from Chicago Facades

by Inara Cedrins

Meleathea walks downtown with me, past the condos built in factory buildings on Adams, and asks suspiciously, any black people live here? They’re all new since I’ve been gone, and I tell her, I don’t know who lives here. Cutting her eyes at me, she says half laughing, somebody gonna snatch me up. I consider and say, I guess I’d feel like that in an all black neighborhood, and she says seriously, there are still some segregated like that. In the lobby of the Merchandise Mart cans of vegetables are stacked in crates, and we both wonder why. Yesterday we were summarily told the shelter would not allow us to bring in any food, even cans, so Meleathea leaves a few cans of soup with me in the studio. Marc is scissoring newspapers again: this is my work. I don’t think we really get the full story in the news, you know, sometimes it’s biased, or you don’t get all the facts. So I take a photograph and cut it up, I take the silhouette and paste the original into it, and I make up a new story. This is my chair series, I took these pictures of chairs from magazines and blew them up, but the original chair is still there. This one I gave eyelashes to. This one? Oh, it’s twelve hundred dollars. At the end of the day I see they’ve used the cans in the lobby to make works of art, stacking them in crenellated towers, facing the labels on Spam, tuna, corn and tomatoes, peanut butter so they form a design. To benefit the Food Depot, the signs say.

The blonde: I had a fruitful day, I was making eyelashes. It’s like a hair transplant, you make a cord and weave it in. I used my own hair. Egyptians have the eyeliner tattooed on. They use pink-eye solution on their eyelashes because they have eye mites. You should try it. It makes your hair grow – you don’t see many bald Egyptians. They all marry their cousins you know. They put egg white under their eyes so they don’t look retarded. You’ve got beautiful eyelashes you look Arabic you know. I need fake eyelashes, I use my own hair, and brown mascara. You just glue them on. The spiel starts over, the man walks away. Leo comes, wearing a men’s tie, stands in her place and spits on the sidewalk. Mimi is on duty, she looks tired and is called to sort out a quarrel in the bathroom. Someone asks if she’s all right, and she says drily, I came out ok. I went in. Pause. And I came out.

Meleathea: the men all want me but I’m married to God so they can’t have me. She’s changed churches and is interested in the minister, who is widowed, but is quick to tell me nothing improper is going on. I offer to teach her to use email, and she asks if he’d be likely to have a private email address, or if all the other church ladies might read his mail. Nothing is selling at the Merchandise Mart, the carpet seller across the way brings in his pet cobra. Jamie leaves her clusters of debs unfinished for weeks. I am two cents short to be able to print out court documents at the library, I find one penny on the sidewalk, and know that now I can do it. One cent they’ll forgive, I don’t know about two.

The bread was good, we asked for more and had three baskets of it. Worship consisted of the evangelist singing and dancing madly in her white pantsuit, and now we could eat our Mother’s Day dinner at the Hilton. Y’all be on your best behavior now, we’d been admonished at the shelter, or we won’t be invited back next year. The evangelist’s chubby daughter Destiny, perhaps twelve years old, wore a walkie-talkie and importantly helped the young man getting onto the buses to welcome us and give us our packets. He was a pale boy with lips like strawberries. Long-stemmed red carnations we’d been handed at the door laid alongside out plates, the women not sure which fork to use and taking the dessert one to eat their salad. We were given chicken with mushrooms and gravy, and they put extra ranch dressing on their plates and used it as a dip. One mother ate the green beans with her fingers. When we were replete with cheesecake and good coffee, the singing began again, and the testifying. Women in decorated hats with plumes and ribbons dancing. My man Jesus always come on time. We are all given a copy of the evangelist’s book. Destiny hid five cards at random under people’s chairs, and they get an extra door prize. And then we are driven back to the shelter, past the penitentiary with its razor wire and beveled glass watchtowers like periscopes. The driver can’t find the smooth jazz station so he plays rap. The men are hanging out smoking in little groups on the street, and they really do wish us well on our day, perhaps on all days.

Luya from Fish Out of Water by Sunsun Liu
Luya from Fish Out of Water by Sunsun Liu

I was born and floated to my mother in a half walnut shell lit by a little birthday candle, bobbing in an enamel bowl filled with water and blessed by Laime, the goddess of fortune. My mother was waiting for me and lifted me out tenderly. She didn’t place me in a dresser drawer lined with a blanket. I grew up playing under the legs of the Singer sewing machine as she made me dresses, cross-stitched apple on the bodice under the demure white collar, apricot lace on the placket of deep brown buttoned with small copper orbs, grosgrain ribbon on teal silk. She didn’t harangue, I never wanted children. I listened to the opera she tuned the radio to and for the ballerina saved from the top of the birthday cake, made a house in half a dress box, painted partitions and wallpaper for the world I could see into. She praised me for my imagination. She never snarled, where are my little bent-nosed scissors, don’t touch them with your sticky fingers. I was allowed to go into the kitchen and learned to make puff pastry. When I was sixteen she helped me choose frosted coral lipstick, solo honey. I was a cheerleader and had many friends that my mother welcomed when I brought them home. She didn’t spit, it’s a pity you were ever born. In our junior year we all went to visit the countries of our roots. I went to Latvia where my ancestors came from and they said to me, there are no such beautiful forests anywhere else in the world. There are no Jews buried there. There was no holocaust. We prepared for college and future days to be lived in fine homes, on the sideboards a soup tureen embellished with rabbits and cabbage and flowers of fragile china. I was loved.

A wet crocus loves the rain, I tell myself firmly. At the Merchandise Mart I hide my wet socks in the banana box with holes cut in it, and work on my drawing of the French restaurant Les Nomades on Ontario. I want to exchange the print for the dinner of my dream: pate maison with cornichon and toasted brioche, lobster & crawfish soup with white truffle froth, seared diver scallop. Arctic char with hedge hog mushrooms and fennel, or roasted venison loin and sage braised root vegetables, confit prunes, Armagnac aigre-doux. Raspberry mille-feuille or green apple sorbet? A mirage . . . At the studio Marc is snipping leaf shapes from watercolor paper, painting them blue and pasting them on more sheets of watercolor paper. Aytl is experimenting with a chemical solution, and they ask if I smell something. I tell them I do, but couldn’t identify it: burning leaves? On the way home a man in the triangle of park opposite the No Loitering building says to me, you’ve got such beautiful hair. I am a bon-bon falling from a tree, falling lazily, meant to descend at this time, wrapped in golden cellophane to protect my sweetness. It’s the amber-colored protective wrap the shops in Andersonville pulled down over their windows to protect wares from the Sunday afternoon sun.

In the Santa Fe shelter I learned to live with Indians, and here I learn the gospel black south side of Chicago. The women look soft in the morning, in their drop-waist cotton gowns, but they’re not: sniping at each other in the bathroom, in the little pink breakfast room. Two lions rampant on a gate I’ll steal for my image of the No Loitering building. Conscious of our space: No Trespassing, everyone moves on the right side of their bed only. Meleathea: I wish there was a used wig shop. Her hair is like a crest when she gets up in the morning, but then she puts on the wig of ringlets. I look at the signs of places I can’t afford to go to: The Black Duck, the Red Canary. In the evening the people who bring hot food in the van sometimes, give us chicken stewed with celery and peppers on half a hamburger bun, and Hawaiian Punch. Leo wearing a cobalt men’s shirt and golden striped tie, she buckles her belt at the back. Ducks in the door as soon as her name is called, straight to the counter for soup and sandwich. We are constantly craving. One woman steals into the pink room at 4:30 in the morning to get at the Danish pastries we saw being brought in the night before and is of course thrown out of the shelter for it. But that means we’re waked even before 5 and lose ten minutes of precious sleep while it’s happening.

The sun is finally out and the summer shadows thrown by the El, the leafing trees, are like red wine. I wear amber earrings and a loose linen shirt, want to sketch around the Picasso but there are white tents set up selling rhubarb and asparagus so I can’t see the background I want. At the Merchandise Mart studio Marc’s collages surround my print, the leafy ones on the floor bristle at it. He points out to people who stray in, there’s the shape of a bird here, a bumblebee hidden here. I look for things that aren’t there, the push-pins you tacked up the gold ribbon from gifts I gave you. This was the orange nut bread, this the experiments with shape and color you did, we liked this the best. I remember the night we dragged the mat into the darkroom and made love there: I don’t care what time of month it is, you said, and the hot darkness felt sticky and red. Meleathea has disappeared without a word, her bed stripped. She was like a sleek black cockatoo flying through. Aytl: maybe she got together with the minister!