Conscience in Chicago “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” — James Baldwin
Charlie felt the warmth of the sun on his skin; sweat pooled around his neck. He looked up from the ground to admire his work. He had planted five rows of turnips—there was one to go. It was satisfying work; later this fall he would see the fruit of his labor. He looked down once again at the soil. There was sweat dripping from his nose now. Charlie reached his hand into the pocket of his overalls and drew some more seeds. He bent down with them in his hand and sent one into the ground with a push of his finger.
Charlie finished his sixth row and looked up again at the sky. It must be about one in the afternoon, he thought. His wife will have lunch ready. Charlie made his way to the edge of the garden, found his rake, his orange wheelbarrow, guided them to the barn, and set them down in their place. He heard a child’s giggle coming from beyond the wall—was it? Yes! His wife and daughter appeared at the doorway. Ellie, the sun gleaming from her golden hair, held their baby in her arms.
“Lunch is made. Are you hungry?” she asked.
“I most certainly am. Planting seeds is taxing work,” he said sarcastically. And Ellie grinned. The baby looked up at her mother. She had bright cheeks and her eyes glimmered. “And what about you, Jane?” Charlie questioned. “Are you hungry?” Jane giggled and buzzed with her lips. Ellie watched as her husband ran his fingers along Jane’s cheek.
“A devoted father,” Ellie said smiling. Her smile could make the fog give way to sunshine. For Charlie, it had done this many times over, and it would again. “Come on,” she said. “Lunch is waiting for you at the table.”
The couple turned together toward the house. As they did, Charlie noticed a shutter hanging loose from one of the windows. He’ll have to fix that. Oh! and the porch steps needed repairing. It would take a few boards and nails, Charlie thought; nothing he couldn’t manage. For now, though, his work was done; it was time for lunch. And he entered the house.
“What’s this?” Charlie exclaimed.
“What’s what?” Ellie asked.
“There,” Charlie gestured to the table, “that cake. Is it lemon?”
“Yes it is.”
“Lemon is my favorite.”
“I know,” Ellie beamed. She thought of her husband out in the field. “You do work hard, Charlie.”
“But I wish I could do more,” Charlie said. “I want the best life for you. And also for Jane.”
“And we’ve got it—I can’t imagine being happier,” Ellie said. She looked around like there was something she needed to do. She handed her husband the baby and walked into the kitchen to fetch something. Charlie looked at Jane adoringly. “How about you, Jane? Are you happy?” Charlie began tickling her. The baby giggled and buzzed again with her lips. She was wearing a pale blue dress that Ellie had sewn for her. Here her mom returned, cradling a salad bowl in her arms.
She placed it on the kitchen table. A soft breeze came through the screen door and danced around her skirt. Charlie felt the warmth of it—it sunk into him.
Lunch was ready. Charlie sat down at the round kitchen table, Jane bouncing in his arms. Ellie turned back toward the kitchen, then looked around the room. Her hands smoothed the front of her dress. Yes, everything had been done: the white peonies in the vase on the table; the cake; her husband, there, holding Jane in his arms—it was all as she had planned it. The salad bowl was on the table now, too. Ah! no, she forgot to bring out the sandwiches. Ellie placed her palm against her forehead in exasperation. She went off again to the kitchen and came back with the sandwiches on a platter, setting them down on the table. Now everything had been done. “Let’s eat then,” she said.
Charlie lifted a sandwich from the platter and thanked his wife for the extravagant display. He eyed the cake. And Ellie was simply ravishing, sitting there across from him. Her face was illuminated—full of joy, full of life. He bit into the sandwich.
“A letter came in the mail today,” Ellie said, “from your brother.”
“Really? He usually only writes at Christmastime. Have you read it yet?” Charlie asked.
“I haven’t. Would you like me to? I’ll go get it.” Ellie got up and fetched the letter. It was sitting on the hutch. The envelope was a dark green, or blue—what color was that? It was dark. Ellie slipped her fingers under the seal flap and tore it open excitedly. She drew a piece of paper from the inside and began reading it aloud:
Charlie & Ellie,
I hope you are well. Has the baby come? I hope it has everything babies need. Well, you must be surprised to have gotten a letter from me. “It’s not even Christmas yet,” Charlie must have said. As you know, I was hired at South Works about a year ago, now. We’ve been doing rather well, and there’s word that we’re expanding production. And that means hiring, Charlie. I think you ought to come to Chicago—all of you. There’s plenty of work here, and it will be better work than farming—with more pay, too. The family can’t live out there forever, as I’ve said before. Anyway, I’ve made friendly with the boss and I’m positive I can get Charlie a job. Please take my advice. I’ll write again at Christmas if I don’t hear from either of you both before then.
Charlie set down the sandwich from his hand. He looked at his wife. “What do you think, Ellie?” Ellie looked at him for a moment and then returned her eyes to the letter. What would it be like to live in the city? Chicago? She thought about it for a moment. They were happy here—more than happy. That shutter needed fixing, though—and the porch steps. Still, they were happy. Ellie looked around the room, her eyes finally settling on the table before her. The dark envelope glared up at her. Blue, maybe. No, green. Well, it was dark. Another gust of wind rushed in, somehow colder than before. Charlie shivered. Ellie got up to shut the inner door and stopped a moment by the entranceway. Clouds started to cluster in front of the sun. She hoped, privately, that they would move. Ellie turned her glance to the fields—admired them. The long blades of grass moved in harmony with the wind, bowing, and rising up again. She thought again of how happy she was. There were the steps, of course, that needed repairing. But somehow she found them charming. Ellie turned back to the table and saw Charlie sitting there with Jane. He was waiting for her to say something, she knew.
“Do you have enough here, Ellie?” Charlie asked her.
“Yes, of course,” Ellie answered decidedly. And the clouds parted; her hair glistened.
“Does Jane? Is this the life we want for her? Maybe the city would bring more opportunity. John is doing well there, it seems.”
“We are doing fine here.”
“We could be doing better, or at least John thinks we could.”
Ellie thought to herself for another moment. She returned from the doorway and reached for something on the table. “Here,” she said, “have some lemon cake.”
Charlie could see the water droplets collecting on John’s windshield. The fog was thick. Charlie had never seen fog like that. Why was everything so dark? The black car carried on.
This was Charlie’s first day at the factory. His brother was driving him. “Now when we get there I’ll introduce you to the boss. He’ll ask you a few questions and assign you to a station.” John spoke to his brother with severity. Charlie looked over at him, questioningly. He knew he had spoken, but the meaning of his words was less clear than the tone with which he had spoken them. “Do you understand?” John would ask repeatedly—mechanically. Charlie would nod as he had several times before, though he hadn’t meant it then, or now. John would continue asking. Something about this day, to him, felt absurdly procedural. He did not understand anything about it.
And this moisture, puddling on the windshield in precarious rhythm. The wipers moved to the tempo of dread. “Do you understand?” his brother would ask him incessantly. “Is everything clear?” Clarity was the converse of this day, of the fog, the abysmal darkness. The car was moving up to the gates now; iron bars, drenched and black. As the gates opened, the car moved forward promptly as though it had rehearsed for this moment a thousand times. There was a great brick building growing larger and larger as it neared. The car stopped. Charlie heard his brother speak. Indistinguishable, but commanding, “The city is this then,” Charlie thought to himself as he opened the passenger door. Immediately he felt the moisture of the air seep into his skin. And this was his welcome to Chicago. Charlie felt, profoundly, that the city detested him.
John guided his brother through chambers, up staircases, down corridors—to the manager’s office. John knocked thrice on his boss’s door. Knock. Knock. Knock. The door opened too quickly. “Come in,” ordered the man. “Sit down,” he stated.
“Tell me what experience you have with manual labor.”
“Well, sir,” Charlie began, “I’ve worked on a farm all my life.”
“Any experience with machinery?” asked the manager.
“Not really.” The manager began taking notes at his desk.
“Your brother says you have a wife and a child.”
“That’s right,” said Charlie. He remembered their image in his mind. His heart lifted.
“And what made you want to uproot your family and come to the big city?”
“Opportunity, sir.” Charlie thought he noticed the corners of the manager’s mouth raise. Perhaps not.
“That’s splendid. Well, an opportunity you shall have. Start on station three.” The boss set down his notes and stared into Charlie’s eyes.
John grimaced, Charlie thought. He couldn’t be sure. The manager handed Charlie a slip of paper with his name on it and sent the brothers out of his office. The door was shut behind them, too quickly. Now to the time clock. John guided Charlie back down the appropriate corridors and staircases. Punch. Punch. The brothers walked to station three where Charlie was introduced to the other workers. They didn’t smile. John worked at station eleven—the other side of the factory. He would be back at lunchtime to ask Charlie how he was fairing. Okay? Okay.
Charlie asked the workers around him what his task would be. They answered: follow such and such steps. Make sure this doesn’t happen. Make sure that gets done. Follow the steps. Is it clear? Did he understand? Charlie nodded that he understood. The steps had been clearly stated.
The day marched forth. Ten o’clock came. Eleven. Twelve. Follow the steps, Charlie told himself. He had great difficulty. It was not that the task was itself difficult—no—but his mind would wander; he would think of the countryside. A familiar shape would appear—a turnip perhaps, or a wheelbarrow. He recalled the warmth of the sun. There was the garden, the sweat on his forehead. There was his wife, sitting at the kitchen table in a vibrant white dress. These thoughts were firmly planted in his mind. But what was this noise around him now? He thought he could make out voices. They were angry. They were shouting, in fact. It was the workers. He had not followed the steps.
Now it was lunchtime. John returned from his station. The brothers walked to the timeclock. Punch. Punch. “How was your morning, brother?” John asked with a bit of genuine concern.
“Fine. This is quite repetitious work,” said Charlie.
“Yes, well, don’t worry; by the end of the day it will be like second nature.”
“Second nature,” Charlie repeated. “Just like second nature.” The alarm sounded and it made Charlie jump.
“Time to punch in,” John exclaimed. Now to the timeclock. Punch. Punch. Punch—and on went the machine. Here came Charlie’s turn. He reached for the handle. Punch! went the machine. And he felt the blow.
After spending several more hours at the factory, Charlie stared at the clock and realized he had reached the end of the day. John returned from his station and the brothers left the factory. Outside, a blanket of fog saturated the air. They walked to John’s black car, got in, and left for home.
After John had brought Charlie back to his apartment, the brothers waited in the car for a moment. John stared at the exterior of the building.
“What drew you to this place?” John asked as he looked at Charlie’s apartment. It was dark and lifeless, looking as though it was sighing a long sigh that did not—could not—end. Charlie answered that it was all he could find. “Well, it will do,” John tried to assure him. Charlie stared expressionless at the brick exterior. It lowered him. “I know it was a rough first day,” John interrupted, “but you made the right choice moving to Chicago. Your family will thank you for it, I’m sure.” Charlie looked over at John and nodded. There was silence for a moment as the fog engulfed John’s car.
“One thing, John,” Charlie began.
“What?” John returned.
“When the boss assigned me to station three, did I notice you grimace?” John shifted in his seat and turned his head toward the window.
“Well,” he said, “it isn’t unusual for a new employee to start out at some of the lower paying stations. You don’t have much experience.”
“Oh, John!” Charlie grew red. He paused to collect himself. “You promised that I’d do well, here.”
“And you will, Charlie. You’re new; that’s all. You’ll get promoted in no time. I’ll make sure of it.”
Charlie clenched his jaw. “How much does a station-three worker make?” he asked.
“Starting? About 60¢ an hour.”
“No. You can’t be serious,” Charlie fumed.
“Look. Work for a few weeks. Do a good job, follow the steps—all that. The boss will be impressed. After a while you can ask him to increase your pay. No problem.”
Charlie stared out the passenger door window. He sensed that the fog had become denser. “Alright then,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Give Ellie my regards,” John said with effort.
Charlie opened the passenger door and watched John drive away. He turned toward his apartment and approached the door. It opened. Oh, of course it was Ellie! Their eyes met.
“Oh! do tell me how your first day went! No, first come in from the fog. I’ve never seen fog like this. Come, come.” Ellie swept her husband into the house and took off his coat. She had many questions and Charlie had a difficult time keeping up with them. Ellie ushered her husband to the dinner table and saw him seated. She was full of life. “Wait here while I bring us dinner,” she said as she raced off through the swing door that led to the kitchen. Charlie got a whiff of something and felt a hunger rise in his stomach. Ellie returned with an assortment of dishes in her arms; pork roast and corn-on-the-cob—she placed them on the table and darted off once more. She returned with dishes of roasted squash, sweet potato—and what was this one in the yellow dish?—turnip.
Charlie looked at the assortment of foods that his wife had prepared. His hunger stirred again, stronger this time. He felt it issue from the deepest parts of his body. “Dig in,” said Ellie with conviction. “No, wait. I will go get Jane so we can all be together.” Ellie left once more and Charlie sat patiently at the table. She returned momentarily with the baby in her arms. “Alright. Now dig in.” Charlie obeyed, reaching for this dish, then that. The food was what he needed. His wife was what he needed. Ellie watched admiringly as he heaped piles of squash and turnip on his plate. He cut himself a slice of pork roast, grabbed his fork, and took a bite—then another, then another. Ellie grinned. Jane had fallen back asleep in her mother’s arms and her head was resting on Ellie’s chest. Charlie stopped to admire them. The couple’s eyes met once again and this time Charlie let his wife’s gaze penetrate him and felt suddenly alive. There his wife smiled with an incandescent joy that so reminded him of the sun. He would think of this moment tomorrow at work as he followed the steps.
“I just can’t wait any longer,” Ellie began. “You really must tell Jane and me about your day.” Charlie studied his wife. She was wearing the white dress she wore that day on the farm. He admired her hair, golden and reflective. She wore an expecting grin. It was all too much for him then. But he must make an attempt.
“There were many things to look at,” he uttered feebishly.
“Really? What kinds of things?” asked Ellie with excitement.
“Oh, machines. The factory was full of them.”
“Yes, I would expect that would be the case. Tell me about your boss,” Ellie said as she noticed Jane stirring against her chest.
“Not much to compare him to, I suppose. I’ve always been my own.”
Ellie laughed. “Yes, of course,” she grinned. “How about the factory? Was it big?”
“It was huge.”
“What about the walls of the factory? What did they look like?”
“They were also huge; the biggest walls I’ve ever seen.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “How exciting,” she said sarcastically. Jane adjusted herself. She let out a high pitched squeal.
“Well surely there must have been something interesting.”
“I was assigned to station three.”
“Oh? What does that mean?"
“It means 60¢ an hour.”
“Oh.” Ellie looked puzzled. “But I thought John said you would be making a lot more here in Chicago than you were on the farm.”
“He was wrong—says I should ‘keep working my best’ and the boss’ll give me a raise.”
“Maybe he’s right.”
“Not likely. He doesn’t look like the generous type.” Charlie watched Jane become agitated. She began to kick and was letting out some more high pitched whines. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jane act like that before. Is she sick?”
“No, no. She’s been fine all day. I’m sure she’s just cranky since I woke her up from her sleep.” The couple sat in silence for a few seconds while Charlie stared down at his plate of food. He felt his stomach rumble and then forked a piece of meat. “Well, how about the work? You’ve told me about everything except for the work. What was it like?” Jane squealed again.
“It’s not very difficult; there are a set of steps I follow,” said Charlie, “and John says it will become like second nature to me.”
“Well that’s terrific. And all you have to do is follow the steps?”
“Yes. It’s the same thing all day. I lose myself in it,” Charlie said. Jane screamed.
“Good heavens,” Ellie began, “it is past somebody’s bedtime!” Ellie got up from the table and carried Jane back to bed. Charlie picked up his fork again to take another bite of food. He looked down at his plate. Empty.
For the following weeks Charlie and his family held fast to the same daily routine: John would come by the apartment in the morning to pick Charlie up and bring him to work. At his station, Charlie would lose himself in the steps. He would think of Ellie and Jane while he was there—would try to remember the farm, the land, and the country air. But after a while, these memories—the details that made them up—lost their clarity. He could remember the wheelbarrow he used in the garden, but he could no longer reproduce in his mind the sensation that wooden handles brought to the calluses of his palms. In time, its color would also fade from his mind. He would cherish those memories that he was able to retain, and he would mourn the loss of those that he knew would eventually escape him. Each evening John would deliver Charlie back to his apartment. Charlie would approach the front door and his wife would meet him there, beaming with familiar radiance. She would draw him in from the harsh Chicago air, take off his coat, and escort him to the table for dinner. He would begin to live for these meals, as well as for the happiness that his wife perpetually maintained.
At the dinner table one evening, Charlie sensed a rupture in his everyday routine. He couldn’t decide what had caused it; it was a feeling that he had. He began searching the room for something that might have changed—something that might be out of place. Had the furniture been moved? No. A new picture was hanging on the wall, perhaps. No, Charlie shook his head; that still wasn’t it. Charlie continued to look around the room. Oh, but there was a bouquet of flowers on the table—white peony blossoms—their stems resting in a narrow vase. But there was something else, too. He knew there must be something else. Charlie’s eyes moved around again. He felt a draft of cold air coming from somewhere. The door; it hadn’t been fully closed. Charlie got up from his seat to close it. Standing by the door, he contemplated the feeling that it gave him. What was different? A disturbance of the routine he had acclimated to over the past year, maybe, or the resurfacing of a buried memory. He let go of the door handle and turned around. His eyes found again the white petals on the table. They were drawing him back. He finally made his way back to the table and examined the peonies closely. “Is it you?” He asked them this. The disturbance moved within him again—nostalgic, almost. What was different today than all the other days? What was it that made this moment—with the flower petals and the cold breezes of the Chicago evening air? Something had planted itself within him. That he knew. He sat back down.
Ellie came back from the kitchen with a smile on her face—always smiling—even today when he felt within him the ebb and flow of an immense ocean. But something was in her hands, something pale yellow—was it really? Yes!—a lemon cake.
“What is the occasion?” Charlie asked with enlivened surprise.
“Good heavens, Charlie!” Ellie scolded. “Do you really not remember? It’s your birthday.” And Charlie again felt the ocean. His birthday! For here were the peonies, the cake, his lovely wife dressed up in white.
“Yes, of course I remember,” he said, lying. “I just wasn’t expecting all of this.”
“Does it remind you of anything?” Ellie asked him. Why, yes, it did rather. He knew it did—but what? He lacked clarity. There were the white peonies. They may have drawn him to them. And there was the cake. Yes, it was his favorite kind of cake. “Oh, tell me you remember,” his wife said. Details had become so scarce. “A hint then,” Ellie uttered with a glimmer in her eye. She went off to the kitchen and he watched her come back a moment later with a platter of sandwiches. The ocean roared within him. That was it—she had brought him back to that day on the farm. All the details rushed into him then: the dress, the white peonies, the lemon cake, the sandwiches, and—oh! that autumn breeze. Charlie looked at the door. But the breeze was cool. Hadn’t it been warm that day? Ah! but everything was perfect. Ellie had given him a true gift.
Charlie’s eyes lit up. They had been dark for some time. “I remember,” said Charlie. “I remember everything.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Yes, yes, I’ll remember,” Charlie told his wife as she walked him to the door one morning.
“You said that last time,” Ellie said with a grin.
“I promise I’ll speak with him.”
“I just know he’ll help us out. You’ve been working so hard, Charlie. And it’s been over a year now since you took the job. He can’t refuse you. If he does, he’s mad.”
“Now you’ve got it.”
Ellie laughed. “Just remember to ask. We can’t keep going on like this. All our savings are gone.”
“I’ll remember.” Charlie looked through the front window. John was here. Time to go. Ellie gave him a kiss. His heart lifted.
John greeted Charlie as he got in the car, and they drove off toward the factory. Charlie felt the weight return. He began rehearsing how he would phrase the question. In his mind he arranged the words: “Good morning.” His boss would stare through him. “I was wondering ….” No. That was far from right. “As you know, I’ve been working here for a year now.” No, his boss would know what he was after and cut him off. He arranged the words again—adding some, removing others: “I was thinking this morning about my work.” Yes, his boss would like that—thinking about his work. “I realized that it has been a year since I started here at South Works.” Now straight to the point. “Well, as long as you’re satisfied with my performance,” he would wait for his boss to nod (if indeed it was possible for the man to feel satisfaction), “I would like to ask for a raise.”
John pulled into the factory parking lot. The brothers exited the car as if the act had become a ritual. They walked down the concrete walkway. The soles of their shoes scuffed as they marched toward the time clock. Punch. Punch. “I’ll be seeing the boss this morning,” Charlie told his brother. “We’ll catch up at lunchtime.”
Down the corridors his feet carried him, and up the metal steps. He could feel his legs resist him. Still, they moved.
Down five hallways now. One more to go (why was the manager’s office this far away?). He reached the door and summoned the strength of the tide. Knock. Knock. Knock. The door opened too quickly. His manager was looking at him. But it was in a way that wasn’t really looking. It was the sort of glance that one might accord an insect before stepping on it.
“You’ll come in, I suppose,” his boss stated.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Remind me again of your name, please.”
“Yes, John’s brother. I remember now. Proceed.”
“I have been speaking with my wife about—” no, that was not what he had rehearsed. (What was it? “I have been thinking about…, I wanted to ask you for …,” no, that wasn’t it either.) But he now finished with “—my work.”
“Oh? What about it?” asked the boss.
Charlie couldn’t remember what about it … something to do with what came after. Oh yes; the compensation. “The pay.” Too blunt.
“Yes?” The boss elongated the vowel. Not good.
“It’s too low.” (“Good heavens!” he could hear his wife saying.) He had surely lost all chance of a raise.
“Why I’m surprised you aren’t grateful that I gave you the position!” said the boss. “Afterall Charlie, you had very little experience.”
“What I meant to say, sir, is that I have been working here for a year now.”
“I realize that.”
“My work has been consistent. I have never missed a day.”
“And I am more experienced than when I started, at least. Don’t you agree?”
“Well, yes. I suppose that’s true.”
“I am grateful for the job, sir, don’t get me wrong. I don’t know where I’d be if not here. It’s just that I am struggling to support my family.”
“Yes,” Charlie affirmed.
“Well …” thought his boss. “That is a shame …” Charlie watched the man closely. The boss put his chin between his thumb and his index finger. He considered the situation—or seemed to.
“What about transferring me to a station that requires more steps?” Charlie suggested.
“And which station are you at now?”
“Station three,” Charlie said, a bit surprised at his boss’s forgetfulness, and a bit disappointed at his lack of investment.
“Yes, of course,” stated the boss. “Well, Charlie. I’m afraid that the pay you’re already receiving is all that South Works can offer you at this point in time.” Charlie’s heart sunk deeper—to a greater depth, he noted, than it had reached before.
“Might I have an explanation, sir?”
“Sure,” offered the boss. “It’s simple. You’re unqualified to be moved to a different station,” said his boss.
“Then can I train, sir?” asked Charlie.
The boss considered this for a moment. “Well, these things take time. You understand how it goes.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You may have to work at a new station for a while as I evaluate your performance and then decide whether to increase your pay.”
“Then you’re a better man than I thought.” The boss gave a sadistic smile.
Charlie laughed nervously. “So, where should I go now?”
“Why don’t you train under your brother at station eleven?”
“That’s just fine, sir. Thank you.”
“Of course. I like to help when I can,” said the boss. “Is that all then?”
“Yes, sir. I think so.”
“Good. Now tell me. Did you punch in before you came to my office?”
“Why, yes sir, I did. I thought that since—”
“—Then I think you had better not punch out for lunch today.”
“Sorry? I don’t think I quite understand,” Charlie said confusedly.
“Well I think it’s clear that you have wasted company time.”
“Oh. I never thought tha—”
“—Yes. You never thought. This is exactly what I meant by a lack of experience. Maybe a few months at station eleven will help you see things more clearly.”
Yes, thought Charlie. More clearly. He realized that a lack of clarity had been the norm since moving to Chicago. The fog, for example, of that first day. In the fog he lacked it—looking out through the window of his brother’s car—in the darkness that surrounded him. Or more recently in his apartment where his memory had been affected. And during workdays, now, when he was unable to reproduce with precision the sensations of his work on the farm that had before given him so much pleasure. Being there with his boss, however, Charlie felt that he was beginning to understand, at least, the fog—the darkness in which he was shrouded, because the man sitting in front of him was the exemplar of this type of clarity, and in his presence Charlie felt the many dark colors of the city. “Yes,” he answered his boss. “I’m beginning to see things more clearly already.”
At her desk, Robin felt the weight of conviction. She had been working all morning on a report. There was a team of physicians and environmentalists, in fact, all commissioned by the Office of Environmental Health for the State of Illinois, working with her. The team was responsible for determining the effects of air pollution on human health. They had been working on this report for the past several months, and the deadline was fast approaching.
Robin knew that Chicago had some of the worst air in all of the United States. The amount of coal being used to power factories had led to unsafe levels of smog pollution—this despite the 1881 ordinances. It would be entirely reckless to allow this to continue. She told herself that it had to stop, that the State of Illinois, the rest of the country even, must be prevented from ruining itself. Her mind worked; she dangled her fingers over the keys of a typewriter. “The factories of Chicago Paper, Smith & Smith co., South Works, and Howard Cooper inc., have each contributed to the buildup of toxic air pollutants in and around the city of Chicago.” There was a knock on the door and Robin stopped typing. “Come in,” she yelled. It was her receptionist, Carol. Robin began typing again.
“Ms. Perry,” said Carol.
“Yes?” Robin asked. “What it is?”
“You have a visitor.”
“Then who is it?” Robin asked as she typed.
“Peter Brisky, ma’am.”
“Oh. Send him in Carol.”
“Yes ma’am.” Carol exited Robin’s office and gestured for Peter to enter. Peter got up from the outer office and strolled into Robin’s.
“Good morning Mr. Brisky,” said Robin. She stopped typing.
“Good morning.” Robin sat regally at her desk. Her hair was pulled back with a fashionable green hair clip that matched her emerald-colored eyes. Her hair was an earthy auburn and she wore a black blouse. Peter admired her posture. Robin, to him, was both professional and intimidating. This he found exciting.
“What can I do for you Peter?” asked Robin.
“I wanted to inform you that I’m almost finished with my bit of the report.”
“Me too. I anticipate finishing in about two weeks.”
“Great. So once we have submitted the report, then what happens?”
“Well, first the report has to go through a review process which means it could take months before legislators even have an opportunity to look at it. But once they do, we cross our fingers and hope they react how we want them to. That’s why we have to make sure that we’ve built the strongest case possible with the evidence that we have available. My hope is that policymakers will end up forcing the biggest polluters to cut back production or else find alternative ways to reduce toxic gas emissions.”
“Right,” said Peter. “Well, my fingers are crossed.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ellie watched as Jane danced across the kitchen floor. Her daughter was now three years old. She was a happy child, and Ellie enjoyed spending her days with Jane in their apartment. They would play games together and read stories about other children who grew up in the countryside. They were Jane’s favorite; they were Ellie’s favorite, too.
Ellie remembered fondly the life she had lived on the farm and she would sometimes dream that she was back there. But even when she wasn’t dreaming she remained happy where she was, in this apartment, with her daughter. She felt that she could be happy anywhere as long as she had her family. But as she stood in the kitchen, thinking of the day ahead of her, she asked herself what needed to be done. The dishes. She walked to the sink and ran the hot water. The soap. She watched as bubbles began to form and rise up. Jane was still dancing behind her. A cloud gave way, and rays of sunshine fell through the kitchen window, filling the room. These were her days.
The dishes were done. Now what? She expected that there might be laundry. Oh! but there came a thud on the door. It must be the paper, she thought. Ellie walked to the front door and saw that the paper had arrived. She picked up the copy of The Chicago Tribune and brought it inside to the dining table, setting it down. “I’ll read it later,” she told herself. She went over to Jane and picked her up. They traveled to the bedroom hamper. Charlie’s work clothes. They were covered in a black film. She let Jane down and lifted the hamper, carrying it downstairs to the apartment’s laundry room. Jane danced behind her as she went.
Hours passed: the laundry was done, the dishes were done, and Ellie stood in the living room, thinking about what to do next. “Shall I clean?” she asked herself. The house was already clean. She had cleaned it yesterday—or the day before. She couldn’t remember, exactly, but anyway it didn’t need to be done. She looked at the clock. Charlie would be home in just over an hour from now, she told herself. I should surprise him—to let him know how much I love him. She traveled again to the kitchen where she had stood hours before. What was in the refrigerator that she could make for dinner? She opened it up: a head of lettuce, a few carrots. She saw some biscuits on the counter. This won’t do. She needed to buy groceries. Ah, but she hadn’t any money in her purse. Charlie wasn’t getting paid until tomorrow. “I have it,” she thought. “I’ll check the pantry.”
There was some rice in the pantry—a few potatoes. Dried beans. Was that a cough, Ellie heard? There was a jar of honey, some canned meats. Another cough—she was sure of it now. Ellie turned behind her. “Are you alright Jane?” Jane smiled at her and continued dancing.
The freezer! Ellie remembered storing some chicken breasts there. She walked to the freezer. She opened it up. Where had they gone? She dug around amongst the bags of frozen corn. No chicken. “Well then,” she thought. “It looks like we’re having roasted vegetables again tonight.” She walked back to the refrigerator to get the carrots. She pulled the potatoes from the pantry. She heard a cough. Ellie looked behind her and saw Jane sitting on the floor. Ah! There were some onions. She grabbed a pan and began washing and cutting up the vegetables. Into the pan they went with a satisfying plop. Ellie smiled. This will do for tonight, she told herself. Cough. Cough.
Ellie turned around again. Jane was lying down. “Good heavens, Jane. Are you feeling poorly?” Ellie walked over to her and felt her forehead. No temperature. She was breathing heavy. She must have tired herself dancing all day, Ellie told herself. “Come, Jane. Let’s put you to bed.” Ellie picked her daughter up and carried her to the bedroom. She laid her down on the bed and then walked back to the kitchen. Glancing at the clock again, she noticed that her husband would be home soon. Ellie put some olive oil over the vegetables and placed them in the oven. She set a timer. There: dinner’s made for tonight. She left the kitchen and looked around the living room again for something—anything. She heard another cough. Another. Ellie grew worried. She walked upstairs to her friend’s apartment. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Patty came to the door. Hi Ellie. Yes, hello Patty—it’s my daughter. Coughing, short of breath. Does she have a fever? Well, no. Has she been dancing? Yes, she had been dancing. Patty wanted to see. They walked downstairs to Ellie’s apartment and went swiftly to the bedroom. Jane lay there quietly. She was still breathing heavy. Patty asked Ellie if they had been outside. No, but the window had been open all day. The Chicago air, Patty said, maybe that was it. Perhaps, Ellie thought. She had indeed noticed the color of the sky when she hung the wash earlier. But, Ellie thought, the family had moved to Chicago three years ago; there were days when the air was much worse than this and Jane hadn’t coughed. Patty assured her there was nothing to be concerned about. Nothing at all. Plenty of rest and Jane would be dancing again in no time. Ellie thanked her. Patty left.
Behind the walls of the kitchen, Ellie heard the timer go off. She walked through the kitchen door and opened the oven. The vegetables were done. She checked the clock. Charlie would be home very soon. She would wait for him by the window. Ellie walked to it. She watched the cars pass as she waited. She would do this sometimes anyway. It was fun looking at the colors of them. Oh! and there were her neighbors across the street. She watched Arnold and Bobby out on the lawn, a father playing catch with his son. Good heavens! The air! She began to worry. Well, perhaps it didn’t affect everyone. Here came a blue car. There was a red one right behind it. They sped by. And there was a silver one, and yellow. Bobby missed his father’s throw. The ball went flying down the road. She watched Bobby hang his head.
Here was a black one … was it? Yes. There was John at the wheel. She watched the doors of the car open up, her husband spill forth. Charlie was covered in black. But he had clean clothes to wear tomorrow, she thought. And then she felt a sense of pride. Ellie waited for him to walk up to the door. He did so drearily, placing his foot on the front step. Ellie opened the door in front of him. She stood there, smiling. Their eyes met.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was Friday. Two weeks earlier Robin had been sitting at her desk talking to Peter about the report. Today she had finished. She gathered the team together. They collected the work they had all been drafting for the past several months. They had provided documentation. They had recorded testimonials from physicians. Robin felt confident. The team submitted their report for review.
Ellie stood again by the window as Jane hugged her mother’s leg. They peered through the window. They watched the cars pass. There was John’s black one. It pulled up to the apartment. Charlie opened the door. His clothes were as black as the car. He looked heavy. Ellie wondered if his day hadn’t gone well. He walked to the door. She opened it for him.
“Hi, Charlie,” Ellie said with a grin. She looked at him admiringly. Charlie glanced back at her and he made an effort to lift his cheeks, or so it appeared to her. “How was your day?” she asked as she escorted him to the dinner table. Charlie sat down, thoroughly drained. She studied the furrows of his face—the pallid complexion. “Charlie,” she began. Her husband looked up at her and told her of a meeting he had with his boss that morning. Jane started moving her leg, anxiously. She hid behind a chair. “Oh?” Ellie asked questioningly. Charlie nodded his head. “And what did you talk with him about?” she asked. He reminded her of the meeting they had last year, and that he had been working with John at station eleven as a way to prove his skill to his boss. She remembered, of course; he had told her many times. Well, the meeting was about the raise that she and Charlie had been counting on. “Yes?” Ellie asked, now feeling hopeful. She wanted desperately for him to say something other than what she was anticipating. But the words came anyway, pouring dreadfully from his lips: He was not given the raise. Ellie’s shoulders dropped. She turned her head toward the front window. There was fog beginning to roll in. She looked back at her husband, sitting there at the table. He had buried his face in his palms. Jane was now sitting on the floor. She had begun to cough. Ellie put her hand on her husband’s shoulder. She let it rest there for a while in the silence. Then Charlie felt it slip away. He lifted his head from his hands and watched Ellie walk into the kitchen. There was a noise—a cough?—coming from beneath the table and he searched for it. Charlie lifted the white linen tablecloth. Jane sat with her arms wrapped around a leg of the table. Cough. Cough.
And Charlie wondered what might be for supper.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Robin sat at the desk in her office. She had been poring over some scholarly papers for the past three hours. It was still morning and the sun shone brightly through the blinds of her office windows, casting lined shadows on her desk. They fell across her arms and her face as she studied the tower of pages before her.
Ever since her team’s report had been submitted for review, Robin had spent most days reading her colleagues’ reports about the environmental impacts of air pollution. She expected she would need to testify before the legislature when the report finally made it to the State House, and she wanted to be as prepared as possible. There was a knock. Carol poked her head through the door. “Ms. Perry,” Carol began.
“Yes?” Robin replied.
“A letter has just arrived for you from the State of Illinois.”
“Splendid,” Robin stood up from her seat. She walked to the door and accompanied Carol to the outer office. “We should open it with Peter,” said Robin. “Come with me, Carol.” Robin and Carol walked down the hallway toward Peter’s office. Robin opened the door and saw Peter’s secretary, Joan, sitting at her desk. “Is Peter in?” she asked. Joan said that he was and that she and Carol could go right in. They did. “Peter,” Robin said as she walked abruptly into his office.
“Why, good morning Robin. Morning Carol.” Peter nodded to them both.
“Peter. Look at this,” Robin said as she handed him the letter.
“Is this what I think it is?” Peter asked excitedly. Then he smiled broadly, for it was what he thought. He handed it back to her. “Open it.” The three of them crowded around the desk. Robin removed the letter from the envelope. She read aloud:
Dr. Robin Perry, Head of Research:
The State of Illinois would like to inform you that the report generated by your research team regarding the effects of air pollution on human health in the Chicago region has been officially reviewed by the Office of Environmental Health. This office is satisfied with your team’s findings and has decided after considerable deliberation to release these findings to the public. A subcommittee has been formed in the Illinois House of Representatives that has been tasked with introducing a bill that will address the facts discovered by your research team. Further information regarding the progress of the bill can be found in The Chicago Tribune.
Signed, Harry Ludlow
Commissioner for the Office of Environmental Health for the State of Illinois
“We’ve done it!” shouted Peter.
“Not so fast,” said Robin. “The ‘bill,’ if the subcommittee even produces one, still has to pass the House and Senate. And don’t forget that these factories bring in considerable revenue for the state. Jobs are on the line, too.”
“Keep your chin up,” Peter said optimistically. “You have worked tirelessly on this—we have all worked tirelessly.”
“Yes,” Robin said hopefully. “And now we wait.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ellie lay in bed without really being tired. It was, in fact, her spirit that was tired—her spirit that couldn’t bear to get out of bed. She rolled onto her side, noticing Charlie had gone to work. That meant it was at least eight o’clock. Jane must be up by now, she thought. She decided that she must stop lying there. Look, the sun was coming through the curtains. How beautiful it was. And how long it had been since she had taken the time to think this. Not since—oh, here was Jane coming into her room.
“Good morning dear,” Ellie greeted her daughter. Cough. Jane looked back at her mother, still in bed. It was past eight. Her father had gone to work already. Ellie turned her head on her pillow and stared off into the corner of the bedroom. Her eyes landed on nothing in particular. “I’ll be up in a minute dear. Let mommy rest for another minute, won’t you? I’ll be right out.” Jane smiled and danced out of the room. Ellie watched her go. As she looked, her eyes caught a ray of sunshine. Just another minute and she would be feeling up … “Alright then. Now.” She acquiesced to the press of life.
Kicking away a sheet, she lifted herself from the bed. She went to open the curtain. Now the window; and in rushed the Chicago air. She thought that it had a particular foulness about it. Ellie walked over to her bureau and changed into her day clothes. She selected a blue top and then decided that it wasn’t right. She went digging for a different item. Green? Not today. She picked up another item; pink. “Wherever did I get this?” she asked herself, and gave it back to the bureau drawers. She searched again. This time her hand landed on a dark, long-sleeved shirt. She pulled it out of the drawer and laid it against her. She went to the mirror. Yes, this is just what she felt today. Ellie put the shirt on and selected a pair of earrings. A gust of wind came through the window. She wrinkled her nose.
“Jane,” Ellie called to her daughter as she left the bedroom. Jane was dancing in the living room. Ellie smiled at her. “Well look at you,” she said. “How happy you must be today!” Jane looked at her mom and smiled.
Breakfast. She felt it was necessary, even today—and if only for the sake of normality. Ellie walked to the kitchen. There was a thud on the door. Oh, it must be the Tribune, she thought to herself. She opened the door. Yes, the paper had come. She picked it up and pulled the band from around the paper. It opened at the crease and she smoothed it with her fingers. “MAYOR JOHNSON TIES THE KNOT,” read the front page. And this is news, she told herself.
She set down the paper on the table and walked to the kitchen. “Jane,” she called out again. “What do you want for breakfast?” Jane came scampering in. It was pancakes she wanted. Ellie checked the cupboard for some flour. There was none left. Ellie peered over her shoulder, her body still angled at the cupboard. “Well how about scrambled eggs?” Ellie asked, hopefully. Jane looked up at her mother and shrugged. Eggs would do. Ellie walked to the refrigerator and opened the door. She pulled out the carton of eggs and drew a pan from the cabinet. One by one Ellie cracked the shells.
Now the eggs had finished cooking. She brought them to the table where she had earlier set the paper. “Come on, Jane. Eggs are ready.” Jane came running. Ellie picked up the paper and began to read as she ate: “UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO ATHLETE BREAKS RECORD.” She didn’t know why she bothered with the papers. She continued scanning. “STRIKE AT HARMON MOTORS: WORKERS DEMAND HIGHER PAY.” Ellie thought for a moment about her own apartment and the way her family struggled. It is a shame, she thought, that workers—as hard and as long as they labor—must struggle so. The next column read: “PERRY REPORT CAUSES ECONOMIC CRISIS.” “Good heavens,” she said. What could this be about? She began reading:
Howard Cooper inc., South Works, Smith & Smith co., and several smaller factories consider cutting workforce this week as a new bill is passed in the Illinois legislature. The bill will place greater restrictions on how much smoke factories can release into the air. Interviews conducted by Tribune columnist Walter Philips suggest firms will make layoffs due to expected losses. When asked for comment, a Chicago factory executive (Frank Driscoll) criticized the Perry report for causing unnecessary distress, stating: “Robin Perry should be ashamed of herself for putting all these great people out of work. I don’t know what all this environmental raucous is about, to be honest. Instead of punishing factories owners, we should be thanking them for providing great jobs. Many families will have to turn to the state for assistance, and workers will undoubtedly be jobless for a long while. ”
Ellie set the paper down on the table. She felt her chest tighten. Jane noticed that her mom had stopped eating. They sat in silence for a moment as a faint breeze rushed into the room. Ellie had forgotten to close the window. She looked at Jane. Cough. Cough.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Charlie stood at station eleven with his brother John. They had been working for five hours now. It was almost lunchtime. Charlie’s feet hurt from standing all day. He only ever got a chance to move his arms. Step one. There, he had completed it. Step two. Now step three. And the lunch bell saved him. He and John walked to the time clock. Punch. Punch. They began walking back to the cafeteria when Charlie heard a voice over the intercom. It announced: “ATTENTION: HARRY, TREMONT, LEVI, ROBERT, AND DUSTIN FROM STATION THREE. REPORT TO THE MANAGER’S OFFICE.” Charlie watched as the men scarfed down their food and raced through the corridor. Strange that they were being called off during their break, Charlie thought. He took a bite of his sandwich.
Fifteen minutes later he saw the men return, hanging their heads. The intercom sounded again. This time: “ATTENTION: MATTHEW, CHRISTIAN, WILLEY, AND STEPHEN FROM STATION TEN. REPORT TO THE MANAGER’S OFFICE.” Charlie became suspicious. He heard whispers starting around him. The first set of men were being asked why they had been called off. None of them wanted to speak. The men from station ten now ate hurriedly. When they finished, the group walked down the corridor. Charlie took his last bite.
Ten minutes later the first man came back by himself. Matthew—who had always seemed more human than the others—hung his head. Then Willey and Christian behind him. They too wore somber expressions—more somber than usual. Charlie asked his brother what he made of it all. John leaned over to his brother and whispered that they might have been demoted. But no, they were gathering their things as if to leave. No one was whispering now. The intercom sounded again: “ATTENTION: CHARLIE AND AIDAN FROM STATION ELEVEN. REPORT TO THE MANAGER’S OFFICE.” Charlie glanced anxiously at his brother. John told him that maybe this time the manager was calling people in for a raise. It was station eleven, after all, and one of particular importance.
Charlie and Aidan found each other and began walking down the corridor. Up the stairs they went, and down the hallway. They found the boss’s door. They looked at each other for a moment, then knocked. Knock. Knock. Knock. The door opened too quickly. “Come in,” the boss commanded. “Have a seat,” he stated flatly. Charlie felt the weight on his chest increase. His boss began. “Now then … you two have been with us at South Works for over three years, correct?” Charlie and Aidan nodded. The boss continued: “And you have both done fine work for us.” The boss paused for a moment and Charlie felt the weight ease up a bit. “I’m very proud of both of you and I think you are hard workers.” He paused again. Charlie and Aidan looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes. He continued: “Therefore, and I say this with confidence in your abilities, I know you will be successful at finding employment elsewhere.” The boss let his words hang in the air. They floated for a while, and then Charlie felt them draw closer to him. They sunk into his skin, just like the fog on his first day at work. It felt indelible this time.
Charlie stood up and looked his boss in the eye. “What do you mean, ‘find employment elsewhere?’” Charlie asked. His boss looked at him with a sudden sternness.
“I mean we no longer require your services.”
“But I have done everything you have asked me to do,” Charlie said confusedly. He saw Aidan become increasingly uncomfortable.
“Yes. It is as I have said; you are both good employees. Unfortunately, South Works is going through a reevaluation of its production processes due to some new legislation in Springfield. The factory simply does not have enough money to keep you on.” The men stayed there for a moment, not knowing what to say. Charlie observed his boss’s clothes. His suit must have cost what Charlie made in a week. And his hair, all slicked back. The man was conspicuously debonair. This made things intolerable.
Finally, Aidan stood up. He put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder and gently pulled him away from the boss’s desk. They walked out of the office and hung their heads as they proceeded back down the numerous hallways. John saw his brother approach, drudgingly. He thought that it must be worse than a demotion. His brother raised his head, and John could see tears streaming down his cheeks. He felt something for him then, but not enough—never enough. He watched Charlie collect his things—his coat and hat. Aidan did the same. Charlie gestured to John that he would be leaving with Aidan. The brothers nodded to each other and John watched as he and Aidan walked to the time clock, shoulders drooping. Punch. Punch.
“Why don’t you try the want-ads again, Charlie?” Ellie suggested. Charlie lifted the Tribune from the breakfast table. Jane came running to her father’s side and hugged his arm. She smiled her mother’s smile. Charlie began scanning the paper for an opportunity—perhaps something at another factory? No. He prayed not. And his eyes continued scanning.
“How about this?” Charlie read the ads aloud to his wife: “DRUGSTORE PHARMACIST, $1.75/HR FOR EXPERIENCED APPLICANT WITH DEGREE.” No, that wasn’t it. Next: “UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LOOKING FOR PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS.” Next: “INDUSTRIAL PLANT HIRING NEW CEO TO MANAGE FINANCIAL LOSSES.” Charlie shifted in his seat. His wife sighed. Jane began coughing.
“Anything about farming in there?” Ellie asked. She saw Charlie’s eyes light up. He studied the ads voraciously.
“No,” he said with disappointment. He turned back the page to start again; perhaps he’d missed something. Something above the ad section caught his eye. “Now what’s this?” Charlie read aloud:
Tribune to host public forum on factory layoffs. All families of laid off workers welcome to attend on Friday, May 10th at 8:00 p.m. at the Chicago Civic Center. Hear panel of environmentalists, physicians, and business executives discuss the implications of new air pollution control bill. Last half hour dedicated to workers’ questions and comments. On the panel: Peter Brisky, Sandra Roth, Frank Driscoll, and Robin Perry.
Charlie thought for a moment. He looked up at his wife. She nodded her head and smiled. “We should go,” she said. And they went.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was a Friday night and John had the next morning off of work so he agreed to drive Charlie and his family to the forum. The black car pulled into the Chicago Civic Center. There were at least two hundred other cars. “Wow,” Charlie thought to himself; this bill had affected many families. He felt that he should go up and speak in front of the crowd when it was time for comments.
Ellie held Jane’s hand as they walked through the front door of the Center. Charlie and John led the way toward a large auditorium and they found the four panelists sitting at a table in front of the workers and their families. Charlie made sure his family found seats close to the microphone so that he could speak at the end of the discussion. The emcee was a Tribune columnist, and Charlie watched him proceed to the front of the auditorium where he announced that the forum would commence. Charlie and his family watched as each panelist took turns presenting their arguments. The bill was necessary, one said. Another nodded in agreement. The executive, Frank Driscoll, then presented his counter argument. It cost the city an enormous sum in tax dollars, he argued, and the factories themselves were now struggling to meet the demand for their products. He had done his own research and felt that air pollution had a minimal impact on human health—or that the results were nevertheless inconclusive. Then Charlie focused his gaze on a woman sitting at the far right-hand side of the table. She was wearing a green hair clip, matching earrings, and a compelling black victory suit. It was her turn to speak.
“The time has now come,” she began, “for the fine residents of Chicago to celebrate what has been accomplished with this bill.” Robin paused as the crowd booed her. “Because—” she tried again, now raising her voice over the angry workers and their families, “we all have a right to breathe clean air. Granted, not everyone believes that it is a right, and it has for too long been ignored by both the men we vote into office and the men who sign our paychecks.” The crowd burst into angry tumult. A man was heard yelling across the room that now there were no paychecks to sign. Robin held her ground: “The work of Peter and myself, as well as the distinguished opinion of several physicians cited in our research, all confirm that the air pollution caused by several factories in Chicago have contributed to the hazardous breathing conditions that now arise on a weekly basis in this city.” Ellie listened intently as she held her daughter’s hand. She observed Jane coughing, then looked over at her husband. No, Charlie wasn’t looking. She nudged him to get his attention. He looked over at her. Ellie looked into his eyes with conviction. She was trying to tell him something. What? Charlie couldn’t hear over the shouting men around him. Robin was wrapping up her speech: “Unemployment is temporary. Illness and disease, on the other hand, can reap lasting destruction in a community.”
Once Robin finished, the emcee approached the microphone and announced that the panel would now hear questions or comments from any worker who had one. Charlie looked at his wife; he felt the urge to say something, to defend his family. Ellie smiled at him and gestured for him to go. He stood up and made his way to the microphone. There were only two men in front of him. The first had a question about jobs: had the panel considered what workers like him might do next? His family was suffering. Charlie felt the man’s sorrow deep in his heart. Peter answered that they had considered this and were working closely with Mayor Johnson to bring less pollutive businesses to the city. The next man stepped up to the microphone and told the panel about his family, as well. He urged them to act quickly on introducing new jobs. The man concluded and went to his seat. It was Charlie’s turn.
Charlie cleared his throat. He heard the crack of his voice echo in the room. Charlie looked for his family in the audience, and he found a woman’s face smiling at him. Yes, there was Ellie all in white—and Jane on her lap. The auditorium was silent. “I …,” Charlie began, “My name is … Charlie. My wife and daughter are sitting in the audience there.” He gestured toward them. Ellie looked affectionately back. She signaled for him to say something consequential. “We moved to Chicago almost four years ago now,” he told the panel. “I used to be a farmer, but my brother had a job at South Works and convinced me that I would be better off moving to the city. We sold our farm, every acre of land we had—the cropland, my tools …” Charlie broke down. This was not what he had expected he would say. Then again, he hadn’t really known what he was going to say, only that he felt he must speak.
Robin watched as Charlie struggled. She thought that he was trying desperately to fight—for something—for himself, his family, his dignity. “If I may, Charlie,” Robin began, waiting for Charlie to accept her request to speak. Charlie nodded at her to go ahead. “I think what you did is exceedingly admirable.” She smiled at him. “You were trying to provide for your family, and you made sacrifices for which I’m sure they are grateful.” Charlie knew that this was true. He looked again at his wife. She was beaming. He felt the billows rise within him. “It also sounds as though, when you lived on the farm, you were intimately connected to the earth.”
“Yes. You are right,” Charlie answered.
“Then, if I may say so, you, like me, must feel a responsibility to protect it.”
Charlie recalled the warmth of the sun on his skin. He felt the sweat build up on his forehead. He nodded.
“I also grew up on a farm,” Robin said. “My father used to plant all sorts of vegetables—beets, radishes, turnips—and I would sit on the back porch and watch him out in the field. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to leave all that behind.” Robin watched Charlie swallow his emotions. “Part of my motivation for doing the kind of work that I do comes from my childhood. Clean air is all a city has; there are no fields, no turnips growing here.” She saw Charlie smile. A towering wave tumbled onto the shore. The ocean was moving in. “I am sorry that this situation has caused you so much pain—that your family is in this predicament. Hear me when I say that I feel deeply for you. But you must understand why this bill is a good thing, don’t you?”
Charlie considered this for a moment, looking back at his family in the audience. John had a blank expression on his face. Charlie turned his gaze to his wife; Ellie was radiating with a kind of light that pierced his soul—that demolished the black house he had been building there. He returned his attention to Robin, feeling her question reverberate through his body. “Clean air is all a city has,” he repeated to himself. He remembered his life on the farm—the sunshine, the fields and flowers, the dirt that covered his hands whenever he worked in the garden—and how he missed it all. He had forgotten how important all of this was to him. But he remembered now; and he empathized with Robin in spite of the damage she had caused him and his family. Charlie considered for a moment what he would say back to her—to let her know how he felt. A minute passed, and then from the depths of his soul, from the vast oceanic current, and from the black house now in ruins, he answered her: “Yes. I understand.”
After the forum, Charlie and his family piled into John’s black car and began driving back to the apartment. Under street lamps they travelled, beneath a starless sky, and amidst the boisterous insomnia of Chicago nightlife. Charlie felt absorbed with the night’s events. He could not take his mind off of them, the way they made him feel. He had been so alive there at the microphone. He looked from the car window to his wife, who sat beside Jane in the back seat. She had closed her eyes and her golden hair was gleaming from the city lights. Jane was resting her head on her mother’s arm. Charlie smiled. He felt that if this moment went on forever, he would be happy. There was a certain freedom he felt tonight—a paradoxically disturbed satisfaction; it was not happiness exactly, for he missed living in the country. And tonight he was reminded of that. He missed the heat of the sun on his skin and the sensation that wooden tool handles set into his palms. Charlie closed his eyes and let these feelings—these memories—wash over him. In his mind, he imagined that his arms were moving, in and out, back and forth, but following some familiar pattern. He imagined looking down, seeing in his hands some turnip seeds that he’d drawn from overall pockets. He lowered his back and reached out his arm, sending a seed into the ground with the push of his finger. He imagined the strain in his legs from a day’s work in the field. And then he felt a warm breeze circling around him. It was faint at first, but it grew stronger. Yes, it was roaring now. It soared through his legs and travelled up to his arms. It whirled around his neck and he felt it whipping through his hair. This wind raised him up—pulled the weight of his body from his own feet.
He was in the garden, in his mind, and Ellie called his name from the farmhouse. “Charlie,” she summoned him. “Where have you been?” The words rung in his mind. They echoed there. And Charlie couldn’t answer his wife. He had forgotten where he had been, lost track of the steps he had taken; there were so many steps. But things were becoming clearer now and he could see that there was a path before him—this one—leading up to the farmhouse and straight to his wife who was waiting for him, patiently, on those decrepit porch steps—and calling to him; for where had he gone off to? Which patch of the garden? If only she knew, Charlie thought, that it wasn’t the garden at all.
William Somes is a double major in Political Science and Economics at the University of Maine in Orono. This story was written for a class in the honors college. William grew up in rural Maine where he fell in love with nature. In his free time he plays violin, sings, and of course, writes.