I never labeled Jean a “hillbilly,” but I suppose she was.
I had moved from Hyde Park, site of the University of Chicago, to a working class Chicago neighborhood. The wood frame building contained four apartments, two on the ground floor and two on the floor above. I lived in the apartment fronting the sidewalk—no front yard although there was a back one. Jean lived on the ground floor behind me.
She was attractive. She had striking black hair and a pretty face and a nice figure. Her appearance was only marred by her teeth, which clearly had been neglected with some missing. She did not work, but was raising what seemed to be at least three children, sometimes more. I never quite understood her biological relationship to all the kids. I think two were hers, including a three-year-old girl who was pretty and a delight. I got the impression that others were children of relatives who were dropped off for extended stays. She apparently had kin in Chicago who had these children, but I never saw any of the adults. I never understood her family history. She had been born in Kentucky, but I did not know when or why she had moved to Chicago. She almost never mentioned her parents. I believe she told me that she was raised Catholic, which did not fit it with my assumptions of the hill folk, but she wore a religious medal around her neck. How she paid the rent and bought groceries was not clear, but she did. When I moved in, there was no man in the house, although I got the impression that one had just moved out.
We chatted some as we came and went from the building, but I was surprised when she banged on my door one afternoon. She was hysterical, and it took a while for me to understand her. I learned that she had just come home, and her door was bolted from the inside. She was understandably scared of who was inside, and she indicated that she believed that it was the former boyfriend whom she had kicked out. “He must have kept a key,” is all she could say while crying.
I called the police, and a young officer responded quickly. I explained the situation to him, and he, too, looked scared. (All this gave me a greater respect for the work of the police. He had no idea what was on the other side of the locked door, and he was going to have deal with the situation. Certainly the possibilities included a crazy man with a gun or knife.) The Chicago police, at least then, were in single-officer squad cars. He called for backup but thought that he needed to act promptly. I don’t remember how he got into the apartment. And I don’t know what I was thinking when I followed him, although it was at a bit of a distance. Jean had just bought one of those living room sets from the kind of furniture store that advertises on late-night television. She was proud of the suite, but the couch and chair had been slashed again and again. Something like acid had been poured on her coffee table, and the laminate, meant to look like wood grain, had dissolved. But there was no intruder. A window was open in the bedroom. It was only a slight drop to the ground, and he must have left that way.
Perhaps this gave us some sort of bond, for Jean and I started talking more. I was in law school, and she seemed very interested in that. More and more, she looked at the books I had. In what seemed like an act of courage for her, she asked if she could borrow one. I tried to hide my surprise; if I had thought about it, I would have bet that she had not finished high school. We talked about what she might like to read. I am not sure what she said, but I finally handed her the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. Then, to my further surprise, she returned it within the week, saying that she had loved it. She looked over at my bookshelves, and she did not have to ask. We went over and found something else for her, and I became a lending library. She, in return, having noticed that I cooked regularly, gave me a cookbook, written by a White House chef for President Kennedy. Why she had such a book remained a mystery. I still use it.
I started spending more time with her kids. I thought of them as her kids, and she seemed to treat them equally even if they were not all her biological children. I never got the relationships straight. There were three, or four, or maybe sometimes five. I no longer remember, and I think the number fluctuated. My apartment was one bedroom; hers had two. The wood-frame building did not have central heating, just a space heater in each apartment, and there was no basement, just an uninsulated crawl space. The winters were cold. The floors were freezing. I was used to walking barefoot even in winters wherever I had lived. Not in this place though my heater kept the room that contained it–what I thought of as my combined kitchen, dining room, living room (also my study)–warm, the areas behind the heater, the bathroom and the bedroom with a mattress on the floor, seemed to hover at just above the freezing point in January and February.
Her place, however, may have seemed crowded, with a crib set up in the living room, and many beds in each bedroom, but it always seemed comfortable and clean, much cleaner than my place. I started becoming friendly with the oldest boy who was perhaps eight or nine. I’d ask about his sports and hobby interests and about school. He went to public school not too far away, and he indicated that it was fine, except he said too many blacks were coming into the school, although he did not say ”blacks.” I could see that he often had responsibilities around the home, mostly looking after the younger kids. After we became friendly and I was coming back after classes and wanted a break before studying, he would bring out a game for us to play on his kitchen table. Quickly this became ice hockey with the slots and handles to move the figures up and down the “rink” and that could be twisted so that miniature Bobby Hulls and Stan Mikitas could pass or shoot the puck. He would invariably get it out because he could beat the pants off me. If I scored one goal, I was thrilled. He would have ten or more.
Then Ron entered her life. I never learned any of his back story or how they met. He was friendly and good with the kids. He was comfortable with me. But he seemed as if he was surprised to have become an adult. I have never seen someone so excited about doing a back yard barbecue (where I was the only guest). Before it happened, he would talk about what he was going to cook and how he was going to cook it. Hot dogs and hamburgers have never before generated such conversation! And then there was what chips to buy, and should there be watermelon.
I am not sure that Ron was working when I first met him, but if so, his unemployment ended soon thereafter. He always seemed to be in some new job. Each appeared to be the first step in a possible career, but in a week or two there was something else. The most memorable was in the funeral home around the corner. He was hired as sort of an apprentice, and after his first day he found me to babble on about every facet of the place. But then the next few days when I saw him he looked green. Apparently he had now been introduced to embalming and preparing bodies for viewings. Within a week or two he was looking for different work.
Ron may not have been good at keeping jobs, but he was good at finding them. In short order, he was tending bar at a place on the southwest outskirts of Chicago. He again was enthusiastic. He would go on and on about great the place was. The staff was wonderful. The customers were friendly and distinguished. And there was music. Chicago may be known for its blues, but this was a country and western place. I was not aware that Ron listened to country and western, or any other, music, but he would list names and assure me that these were stars.
This time the job and the enthusiasm continued. Every time I saw him, Ron talked excitedly about the bar and his job. He would list important people who were there. (I never knew who they were, but that may have only indicated my limited knowledge of this world.) Then he kept insisting that my girlfriend (the not-yet-spouse) and I come to the bar. After many entreaties, we went.
It was a nice place. An ample bar with tables ringing a good-sized dance floor and a stage at that far end. It was clean; it was modern. The patrons were largely under forty and nicely dressed, although the fashions were different from the ones I saw around the University of Chicago. Still, it was not my cup of tea. Too loud, too smoky, too crowded. But Ron was thrilled to see us there. He introduced us to the other bartender, to every waitress, to patrons, to performers. “Meet my friends” was said over and over, and each time Ron looked thrilled that the others could see his friends. Neither we or the ones he had us meet were introduced in a way that might have led to a conversation, and in any event, the noise was too much for any kind of a discussion. Although we were in a crowded place, we were, in essence, alone, but Ron seemed relaxed and in his element, something I think did not happen frequently for him. I could understand his excitement about the place, but after what we thought was a decent interval and after telling Ron again and again how great the place was, we left.
Jean, who had never been to the bar, kept trying to find out what she could about it from us. Mostly the reply was, “It’s nice.” She would find a way to ask again. And then she began to seem suspicious. “When does the bar close?” “How long do you think it takes to clean up when it closes?” “Do a lot of girls hang out at the bar?” “How do the girls look?” Finally she broke down and told the not-yet-spouse that she was worried that she was losing Ron to someone at the bar. The n-y-s replied that we had not seen anything like that, but continued, “Why don’t you go out and surprise him? He would love that.” Jean replied that she could not compete because she did not have anything nice to wear and, of course, she could not go because she had to take care of the kids. The n-y-s had a solution. She would take Jean shopping, and I could take care of the kids for at least part of the night of the surprise visit.
The not-yet-spouse took her to a discount store that sold everything from percolators to screwdrivers to clothing. Let’s just say that Kresge’s and Walmart would be several steps up from this place. Jean, however, did not have money to buy any new clothes, but seeing that Jean kept eyeing a particular blouse, the n-y-s bought it for her. It was white and satiny and frilly, and it cost under five bucks. (Ok, it’s a long time ago, but you get the point.)
The night came. Jean had no way to get to the bar, but the not-yet-spouse was going to go with her. And then Jean appeared, and I saw her for the first time in her new blouse. The n-y-s and I enthusiastically complimented her, and it did look good on her, but more important, I could tell that Jean liked the way she looked. She was shyly smiling, but also exuded a confidence I had not before seen in her.
They left in the early evening, and I was with the kids. (I don’t remember how many were then in the house.) On my front, everything started out just fine. I got my charges some sort of dinner, and the little girl got tucked in. But the deal was that I was to be on call for only the first part of the night, and that a relative of Jean’s, perhaps it was a sister or maybe it was a cousin, but someone I had never met, was to relieve me at some point. The time passed for when my relief was supposed to arrive. And then more time. The older boy and I continued to play the ice hockey game. More time passed. Normally I might not have cared much, but this was occurring during the final exam period at the end of my second year of law school. I had an exam the next morning at some ungodly early hour, and I was planning to spend an hour or so reviewing notes before going to bed. More time, and still no relief. I did not know what to do, and I finally said to the boy, “I am sure they will be home soon, but I have to go.” A look of panic came over him, and he bolted out the door into the late spring night screaming, “I can’t do it anymore.” I felt sorry for him because of the responsibilities that had been put on him, but I had little kids asleep in the house, and a boy running through the Chicago night, and an exam looming. I quickly ran around the block but did not find him. I went back to the house. He was not there, but the kids dreamed on. I found the telephone number of a non-relief relative. She tried to pretend that she knew who I was as I explained the situation. Within fifteen minutes she came over. I spent an hour, maybe two, looking for the boy, but with my test but a few hours away, I finally gave up. (I don’t remember where he went to hide, but he was eventually found. Physically he was fine.)
I was sleeping fitfully when the not-yet-spouse returned somewhat before dawn. She reported that the excursion to the bar had been a huge success. Ron was surprised by Jean’s appearance, and he was delighted. He proudly showed her off to everyone in sight. He was beaming. Jean was beaming. Jean was so happy that she insisted on staying until the bar closed when she came back with the n-y-s. I was still worried about the footloose boy, but pleased about Jean and Ron. And then I went off to my exam.
(To be continued.)