The Pugilist in Lilac

In this rundown Chicago neighbourhood—that city boosters regularly proclaimed was on the verge of a spectacular comeback—she was very like a saint, at rest in a tiny studio apartment on a high floor of an art deco building, two blocks from a northside firehouse, within view of the lakeshore.

In this rundown Chicago neighbourhood—that city boosters regularly proclaimed was on the verge of a spectacular comeback—she was very like a saint, at rest in a tiny studio apartment on a high floor of an art deco building, two blocks from a northside firehouse, within view of the lakeshore.

It was well past its glory days but remained a standout, one of those rare black and gold stepped obelisks, yet had failed to earn landmark status. Most of the neighbourhood skyscrapers had become SROs and the nightclubs were decidedly fewer and distinctly less swanky than they were in the interwar years, when the singer and comedian Joe E. Lewis declined to renew his contract at The Green Mill, and had his face slashed for that refusal. The charming crooner and witty gag-man was a big star then. Frank Sinatra later played him in a movie.    

Truck 66, a quarter block long and red as a Jonathan apple, did not switch on its siren but its rotating lamps, silent and orange, signalled to onlookers that something was awry, someone was distressed. Lucky me, they might have thought, lucky me. This assignment was for the truck alone, no need for the engine or ambulance. The truck turned left into a no-parking space that included a bus stop and a fire hydrant. A police van arrived shortly afterward while two firefighters—the veteran, White, tall, and rangy; and the candidate, fresh from the fire academy, short and stocky, a Black rookie in a house full of White lifers—entered the corbelled tower through its once grand portico and took the oak-panelled elevator to the twenty-second floor. The veteran carried an orange stretcher chair. The candidate carried a blanket, also orange, tucked tightly under his left arm. I was the candidate, called up for my final opportunity to take a job I had lazily applied for, nearly six years previously, and didn’t really want. I was an accidental firefighter, yet this task did not involve fire. This was a removal. It required little discussion or instruction, so we rose in silence (not that the veteran ever had much to say to me on any occasion; he resented me tainting his firehouse, and I had other reasons for taciturnity). Tasks of this sort were part of my indoctrination, just three months into my firehouse apprenticeship. The fulfillment of any duty that involved body bags or exhaustion or dismemberment or vertigo was considered by my superiors the rite of ordination into the fraternity of men and fire.

Their fanciful inlaid wood still intact, the elevator doors slid open upon a shimmering silhouette of a man, illuminated from behind by a cathedral window. The figure was the building’s assistant manager, there to meet us and direct our attending. He was revealed as an old man, wispy-haired and slightly bowed; his slender frame and ill-fitting clothes suggested, like the building itself, a more robust and glamorous past. The three of us, still in silence, followed a long carpeted corridor. It smelled of antique dust and had numerous parallel doors, some deeply coffered and boldly identified with cast brass numbers while other doors, newer and carelessly painted, wore a row of canted adhesive rhomboids with numbers printed in black. At the end of the hallway, in front of the final apartment, perpendicular to the others, the manager paused to look at us. He unlocked the door but he would not enter. The veteran nodded to the manager who nodded back, turned, and closed the door behind him. We were left alone in an oddly angular room with features that seemed vaguely familiar to me.

Every old building though, has a hint of the sepulcher.

My apartment building was of the same vintage but just one third the height of hers, and of a more sedate and traditional design. Though it was two desirable blocks closer to the lake, it could not approach the elegance or distinction her jazz age looker had once possessed and, despite some deterioration, had doggedly retained. My building, through economic migration within the city and proximity to major universities, was now its superior. It had been meticulously maintained, its carpets regularly vacuumed and balusters dusted, and although tenants had almost certainly died there during the previous 75 years, I was unaware of it. Every old building though, has a hint of the sepulcher. Generations had no doubt walked my stairs, possibly over the same carpet, and entered the apartments of friends and loved ones to the pierce of keening howls and the sight of stopped clocks, or the murmur of hushed voices and the padding of shoeless feet. But my building did not evoke the spirit of its age or of any specific past, it was an inoffensive pantomime concocted of a handful of mildly conflicting motifs that combined to speak no language in particular; it was a taciturn wallflower of a building.

She could have seen The Green Mill from her apartment had she pressed her right cheek coolly against the glass of her west-facing window. If she were alive. Her room had just two windows. The other window, textured and much narrower, faced north from the compact bathroom, its diffused greyish light illuminating the slender shower stall, condensed toilet, miniature sink. A single lipsticked tissue blossomed at the bottom of the wastebasket, its mouth hexagonal like the tiles beneath it. This small apartment had once been a servant’s room, a tiny adjunct to a once spacious and well-appointed apartment, now disjointed and peculiarized by illogical corners and sealed doorways. She was old enough to have danced with abandon at The Green Mill, during the nervous and uncertain wartime, into the plump post-war boom times, to have been awed to see colour films projected in the same grand odeums that still featured big bands—at the Uptown, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and at the Riviera, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie. I imagined her in those days, that she was no wallflower. She would have taken pains to always look her best, and it was clear that she had maintained her fastidious ways. I tried to conjure her era, her at my age, I wondered if she had enjoyed a furtive kiss in the underground passage that led from the Uptown Theatre to The Green Mill tavern, a daring encounter in a former bootlegger sneak way, her red hair an irresistible talisman. I considered her voice in various versions, if it might have been girlishly high and ever suggestive of laughter or perhaps sultrily low and evocative of intrigue and danger, if the timbre of her accent was revealingly regional or unidentifiably foreign, of how it would sound if she spoke my name.

Her apartment was immaculate as a furniture store showroom. Nothing out of place. No magazines, no cosmetics, just her streamlined pre-war dresser partially covered with a white lace runner. A silver-handled hairbrush and a small bottle of perfume were doubled in the streakless mirror, no faded and disordered photographs of loved ones wedged into its brackets. The walls, a pale, aged yellow, were free of four-colour reproductions of well-known middlebrow artworks. There were no sad and sentimental shrines to former lovers. It was a room unburdened with longing and regret.

She lay centred atop her perfectly made bed, its rose-pink coverlet almost undisturbed. Her eyes, green as emeralds, were open, fixed emptily upon the ceiling, and her lips parted slightly as if ready to speak. And she is beautiful. Her arms, pale and lightly freckled, were drawn close to her sides yet raised at the elbow—a contraction of her desiccated tendons—as if itching for a fight. The tips of her fingers, similarly parched, had withered until they were darkened and twisted as late autumn leaves. Her hair was restored an arresting red, although the ever-slightest skin contraction had exposed a millimetre of white, as aging redheads turn, not grey. The apartment was cool and dry although the week had been mostly warm. I imagined a prelude: After her daily walk to the lake, just four blocks away, she had felt a bit lightheaded. The small oscillating fan was still drawing air though the tiny window and open door of her bathroom as she had removed her shoes and dress and placed them in the armoire. Then she had laid down on her bed, for just a little rest, allowing the cool air to graze her bare skin, elegant in just her lilac brassier and panties edged subtly with black lace, a matching garter belt holding taught her sheer stockings; and from this afternoon nap she never awoke. That is how we found her, perfectly centred on her pristine bed, arms raised like a catafalque effigy, beseechingly.

I too had danced at The Green Mill, during the swing dance revival in the late 1990s. I was prepared for it, I had a closetful of clothes that my grandfather had worn. It included a coat, slightly worn at the cuffs but a perfect fit, a debonair black cashmere. Its torn grey lining was beyond repair, so I had it replaced with red so that whenever I took it off with a flourish (and it was always taken off with a flourish) I looked like a magician. My grandmother was dismayed. She couldn’t understand why on earth I would take the trouble of packing all those musty old things and pay good money for an enormous suitcase from Dillard’s, the fanciest store in Omaha, when I could easily afford brand new clothes made for young people, and when there were plenty of perfectly good suitcases in the attic. The underlying truth was that she did not appreciate me perpetuating, indulging, his memory; the suitcase as an urn and the clothes, his ashes. She didn’t much care for my grandfather. After more than sixty years of marriage she admitted to me that if she had the chance to do it all again she would have ignored that smart-dressing fast-talking little brown man (he was good four inches shorter than her) and kept on walking toward her job as a seamstress at the perfectly respectable clothing factory that didn’t mind hiring a coloured girl as long as she worked hard and was light-skinned, and also genuinely appreciative of the favour that the manager was granting her.

They sure did make beautiful children though.

My mother and my uncle John were both phenomenally, cartoonishly good-looking, with dimples and hazel eyes. They were born just 11 months apart but maintained a bond more like identical twins, and they were similarly and equally unlucky in love. Perhaps that is what led them to drink, frequently and copiously, that they were secretly in love with each other and knew no one would ever understand them and their singular, uncanny bond. They punished themselves with spirits for their irresistible, unnatural affection. When Uncle John died from his inability to love anyone else, manifested through Johnnie Walker, my mother hurriedly followed, drinking as speedily as she could so she might catch up to her darling, irreplaceable, older brother. Their parents attended the funerals, less than three years apart.

My useless (and inexplicably ugly) cousin John Jr inherited my uncle John’s jazzy clothes, wrecked John’s beautiful Cadillac convertible, and also died willfully before his time. I, conversely, was born after mine—I have an abiding affection for watches and suits and movies that went out of fashion before the Korean War.

We silently lifted her from the bed and placed her gently into the stretcher chair—a lightweight gurney built of nylon canvas and aluminum tubing, very much resembling a beach lounger but fully compressible and equipped with fold-down wheels—then covered her with the orange blanket and strapped her in. The manager stood guard in the hallway, silent below an illuminated exit sign, his hand raised toward the open door. We wheeled her toward that back stairway. This spiralling rear exit was as narrow and twisty as a medieval belfry but it mercifully avoided the elevators, and the possibility of gossipy and ghoulish exposure to the other tenants. The stairwell had an echo and the thump of our heavy shoes and the resonant aluminum ring of the stretcher chair filled the cylinder. We slowly carried her, obscured by the orange blanket and seat-belted into the stretcher chair, down the twenty-one corkscrew stories, with me, the stocky candidate, below and the rangy veteran above. The polished concrete stairs alternately twisted inward, toward a pale and speckled terrazzo landing at each floor, then outward, facing a stacked trio of porthole windows. Snipping glimpses of the lake horizon, we became dizzy lackeys for a nameless, aged beauty in a sedan chair. Our footfalls echoed and overlapped as we descended and I counted each floor of the winding silo. If each floor was a year, I thought, I would only be 45 when I reached the bottom. Not young but still not old, and still 20 years from retirement. I winced when I imagined performing similar tasks for another 40 years.

Just off the kitchen, next to the pantry, my grandfather died ascending the back stairs, after returning his tools to the earthen cellar. Prior to turning on the Zenith to watch the baseball, he had spent the morning patching the screen door on the back porch—the flowers in the yard were beautiful but attracted no end of bees. He had cut a patch from an old screen he had taken from the cellar and unwoven four long aluminum strands from it. He then carefully threaded the patch over the slice in the screen, with a dexterity similar to what his wife had done at the clothing mill many years before, prior to their unhappy marriage. Pleased with his work, he wiped his brow; an Omaha summer can conjure a powerful thirst. The lever handle on the Kelvinator clicked loudly as he opened it and removed a cold beer, then he walked into the living room and turned on the colour television that sat opposite his favourite chair. As the TV warmed and the Royals slowly appeared, he felt disappointingly, unexpectedly weary. Perhaps, he thought, I should go up to my bedroom and have a lie-down, I’m no spring chicken. He walked back to the kitchen, replaced his unopened Falstaff in the refrigerator, and began to climb the stairs. Yet his heart, perhaps regretful that he had not been a better husband, disappointed that he had relied more on his charm and wit than on prudence and frugality, rebuked him, loading his legs to twice their weight and compressing his smokeless pink lungs in a vise of reproach, lightening his head to a swirling, dissolving vapour that recalled the peacocking pride he felt when he was just three years old and read aloud from the newspaper “Wright Brothers Fly at Kitty Hawk” to the eager applause of adults. It was at that moment he had anointed himself special, gifted, charmed, knowing he would go far because “That boy” they said, “He’s a comer.”  

When we reached the bottom of the stairway we rolled her toward the police van—where two officers were chatting and smoking—and placed her inside, zipping her into one of their body bags. She would be taken to the medical examiner’s office, a soft duty for the policemen, a leisurely trip downtown, no foot-chases or danger, better restaurants. The veteran and I returned to Truck 66 where our colleagues were waiting for us, engine running. I folded the blanket and collapsed the chair then placed them in one of the many red-doored compartments that opened from the side of the truck, alongside the other items that I, as the candidate, was responsible for cataloguing each morning, looking them over like a surgeon counting his instruments after an operation.

There was no distracting reverie to erase the pugilist on the rose-pink coverlet.

When my shift was over at 8 a.m., I walked the two blocks to the elevated train and rode the eight stops home—I hadn’t slept because the candidate is always tasked with third watch, midnight to eight—Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, Bryn Mar, Thorndale, Grandville, Loyola, Morse. In uniform I rode for free. I never showered at the firehouse. Too reminiscent of my boys’ school locker room. I preferred privacy. Being alone. Living alone. My own bathroom was private, elaborately tiled and echoey, far more humane than the cinder block coffers the city provided its firefighters. I ratcheted the water pressure to as full and hot as I could stand, staring into the shower head, attempting and failing to keep my eyes open against the needling spray. I was angry that we had not fought a fire—they were a rarity and, for me, the principal attraction of the job. It could have acted as a distracting rekindled memory. After a fire, a real fire, the shower’s hot spray could reconjure a blaze extinguished the day before by steaming from my skin the scent of yesterday’s smoke. After an exceptional fire my flesh, soddened and warmed, might exude winter logs or restaurant grease or melted linoleum, a redolent echo of the event and the location and the action. But my house had not fought a fire in weeks. There was no distracting reverie to erase the pugilist on the rose-pink coverlet. So I dried myself and went to bed, and although I could not sleep I stayed there, thinking of her, of her before we met.

At 11 a.m., after a small breakfast, I stepped into my two-sided closet and unraveled the year-old dry cleaner’s wrap on my grey vintage suit, providentially perfect in fit and condition, from my favourite and frequently visited resale shop. Removed from their box on the top shelf I buffed the spectators I had not worn since my brother’s remarriage, then knotted a full Windsor in a tie that had belonged to my grandfather. I needed to be dapper, worthy of her approving gaze, so from my small aluminum attaché I chose my most impressive watch, a 1937 Bulova American Clipper, its black hexagonal dial surrounded by a staired golden frame.

I walked to Sheridan Road and hailed a taxi to The Green Mill jazz club, reversing toward the neighbourhood where I had spent the most significant portion of the previous day: Morse, Loyola, Grandville, Thorndale, Bryn Mar, Berwyn, Argyle, Lawrence.

I acquired most of my jazz appreciation from Hal, my best and only friend in college. My tutelage in the subject included nights at The Green Mill and days in the Jazz Record Mart. We are no longer in contact—age, distance, and children have intervened— but he educated me in the music that should have been my cultural inheritance; a White kid from the northern exurbs educating a Black kid from Chicago’s Southside. Our parents were roughly the same age, but he was the oldest of just two children. His parents’ music was Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. My primary school inheritance was the music of my five older siblings: Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, and Earth, Wind & Fire. My musical tastes evolved quickly as the years went by, but Hal maintained a heroic devotion to jazz. We would sit in my squat atop a half-empty, turn of the century, office building, smoke Sobranie Black Russians, drink beer, talk about painting, and listen to Philip Glass and The Psychedelic Furs; or sit in his apartment—a run-down flat on an expensive street—and repeat the ritual with Gauloises Caporals while listening to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Sevens and Coleman Hawkins. Hal’s effect was lasting. He instilled my love for Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Billie Holiday; for that (and P.G. Wodehouse) I will be everlastingly grateful.

Just south of Hal’s former apartment is the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the mass murder committed against Bugs Moran’s Irish mob by Italianate gangsters under the control of Al Capone; and just north of that apartment is the intersection of Diversey and Pine Grove. The Brewster Building, a Romanesque revival apartment block distinctive for its craggy rough-hewn stonework, is the star of the intersection, a Chicago landmark and darling of movie producers. But it is the less distinctive building, cater-cornered to the Brewster and relatively unmentioned, that is a genuine Capone era monument, The Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth, a seniors’ dwelling when I last lived in the city, was once a swank jazz age hotel just east of the New Rendezvous Cafe, the nightclub to where that ingrate Joe E. Lewis defected. Lewis lived a princely highlife at the luxurious Commonwealth, two blocks to work, two blocks to the marina, a lakefront horizon, and a thousand bucks a week—a jolly man with much to be jolly about. Between songs and his stand-up routine, the perennial bachelor reminded audiences, “A man doesn’t know true happiness until he’s married—and then it’s too late.” After an exhausting performance coupled with raucous after-hours drinking at the Rendezvous, he staggered to the Commonwealth and collapsed on his bed in a snoring sleep, still wearing his suit. He did not sleep long. He was awakened by three strange men in his tenth-floor apartment. They were not fans. This deputation, their handmade shoes depressed in the Axminster carpet, was from Vincenzo Gibaldi, commonly known as “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, a Capone henchman, architect of the Valentine’s Day Massacre, and part owner of The Green Mill.

The three men had a wordless message to convey to the voluble entertainer. They first viciously pistol-whipped him, then out came the knives. They joyfully carved deep grooves across his face, then viciously stabbed through his cheeks, nearly severing his tongue. They were there to teach him a lesson, to deliver comeuppance. They came to destroy his mellow song-rendering, his wisecracking, to permanently shut that mirth-inducing mouth of his. If he wasn’t going to work at The Green Mill, goddamnit, he wasn’t going to work anywhere, ever. They leisurely butchered him alive and left him slowly choking to death, his breathing clogged by his copious and thickening blood.

But he did not die. For two weeks Lewis lingered near death, and it took two years for him to recover, never completely, but he lived. His slashed tongue never crooned again and his voice had become a gravelly croak. Oddly, though, it helped. His voice was funnier, his humour more biting, his delivery morbidly incisive, his timing a bullseye, his scarred face a circumspection. He headlined Las Vegas and made a mint, yet after each set he would gamble away nearly all of his night’s earnings, corner-of-the-eye fearful as if living on borrowed time. He kept that up for another 45 years.

Upon hearing of McGurn’s overreach, Al Capone sent Lewis a compensatory gift of $10,000. McGurn and his brother were later murdered, two weeks apart, on the orders of Frank Nitti, successor to the imprisoned Al Capone. Capone had always been a fan of Joe E. Lewis.

The Green Mill was dark, and empty but for me and the bartender. We nodded to each other; I in vague remembrance of his face, he in the tipping possibilities suggested by my shimmering suit. Placing a twenty-dollar bill on the bar, I ordered a drink then sat in a booth beneath oak paneling with ribbed pilasters. On the table was a stemless red goblet sheathed in black nylon netting; a small votive rested at its bottom. Johnny Hartman sang on a CD “It Never Entered My Mind” while the midday sunshine transformed the tavern’s small front window into a blurry nimbus. The bartender soon walked over with my cocktail and, with the click of an electronic match, lit the candle.

I was once more concocting a safely infrangible romance, yet this one more perfectly so.

I was there because I had done it again—the affliction of the incurable, elective loner, the handsome but stuttering wallflower—I had fallen in unrequitable love. The gawky blond woman with the violin bruise on her jaw whom I repeatedly glimpsed in front of Orchestra Hall but whose unexpected smile chased me to the other side of the street, that saucer-eyed brunette girl in the gingham dress climbing from a punt onto Eel Pie Island who winked my head low, and now a lady old enough to be my grandmother, a redhead. I was once more concocting a safely infrangible romance, yet this one more perfectly so. She would never parody my jittery fears, never refuse, reject, or abandon me; her inanimate beauty, raised from the dead, could be a cameo carved on my breastbone, a sailor’s girl tattoo for a fearful swimmer, the one that got away from others but not from me, never from me.

I turned my head east to the lakefront, in the direction of that gorgeous skyscraper, toward the immaculate apartment of the silently expressive redhead (ardently remembering, as Wodehouse wrote, “Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous!”) and raised my glass. The bartender noticed and followed my gaze but, seeing nothing, realized that this was a private ritual and resumed polishing pilsner steins; then I slowly, very slowly, as I imagined her hand gently alighting on my thigh, drank my highball.


About the author

As a young man I became a firefighter. I interrupted graduate school, one class shy of completing my Visual Arts MFA. Most days I was a visual artist and none of my art friends knew what I really did for a living. Until now.

Max King Cap is a visual artist from Chicago who now lives in Los Angeles. His work has been seen in galleries and museums in Vienna, New York, Stuttgart and numerous other cities in Europe and the US. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in The Racial Imaginary, Threepenny ReviewShenandoah, and Hippocampus. He earned his MFA from the University of Chicago and his doctorate from USC.