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The Chicago Relay

By L. P. Sloan


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She had to read the sign that marked the village boundary to know she was in Paradise. While growing up she’d spent almost every weekend there from early spring until school reopened in the fall so could only envision it crowded with tourists and pink impatiens and the blue balloons that touted each August’s Wild Blueberry Festival. She’d pretended its sandy roads were the boulevards of Marseilles and Whitefish Bay the Mediterranean. But on that early December afternoon Paradise lay as still and faded as an aging photograph and the bay featureless, an endless pool of cooling lead that extended upward into a sky just as gray. There was no horizon and she was disoriented.

Straining to see out the car’s snow-blurred windows as Ollie slowly drove toward the solitary traffic light, she had time to look into the faces of the few people who scuffled along the edge of the road. The chill they caused to pass through the small of her back surprised her. None of them seemed to know or care how worn and unsettling they were, their passionless eyes reawakening a bewildering gloom in her. It fixed in her chest and tightened the way it had twenty years earlier when she shivered on top of a wind-stripped cliff on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic shore and witnessed as her only sister entered the postulancy of a cloistered order; Like swinging shut the door of a mausoleum.

She was grateful to have Ollie next to her. She’d never told him about her sister and he gave her a reason to shake off the unwelcome association of her memories. Men considered such second-hand emotions to be pointless and evidence of moodiness in a woman and since she was certain that this was the day he’d propose, she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances. When he unexpectedly turned off the road and parked at a tavern that looked like the only place in town that was open for business, she smiled and kicked his tackle box aside so she could get out of the car and thought maybe a drink would take away the chill.

They sat at a booth in a corner just inside the door on wooden benches severe enough to inspire a United Baptist to watch for the Holy Ghost to descend from the rafters, but only dusty coyote and beaver trophies, lashed to the tops of the blackened beams and laced together with ropy ochre cobwebs, stared down through plastic eyes.

He shouted their order across the empty room to the bartender, black coffee for him and a Bombay martini for her, while she stretched toward the dim light of a yellowed little window and checked her make-up in a compact mirror.

"We don’t stock Bombay, ma’am. Beefeaters OK?"

She sighed. "It’ll have to do, I guess." Some bartenders still addressed her as miss, at least the ones in the upscale bars who wanted a good tip. But not this one. Just by looking at him she could tell he was a backwoods hick who’d probably make her martini with cheap house gin and think she’d believe it was Beefeaters. But she smiled as though these thoughts had not crossed her mind and leaned across the table and purred in so far as she was able, "OK Ollie, tell me what in the name of heaven we’re doing in Paradise. And it better be good, Love."

He smiled. "It’s a surprise, Angel. There’s something down around Newberry that I have to get. And I’m not going to tell you any more, so don’t ask again! It’s a surprise!"

She liked his answer so kept smiling, then decided it might be prudent to change the topic of conversation, not wanting to appear too eager. "I wish you could at least have a beer with me."

She’d meant her comment to sound sympathetic, but he barked, "Jesus Christ, Angel! Don’t do that! Help me out here."

Flinching, she quickly explained, "I didn’t mean it that way. Sorry, Ollie."

"My God! You know I’ve got almost three months in at AA. I’m doin’ good just to be able to walk into a place like this and have a cup of coffee. You didn’t know me when I went through those first few weeks so maybe you can’t understand. But they were hell!"

"I said I’m sorry. I know what you’re doing takes a lot of courage. And it makes me grateful that I don’t have a problem with it. I admit I can abuse it now and then, but if I was an alcoholic I don’t know that I could do what you’re doing. Would it help if I don’t drink in front of you? I mean, I don’t really have to have a drink, ya’ know. I mean it’s not like I need one. I don’t need one."

"Nah. It’s OK Angel. I didn’t mean to get hot. Have whatever you want. Just ‘cause I can’t drink doesn’t mean the whole world has to quit."

They stopped talking as the bartender navigated his way across the uneven floor planks toward them, yawning as he juggled the brown plastic tray that held their drinks. "Looks like the snow’s let up. You folks goin’ far?"

Angel said, "Not far. We’re from just over around Sault Ste. Marie. The Ontario side. Just here for the day. Road’s aren’t bad, though. Route 123’s been plowed; at least that leg of it. Do you know if it’s been cleared on down to Newberry?"

"Oh, you’re from the Soo. Got people there. But yeah, I guess it’s been cleared. Plows were out earlier, and the sand trucks too, so it should be OK." As he was walking back to the bar, he added, "I’ll be right over there if you need anything. If you don’t see me, just holler. I don’t go far."

As soon as the bartender was out of earshot, Ollie leaned across the table, frowning, and asked in a rough whisper, "Why the hell would you tell all that to a bartender?"

She looked up, surprised. "Huh? What’d I say?"

"Jesus. You told him where we’re from, where we’re goin’, and how long we’ll be there."


"Jesus Christ, Angel. You don’t know who he is! For all you know he’s a serial killer or a rapist or a murderer or God knows what."

"Well I didn’t exactly give him my name and a road map to my house, now did I?" She turned and looked at the bartender: unshaven; a dirty black and red checked shirt that looked like it had been worn for weeks stretched barely-buttoned over his belly, revealing unwanted glimpses of torn and dingy underwear; skin as gray and plump as soiled overstuffed upholstery. Slouched across the cold grill he grinned up at an I Love Lucy rerun on the television that sat on a shelf hanging from the ceiling in the corner. From where Angel sat she could see missing teeth. "He doesn’t have the energy to be a rapist, or the brains to be a serial killer. If he’s a threat to anyone besides himself, then I’m Lucille Ball."

"Just drink your gin and don’t volunteer so much information."

"OK. OK. That’s about all the information I have anyway. Remember I’m the one who doesn’t even know what the hell we’re doing here!" She twisted sideways on the bench and tried to find a comfortable position for her back, first stretching her legs across the seat, her feet sticking out into the aisle, then squirming back again. Taking a deep breath, she reacquired her pleasant smile and said, "But sorry. You’re probably right. I should be more careful."

"No. Maybe it’s me that should do the apologizing. I got a little testy again. I just don’t want to see anything happen to you. And maybe I’m a little preoccupied with my ‘surprise’! It really is special, Angel. Well…special to me, at least."

She stopped smiling. "Special to you?"

"I told you, Angel, I’m not going to tell you what it is! Trust me."

"When you told customs we were going to Newberry, you were lying, weren’t you? We’re not going to Newberry. If we’d been going to Newberry you’d have turned off I-94 at the south-leg of 123. Going through Paradise is the long way. So you planned to come here the whole time, didn’t you? I knew you were lying as soon as you said it."

"You don’t think you’re Lucille Ball, you think you’re Sherlock Holmes. For the record, I never lied to customs in my life. Or to you. But you, my dear Angel, have certainly lied to customs, and on many different occasions! Remember the time you ran down to St. Ignace and got that huge bagful of pot? Enough to get you convicted as a dealer ten times over! Hell, sweetie, you put it in a box and wrapped it up with baby-shower paper and tied a big pink bow on it and drove across the bridge with it setting right next to you on the front seat! Remember that, Angel? And you even had little Jason in his car seat in the back like some kind of a sick stage prop. Now, that was a lie, and a well planned one. So don’t give me any crap about withholding a little information from customs."

"That’s how you told me to do it! Sort of. You said the best way to hide something is to leave it out in the open and make it look like it belongs there. So that’s what I did! But that was different anyway. You don’t have any marijuana in your car, and they don’t throw you in jail for not having a good reason to go to Newberry!"

"Christ! Can we just drop this?"

"Why’d you want me to bring Jason along today?"

He sighed, and said, "’Cause I thought it’d make you happy. And I thought the little guy might have a good time."

She wondered if she’d made another mistake, said the wrong thing again, made him angry, risked driving him away…so she mustered her most convincing tone of sincerity and said, "That’s nice. That was very considerate of you. Thank you. And I’m sorry for being so suspicious…I think the weather has me down a little. But as far as bringing Jason along today, to tell you the truth, I wanted us to have this day to ourselves. A seven-month-old can be a handful. Especially traveling."

Ollie smiled. "Who’d you leave him with, anyway? Your neighbor?"

Angel shook her head as she swallowed the last of the martini. "You mean Diane? I’ll have to introduce you to Diane one of these days. You’d like her. She’s a little chubby and I know you don’t like fat women, but she’s got a terrific personality." She wished she could tell him about the seventy-five pounds she’d lost going to Take Off Pounds Safely with Diane but she’d already told him she’d never had a weight problem because she didn’t want him to think that someday she might get fat again. "But, no," she continued, "Jason’s not with Diane. I told you she’s down in Windsor visiting her mom ‘til after Christmas. He’s at that day care over by the bridge. You know, the one everyone calls ‘the kennel’? They keep kids overnight. I told them I didn’t know when we’d be back, so they’ll keep him if I’m not there by nine tonight." Then she allowed what she hoped was a few coy seconds to pass before she added, "So…tonight…it’s no Jason…and no neighbors…just you and me. Maybe you can stay this time?"

He turned his head and looked across the room at the television screen and asked, "Does anyone know where you are?"

Her face went hot and she looked down at the tabletop for an instant so he wouldn’t see her cheeks in case they were red. Pretending she’d not asked him to sleep with her, she answered, "No. I didn’t know where we were going, so how could I have told anyone anything?" Her voice sounded hollow but he didn’t notice.

"Just wondered what the day care would do in case of an emergency."

"Oh." She looked toward the bar. "Jason will be fine. Push comes to shove, I signed papers so they can take care of an emergency as well as I could. You’re driving. I think I’ll have one more drink." She waved at the bartender and pointed to her glass.

"OK. But now listen. I don’t want you to get excited or angry about what I’m going to say next ‘cause I know I didn’t mention this part of the surprise to you before, but I have to leave now. But not for long! I won’t be long! I’ll hurry back as soon as I can."

"You what? Whatdya mean you’re leaving? Where are you going?"

"I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise! Remember? Trust me!"

She smiled a little again. "Give me a hint!"


"At least tell me whether or not you’re going to Newberry. I mean that’s over an hour away! How long should I plan on sitting on this torture device of a bench?"

"All I can say is that I’ll be back as soon as I can. Take your time and enjoy your drink. Order another if you want! Just be patient! This is special!"

"And it’s something you can’t do back at the Soo?"


"And I can’t go with you?"


She leaned her head back and grinned to taunt him. "What’ll you do if I just decide to leave?"

"You’re baiting me, so I’ll take the bait and say that I’ll just start driving toward the Soo and track you down."

"Sort of the way you would a moose, huh?"

"Nah. I wouldn’t hunt you as hard as I’d hunt a moose. Never bagged a moose before."

"Right. And I imagine you’ve bagged your share of Angels! But you know somethin’, Ollie? You’re lucky you’re such a damned good-lookin’ man. If you weren’t I’d have dropped your butt yesterday."

He looked directly at her, his grin crooked and sly looking in a way that gave her goose bumps, and asked, "So you love me for my body, huh?"

"Hell, I’ve told the women at work about you and they ask if I won you in a raffle. But I’ve always been a sucker for black hair and blue eyes and probably will be again, so don’t let it go to your head."

He laughed. "Do you know why I gave you that bracelet?"

She looked down at the lapis lazuli stones heavily linked together with dull 24k gold jasmine blossoms and vines. "I have a good idea what your reasons were, you sneak. But I love this bracelet anyway. I’ve never seen anything like it before. But you probably gave it to me for some sappy reason like it’ll make me think of your eyes every time I look at it."

"Bingo. And it works, doesn’t it?"

She threw an ice cube at him hoping it appeared a lighthearted thing to do. Leaning over to kiss her, he asked, "Are you going to be here when I get back?"

Was he worried that she’d really leave? She decided to proceed as though he were and said, "You know I’ll wait, Ollie. But hurry. Please? I’ll miss you."

One quick kiss on the top of her head, and he was gone.


When the bartender sat the seventh martini in front her he brought along a bowl of pickled eggs and told her she should eat something.

"I don’t want no fuckin’ purple eggs!"

He caught the bowl before it hit the floor, then picked up the eggs, careful to get the ones that’d rolled under tables.

"Where’s Ollie? He was supposed to be here with my diamond ring!"

"I don’t know nothin’ about no diamond ring, ma’am."

"Miss! You don’t know nothin’ about no diamond ring, miss!"

"Right. I don’t know nothin’ about no diamond ring…miss."

"Who sells diamond rings around here?"

"Nobody I know of…miss. But if he’s out buyin’ a diamond ring, I know for a fact he ain’t doin’ it in Paradise."

"Newberry then! He went to Newberry to get my diamond ring!"

"No rings in Newberry neither. You’d have to go to the Soo or maybe over to Marquette for somethin’ like that."

"Marquette? You think he went to Marquette then! Of course. Why didn’t you say so? That’s what’s takin’ so long! He went to Marquette! ‘Cause he ain’t like Barry. I was gonna marry Barry, ‘specially since I was eight months pregnant with Jason. But he just disappeared, the son of a bitch! Ollie won’t do that, ya know. Ollie’s a good man. A gentleman. Knows how to treat a lady with respect ‘stead of bein’ out for nothin’ but to get in ‘er pants! A gentleman! Here’s to Oliver Harrison!" She drained the glass. "But he’s supposed to get me my diamond ring today! And propose! Who sells diamond rings around here?"

The bartender looked relieved when he heard a car sound it’s horn in the parking lot. "Is that him, ma’am?…miss?"

Angel pulled herself up and squinted out the window. "Yeah," she said, "that’s Ollie." Pushing upward on the seat of the bench then catching herself on the adjacent table she stopped for a moment to regain her balance. The car horn sounded again…"That’s Ollie all right!"…and again. "Well, shit. He’s not comin’ in!" She clicked open the catch of her purse and began rifling through it until she found the last fifty dollars of her grocery money and laid it on the table. Turning too quickly she pitched forward into the side of the jukebox next to the door but didn’t notice she’d slammed her shoulder into it hard enough to move it several inches across the floor and continued to make her way through the door and outside.

The bartender sniggered down at the Canadian fifty and shook his head.


"Where the hell you been, Ollie?"

"I got lost."

"Lost? On the way to Marquette?"

"Marquette? How many drinks you have?"

"I don’t know. Who’s countin’? Where’s my surprise?"

"Lay back and catch a nap, Angel," he said as he leaned across the seat and buckled her seat belt. Stretching a little further he locked her door and covered her shoulders with her coat and added, "I’ll have you home before you know it." then leaned forward and twisted his arm until he reached the lever that released the back of the passenger seat. Angel looked confused when she involuntarily reclined.

But suddenly sitting upright again like Dracula awakening in his coffin at sunset, Angel screeched shrilly enough to make Ollie flinch. "What’s that smell? God!" she continued, "What is that, Ollie? Garlic? Battery acid? Chlorine? It’s like that sweet-sick gun cleaner smell! What is that? It’s gonna make me sick. It’s gonna give me a headache!"

"Shush, Angel. Just rest sweetie. You had a little too much to drink, OK? That’s all. I’ll get you home and you’ll be fine. Try to be still, and maybe you won’t get sick. But if you gotta be sick, tell me, OK? I’ll pull over. Don’t barf in the car. OK, Angel? Don’t barf in the car."

"But what’s that smell, Ollie?"

"I don’t smell anything, Angel. Except gin. Just rest, sweetie. I don’t want you to get a headache, and maybe if you sleep it off a little, you won’t. OK? Just lay back and relax and don’t worry about anything. I’ll have you home before you know it. OK?"

Angel was out cold before they left the parking lot and was still unconscious when Ollie reached the bridge into Canada and stopped for the customs check.

"Afternoon, sir." Ollie said as he rolled down his window.

"Afternoon. How are you folks today?"

"Frozen! And tired. Would’ve been a good day to stay home ‘cept the wife here has a sick aunt over in Newberry and we had to go down to see her."

"I see. Then you and your wife are residents of Canada? May I see your driver’s license?"

"Yes, sir."

"I see you live here in the Soo, Mr. Harrison?"

"Yup. Right here in Sault Ste. Marie, sir."

"Are you carrying any firearms?"

"No, sir! Wouldn’t do that, sir."

The customs officer sniffed, and winced. "One of you’s been drinking."

"The wife has, sir. A little gin to calm her nerves. But you know how gin stinks."

"Oh, I can tell its gin all right. But what’s that other smell?"

"Other smell, sir?"

"Smells like Walmart’s lawn and garden department."

"Well, that’d be part of it. You’ve got a good nose on ya’. The wife actually was at Walmart a couple days ago and bought some potting soil and some fertilizer. Mostly for her houseplants, but some big bags for the yard next spring, too. You know women and sales!"

"Yes, I do. But that’s not exactly what I smell, either. Can’t quite put my finger on it."

"Pizza sauce maybe? Me and my buddies did some deer huntin’ last week and one of ‘em dumped a whole pizza from the Chloe Rose in the back seat and you know how tomato sauce stinks after a few days. ’Specially if its loaded down with garlic and onions! Ever eat there? The Chloe Rose? Down around Curtis? Good deer huntin’ down there around Lake Manistique."

"Can’t say that I have. I do most of my deer hunting up around Espanola."

"I’ve heard the deer’s good up that way, too. But I guess the car’s just due for a good cleanin’, and I intend to do just that as soon as the weather warms up."

"Good idea. You know, your wife really doesn’t look well. She looks like she’s in a cold sweat. Maybe a fever. And pretty pale, too. Listen…I see both of you are buckled up…that’s good…keep it that way…remember that’s the law in Canada…but just get her on home and let her get some rest before she gets any worse off. Just pull into the left lane around the blue truck. And tell her to go easy on the gin next time."

"I’ll do that, sir. And thanks! Have a nice day."


"Come on, Angel. You’re home."

Angel opened her eyes and looked around her living room until she found the couch, then headed toward it. "Oh, God, Ollie, my head hurts."

"Here. I got you some water and aspirin."

Angel looked at the aspirin capsule. "You makin’ your own aspirin now?"


"I said are you makin’ your own aspirin now? This looks like those capsules I used to get from that mail order place. You know, a big bag full of empty capsules. I filled ‘em with Golden Seal ‘cause I couldn’t stand the taste of the tea. Golden Seal’ll clean marijuana out of you system so you can pass a drug test. Did you know that, Ollie?"

"No, Angel. I didn’t know that. Just take the pill."

"I don’t know, Ollie. It looks funny. Where’d you get ‘em?"

"On sale at Walgreens."


"Swallow it, Angel."

She looked up at him and frowned.

"I said swallow it."

Her smile was confused, and there was something she wanted to say, but seemed unable.

"Swallow it!"

"Jeez, Ollie."


Ali quietly pulled the apartment door shut behind him and walked to the curb where he’d parked his car. There was plenty of time to make the 800-kilometer drive to the airport in Montreal, then within seventy-two hours he’d finally be home again. Pulling his Eddie Bauer carry-on from the back seat, he felt through its contents until he found the black velvet lined gift box. Opening it, he carefully placed each end of the heavy lapis bracelet under the two black elastic bands, just the way it had been when he bought it for his wife twelve years earlier at his friend’s jewelry shop near Detroit. He snapped the box shut and smiled at his secret cleverness; A dozen Ollie’s Angels had worn it, but it had always belonged to Sikhnya.

Twelve years…his youngest son would be a man by now and ready to take his place…twelve years of living beneath the surface of an aberrant society while never wavering from the laws of his faith, but it had been easy. They made it easy with all the excuses that were already in place to allow them to remain blind to their own simpering weaknesses and lazy stupidity.

The network he’d organized and supervised was still as invisible as it had been the day he initiated it: The brilliant relay that passed the baton as smoothly as Olympic runners; The relay that would transform the inconsequential nicknaming of the windy city into the twisted irony of dark prophecy.




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