February 1, 2015

FICTION BY DAN FIELDS "CACHETTE"



Dan Fields is a musician and film critic based in Houston, Texas. You can view his current and archived work at
http://www.fieldspointreview.com


  
His story "Cachette" is featured here.




 CACHETTE

As Marjan Radić lays out bills along the sloping kitchen counter, his eyes keep darting back to two little faces bordered in red. It is one of those circulars mailed out by the post office, with "HAVE YOU SEEN ME?" printed at the top. He should be concentrating on the bills which, although steep, are manageable for the first time in a long while. Winter is on the way, six months of freezing his can trying to keep other tenants warm and dry, so any money he can put away for Sophie and the kids now is worth celebrating. Rounding off the totals, he creeps toward his monthly income, subtracting for bus fare and basic groceries, without quite going over, as far as he can figure it. This makes him practically a millionaire. 
Still, the tiny MISSING face draws his eye away every few seconds. He squints at it, gripped not by sympathy but by curiosity. He is trying to figure something out. Even as the father of two small boys, he rarely gives these things a second look. Peter and Matthew are almost never out of Sophie's sight. They spent three safe years in that Humboldt Park hovel before - every weekend it seemed like another Puerto Rican Independence Day - so danger here on the lakeside fringe of Rogers Park seems like a real long shot.
It is not the naked sensitivity of parenthood that holds his interest. The little girl in the first photo, with her gap teeth and pigtails (four years missing, God in heaven), has no connection to the digitally "aged" grotesque printed opposite. Something about the pair of images rings false. He knows the second picture is no living person. It is a computer's best guess. When Radić was young, it was police sketches on milk cartons from the Osco Drug. Does this new way really help locate more kids? He doubts it.
The dead eyes in the digital face are simply wrong. No, not wrong. Incorrect. Radić knows it in his heart, without understanding exactly why. He leans over the counter again, absentmindedly sweeping his bills into a precarious corner. He tries to recognize the original photo, dismissing the computer image outright. It is useless; it might as well be torn off and thrown away. Radić does not know the girl from somewhere four years ago. He barely remembers anything from that time except hazy spats with Sophie, followed by fumbling reconciliation with her feet thrown up on his shoulders, and muttered prayers that the furnace or the squawking mattress would not wake the babies. He had been working night security at the Northshore Omni, riding with after-hours freaks on trains and buses back to Division and Kedzie (five hours commuting on a good day, and he didn't care much for reading). He rode with the sunrise at his back, never at an hour for clean-faced little girls to share a seat with him.
While he lost the hotel job, ducked lawsuits for negligence, quit drinking and weathered the hell of moving a young family across town, there had been little time for new acquaintances. As maintenance chief of the crumbling Lakescapes at Jonquil Terrace - paid a decent stipend and work expenses, plus the ground-floor corner apartment - he has the chance to meet people again, but not much inclination. Solitude is the main perk of a job that amounts to so much boiler repair, electrical re-rigging, and roof patching, all of which put him outside for hours on end in the most merciless lakeshore weather. It is a rare thing to be a tradesman in Chicago and not face the daily hassle of being "another damn Polish."
Marjan Radić has nothing against Poles as an abstract. He reads no racial imperatives into their obnoxious good humor. They are fine people to drink with at night, and show an impressive work ethic even when drunk. Still, Radić is all Croat with his own Croat problems, which are damned sure nothing like Polish problems. Despite a few cultural tendencies that get up his ass, he is as tolerant and anti-genocidal as any person can claim, truly, to be. His grandfather's war stories have taken care of that. Sophie is probably half Polish at least, but not so much that she minds his occasional grousing about them. His own blood, with its own troubled legacy, is special to him not because of where it comes from but because it is his own, useful to him and nobody else. He does not need it to stand for anything. He only needs it to roil around his brain and not clot up there.
Radić is not a small or a narrow-minded man. He is practical, even in his prejudices. It is frustrating enough to be called "Margin Roddick" or "Marianne Radish" by bank tellers and cold-callers without adding his own grievances to the city's collective cultural spite.
Four blocks west, the PA system at Howard Street El station chimes its arrival, the distant bing-bong drifting through his kitchen window, and with the same absurd clarity the answer comes to him. The girl in 4E. Eleven, maybe twelve years old. She rode her bicycle up and down the street, watching him and Sophie the day they hoisted their possessions from the moving van through a side security door propped with cinderblocks. Now she throws snowballs at her little friends in the courtyard, where Radić takes cigarette breaks. The man in 4E, surely her father, has thin hair and glasses, and always says a soft hello passing Radić on the stairs.
The girl is skinny and seems tall for her age, not yet growing into a woman. Her hair is blonde, not a sunny golden but more like a mild red with the color faded out of it by washing. That was the strange impression that came to him the first time he saw her speed past on the bike. She is polite enough, as quiet as her father when not horsing around with her friends. They keep to themselves, like everyone in cold weather. Radić has considered asking the girl to babysit his boys, so that he and Sophie can have a night out sometime.
She looks like a cheery version of that girl, Sissy Whatsit (something Czech?) in that horror movie, Carrie, which he and Sophie saw on the midnight show the week they moved in. One of them, he cannot remember which, had even mentioned the little girl upstairs while they were watching it.
He thinks of a frosty morning when they had nearly closed school, but he walked Sophie to the corner bus stop with the boys anyway. A school bus comes right down their street, but she prefers taking them herself. They are still so small. Maybe next year.
The school bus pulled up after Radić had said goodbye and sent his family south on the CTA. The thin-haired man, more like the Invisible Man under so many warm layers, was walking his girl to the school bus door, and her tender kisses and hug around his neck could be nothing but the love of a daughter for a daddy. He waved as she rounded the corner out of sight, and he gave Radić a glance that beamed with affection. He would miss her all day, and welcome her home with joy. Radić knew that feeling.
Could that child belong somewhere else? Is there any way she is lost from someone who loves her? It seems ridiculous to Radić, but staring at the photo as he fills the kitchen with Camel smoke, he can scarcely believe it is not the same child. Even if it were true, even if it were somehow the right thing, he feels sure that bringing the police will cause more heartbreak than joy.
How much worse if he is mistaken? What would he do if the cops came one day and said Matthew and Peter fit the description of two babies stolen years ago from a couple in Andersonville? People tend to believe the worst possible story. He knows.
Radić puts it away, tells himself he is crazy, but he will lose weight over the next few weeks as the notion eats at him. Sophie might ask if he is okay, and of course he will say yes, and of course she will say, "Fine. Good." He decides against sending the boys up to 4E. He can find somebody else to babysit. He will get on with the business of keeping out the cold. He will not allow himself to smoke more than one pack a day before the first real snowfall, and he will promise himself as usual that come next Lent, he will give up smoking for good. Above all, he will resist, as long as he possibly can, the temptation to ask whether they really offer cash rewards for information on missing persons.
He keeps an eye out in the meantime, not for anything special, but for signs of something not quite right. He is a father. He will see. He has lived long enough to know how to deal with trouble, or make it. It is no particular business of his, not yet anyway, but he has a decided advantage in haunting the place like a benign ghost, present but seldom noticed. His neighbors are at ease around him, if not indifferent, and he damned well intends to watch the faces as they come and go.
For now, that will have to be enough.

~Dan Fields~

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