Doesn't Anybody Speak English Anymore? | Fiction | Chicago Reader

Doesn't Anybody Speak English Anymore? 

"I won't go in there, Rudy."

"Come on, I buy you a nice chicken."

"Rudy, if I want a chicken for dinner, I'll go to the Jewel and buy one that's killed and cleaned."

"It's fresher this way."

"Forget it. I can't watch them kill a chicken. I can't even stand to buy live lobster. What am I talking about? I couldn't afford lobster alive or dead. But if I could, I wouldn't buy a live one."

"All right then, I buy you a nice Hungarian sausage."

"Yeah, fine."

Rudy pulled his old Pontiac off Lincoln onto a side street to park. Harrison pulled his hat down further on his neck to ready himself for the cold outside the car. He stepped out of the car into a puddle—it looked like snow, but was slush floating on water. He cursed and then, as if on a tightrope, followed Rudy, placing one food in front of the other in the narrow footpath through the snow.

Rudy opened the door to the butcher shop and Harry's glasses fogged. It was three o'clock Saturday afternoon and the shop was jammed. The butchers milled about behind the counter, calling numbers, speaking Polish to one customer, German to another, Croatian to the next. Rudy stood next to the display case where the sausages he wanted pressed against the glass. Hungarian hand grenades, Rita called them, partly because of how hot they were, and because of what they did to her when she ate them.

There were seven or eight customers ahead of them. Harry's eyes wandered until they settled on the little man next to him, his friend, Rudy. He couldn't help but wonder what a mismatched pair they must have looked to be. Harry was close to six feet tall; Rudy barely five. Harry was slender, almost gangly; Rudy had a chest like a barrel and a belly like a blowfish, with arms and legs so short they seemed to belong to another body—his size was no indication of his strength, Harry knew, for he had once seen Rudy carry a refrigerator on his back up five flights of stairs. Harry had light brown hair and a face that would have been nondescript except for the sour expression he wore; Rudy was ruddy-faced and dark-haired with almond, Slavic eyes and cherubic dimples.

The man behind the counter called a number and stepped forward with a joke in Magyar. The butcher smiled, Rudy belly-laughed.

"Harry, you want some of this, too?"

"No, that's OK."

"Take it, my little brother."

"Rudy . . ." It was too late. The meat was wrapped and in the sack.

Rudy and Harry left the shop and skated back to Rudy's beater. Another car had pulled in tightly behind them, but Rudy had no qualms about braille parallel parking. He backed up until he heard the firm clash of bumper on bumper, pulled forward against the car in front, butted into the car behind, forward and he was out.

They drove back to Wolcott. Rudy's wife watched out the window for them and as soon as they were in the alley behind the building she had the door open and was screaming in Hungarian.

"She wants me to take the kid for a walk so she can sit down and smoke a cigarette. I see you, my friend. You tell me tomorrow how much I owe you."

Rita had already finished her rounds at the hospital when Harry got home. Her sister, Maritza, was there, and some other woman, probably another nurse from Ravenswood Hospital, and the three of them were sitting around the table exchanging Spanish girl talk—something about rubbing grease on a pregnant belly to avoid stretch marks. So who was pregnant? Girl talk.

"Qué tal, Harry honey?"

"Hi."

Harry walked past them through the living room and into the bedroom to undress for the shower. His hair in the mirror was speckled with paint, his nostrils were caked with plaster dust. He blew out the dust, turned on the shower, and lay down to let the warm water drum across his chest. He was almost asleep when Rita came to bang on the door.

"Hurry up, honey. Martiza she gotta use the john."

The hot water had almost run out anyway and there was no sense falling asleep only to wake up when the cold water surged through. He turned off the shower, dried quickly, wrapped a towel around himself, and opened the door. His sister-in-law pushed past him.

"Look out, gringo. I gotta go."

He though of dropping the towel and mooning her, but she wouldn't understand, and it would only get him in trouble with Rita.

"Rita, wake me up for dinner. Y no olvides. I don't care how much I fight it. Wake me up."

He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes to run his usual test pattern through his head: What the hell was he doing in a six-flat on Wolcott? His family was as American as they come, and here he was, living in a world where English usually filtered through an accent. WASP kids from Wilmette with college educations were meant to work at the Mercantile Exchange or in law offices in the Standard Oil Building. What was he? A goddamn janitor, and an assistant janitor at that.

When Harry went to college, his father insisted he study business administration. "Bullshit," was Harry's response. He liked literature, learned Spanish easily, and thought he'd like to teach it some day. And even in the mid-70s, professors filled you full of the crap that money meant nothing, and a life of educated abstinence from the material corruption of your parents was the ideal. So he bought into it and studied Spanish and what had it done for him? Well, it got him a good wife. Rita was the best: she looked after his physical and emotional well-being, made good money, didn't complain.

They married right out of school and went off to live with her relatives in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Harry found a modest job teaching English at the YMCA and Rita worked in a local hospital. Life had no problems. They had perfect weather, and the relatives, Rita's aunt and uncle, were happy to have them stay as long as they wanted. But after two years, Harry's parents felt it was time for him to move back to Chicago and get a real job, and Rita's parents and sisters thought she should return, too. So, even though it was February, the year's darkest, coldest month, they left what they had in Puerto Rico and flew home.

Harry thought it would be easy getting a teaching job in the Chicago area with his Spanish and his experience teaching English as a second language. But he wasn't certified, and outside of the public schools there just weren't any openings. After a few months of looking he lost interest altogether and started spending the days down at the lake watching the waves beat against the ice on the beach.

Rita had a job in a week, thank God, and they found this three-bedroom apartment on Wolcott for 220 a month. Sure, they'd rather live in Lincoln Park, but who could afford it? And this was closer to Rita's family and Ravenswood was a block away and she could walk to work.

Rudy owned the building—and five or six others. He'd see Harry hanging around every day and ask him if he wanted to work a few hours. Finally he got so bored and so tired of depending on Rita for spending money that he took Rudy up on it.

So it was two years now, two years of stinking garbage in the summertime and snow shoveling and furnace problems in the winter. But it sounded worse than it really was. They did more driving around than working usually, and sometimes Rudy paid Harry just to keep him company. And living on the street like they were all day could be exciting. Still, it wasn't what he, his wife, or his family thought he should be doing. He hated to run into friends from high school or college and tell them what he did for a living.

Running the years through his head, Harry fell asleep. When he opened his eyes it was morning. Rita was already gone—she worked an early shift on Sundays. She had probably tried to wake him for dinner and he had probably refused to get up. He didn't remember anything now, but that was usually the way those things went.

He tried to go back to sleep. Was that the dog scratching at the door to go out? He had to get up before the dog peed on the floor and Lord knows he cleaned up enough shit and pee during the day on the job. He had to get up anyway—Rudy would already be waiting for him in the restaurant on Montrose, drinking his fifth cup of coffee. He threw on his long johns and then his coveralls. On Sunday they did the garbage in Rudy's building on Lawrence, and it looked like two inches of fresh snow had fallen that would have to be shoveled.

At a quarter to seven, Rudy was being served breakfast in the corner restaurant: two eggs, a thick slice of ham, a grilled tomato, a toasted hard roll.

"Sit down, my little brother, and eat."

"Just give me coffee first. Jesus, Rudy, how can you eat tomato in the morning?"

"You lucky, my friend. I'm want to eat a feta cheese omelet, but I know you think it smell like somebody pu' up."

They sat quietly, Harry staring out at the snow, Rudy folding and refolding the sports section of the Sun-Times.

"So Rudy, what are we doing today? Shoveling?"

"Later. First we do plumbing."

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