinoceri were not, asked me if I needed help with any other luggage, grinned with pleasure when I said my basketball and my duffel bag were the sum and total of my possessions at the moment, told me the nuns in the dwindling convent around the corner would be happy to sell me a bed and a table and a chair if I could carry these out myself, briefly outlined the bus schedules both on Broadway to the west and Lake Shore Drive to the east, shook my hand, welcomed me to the building, and told me to stop in any time at his apartment on the fourth floor if I needed help in any way.

“This is an apartment building, not a house or a hotel, and we are each on our own, with no maids and concierges and chefs,” he said, smiling. “Yet there is a friendly feeling to the place, and most of the residents are decent souls. The owner is Miss Elminides, whom you will meet soon enough, and you can discuss rental details with her. Mail comes every afternoon. Our mailman is not much for packages and you will have to claim them from his truck. He will leave you a note to that effect. A wonderful man who studies dragonflies. I believe he knows more about dragonflies than anyone in America. Occasionally we have meetings for all residents but those are rare and usually happen because someone is roasting goats in the alley or shooting seagulls from the roof. Edward refers to these as our Come to Jesus Meetings. Occasionally we have social events for all residents but that is even more rare. I believe we had a picnic once some years ago but you would have to check with Edward about that. We do not have disputes and conflicts and fisticuffs here and Miss Elminides is proud that the police have never set foot in the building. If disputes arise, see Edward. If you lose your keys, see me. Dragonfly questions, see the mailman. His name is John. You may paint and decorate your apartment in any way you like, but be aware that you will be expected to restore it to the condition in which you found it when you leave. You may leave at any time with a month’s notice to Miss Elminides, but it is my hope, and surely hers, that you enjoy your residence here, and stay as long as you like. Some of our residents have been here for many years. You will meet most of us in the course of the social ramble, but there are some who are quite private, and I would ask that you await their invitation, if it comes, rather than seek to meet them. We get a great deal of snow in the winter. If you procure a car, put a red rubber ball on the tip of the radio antenna before the snow begins, so you can find your car when it is buried. The street is usually plowed within two days of heavy snowfall, but not always. There are places of worship for every conceivable religion and faith tradition within ten blocks of the building in any direction. The grocery store one block over is excellent and reasonably priced. There is no moral clause in your lease but we do expect that residents will in the main observe common laws and standards of civil behavior. Did I mention no emus are allowed in the building? Ask Edward about thatstory. We also do not have any cats in the building. I do not think we have ever had a cat in the building, come to think of it. Edward is not much for cats. For all other matters, I suspect that seeing Edward is probably the most useful counsel I can offer. Would you like some coffee after you get settled? Wander up when you like. Our door is unlocked, and if I am not present Edward will show you the ropes.”

* * *

I had a job, of course, or I would not have had the means to pay my rent; and while I much enjoyed my job, with a Catholic magazine under the elevated train tracks on Madison Street, I was not much for beer after work, or the usual romantic mania of the urban young, so I spent a lot of time in and around the apartment building, and I came to know its corners and crannies almost as well as Edward, who knew it best. Within a few days of my arrival he and I were steady companions, if not yet close friends, and he showed me around with pleasure; I think the thorough review of the building was refreshing to him, as Mr Pawlowsky no longer rambled the building as freely with Edward as he once had.

First Edward and I explored the basement, which was officially the first floor, and which was mostly storage space for the residents. It was astonishing what was stored there, in some cases since perhaps the War Between the States. There was a huge stuffed horse, I remember that, with a coat of the most startling bronze color, and faded green-glass eyes. There were skis and sleds galore, though the nearest mountains were hundreds of miles away. There was the chassis of what was surely an old Hudson or Packard car; I asked Edward about this, but all he knew was that it belonged to an Armenian librettist on the third floor. There was the usual jumble of lamps and couches and chairs and tables and boxes and trunks, two or three of the latter classic old steamer trunks from the great days of ocean travel. Each resident had an assigned space walled off by wooden partitions for his or her possessions, and while some of the stalls were crammed to the ceiling, and some stood stark and empty, some had been turned into tiny workshops, and one looked and smelled like a miniature bakery; this belonged to Mrs Manfredi, who baked the most extraordinary perfect magic savory empanadas, and sold them to the local cafes, although you could, I learned from Edward, buy them direct from her on Saturday mornings, if you caught her early enough, before she made her rounds of restaurants and grocery stores.

I was then only a couple of years removed from my teenage years, and so quite used to sleeping late on the weekends, but after sleeping in late on my first Saturday in Chicago, and waking at noon to the scent of those extraordinary pastries filling the whole building, and rushing downstairs to find her stall still redolent but long empty, I never again missed a chance to get on line, sleepy and rumpled, outside Mrs Manfredi’s storage stall, and for one dollar buy three warm glowing holy amazing empanadas, which she served in a tiny brown paper bag. On average I would guess that easily half the empanadas made in the basement were eaten on the spot, and most of the rest were gone minutes after Mrs Manfredi sold them to shops along Broadway, where customers waited for her to trundle in, smelling of garlic and spinach; and more than once, according to Edward, a resident or customer also quietly ate the tiny brown paper bag, to get the very last drop of Mrs Manfredi’s genius. This sounds hard to believe, but in all the time I lived in that building I never knew Edward to stretch a fact; not even in service to what I soon discovered to be a wry and capricious sense of humor.

Copyright © 2016 by Brian Doyle