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


AMEY MILLER  |  Chicago: A Commonplace Novel



In which Hanna is so overwhelmed by her attraction to Andrew that she forgets
to mention it.  Once in her hotel room she calls her sister Liz.

              I first met Andrew when I came to Chicago for graduate school, at a gathering at the chairman’s house.  It was early October, the leaves changing, but still something soft in the air.  Professor Powell was grilling steaks outside, we all stood around chatting with our jackets on and hands in our pockets.  His house backed into a warren of yards, each one fenced, but the trees were large and graceful, leaning this way and that, blurring the squares of land and fence.  Andrew had been at school there a year and seemed quite at home.  He lived with his girlfriend Sonya, who had, and still has, I guess, a huge torrent of curly black hair and somewhat languid manners which I thought of as European.  Like Andrew, she had been born in Eastern Europe, but raised here.  Andrew and Sonya seemed to me like royalty, both understated and sophisticated.  I once heard them argue over which one of them got to dress in black because they would look comical if they were too closely matched.  So it was a surprise when Andrew and I became friends, we’d drink coffee and talk about music or politics and after I met Sam we would go out as a foursome.  For a while I was nervous about the way I talked—silent and then blurting things out without thinking them through, sometimes completely off the subject,  but I came to understand that Andrew liked that about me, which was a relief, even if I didn’t know, and still don’t,  if that’s the way I want to be.
     That first night, Professor Powell’s wife brought their two children down in their pajamas to greet everyone, and then took them upstairs.  I watched Mrs. Powell then—she had that mother’s air of semi-martyrdom, but laughing and energetic too, friendly, setting out the food, asking us about ourselves.  I watched her, I can see her now quite clearly, her black hair pulled back in a knot, dots of pink in her cheeks, her 50’s style belted dress that looked pretty on her full figure.  I watched her as if I could imagine at the time that I would end up married to a university professor, chairman of his department, and me the hostess at this kind of gathering.  But we don’t have two children, or even one, and I don’t think I am as cheerful as Professor Powell’s wife, although I try to be.

              It does not seem very long before we are in the approach to O’Hare.  A child cries out “There’s the ocean!” as the plane dips to a view of Lake Michigan, the shore curving behind us like a pencil line, the land we’ve come over lost in haze.  Then Chicago below, an orderly map of buildings, streets and trees, set out in squares.  We land with a bump.  I put on lipstick, pull my dress straight, shoulder my bags, hands slippery, squeeze out of the plane, up the walk-way into the waiting area.
     Andrew is leaning against a pillar to the side.  I can feel him take me in: peach linen dress, hair up—he’s smiling paternally.  He’s himself, dark and smooth, light European shoes, his suit a bit shiny-metallic, no tie.
     Andrew gives me a hug, brushing his face lightly against mine.  “You look wonderful.”
     We’re being quickly hurried by the crowd through the low-ceilinged concourse.  “How are you?” I ask.
     Andrew looks around vaguely.   
     We wait on the curb outside the terminal. Across three lanes of traffic is the O’Hare Hilton, a huge convex wall of small glass windows facing the airport.
     “Fine. And you?”   His hair looks like a soft cap. I have to say something. “Somedays it’s just the small things—”  Andrew touches my elbow lightly as we cross the street, I keep on, “like what I throw out—plastic or styrofoam take-out containers, tin foil, plastic bags—on a related topic, have you ever wondered why more people don’t bang their cars into each other on purpose, like bumper cars, out of sheer frustration?”
     Andrew laughs. He’s used to my flights of association. It’s good to go back with a person, not to have to make sense to them. We enter the soaring reception area of the hotel. Andrew touches my arm again. “Would you like to have a drink? We could visit a bit, and I have some papers to give you. I have to warn you—the bar here is more than a little vulgar.”
     I nod, and we are there already. The walls are red velvet plush. There’s a canvas portrait of the jovial-looking founder of The Gaslight Club, and many oil portraits of women in various states of undress. We’re the only people in the place.
     I order Jack Daniels on the rocks, a drink that seems to me strong and basic. The a.c. gives off its unwelcoming cold and damp, and there’s the everywhere ghost of stale smoke. I see how old-fashioned and genteel I am in Andrew’s eyes.  My linen dress. My hair smooth. I am that, I guess. The librarian.  
     He’s surveying me with amused warmth, as if he can’t imagine how I’ve materialized in front of him. “How did the escort-interpreter exam go?” he asks.
     “Fine. They basically just carried on a conversation with me in Russian—they had me give a mock-tour of the Washington Monument, that kind of thing. Then they grilled me with questions, the way a Russian would, you know—‘Why are there so many blacks in Washington?’”
     “What did you say to that one?”
     “Well, I said that historically blacks lived in the South as slaves, and Washington was a both a southern city and a northern city: close to relatives from the old days, but better opportunities, more removed from the stigma of slavery, that in DC whites and blacks could even marry each other. That also there had long been sizable black populations in more northerly cities as well, for instance, Chicago, which for this reason had always had a lively jazz and blues scene.”  I recited for him my nervously composed speech.
     “That’s great, Hanna. I can see you with a pointer and a map of the United States. For some reason that reminds me—I may not need to say this, and I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but Van Hooven Engineering would like to keep the details of this meeting secret—it’s all very touchy, negotiations of this type can get a bit cloak and dagger—rival American or foreign companies could be interested. It has happened that there have been unfortunate leaks in situations of this sort—”
    “Andrew, you know me, I never tell anybody anything.”
     Andrew surveys me again, as if taking a step back. I don’t know if that is true, but it seems true right now.
    “Well, that’s a plus here.”
     The conversation is slipping somewhow. After a pause,  I ask him how his work is going.
    He’s shredding his cocktail napkin. “It’s great if you don’t mind being a zero. As you know, the more transparent an interpreter the better.” He shrugs. “What do you think, Hanna, how about the life of a zero for you?  Good pay, foreign climes?”
     “Like Chicago . . . listen,  I’m worried about this.” The big painting behind Andrew’s head shows a woman doing the can-can, grinning hideously.
     “You’ll be a tremendous help. It’s a real luxury to have someone I can rely on who can take notes and translate documents. Time’s short—this meeting has had to be compressed into a few days.”
     “I’m looking forward to it.” I feel a surge of optimism that takes me by surprise.  The waitress puts the glasses down. When I pick up my drink, the ice and alcohol come up to meet me, cold and hot at the same time. “It’s just that these days I don’t get much chance to use my Russian.”  Andrew and I spoke only Russian to each other our whole last semester in graduate school, even when he and Sonya doubled with Sam and me. Sam was my boyfriend then, I came to Chapel Hill with him. He was in Experimental Psychology, which in his case involved putting goggles on newborn cats. But now I’m with Jake.
     Andrew hands me the agenda for the meeting, the feasibility study for the joint venture. The Soviets are coming in from Jackson, Mississippi, where the Van Hooven company plant is. I ask him to give me an overview. He sighs and squeezes the napkin shards into a wet ball, pushes it away. He seems to resent having to explain.  I shift my legs and feel my stockings grate harshly against each other.
     Andrew’s voice drags as he starts talking. “I’ve been working with Jerry Ryan, the Van Hooven vice-president.  Last summer when we were in Moscow his hotel bathroom smelled like Penn Station—so he got a bucket, stole some detergent from the maid, and scrubbed the floor. He’s got no office space, no telephones or telephone books, no computers, no FAX, no telex, inferior airlines and hotels. And he’s planning on taking his wife and two kids over there with him. Most American businessmen would say ‘To hell with it, I’m going home!’”
     “Why doesn’t he?”
     “It’s a huge untapped market.” Andrew looks tired at the prospect.
     “I can’t see you scrubbing the bathroom floor.” Maybe that sounds mean. It just came to mind.
     “I just ignore that kind of thing. It’s not so different from my old neighborhood.  But I sure as hell wouldn’t move over there either, I don’t have that kind of ambition.”
     He ducks his head toward the stained red carpet, not so much ashamed as vaguely irritated.  If Andrew used to be anything, it was ambitious. The conversation has flattened back down again. This time I wait.
     After a long pause I tell Andrew that I worked out a lunch date with Professor Powell. Andrew tells me he’s glad he can’t come along—“I know he thinks I’m a brainless hack.”
     “You’re paranoid as I am. At least I have some rational grounds for thinking—”
     Andrew rattles the ice in his glass as if he were shaking me. “Hanna, you know how competent you are at anything you try.”  He looks bored with his pep talk. “So what about your sister? Are you going up to Evanston?”
     “I’m not sure.  Jake is coming to Chicago after the conference. We could use some time alone together.”   I listen to my own words.  Andrew has always had a way of getting me to say things,  making his part seem inadvertent.
     I put the papers in my bulging shoulder bag. We get up.  I’m face to face with a photograph of Gay Nineties girls around a piano. I say, “What do you think the sovietskys will think of this place?”
     “Some of the old guys will be censorious.  But the younger ones will love it.”
     “Ugh.  Men.” I mean this as an off-hand joke, but it comes out stronger, and I’m walking out as fast as I can, and then we’re out in the vast airplane hangar of the hotel.
     “You don’t have to marry them. This work has to be better, and more well-paid, than your library job.”
     Andrew snaps this out, as though I’ve touched a nerve. He has too. We’ve reached the line in front of the check-in desk. “Dinner in the restaurant at 8:00,” he says.
     “Do skorovo.” See you soon. I force myself to look straight at him.
     “You women are all alike.” He laughs, steps away.  I watch his small neat figure disappear into an elevator.  I hate it that I owe him for this job.
     I register, get my key. The desk attendant looks like a game show host.
     My bags cut into my shoulder as I make my way to my tiny room with its breathtaking close-up view of the terminal.
     I call Liz at work.  I saw her office once, 8th floor, one wall all glass.
     “Hanechka.” Gushing and sarcastic at the same time. “So how’s the big time?”
     “Liz, it’s not big time, don’t kid me about this,


              I know it’s rude to break in while Hanna’s mid-sentence, but it seems to me she’s not down into her life enough. She’s coming on like one of those French or Italian actresses, she’s La Llorona, so caught up, without acknowledging it, in sadness and impossibility, she’s reveling in the sensuousness of her defeat.
     That said, I like her, and worry about her, and I don’t know if that’s helping her any. I live in her neighborhood, more or less—my house isn’t as fancy as hers, I’m not as smart or pretty as she is, my husband’s not as much of a campus big-shot, and I’ve got a hard-fought 15 years on her; but I know things have been getting worse and worse for her for some time, and I feel some responsibility to be helpful if I can.
     Except I wonder if instead of peering through the blinds at my neighbor, I might be more sure I’m attending well enough to my own affairs. I don’t want to bore you with the derring-do tales of my dissertation drama, my fabulously challenging teaching fellowship, or my perfect, live-wire twelve-year old girl, my husband the mediation lawyer—charming, anxious, still-hunky—the whole jittery, tattered shebang of fin-de-siecle American middle aged, middle class life on one small island of the academic archipelago, but if you twisted my arm . . . .
     One thing I can tell you about Jake and Hanna is they’re fighting over whether or not to have a baby. Jake wants Hanna to put her diaphragm on the shelf, and she doesn’t see how they could have a child when they’re so miserable together, even though having a baby is the one goal she’s steadfastly held to, starting very young.  When I say fight, I don’t mean she and Jake are in discussion about this at all; the disagreement is more a medium in which they are living.
     Hanna is thirty-two years old with a round face and long straight chestnut hair.  She is small-boned, with a sensuous figure, a light dancer’s walk, and a deer-like tension between a shy quiet and abrupt frightened responses.  Sometimes the fright shows up in nervous smiles, a tense jocularity that feels insincere, yet willed to be true. And she’s got green eyes—to make a stranger gasp with surprise—look at those green eyes—spoken out loud or to themselves.
     Her husband Jake is twelve years older than she, born in 1944 in Australia, eight years after his family was forced to leave Germany, with England as a way station. He’s not the absent-minded professor type. When he studied karate, his teacher was amused to note, ruefully, that he never blocked—he would just keep at his opponent until one of them got knocked down.  He’s small, muscled, with an angular face, a bumpy forehead and emphatic nose. He can be charming when he has a mind to be.
     The way their marriage is: Jake works all the time, in a driven fury. At home, he’s mostly taciturn, but when not, he’s barking and perfunctory. Hanna is retreating further and further into herself, and into silent, hard-held, blaming.

              You can bet Hanna and Jake aren’t keeping diaries.  So much, too much, in that strange limbo between their own ears.  But then, the Count and Countess Tolstoy were fanatic diarists, and they became spectacularly unhappy.   And also, where Hanna and Jake are debating over the existence of even one child, Lev and Sonya had an extravagant thirteen, with eight surviving into adulthood, a contentious, rambunctious family tangled up in loss and delight.
     So, in a certain way, they got by, they made do, they persevered. And enduring, that’s what you say about words that keep resonating, yes? For all my condescension, calling Lev and Sonya crazy and unhappy, I’m the one holding onto their clothes like a small child. Looking for where the next iota of hope & trust might be coming from, looking for the heart of the matter. So I don’t  know what I could say to Jake and Hanna. 

              The icon style “Virgin Hodegetria” (The Virgin Who Shows The Way) is very ancient. It is based on a miracle: The Mother of God appeared to two blind people and led them by the hand to the monastery and sanctuary of the Hodegetria in Constantinople, where she restored their vision. So these icons are sources of grace for those who are looking for God.  In the Russian tradition, James Billington says, “icon painters were guided by collective prayer and worked collaboratively according to an established division of labor—preparing the board, cutting lines on the surface, mixing the colors, and layering them on in a pre-designated sequence of steps . . . they used variations in the depth of color and the flow of lines to draw the viewer into what has been called ‘meditation in colors.’” In the one pictured above, Jesus is both a baby and impossibly adult, a small homunculus already busy teaching. You can see his bare feet, his rolled parchment, his beautiful orange robe. His mother, in draped purply cloth, indicates him with one hand, holds him with the other. She addresses us with her golden face, her expressive eyes and mouth: completely real and fully other-worldly.
     There’s an old Russian saying: Zhizn’ prozhit’ ne pole pereidti:  To go through life is not to walk across a field. 





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