I can hear them talking. They (my aunt, uncle, mother, and father) are in the kitchen of our second-story duplex on Milwaukeeís Northwest Side, drinking cocktails. Iím 14 almost 15. Itís late summer, 1957.
"How did you feel when our father died?" my uncle asks my father.
"Like James Joyce in that story about the dead priest, sad and relieved, I guess."
"It was different when mother died, wasnít it?" my uncle asks.
"Yes, God forgive us if we ever lose the benignity she tried to instill in us."
"Yes, God forgive them," my mother says to my aunt.
My older brother is asleep in the bed next to mine. After the company is gone, I get dressed and go into the kitchen. The house is dark. Something moves. My father is dancing in the living room in the shadows of the large elm trees that cathedral the street. He still has on the shirt and tie he wore to the life-insurance company where heís worked most of his life. His hands are in his pockets and his pants legs are raised. Heís smiling, but his eyes seem far away.
I take the car keys from the kitchen table, tiptoe down the back stairs, step outside, and take a deep breath of fresh air. The Dodge is parked in the garage. I back it into the alley and creep south between the rows of clapboard duplexes.
The people in the houses are familiar by the steps I take to the grocery store or playing kick the can. At the end of the alley, I turn east toward Lake Michigan. The street is quiet, bathed in the warm glow of lights. A sole pigeon stands in my path, itís destiny uncertain before it appears eyeball to eyeball with me above the hood.
I drive past the schoolyard where I play basketball and half circle the cemetery where my brother taught me to drive. When I reach Lake Michigan, I park next to the pavilion, which sits on the bluffs like a balcony above natureís great symphony, and dream of being at sea.
The next day after school my friend, Russo, and I take the North Shore, electric train to the jazz festival in Chicago. He has a brush haircut. I have a duckís tail. weíre both wearing leather jackets. The trip seems to take forever. To pass the time we drum on our knees. Russo bums a cigarette. I look out the window. The landscape is a blur, an endless stream of farms and telephone poles.
Slowly the farmland gives way to brown-brick buildings then taller and taller buildings. From the train station, we walk inland. The city is like another planet: canyons of skyscrapers that block the sun, drunks, students, and businessmen all mixed together. We arrive at the Chicago Stadium early and toss coins with a two other boys. Men in cardigan sweaters and women in evening gowns begin to arrive. Between us, we win a buck. By the time we finish, the stadium is almost full. We mill around, find our seats and wait. Eventually the buzz of the crowd gives way to the mellow sound of Coleman Hawkin's saxophone followed by JJ Johnson, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald (sweet Ella) and Miles Davis with his back to the crowd. The music comes at me in a cacophony of bits and pieces the way my life does, then itís as if Iím floating above the crowd.
Afterwards, still high from the music, we walk to the Lake. At the Marina, a man is fishing. He has broken teeth and a torn jacket.
"Catch anything?" Russo asks.
"No, not yet," the man says.
"What you using?" I ask.
"Bull," Russo says.
The man reaches in his jacket and pulls out a package wrapped in wax paper, then pulls the paper aside and shows us the bacon.
"Never heard of that before," I say.
The man looks at me. "Probably a lot of things you never heard of."
Then he asks, "Where you boys been?"
"At the jazz festival," I say proudly.
"No kidding. I used to play jazz."
"What instrument?" Russo asks.
"Where did you play?" I ask.
"All over. Here," he says and passes me a bottle of Thunderbird Wine. I take a swig. The warm liquid rushes to my head. I take another, then like Miles, turn my back to the lake.
"Whyíd you quit playing jazz?" I ask.
"Lost my timing."
A few days later I take Nicole, the beatnik girl, to Hell, a coffee shop for beats. Sheís traveled with her father, a military man, and wears a beret and vest. We sit on huge pillows and listen to Charlie Parker on headphones.
"Do you like jazz," she asks.
I tell her about the jazz festival and the man. We walk to the lake. I take off my T-shirt and put it on the ground in the shadows of the pavilion. She takes off her pants and gets down on her back and raises her arms to me. I move back and forth, the way Russo showed me. My body stretches, then explodes. Itís as if all of me flows into her. Afterwards we look at the stars.
"Letís go for a swim," she says.
Clothes in hand we walk naked down the steps in front of the pavilion and climb over the rocks to the water. I hold her naked body a moment, then swim as far out as I can, head turned up at the night sky, then down into the dark water.
* * *
Ē several years later
A pick-up truck with a man sitting inside is parked in the driveway.
"Hello," his voice is deep, his complexion, tanned or perhaps wind-burned.
Its been more twenty years since he ran away from the group home for troubled boys where I worked. I havenít seen him since.
I give him a cold drink. He walks around the house with it in his hands looking at the paintings.
"Where is she?"
"In New Mexico, painting."
We sit down in the kitchen.
"What brings you back?" I ask.
"Have you been dancing?"
He walks into the living room and stares through the enclosed porch to the street.
"I was going for a run, want to come along?" I ask.
The air is clear, crisp. We run north along the shore, a route we took many times when he was at the group home. As we move together over the sidewalks, itís as if time stood still. We run past the pavilion, then return.
He rents an apartment, gets a road construction job, tries, at age 37, to revive a dance career. We run together two or three times a week. One night, I stop by the dance studio. He walks over with a towel on his shoulders. The scars on his body seemed more pronounced.
"How long you been here?" he asks.
"Just a few minutes."
We have coffee in a small shop next to the studio. Itís raining a cold November rain. When I drop him off in front of his apartment above the hardware store, he says, "Iím not sure how long IĖll stay. Will you come to see me perform?"
The performance is held in an eastside loft. Several students from the class I teach on adolescent development sit with me on folding chairs as Daniel takes the stage and moves to composerís aching harmonies. It's an acrobatic, if not graceful performance. His steps are bold, strong with pain, anger, and relief, but not as intense or free as when he was younger. At the end heís curled on the floor, an exhausted Nijinsky.
"I wish I could dance like that," a student says as we stand together outside. Her face is naked, innocent.
"He's gone," the landlord says a few days later.
"Did he say where?"
"No, he just paid his rent and left."
On the way home, I run along the shore. Near the water purification plant I enter a ravine that rises to the pavilion. Away from the waves and sound of traffic, I can hear my feet hit the frozen ground like a distant heartbeat. I rest a moment where the sun filters through the elm branches then climb the wooden steps and look down into the cold water that I once swam in on a warm summer night.
"I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his divine spirit." Nietzsche.
Starting in January 2002, well-known child and youth care practitioner, teacher and writer, Mark Krueger, will be contributing a regular column to CYC-ONLINE. We are particularly pleased to welcome him as he joins our distinguished panel of regular columnists.