by Birute Serota
In Chicago, you could tell what neighborhood you were in by the smell. Every neighborhood had its factory and so every neighborhood had its own smell. In my neighborhood, when the wind blew from the east, we could smell the sweet-sour smell of the Kool-Aid factory where my mother worked the second shift. When the wind blew from the west, we were blessed by the just-baked-cookie smell from the Nabisco factory. But others were not so lucky. There were neighborhoods that smelled really bad like the Argo factory where my cousin lived. I don't know what they made there, but the smell could make you dizzy. One of the worst neighborhoods was the "Back of the Yards," a poor neighborhood that was downwind from the stockyards. I always felt sorry for the people who had to live there, but like my father always said you could get used to anything. He said that many Lithuanians had come to America about fifty years ago looking for a better life and they had worked there when things were really bad. He said a man named Upton Sinclair wrote a book about that time called "The Jungle." He said it wasn't as bad now because the unions were strong.
On the Fourth of July, one of the hottest days of the summer of 1954, my sister Magda and I waited with my father for the bus that would take us to the carnival. Once a year the stockyards, where my father worked, sponsored a free night at the Back of the Yards Carnival.
The Archer Avenue bus slid up to the corner and let out a sigh of air. My sister Magda sat down in the middle of the bus and I plopped next to her, my father sat behind us. I stared out the sooty window at the sun glinting off the broken glass. It was one of those sweltering Chicago days that felt like you could swim through the thick air. It was hot enough to soften the asphalt on the streets so that your shoes stuck to it. It was hot enough to make the air wavy and thick. My starched white shirt stuck to my back and my long pants felt itchy. I squirmed, I loosened my collar, I stood up to open the window but it was jammed. Someone had leaned a greasy head there leaving a fuzzy round spot that made me queasy.
I looked at my sister sitting quietly with her hands folded on her full skirt. Only girls could sit quietly in this heat like they were sitting on a block of ice. I loved my sister Magda but I wish she would be like other girls. She was always embarrassing me by saying stupid things or doing strange stuff like wandering around the neighborhood day or night. My mother would send me out looking for her all the time.
"Hey Magda, would you lick that greasy window for a million dollars?" I asked.
Magda looked at the greasy stain. "Yuck, no."
"How 'bout that gum that's stuck to the bottom of my seat? Chew it for a million?"
"No, that's icky."
I loved the million-dollar game. There were endless variations. I usually played it with my friend Pete.
"Would you walk naked to Mass on Sunday?" I whispered this one into her ear and I laughed. "For a million dollars?"
"Stop it, Al."
"But just think, one horrible moment and then think what you could do with a million dollars."
Magda looked at me blankly. I looked around to see what other horrible things I could tempt her to do for a million dollars. The bus stopped to let in a new group. A huge woman wearing a well-worn red evening gown and a half dozen necklaces and bracelets waddled down the center aisle. She stopped at my seat and smiled at Magda. She had three silver teeth.
"Hello, sweetie," she said in a rough voice.
Magda said hello. She stood over us even though there were seats available. "Can you tell me when we get to Damen. I can't see so good no more."
"We're getting off the bus there too," I said politely, but inside I was horrified. Was she going to stand over me the whole trip?
"Are you going to the carnival?" she asked.
"Me too, I'm the palm reader. Let me sit down here and I'll read your palm for you for nothin'."
"Sure," I said, standing up. I didn't want to do it, but I was always taught to be a polite boy. The red lady sat down heavily next to Magda and I stood over her now, holding on to the rail. With a shock, I saw that her low neckline revealed the top of her breasts and I was amazed to see that she had three breasts instead of the customary two. I didn't know where to put my eyes. I tried to look away but my eyes kept coming back to that strange sight. She had two huge breasts and one small one in the middle.
"Let me see your hand," she said taking my hand into hers. It seemed as if the bus ride was getting hotter and I was getting more uncomfortable. I felt like a fly stuck on flypaper. I could smell her hot, sour smell beneath me.
"A long life," she said tracing the line near my thumb with her thick yellow nail. My palms were sweaty. I didn't want her to touch me.
"You will marry late in life." She turned my hand to see it better. "I see war for you, terrible war, but you'll survive." I turned to look at my father who smiled indulgently as if to say don't worry, it'll be OK. I tried to smile back but couldn't.
The red lady let go of my hand and took Magda's hand instead. "How old are you, dear?"
"Fourteen," I answered for Magda.
She looked at me. "And how old are you?"
"Eight," I answered.
"Hmmm." The red lady studied Magda's hand. "Hmmm," she repeated. "What happened to you as a child?" she asked Magda.
Magda shrugged. "I don't know."
"I can see war but not the same one as your brother. This war already happened. You were hurt badly, almost died."
Magda jerked her hand away. "I don't like you. Go away."
My father stood up. "Here is carnival," he said in broken English. "Excuse, please," he said politely to the red woman.
"Well I'm going too," she said as she pulled her bulk out of the bus seat. "I didn't mean to upset her. I'm sorry. Sometimes I see things, you know."
My father nodded but he looked upset.
The red woman stepped off the bus with grunts and groans. I stepped off after her and the smell of the stockyard got me right away. I gagged.
My father leaned toward me and whispered "I didn't like that gypsy."
"How did you know she was a gypsy?" I asked.
"It was obvious."
Not to me, I thought. Maybe all gypsies have three breasts, maybe that's how you know them. I wanted to ask my father if that was a sign, but I was too embarrassed to speak of breasts. I remembered the wild gypsies who lived in our old neighborhood. But of course, they were too young for breasts yet.
Magda was doing that flapping of her hand that she did whenever she got upset or excited. I was embarrassed. My father took her hand and we crossed the street and entered the carnival. I swallowed hard trying to fight my nausea. The stockyard smell was bad enough, but somehow when it got mixed with the smells of popcorn and cotton candy and sawdust, it was unbearable. I tried to find something to get my mind off it. I looked around and there it was—a red Corvette up on the round platform. It was slowly turning and shimmering with the reflections of the carnival. This was the car of my dreams. This was the kind of car I would own and love someday. I stood there staring at the red Corvette the way some old women stare at statues of saints. If I had this car, everyone would respect and admire me, even Joey Cicero who always called me a dirty DP. I've been called that ever since I came to America four years ago from the displaced persons camp in Germany. Displaced person didn't sound so bad, but when they shortened it to DP, it sounded like a dirty word, like nigger.
My father interrupted my worship of the Corvette to quietly ask me to keep an eye on my sister. I agreed, but it really bugged me. Why couldn't she take care of herself? She was twice my size.
My father went straight for the picnic tables where a heated card game was being played. All of the Lithuanians who worked at the stockyards had come for the free company night, some with children.
"Well, well, it's our friend Jurgis Vitkus," said Captain Eddy. "Sit down, we'll deal you in." My father loved nothing better than a good card game, some gambling and some talk about Lithuania and politics. My father had stopped drinking last year but I still worried about him when he got together with all of his beer-drinking friends. Each of the men slapped down their cards like they were killing cockroaches. The whole time they kept a running argument on who was worse, Stalin or Hitler. Stalin usually won.
Magda and I walked around the carnival trying to decide what to do first. I saw a tent painted with fantastic looking people: a snake boy, an elephant woman, a giant and the strongest man on earth. I thought they looked like illustrations from my old storybooks. Mythological creatures that were half human and half animal. I wished that my best friend Pete were here to see this. Boy would he love this freak show. Pete and I spent hours pouring over "Ripley's Believe it or Not" like it was some game. Like they gave you a choice—believe it or not. Yes, we had both believed in the seal boy who had little flippers instead of arms or legs, but we both had been suspicious of the man who had only half a body. Pete just didn't buy it. He wanted to know how a man with no lower body could possibly go to the bathroom. That stumped me all right. If Pete were here, he'd know what was real and what was fake.
A man with a mouse face and a pointy mustache came out of the tent and started yelling about the wonders of the world. Magda and I walked in with the rest of the crowd.
The man stood in front of the curtain talking about the elephant lady. I tried to imagine a woman with a trunk instead of a nose and giant flapping ears. When the curtain opened, I was disappointed to see a fat women sitting in a stall with a long dress on. This is bunk, I thought, until the lady started to pull up her dress. I sucked in my breath. Her legs were huge and stumpy and her feet disappeared somewhere under all that flesh. It was true. She had the legs of an elephant. I thought about my storybooks. Maybe it was possible to be half animal.
I looked around and saw that a boy was talking to Magda. She was smiling and nodding. He looked a little old for her, maybe around fifteen. I didn't know what to do.
The curtain closed in front of the elephant lady and the announcer moved over to the next curtain. When it opened, a man twice as tall as my father stood there hunched over. The man asked the giant to turn around. He was so slow and clumsy that he tripped over his own feet and almost fell. Someone in the audience was giving him the raspberry. Then, suddenly, the giant started singing "La Donna Mobile" in the biggest voice I had ever heard. I put my hands over my ears. Everyone clapped at the end. The giant grinned. The curtain closed.
I looked over at Magda and saw that the boy she was talking to had now put his arm around her shoulder. Magda was starting to flap her hand but the boy didn't seem to notice. Next the strongman came on but I was getting nervous watching the boy whisper into Magda's ear so I didn't see what the strongman was doing. After him came the wart lady, an unfortunate woman with warts on every inch of her body. Then, the mouse man announced the snake boy. I thought about witches' curses and spells.
The last curtain opened and there was no one there.
"Hey," shouted the mouse-faced man. "What are you doing down there? Get up here." He was talking to the boy who had his arm around Magda. Magda's hand was flapping big time.
The boy jumped on stage and smiled. The man was telling everybody to step up closer and he asked the boy to pull up his sleeves. The boy did it. His skin was scaly and crusty but it didn't look like a snake. Everybody was looking at him like they do at a strange animal at the zoo. I wondered where the boy's mother was. Was she a Snake lady or did she work at some factory like the rest of our moms?
People were starting to yell rude remarks to the announcer about his freak show when he shushed everyone. He asked the snake boy to open his mouth. The snake boy strutted around the stage a few times and then he smiled and slowly opened his mouth and stuck out a forked tongue just like a snake's. The crowd started blessing themselves and spitting three times and left the tent as quickly as they could. I wished my mother had come with us. She knew about these kinds of things. My mother believed in the evil eye and in curses. I wished she were here with us instead of at that factory. She was always at that factory. Or sleeping.
I looked over at Magda. She was smiling at the snake boy. I had never seen Magda flirt before. It made me feel a little weird.
"Come on, Magda, let's get out of here," I said taking her by the arm.
"I want to stay," answered Magda.
"What's your hurry, stick around," said the snake boy with a wink at Magda.
"We gotta go, my father's waiting for us." I pulled a grinning moon-eyed Magda out of the tent.
My sister was annoyed so I tried to distract her. "Let's go on the Ferris wheel, Magda," I said bravely. She loved the way the Ferris wheel looked. I liked the way it looked too, but I had never been on one and I felt a little scared when I looked up at the top. Still we stood in line and got on. A man closed the bar over our legs and we lurched forward. Slowly we ascended to the top of the wheel. A panic was rising in me and so I closed my eyes. The Ferris wheel stopped at the top and waited for some riders to get on. I opened my eyes a little and saw that the sun was setting. The whole neighborhood was twinkling below me. Houses full of people living their family lives. The carnival music was playing below and the finally the Ferris wheel started its giant circling. The seats swayed and the Ferris wheel lights came on. We went round and round until suddenly we stopped at the top again. One of the cars below had to be fixed. Our seat rocked gently. The carnival below was so full of colors it reminded me of brightly wrapped candy. The kind my mother kept in the glass dish on the buffet. We could hear the merry-go-round and the shots of rifles from the arcades. I could see my father slapping cards below.
A cool breeze blew up from the lake. A small streak of lightning blazed in the distance. A storm was heading our way. Chicago was so flat you could see long distances from up high. Magda was humming some Lithuanian song she always hummed. I realized that I no longer smelled the stockyards, nor did I feel the heat anymore. I felt light and carefree and that all of my life was going to roll out in front of me like a magic carpet and it was going to be good.
Suddenly fireworks burst in the sky above us. Huge colored blossoms of light. I had forgotten it was the Fourth of July.
"Magda, look, aren't they beautiful?" I was filled with wonder. The seat suddenly lurched and I saw Magda was slinking down, trying to hide in the bottom of the seat. She was making strange animal noises.
"Magda, what are you doing?" I grabbed her thinking she was going to fall out of the seat. "Cut it out, you're scaring me."
"Bombs," said Magda covering her head.
"Magda, those aren't bombs, those are fireworks. It's the Fourth of July. Look down there, people are holding sparklers. Don't be afraid." I could feel her shaking.
The Ferris wheel started its descent at long last, and I helped a cowering Magda get out. She was whimpering and moaning, holding on to me. I was embarrassed and frightened. I took her to see my father and I asked him what was the matter.
My father held her like a little girl and stroked her hair and told her everything was just fine. Another group of fireworks exploded in the sky.
"Bombs," she cried.
"Not bombs, Magda, never bombs again, my sweet girl. No more bombs. Shhh. Don't cry."
I saw that my father had tears in his eyes.
"Why is Magda crying? I wanted to know why she was so upset. I had never seen her like this.
"Nothing." My father held Magda with one arm and shooed me away with his other arm. I didn't say anything. I just sat with them, feeling bad. I just watched the fireworks explode in the sky and I felt very alone. I watched boys pitching pennies onto glass plates. I watched girls win large teddy bears and dolls. I watched boys throwing balls at milk bottles. And I worried about Magda. What was wrong with her?
"Hey Magda," I said suddenly. "Answer me this."
Magda looked up from my father's shoulder.
"Would you let the elephant lady step on your bare feet for a million dollars?"
My father looked annoyed until he noticed that Magda had stopped crying and was paying attention.
"How about this one," I continued. "Would you marry the giant for a million dollars?"
Magda shook her head no.
"No?" I smiled. "I know a good one. Would you kiss the snake boy for a million dollars?"
Magda smiled and nodded.
"You would? Really?" Magda nodded again.
"Now that's really icky."
A crack of thunder seemed to split the sky and the wind was picking up. I felt a deep sadness settle over me. Magda was never going to be like other girls. Something was very wrong.
"We better go home," said my father, "there's a storm coming."
On the way out, my father bought pink cotton candy for both of us. We saw the gypsy lady sitting in a booth. She was reading a soldier's palm. He was staring at her three breasts. As we were leaving the carnival, I heard the announcement on the loudspeaker for the Corvette raffle. The whole carnival seemed to be gathering there. Everyone was holding their raffle tickets like holy cards. People were muttering prayers to St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.
A blond girl in a lime green puffy dress with a sash that read "Miss Stockyards of 1954" got on the platform. I saw the snake boy waving goodbye to Magda, his hands full of raffle tickets. Magda waved back and threw him a kiss.
When we got back on the Archer Avenue bus to go home, I sat down by a clean window. I picked off the last globs of my cotton candy from the paper cone and stuffed them in my mouth. I liked the way they melted into sugar. I stared out the bus window and saw the moon skimming the tops of the houses. I closed my eyes and I didn't open them again until I smelled the familiar Kool-Aid smell of my neighborhood.
Copyright©2003 Birute Serota