THE WAITING ROOM
by Joelle Steele
This is an historical short story set in Chicago of 1929. Another historical short story written by Joelle is The Ice House.
The windy city was cloaked in an eerie stillness. A blanket of snow obscured the usual racket of cars, trucks, streetcars, an occasional horse-drawn cart, and the vocal commotion of a Chicago neighborhood bracing itself against another winter day.
Cathy O'Malley inhaled the aroma of her morning coffee percolating softly, as she huddled closer to the stove for warmth. Danny had left without coffee or breakfast. He said he was in a hurry, but Cathy knew he was not really late, just annoyed with her. They had quarreled senselessly over the job he was going to do for his friend John. Danny left, slamming the door behind him. She had cried like a silly little child, even though it was not a serious quarrel, and they so rarely disagreed on anything. And now, an hour later, she realized that it was, after all, only a few hours of work. And any time that Danny worked these days was truly a blessing, even though the job for John was not a mechanic's job and therefore did not pay a mechanic's wages.
Cathy reached for a potholder and poured some coffee into one of the peach-colored china cups she had bought at the second-hand store shortly after she and Danny had married just two years ago. Today was February 14, 1929, their second anniversary. She wondered if he would even remember that it was Valentine's Day. So many men couldn't remember any holiday, let alone their own wedding anniversaries. But Danny had always been different from most men. There was a kind of sweetness about him. Perhaps it was because he spent so much of his life in the romantic worlds of his books.
When they first met, Cathy had been surprised that Danny could read at all. He was considered to be a very skilled mechanic, but he had also dropped out of school at an early age. She later learned it was not because he didn't want to better himself, didn't value an education, or wasn't doing well academically. On the contrary, Danny was an excellent student. But in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1917, his parents and much younger sister died, and Danny was sent to live with his aunt and uncle on their farm. He was only twelve years old at the time, and school took a backseat to daily farm chores. Less than a year later, badly missing the big city and his friends, Danny left the rural life behind him and hitchhiked back to the old neighborhood. There, his talent for making friends eventually led him to those who helped him turn his mechanical tinkering into a paying trade.
Through it all, Danny had never stopped reading. He loved to learn as much as he enjoyed escaping to the other worlds that were open to him through books. He visited the library and browsed the local bookstores. Their tiny apartment was evidence of his literary appetite; the two tall, built-in bookshelves in the living room were overflowing onto the floor into piles featuring an eclectic mix of everything from who-done-its to repair manuals to great classics to the latest Zane Grey.
The knocking broke Cathy's reverie. She straightened up one zig-zagging pile of books as she headed for the door.
"Cathy! It's Ellen. Open up." Cathy's old classmate and best friend, the very impatient Ellen Quinn, was now pounding on the front door.
"Morning," greeted Cathy, as she invited her friend in. "Have some coffee," she nodded towards the pot as she re-buttoned her dress, which seemed a little too snug and kept popping open in places. Too many donuts, she thought to herself.
Ellen took off her gloves and scarf and tossed them onto the back of a kitchen chair. She shook her short dark curls and then ran her neatly manicured fingers through her hair to push it away from her face. She walked over to the stove and gingerly patted the side of the coffee pot. After satisfying herself that it was sufficiently hot, she poured the brew into one of the peach cups, and sat down at the table, still wearing her heavy coat.
Cathy had placed a small mirror on the table and was arranging her hair and makeup.
"No breakfast?" asked Ellen.
"No, I didn't feel like eating anything this morning."
"So, what did he get you?" queried Ellen, curious to learn what her friend's husband had given her for their anniversary.
"Don't know. Maybe nothing. He left early to do a job for John."
Ellen was silent, but only for a moment. It was impossible for her to not speak her mind, despite the possible consequences of being so outspoken.
"John May works for the mob, Cathy. Shouldn't you be a little worried?" It was pretty much common knowledge that mobsters and anyone in their close proximity made good targets for rival gangs out to expand their territory or settle an old score.
"Ellen, Danny's just going to unload some crates at a warehouse. It's about two or three hours of work and we really need the money."
Cathy knew that John worked for North Siders gang boss, George "Bugs" Moran. It was hard to find anybody who did not have some kind of mob affiliation these days. Prohibition had created a new line of work for anyone who was ambitious and willing to take the risk.
Moran had joined the gangs at an early age, and he had been the leader of the North Siders for almost two years now, since the police had killed their former leader, Vinnie "The Schemer" Drucci. Moran was a church-going Catholic whose winning smile, boyish good looks, and snappy wardrobe belied the lethal personality that lay beneath. His fine tailored three-piece suits and cashmere coat with the chesterfield collar were merely window dressing for a man who condemned his rival Capone for dealing in prostitution, but was himself a brutal, murderous career criminal.
And Al "Scarface" Capone was no saint. Like Moran, he had begun his criminal life at an early age. Today, from his fifth floor suite at the Lexington Hotel, the notorious crime czar ran his gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging rackets. He expanded his business by simply eliminating whatever gangs stood in his way, using whatever nefarious means were at his disposal.
Ellen reached over to the stove and grabbed the pot. She refilled her cup and let her eyes wander around the tiny room. The walls were a dingy sage with sooty shadows marking the places that once held pictures. The curtains were probably ivory when new, but were now a sad beige and thinning noticeably. The minimal pieces of furniture were equally faded and shabby, obviously second-hand, like everything else in the apartment. Ellen agreed that her friend could use the money, that was for certain. Perhaps if her husband didn't spend so much money on books ...
"What's in these crates he's unloading?" asked Ellen.
"I don't know," Cathy lied to herself.
"Don't want to know."
"Right," responded Cathy emphatically.
"Probably ... liquor?" Ellen knew that great whiskey was always available, smuggled into the city under the guise of fragile goods such as hand-painted porcelain or antiques.
"Probably," she replied, resigned to the fact.
Cathy rose from the table and took her mirror and other toilet items to the small dresser in the sleeping alcove. When she returned, she was wearing the only long wool coat she had ever owned. It was a tweedy charcoal gray, eight years old, and had withstood as many winters with only some minor mending along the way. Over her shoulders was a black wool muffler, and she was carrying her boxy handbag and the black woolen mittens that her mother knitted for her.
The two women left the apartment, their heavy winter boots clattering down three flights of stairs to the lobby, where they donned their scarves and gloves and headed out onto the snow-covered street. At almost ten-thirty the sidewalks had been only partially cleared. It was Thursday, Ellen's only full day off from the notions department, and therefore the only day she and Cathy could easily get together and go visit their childhood friend Mabel. They trudged quietly down the six long, icy blocks to Mrs. Meyerling's boarding house.
"She's had a lot of company this week," said the heavy-set, gray-headed Mrs. Meyerling. She was a woman whose hard life was deeply etched into the wrinkles of her face and the cracks and scars on her hands. Cathy knew for a fact that Mrs. M, as she was called by those who knew her well, was forty-two years old, but she looked at least twenty years older. The sturdy immigrant had been widowed at an early age and left with four small children to care for. She survived by taking in laundry and mending, and now by running a small boarding house.
"Is she awake?" asked Cathy.
"I think so. I'll tell her you're here," replied Mrs. M, as she slowly ascended the stairs, puffing and panting with each step. She disappeared at the top and then reappeared to motion them up.
Mabel Skinner looked up at her old school friends through grey eyes framed by dark circles. She had lost a lot of weight in the past few weeks and she was becoming positively skeletal. Cathy guessed that she would not live much longer.
No one knew for sure what was really wrong with her. She doubted that Mabel knew either. Like so many women who were alone in the world, Mabel could not afford to see a specialist, and the doctors who treated the poor were rarely qualified to diagnose more than a case of tonsillitis. Mabel's doctor said he thought it was probably tuberculosis, a common disease among the poor. It was as good a guess as any.
"Hi, Mabel, how are you feeling today?" asked Cathy, drawing up a chair alongside the bed. Ellen likewise sat in a rickety rocking chair on the opposite side of the bed. "Is there anything we can do for you or get for you?"
"I'm so glad to see you," she replied weakly. "I don't really need anything. Just company."
The three women chatted for about ten minutes in a sometimes incoherent ramble that failed to emulate even the most casual of conversations. When it appeared that Mabel was getting sleepy, the two visitors rose to say goodbye.
"Don't go just yet," Mabel entreated, suddenly alert yet obviously struggling to find enough strength to speak. "I need to tell you something."
Cathy and Ellen could barely hear her, she was speaking so softly. They resumed their respective chairs and leaned in to listen to the fading woman on the bed.
"Mikey came to visit me. He's going to come and take me away from ... this world."
Cathy and Ellen's thoughts were in harmony. It was clear that Mabel was nearing the end. She was hallucinating and was no longer coherent.
"I know what you think," she continued. "But it's true. He was here, just like you are. He sat in that chair." Mabel pointed to the rocker in which Ellen was seated.
"I believe you, Mabel," soothed Cathy. Ellen sat in silence, trying to hold her tongue and look supportive.
"There's a place ... between this world and heaven." Mabel reached out and held Cathy's hand. "It's like a waiting room. That's where my Mikey is. He's crossed into that place, and he's watching over me. It won't be long now." Mabel dropped her hand and sank into her pillow, asleep after the fatigue of visiting.
On Mrs. M's stoop, Cathy and Ellen shivered as a fresh layer of snow fell around them. Neither wanted to talk or even think about Mabel's worsening condition or her cryptic words. It was approaching the noon hour, and they were both hungry.
"Let's have a bite at that little coffee shop around the corner from your place," suggested Ellen.
"No, I can't. I really need to save my pennies right now. But I also have to get home. Danny should be back any minute now, and he'll be hungry. I want to fix him some lunch."
Ellen walked Cathy back to her building and then continued home from there. Cathy mounted the stairs and began the long ascent. She had just reached the second floor landing when her neighbor's nineteen year old son Ricky came bursting out of his apartment with a friend in tow. They paused to put on their jackets and gloves, and Ricky's friend spoke excitedly.
"It's true. I heard it from someone who knows that cop, Sweeney. It was a big shooting on Clark street. Some place called S.M.C. something-or-other. A mob hit. Scarface on Bugs. I hear there's blood all over the place. Hurry up. I don't want to miss this." The two young men scrambled down the stairs and out onto the street.
Cathy froze. The job from John was at an address on Clark street. She sprang up the next two flights of stairs to check the list of addresses Danny kept written down for her in case of an emergency. He was very considerate that way. Because he worked in so many different places, he always told her where he would be. She never paid much attention to the exact addresses because there had never been a reason for her to go looking for him. He was dependable and always came home exactly when he said he would. If he was going to be late, he would pay some kid a few cents to run home and tell her.
The kitchen was already cold. The super was once again not sending enough heat to the upper floors. Cathy quickly threw kindling into the wood stove and lit it. She glanced around the area that served as a combination kitchen, dining, and living room, looking for the piece of paper. It was not there. She went into the sleeping alcove. There on the night table under the alarm clock was the list. There were nine addresses, but only one was on Clark Street: S.M.C. Cartage Company, 2122 N. Clark Street.
Cathy slumped onto the bed. Her heart sank. Ricky's friend had mentioned Clark Street and the initials S.M.C.
"Oh dear God," she murmured, as tears welled up in her eyes. She sat up on one elbow and fumbled in her pocket for a handkerchief which she used to dab at her tears.
"Was it Mabel?" The sound of Danny's voice startled her. "Is she ..."
Cathy quickly mopped up the remainder of her tears as she relaxed, realizing she had jumped to the wrong conclusion. Her worst fears that Danny had been killed in this mob hit were only born of a rumor started by two young men who thought such things were exciting, a cheap form of entertainment on an otherwise dreary day.
"No, darling," she replied, embarrassed over her unfounded grief. "It was just the cold air. Made my eyes tear up." She rose quickly from the bed and headed for the stove. "I was just going to make you some lunch."
Cathy rattled around in the kitchen, as Danny studied the overflowing bookcases in the living room. She glanced at him from time to time as she prepared his lunch. He was not the man she had envisioned herself marrying when she fantasized about that day as a young teenager. He was not particularly tall and he had a wiry build. At the ripe old age of twenty-four, his dark chestnut hair was beginning to thin, but his soft gray eyes still had the power to make her weak in the knees. In short, he was not the knight in shining armor of her childhood, but he was something much better. He was everything she could ever have hoped for and more.
Danny continued to peruse the bookshelves. So many men's greatest dreams began on the pages of a good book, he thought.
"You know," he began. "We should really get rid of these books, maybe sell them to the secondhand store."
"I thought you loved those books," said Cathy, setting the kitchen table. She tried to continue the small talk that her husband initiated, probably in an attempt to avoid bringing up the argument they'd had earlier that day.
"I never read them a second time, and the money would come in handy. I don't have a sentimental attachment to them or anything," he explained.
"I always hoped that someday we might have a bigger apartment where we could have more bookshelves for you. Like the library at Mr. Hall's house, remember?"
He remembered. One day last spring he had borrowed a friend's car, and drove Cathy to the country for a picnic. George Hall and his family were having a picnic nearby. Their car failed to start when they tried to leave for home, and Danny spent almost an hour repairing it. Mr. Hall was grateful and offered Danny money, which he of course refused, since in his mind he was only doing his fellow man a favor. But Mr. Hall did not forget, and he invited Danny and Cathy to lunch after church the following Sunday. Danny reluctantly agreed to go, mostly due to Cathy's insistence, since she wanted to see if the Halls lived in a grand house. And they did, one with an oak-paneled library that must have housed at least five thousand books on almost as many subjects.
Cathy remembered the day too. Danny and Mr. Hall were in the library talking books or something for most of the afternoon, while Cathy and Mrs. Hall talked about cooking and the importance of raising a family. Cathy and Danny both came from Irish-Catholic households, Cathy being the second oldest in a family of nine children. They both hoped they would have a big family someday, but for the time being they were putting it off, at least until Danny had a more stable job, possibly with the manufacturing company with whom he had met just two days ago. He was supposed to stop by later to see if they had made a decision. She was praying that he would get the job, because she so desperately longed to have a child.
Danny watched Cathy as she stirred something that filled the tiny kitchen with memories of his childhood. She was the most beautiful woman he could imagine. No, she didn't look like one of those glamorous actresses or anything. But everything about her was perfect. Her eyes were just the right shade of blue, framed by a light sprinkling of freckles over her nose. Her strawberry bob waved like poured honey, and her fingers were long, slender, and agile. Whenever he was away from her, he could easily imagine the sound of her strong yet gentle voice with just the slightest vestige of the lilt she inherited as a second generation Irish-American.
"I have something for you," he said, in a voice more heavily accented than that of his wife. He was standing close enough to her to smell the pear-scented soap she used.
"You remembered," she smiled, turning to face him. She was relieved that not only was he alive, but he was no longer at odds with her.
"It's in the bag on the top shelf of the closet."
"I'll get it," she smiled again, hurrying to the only closet they had, their only storage space, filled with so much clothing and other assorted personal items that neither of them knew an exact inventory of what was in there at any given point in time.
There on the top shelf, wedged between a pile of sweaters and a box of old photographs, was a small brown bag tied closed with a piece of string. Cathy stood on her toes, took the bag down, and returned with it to the kitchen. She looked around. Danny was not in the room. He must have gone down the hall to the bathroom, she though absently. She would wait until he returned to open her gift.
Standing in front of the stove, she softly whispered, "Thank you God, thank you God, thank you dear sweet Jesus." She could not find the right words, or enough of them, to express her gratitude for Danny not being killed in that warehouse, if in fact there had been a shooting at all, which she now strongly doubted.
The food was beginning to overcook, but if she removed it from the stove it would get cold very quickly in the chilly kitchen. She removed two pots from the direct heat and covered them with their matching lids, then put both pots into the warming oven. He must be waiting on someone else, she thought happily to herself, picturing Danny waiting in a line of sorts or searching for an empty bathroom on another floor that was less occupied during the day. The little bag sat on the kitchen table, and she was tempted to look inside. But no, she would wait. It was probably just candy. It was unlikely that he could have saved enough to buy much of anything else.
Heavy footsteps approached the front door, followed by a loud knock. Cathy walked to the door and opened it. Standing in the hallway was the carrot-topped and very red-faced Tommy O'Leary, Danny's long-time friend and a member of Chicago's finest.
"Hi, Tommy," smiled Cathy, inviting the overly tall police officer inside. He ducked slightly to clear the doorway.
"Hello, Cathy," he didn't brandish the roguish smile that made him so popular with the local ladies, but his voice was its usual deep, hearty, Irish brogue.
"Danny should be here any minute," she offered.
Tommy seemed uneasy, fidgeting with his cap which he held in both hands at his waist.
"Cathy, I ..." he looked down at his hands and took a deep breath.
"What the matter, Tommy?"
"Danny's not coming home, Cathy," he said, the words rushing out without a break between them.
"Whatever are you talking about?"
"Cathy, I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you. Danny's dead. He was hit by a streetcar this morning around nine-thirty."
"But, Tommy ..." Cathy tried unsuccessfully to interrupt him, but the big man continued.
"I came by here a couple of times to try and tell you, but you weren't home," his green eyes were filled with water, and Cathy could tell he sincerely believed that Danny was dead.
"I went out with Ellen to visit Mabel Skinner," she began. "But Tommy, Danny is not dead. He's just down the hall waiting on someone for the john."
Tommy's mouth puckered and he pursed his lips. He had only once before had to deliver such sad news to a wife, and she had reacted in much the same way. She was an older woman whose husband had died of a heart attack while standing in line at the bank. She had insisted that her husband could not possibly be dead and that she expected him home at any minute. There had to be a mistake.
"I wish that were true, Cathy. But I was there. I saw him. He died instantly."
Cathy rushed to the front door and ran to the shared bathroom. No one was standing in the hall waiting. She tried the doorknob and found it locked. She knocked on the door.
"Danny, it's me," she announced.
"No one named Danny in here, lady," replied a young boy's voice from behind the door.
Cathy, took a step back and stared at the door. A patch of light reflected from the hall window onto the old door, revealing a collection of dents and scratches created by the fifteen or more people who used the room several times a day. She turned away slowly, and found Tommy standing right behind her. She tried to pass him by and run to check the other floors, but his large physique blocked the entire hallway. She struggled to back her unbelieving tears.
"Cathy ... do you want me to go find Ellen for you?" he asked, trying to gauge her state of mind.
"Yes, Tommy," she hesitated, then replied in a voice so soft that it was barely decipherable. "I guess that would be good."
Tommy led her back to her apartment and then left to find Ellen.
Cathy stood inside the apartment, leaning her back against the front door. She studied the room, the little sleeping alcove. She looked at the piles of books, her wool coat thrown over the back of the faded blue club chair, the neatly set kitchen table. Tommy had to be mistaken, for there in the middle of the kitchen table was the little brown bag, Danny's anniversary gift to her. She could not have found it, would not even have known what to look for or if such a gift even existed, had Danny not been there to tell her where it was.
The smell of lunch still cooking distracted her, and she went to the kitchen and removed the pots from the oven, placing them on top of the two metal trivets on the counter top. She sat down at the table and pushed one of the place settings aside. She drew the little brown bag towards her, picked it up, turned it over, and shook it slightly. After a short debate about whether or not to open it, she pulled the string and released the knot.
Inside the bag was a folded-up piece of paper and a white box. She opened the box to find a small, gold, heart-shaped pendant on a bed of white cotton. The back was engraved "D & C 1929." Cathy placed the pendant back in the box and unfolded the piece of paper. It read:
To my dearest love, my Cathy, I wanted to give you a rainbow, something that would shine in your beautiful blue eyes and light up each and every day of your life. Alas, my beautiful wife, I can only give you this shiny little heart as a reminder of how much the past two years have meant to me, and as a promise of many more years to come. All my love, Danny.
Cathy read the short letter twice. Danny always had a way with words. He had written her a poem for their first anniversary. It was pressed into the family Bible along with the small rosebud that had accompanied it. The floodgates opened, and tears ran down her cheeks and dripped onto the front of her dress, leaving little dark spots that were lost in the lavender floral print.
The front door opened and Ellen entered in her usual flurry. She saw Cathy sitting at the table and slowed her pace, stopping to add her checkered coat to the club chair that held Cathy's. She pulled up one of the old wooden kitchen chairs and sat down opposite her friend.
"Cathy, I am so sorry," she fought to hold back her own tears. She knew what it felt like to lose a husband. Harry Quinn had died just a few months before Cathy had married Danny. He came home from work one day complaining of a stomach ache, and died later that night of a burst appendix. Ellen thought she would never be able to stop crying. Everything reminded her of Harry, and everything that reminded her of Harry made her cry.
"He was just here, Ellen," sobbed Cathy. "Right here in this room."
"Who was just here?"
"Danny," replied Cathy, her sobbing turned to a quiet tearfulness.
"Now you're starting to sound like Mabel," she scolded lightly.
"Ellen," she sniffed. " I'm not some dying woman whose mind is starting to fail her. Danny was here. We spoke. He even told me where my anniversary gift was." She held out the open box to Ellen.
"It's lovely." Ellen held the box and examined the pendant, then set the box back down on the table.
"I came home and there were these two young men talking on the second floor landing about a shooting or mob hit or something over on Clark Street. It was at the same place where Danny was going this morning. I was so glad that he arrived home safely."
"But he didn't, Cathy. He didn't arrive here or anywhere this morning."
Cathy fingered the pendant in her right hand, her left still clutching Danny's letter. Reality was paving a street to the part of her brain that housed the good solid logic on which she was raised. Tommy had seen Danny. Danny was dead. Danny was not down the hall. Danny had never come home for lunch?
No, Danny had been there, somehow. Maybe Mabel wasn't delusional after all. Maybe she was right about that place between heaven and earth, the waiting room where souls could visit the living or merely wait before moving on to their final rest. God only knows how many ghost stories had been created because of someone's experience with the dearly departed.
Her mind raced. She would never have Danny's children. The big family they wanted was a dream that would never come true. She would have to go to work like Ellen, standing on her feet all day, slaving away for pitiful wages, and waiting on wealthy women who thought nothing of spending $2 or $3 on unessential niceties that they would become bored of long before the items were even slightly worn out. And where would she live? She would have to get a roommate like Ellen did. Or maybe even move in with Ellen. She and Ellen were old friends, but she doubted they would stay so for very long if they were sharing the same space. She saw herself in twenty years, old and worn out like Mrs. Meyerling, but without children, maybe working as a seamstress, slowly going blind in the dim gas lights of some old, crumbling tenement building.
Ellen sat in silence, trying to think of something encouraging to say. When nothing came to mind, she revealed the morning's events.
"Tommy told me about the shooting on Clark Street. Some of Bugs Moran's boys were machine-gunned down. John May was one of them. It happened around ten-thirty or so. Tommy said they think it was Capone's work. They don't know anything for sure yet. One of the men was still alive, Frankie somebody-or-other. He died without saying who shot him." Ellen paused and then added, "It was a good thing Danny didn't go to the warehouse."
"He's dead either way, isn't he Ellen?" remarked Cathy, with a slightly snide edge to her voice that spoke of her disappointment in her friend's unsuccessful attempt to console her.
Ellen thought to tell her that it was better to go down in history as being hit by a streetcar than being gunned down by mobsters and maybe assumed to be one of them. For once she thought better of it and held her tongue. Instead, she rose to examine the pots on the counter. She lifted each lid and dipped a spoon in one and filled a plate. She placed it in front of Cathy.
"You have to eat. Just a little something to keep you going."
Cathy lifted her fork and picked at the warmed-up leftovers from the previous night's casserole. She felt hungry since she hadn't eaten breakfast, but even the thought of eating seemed to demand more energy than she could muster.
All at once her mind detoured to the previous week or so, when she had not been able to eat anything other than a salt cracker or two for breakfast. Then there was her heightened emotional state. And the buttons popping open on her dress. She hadn't grown up in a large family without knowing what these things could signal. Why hadn't she seen it sooner?
Cathy filled her fork and began to eat.
"That's better," soothed Ellen.
Cathy did not respond. If Danny was still in that special place -- Mabel's so-called waiting room -- he would already know what she had only just realized. In a few short months he would join her, to pace in another kind of waiting room.