My dad is going to tell you that at the top of the stairs in the house, the floor creaks. He’s going to tell you that wherever you step, the floor will squeak like a violin whose strings are frayed and hold only memories of notes. He’s a very honest man, my dad, and he’s going to tell you about the squeaking floor because he’ll want you to know you might wake your daughter in the still dark morning when you walk downstairs for coffee.
She’ll hear it, and she’ll hear the shower turn on, and the L rushing passed her window. There used to be a guy who’d carry the Chicago Tribune in a wheelbarrow down the alleyway, the scratchy wheels bringing up the sun, but he doesn’t come around anymore. I remember when I came home for a visit — was it college? after I married? maybe I’d had kids — when I’d realized nobody delivered the newspaper this way anymore. These sounds are irreplaceable, is what I’m saying. It’s not that your daughter is going to get used to them. She’s going to spend the rest of her life missing them.
The backyard has a space for a garden if you like. There’ve been geraniums, tomatoes, one sunflower, and once, raspberry bushes. But raspberries are wild. They won’t stay where you plant them. One summer they’re in the dirt between the slab of cement my dad poured when we got a second car, and the next they’re two doors down.
Do you know the area well? You’re close to the Oak Park Conservatory where everything is two hundred shades of green except for the goldfish that pop in the murky pond under the little bridge. Your daughter will like to stand on that mossy bridge and watch the orange glow from the fish as they swim back and forth, underneath her feet and out the other side.
There’s the Oak Park Bakery that has the best cookies and pastries east of the Mississippi River. If you take your daughter in with you, the ladies will give her two sugar cookies with rainbow sprinkles for free. The cookies come in pink wax paper bags, and the ladies fold and crease them once before they hand them across the glass counter where the crullers and raspberry coffeecakes are displayed. Your daughter will eat one right away and save the other for when she’s standing over the bridge watching the L and the cars racing towards the city.
Ascension Church is a block west of your home. You can see the dome with Jesus on top of it from the window while you shower. In the summer the church’s doors are open and you can usually hear when the organist is practicing. If you’re quiet, I don’t think anyone minds if you sit in the pew and listen, and wonder about being Irish and Catholic and whether you’ll ever have as much faith as Mary.
Right next door is the Maze Branch of the public library, a great place to work, especially if your daughter isn’t a reader. Here’s what you do: You tell her she needs a summer job. She’s going to roll her eyes, but ignore that. Tell her the library is always looking for shelvers — the folk who put the returned books back in their places. Pays minimum wage. Yes, tell her she can listen to music while she shelves books. Just get her shelving the books, because there is nothing else to do in there but read. Pretty soon, she’ll hide behind those rotating book carousels reading the dust jackets and eventually she’ll bring a stack home. “Did you know this was a book first?” she might say, waving The Princess Bride in your face. Try not to facepalm yourself in front of her. Wait until she runs up to her room. She’s reading up there, you know.
There are three bedrooms on the second floor and the one by the bathroom is the biggest. I suggest you let your daughter have that room. She can put her bed by the window in the front part of the room and hear the L, or the cicadas sing their love songs in the summer. The telephone wire runs past this window, and sometimes the cicadas leave their shells on the wire when they fly into adulthood.
The front steps are a great place to sit on a summer’s night, when the wood from the stairs is still warm from the sun and the L seems to slow to a hush. Your daughter might sit on the steps when she comes home for the night but she’s not ready to come inside. There’s something musical about the quiet rush of the L, the swaying of the oak branches that rustle the leaves, and the low hum of the cicadas that’ll keep her outside wondering.
A boy will probably visit her on those steps. She doesn’t go out there to wait for him, but she won’t tell him to go away when he saunters up the sidewalk and sits down next to her. They’ll talk for a while, and she’ll smell the bread being made at Mamma Susi’s on Roosevelt, the Red Hots from Ferrara Pan Candy Company, and the factories of Gary, Indiana.
My dad is probably going to want to tell you how awful the factories smell. They smell like old French fries, he’ll say. And like the creak at the top of the stairs, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Your daughter will learn, though, that smelling the factories is how she knows spring is on its way. Soon, she’ll be wearing flip-flops. Soon, the cicadas will be out. Soon, they’ll sing their way to adulthood, their shells clinging to the telephone wire, holding perfectly the form of what was, while the body has moved somewhere else.
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