June 20, 2015

Chicago Cartoons

The bullet tore into his neck and knocked him backwards. On a landing between floors, he gripped the wound and staggered down the stairs, trying to outrun what just happened. His race ended on the linoleum outside Geneva’s door.

Renting an apartment near the building’s entrance was good when carrying groceries or kids, but bad when people partied late on the stoop. She’d spent years inside providing child care. Mothers working the night shift, her bread and butter, had to put their babies someplace safe while they cleaned offices and filled catalog orders. The bedroom held three small cots for little sleepers. Geneva was known for allowing sniffles, low fevers, and an occasional extra baby, in a pinch.

Used to neighborhood gunfire after dark, tonight’s commotion sounded different.

Jumping out of bed, she pressed her ear to the only outside door. Spying through the peephole, the hallway appeared empty. Having learned a long time ago that it’s best to wait a few, she rested her forehead against the door, staring at her feet.

At first, it looked like Kool-Aid. A narrow, red line snaked inside and licked the doormat. Jolting upright, she searched through the peephole. Nothing. Silence. Silence as near as she could tell, anyway. Hard to be sure what with her heart all up in her mouth and booming. Hands shaking, she held the chain lock in place and turned the deadbolt, easing the door open enough to see clothing of some sort on the floor just outside. Pulling back til the chain got taut, there was a man and more red. His eyes were still open and his mouth, shaped in a small “o,” made him look like he didn’t understand the question. Slamming the door shut, she noticed blood spreading through her doormat. Snatching it away only increased the flow, so she pushed it back into place.

Now the children were awake, standing behind her. “What’s goin’ on, Ms. Geneva?” As sirens approached, she shooed them back into their cots. A cop announced himself through the door. Not wanting to mess up his shoes, he stepped carefully while she asked, “Officer, can you stop the blood? I’ve got babies in here.” He instructed her to keep the door closed while they investigated.

Cordoning off the perimeter, the police waited for a medical examiner. The babies’ mothers, due to arrive after their shifts, would have to wait, too. Geneva tamped bath towels on the sodden doormat. Come dawn, juice with toast was served in bed, a special treat. This being a Sunday morning, there was only one medical examiner on duty and a young male victim, picked clean of evidence, wasn’t a priority.

After an hour, she opened the door some. Warm temperatures made everything sour and sticky. A different cop gestured for her to be patient. After all, the body was being patient. She laid another towel over the part of it that had drained into her home. “If you promise to stay put on the couch,” she told the fidgety children, “you can watch TV.” Confused, but happy to be out of the bedroom, they scrunched together and stared at the screen. Cartoon animals with goofy voices kept getting run over, blown to bits, or burned crispy. They’d snap back, however, before equally fantastic commercial breaks filled with manicured yards and fancy kitchens.

Know what? You can’t do a damn thing without a medical examiner. No matter it's hot and smelly and you’re trapped in your own house. Exhausted, Geneva slumped in a chair in the kitchenette and lit a long overdue cigarette. Rocking gently, her mind went back to the night a neighbor shouted through the window for her to come quick. Yelling that her 14 year-old, Donald, was surely the one shot dead and lying under a sheet two blocks over. Since his murder, she purposefully kept indoors after dark, caring for other women’s babies. Trying to shield somebody.

Every now and then she’d look to the couch and give a nod, but the children were elsewhere, too. Lost in cartoons. Finally, the examiner’s truck pulled up. It took another hour for the cops and M.E. to shoot the shit and bag the corpse, leaving the hallway floor looking like a finger painting. Bits of processing debris were embedded in wide, circular smears of dried blood.

After police tape was removed, the mothers stared numbly at the scene. Wordlessly, they scooped up babies and carried them away. Geneva knew that if this was a Lake Shore Drive building on the north side, the guy’d been washed away but quick. No point complaining, no one was listening. She began to scrub.
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Background: I wrote the first draft several years ago to be included in non-fiction essays about my work experiences. The fact I wanted to share, while true, was hard for me to communicate to readers unfamiliar with day care providers in urban areas. When I began writing fiction, I decided to craft a short story around the facts. This is the result of dozens of drafts, some submitted for publication. Number of acceptances: zero.

I am posting this so I never forget the real women and children, and their experiences.