BY JAN WIEZOREK
Jan Wiezorek writes and teaches at an elementary school in Chicago. Copyright is held by the author.
RENEE WAS READY to board the red double-decker tourist bus at the park wearing her sandals. She heard the man speaking on a microphone from up on top: “Come right up, young lady.” She looked up at him and smiled. Wasn’t he cute? she asked herself.
So, among the several buses, she chose his. Renee began by rising up along the twisting metal steps in her sore feet until it looked like she was on the second floor of a building. From up there on the top deck, she got a glorious view of the terra-cotta decoration on the early skyscrapers of old downtown.
Then, minutes later, as the bus pulled away and down the boulevard, she nearly got her head cut off. She was passing under an el bridge. She heard herself take God’s name in vain.
“Yes, please remember to stay seated as we pass under the tracks and bridges,” he said directly to her. The warning was much too late for comfort, and she became agitated — no, thoroughly disgusted. Now, he looked too skinny, and his smile was crooked, she thought. Yes, he resembled a carnival barker at the county fair.
It was so unexpected. To be standing for just a moment, enjoying the view on top of the barreling bus. Then, to see a horizontal, rusty steel girder appear to be bolting forward toward her at eye level. Thank God she had ducked just in time.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she said again inside her head, not daring to say so out loud. Finally, she quieted herself, took deep breaths, and tried to relax. After all, she had survived.
The other conventioneers took a trip around the downtown Loop. But Renee’s double-decker left the tall building canyons and zoomed farther afield. Renee was whisked past Chinatown’s gift shops and along lemonade ice stands in Italian Village. But then the bus swung over toward Greek Town. That’s what the carnie called it.
She had the time, so she chose to get off there and pick up another one later that would be heading back to the Loop — where her head would be in peril once again.
“Enjoy yourself, young lady — and next time remember to duck,” he called out and ended with a full out laugh on the microphone. She gave a half-hearted wave to the upper deck looking down at her and holding back chuckles, she thought. Renee just stood there in her painful sandals. Bus exhaust and curb dust blew over her Capri pants and cotton blouse.
Renee took her sore feet and walked the neighborhood in the heat. She saw nothing but cheap or pricey restaurants. But her stomach was far from calm anyway. Right now, she couldn’t eat. Still, she thought about stopping somewhere. And that’s when she saw the quaint candle shop. The 1950s-style neon sign caught her brown eyes with lashes—lashes to which mascara was never applied.
Inside the corner store, Renee saw tall, red vigil candles to Roman Catholic saints. But it was the counter just inside the door to the left that drew her attention. On it were 12-ounce plastic squeeze bottles stenciled with cheap designs of devils, saints, love and kisses, and healing potions for nearly every ailment—from corns to cancer.
Renee looked around and risked unscrewing the plastic tops of the bottles to smell inside. Rose water, witch hazel, and other ingredients either soothed or irritated her nostrils. Perhaps a drop of rose water touched the tip of her nose, she thought, or was it the witch hazel?
No, painted icons and glass votives didn’t appeal to her just now. Instead, she decided to spend $2.50 per bottle on three plastic bottles. It was a risk, but affordable, after all. One bottle offered romance; another, the abatement of sin; and the third, healing of tired feet, always the ailment of school teachers. Renee chuckled to herself at that last bottle.
Now, she looked closely at each bottle’s graphic image. Renee enjoyed romance, shown as a pretty girl sitting on a guy’s lap. Sin reduction was accomplished under the graphic of a saint with a halo. He appeared to be kicking a pitch-fork-holding red devil, with horns and a tail. Feet in a tub of soothing water was the image on one bottle for healing. Each bottle also had its own Helvetica words in italic font. Renee read “Romance,” “Sin Removal,” and “Foot Healing.”
“They’re very popular — and inexpensive,” said a pretty clerk in her 20s. She left work undone behind the counter to stock candles. Clearly, she didn’t care whether Renee opened and sniffed or not.
Renee scratched the tip of her nose and gathered the three plastic bottles of her choosing. Then, she put all of them on the counter. The clerk returned with a sashay. She wrapped each purchase in cheap off-white paper and dropped them each into a brown paper bag. It was like the ones Renee sometimes brought to school with a warm bologna sandwich inside.
So, with her three gifts from the big city, Renee by now limped her way across the street to the gyros lunch counter on the opposite corner. It had a stunning view of an expensive courtyard restaurant across the street. There, a summer’s ivy stretched across an old brick wall near diners who sat laughing under red umbrellas. They looked relaxed, and a cooling fountain spray attracted many workers for lunch. But not Renee; not on her salary, and in a strange city, too, no less.
“I’ll have the gyros plate, with sauce on the side — and a small diet drink,” she told the owner, she assumed, who came to her table.
“We have the best gyros in town,” he said. He bowed and left. How kind, she thought. The gentleman had large, dark eyes and a touch of gray in his black hair. He had welcomed her and made her feel at home in his cool, conditioned air.
The diner was nearly empty, and Renee couldn’t help overhearing a 30s-something couple argue near her table.
“There, you said it,” the woman said. “You just don’t care.” She had red hair and violent pink lips, Renee thought.
“About?” the man she was with asked. Renee pegged him as lacking athleticism, and he wore greasy jet-black hair.
“You just don’t care if you bring home any money or not,” the pink-lipped woman continued. “Why do I always get involved with the guy who sits at home? Before you it was Mark — the plumber who could never find anyone with a leaky faucet. Just my luck.”
“Well, I’m not going there,” said the man with greasy hair. “I never met a Mark I ever liked. Your problem — not mine,” he said.
The squabble continued, but Renee tuned it all out as she reviewed her purchases. She unscrewed the top of Romance and turned the bottle’s graphic image toward the bickering couple. The man could see the picture clearly. And he did gaze at it — and at Renee — from time to time, she thought.
The nearby argument had soothed a bit as the diners ate. Now, her own gyros plate and diet drink were on the owner’s tray. He bowed again and smiled at Renee.
“Please tell me if you would like more sauce. I think you will enjoy our gyros,” he said again, with a final bow. He winked in her direction. Had he seen Romance? she asked herself.
Across the street, the diners were winding down their luncheon meal. Men and women were walking arm in arm, and some coworkers had reached around to put their arms on the shoulders of friends. Perhaps it was a reunion or a goodbye party, Renee thought. They strolled along the street and eventually were out of sight beyond the restaurant windows.
Soon enough Renee was finishing her own meal. She looked over and noticed the bickering couple had not only stopped arguing but also had left completely, unbeknownst to her.
The Greek owner came back once again. “I would love to have you try our baklava —honey-nut pastry for your lovely sweet tooth,” he said. “It is yours — on the house.” He moved his arms from behind his back and set a small plate of the dessert on the table, along with a fork.
“Thank you,” she said. She noticed he had unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt to reveal more of his chest. “It is kind of you,” she said, “but I am more than full. Thank you, though.”
The owner showed his sourpuss face for a moment as he took away the dessert, but then he was careful to smile at her again with his dark eyes. As he did, he hit the bottle by mistake, and some of the liquid Romance spilled onto the tiled floor.
“I am so sorry, my dear,” he said. “I will clean this immediately.”
“I’m to blame for not capping it,” she replied. Renee took the bottle and screwed on the top as the owner left. But then he returned promptly to clean up with a mop and pail before walking back to the counter and staring at her from afar.
She smelled Sin Removal and then Foot Healing for one last time, and her nose tingled. Now, she thought, it was time to leave, so she paid the dark-chested owner on her way out.
“I hope I will have the pleasure to see you again,” he said. She noticed his chest heaved forward as she turned to leave. She said, “May God bless you.”
While she waited at the double-decker bus stop across the street, she could see the owner working fast to close up shop — undoing his apron strings, turning off the electricity, locking the front door, and jogging over to the stop where she stood.
“I am closing now to go downtown,” he said to her. “Perhaps we can take the double-decker together,” he added.
“I don’t see why not,” she said. “It appears God is watching over us today.”
“Why do you say so?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. For one, I guess, I almost lost my head on the double-decker making my way here. For another . . . .” She wasn’t certain what to say next, so she just stopped mid-sentence, and he gave her a knowing glance, moving closer to her.
“God does work in mysterious ways,” the Greek owner replied.
Now, the red double-decker was fast approaching, and Renee stepped back from the curb. It was the too-thin carnie again on top with the microphone. “Welcome! Come right up,” he said for all to hear. He noticed her and added, “Welcome back. It appears from your smile that you liked Greek Town.”
She nodded but said nothing, and Renee and the Greek owner found a comfortable spot near the rear on the top level.
“My name is Alexzander,” he said.
“Renee,” she said, offering her hand, which he held and raised to his mouth. Her kissed the hand softly.
“Is that the Greek way?” she asked.
“It is my way when I see a beautiful woman,” he said in reply. “What brings you to Greek Town on the tourist bus?”
“I’m here for meetings and thought I’d see some of the city before leaving. I must admit,” she said with a broad smile, “it has been an eventful day.”
“What have you done today?”
“I met you,” she said. She made a sign of the cross as she passed a Greek church with a large dome. He did as well, only in the Greek style — from right shoulder to left shoulder.
“What have you in your little brown bags?” he asked, looking down at her lap.
“Just a few plastic bottles, like the one you spilled at lunch,” she said, holding back a girlish giggle.
“I am sometimes clumsy,” he admitted softly, and he reached his right arm around to caress her shoulder. He had strength, she thought, and a shot of energy spread out across her back. It was so invigorating and unexpected that she stood up quite quickly — just as an el bridge was coming on.
He pulled her down just as quickly into her seat. “You could have hit your head, Renee. Thank God I sat you down in time.”
“Yes,” she said, relieved, but not nearly as worried as she was on the way out toward Greek Town. “Twice in one day,” she said. “I nearly lost my head this morning, and now I am nearly losing it again.”
“Yes, God is watching over us,” he said. “Will you have dinner with me tonight, Renee?” Alexzander asked.
“I would love to,” Renee said. “I’m staying at the Conrad. Might we eat there?”
“Of course,” he said. “I will see you at 8.”
By now the bus was ending its route and returning back at the park. Alexzander kissed her hand as his parting gesture. “I will see you tonight, my dear,” he said. “At the Terrace.”
He left the double-decker and walked north, while Renee left and walked south in the afternoon sun. She walked and walked, past the children’s fountain and the Art Institute. Then her walk continued on and on beyond the southern park and the bronze sculptures on horseback. Still further she walked down to her hotel. When she reached it, she turned east toward the stunning blue-water lake, and leisurely walked some more.