Christian Thorsberg

We teeter in the penumbra of Old Style sign glow and German-smelling hops. Noble gasses cast their OPEN sheen upon our liquor-glossed eyes, pupils swirling until the world tips back in sync. Time has begun to progress on a diagonal. The evening, which began as drinks at our usual woody pub, and quickly turned to a Lewis and Clark of Clark Street, traversing yuppies and schmucks, vacates semblance, like when a face is familiar only because of its un-remarkability.

We depart mutely for what I think is the L, but some amount of time later the pavement sinks and sand claws, unbeknownst to our numbed nerves, into our socks. Earlier today, running here, parallel to the lake effect aura of Foster Beach, I found a Barbie doll. It wore a bloated and castaway beauty, like Eljona the nighttime veterinarian, who moves with her husband through bungalows depositing pentobarbital into the sides of ailing cats and dogs, delivering them from the synonymous places of pain and the world. Eljona ages defiantly from the shine that won her teenage pageants across Eastern Europe, now wearing heavy perfume and extra weight and too much lipstick red as the Polish flag. Her face has grown familiar, and she moves in her nocturnal van silent as her transition from lavish gowns and two-piece swimsuits to scrubs. Her husband has no knowledge of medicine. A repo man reaper, he carries pet corpses for his Mattel-motley wife. We call him pallbearer Ken.

The lake is a canvas sideswiped by rainbow’s BIV, and streaks of moonglow superimpose the flaps in lapping waves. The seagulls are up late, or more likely we’ve woken them with our aloof trudging; their notoriously shrill yips are sleepier and monotone. I watch their feathers drop like snow, an homage to winter on a night whose breeze tightens the handshake between summer and autumn.

‘Isn’t this better than home?’ slurs Harlo, our boozehound Sacagewea. As if projecting these words was a disruption to his shaky equilibrium, he missteps thrice where the sand becomes damp and falls to his knees in the heavy shore. He rests on right-angled fours, the receding lakewater pulling through him like a sieve. Beyond him, a raindrop, or perhaps butterfly, drifts between the tips of lake and cloud, the sky sagging like a net with a freshly caught secret.

We’d been rolling spliffs a few weeks ago in some Pilsen apartment, a friend of a friend’s, when a girl with a Virgin Mary tramp stamp asked me for my name. ‘That’s Jonny,’ said Harlo, and I said, ‘Hey, I know who I am,’ and Mary said, ‘Well, now I do, too.’ She watched us roll and Harlo asked if she was looking to buy or just cop our oxygen, which didn’t faze her because she could tell he was teasing.

After a while he took a joint off the top of our pile and lit it, then passed it to me. I’d been itching to smoke since the moment I met Mary, only because I knew a few hits would jostle my conscience, and I’d be tight enough to ask about her tattoo. ‘Is that,’ said Harlo, ‘your ass crack or the Sistine Chapel?’ ‘Damn it man,’ I said. Mary laughed and took the joint from my hand. ‘Pretty as a Michelangelo?’ she exhaled. ‘Maybe a Miguel y Angelo,’ said Harlo, and Mary stuck the spliff in his neck, still joking though,

and I said, ‘Damn it man!’ and Harlo just laughed, and we grew silent and high, and through the big window, before we would watch it for minutes and minutes, the moon watched us.

It was Father’s Day, years ago, when I called Eljona for my dog Henry. He was an old and rickety mix with salt and pepper fur, and the only son figure in my life. His slow-moving cancer had stolen two senses, eyesight and scent, and on that holiday morning, when I watched Henry eat a full bowl of the generic kibble he had scoffed at all his life, I knew his taste had been taken as well.

I suppose this was the logic supporting my condemning choice, or at least as much rationale euthenasia could soundly hold firm. Still though, how could I not feel the ghost of Marvin Gaye Sr, or hear ‘If I Should Die Tonight’ every time I looked into Henry’s hazel, broken eyes?

Fireflies in Chicago take after streetlights: flickering and staccato, as if conspiring in morse. But on the night I found Henry the sky’s chariots seemed to have hydroplaned, spilling its stars into our sphere of summer. We were sitting in the corner deli’s handicapped parking space –– the one that juts against a slice of city forest –– a friend and I, dizzy from escapades. I focused on a bush, mesmerized by its bulbs of bug glow, speckled with outer space stuff, and it took a moment, in this dizziness, to realize that it wasn’t a bug or nebula, but a pair of eyes, a puppy who became Henry. A strike of thunder shook him out of the bush and into a stranger’s arms and his new life, one that spun like ribbon wrapped around a gift box, Henry the bow on every day’s delight. Thirteen years later, he had given all he could.

Eljona would try to be there, she said, around midnight, with her husband and syringe. ‘Tonight’s a busy one,’ she said, ​busy a euphemism wrapping in static as it traveled and coiled through the phone cord, pushing through my ear and dropping into my heart like a waterlogged tumor. An abyss, it expanded.

I remember when I listened to the Voyager Golden Records, ‘The Sounds of Earth,’ for the first time. After a heaping disc and a half of mostly Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, a young girl from Peru sings ‘Song of Marriage,’ and listening for the first time to her voice, which hangs dainty like saliva strung from kissers’ mouths pulling their lips apart, and vibrates the fuzziness of mosquitos nipping at one’s legs, like their blood-rich proboscis, I was on the edge of something real. And now, in an entirely inside-out way, here again was real, or at least an obsidian shell of the geode nook I had carved for myself in that young mountain girl’s voice. And perhaps I had never known a true voice until I knew hers, and perhaps you can only live in one voice at a time.

‘Would you like us to make a cast of his paw, for twenty dollars more?’ Eljona’s voice asked. I don’t know what I said, or twenty dollars more to what, because a Hemingway line had suddenly sprouted from the denial in my chest and used all my breath to photosynthesize and enlarge, and it said ​The sea is big and old –– Throbbing ships scorn it, and Eljona said, ‘Do widzenia.’

Marcelo was the neighborhood’s leaky faucet. He dripped through our alleys and parks, sometimes climbing fire escapes, and, at his worst, pissing on lawns. His presence toed the line between consistent and maddening, but you couldn’t pin blame

on him: he was thirty-one stuck forever at five, his wanderings the byproduct of the city closing its mental health centers. We’d try to do good by him and make him feel alright –– the Spiderman shirt he wore every day gave him the easy nickname, and that even earned him a theme song: ‘Swinging through your town like your neighborhood Spiderman’ said the Wu-Tang fans whenever we spotted him, ‘Protect Ya Neck! It’s Marcelo!’ Like the real Spiderman, Marcelo didn’t have parents, or anyone, except us, to protect him, or at least give the illusion that we did.

He didn’t have any powers either. With nowhere to go to scribble days away, and no one to pretend to fix his head, he scoped gangways with a fish net he found sticking out of a sewer, looking for mariposas. Maybe going blind, on top of it all, or otherwise unable to tell any difference, he mistook potted flowers for the hues of monarchs and swallowtails. He’d swipe at the plants like a fat samurai and leave petal paths. We could always tell where Marcelo had been and where he’d wandered off to –– his trail looked like a wedding aisle. Mrs. Rosés, our block’s aptly named green thumb, would erupt in frustration: ‘Why does this boy hate color?’ she’d cry with her nose pressed to dusty window screens, mistaking his illness for a deep and vile attack on all she considered good: dots of life on asphalt canvas. ‘Why do you hate color, Marcelo?’ she wailed through the streets. Perhaps he heard her, we don’t know, but he’d wave his hand, as he often did, and bite his lip, as he would, and stumble mutely out of mind until the next time you sneezed because of all the pollen in the air, and remember him, or at least, by association, the Wu-Tang.

Like the rest of the block, Mrs. Rosés grew slowly to understand, and find comfort in, Marcelo, especially when her husband fell ill. The Spiderman’s drip, above all else, was consistent. She needed that. She called him her Magellan, likening his aimless paths to those of old Portugese and Spaniards. She’d say, ‘Those explorers weren’t so great, they just ended up somewhere,’ and said that Marcelo, while also not that great, would end up somewhere too. But in the meantime, as he circumnavigated our tiny block over and over, Mrs. Rosés would buy and plant more orange and black flowers, which fluttered in the breeze like monarchs, and she’d think of Marcelo as a cocoon himself who’d one day discover the merits of nurturing a plant rather than destroying it, and so open a neighborhood garden in the empty lot where they tore down his old clinic, or in the parking spaces too large for that tiny deli, and she would protect him still, his surrogate mother and Argus, and butterflies would flock, fearing not for their lives, but welcomed by Marcelo’s colorful sow and warm, scarlet heart.

The sand everywhere now is damp from brooding drizzle, a clandestine passing shower for those with reason to sleep and thus reason to wake, but for now lay dreaming. It’s due to dissonance that he doesn’t sleep, Harlo, and aimlessness, that I don’t either. It would be holding a mirror to a time of lightning strikes and heavy objects, an exercise that’d leave us both with seven years’ bad luck and cuts in our knuckles. But I can see in him now, the way his breath skips the lungs and goes directly to his heart, kneeling in the lake, why I’ll never bring it up, and if I squint, and urge a sober sliver of thought, I can see the weight of his little brother that Harlo carries with him, rising and dropping like the moon that watches us.

The thunder begins like a sonata over the lake, and dogs across the city, dying or not, wail and bolt. Even here, where sand meets water and the present meets past, I can hear them, their cries shaking loose the terror of the moment, I’d like to think, and departing bushes for blissful lives of giving. When they tore down the health center, many drizzles ago, Harlo managed to brush the dirt off his brain and be followed by the moon, but Marcelo wasn’t and hasn’t been, and so became Spiderman, Magellan, waltzing his own way. Harlo is fit with whiskey and ire, flailing woozy on the beach. His movements are of a tragic ballet or ravaged flower in the wind, or a doll that careens through riptides. My own thoughts, thorned and dipped in something I’ll never know well enough to trust, turn in my chest like gears. I feel like I’ve dropped a toy into a sewer. Marcelo still wanders the meridian, the drip. Eljona’s syringes continue to drip deliverance. Mary said she’d be at the pub tonight, but wasn’t. And Mrs. Rosés died not long after her husband did. Rumor has it, she turned to a butterfly.

When asked about the inspiration for this piece, Christian said, “Stuart Dybek is my favorite writer. Every short story he writes is a world. Every paragraph is a museum, every sentence is a still life painting. He’s the master of the love story –– love between people, of a city, for those small moments that make nostalgia so great and so devastating. I wrote most of this in the spring, when quarantine forced our own recollection, and the fringes of memory beckoned. This is my attempt to channel Dybek’s style, and cloak fiction under the guise of memoir. “