The shade, raised
April 24, 1970. Friday morning. The sun, searing the shade, my brother's and mine. We share a room. Twin beds above the kitchen, side by side. Headboards against the wall beneath the window that looks down on a tiny cement patio. A small house next to an alley next to a grocery-store parking lot. Kroger.
Scraggly forsythias divide our alley from the parking lot. Fragile yellow flowers the color of Peeps pop on the thin branches. Mostly the branches catch the trash that forever swirls in our lot. Flyers and circulars. Papers.
This is on the Far Northwest Side, a block from the Kennedy Expressway, in the shadow of O'Hare.
My mother's hand on my shoulder. "Time for school," she says.
She wears a blue robe and pale blue slippers that look like sandals. She is thirty-three, thin with frosted brunette hair and deep, heavy-lidded almond-shaped brown eyes and a tight mouth. She looks like Queen Elizabeth. It's like they're twins in time. Pick a photo of Elizabeth from any year and lay a photo of my mother next to it. Sisters, you'd say. Especially in the mouth and eyes. Same hair, too. My mother has always wished her hair were curlier, that it had more body. For years, my grandmother gave her a perm every few months, my mother hanging her head in our cold gray washtub.
The doorbell rings. My mother says, "Who could that be?"
She walks to the window and raises the shade.
"What the hell are they doing here?" she says.
Below, my grandfather and grandmother, my uncle Dick and aunt Helen, are standing on the porch in the shadow of our honey locust tree, its tiny leaves fluttering in the breeze.
My mother walks out.
From the air vents along the floorboards my brother and I can hear the adults in the kitchen below. No words. Just sounds.
I remember exactly what happens when I get into that kitchen—and every moment afterward. But sitting with my brother on the edge of our beds in our pajamas, that bright morning in April, him eight and me six—even now I feel like I'm imagining it.
My brother and I pause at the top of the stairs. Then there we are, on the edge of the living room.
"The boys are here," Uncle Dick says.
He pushes us forward, into the kitchen. The sun is bright. The linoleum white and cold on my bare feet. My mother sits at the kitchen table, in the chair she will sit in the rest of her life. Her chair to solve the Jumble. Her crosswords chair. Her chair for solitaire. My grandmother stands behind her, a handkerchief'd fist to her mouth.
My mother reaches out. "Come over here."
She sets us on her chair, my brother and me, side by side. We're still that small.
"Your dad is dead."
Her eyes are red but she is not crying. "It's going to be okay," she says. "We'll be fine."
She hugs us. And as I sit there, crushed against my brother, held tight by my mother's arm, I can feel, against my chest, my brother's chest, quivering. I struggle to pull back from my mother's embrace.
In that moment I think only one thing: how excited I am. Because my whole life up until then, my brother has never cried. Whenever I have cried, he's always teased me, told me I was a baby. I point at him and start to laugh and I say, "Crybaby! Crybaby!"
The night slot
My father was the night slot man. That's a newspaper term. From the time he is a young boy of six or seven in Dust Bowl Nebraska, back in the Depression, all he wants is to work in newspapers. All he wants is to escape, to get to Chicago and be a newspaperman, just like his brother.
My dad's name is Bob. He idolizes his brother, who is twelve years older. His brother's name is Dick.
Their father was many things, but mostly he was a switchman and, when called upon, a griever. Those are railroad terms. Their father passes most of his life in the windblown rail yard of McCook, a town barely bigger than an afterthought. Day after day, he couples and uncouples strings of boxcars and then waits for the engines that will come to pull them apart or carry them away.
At eight, my father gets a job as a paperboy, delivering the Omaha World-Herald. In high school, he edits The Bison, the school paper. Come graduation in 1952, the Omaha World-Herald declares him "one of Nebraska's brightest newsboys"—who has worked his route "with diligence and dedication." They give him a "Carrier's Scholarship"—$150. He also earns a $450 scholarship from Northwestern University and uses it to attend the Medill School of Journalism, just like Dick, who is by now an editor at the Tribune. Dick delivers the address at my father's commencement. The Omaha World-Herald runs a story headlined TWO BROTHERS GET ATTENTION AT MCCOOK HIGH GRADUATION. The editors print head shots of Dick and my father. Beneath them, a caption: Richard, Robert . . . Speaker, Listener.
Five years later, in May 1957, my father graduates with a master's degree in journalism. A few days after commencement, he packs up his room in a boardinghouse run by an Armenian woman on Foster Street. A Sigma Nu fraternity brother drives him and his suitcases down to Chicago's Union Station, where he boards the Burlington Zephyr, bound to McCook.
He doesn't want to go back to Nebraska, but Dick, who is the chief of the local copy desk at the Chicago Tribune, tells him that it is all but impossible to get hired at the Tribune straight out of college. "Most of the reporters didn't even graduate from high school. You need experience. That's the only way they'll respect you."
From After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story by Michael Hainey. Copyright 2013 by Michael Hainey. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.