Streets of Chicago

Rita Mock-Pike

Originally published in the MockingOwl Roost, Volume 1, Issue 1: Expectation

February had passed, but the bitterness of the winter still surrounded Chicago with a white blanket of bone-breaking cold. Sam sat cross-legged on her usual corner, a cup from the Coffee Shoppe planted in front of her, a couple of dimes rattling around in it. She glanced up as a college student walked by. “Got any change?”

The girl paused, looked down at Sam, and shook her head. “Sorry.”

Sam didn’t hear her.

“Are you hungry?” the girl asked.

“Sure. Who ain’t?” Sam didn’t bother to look at the stranger. She heard the question a few dozen times a week. Nothing new.

“If you come with me, I’ll get you something to eat,” the girl offered.

“Nah.” Why do they always do that? Asking me if I’ll come with them. I’m not good enough for their money, I guess.

“Then you’re not hungry?” The girl was persistent.

“I said I am.”

“Then won’t you let me buy you something to eat? I don’t have cash, but I have my debit card, and I’m glad to get you a meal.”

Sam finally looked up into the girl’s face, intense blue eyes looking back at her. Like Mother’s eyes. “I hate burgers.”

“I can take you somewhere else. How about a sandwich shop?”

“You really think a sandwich is going to hold me?” Sam snorted condescendingly at her.

“What do you like then?”

“How about lobster?” Sam suggested.

“I see. Well. I hope you have a nice night.” The girl walked off.

Sam turned back to her book.

There were always three or four of them a night. Those pretty, clean people who wanted to make her life better, but only on their terms. That girl had a nice, warm apartment to go back to. There was money in her bank account. There were people who knew this college girl’s full name. Sam hadn’t been called by her real name in something like twenty years. She didn’t care, though. Names were for people who mattered.

Someone dropped several coins into her cup. She glanced up to nod her thanks, but the person had already passed. That suited Sam fine. She hated it when people wanted to talk. Thankfully, they rarely did. Every so often though, there was some student from a Bible college or pastor from a local church that wanted to talk to her about Jesus, as if she hadn’t heard it a thousand times before. They couldn’t take a hint. Sometimes a drunk or pothead had a few slurred words to drop too, but those were also rare and slightly less annoying.

By eleven o’clock, the streets had gone quiet. All the tourists were back in their hotels or hanging on the barstools of loud establishments where booze, dancing, and finding somebody to go home with were the priorities for the night. Sam decided it was time to pack it in. She gathered up her towels and blankets, stuffed them into her little environmentally friendly bag some schmuck had given her, and stretched out her legs for a moment. She slipped in through a door down the alley a few blocks away and tiptoed into her hideaway.

Seven people shared the dank basement at the storage center. The owner knew they were there but pretended not to. If they vacated before he opened for business in the morning, he ignored them altogether. Sam wished she could as easily ignore those that shared the secret lodging with her.

If she was lucky, Sam could pull off a day without speaking more than a thousand words. All those ‘thank yous’ added up. She wished she didn’t have to say that much. But she had learned that if she didn’t say her thanks, they wouldn’t give as much or as often. She had some regular quarter droppers. One bought her coffee every few days. She had to say thanks. She was grateful that the old man never wanted to talk to her in exchange for the coffee. He just came by, handed her the cup and walked off. He might say “Have a nice day,” but never more than that. Her kind of guy.

Sam pulled up her blankets around her chin, tucked her arms in as best she could and closed her eyes. The cement floor felt like ice. She had more layers beneath than on top of her. Five pillows and three or four blankets spread under her body still couldn’t keep away the chill. She had grown used to the hardness of the ground years earlier, when she first lost her job and husband, but that didn’t mean her back wasn’t stiff every morning. The cold didn’t exactly improve her arthritis, either.

“Mama, is it ever going to get warm?” the little girl named Tess asked her mother as they huddled in for the night a few feet away from Sam’s corner.

“Maybe next week,” Juliet, the mother, said. She had three kids. They’d lost their apartment when Juliet got laid off from work six months earlier.

The next morning was a little warmer. Sam went into the Coffee Shoppe, where all the clerks knew her. The one with the nametag marked Clarice asked, “The usual?”

“Yep,” Sam nodded. That was one. Nine-hundred and ninety-nine to go.

Sam took a seat by the Chicago River, down at the end of the Riverwalk near the Lake. Less crowded. Joggers sometimes came through her spot, but they weren’t in the mood to talk either. Sanctuary.

Sam wished for a home-cooked round of pancakes and some fresh-squeezed orange juice. What she ate instead was a granola bar and something someone claimed was a blueberry muffin. If those are blueberries, I’m a movie star.

The morning dragged on in its usual manner. Car horns honked like the world would end were silence to fall for even a moment. The ‘L’ roared above and beyond. Foul screams from angry cabbies reigned over the whole mess.

Breakfast over, Sam headed topside to get her spot among the crowds for the day. She plopped her coffee cup on the pavement in front of her and layered her blankets and towels beneath her.

“Hey Sam,” Percy grinned down at her. He was the one person in the world that could bring a smile to her lips.

“Hey Percy.” Sam looked up expectantly at him.

Percy wasn’t homeless, but he was unemployed and that meant that he spent most of his days walking the streets of Chicago, putting in applications here and there, hoping that someone would hire him. He nearly always stopped by for a brief chat.

“Got something for you,” Percy said.

“Yeah?” Sam asked.

“Here.” Percy plopped to the sidewalk beside her and handed over a book.

“You found it?” Sam’s face sparked with inklings of joy. She had been reading a book series for a while now and hadn’t been able to find the next book for over a month.

“Sure did. Just for you,” Percy smiled.

“Thanks,” Sam grinned brightly. Percy knew how to make her happy.

“I got the one after it too. I already read it,” Percy explained. “Let me know when you’re near done and I’ll bring it.”

“Thanks,” Sam mumbled, rolling the front cover of the book around to start her read. The cup was secure. It really didn’t require much effort to panhandle.

Percy pulled out his own book and began reading. Had it been anybody else, Sam would have growled at him to get away, but Percy was okay. He could share her corner.

The morning passed quietly. Percy read for about an hour. “I gotta make some applications. I’ll bring you something for lunch after.”

“Okay,” Sam smiled up at him.

Only eleven words had passed from her lips. It was already nine thirty. It was a good start to the day.

“Good morning.”

Someone dropped a quarter into her cup. Sam glanced up, hoping a nod would show enough gratitude. Apparently it did; the woman was already gone.

Five chapters later and five dollars more and noon had arrived without another word. Percy was right on time. “Got you a burger.”

“Thanks.” Sam took the greasy bag from Percy and opened the wrapper. Some spaghetti from the little bistro on the corner would have been better, but Percy wasn’t rolling in dough any more than she was. A ninety-nine-cent hamburger would do.

Percy and Sam ate their burgers and drank their sodas in silence. This was part of why Sam liked Percy – he never demanded anything from her, not even conversation.

By nightfall, Sam had about twenty bucks in her pocket. She always left a little change in the cup, but every so often she’d empty the rest into the little wallet that she sat on. There were fewer thefts and more sympathy with an emptier cup.

“Hi there,” a friendly voice said. Nothing dropped into the cup, but two feminine legs were standing directly in front of her. Sam looked up. It was the same blue-eyed girl from the night before.

“Hi,” Sam grudgingly greeted the college girl.

“I brought you something.” The girl handed down a carton.

“What is it?” Sam asked.

“Spaghetti. My roommate and I made it for dinner and I thought that maybe you’d like some of it.”

Sam stared up at the girl in amazement. She had been craving spaghetti all day. She never spent money on food like that. And this was homemade spaghetti. She couldn’t buy that anywhere. Sam opened the lid. The sauce was still steaming.

“My mother is Italian,” the girl said, “so she taught me how to make the sauce from scratch. She would kill me if she ever heard I used the stuff from a jar. I hope you like spaghetti.”

“It’s okay,” Sam shrugged, eyeing the food greedily. She had never had made-from-scratch marinara sauce before.

“I brought you a fork, too. I wasn’t sure if you would have one.”

“Thanks,” Sam muttered, wishing that the girl would go away and let her eat in peace.

The girl just stood there for several moments.

“My name is Elizabeth, by the way,” the girl smiled softly.

Sam stared up at her, annoyed. She now understood why the girl would be so thoughtful as to bring out homemade spaghetti to her. She probably wanted to talk about Jesus. She probably wanted to save the world, one soul at a time. Sam was not about to be one of those souls. There is no God. Buzz off.

“Thanks,” Sam said again, hoping the girl would take the hint already.

“You won’t tell me your name?” Elizabeth asked.

“Why should I?” Sam retorted.

“It’s polite?” Elizabeth said awkwardly.

“I ain’t polite,” Sam muttered.

“Okay,” Elizabeth paused thoughtfully. “I’ll just have to come up with a name for you then. When I think about you, I want to put a name to your face.”

Sam looked incredulously up at Elizabeth. She’s got to be crazy.

“You look like a Lisa maybe,” Elizabeth said. “No. No. That’s not it. Maybe Janet? No. Tina?”

“Keep guessing,” Sam slung at her sarcastically, finally deciding to eat anyway. She preferred to eat in solitude and silence, but clearly neither was going to happen if the spaghetti was going to be eaten hot.

“I’ll get it eventually,” Elizabeth grinned. “Have a good night.”

Sam glanced after Elizabeth as she disappeared. She was certain that this girl was one of those Bible college students, so it was weird she wasn’t talking to her about God and hell and heaven and things.

Between the hours of five and eight p.m., Elizabeth showed up regularly the whole week, and the next. She always brought some kind of food and made a few guesses at Sam’s name. Sam felt rather like Rumplestiltskin, only there was no baby or kingdom at stake for either of them. Elizabeth’s guesses were always common names everyone had heard, or wild, unusual things that no sane person would name their child. She hoped.

The weeks spread into months. Spring pushed out flowers along the sidewalks of the Loop. Hot meals came most nights, except Fridays, and Sam looked forward to the hot meals.

But then the girl stopped showing. Sam grumbled over the lost meals but shrugged it off. It was summer. The college girl had other places to be, like home. Why would she pass out free food on her vacation?

A week passed without Elizabeth showing. And it was Thursday night, the first week of June. The girl hadn’t shown by 10:15. Sam didn’t want to wait for her, even if she would bring her some delicious food. Sam had to admit the girl could cook. And it was always made-from-scratch family recipes. But she was tired, the tourists were getting obnoxious, and her butt was stiff. She packed up a little after eleven.

Saturday came and went. No Elizabeth. Then Sunday. Elizabeth would probably never return, and Sam felt rejected and lonely all over again. There had been other people that had tried to make a connection with her over the years, but none of them had penetrated her hardened heart. None but Percy, and now Elizabeth, had ever brought a smile to her face or warmth to her soul.

Elizabeth had sometimes sat down with her and eaten the meal alongside her. Sam hadn’t minded the girl’s chatter and had gotten to know a lot about Elizabeth’s big loud Italian family. She almost felt human sitting beside Elizabeth, chatting about spices, music and dance.

But now Elizabeth was gone, too. Sam went back to counting her words. The days dragged on.

Michigan Avenue was aglow with the latest colored light display and funky art projects scattered in all the flower beds along the curb. Two weeks passed without a meal from Elizabeth’s kitchen. Sam thought about changing spots, now that the weather was warmer at long last, but she secretly feared that she would miss Elizabeth when she did come looking for her again.

“Are you Elizabeth’s friend?” There was a girl about Elizabeth’s age looking down at her.

“I guess so,” Sam replied, trying to sound annoyed.

“She sent me with a message. I’m her roommate, by the way, Renee.” The blonde handed down a little purple envelope.

Sam tore the seal open and pulled out a turquoise sheet of stationary.

I finally figured out your name. It sort of came to me in a dream or something. Well, a state of delusion while I was on painkillers, but nonetheless, I’m certain that I have it this time. But before we get into that further, I wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten about you. I wanted to come see you, but I was in a minor accident and broke my leg and collarbone and received a concussion. I haven’t been able to walk around much at all, and I definitely couldn’t make it out to Michigan Ave. But it finally occurred to me that I could ask my roommate to bring your dinner to you, along with this note. I hope that’s all right with you, Bonnie. Have a great night. I’ll see you in a few weeks when I can walk like a human again. Your friend, Elizabeth.

Sam stared at the note for a long time. She hadn’t heard that name in twenty years. She’d stopped going by her birth name shortly after her husband had died. It was too painful to face the reality that she, as a twenty-year-old girl, had become a widow after only six months of marriage. She was not the same person anymore. She hadn’t been for a long time. Bonnie George had passed away as suddenly as her husband, Tom, had. Sam No-Name was who she was now. There was no going back. Her husband had died, her job had disappeared, and she had run away. She hadn’t known anything like hope for more years than she could count.

“You okay?” Renee asked as she saw the tears pool in the older woman’s eyes.

“Yeah,” Bonnie gulped.

“Want me to pass along a message to Elizabeth?” Renee squatted down to look Bonnie in the eyes.

“Tell her… tell her Bonnie says hi.” It seemed strange to use that name again. There was no possible way that Elizabeth could have figured out Sam’s real name. But somehow, she had. A minor miracle had happened, and Bonnie didn’t know what to do with it.

“Anything else?” Renee looked over at her with kindness in her brown eyes.

“Thanks for the lasagna.” Bonnie smiled. A glint of happiness sparkled in her eyes. “It’s my favorite.”