It was vanilla week at the candy factory down the way, and without the help of Lake Michigan winds a saccharine blanket would smother the neighborhood, creep through the window and mess up your sleep. Puddles shimmered with an oily film, scattering sunlight into swirling rainbows. A gasp of vanilla-soaked air nudged the film, creating new iridescent eddies.
It tastes so good in an ice cream cone or hidden in a drop of gooey candy. But when there's too much, when it comes in tanker trucks, pressure-fed into two-story vats, the same flavor is altered, goes rancid, turning your stomach; vanilla so thick it plugs your nose holes.
I stood at the curb watching elm seeds sprout from the folds of a crushed can of Classic Coke. Little elm seed packets rain down in legions when their time comes, matting over city sewers already cross-hatched with last year's catalpa casings. They clog the gutters on our houses, piling up over the downspouts, sending down cascades of water during the rains. I run from the house of one aged neighbor to the next, ladder in hand, to scoop out the soggy masses and drop them shplotch into the flooded gangways. At the Malones' the pile slithered in my hand, Medusa-like, alive with earwigs shocked by the waters and rough handling.
Groves of elm and maple sprout in the cracked pavements and parceled lawns. They'll be swept away, crushed under foot and tire, mowed over this year, again. Genetic packets, replicated, urgent, crowding for a chance: a would-be forest biding its time, waiting to be overlooked.
I stood on the curb wondering "What was here?" On this spot, back four centuries. If I could only go back, just for an hour, to see those bulging eyes carried on paired wings, the belching of methane from the waking bog, the shrill of frogs clambering up the banks of the Chee-Ka-Go, tumbling over each other, gurgling and cackling, coupled, free-falling through water the same temperature as their blood, down into the murk; then a duet of frog kicks back up for a sniff of air.
What was here? They say it was a bog, but I heard there were oak groves, too. And Western Avenue-- you can see it from my house-- glittering with the chintz of new car lots, the sad high fencing, the glaring lights--Western Avenue was a sand bar. Or was it a moraine?
Or was it all of those things? If only I had an hour to walk and see.
What humans stood here? What eyes peeked through the bogs and brambles, over the dunes and around the massive oak trunks? What children padded up the banks and leapt naked from the trees? What were their names? What color were their eyes? Their hair and lips? The shape of their teeth, toes, and nails? What did their songs say? What made them laugh?
My kids, Jamal and Nanny, burst out of the house, door slamming and fishing poles carried awkward as a new hat. Jamal, just five, rolled a chunk of glowing orange Velveeta into a gray ball for bait, cleaning his grimy fingers.
"Dad, can we try 'em out?"
We live three houses from the river, the slow, soupy effluent of the sewage treatment plant. Waterfowl come to warm their webbed feet in the activated water that never, not even almost, freezes during the worst of winter.
We ducked past barricades and torn branches, scratched by thorny gooseberry, down the muddy slope, bringing a small avalanche of old plaster and lathe donated to the river's bank from someone's remodeled kitchen.
They cast their weighted lines, dropping them splook into God knows what, and reeled them in and in. Jamal's second cast tangled on the ancient tortured willow that overhung the water. He moaned, crushed by his cruel fate. But the brittle twigs cracked loose with a few easy tugs.
Across the Chicago a park spread out, giving us a glimpse of sunset over trees, here, deep in the city: a park flatter than the prairie but for eight pitching mounds and a kite and sledding hill that happy city managers built on top of a garbage dump.
On the park side the river is protected by a fence, but weekend revelers managed to heave a garbage drum over it, coloring the bank with the splendor of marketing and packaging geniuses.
Nanny settled her 11 years on a willing limb of the willow, and a peace settled on her soft face, crossed with shadow and light filtered through young leaves.
After a moment we heard branches crack and split from somewhere in the brush. Then three sets of curious eyes looked us up and down, wondering what this meant, this intrusion into their refuge.
"Ya can' eat doze fish, ya know," she said, a rough-necked young woman from the neighborhood, face smudged with dirt. She stepped over a fallen limb into the tiny clearing. She wore a sleeveless yellow blouse and ragged jeans and looked me straight in the eye. Her two younger companions, boys no more than 12 or 13, hung back, suspicious.
Jamal eyed me without turning his head, doubting the wisdom of talking to these guys who never gave nothing but a hard time to anybody. And Nanny refused to break her trance, never budged.
"De're poison't." Her face screwed up, like she'd personally tasted those tainted fish raw and knew it for a fact.
I nodded and she took her gaze away from me and gave it to the waters. All was quiet but the chattering of squirrels and the drone of trucks rumbling over the bridge just north.
"We know where there's a bat cave." She turned to me again, alive with the thought, "And rats, too." She looked at her buddies for confirmation. They nodded like little doggies. "Over there," she pointed upstream, "ya know, on the other side where there's this... tunnel, like..."
I followed her hand with my stare into the dense undergrowth as if I could see the bats and rats hidden there.
"Well, I saw a raccoon one night," I told her. "Its eyes glowed like blue reflectors. My wife said she saw a possum, or she hopes it was a possum, or else it was the fattest rat she ever saw."
The girl's face rearranged itself into a pained smile. Then it was quiet again and the boys looked at each other and searched their pockets for nothing in particular.
"You know what we're gonna do?" I said, and they all looked at me to find out, even Nanny. "We're gonna clean up this river and put rocks and sand on the banks so you can all swim here."
Jamal frowned. Nanny smiled indulgently and the scruffs looked at each other embarrassed, like they'd discovered a pile of girlie books in the bushes.
"So the water would be clear, you know? Maybe we could hang some ropes from these branches so you could swing out and jump in."
Jamal brightened and his eyes glazed with the vision of ropes and swings.
The girl turned to me with her face contorted and awful. Eyes hard, she put her hands on her hips and leaned forward ready to fight. "They will never do that," she said. "They will never do that." Her head shook deliberately from side to side, wiping out any possibility.
"We will do it," I said, "and they will help us."
Shploonk. Cheese hits water. Some kind of life broke the surface and gulped air. The bridge trembled and jetliners queued up high over our willow canopy. The boys mumbled to each other and motioned to the girl that they wanted to leave. She lingered a moment, eyes searching the current, following a branch with leaves and a Fritos bag flowing south. Then she turned and disappeared. Bound, possibly, for that stretch of fencing scribbled over with spray paint that shouts out "I'm here! I'm here," close by the cracked toilet tank and the abandoned sofa wrapped in vine.
When my kids got tired of waiting for a bite, and their cheeseball bait dissolved away, we climbed back up the bank, back home to other things.
Seeds need space to take root and a respite to get strong. An urgent, relentless spirit nudges them to fight for life--against all odds of crushing tires, slashing mowers; in the face of acres of steaming asphalt, they lie below, in every crevice of opportunity.
I will never know what came before--what tree was rooted where I stand--between the car dealer on the moraine and the effluent that was the Chee-Ka-Go. I can never see those bronzed children, long since turned to dust, or hear their song, see their smiles.
But seeds are there, waiting for a chance, a space to dream their potential, a respite to grow strong, find their niche, send down their roots, buckle the pavements, and grow and grow and grow.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.