by Lorraine Schmall
It wasn’t in the papers, but everybody from the neighborhood knew about the guy getting shot in the tavern in the middle of the afternoon. Not much of a story: just two men going behind the curtain that separated the bar from the Jennetto’s apartment, and only one coming out. It was the kinda neighborhood where once in a while somebody died unexpectedly. Coppers didn’t care much about either one of those bums, and even if they did, at least a couple of the flatfoots, and quite a few of the dicks, were either on the take or married to somebody’s sister. Of course everybody knew at least one of the guys. People heard, too, about how the little kid was there and didn’t hear the shot because she was standing on her toes playing pinball with two-bits from her uncle, who was steadily drinking and shooting the bull with the early regulars while watching the kid for his mother, who was watching the kid for his sister who worked in Niles and had three other kids.
We used to think everybody loved Howard. Damn, he was funny. And tough. Nobody doubted that. He talked his Ma into letting him join the Navy when he was only 17. He hated school anyway, and said he signed up to be a cook so he could eat all he wanted. “Ma was so tight, me and my brothers had to share a damn meatball.“ He was sent to the Pacific. Musta been pretty hairy over there, but when people would ask if he saw a lot of action, he’d say: “Ain’t nothing a guy can’t get out of when he’s handing out the pork chops.” Women called him a sight for sore eyes. “How should I take that, honey?” he’d say. He had a routine. “I’ll tell you kid,” he’d start, running his hand around the cueball of his head. “If a guy’s bald up here, it means he’s a thinker. If a guy is bald back here, it means he’s a lover. If he’s bald all over, it means he thinks he’s a lover. That’s me.” He didn’t look that much like a Casanova. He had a big gap in his front teeth and was just average tall. He drank like a fish, but who didn’t back then? He did have had a nice mug, though, and a helluva gift of gab. It didn’t hurt that he was built like a welterweight with a fifty and oh record. Howard used to brag, “Ray Robinson ain’t the only guy the gals call sweet as sugar.” He probably woulda’ taken on the boxer himself if he’d had the chance and shared the same turf. Harlem’s not that different from Avondale.
Howard’s whole family got jobs in the factory over on Wellington—his brothers and sisters and even his niece. They all followed the factory out to Niles when the company moved. “Howie, there’s room in the car for one more,” they said, but Howie couldn’t stand the thought of turning bolts all day. “Them aren’t the kind of screws I’m used to,” he’d tell the people at the bar. They always laughed, and the kid did, too. He took the kid with him to the bar every day after his run. His Ma had too many other kids to watch, and this one liked to hold his hand when they walked down the street. She never told her grandma where they went every day, and Howard never told her mother that he bought the kid beer nuts and flat coke from a tap just before dinner.
Somebody who was friends with the precinct captain got Howard the job with the CTA. Said Howard was a war hero. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Howard said. “I got a medal for diving under a sack of potatoes when all the other damn idiots ran to the deck to watch the enemy planes. I got decorated for staying alive. Go figure.” Might not a‘ been a perfect job for a drunk, but Howard loved driving that electric streetcar on Belmont. “I gotta gal at every bus stop, and a couple in the barn,” he’d chortle. If he were driving the swing shift, his bar mates would tell him to be careful. “What the cripes? It’s not like I have to steer. How much sense does a fella have to have to crank open the damn door and watch the plugs drop in the box?”
Howard walked with a little gimp. His Ma said he fell off a roof, trying to help a young gal whose house, she said, was struck by lightening. That gal, Tillie, was the hottest dish in Avondale, and she belonged to one of the toughs who ran numbers outta Rodde’s Tap on California Street. Maybe Howard really was fixing her roof at the time, but people knew Howie didn’t fall—he got thrown by god-knows-who, landing on Sacramento with a thud you could hear on Logan Square.
That wasn’t the last time Howard saw Tillie. They really had the hots for each other. He wanted her to be his lawfully-wedded wife. Howard told Tillie to be afraid of her guy. “Heck, Howie, I woulda’ never married him if I hadn’t a’ been. He begged her to leave. “Yah, right, Howie,” she’d say. “What you been drinking? You’re gonna take on that asshole? You mighta been a match for the Emperor’s boys, but my sonofabitch? He’s too mean to lose.”
So Tillie eventually married the guy with the bigger gun, and Howard moved home to his Ma’s attic. All bragging aside, he had no heart for other girls. Tillie was the one. So Howard just kept to his jokes and his bus and his little niece.
And drinking? We all thought that would get him in the end. Especially when he came back from the war. Especially after Tillie got married. Dodging that bullet, we all figured, was the first step on Howard’s path to sobriety.
Tillie looked real good at the funeral. She had kind of a fancy hat, with a lace veil covering her face. Her husband had to lie in the morgue for a couple a days before the police decided it was just a tragic accident, and her stiff somehow killed himself showing Howie the gun he was tryin’ to sell him. By the time she bought her late husband the brass and mahogany box at Rago’s Funeral Home, her bruises had all but disappeared. But when Howard lifted her veil to give her a buss on the cheek, he could still see the faint yellow tinge. And he knew he did the right thing—back there at Jennetto’s, and at the cemetery when he turned down Tillie’s invitation to go have a shot and a beer.
He’d had enough war for a lifetime. He laid down his arms and at age 45 he surrendered his will and his life to the care of his God and his new girlfriend. Hilda put her cards on the table “I love ya’, Howie. But no guy’s gettin‘ into my bed with a goddamn drink in his hand. ” It didn’t hurt that Hilda was a looker, too, like a girl who mighta’ worked at the Auto Show, but with about thirty years on her. She was statuesque, big-busted and heavily made-up. She wore high heels and tight skirts and big clip-on earrings. She had a skinny kid and a 3-year-old accident from her lug of a husband who installed huge neon signs for Texaco. He didn’t bother with the kids after the divorce, but he paid plenty of alimony. Hilda had a good-paying job in an office and a fancy paid-for townhouse in Niles. Howard got sober, Hilda got pregnant and little Artie grew up with half his dad’s wit and all his mother’s looks—the kind that look better on a girl. But somebody loved Artie who begat Jason and the whole affair made Howard feel absolutely biblical. “Who’d a’ thought, kid, that I’d be telling some goddamn bullshit story to my own goddamn grandson? ” Howard finally got his priorities straight.
Lorraine Schmall taught, practiced, and wrote a great deal about law in her earlier life, authoring such masterpieces as Employee Benefits: Cases and Materials; and Addicted Pregnancy as a Sex Crime. Now she can undertake to write fiction without being in contempt of court. She’s hard at work gathering (and slightly embellishing) her family’s stories for the book she’s hoping to finish: Tales from Avondale. She’s also planning another collection called Women We Knew. Lorraine reviews other people’s books for The Dearborn Express.