Nonfiction Writing Contest XIII, First Place (2002)


“Requiem for a Dream” by Laura S. Distelheim

Soon after the incident conveyed in “Requiem” occurred, I realized that, in coming to know this man and in witnessing the injustice done to him, I had been privy to both the heroism and the evil which lie, often unsuspected, beneath the surface of ordinary lives. My hope in writing this piece was to draw both of them into the light. — Laura S. Distelheim

Distelheim will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.

Requiem for a Dream

By Laura S. Distelheim

Later, when I heard what had happened, I imagined him standing there in the kitchen in those final moments of believing, giving the sink a last swipe and the counter one more polish before untying his apron and placing it on his hook, and I imagined him pausing to glance out the window onto the intersection, silvered with snow, at the lavender twilight, just descending, and the street lamps, just turned on, and at the parents on the sidewalks beneath them, shepherding their children into their cars and heading for home–and I imagined him shaking his head and smiling and I knew what he was thinking when the boss pushed open the door and stepped into the kitchen behind him:

America, he was thinking. Finally. The America he’d carried in his mind as he walked north.

And whenever I think of the moment which followed, of the moment he was wearing on his face like the imprint of a slap the next time I saw him, I can see him earlier that day, washing dishes at that sink, inhaling the scent of the hotcakes fresh from the griddle, of the butter melting into their pores, of the steam lingering, sweet and soft in their wake, as they disappeared through the door to the dining room where families were gathered at the tables and booths, their faces lit with Sunday morning ease, and I can hear the slices of conversation slipping through that door each time the waitresses pushed their trays through it, and I can understand it then, how he was seduced into believing that it was safe to hope again, how it was that they had all joined forces together–the fragrance of the kitchen and the murmur of the voices and the ivory slant of the winter sun–to lure him into breathing slow and even, in a way he hadn’t breathed in more than a year, since long before he’d left El Salvador behind, so that when that moment then occurred, it came upon him dreaming.

It was so bloodless and quiet a crime and so quickly over that, I realize, looking back from here, it is only because of what I know of moments which came before that one–of moments I’d witnessed and those I’d envisioned from all that he’d told me–that I understand what violence occurred in that unlikely setting: A restaurant kitchen in a suburb just north of Chicago on a mid-January afternoon toward the twentieth century’s end, as the sky purpled its way toward evening and the moon rose to spread a veil across the unsuspecting town.

For me, the first of such moments had occurred four months earlier at the elementary school his daughter attends and it is there, in the office of the school social worker, that this story begins… for me.

He and I are seated side by side on chairs across the desk from the social worker, having just been introduced, and she’s glancing at notes in a manila folder which she’s pulled from a file drawer. His daughter has been sneaking back into her classroom during recess each morning, she says, to take food from the other children’s lunch bags, and her teacher is worried that she might be hungry, might not be eating enough at home. And though her voice is soft and low, I know that it’s assaulting his ears like so many sounds from his past–the screech of tires on wet pavement, the shatter of glass, the wail of a child, a siren’s cry.

He straightens and moves forward in his chair, as if to catch the words more quickly, before they detonate, and I can see that he is hearing: You have failed, and I can see that he is hearing: How could you? and I know that he is thinking there is too much air in the world and not enough to lean on. The social worker hurries on to explain that she knows how difficult it is to get started again, that there are many families in the school who are having the same trouble, that she called him in not to accuse him, but to get him the help he needs, which is why she called me in as well, since I’ve created a food and clothing pantry for families like his. He smiles then and thanks her, thanks me, thanks her again, but when I look back on that moment now, this is what lingers with me still: Even as he stands and shakes my hand and even as he smiles and nods and thanks me, I see that his eyes are shouting: This isn’t me.

He had been an assistant to the mayor of his hometown of Soyapango, working in the departments of Accounting and Civil Registration, the social worker had told me when she asked me to come in.

But that was before he fled El Salvador. Before an opposing political party took over and he had been invited, at gunpoint, to resign his position. Before his brother had been found lying by the side of the road in a blood-soaked ditch with a bullet in his head. Before two guerrilla groups had begun their Final Offensive, barricading his town and holding his family hostage in their home for more than a week. Before he had sold everything he owned and, with his wife and two small children, turned and walked away from the only self he’d ever been.

In the instant we shake hands, I catch a glimpse of the before of him, breezing through his world with ease and belonging, with certainty and command, down streets friendly and familiar, weaving his way through crowds on feet that know where they are going, leaving ripples of rightness shimmering in his path. But then it is gone and there is only him now, standing stiffly before me in a jacket too thin, with his shoulders back and his head erect, but his knuckles white on the hat in his hands and his eyes keening with protest and mourning: This isn’t me.

* * *

It’s a couple of weeks later and I’m sitting on one of the three mismatched chairs that surround a lopsided table in the tiny shanty, tucked into the alleyway behind two buildings, where he and his family live. When I arrived a few minutes earlier with sweaters and jackets for the children, he and his wife invited me in, urged me to stay, and I saw, as he took my coat and offered me a chair and she hurried to put on the water for tea, that they’d been hoping and waiting for this opportunity to explain.

They’ve applied for political asylum, he begins before the first bubbles appear in the water, so they’ll soon have their temporary working papers, will be able to work legally until a decision is made on their case. They expect to have them before too long, she adds, scooping the baby, who’s toddling past, into her arms. But until then, he says, he’s been finding odd jobs wherever he can–has been raking leaves and washing cars, has cleaned flooded basements and repaired a broken fence, even painted and weatherized a doghouse the other day, and she’s been cleaning houses whenever she’s given the chance, is hoping to get something steady any day now. I don’t need these promises, I am thinking, but I know they need to make them, that it is because I stay and listen that they know they have been seen, and so it quickly becomes our habit, each time I stop by with food or clothes or just to see how things are going, for them to talk, for me to listen, with the baby on one of our laps or playing on the floor at our feet and their daughter often sprawled there, too, doing her homework–which is how it is that, over time, they invite me into their memories of those moments that will later illuminate the one to come in that restaurant kitchen.

* * *

We’re at the table again, a few weeks later, when I ask them about their decision to leave El Salvador and he tells me that it hadn’t been a decision at all, but an act of survival–an act so primal and unthinking that it wasn’t until several months after they left that he began to fully understand what they had done. And then he’s looking backward and I’m following his gaze to see him sitting, his elbows on his knees and his battered face in his hands, in a Mexican detention cell. I know at once that what I’m looking at is the moment when he first came to see that he had now become a man without recourse–a man with no safety net beneath him and no one left to call; a man to whom anyone can do anything and no one will stand up and holler HEY!

I can tell that it is damp in the cell, and cold, and rank with the odors of urine and blood and, across the table from me, he is telling me that it was on their third attempt to make it to the U.S. border, after having twice crept their way out of El Salvador, through Guatemala and Belize, only to be arrested in Mexico and deported back, that he’d ended up there, in that cell. It was when they’d almost reached the U.S. border the third time that they’d been arrested once again, this time by an immigration officer who demanded more money than he’d had to give, who then separated him from his wife and children, beat him and locked him in a cell, where he was to sit for five days, never knowing where the three of them had been taken or if they were being beaten, too.

He stands up abruptly as he tells me this, almost tipping his chair with his suddenness, and strides across the kitchen and back, as if to prove to himself that he can, but the him I am watching in that cell is still smothered in stillness–is sitting there, unmoving, in the darkness, inhaling the aloneness and the silence and the fear and the despair, and I imagine that he’s seeing, in his own mind, a photograph which he’d kept on his desk in the mayor’s office, where his eyes had run across it every day, as he’d talked on the phone or worked at his computer, as he’d met with his colleagues or dictated letters, as he’d gone about the taken-for-granted business of being a man with a place in the world. In the photograph, he’s standing in a swimming pool, laughing, his head back and his arms open wide, facing his daughter, who is perched at the pool’s edge, leaning forward, her knees bent, ready to leap, laughing, too. Laughing, too, and squealing, Daddy, catch me!, knowing that he will.

* * *

His wife is browning tortillas on the stove’s only working burner and he’s bandaging the cracked windows with plastic, trying to keep out the biting chill the next time I arrive, but when I suggest that we call the landlord, he says no, they’ve seen much worse. Tell her about Texas, his daughter says, looking up from the book she’s reading, and, within moments, I’m seeing them there, standing in a migrant camp, at the edge of a field that stretches as far as they can see in all directions, that ripples in waves of grass until it melts into a teal sky that is turning metallic as a thunderstorm rolls in. When he’d finally been let out of the jail in Mexico–he turns from the window to tell me–they’d again been deported back to Guatemala, but when they had made their way northward again and had again been detained near the U.S. border, the immigration official had listened to him, had let him describe the horrors they were fleeing, and then had photographed and fingerprinted them and allowed them to go across the border, into Texas, saying: Welcome to the United States. Now get your papers.

His face is luminous as he repeats those words, even now, and, watching him, I can feel at once how he must have heard them then, how they must have started him imagining–almost believing–that the endings had finally ended, that the beginnings would now begin, so that when they then met a family of migrant workers who told them of temporary jobs nearby and offered them a ride on the back of their truck, I can see how it must have seemed to him that America was holding out its arms and inviting them in. When I think of them sitting in the bed of that truck on their way to the sugar beet fields, with the afternoon beginning to soften toward dusk around them, I imagine him noticing, in one of the houses they pass, a little girl at a piano in one lit window and her mother working at a stove in the next, and I know he’s picturing a man soon pulling into its driveway, with a child’s seat in the back of his car and a briefcase on the seat beside him–picturing him slipping his key in the door and stepping inside, setting down his briefcase and loosening his tie, walking into that kitchen and calling I’m home just in time for the six o’clock news. And I know that he is hearing the music, too, the music that little girl is playing. I know that that music will accompany his imaginings all the way to the sugar beet fields.

* * *

They have just arrived at the migrant camp when I see them there, standing at the edge of the field. I see the family who brought them, who has been there before, move off toward the shanty they’d stayed in the last time, and I see the four of them approach the crew-leader, to ask him where they should go. He’s in the picture for only an instant, pointing over there with a jut of his chin, and then, by the time their eyes follow its direction, he is gone. The baby is crying now and I can see that their daughter is trying hard not to as they walk past the outhouse they’ll share with the rest of the camp, toward the quarters he pointed them to, over there: An abandoned chicken coop, with a roof of torn blue plastic and a dirt floor speckled with dung, with a stained mattress on the ground in one corner and a plywood crate overturned beside it, with mosquitoes swarming above their heads and cockroaches skittering across the walls and a stench so pungent it slams them like bricks when they step inside. They will stay there that night, and the next and the next, and for as many nights as it takes them to earn enough money to begin to make their way northward again, and, each night, as he lies there, watching his wife and children sleep, with the drone of cicadas and the calls of the mockingbirds and the buzz of eighteen wheelers on the highway nearby seeping through the hollows in the walls, I know that all he will be hearing is silence. The slam of the lid on a piano keyboard, followed by the shriek of silence which arises to announce the moment when music has died.

* * *

When he opens the door a few weeks later, he’s holding the flushed baby in his arms and I see the worry chalked in gray across his face. When he returned a while ago from routing the gutters at one of the homes where he works, he says, his wife–who has just left to clean another home–told him that the baby had been feverish all morning. It seems the two of them stop breathing, he sighs, every time one of the children sneezes or gets a rash or trips and falls or has an ache, since they know that without insurance they could never afford to pay a doctor. So far, they’d been lucky, except in Tennessee. They’d been on their way north after leaving Texas, when both children had come down with the chickenpox and they’d had to stop and stay for a while.

So what did you do? I ask and, by the time we’re seated at the table, with him holding a cloth to the baby’s head, I’m seeing him there, just before daybreak, in a splintered shack in another migrant camp–this one near the strawberry processing shed where he’s found work–opening his eyes to the melancholy moan of dawn’s milky first light and to another day of putting one foot in front of another to try to make his way back to his self again, one pants’ leg on, one child consoled, one box of strawberries packed at a time. Watching him, I think of how like the process of forgetting a thought this losing of self must have been, with his first being certain it was still there, just beyond reach, and then, as time went by, finding that there was nothing left to grasp and, later, nothing left even to grab for, until, continuing to grope for it anyway had become an act of faith so resolute, it seemed like prayer.

They’d been there a few weeks by that time, he says, getting up to re-soak the cloth, and, when they decided that morning that the children would be well enough for them to leave by the time he returned from work in the evening, none of them was sorry. They’d known from their first day there, from the moment they’d asked the crew leader–all darting eyes and curling lips, his back already turning, as if he were repulsed at sharing their air for too long–if he had any work to spare, that it wasn’t the place for them to be. When I look again, it’s almost evening and he’s just returning home. For a moment the four of them are in the shack, with his wife sweeping the dirt floor with a makeshift broom and their daughter playing patty cake with the baby and their bundle of belongings already waiting by the door, but he soon leaves for the crew-leader’s cabin to collect his pay and it is then that I feel it, too–how his bones don’t sit right in his skin and the stars seem askew in the heavens above, how the wind moans a lament as it passes him and a mourning dove grieves somewhere just out of sight; how the ghost of the moon’s missing half has appeared like an omen in the charcoal sky, and how the air around him seems to pulse with warning.

I watch him knock on the door and then enter and I see that the crew-leader is there with two other men, with his feet propped on his desk and them slouched against the walls to either side of it, that one of them is chewing tobacco and the other two smoking cigars, that the room is ripe with rancor, glistening with smoke and sweat, and that they stop talking and turn, in one motion, when he walks in. When the crew leader hears why he’s there, he lets his feet fall to the floor with a thud, sets his cigar in an ashtray and reaches across his desk for a tattered ledger. Says here, he points to a page, that you packed seventy-eight boxes of a thousand plants each so, at seven-fifty a box–he punches a calculator with his middle finger–that would make five hunnert-eighty-five big ones you got comin’. He picks up his cigar and studies it for a long moment, then leans back in his chair and raises his feet again, shaking his head. Never seen anything like it, he says, winking at one of his friends. A coincidence like that don’t just come ’round here every day now. It really is amazing how it worked out like that, with five hunnert eighty-five bein’ exactly–not close, but exactly–the ‘mount you owe in rent for that house your family’s been livin’ in.

I look at him and see that, at first, he doesn’t realize what has just happened, and then I see that he does and I know he’s thinking that the self he’d once been would have answered at once, would have stood taller, leaned forward and threatened to call his cronies, to call a lawyer, to call the media, to call the police. But the stranger he has become stands silent and uncertain. He looks toward each of the other men, still slouched against the walls, but even from here I can see the blankness on their faces. You wanna let the INS do the math? the crew leader sneers and I watch him turn and walk out of the cabin and I watch him walk back to the shack to gather his family and I watch them step out into the deepening darkness and point their feet northward again.

* * *

Highwood, Illinois–where they decided to stop because they’d heard that an uncle’s friend had settled there–is a tiny community, nestled between two of the eight lustrous suburbs strung like pearls along Lake Michigan’s southwestern rim, comprising Chicago’s gleaming North Shore. Not considered a part of that strand, Highwood functions as its clasp, with its residents–mostly recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America–playing a vital role in maintaining the elegance that surrounds them, working in the homes and gardens and country clubs, in the restaurants and stores and car washes, where their neighbors live and dine and exercise and shop and play. One consequence of this geography is a diversity of such stunning magnitude within an area so small that within moments you can drive from a world where emerald lawns slope toward swimming pools, and garages hold three cars, to one where families triple up in the rooms above stores or in the windowless basements below them. Where they rock their babies to sleep in cardboard boxes hung from the ceilings of wilted shacks that squat in the shadows of alleyways or lean–evanescent as hope–at the corners of vacant lots.

And yet, if you’re a stranger passing through the area, or even if you live nearby but never venture off its two main thoroughfares, Green Bay and Sheridan Roads, you can drive from one end of Highwood to the other, over its full three-mile length, without ever tarnishing or scratching the sheen on your polished image of the North Shore. For unlike the poverty of the inner city, which announces itself in danger and disarray, in palpitations which beat more ominously the closer you get to its heart, this poverty in Highwood, is surreptitious. You may notice outside your car window the bowling alley and the piano bar, the train station and the rec’ center, the string of Italian restaurants–many emblazoned with four stars–created by the first generation of immigrants to settle there, and then the town will be behind you, a vista in your rearview mirror which seems not to differ dramatically from the one you’re moving toward.

Venture off those two main thoroughfares, though, and steer your car to the east, down the rutted lanes and potholed pathways through the crevices between the buildings and into the alleyways behind them, and you’ll discover a labyrinth of need awaiting there, deep and dark, extensive and unseen. As unseen as the estates hidden behind the manicured hedges you would find bordering that same Sheridan Road if you were to follow it for fifteen miles to the south as it winds through one North Shore suburb after another along Lake Michigan’s glistening coast, past what The Chicago Tribune has deemed a “dazzling mansion parade.”

Pierre deVise, professor emeritus of public administration at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, has utilized census data to conduct an ongoing series of reports on wealth and poverty in urban America. According to him, for the residents of those suburbs, “the American dream does not get any better.”

Three of them–Kenilworth, Winnetka and Glencoe–have consistently been included among the top thirty, with Kenilworth often ranking first on his lists of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs during the past decade. And, at the same time, fifty percent of the children who attend the elementary school in Highwood have depended upon the subsidized lunch program for their midday meal, with some of them having little or nothing else to eat all day. As historian Michael H. Ebner concluded in his study of the area (Creating Chicago’s North Shore: A Suburban History, 1988), Highwood has been destined since its incorporation in 1887 as a town to which impoverished immigrants were drawn by the abundance of jobs generated by the affluence nearby, “to stand forever out of place.”

For the residents of Highwood, it must sometimes seem that his words describe them, as well as the town they inhabit, for, inevitably, the in-your-face luxury of such certainty, of such ease, must heighten their own sense of their outsider status, cementing their awareness of just where they fit in America’s hierarchy of belonging and pressing into the ache of exclusion like a thumb into a bruise. I’d seen this happen often when–growing up in Highland Park, the suburb directly south of Highwood–I spent my vacations from high school and then college, teaching migrant children whose families had taken a break from working Michigan’s cherry orchards or Florida’s grapefruit groves or the cotton fields of Oklahoma, to spend the summer months in that tiny community while their fathers landscaped suburban lawns. They were children whose lives were lived in seasons, set to the rhythm of ripening produce, choreographed by the bud and bloom of crops in America’s fruit and vegetable fields, and, looking through their eyes, I saw my hometown cast anew.

One afternoon, I remember, I took some of them on an outing to Rosewood Beach in Highland Park, and I can still see them there, standing frozen on the pathway leading up to the sand, staring–at the lifeguards and the volleyball players and the sunbathing teens, at the picnicking families with their baskets and their beach bags in tow, with their sun visors and their Walkman music players, their chaise longues and their Perrier, their Cinderella towels and their Star Wars inner tubes. Staring as if they were examining exhibits at an Insider Museum, displayed against the velvet of the sand. And I can still see, too, how, when they’d finally had their fill of looking, they took my hands and pulled me past that section of the beach and past the next one and the next one, too, until we reached a section, beyond the pier, which was deserted, and then they spread their towels there.

Those children were to take to the road the moment the first frost appeared, hanging out the side windows, waving, or staring stoically from the back of rusted station wagons and crumpled sedans and wilted pickup trucks, with clothes and blankets and pots and brooms piled on the seats around them and chairs and tables clinging like burrs to the roofs above. I would stand there waving back, I remember, watching them head toward the highway which would take them out of town until they were contoured against the distance, and then I would stand there still, watching them dwindle into specks, which would then fade until they were swallowed by the sky, and, when I would finally turn away, I would turn knowing that I would carry a part of them with me always; that they had left their light with me, the way waves stain the sand with their iridescence before they return to the sea.

But over the years, I’ve discovered that they left the specter of their darkness, too–that I’ve never forgotten the glimpses I caught of the shadows which encircled them, hovering above and following them as they moved. It was because of the sorrow I’d seen in their lives–in the biographies written in the scars and stains and cracks on the palms of their already calloused hands and in the marriage of yearning and resignation in their eyes, but even more so in their certainty that they were unwelcome on that first part of Rosewood Beach that, when I recently moved back to Highland Park after years away, I created a food and clothing pantry, stocked by donations from residents of the North Shore suburbs, for those families who reside in Highwood now. Neighbor to Neighbor, I called it, and, in the essay I published in the suburban newspapers to make these communities aware of its existence, I challenged them to use it to prove to those going through difficult times, to families whose children were wearing only sneakers and sweaters when they walked to school through the snow, who were spending their mornings in their classrooms braced against hunger pangs, that they were not alone, that there were places on this earth–and this was one of them–where living amidst diversity could bring not only pain, but protection too.

The longer I ran the pantry, the more I watched the piles of coats and sweaters and shoes and pants, the bags of cereal and soup and peanut butter and rice, accumulate, and the more I became involved in the lives of the families of Highwood, the more I came to believe that was true, for I discovered that I was far from the only member of my community working to tell these families–families such as his–that they matter, that we saw them as families who were worth investing in. Others had created programs to help expectant mothers through pre-and post-natal care, to tutor children who had fallen behind in school, to guide teenagers toward skills and scholarships which would help them find a place in the wider world after high school graduation, to teach English to adults and to provide psychological counseling for anyone who sought it. It’s safe here, we were saying to them. You can breathe evenly again.

He believed us.

* * *

It was on a morning in mid-December when he called me, from the pay phone outside Walgreen’s, since he has none in his home. He’d just had an interview at a restaurant in Highland Park and wanted to tell me right away: he got a job. A real job, six days a week, with benefits even and a paycheck on the fifteenth of the month, he shouted, to make sure that I could hear him, and I did. Even with the wind roaring to a screech around him and the cars honking and swishing past and the connection crackling and fading and swallowing his every fourth word I heard the sound of hope spreading its wings, of imagination taking flight. And in my mind I saw him standing there, holding the icy receiver to his ear, not caring that a stinging blizzard had just begun, and I knew he was watching a pathway present itself in the darkness before him.

He had explained right away to the manager that he doesn’t have his papers, he told me later, when I stopped by their home to find out more, and the boss had said that he didn’t care. You’re working on getting them, right? he had asked and, You’ll do a good job for me, right? he had asked, and then he had stuck out his hand and said it: Welcome aboard.

Across the table, his wife grinned and crossed herself and, at our feet, the baby, hearing us laugh, began to laugh, too.

* * *

The next time I saw them was a week or so later, after the Christmas Sing at the school. I was outside the auditorium, talking with another family when I glanced up and noticed them standing nearby amongst the parents and teachers and angels and elves who were mingling in the hall.

In my mind, I still carry a snapshot of that glance: He, with the baby hoisted upon his shoulders, deep in conversation with the social worker, nodding and talking and laughing, with light having settled into the places where the furrows on his face had been. His wife, chatting with a circle of parents, smiling at something she’s heard, reaching out to touch another mother’s sleeve. Their daughter just behind them, her cardboard halo now slipped to one side, her hand on her mouth to cover a giggle as she listens to a secret whispered by a friend.

That was the last time I saw them before it happened and, though I didn’t witness it when it did, I see it often now:

There he is in the restaurant kitchen, in those final moments of believing, giving the sink a final swipe and the counter one more polish before untying his apron and placing it on his hook, thinking of how he’d better go find the boss and collect his paycheck if he wants to make it home in time, of how he’s certain they must already be waiting for him–smiling then, remembering how their faces had lit when he’d said it, that they’d go to the supermarket the very night he brought this first paycheck home; how his daughter had asked if they could really buy peanut butter, which they’d had to wait to be given, up to now,and how his wife had said that she planned to buy flower seeds, to plant in a box on the windowsill.

And there he is a moment later, unable to stop himself from pausing at the window, from looking out at the lavender twilight, just descending, and the streetlamps, just turned on, and at the parents on the sidewalks beneath them, shepherding their children into their cars and heading for home. Unable to stop himself from thinking of how that will be them too, someday–he and his wife and the children, climbing into their car and heading for home, for a house with a driveway and a living room and some grass in the yard and maybe even a piano, too. This is America, after all, he is thinking, and he’s already made it this far from being a man who slept on the floor of a chicken coop to one with a timeclock to punch and a paycheck to collect, a man who again has a place in the world.

And now there’s the boss, pushing open the door and stepping into the kitchen behind him. He’s turning away from the window now, smiling, and the boss is smiling too, telling him what an excellent job he’s done, that everyone’s been pleased with his performance, that it’s been just super having him on board and if he’ll just pull out his work-permit papers, he’ll go get him that paycheck right now.

Later, when he relives it, that is where the scene will slow to stillness in his mind, where it will play again and again and again, the maniacal mantra of a broken record, of a needle caught in the crack of a broken dream: But you said but you said but you said but you said. No papers no pay no papers no pay no papers no pay no papers no pay.

In fact, there he is now, reliving it already as he walks out the restaurant door and steps out into the bitter evening, which has dimmed toward blackness now; reliving it as he heads down Central Avenue, past Starbucks and the Corner Bakery, past Thirty-one Flavors and The Gap–their windows already laced with hearts in anticipation of Valentine’s Day–and to the street which will lead him out of Highland Park where he turns to the right, back toward Highwood, leaving the glimmer behind. And there he is, three miles later, his face slapped red and his hands in his pockets, making his way through the crevice between the bodega and the bar, to the alleyway behind them, where he stops, not yet ready to take those final steps toward home.

He can see them now, and so can I, through the window–his wife with her scarf tied beneath her chin, his daughter with her jacket already on, holding the wiggling baby between them, each trying to guide a tiny fisted hand into the thumb of a mitten. His wife is saying something, laughing, and his daughter is laughing too, their faces muted by the plastic he taped across the pane, so that, for a moment, it seems as if the window frames a watercolor painting, surrounds an image that is dreamt instead of real. And then, as we watch, the wind breathes through the cracks in the glass, sending the plastic billowing inward, and the image is gone.


Laura S. Distelheim is an author and social activist from Highland Park, Ill., whose essays have been featured in publications including The Chicago Tribune Magazine, Whetstone, DoubleTake and Pleiades. In addition, her work has received the William Faulkner William Wisdom Medal, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, the Press 53 Open Award, the Bruce P. Rossley Literary Award, the Richard J. Margolis Award, an Illinois Arts Council Artist’s Fellowship Award and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She received her J.D. from Harvard Law School and served for twenty years as director of Neighbor to Neighbor, an organization she created to combat hunger among and procure scholarship opportunities for the children of low income families in her community.


“Requiem for a Dream” © 2002 Laura S. Distelheim

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