June 22: “The Logic of a Rose” by Billy Lombardo

Hello, Story366! I hope you’re having a pretty fantastic day. It’s my last day in Chicago for a few weeks, and to celebrate, Karen, the boys, and I headed out to one of my favorite local restaurants here in the south suburbs, the Warsaw Inn. If you’re not living in Chicago (or Poland, I guess), you might not have Polish smorgasbord restaurants, which are basically buffets that feature Polish food. There’s several throughout the city and suburbs, and my mom just happens to live near one of the best. It’s a pretty eclectic buffet, one that over the years has adopted quite a few American foods (fried chicken, ribs, that kind of thing), but as a trained smorgasbord enthusiast, I know not to waste my time—or stomach space—on such frivolities. The Warsaw Inn doesn’t make otherwordly anything you can’t get at most carryout joints and grocery store delis throughout the city. What I go to these types of places for are the specifically Polish delicacies like kielbasa (fresh, never smoked), pierogi, blintzes, kolaczki, and the like. I go in, sit down, order a drink, then head straight for these items. Wasting time on their takes on American standards—not to mention salad/salads—is an affront to smorgasbords. I’m glad I was raised correctly.

While on this trip to Chicago, I’m also glad I brought along The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories by Billy Lombardo, out from BKMK Books as a winner of a G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I know Billy a little—Chicago writers tend to know each other—as I’ve read with him once or twice and he blurbed my second book, Chicago Stories. He’s a cool guy and a good writer—I loved his novel, The Man With Two Arms—so I’m glad to be able to include him on this project.

“The Logic of a Rose” is the story I’m focusing on today, the title story, and like the other pieces in Lombardo’s book, it’s set in Bridgeport, a near-Southside neighborhood, a working-class area that also happens to include Comiskey Park (or whatever they call it now). It’s also set in the seventies, and from what else I’ve read of the book, it seems like this is when The Logic of the Rose takes place.

“The Logic of a Rose” begins with the Bellapini family—who has appeared in earlier stories in the collection—moving to Thirty-first and Wallace, a block from their old apartment, which was above a bakery, a bakery that burned down (which I believe happened as a major plot point in one of those previous stories). Mary Bellapini seems to be the central character of the story (told in third person), as she finds a little rectangle of dirt in the mostly concrete world and decides to clean it up and plant a bed of tulips. Given the title of the story, I was thinking this a story about gardening, Mary planting tulips but growing roses instead. My mind started making metaphors, writing scenes, wondering where this story would go.

Lombardo shifts gears, though—luckily—and the tulip garden falls pretty far into the background. Petey, Mary’s son, becomes the story’s real protagonist, and the story isn’t about gardening, but about Petey’s coming of age. He’s twelve, but becoming a man about his neighborhood, and he’s particularly interested in Rosalie Calabrese, the younger daughter of a family who has moved upstairs from them. The Calabrese clan doesn’t speak English, but Rosalie is also twelve and lovely as the day is long. Rosalie is shy to boot and kept clear of leering Petey by her conservative parents. The two manages to share glimpses of each other, plus Rosalie likes hanging in the hallway and listening to Petey’s sister’s Billy Joel records emanating from their dining room (though she runs off whenever someone sees her).

“The Logic of a Rose” is a long and complex story and Lombardo fills a lot of it with what Petey does when he’s not sneaking peeks at Rosalie. Petey hangs with neighborhood boys, boys who are enjoying the newfound freedoms of being twelve. They flip nickels outside of stores, pick up unsmoked cigarettes butts from curbs and smoke them, and pee off of buildings when no one’s looking. There’s even a scene where Petey’s friend’s aunt has the boys roll a bunch of pot into joints and then gives them one to smoke. These boys aren’t just trading baseball cards and going on bike rides—they’re getting into some actual trouble.

In the background, however, it’s always Rosalie, a touchstone, of sorts, for Petey’s days, Lombardo taking us through spring, then summer, watching the two grow closer, waiting for their opportunity, though it all seems to take forever. We get some updates from the tulip patch as well, which works as a subtle (as possible in this situation) metaphor for the young people in this story, and we also get the real meaning of the title. The last several pages place Petey and Rosalie on their front stoop, having their first genuine moment together, a moment that’s so wonderfully wrought, so pure, so original, and so touching, it’s no wonder Lombardo named his entire collection after this single moment, a single image.

I should also note that this story is written mostly in third person limited, inside Petey’s head, but if I had to check a box on the “The Logic of a Rose” quiz, I’d have to pick third person omniscient; we’re inside Mary’s head early in the story, and get a long passage with Rosalie. My summer intro courses are trying to swallow POV right now, and the trickiest thing is always how to stay in one person’s head, and how hard it is to write contemporary fiction, especially stories, with omniscience. “The Logic of a Rose” is a good story to show them, how omniscience can work in a story if rendered correctly, and there’s so few stories that I can say that about (I’ve been using Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” as an example, but it’s not the most complex of omniscience, to be honest).

I’m loving Chicago right now and am so sad to be heading back to Missouri in the morning. Reading Billy Lombardo’s book today isn’t making that any easier, as he surely captures a place and a time in this great city that expands its universe even more. It’s a great book by a great writer, from Chicago or anywhere.