All my earthly relationships have proceeded from dinner to drinks, from drinks to desperate groping, from desperate groping to awkward phone calls, from it’s me not you to it's you not me, or more truthfully, from drinks to desperate groping devoid of the rest of the drama, but I do so adore theater and what could be more theatrical than a man dressed as a woman appearing, as if sent from heaven, in the desperate hour of my need.
“You missed your calling,” Jula always says and shakes her head. Jula is my grandmother, her proper name is Juliet, but I have called her Jula since the age of two. We live together on the first floor of her two-story greystone on Chicago's northside. She rents the second floor to a Persian couple. Persian sounds so much more elegant than Iranian, bringing to mind flying carpets above moonlit horizons. Jula will only let me pay the electric bill, “so that I might pursue more artistic endeavors,” she says, knowing that I have dreamed of seducing cabaret crowds with my renditions of Porter and Cobain, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Smells Like Teen Spirit sung to a bossa nova beat. My oeuvre has taken me as far as the Broadway Bookstore where I do the displays and work the register. I wouldn’t be able to survive on my own, not financially, mentally, or spiritually, Jula is my rock.
"Must have been another disaster," Jula said, the morning she found me slamming cabinet doors and sighing, sparked by a toaster that had refused to warm my strawberry Pop-Tarts. Sweetest Jula, she knew that my slamming and sighing was so much more than slamming and sighing. "How could a man named Chance find the Titanic Exhibit boring?" I said, as if I were Kate Winslet playing Rose adrift in frigid North Atlantic waters. She rolled her eyes, a subtle technique she often uses to get me out and about.
I found myself at the Li's sidewalk sale, Clark Street has a way of soothing me with little unexpected encounters. The Li's are the elderly Asian couple who own The Happy Wok. The sign on their front window said everything must go, and my first thought mourned the loss of kung-pao chicken with Mr. Li’s guarantee of eight jumbo cashews in every order.
"A developer paid crazy money to tear the building down, going to make everything bigger," Mr. Li said, his life set before me on wobbly card tables. I pictured a monstrous multi-storied condo building with redundant retail outlets at street level, shops that wouldn’t house a single cashew. They were retiring to Branson, “no snow and Donny Osmond,” Mr. Li smiled. Ever the perceptive businessman, he noticed that a faded box had drawn my attention. The brittle cardboard of it crumpled into dust around my finger-tip when I touched it.
“Ten dollars, a real antique.” Mr. Li carefully picked up the box and waved it in a circular motion through the air, like he was about to perform a magic trick. “Mrs. Li never used, toast is for the British.”
“Five dollars,” I countered, wondering how much it would cost to see Donny in Branson. Mr. Li would have been disappointed if I didn’t try to haggle.
“Eight dollars and take this too.” He held up a black lacquer ring box that I knew Jula would admire. “Eight is a lucky number,” he added.
I handed Mr. Li a ten dollar bill and, feeling flush with the prospect of luck, told him to keep the change.
Unlucky at love lucky at toast, I thought, as I replaced Jula's broken plastic toaster with something that looked like it came from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, round and chrome with an old cloth power cord. I imagined Tom chasing Jerry into the kitchen, Jerry dashing inside the toaster, Tom getting his four-fingered paw stuck in its wire grill, Jerry squeezing out to the lifter knob, drawing it down with the weight of his body, and Tom pulling out his throbbing red mitt. Pain is funny after all, isn’t it?
Jula kissed my forehead early the next morning when I gave her the ring box. She gets up at 4 a.m. because she can’t sleep. I often get up to keep her company before I leave for work. She reads at the kitchen table, whatever freebies that I bring home from the store, especially faux-historical romances.
“This is a juicy one.” Her eyes peered above a cover featuring a buxom young woman in the arms of a long-haired, tartan-kilted, bare-chested man.
“Glad you like it.”
Dearest Jula, have I mentioned that she’s my rock. The land line rang as I put my icing-glazed tarts into the new-old-Li toaster. Caller ID showed local without a name or number.
“Only Midge would call this early.” Jula said.
Labored breathing came across the wire. I should have hung up, but the breathing was like winter static jolting my arousal.
“I’m watching you.” The voice whispered. I stood up straighter and ran my fingers through my hair. I hadn’t showered yet. I looked out the window above the sink for a face, even though a peeping tom would need a six foot ladder to peer inside. The fluorescent kitchen light made it impossible for me to see anything other than my own reflection in the early morning darkness.
“Then what am I wearing?” I asked, warming to the thought of being watched, forgetting all about dull-jawed Chance and his titanic lack of charm and grace.
“Black turtleneck and jeans,” the voice murmured back.
I felt the cotton of my turtleneck, a simple little something to wear for breakfast.
“Lucky guess.” I said.
“We could have a lot of fun.” The voice said.
“You delightful pervert.” I suddenly wanted Jula out of the kitchen.
“Say hello for me.” Jula said.
“It isn’t Midge,” my hand over the receiver. I stood dead center in the window looking up and detected a slight burning odor in the air.
"A pervert in a satin blue kimono,” the voice continued.
"And what else?"
"With fire-engine red lips."
"And?" I wanted the game to go on.
"Nothing." The voice breathed back.
I paused, drifting in nothing, the lack of something, the occasion of sin. Chance didn't have the imagination to come up with a ruse this good. My sister Midge would have hung up the second she heard the labored breathing. But this was my luck, not hers, activated by a cartoon toaster, luck that was offering me a twisted bit of fantasy with no strings attached.
"Nothing?" I repeated, stretching my enunciation, my free hand slowly tracing the curve of my body, as if I were a Chorus Line dancer, when I noticed the smoke and the acrid odor of something good gone bad and remembered that there were always strings.
“Fire,” Jula gasped, then the lights went off and the phone went dead.
“Fire?” I repeated, stuck somewhere between M. Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha, aching to feel the touch of satin, craving fire-engine red lips, rasping as smoke filled the kitchen, thinking here’s my luck and laughing, because luck had a funny way of showing itself.
“Jula,” I called for my rock, with the smoke getting thicker, realizing that my cell phone was charging in a bedroom two closed doors and a burning world away, greystones having been built in the days when people wanted to open and shut every room.
“Down on the floor looking for the dining room door knob." It had fallen off, just like it always did when it was turned too hard, which had never been a problem in the well-lit kitchen, just pick it up, stick it back in that little square hole, and jiggle. I dropped down and pushed the two of us under the kitchen table, resolved to face death in the smoldering darkness because a stupid door knob fell off in the midst of a prescient, obscene phone call, my strawberry fantasies going up in smoke. There hadn't been any “danger-flammable” warning on the side of the tarts' package.
“Find that knob.” Jula said, freeing herself, not ready for the drama of dying in my arms.
We groped along the floor, unable to escape through the rear door because it's dead-bolted expanse flanked the flame-engulfed toaster. I pictured Jula, myself, and the poor Persian couple upstairs, disappearing over the horizon on a magic carpet of death. I began to hum a wheezy Sayonara, channeling Nat King Cole's style, saying good-bye to a world where we pop things in and wait for them to pop out, when the pounding of my heart became feet clogging up the rear porch steps and a beam of light angled through the backdoor's glass. I thought it was heaven opening up to take us home and cried, “an angel, Jula.”
“Angel?” she coughed.
A flashlight crashed through the door’s window pane, a hand reached down to push the bolt back, and a six-foot kimono-clad shadow came through the doorway, my heart quickening, the flames, the heat, the drama of an ersatz Asian angel saving me.
“Stay clear,” the angel hoarsely said and swung out a leg, kicking the toaster off the counter to the floor and stomping the blazing tarts into a carbon-congealed mass. The angel's light followed the sound of our coughs. “Take Jula,” I said, but he pushed the table back and took us both, one in each satin-covered arm, my white-faced geisha, whisking us outside, to air, to morning, to glorious concrete city earth, Jula and me alive.
“I’m calling someone to fix that doorknob today. I don’t care what it costs.” Jula wasn’t starry-eyed floating on air like me, no, she went right back inside to fix things.
I looked at his powdered pale face, fire-engine red lips, billow of black hair, black-lined eyes, and said, “my hero,” a line that I’d been rehearsing before a lifetime of bathroom mirrors, and the strawberry hungry insides of me longed for another strong, kimono grasp.
Wouldn’t an angel have to be both male and female? Isn't sex the fleshy effort to resolve the space between a woman and a man, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, a whoever and whatever — all felt in the crook of that angel arm. Oh sweet love, but there I go again, overly dramatic me.
“Yes.” I said.
“I had to do something. I saw the smoke.”
“I’m without redemption.”
“Stay with me.” If only I would have thrown myself at his split-socked sandaled feet, if only the Titanic would have taken a more southerly route.
“I can’t,” he said, and my love, my hero, my geisha angel dear disappeared into the back porch entrance next door.
I returned to the kitchen and stared out the window as dawn broke and Jula swept up shattered glass and reset the basement fuses. I held the burnt mass of tart, gazing up and out as dawn broke when I thought I saw a kimono-flailing blur and heard a pavement thud.
I dialed 911 with my cell, but there isn't any earthly remedy for a three-story leap, my geisha man had tried to fly, is that too dramatic? The paramedics knew him; a fireman who owned a condo in the converted six-flat across the driveway, "a rental property" the taller one said. They called their captain – “clean him up, Jesus the poor sick fuck.”
I threw-up into the dirt behind Jula’s hostas along the side of the house.
“Did you know him?” The shorter paramedic put her hand on my shoulder.
“He saved me.” I muttered, still bent over.
“Our toaster caught on fire and..."
"Around an hour and a half ago, he saw the smoke...he looked so elegant."
“Dressed like we found him?”
“Yes, but, please, what was his name?”
“Michael,” was all she said. A command came over the radio and the paramedic walked away. I saw her whisper to a detective and point to me, the detective turned and scratched his head.
The kimono and wig were removed and make-up wiped off. A Weber grill was wheeled out from the six-flat’s basement, the items soaked with charcoal lighter, and set ablaze. Another one of the detectives made a joke and I saw the shorter paramedic clench her fists, it all happened so fast, the joking detective and taller paramedic approached as if they wanted to examine me when Jula inserted herself and showed them the orange vial of medication that I sometimes take, "Let the dead rest in peace," she said. She’s my rock, more so now than ever before.
I have lost my faith in toasters and only eat generic pastries right out of the box. Midge is coming to visit in another week, "just to see how everyone is doing," she said. I finally signed up for the open mic at Clark Street's Dream Cafe. I’m going to sing My Heart Will Go On with apologies to Celine Dion, as hackneyed as I know it sounds, the passion of my phrasing is irrefutable.
I have continued to pose myself with Stanislavski-affected panache, wandering up and down Clark Street seeking another serendipitous acquisition, pausing at the demolition of The Happy Wok, close enough for bulldozed plaster dust to powder my face, hoping it's enough to tempt my geisha angel ghost back to early morning earth, even if he was a bit of a pervert on the phone, aren't we all a bit of secreted something, making redemption so much more dramatic and endearing in the end.