Chicago ’71 – Duke Droste

Published in Q2 Edition and Grand Prize Winner for the Texas Writers Journal – 2014

“Anna…  Anna Marie?  Wake up, Darling.  You need to get up.”

I felt a shove on my shoulder.  Opening my eyes, a silhouette of my mother leaned over me.  I sat up in bed.  It was dark, but the wind blew the trees outside my window with a strong hand.  The dull ache in the pit of my stomach told me it was too early for school on a Monday.  Her voice sounded tense.

“What’s wrong, Momma?”

“Your father will explain things.  Quick, get dressed and come downstairs.  I need to get Christine and Herman.”  Momma gave me a big hug, kissed my forehead, and hurried out of the room to deal with my younger sister and brother.

I threw the coverlet off, jumped, and landed on the wood floor with a thump.  My room felt warm.  The summer had been a scorcher, but once we’d hit October last week, it had begun to cool down.  Pulling my sleeping gown over my head, I tossed it in the basket, and then slipped on my petticoat skirt with a light blue dress for school.

What’s that smoky smell?  Why would Daddy light a fire at this time of the morning?  The odor came from my open window and peered out to see if anyone was burning leaves.  The street teemed with people, but then I realized dawn approached from the wrong direction.

I took care, bounding the stairs one at a time instead of my usual two.  Swinging into the kitchen, I saw Daddy sitting at the table with a small oil lamp that barely lit the room.  He wore his black trousers and a white dress shirt without his usual cravat.  He looked pale, and his walrus mustache drooped over his hand as it cupped his chin.  He spoke with our neighbor, Mr. Sherman and got quiet once I entered.

“Good Morning, Daddy.”

“Morning.”  Daddy’s eyes tried to smile, but his face failed him.

“What’s happening outside?”  I took a couple of steps closer, looked down, and kicked my foot against the floor.

“We’ll discuss that when the rest of the family is downstairs.  Can you wait for us in the parlor?”

“It’s scary dark in there. Can I sit over here on that chair?”  I wanted an excuse to stay in the kitchen and hear what they were talking about.  He nodded, and then they talked in code.

“So it happened sometime before midnight?” asked Daddy.

“Yup,” said Mr. Sherman.


“West of the south branch, I heard.”

“It jumped the river, and the wind’s blowing it this way.  Who knows, it might stop at the main branch.”

“Let’s pray it does.”

Christine and Herman entered, rubbing sleep from their eyes, and followed by Momma.

“What time is it?” asked Herman.

A bell rang in the distance. Daddy looked at Momma, their eyes a torrent of wordless conversation.

“Why is the bell ringing?” I asked.

“It has been ringing off and on for a couple of hours now,” said Momma.

Daddy and Mr. Sherman rose from their chairs.  “Thomas, I need to head back to my house.  Jane and the children are waiting on me,” said Mr. Sherman.

They shook hands, and Mr. Sherman walked out of the kitchen.  Momma escorted him to the front door.  The grandfather clock in the hall hit the hour and chimed four times—I expected more.  No wonder I was tired.

When Momma returned, Daddy addressed the family.  Momma stood behind us.  “There’s a fire south of here and it’s moving this way.  We need to prepare for the worst.  I want you all to be brave, and help your mother collect some things.  We’ve only got a few hours.”

Herman spoke up first.  “Does this mean we don’t have school today?”

Daddy gave the first glimmer of a smile this morning. “Yes, boy, you get a day off.”  He reached out and gave a soft pat to Herman’s head.

My brother’s eyes got big and hopeful.  He hated school.

“Go get your coats,” said Momma, as she stepped over and hugged Daddy, whispering something.

I got my coat and saw Daddy disappear out the front door.  I followed him.  When I stepped out onto the front porch, the smell of burning wood mixing with other odors became stronger.  I walked down the front path to the street, and when I cleared the trees, I saw Pine Street bustling with carts and people scurrying.  To my left stood the new water tower, its white stone glowed red from the blaze burning in the south, beyond.  That part of the sky glowed bright and made the autumn night shimmer a beautiful, dangerous, red.  The air stung hot as any summer day, and the wind blew fierce as any thunderstorm.

My father waved down an empty pull cart being drawn down Whitney.  The nervous horse appeared afraid to stop. The driver wore a ragged top hat tilted to the side, a scraggly beard, and an old coat.  He produced a tight smile but seemed friendly enough.

“You available to haul some things?” asked Daddy.

“Might be.  Where to?”

“To the lake.  How much?”

“Thirty dollars,” said the man without hesitation.

“Thirty dollars?”

“You got a nice house there.  I’m sure you’ll want to safeguard a number of items. You want my cart or not?”  The man appeared ready to move his cart down the street.

“How about, one trip for twenty dollars?  The lake is right behind us.”

The man thought for a moment and nodded.  “Deal.  I’ll pull ‘round the back, then.”

“Thank you, sir.  I’ll get your money and meet you there.”  Daddy turned around and saw me standing behind him.  “What’re you doing here?”  He strode toward me and grabbed both my shoulders in a firm, yet gentle, grip. “Anna, I’m depending on you to help your mother.  Get to the house, now.”

I ran to the house and found Momma in the dining room with an open trunk, loading the fine china into it.  Christine and Herman helped her.

“Anna, there you are.  Get the silverware and those candlesticks out of the hutch and bring them here.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

We loaded the trunk with all of Momma’s pieces.  Some were Grandmother’s and had a sentimental value far beyond their worth.  Momma packed them with tablecloths and placemats to buffer them for the move.

Herman grabbed an old urn with a lid, brown with no specific markings.  He lifted it, and presented it to Momma.  “You want me to put this with the others?”

“Darling, that jar’s not worth the effort,” said Momma.

A smile curved up from Herman’s lips.  “Can I smash it?”

She gave him a look that said everything.  He set it down.

Daddy and the driver came into the room.  “Margaret, what items do you want to load?  I’ve secured a cart.”

“This trunk, the parlor furniture, and the oriental rug.  Then—”

“We have time for only one trip.”

“A lifetime of things and I have to boil that down to one load,” cried Momma.  Her tears flowed as the moment overcame her.  Daddy gave her a hug and she wiped her face dry on frilled cuffs.

Later, Daddy and the driver carried the couch down the hallway.  As they eased it around the last corner they brushed against the canary cage.  It swiveled a turn and crashed to the floor, breaking open.

“Lemon!” screamed Christine.  She ran to the cage and scooped up the bird as he tried to escape.  “Where do I put him?  We’ve got to save him, too,” she said, jumping up and down in place with the bird cupped in her hands.

“Find something to put him in.  You need to hurry,” said Momma.

Daddy and the driver managed to load everything that we could fit in the cart.  It was crammed thick and high with our belongings.

“That’s it, or else the horse can’t pull it,” said the driver.

Daddy jammed a shovel in the last open spot.  The driver stared at him.  Momma’s face twisted and her bottom lip began to quiver, but she said nothing.

Dawn had broken across the lake ahead of us, but the sky to our right housed an angry red devil.  The driver snapped the reigns, and the horse struggled, heaving against the harness to move the cart.  After several seconds, we slowly pulled away from our back porch.    Each of us followed behind, carrying smaller bundles of items.  As the cart approached the street, we had to contend with a stream of people heading the same way.  We merged into the traffic.  Panicked people pushed passed, bumping into us.  We travelled along the left side of the road down to the lake and then up beside the beach.  After a short while, Daddy indicated that this might be a good place to stop.

“We can’t drive on the sand, or the cart will sink.  I’ll help you unload,” said the driver.

Daddy stared back in response, somehow knowing that an argument with the man would do no good.  We rushed to unload all the pieces, and once the cart was empty, the driver pulled away swift without any words of farewell.

The furniture seemed as heavy as ship anchors.  We toiled for hours to lug them across the sand and up into the dunes.  Our feet sunk several inches with each step, pouring loads of gritty stuff into our shoes.  We managed to move everything out of the way from everyone else who rushed along the lake shore.

“My feet hurt,” whined Herman.

Momma patted his back.  Daddy turned and said, “Boy, I know it’s tough, but we need every man to pull his weight.  You’re my boy.  You’re strong, right?”

Appealing to my brother’s ego, he stopped complaining.  Daddy took the shovel and dug at a furious pace for almost an hour until he had to stop.  Momma took over for awhile and then me.  Daddy took the shovel again, and we repeated the process for hours until we had made a pit large enough for everything.  We carefully loaded every object and placed the Oriental rug on top, then covered it all with sand.

“Everyone, look around you.  The dunes … the beach … the shoreline.  Memorize any landmarks you can, so we can find this place again,” said Daddy.

It must have been nearly noon when we finished.  The glow of the fire loomed much closer and the flames more visible.  Black smoke coughed up into the atmosphere, turning the sky black.

“Dear Lord, help us.  It’s crossed the river into the North Division,” said Daddy, to no one in particular.  “We need to move.  Herman, you hold your Mother’s hand. Christine, hold Anna’s.  I’ll follow behind.  Everyone stay together.”

Our family fell in line with the crowds trudging north along the roads and the shoreline.  We travelled away from buildings and kept close to the water.  The wind continued to blow heat from behind as the fire chased after us.  Ash blew like a dirty snowstorm.  Breathing the thick air along with the ebb and flow of the migrating crowd harried us onward.

“Where are we going, Daddy?” I asked.

“We’re headed for Lincoln Park.”

Christine suddenly bolted upright and gripped my hand tighter.  “Lemon!  I forgot about him.  Did anyone see the pot I put him in?”  She let go of my hand and turned to Daddy.  “We have to go back.  I don’t know where he is.”

Daddy slowed, but the crowd forced him to herd us forward.  He placed his arms around Christine and lifted her.  “We can’t go back, Sweetheart.  We have to keep moving.”

Christine cried on his shoulder.  Her tears streaked the gray stains on his once white shirt while Daddy patted the side of her head, carrying her.  Later when she calmed herself, he set her down and again she held my hand as we slogged forward.

The sun was near the horizon when we saw our first grave marker.  It was a simple cross with a name in white letters.  We saw more and more markers and labored to avoid tripping over them.

“What are all the crosses for?” asked Herman.

“They’re graves,” said Momma, trying not to elaborate.

“We’re stomping on top of dead people?”

“Unfortunately we have no choice but to cross through the graveyard.”

“Why don’t they have pretty headstones like where we visit Grandma and Grandpa?” asked Christine.

“We’re walking through Potter’s Field.  These are the graves of the poor.”

“I’m scared.  What if they don’t like us walking on their graves?” Herman grabbed Momma with both hands, pleading.

“Just be respectful, and try not to disturb anything.”

An older boy walking nearby, overhead the conversation and added, “Don’t let Johnny Reb get you.”

“What?” asked Herman.

“The Rebel Graves are up ahead.  They’re the dead soldiers from the war.  Tortured in the Douglas prison and buried up there.”  The boy pointed somewhere ahead on the right.  “Don’t whistle, Dixie, or they’ll crawl out of their graves and hunt you down,” answered the boy in a low voice and eyes opened wide with terror.

“Don’t listen to him,” said Momma

By the time they reached the Rebel Graves, the sun had set.  The glow behind them made the shadows dance in a blood, red color.  The ash and soot swirled around us, and behind, it rained sparks like snowflakes of fire drifting down.  The inferno moved ever closer to us; it was as if Hell were driving us to our graves.  Everyone tried to remain positive, but the eerie sounds and images surrounding us, darkened our spirits.

When that boy started whistling, Dixie, Herman nearly leapt out of his skin.

Herman railed at the boy.  “STOP IT.  Stop whistling that song!”

The boy slowed and slapped his thighs, laughing.  He thought it the perfect joke until his father whacked him in the back of his head with an open hand.  He stopped laughing and fell in line with the rest of the crowd as we drove away from Hell.

Later that night, we reached Lincoln Park.  The grounds were expansive and stood apart from trees, buildings, and anything else flammable.  We found a spot and hunkered down to rest and wait out the fire.

“Did you feel that?” I asked.

“What?”  Christine asked.

“A raindrop…  I felt a raindrop.”  I stood, raising my arms, palms up.  “There’s another.”

Over the next hour, a slow steady advance of rain built momentum as Heaven sent down relief.  It rained late in the night and into the early morning hours.  The fire fought against the rain, raging against it, fuming and angry for hours, but before sunrise the devil had been vanquished.  The wind died, and the heat subsided to a measure.  In the daylight, everything as far as the eye could see was a grey, steaming mess.  New panic grew as people realized that although they survived the fire: where would they live… where would they work… how would they endure the coming winter?  The rich and the poor became indistinguishable.  In this world, everything and everyone was covered in soot and despair—appearing desolate and colorless.    All of us ghosts, we wandered about the grounds of Lincoln Park looking for somewhere to haunt—if there was such a place to find.

A day later, after the city cooled enough, we returned to the dunes.  I looked down the shoreline of the lake.  The new Water Tower had somehow survived the blaze, but everything around it, including where our house once stood was leveled.  The dunes were as we had left them, an undisturbed grave of our possessions.  We removed the thin layer of sand that we had hurriedly heaped over the only physical things we could save.

We lifted away the Oriental rug that capped all the furniture, trunks, vases, etc.  Standing around the site, we gave reverent silence to all the chaos that had lived, previous.

“What’s that chirping sound?” I asked.

Christine jumped down into the pit and dug around, moving some things, and pulled out an old brown jar.  She carefully lifted the lid.  Her face came alive as she reached into the jar.

“Lemon,” she cried.  “He’s alive.”

She pulled the bird out of the jar.

His beautiful yellow plumage flashing, the bird became the only brilliant beacon of contrast to the grey, rain-smeared backdrop of Christine’s blouse.

4 thoughts on “Chicago ’71 – Duke Droste

  1. Pingback: Chicago '71 - Short Story - The Droste EffectThe Droste Effect

  2. Duke –
    Fascinating story! Great writing – I can see why your story was selected.
    What happened next?

    • That’s a good question. Maybe for a followup story. The short of it. The little boy, Henry ( My Great Grandfather ) grew up and
      moved the family lumber business to New Orleans. They had a house at the corner of First and Camp. He was a prominent business man there as part of that community for many years.

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