Instead, Cliff spent the previous evening watching the result of a drug deal gone bad being hauled off in an ambulance. He witnessed the whole event through the foggy second-floor window of a dingy inn on the Southside. Afterwards, he considered composing a poem about the worth of life being two hundred dollars and ten extra cable channels. The words never came, so he fell asleep with a bottle of cheap wine bought at a gas station outside Escanaba.
Touring the bottom of the Tribune building for a second time, stopping to examine each piece of looted history, Cliff considered heading back to that ghetto, ditching the rendezvous altogether. He put his hand on a stone that for four thousand years made up part of the great pyramid at Giza until an Army Colonel decided it should adorn a newspaper headquarters instead. Meeting at that place had been Kashif’s idea. In a sense, it was where they first met. Not literally, but in the old lecture hall, attending an archeology class about ancient Egypt. They studied together and became friends, and when their time in the dorms ended, they shared an apartment.
Cliff looked up the stone and steel walls toward the Chicago skyline and couldn’t fathom that the buildings were ever designed. They appeared to be born from deep inspiration, transcending anything learned in an architecture class. It made the city pure like it stayed true to the nature of its founding. New York was different, more a city of layers. You could see how everything about that place was built on the past that no longer lived the way it did in Chicago.
“I see you’re sticking with the cross trainers and shorts.” The accent was there but had softened since their days at NYU.
“I see you’ve abandoned comfort for a suit,” Cliff answered.
“I told you I’m here on business,” Kashif said, adjusting his obscenely massive silver wristwatch.
“Well, I told you I was here on vacation.”
“Even so, shorts?”
Cliff softly chuckledKashif lifted his right eyebrow in that exaggerated way of his. Then he stuck out his left hand, and Kashif took hold.
“It’s good to see you, man.”
“Sorry I only have the afternoon, but I need to be back in L.A. We’re in the middle of trying to sign a marketing agreement with an up and coming chain of restaurants out of San Diego.”
“Sounds inspiring, Kashif.”
Cliff hadn’t given up on the dream; he was still going to be the next Hemmingway, the writer who would define a generation, and Kashif once held a role in the fantasy. He would be F. Scott, the other side of their literary age, and their stories would be bound forever. They would have been competitors in a sense, but they were friends, immortalized as a unit.
“Sign of the times, Cliff. Writing a clever soft drink ad pays better than the great American novel.”
“No argument there.”
It was already growing late and the cool of the Chicago night took hold. The sky went purple around the buildings and soon the black would come. The flowering plants decorating downtown began to droop and close, no longer needing to strain themselves. Outlines of the sculptures and trees, which had been so defined when Cliff arrived at the massive institution, took on a hazy quality.
Cliff lived in New York City for fifteen years, and felt he could blend with any city dweller, but something about the first signs of the urban night always served as a reminder that he was born and breed in the suburbs. Once night fell, his confidence returned, but during that first transition, he was an outsider.
Kashif looked at his watch. “The last time I was in Chicago I ate at this fantastic German restaurant near the waterfront. What do you say?”
“I’d rather try one of those Italian beef sandwiches at Johnnie’s. They’re supposed to be the best in the city.”
“What’s the difference between an Italian beef sandwich and a regular beef sandwich?”
“They use a slightly dry sub roll, pack it full of sirloin and top it with crumbled sausage, peppers, and seasonings. Finally, they take the whole thing and dip it in meat gravy before serving it to you, dripping and soggy.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“It’s a local favorite.”
“How in the name of God did the locals come up with that?”
“Wayback, a genius realized you could make cheap meat and dry bread more palatable by cooking it a certain way, then dipping it in beef gravy. It became all the rage among the poor. Now it’s Chicago’s version of the Philly Cheese Steak.”
Kashif stepped onto the sidewalk and raised his finger at a passing cab. It came to a halt, and Cliff hopped in, followed slowly by Kashif.
“Where you two heading,” the cab driver said without looking back.
Kashif closed the door and said, “Take us to Giordano’s.”
“Kashif, I know Chicago deep dish is something special, but you can get pizza anywhere.”
“You wanted to eat a Chicago specialty, Cliff. Well, deep dish is THE Chicago specialty, and it’s not dipped in a bucket of hot grease.”
“Yeah, but it’s so typical.”
“I suggested German.”
The transformation was complete, and the nighttime metropolis took hold. Intangible shapes made of light and shadow replaced the physical forms. The city became a pulsating entity; alive in and of itself, and where it needed it’s inhabitants to provide purpose during the day, now it needed nobody. Cliff watched through the cab window, wishing he could paint the passing images using words, but gave up before they arrived at the most famous pizza joint in a city famous for pizza. As they maneuvered through the crowd toward the host, who carefully studied the waiting list, Cliff felt another wash of failure.
“We’d like a table for two, please.”
“It’ll be a forty-five-minute wait.”
“What’s the name?”
“Have a seat; we’ll get you a table as soon as possible. You’re welcome to have a drink at the bar while you wait.”
The smell was intoxicating, and Cliff hadn’t eaten since breakfast. His head hurt and waves of dizziness hit him like a hammer. The warmth from the tightly packed bodies and the small overhead fans made the climate of room unbearable. Cliff observed the crowd of tourists and young people, imagining that had he and Kashif attended the University of Chicago; this might have been their hangout.
When they were finally taken to their booth at the back of the room, the crowd began to thin as the dinner rush died away. The waitress, a pretty Cuban girl, placed two glasses of ice water between them.
“Can I get you anything else to drink?”
“How about a pitcher of your best brown ale, and a couple of mugs,” Cliff said, dropping his cell phone on the table in front of him.
“It’ll be right up.”
Kashif removed his jacket and folded it carefully on the seat beside him. He looked at Cliff, who was studying his hands while rubbing them together.
“So Cliff, how’s the writing going?”
“It’s going, I guess.”
“I read that short story about the old woman that came out last month. It was good.”
“Thanks. Made a whole three hundred dollars for that month of work.”
“You know, when I read it,ht it might make a good episode to a television show.”
“Oh, not any one show per se, just thought it would be a good episode. You know the pacing of it and the dialogue. I thought it would work.”
Cliff laughed at the appraisal. “That’s great, after fifteen years of trying to write serious literature, I’ve managed to create something worthy of a vague, non-existent sit-com.”
“Ever the purist.”
“I guess I’m a stubborn bastard. Maybe I should get over it and get a job writing sketches for a late night talk show.”
“Worse things could happen.”
“It would be easier on the back than pushing hot asphalt for the labor union. Probably pay better too.”
“You know, the place I work does advertisements for companies that air on several television networks. I’m sure I could get you an interview.”
“Not what you’ve aspired to I know, but it would pay well, and you’d be doing something you’re good at. Plus, you could still write what you wanted on the side, maybe make a few connections that’ll get your work published.”
Two frosty mugs were placed in front of them with a pitcher in between. Cliff filled both glasses and offered Kashif a toast. Their glasses rang out as drops of condensation landed on the tablecloth. They took deep drinks like in the old days and slammed their mugs down at the same time.
“So do you still write on the side Kashif, or have you given up on the dream completely.”
“I tried keeping it up for a while, but it was no good. With the hours at work, and then we started having kids, something had to go.”
“You should have let something else go.” He knew it would insult his old roommate, even before his nose blushed red and his eyebrows raised.
“You had real talent Kashif. Me, I was always a hack, I may not have known it when we were in college, but I know it now. I mean you’re right, I should be writing for a television show. Snappy quips and pointless banter, that’s what I’m good at.
“You’re stuff was different, man. I remember reading your short stories, and even the work you did quickly, half drunk on a Saturday, it was great; better than pieces I spent weeks refining. You had a gift Kashif, a gift I always envied. Why’d you want to give something like that up, man?”
“It wasn’t a matter of want, my friend,” Kashif said. “I had hopes of being a writer; I used to think about doing interviews and winning awards. I imagined reading fan letters and living overseas between publications. I wanted it bad, but crossroads kept appearing before me, though I was never looking for a new path.
“I passed on a lot of opportunities Cliff, clinging to naive hopes that it would work out like we’d talked, but some thing’s I couldn’t walk away from. It would have been selfish, and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”
“Knowing what it’s like surviving month to month, I understand the appeal of a guaranteed mortgage payment,” Cliff said.
“I’m not talking about the money. I’m talking about Kate and the girls. I could have kept writing, and I think she would have stayed with me. When we started dating, we had nothing, and she couldn’t have had expectations of living the way we do today. Still, I wanted to give her more. Maybe I could have done that through writing, but probably not, even if my stuff was as good as you say. Then the job in advertisement came along, and I really considered passing it up, believe me, I did. In the end, I couldn’t.”
Kashif could taste the disappointment in the air, and for his part, Cliff did nothing to hide it.
“Life only moves forward my dear Clifford, regardless of where we want it to go. You can spend your time on this planet, fighting the current, or you can do what you can to enjoy existence for what it is.”
Cliff filled up their glasses. “I can’t help feeling like it’s a waste Kashif. I mean, you’re better than department store commercials.”
“I am, but I’m not better than my wife and children, not by a long shot.”
Their dinner arrived, and Kashif kept looking at his friend as they ate together in silence. He felt ashamed like he’d betrayed a brother. Kashif considered apologizing but failed to imagine a phrase to help his old friend understand from his perspective.
Cliff ate quickly, and Kashif could tell he wanted to return to his life. He wanted to continue writing, struggling and going to bed with his head held high, knowing he hadn’t abandoned his roots. Cliff, who had been like a brother once, would hang out with all his ‘proper’ writer friends, talking about the college buddy who could have been something, only to become a sellout.
“I’ll tell you what Cliff, why don’t I go pay and meet you out front. We’ll take a cab down to the Riverwalk, get a glass of wine and stroll along the Chicago River before I need to catch my plane.”
Cliff smiled a fake smile and asked, “Are you sure you’ll have time? I don’t want you to miss your flight.”
“I’m a veteran flier Cliff. By feel alone, I can tell when I have to get to the airport. You go ahead and finish up, and I’ll meet you out front.”
Before he could protest more, Cliff watched Kashif head toward the front register, wallet in hand. He took one last bite of the finest pizza he’d ever had, then headed to the exit. He arrived out front and found Kashif holding open a cab door.
It would have been easy to turn and walk down the street. Before reaching the intersection, he could un-friend Kashif, and then it would be nothing but one bad memory spoiling the good ones. Cliff looked at Kashif, felt his ankle begin to rotate on the asphalt, but then his former buddy smirked and winked.
Cliff straightened out, climbed into the cab, and after a few minutes of twists and turns they were walking under small trees and overhangs along the Chicago River. Kashif quickly purchased two cups of red wine, which they quietly sipped while strolling slowly toward Lake Michigan.
The Riverwalk was set alight with candles and Christmas lights hung from the eves of cafés and shops. To the left were black waters flowing toward the lake. To the right were canyon walls of concrete, polished smooth and dotted with sparkling windows that mirrored their lights dancing across the calm waters.
Kashif recognized the fledgling feeling already eating at his insides. It would gnaw at him for years, fester and rear its ugly head with each success. He would judge every decision against the opinions of an old friend and the shared dream he’d left behind. His only hope lay in Cliff saying something that would let him return home with the belief that nothing had changed.
Instead, Cliff remained silent; reliving the moment he sent a message to his best friend from college, a friend he hadn’t seen for a decade. He thought it would be fun, to regain a piece of time when success and happiness were inevitable. Instead, failure met them both; one through rejection and poverty, the other by trading a God given gift for a paycheck. If he had let it alone, Cliff could have left their friendship a perfect memory, but it was all wrecked now.
Kashif stopped and tossed the last of his wine onto the sidewalk before saying, “Well, it was nice talking to you, Cliff.”
“Yeah, hopefully, we can do it again sometime.”
Kashif looked at his friend silhouetted against the canyon wall on the far side of the river.
“You want to share a cab Cliff? On me.”
“No, I still got time before my flight, and it’s nice out. I think I’ll walk a little farther.”
“Alright then. Good luck on the writing, and take care.”
“Yeah. My best to the family,” he said, immediately remembering he’d never met them.
“If you ever want to meet some people about work in L.A., just ask. I’d be happy to help.”
“Thanks, Kashif. I’ll keep that in mind.”
They shook hands and Cliff turned, resting his arms on the ornate iron railing that kept people from falling into the Chicago River. He looked out at the slow, summer waters and even with the city singing around him, he heard Kashif Morris’ footsteps moving across the Riverwalk, then up the stairs to catch a cab.
Cliff threw back the last of his wine and imagined jumping the rail and diving in. He’d float down the river peacefully, looking up at the great manmade canyon and the night sky that had probably not revealed a star in decades. The river would widen until he found himself drifting into Lake Michigan. There he would rise and fall on the small wind swell. It would be like that for hours, and the tragedy of the evening would drown as he went further into the lake with the light of the city dimming until the stars appeared.
It would only be a temporary escape because there’s no eluding the past, not anymore. Maybe forty years ago one could find space for a reprieve, but in the modern day, the weight was always there. Even with the currents of that great lake, by morning, someone would find him and force him back.
So Cliff turned and followed the same path to the street as Kashif. He climbed the stairs and left the carefully crafted world of the Riverwalk behind. Harsh flashes of red lit a sea of stopped traffic, replacing the crafted ambiance along the Chicago River. The sidewalk was a logjam of people held in place by caution tape and lined by beat cops trying to give detectives and paramedics room to work.
Cliff pushed forward, listening to the whispers of the crowd, but nobody seemed to know what they congregated to see. So he pushed deeper in and by the time he reached the police tape he sweated heavily and without the cooling effect of the lakes wind, Cliff felt beaten. He leaned forward, focusing on the closest uniformed officer who spoke with a detective.
In the distance, paramedics hoisted a gurney and wheeled it toward a waiting ambulance. Cliff looked carefully at the unconscious man, but a paramedic was pumping air into the patient’s lifeless lungs, covering his face. The rest of him was concealed beneath an orange blanket until one hand slipped from under the cover. It bounced lifelessly at the side of the gurney, its wristwatch reflecting the lights of the street.
Cliff looked back toward the detective who asked the beat cop, “Why didn’t he give up his wallet?”
“Don’t know, Lieutenant, but that’s what the witness told me. He said the mugger asked for his wallet, but the man said no. Then, right before the mugger stabbed him, the victim yelled out that he never backed down from anything in his life.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. What are a few bucks compared to a knife in the gut.”
“Some can’t back down. They don’t know how. To them, it’s like giving up, and that’s worse than anything.”
The doors to the ambulance shut and the sirens went off as it spun back onto the street. The detective walked back to the center of the crime scene, and the police officer headed toward the crowd.
“OK everyone, it’s all over. We need you to start clearing the street so we can get this traffic moving.”
Cliff leaned in and shouted out, “Excuse me, officer, can you tell which way to the nearest hospital?”
Skyler Nielsen grew up on a small family farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In 2002 he received a degree in History from UC Riverside and shortly afterward the farm went out of business. He moved to California’s central coast and got a job at Cabrillo College and began writing fiction. His work has appeared in Crack the Spine.