The Last Night of Calderon | Fiction | Chicago Reader

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The Last Night of Calderon

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On the night they were coming to shoot him, my father, Irv Warso, sat in the passenger seat of his maroon Ford Granada with a six-pack of Schlitz malt liquor and a loaf of day-old Italian bread, waiting for Simon Weiss's car to pull up. He'd been out there since mid-afternoon, and even though Rachel and I had tried to talk him out of it, it seemed like nothing would get him out of there.

"Some things," he said, "you just gotta face head-on."

Rachel had $87 she'd saved up for the prom and I had maybe half that. We'd presented it to him in a Ziploc bag, but he just tossed it out the window onto the sidewalk.

He said, "You keep that. You'll need it once I'm gone."

It made no sense to me. Once he'd dealt with my father, Simon would still want his $700, and he was sure to come looking for us.

It had been a hot summer. Some nights Rachel would wake me up saying she'd heard gunshots, but usually I slept right through them, my belly full of Ho-Ho's, Pepsi-Cola, and Tel Aviv kosher pizza, my ear practically on top of the blades of the fan. It was the summer when my father had said he would finally get us out of debt. Looking back on it, it seems crazy since it was that same summer he'd been laid off at the jail and mom had left for Topeka with that drummer Ben Levine.

For the first few weeks my father had looked through the want ads. Rachel had circled some for him--late night security, detective agency, watchman. But as far as I could tell, he didn't call one single place, didn't go on one single interview. Rachel would say what about this or what about that, but he'd smile and shake his head and say he had something better worked out. What it was he couldn't say, but we'd find out soon enough.

"Just wait," he said. "You'll see how it works. It's gonna be beautiful."

I was shooting hoops by myself that night. Lupo Galavin and Arnold and Lupo's cousin Tommy had asked if I wanted to get up a game of two-on-two over at the Boone school yard. But I said no. I wanted to keep my eye on my father's car. For the first and only time in my life, I shot 15 straight free throws, but I didn't care about that. It didn't feel real. I was focused so intently on the Granada that I didn't notice Rachel was standing behind me, not until she called out my baseball nickname, "Calderon."

She'd started calling me that four years earlier, when Ivan Calderon joined the White Sox at the age of 25 and knocked out 28 home runs. The best year he'd had; the best year he would ever have.

Rachel was standing there, her face shadowed in the twilight, the little black leather bag mom had bought her over her shoulder.

"You see Lupo?" she asked.

"He's over at Boone with Arnold."

"He ask you anything?"

"Just if I wanted to play."

"Anything else?"

I shook my head.

Rachel unzipped her bag, just for a second. In the pink glow of dusk and playground lights, I saw something glint.

"I took it from his ma's place," Rachel said. "He showed me where she kept it."

"Are you bringing it to dad?" I asked. She shook her head.

"You just gotta face some things head-on," she said.

When Rachel was nine and I was four, she started taking me on "adventures." We'd stand on the Eisenhower overpass and I'd watch her drop pennies down on cars. We'd pretend we were spies, crouching down in the alley behind Mrs. Schoenstein's house to watch her cook her TV dinners.

The most scared I ever was was one night when we were living on the north side and we climbed in through a window at Mather so we could find a copy of her life sciences exam. It wasn't the janitor busting in on me that scared me; it was the harsh glare on Rachel's face when I came back to her empty-handed.

It had been three years since that last adventure. Rachel didn't have time for them anymore. There were boys now and dances and double features at the Lincoln Village. The only time she'd talk to me was if one of her dates went badly. Then she'd ask me to sit beside her on her bed and she would talk to me for hours and hours, tell me every last detail, every kiss upon her neck, every hand underneath her skirt, every slap upon her face, every appointment at the clinic--what they did to her there, how they did it, and how it hurt.

"Calderon," she said to me now, with that old sweetness in her voice.

"Calderon, let's go. It's time to go on an adventure."

I don't remember the first time I saw Simon Weiss any more than I remember the first time I saw bad weather. Even if he didn't have his black LTD parked out front of the Sabra, he always seemed to be looming on the horizon. There were a thousand stories about him. My father said he knew at least one of them was true. He was a pimp. He was a gambler. One night he killed five men. Sometimes you'd see him drive down our street slow, then stop. Some guy or other would walk up to the car, reach his hand in, and come out with cash.

One time it was Lupo. One night that summer it was my dad. I remember him waving a pile of cash at me.

"Look at this, Adam," he said. "Look at all these 20s."

Now I have some idea what he did to get the money, but I certainly didn't then. Rachel said she knew, but she swore she wouldn't tell. The only thing I was sure of was that Simon had given the money to my dad and somehow my dad had spent it or lost it. And soon, that black LTD was going to pull up. Simon and his men would step out. And then they'd shoot my father. People were staring out the windows of their bungalows on Fairfield Avenue waiting, like my father, for that LTD to come.

"You feeling brave now, Calderon?" Rachel asked. I didn't say a word. "If you're not, you'd better start."

Outside on the corner, "Rags A'lion" was standing beside the shopping cart he'd stolen from the parking lot of the Mayflower. It was dark outside as he cried out in his old man's plaintive wail: "Rags. Rags and old iron." Some older kids, probably from Boone, were zooming by on Huffy Thunder Roads. The old ladies in their folding chairs were playing dominoes in front of the Sabra, but every now and then, they'd stop their game to look and see if Simon had arrived. I sat next to Rachel on the front steps of our building. She clutched her bag tightly on her lap.

"Look at your father, Calderon," she said. "Your father is a brave man."

"Rags," Rags A'lion cried again. "Rags and old iron."

Suddenly, without warning, I was hungry. Hungrier than I had ever been in my life. In the summer air, I smelled things cooking: bacon and sausages, stews and vegetables, steaks and pork chops and garlic and butter. I thought about food I'd never tasted in my life. I started to get up to go into our apartment, just to see what was in the fridge, just for a minute, just to see what was in the cabinets, just so I could have something to taste. But the moment I did, I felt Rachel's left hand clutching my knee hard. And I saw her right hand clutching the gun.

"Rags," the cry came. "Rags and old iron."

It was part of the ritual of our adventures that I would never ask Rachel questions. The less I knew, the better, she always said. It was that way when she made me take the doorknobs off of Sarah Bergman's bedroom door. It was that way now that she was pressing the gun into my hand.

I have no idea what sort of gun it was. I only remember it was heavy--heavy, warm, and damp. It reminded me for some reason of a dream I'd had often that summer. In the dream I was playing a child's piano and my hands were too large for the keys; every time I tried to strike one, I'd wind up striking two. The sound was wooden, flat. My hands felt clumsy.

"Hold it like this, Calderon," Rachel said, putting it in both my hands and placing my two index fingers on the trigger. "When Simon comes, you squeeze it."

She said it again.

"When Simon comes, you squeeze it."

"Rags," the rag man cried. "Rags and old iron."

"I'll tell you when I see him," said Rachel. "I'll tell you when he comes."

Rachel fixed her stare ahead at Pratt Street; I fixed my stare on the cracks in the steps, at the crumbling cement and the pebbles and the dirt between the cracks.

The sound of a car door swinging open jerked my head up. I saw him standing there, wobbling slightly, a crushed can of Schlitz malt liquor in his hands, his belly tumbling out from under his gray Tigers T-shirt, spilling over his faded black jeans. He made a movement forward, maybe to walk toward us, maybe just to shut the car door behind him, maybe just to stretch. It was hard to say, because it was that moment that I squeezed and I saw my father drop to his knees onto the sidewalk, rolling and writhing in pain.

"Calderon," Rachel gasped. "Calderon, not yet. Calderon, I didn't say yet."

When the ambulances came, Rachel told me I couldn't come along. I'd already done enough damage. I was to stay in my bedroom, not open the door for anyone no matter who it was. When I heard knocking at the door, I assumed it was the police. I had forgotten about Simon Weiss. "No hiding now, Warso,"

I heard him say.

I didn't want to open the door, but I knew he wouldn't leave until I did. He was wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and black shoes. There were two boys with him; they couldn't have been much older than me. Something about the way they stood behind him made me think they were his sons. All three of them wore black fedoras. All three of them had tsitsis dangling out of their pants.

"Where's your father?" Weiss asked.

The way he spoke was smooth, polite. They could have been a family of salesmen. They could have been selling Bibles.

"Hospital," I said.

"Hospital," Weiss repeated and threw a glance back to the boys behind him.

They smiled.

"I shot him," I said.

Weiss tilted his head slightly. He smiled oddly, as if this was the first unexpected piece of news he'd ever received.

"I shot him," I said again. "I shot him in the hip." There was silence for a moment or two. Then Simon Weiss laughed. And then the boys started laughing. And then Simon Weiss laughed more and, still laughing, reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a wad of 20s held together by a gold clip in the shape of a dollar sign.

"You shot him?" he laughed.

"I shot him in the hip."

Simon pressed the wad of bills into my hand.

"That's what I was paying these boys for," he laughed.

"Where's your sister?" he asked.

"At the hospital with dad."

The next day at Swedish Covenant there was a bouquet of pale yellow roses beside my father's bed. The note read, "My friend, luck is not coincidence." It was signed Simon Weiss. The day my father was released, he told Rachel we shouldn't wait up for him; he had business with Simon and they'd be dining late. Later that summer, Simon bought my father a ranch house on the north side so he wouldn't have to walk stairs with his cane. He bought my father a brand-new Chevy and on her 18th birthday, he bought one for Rachel, too. The day my mother came back from Topeka, my father wouldn't let her in the house.

Sometimes at night, when Juniper's working late, I think about going on an adventure. But I always wind up back on Division at Rachel's, where her girls sell pleasure by the hour. And sometimes, lying underneath some girl or another, at the moment when I should be feeling free, my mind drifts to Juniper and I think about how easy it would be for her to find me here, how easy it would be for her to find me and send a bullet through my skull.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew J. Epstein.

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