by Randy Ford
Margo circled a day on her calendar. Margo circled a day on her calendar that she looked forward to for a long time, a very long time. A special day in her mind but not in anyone’s mind she knew. Though she circled it, she hadn’t made plans except she knew she was leaving home on that day. And all Margo knew was that she had to get away, get away from home, from all she knew. After Margo graduated from high school, she turned eighteen and gave her parents notice. What could they say? Margo was eighteen and wanted to be on her own. She wanted to leave Richmond. How could her parents stop Margo? Margo was eighteen, eighteen and her parents had to let go. Yes, they had no choice after she gave them notice and that was more than could be said for her brother.
Conflict with her parents turned Margo into a rebel, but she never wanted to disappoint them. She wanted to make a clean break but didn’t want to upset them. And she wanted her parents’ blessing, though she knew that she probably wouldn’t get it. Still, she tried.
After liberation, Margo adopted a plan when a letter from a friend arrived from Chicago. It contained an invitation and offered of a place to stay. Place to stay in Chicago! Chicago! Chicago! Chicago was to be Margo’s destiny. Chicago was to be Margo’s home. Chicago, close to home, yet far away. And why Chicago? Chicago. It was simple: Chicago wasn’t far from Richmond, yet far enough away. And Chicago was a big city, and it not far from Richmond. Margo could’ve chosen Indianapolis, but Indianapolis wasn’t far enough away.
That winter was unusually cold, unusually cold for windy Chicago but invigorating. Without cold, cold wind, people of Chicago wouldn’t have anything to complain about. Complaining, Chicago, complaining. Complaining Used to snow and cold, cold wind … still complaining. Margo felt pushed, rushed, pushed by crowds and her boss’ clock, as she came and went from work in darkness. People hurried to unknown destinations while clocks ate up time. Margo, thinking about her new freedom, she knew that she was no longer the same person she was in Indiana.
Margo escaped to a small brownstone apartment. First night, Margo slept on a hard wood floor. She survived that night, next night, and the next without a bed and, in spite of her mother’s worst predictions, established herself in Chicago. She found a job by looking through The Chicago Daily News and discovered what brazen idiots did for a living. Margo hated what most brazen idiots did for a living. Margo’s first taste of reality came when she discovered jobs were hard to find. Her second taste of reality came when she was handed her first job. Who could blame her for not wanting to work in a gas station (her father owned one)? She wouldn’t accept just any job, yet like a brazen idiot she did.
Thank goodness Margo’s mother was no prophet, but she never let on that she was impressed by Margo’s success. With persistence the young woman found a perfect job for her … for someone who enjoyed people, who wrote books, drew pictures, and played instruments, and enjoyed writers, painters, and musicians. A sucker for authors and artists, she worked behind a counter at Book Mart, one just off Michigan Avenue, and near the Art Institute. She could be at the store most afternoons, exchanging courtesies and during lulls nibbling on sandwiches and reading novels. She also spent too much time dreaming
She dreamed big dreams. Margo dreamed big dreams, and many of them came true. In Indiana, before she left home, Margo didn’t know many dreams would come true, and when she left home she didn’t know she left behind her inspirational source. And Margo’s hometown was the main reason for her flight. When working at the bookstore. she started an epic poetic drama, an autobiographical, psychological study of a young woman. In her poem, her treatment of her brother and parents, and other people Margo knew, embarrassed them. She wanted to expose their foibles and retaliate for unnamed crimes.
For one reason or another her poetry never jelled. She struggled too much, too much to find the right words, which led to a predilection for procrastination. Struggling for words, struggling for the right word, led to waiting for inspiration. Waiting for inspiration led to frustration. Frustration led to end of a day. To write such a poem, Margo would have to reach beyond herself, beyond grievances, beyond feelings, beyond experiences and write something new, something totally new. Something new, something new, something she wasn’t prepared to do. Without inspiration, Margo pretended to be writing, pretended, pretended, and pretended until she lost her identity, and along the way, while working in a bookstore. she met other writers with the same problem.
With similar problems, most writers Margo met remained unknown. Okay, it didn’t matter, didn’t matter to her. It didn’t matter to her, to Margo because she also was like them, unknown. They were aspiring, aspiring writers, aspiring writers like Margo, aspiring for something out of reach, out of reach except for Margo. Some of them were so self-occupied that they were never satisfied. Because of temperament, most of them wouldn’t recognize acclaim if it were handed to them, most of them said they weren’t after acclaim, and most of them considered themselves members of the avant-garde.
There wasn’t a way to judge the Michigan Avenue gang. Not really. Not really, until Margo arrived. When she arrived, their work was dismissed, or only appreciated by a select few. People they knew, and a few other people. Friends. People who accepted their art for what it was! In many ways, the Michigan Avenue crowd was like the Top Hat Gang, the Top Hat Gang, a high school gang that attracted Margo. Both gangs lacked direction. But had a Cezannes or Hemmingway shown up it would’ve been different. It would’ve changed everything, changed everything, everything changed forever, everything in a minute, everything, everything, just as Chicago changed Margo. People who followed them … even when they were disappointed … showed appreciation for their art.
At first Margo didn’t show her work to anyone. She was too unsure of herself to show her work to anyone. She was too afraid, too … too, too … too full of excuses. There were hundreds and hundreds of reasons that made it impossible. She considered it bad luck to show it. An inner voice made it impossible. Fear of criticism made it impossible. She was aware of her weaknesses and felt her weaknesses showed. Showed! But Margo was more aware than anyone else. She was afraid she would never be ready. So she wrote and waited, waited and wrote as she waited for her eighteen birthday. And she waited and pretended she didn’t care. And she pretended that she didn’t care as she beat herself up. Then one day she was discovered while she always played it down
Then Margo began helping friends.
For a while Margo liked the image of starving writer, though she never starved. An enthusiast, an amateur, a talented young woman, with an artist’s eye, she experienced ups and downs as would most young women turned loose for the first time. Helping someone else might not have occurred to Margo had her own writing caught fire. Helping was not in her DNA, and Margo never thought herself inspirational. She kept saying, “I’m not worried about those who are naturally talented. It’s the rest of us who deserve it” while never explaining what “it” was.
Was it possible to fall in between? Margo was a bit too apologetic, but she loved being the center of attention. She was lucky to have an outlet.
Her first apartment, before she knew Chicago, was on Addison, one block west of Wrigley Field. It was convenient. It wasn’t far from the L, the L her only transportation, and when she was running late it was only a short jog to a train. However, most of the time, instead of running, she chose to be late. And when she had time she wandered around without a purpose because she enjoyed glory of wasting time. Escaping the common place was one of her goals.
Dressing like a gypsy didn’t last long. It was something she embraced for several months. By wearing something weird and strange like Druid stones, and dressing in green and scarlet like Hungarian gypsies, she thought she could become part of a clique that came in the bookstore. To find similarities, however, between Margo and members of the clique was a stretch. For example, when Jasper tried to seal their friendship with “apo miro dadeskro vast!” or “by my father’s hand,” she, after asking what it meant, visualized her daddy chasing her with a hickory stick. Then with coins and pieces of silk woven in her hair, she began to view such exhibitionism with disdain. Cultivating a special jargon spoken ungrammatically seemed like a sham to her. It became apparent that she rejected conformity by rejecting nonconformity. Her rejection of Jasper, however, didn’t stop her from keeping bangles and rings he gave her or from cultivating an appreciation for Sartre and Liszt.
Instead of a writer she would rather be a gypsy. Already enthralled with romance, she imagined swarthy men making love to her. Hearing gypsies called drunks or harlots made her angry.
When they couldn’t find what they wanted, Margo’s regular customers relied on her. They knew her because she often interrupted them with questions and answers. Protocol called for a less direct approach. (During winter conversations materialized more often because people browsed longer.) Some people felt uncomfortable with her friendly manner and avoided eye contact. Margo accepted this as a challenge.
In spite of herself, she brought baggage with her from Richmond. She needed to tone it down. Considered a gift in some places and more appropriate for a soapbox, her deep voice commanded attention. She had just escaped the land of The New Testament, and she brought with her optimism and zeal of a new convert. It meant that she sometimes sounded pious.
On cold nights she read Eliot and Sartre. No longer in the fold, she forgot her Bible and tears of repentance. It was what brought her to her knees, while books filled a void. As for anger, she pretended indifference. She tried to be pleasant. Her bravado, called brazenness, fell somewhere between being a brat and a free spirit. Often she went overboard. She took great pains to match a person’s personality with a book, and before she left her bookstore job she could count on a steady stream of customers.
Having time to read, she almost only read modern classics, and her command of the English language separated her from her parents. This was how she began her journey. But with disdain for small towns and afraid to leave Chicago, she woke up one day feeling trapped.
Always on the lookout for something new, Margo’s appetite for change grew. She never read anything straight through and read more novelists than poets, and Englishmen more than Americans. Heavier the volume the more pains she took to read it. James Joyce topped her list. Field of aesthetics, so boring to so many, excited her. She also delved into philosophy of art. She gave lectures about “naïveté in judging” and “common place directives that were central to modern letters.” Her lectures never attracted many people.
At odd times, a gem came out of her mouth. It was usually an unconventional remark. And often it tickled someone’s funny bone. Pretty much everything she said had a bite to it, and as she grew older and more critical she turned nastier. Her frankness gained her respect. It also turned friends into enemies.
Artists Margo knew craved attention. Posing was essential for them. By dressing like gypsies or acting like Bohemians and by being different, they made statements. Often their actions bordered on insanity. They could also be nominated for a fashion parade. Yet, unless because of some quirk, they didn’t have a chance in hell of becoming famous. But it never stopped them, and for the most part they wouldn’t think of prostituting their art, while their heads swelled from adulation of friends. That was how they became preoccupied with outward appearances. This often led to craziness that gave the group cohesion. “Entertaining.” Yes, “entertaining” was how they described evenings they spent together reading poetry. When Margo read her epic poem “Alfred”, they all said they liked it.
After adoration she felt let down. She knew it was an inferior work. She called it trash. She then gave a treatise on sound and sense and deception of trash and dismissed her work as mere entertainment. Too much was now at stake for flattery. Flattery seemed like a slap in the face to her. Anticipating failure, she had a dreadful week. Accepting failure, she felt like killing herself. It was followed by another week of misery, and returning to a job was painful for her. She learned that no amount of hard work assured success.
That whole day, and into the night, she wrote unconnected phrases. Words didn’t come without expletives, and as her desire to write grew she struggled more and more. Silly words were mistaken for substance. Her second try, however, pleased her more. Outside snow began to fall, and it was easy to see why Chicago earned its nickname. A strong wind off the lake made walking unpleasant. There was no better excuse for staying inside and writing, especially since she began to enjoy it. Here then was what kept her from going insane.
For a whole month snow fell. She had graduated to writing vignettes. She wrote a piece about a happy family around a dinner table eating corn on the cob. In it she expressed all her hopes and dreams. It was how families were supposed to work and was the opposite of her experience. From an early age a part of her died every time she apologized for something. Chances of her becoming another Virginia Wolfe were indeed slim, but she certainly had material for several novels.
Margo noticed Harriot before Harriot noticed her. Harriot was a strong athletic girl who lived next door. Great many of their peers attended college and, during all seasons of the year, were preoccupied with pleasant froth, but these two were more interest in creativity. Harriot, more than Margo, had an appetite for sunlight and color. Her surprising enthusiasm, say for example, for a bright plumage of birds drew her into hat decoration, which made an immediate impression on a rather somber writer.
They probably would’ve dismissed each other had their meeting not been serendipitous. On the day they met Margo was brooding over her unfulfilled destiny. Noticeably able to enjoy each other these women shared a chemistry that sealed their friendship. Curiosity led to long conversations. Sharp debate and definite opinions enlivened discussions.
Now Margo, all heart, longed for adventure, while Harriot tried to convince her that Chicago rivaled Paris. A tour of the city settled the matter. Everywhere the guide found something to prove her point. To a couple of artists sights and sounds of Chicago were well worth it. While Harriot loved light, Margo heard screams and noises and knifings and hawking of pizza. Harriot and Margo went together but often reached different destinations. Where Harriot saw gilded furniture, gilded-framed pier mirrors, and crystal chandeliers, Margo marveled at shapes and texture of brick, wood, and glass.
There was something else they shared, something surprisingly pleasant, but something that made Margo nervous. Back in Indiana it would’ve been unacceptable. Her parents would’ve been horrified. They would never have accepted it. Now, while Margo evolved plots around bricks and mortar and Harriot did the same thing around birds and butterflies, the two women frequently held hands. Margo soon realized that her new friend expected affection. This affection led to her wondering where this obligation would lead. Without talking about it, several times Margo came close to bolting. But Harriot reassured her. Margo, as their friendship grew, had to face biases from her past.
At this early stage Margo came close to receiving recognition, recognition she desired. It pretty nearly ruined her. Praise never helped. Praise only exasperated her. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe people were telling the truth. She could’ve easily kept Harriot’s friendship, but she came to believe that because of her artist’s temperament she couldn’t have a close friend. Consequently, she neglected to invite Harriot to an opening of her epic drama.
Most Saturday nights they walked arm in arm down Halsted Street. They enjoyed lazily walking down Halsted Street, down crowded sidewalks getting lost in crowds. As they walked, they looked for ice cream. Both of them loved ice cream and ate it daily. Margo didn’t have a weight problem, so it didn’t matter how much ice cream she ate. Harriot had a weight problem, but it didn’t make any difference to her when it came to ice cream. So she put on pounds. Another thing about Margo was her appetite for shadiness, which in Chicago wasn’t hard to find. And she never worried about risks. Over eating, the two women shared it in common.
Sometimes they went to dives to listen to black men play saxophones. They knew they shouldn’t go alone, but this didn’t matter because the spotlight wasn’t on them. Bands played jazz, and between sets singers smoked tiny, brown cigars. From about nine at night until two in the morning, bands played jazz, singers smoked tiny, brown cigars, and lost souls danced to whip-like rhythms.
To find it Harriot and Margo followed a circuitous route through Gates of Hell. It took between fifteen minutes and half an hour to reach the club. It was dark and scary. “Kind of swell, don’t you think?” “Going No Where,” while everyone was in a daffy mood and easily satisfied. Their main concern was pleasure and rarely found enough of it. Margo felt like they had entered into Henry Miller’s Black Lace Lab and wasn’t knowledgeable enough to write about it.
A gentleman that she just met blew smoke in her ear. He talked tough about cheaters and swell-looking dames. Four or five other men vied for her attention, but none of them said that they waited all their life for her like he did. He looked familiar, almost certainly was, and who could tell if he told her the truth. With such a big, handsome guy Margo felt flattered but at a disadvantage. Margo never knew how much she drank. Someone said that she should eat something. Swell.
With no time to lose Margo fired the first salvo. This stopped him cold. He hadn’t heard of Henry Miller and didn’t appreciate hearing a woman curse. His companions slid away and then rushed women who were still available. Thundering sound of ten studs all chasing after five mares gave an impression of a charge of a cavalry troop. With boots and spurs they descended upon a bevy of women. Then Margo heard herself say, “Everything’s swell; I’m telling you.”
Instinct told her that she shouldn’t dance. He wanted to hold her tight, and as he expected it proved easy. Harriot turned her man down. Margo suspected that she preferred a soprano on stage, a well-known singer. Her friend didn’t say anything all evening. Margo saw her standing there with the same posture, the same disinterestedness. Indifferent or not she should have had more fun. Instead her situation seemed to go from bad to worse. By now Harriot expected to be abandoned. It was like she could read Margo’s mind. Maybe Harriot already planned to walk home by herself.
Margo felt bewildered and sad for her friend and said, “I intend to get drunk. Won’t you join me?” Under different circumstances Margo might’ve humored her, but this time she wasn’t going to allow her friend to dictate her mood and ruin her evening. It wasn’t fair. It was never fair. She was always ruining her evening. Margo loved crowds, loud music, and love-me-love-songs. Harriot never liked forced encounters. She shut down when she saw her friend enjoying herself.
A few songs later and after the place filled up Harriot got worse. To Margo nothing was more interesting than bedlam and molls and guys sucking up to each other. Then a fight broke out. Rivals attacked each other, which was why Margo would go back there. A fight broke out, and someone got hurt. “Can you beat it? The Band’s still playing. God must love a good fight. And someone got hurt.”
So as not to alert police the saxophone player played even louder. A red-hot horn in his hot hands razzed and dazzled for two consecutive hours. After that midnight came around and a mood that stayed around until pretty near dawn, and Harriot seemed determined to ruin everyone’s evening. She wouldn’t stop staring at the floor. Never for a moment did anyone distract her.
It was funny how dying suddenly became important to Harriot. Moans came from somewhere inside her and rose in intensity and followed moods and rhythms of the saxophone. Thinking of death inspired her. It always inspired her. While still young and an only child, idea of dying became an obsession. She fixated on a violent end and as it grew more intense it energized her. Finally, she gave into an impulse, and it set her heart on fire.
Imprudently instead of stabbing herself, she slit her wrist with pieces of a broken mirror. If she really wanted to die, she would’ve stabbed herself. So we see her rushing into the women’s restroom and finding a way to break a mirror. But she didn’t have guts enough to do herself in. If she really wanted to die, she would’ve bought a gun. The last thing she remembered hearing before she lost consciousness was “The Beale Street Blues.”
They rushed Harriot to Pullman Psychiatric Hospital, one of Chicago’s great institutions. Fanfare over her attempted suicide gave her attention, attention that she was looking for, but she never understood why there was such a fuss. Her hospitalization made her laugh, and no one could be sure that she wouldn’t try again.
Like drones in a glass jar, patients stuck to an unreasonable schedule. Often, while they smoked, watched television, or become involved in some other time-filling activity, everything stopped. It was like they all lost something. Someone then invariably shrieked or started a monologue about a doctor’s use of a goofy diathermy machine, or that his or hers threats of killing his or herself weren’t serious. With thorazine most of them got better … became obedient … docile and obedient. Access to the hospital grounds was used as a bribe. Compliance meant privileges. Sometimes to keep them from hurting themselves (or hurting others) they were given tranquilizers or restrained.
There was a varied population there. After a few days most of them looked and acted quite normal. With psychiatric care and bingo and square dancing, and music and soft ball, tennis, talent shows, art shows, dancing, television, movies, public speaking and a lot more, almost all of them got better. Like with thorazine, they got better. Someone might sing “Moonglow” in a monotone. Their lack of expression might indicate schizophrenia or a lack of talent. One would hope they weren’t judged by their singing.
What motivated Harriot to begin painting? Was it attention she received at the hospital? She requested that people not fuss over her or consider her painting tigers crazy. She asked people not to comment on them. As a whole her paintings represented a body of work totally unprecedented for the hospital. Her doctor encouraged it. He told her painting was good therapy and important self-expression.
Her tigers obeyed her, and she felt proud of them. What a painting meant to her was frequently missed. No one knew that she felt responsible for her tigers. And what interested her most was that she could control them. She had tigers living with her, and it didn’t seem strange to her.
Margo visited daily, while Harriot hid in her room. Day after day she grew more defiant. She always responded in the same way. Was she afraid of her friend? No. Instead, she gravitated toward the blankness of a clean wall, toward blank canvases, on which she painted more tigers. When she was painting, no one could touch her. When she was painting, no one better touch her. But though she hid, she hid in vain. To touch her again proved useless. Praise depressed her and shut her down. There lay pain. Everyday Margo appeared, there would be the same unprofitable battle. It was painful. As a matter of course Margo thought Harriot’s tiger paintings were superb and felt that she had to own one.
Margo saw it as if she were paying off a small debt. But for Harriot there couldn’t have been a more affective ploy than blaming someone else for her suicide attempt … even an embarrassingly blotched one. Only blood and pain were real. By the same token landing in Pullman was more humiliating to her than death.
It wasn’t surprising then that Harriot’s bitterness became a major source of creativity for her. When she painted, she painted with madness and frenzy. The wildest expression of vengeance directed her brush. These beasts could never be trusted or considered cute or cuddly. They were dangerous. They were dangerous and could bite her head off. Indeed, they were ferocious. Harriot used them instead of guard dogs. But long before her discharge boredom of the hospital got to her. And as unreal as it may seem she accepted money for her first tiger. Margo proved her mettle too. She bought the painting, signed and dated, though it frightened her. Hanging it in her apartment had an extraordinary effect on her. Her desire to buy art was thus born. It was art of a friend that got her started. She was pleased. Pursued by a host of friends Margo soon learned that she preferred to buy art than receive acclaim.
The big fellow had charm, and Egisto Rossi’s connections with Sicilian bosses gave him an additional advantage. He overlooked what his friends did and for the most part never got into trouble. Egisto ran a lucrative business but never made big money. He became renown for selling pasta by the pound.
He never thought that he would marry an outsider. However, as he’d say, “Those things happen.” Margo frequented his restaurant. They shared a passion for Italian food. Egisto was so bold as to ask Margo her name. She flirted with him, and one thing led to another. Margo was flattered by his attention, and he was equally flattered when she flirted back, and once it got started, they didn’t know how to stop it. In short, Italians don’t mess around.
One bright day, as it grew hotter, Margo sat with Egisto and raised her eyes to watch birds sunning themselves on the breakwater. Just as happiness to a fisherman meant having faith in a half-inch minnow, Egisto believed in the law of probability and that he would eventually catch a fish in Lake Michigan. Even catching a small one made him happy. For Margo had come to Municipal Pier, not to fish for a fish but to fish for a man she thought was a millionaire.
Their marriage, however, never fulfilled the promise of their first few dates, or promises they made to each other. It was a continual challenge; but he gave her a comfortable life.
At the very least Egisto made a good living selling pasta by the pound. Margo liked it when his customers greeted him with “your Excellency.” It meant that he had at least four cents in his pocket and nobody could mistake him for a doctor or a priest.
Egisto ran his establishment in such a way that nobody worried about prices and nobody went home hungry. Besides providing him with a living the restaurant became a form of recreation, and he never worried about where to go on Saturday night. Pushing himself to become a cut above rabble or riffraff (the mob), he often said, “Snobbery is a necessary thing. Society has to have differences in order to run properly.”
He rambled that way and promised Margo a home. He usually kept his promises. He gave her examples of what he could offer her, and again he usually kept his promises. (Still their marriage didn’t live up to its promise.) She saw that he really worked hard. (It was encouraging.) He worked hard and earned every penny he ever made. In many ways he reminded her of her father. Harking back to his roots he often sang arias from ID TRAVATORE. People who knew him weren’t surprised to hear him also sing something from LA DOLCE VITA, while Margo played in her head with an idea of becoming a nymph or a faun … on a solitary beach, or in a secluded cave … where she could bathe in the nude, drink wine out of sea shells, and eat messy food with her hands. He consorted with “contadini” and fishermen. In Chicago, forget it! Parts of Chicago may have had enough Italians to be called Little Rome, but parts of the city were also as far from the Vatican as you could get.
From the beginning Egisto stated his motives. Love according to him was delicious. He loved to eat and loved to make love. He liked nothing better than taking her clothes off. Liked it better than cooking and eating. Yes, it was okay. Priests endorsed it. She, however, sought a combination of sensuality and sincerity. And in the morning sex with fireworks! He would stand there, ogling and curling the tip of an imaginary mustache. “You’re sweet,” “delicious,” or simply, “mmm,” those were his words. Then by snapping his fingers he made her susceptible to a unique form of gallantry.
By and by he would get around to asking her about her day. It would get her talking, and he couldn’t stop her. A revival of PASSAGE OF INDIA just opened at the Goodman Theater with marvelous reviews. She expected her husband to share her enthusiasm. His mere attention was never enough. She wanted him to recognize what was important to her.
First her achievement as a poet gave her connections and self-assurance to become a patroness. First paintings (of tigers and other wild animals) she purchased, as she often proudly said, were only a start. In turn she actually launched Harriot’s career. It helped her friend overcome reality and poverty that most painters faced. Margo might’ve been famous herself had she not been so distracted by limited successes of her friends.
But this was only conjecture, conjecture that increasingly haunted her and made her question her talent. Maego only wrote three or four plays, which in some circles was considered phenomenal. Though measuring success was difficult she unfortunately and unjustly grew more and more dissatisfied with her work.
The couple often seemed sad. Often as they stared out over the lake, their conversation turned away from the god-almighty theater and the arts to volumes about nothing. But always there was confusion over Egistos’ drinking. Too often they pretended that his heavy drinking was necessary. Too often they pretended that he had to have a drink to have a good time. A great game called sympathetic drinking drew Margo into it. It was one of the things Egisto succeeded at. Often with an empty glass in her hand she endorsed her husband’s drunkenness. Wearing tinted-glasses she would ignore an evil genie … drinking. She was easily seduced, seduced by places having fun took her, from the arms of Henry (as in Miller) to mad sex with Egisto, and the clamor, glitter and shrieks that came her way from being with celebrities.
With help of pain and misery Egisto, always playing host, fast approached now the last stages of a disease. Literally he drank himself to death. He could always afford another drink. He could always find a drinking buddy. He often drank with his customers.
Up until the end friends congregated around Egisto to eat homemade pasta, drink great wine, and sing his favorite songs. They were generally people he knew, knew most of his life because he chose his friends well and never let them down. These people he nightly welcomed to his restaurant, but few of them sent Margo condolences. To Egisto, however, the possibility of death never seemed real.
Sometimes Margo worked beside her husband; and this was easier for her than one might’ve imagined. Often celebrities came for dinner, actors, writers, and singers, from the Opera company, Geridine Farrer and Marie Callas, people who Margo always personally served. Like at the bookstore, she served actors, writers, and singers. Egisto claimed he once out drank Hemmingway, though the famous writer never came into his restaurant. Meanwhile Egisto felt that he and his friends, many of them immigrants, were living an American dream and realized that it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Secrets they kept not only included pasta and pavlova but also crime.
Egisto knew Boo Boo, Max, Duffy, and Bugs. Preferring neutrality, he however never joined a Mafioso family. Instead he catered to them by offering cards, cigars, and meals. Rival bosses held celebrations at his restaurant, often ostensibly to raise money for the Maritime Society or a Catholic charity. Of course Egisto enjoyed prestige. Those who knew him thought he would make a great mayor or another Caruso or Tamagno.
He strutted and changed table clothes with the snapped of a wrist. Instead of war medals, he wore carnations. All the time, while serving his customers, and with hundreds of plots and thousands of characters, he carried on extended conversations. He shared with them joy, sorrow, hope, anger, relief, boredom, despair, love, and disappointment, which made him instantly likeable. Egisto could have been elected lamico degli amici, a friend of friends, or un gran signore. Again, he could’ve been elected mayor. By not saying much Margo allowed her husband to be flamboyant, juvenile, and often ridiculous. And generally he gave in when he saw that he couldn’t control her, but he increasingly stood in her shadow.
Margo’s tiny coffeehouse and gallery on Washington Street near Market offered unknown talent a shelter away from critics. Each evening, around eight o’clock, a responsive audience gathered. They sat around small tables, sipped hot chocolate or various kinds of coffee, sipped, talked, watched, and listened. Margo’s business attracted a mixed crowd. They came to hear and to see the gang, a group of artist and friends who sang, told fortunes, improvised plays, and basically performed their own work. Within this crowd Harriot’s popularity grew. Everyone knew her. Everyone applauded her, and her paintings began to sell. Her works were sensitive and sexually ambiguous.
Egisto gave his wife’s project his blessing. He did it without profit in sight. As far as he was concerned, owning a billiard hall or selling cigars on a street corner made more sense, but he still gave her his blessing. Rules and expectations to Margo were more inconsequential than distortions and excesses in modern art.
Each night her customers could expect a shock or two. For three hours, performers delivered and dared to do things that artists elsewhere merely contemplated. Nightly skits outraged some people, while most people enjoyed them. It was one place where people could be themselves. Soon Margo found herself leading Chicago’s avant-garde.
Then Margo turned to social realism and decided the best use for Egistos’ money was to produce a movie of Upton Sinclair’s novel THE JUNGLE. All attempts to discourage her failed. No one could stop her. Nothing ever stopped her after she made up her mind to do something. No one could keep her away from slaughterhouses and slums. Such experiences kept her awake at night. Sleeplessness came with the creative process, but Margo’s work shared the same deficiencies as Sinclair’s novel.
Within some circles she was labeled a communist. While many writers of proletarian literature faced congressional hearings and were blacklisted, she never became prominent enough for it.
Caught up in Sinclair’s straightforward descriptions of meatpacking and pork-making, the whole process, the grisly accidents and the industrial diseases, “singe and smell of mass-produced death and dismemberment,” she shared the author’s ideas about humanity’s future. She wanted to capture rivers of blood and stench … unwashed walls, rafters and pillars caked with filth … a plague of flies descending on Packing Town … cattle driven through chutes … the killing bed … cleaver men, knockers armed with sledge-hammers, and butchers with long knives, men cutting, splitting, gutting, and scraping. A grisly scene, and cruel. She wanted to capture it all. At the same time Egisto was struck with pain and for the life of her Margo couldn’t sympathize.
But soon she ran into problems endemic to the movie business. The more the movie and her personal life became intertwined, the more difficult the juggling act became. It also soon became clear that she didn’t have enough money. From the beginning she didn’t have enough money. At no time did she have a realistic picture of a budget.
At the same time Egistos’ showed cautious enthusiasm for her work, which had to be placed in the context of a hospital stay. Pain returned, and he hadn’t stopped drinking. For Margo his death couldn’t have come at a worse time. And disappointingly, before she had a chance to complete her film, a backer backed out and doomed the project. This blow hurt Margo more than anything else.
Here ended her fling with Henry and Upton. Everyone, innumerable people rallied around her and tried to cheer her up. She needed a fresh start. But less importance was placed on her lifelong dream of creating a major work. As her dad would say, “No setbacks, no gain.” But subsequent projects wouldn’t be as long and painful as THE JUNGLE.
Margo felt old, as she viewed death as a cruel joke. She knew that her mother viewed death as a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “Robbery!” she cried. Her husband’s death caught her off guard and made her wonder where she had been. She couldn’t say that she knew him, while people who did know him gathered around in a reverent manner. They only had nice things to say about him. From their conversations Margo couldn’t tell whom they were talking about. Maybe they were all mixed up, or not telling the truth. The truth about what? She didn’t have an answer, and everything seemed muddled. He suffered a great deal, and she hadn’t been there for him. She was incapable of it, and so he wasn’t your typical man. And it was humiliating for Margo. His epitaph simply read, “For God has called, and I must go and leave you all.” Simple. Nothing else could be said.
It was quite a spectacle. Mourners gathered and filed past the casket for one last look. Among them were Sicilian-bosses Boo Boo, Max, Duffy, and Bugs. Margo’s parents didn’t say a word about them, and she wasn’t quite sure whether they would or not. But most likely they wouldn’t. She was burying her husband, and they weren’t likely to confront her then. The slightest indiscretion hurt her.
She saw Egisto lying there in a tweed suit, as she came up to him. That was his Excellency, but she knew very well that he wasn’t there. You see, she was crying; he was gone; he had meant so much to her and no doubt everyone could see it because she shook the whole time. Excuse her for shaking. She hadn’t had a long cry yet; Margo’s time had come; she took the time for a long farewell to his Excellency, as a soprano sang his favorite aria from ID TRAVATORE.
Thinking of her dad, what changes did Margo see in him, suggested by changes along US 40? Whenever she went home she spent time with him at the gas station. Why? Why not! Why not spend time with him, her father and her mother? It shouldn’t shock anyone that Margo didn’t remember US 40, except for names of towns…. Greenfield, Indianapolis, Brazil, and Terre Haute. Not that she’d recognized her hometown after a 1968 explosion totally leveled two downtown city blocks and spread destruction over a fourteen-block area. But while it upset all her family, she saw devastation in a way that the rest of them couldn’t. She tried to speak to her mother about it, but timing was wrong, which always seem to be the case. She concentrated on carrying on and kept her mind busy.
“Our journeys to the land of promise, varying in distance, takes us in unexpected directions. And when one wanders as a stranger in an unfamiliar place, or, when, not knowing what else to do, after settling on specifics, we cling to a few tangible things.” But Margo concerned herself more and more with intangible things and seemed filled with regret when she couldn’t do more.