Blackbird an online journal of literature and the arts Fall 2007  Vol. 6 No. 2


AMEY MILLER  |  Chicago: A Commonplace Novel



In which Our Heroine, Hanna Zielinski Levinsohn, begins building a picture of
who she is and what’s going on, based on what she is willing or able to tell.

              Andrew called me about the translating job and I said I would go, although I haven’t been out of town by myself for quite some time. It’s a job I should be able to do, although I don’t have much occasion to speak Russian these days. And it’s a chance to see Andrew—our friendship has lapsed since we were in grad school together seven years ago, but it was easy, even cheerful, to talk to him on the phone. The way Jake acted about my taking the job, as if he were my father and I should ask his permission, grilling me about how much it paid, whether I could do it, whether it was worth it to fly to Chicago.
     Jake this morning over breakfast, glum and unfriendly. Just the sounds of us chewing and silverware clattering on the plates. See you soon I said. Yes he said. I wish I could set the Jake I used to know beside him. He could tell him that I am not running away from home.
      Maybe I’ll wake up and it will have been a dream, that I’ve married a man like my father who feels perfectly in the right and in charge of everything, including me, although they couldn’t be more different. Jake the university professor, Chairman of Chemistry, and my father who worked his way up from construction to contracting huge building projects.

               Highway wind beats on my ear, tires grate on the new freeway. Haze. Turn up the sound to get above the road noise. Max Roach and Cecil Taylor. Jake can’t stand this music: crashing and banging with no sense. But I do like it. My aunt said to me when I was going with my first boyfriend, Hanna this isn’t like you, and I looked right at her and said how do you know what I’m like?

               When I get out of the car in the parking lot the heat is so intense I think maybe I will dissolve on the spot—but I survive to the terminal, walking as purposefully as I can with heels on, and my carry-on and shoulder bag dragging my shoulder. I am taking things step by step. Being nervous is not a sin.
      The crowd in the waiting area is stalled, fidgeting. A woman sits back in her seat and closes her eyes, props her head sidewise on her knuckles. Once in the plane, black scuff of tire tracks in front of us, we pause, rush up, then glide in the buttery haze, noise of forced air in the cabin, papers rustling . . . .
      A steward bearing a manic grin yanks open a soft drink, presses peanuts into my hand.
     “Are you always this cheerful?” the woman next to me asks him. She’s wearing rings on every finger, feather earrings. 
     He squints at her as if looking for a distant object. “I’ve been up since 5AM. But it’s Fathers’ Day. You’ve got to be happy.” The same pushed-to-the-limit grin. It’s Fathers Day, 1988. I don’t know where my father is, even if he’s alive or dead.
      I’ve brought a book: A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America. It’s hardback, fat. Gwen gave it to me. “Check it out,” she said. “British, you know. Strict. But necessary maybe.”
     Gwen likes to give me pointers. Mostly I don’t mind, though I find it humorous that once again I am following after an older sister, even if she’s not, genetically speaking. Jake suffers her not entirely gladly, but then he knows that I am not exactly at home with his chemistry cohort. Jakeski, she calls him. Her high tops and leggings, red wild hair, her license plate XODARAP, say it backwards.
      Gwen used to work with me in the library and now travels to Latin America for a family planning organization. She has three children, and one at least was not entirely planned. Everything is wild at their house. Her husband couldn’t take their youngest to pre-school last week because he couldn’t find his shoes. I asked her couldn’t he have another pair. We’d lose that pair too, she said, pushing her hair back and laughing.

               I’ve always had to have a book with me. My mother tells this story: in nursery school another mother said to the teacher, “Why do you let Hanna carry a book all the time, what if all the children wanted to do that?” The teacher said, “Everyone doesn’t want to carry a book, she’s the only one.” I’m still like this, even though I work in a library, and you might think I’d be tired of books. With all the heat now the library is like a cool well—I spend all day inside, eat lunch in the staff room and come out at the end of the day with a feeling of waking up in a strange place. There’s a black and yellow butterfly floating in a bush, a young student with a bicycle.



return to top