November 17, 2020: “Blue in Chicago” by Bette Howland

Hello, Tuesday, Story366!

Have I mentioned that Tuesday is the sweet spot? Today, at least for this term, is the only day of the week that both my kids are at school and I don’t have classes or regularly scheduled meetings. With Thanksgiving coming next week, then the last week of the term the week after, this is all moot, but by far, Tuesdays have been my most productive days. I get up at 6:45, usher one kid off to school, then have ninety minutes before the other boy has to even wake up. I can get a lot done during that ninety minutes, certainly clear the decks of small tasks. By the time the second kid is up and out, it’s only ten and I’m ready to roll. It’s kind of a perfect storm and I look forward to it.

All of this reminds me of a talk I had one day with my father. We’d drive around and engage each other like people do, but I specifically remember him asking me one time what I thought the most productive day of the week—in the 9 to 5 world—could be. I thought about it for a second and answered, “Tuesday,” figuring that people were tired from the weekend—i.e., hungover—on Monday, and Tuesday was far enough from the next weekend to boot get distracted. My father was a little bit shocked when I answered so quickly, and as it turns out, correctly. Even more interesting, my reasoning was 100 percent on target. It was a random moment, from early in my life, where I’d gotten this kind of approval from my father. Not the little-kid kind, the kind you get because he’s your dad and loves you unconditionally. The kind you get when he recognizes something in you, something more akin to an adult, perhaps an empathy, perhaps an acknowledgement that you’ve taken a step toward maturity.

This was a good feeling I’ll never forget. I’m not sure what car we were driving in, either his ’78 Buick LeSabre or his ’84 Ford Granada, and I can’t even say how old I was. But it was an affirming moment, if not inconsequential and fleeting in general, but something I think of, nearly every Tuesday. Odd, right? I’m sure there’s all sorts of bigger moments that I’ve lost, birthdays, Little League games, and the like, but for some reason, I can hear my father’s voice say That’s exactly right! How’d you know that? It’s comforting to hear that in my head now—I’m a classic grade-grubber and an affirmation-seeking artist, after all—especially with my own boys, consciously trying to inflict similar memories into their brains. Moments of recognition, of praise, and of camaraderie.

But I should get going own the rest of this post, on the rest of my work. Tuesday’s got a reputation to uphold, after all.

Today I read from the late Bette Howland‘s (1937-2017) posthumous selected collection, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, out in 2019 from A Public Space Books. Howland’s last book came out in 1983, but she experienced a resurgence when A Public Space, the literary magazine, republished some of her work in its pages. I’d not read any of Howland’s work before today, but am glad to know of her now, to learn about this writer, even if it’s this late in the game.

“The Visit” follows a woman who’s driving through a bad neighborhood along the freeway when her car breaks down, forcing her out of her vehicle to seek out help. She journeys into the streets, suspicious of everything she sees, worried something will jump out and do her harm. She eventually comes upon a door under an overpass, and ventures down, only to find that she’s traveled much, much further than she had imagined.

“Power Failure” is about a woman living in a cottage out in the boondocks when an ice storm hits and she loses power. This forces the woman to burn everything burnable to stay warm, which leads her to some letters sent by her mother. The story takes a ninety-degree turn from there, losing the power-out thread and becoming more about the relationship between our protagonist and her mother, which exists through this postal correspondence, and with her own daughter, tragically lost during a dark time in her life.

“Blue in Chicago” is the story I’m focusing on today and is the title story of one of Howland’s previous collections. This story features an unnamed young woman who lives in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, where she attends the University of Chicago as a grad student. This story starts with her, her mother, and her grandmother set to go to a wedding on the North Side.

This story takes place before Chicago’s transportation system really took off, as the women need Uncle Rudy and his new wife, Roxanne, to come pick them up. The family heads north, up the Edens, to the Hyde Park contingent’s chagrin, as they hate the highway and want to take Sheridan all the way. They argue about it, but Uncle Rudy’s driving, so the Edens it is.

“Blue in Chicago” is a long story, so Howland takes a lot of time in developing these characters. She does this through dialogue—the car ride to Uptown is as lively and heated as you’d imagine such an event to be—and also through our narrator’s interior monologue. She basically gives us a rundown of the family, especially Uncle Rudy, a Chicago cop and a giant of a man.

The family eventually arrives at the church for their wedding event. The church is a Catholic church on Sheridan in Uptown, which pretty much has to be the church we lived by in 2010, just a half a block away; this story got me super-nostalgic for home. But anyway, the family, all Jewish, has an interesting take on the Catholic ceremony, as well as the bride and groom, Millicent and Garry. We meet a lot more of the family, too, aunt and uncles and cousins, and again, Howland takes the time to detail each of these characters. By the end of the story, we feel like we know these people, like maybe we attended this wedding with the whole gang.

On the way home—Uncle Rudy takes Sheridan, to appease the ladies—we find out a little bit more about our protagonist, including the reason why this story’s called “Blue in Chicago”—it’s not related to Rudy being a cop, either.

It’s always a nice story when a writer, when gone, is fondl remembered, and that’s certainly what’s happening here with Bette Howland in her collection, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. I like the two shorter stories I read for how they’re told and how odd they are, but really feel connected to the Chicago-based “Blue in Chicago,” a love letter to a family and the city they inhabit. I’m glad to have discovered this writer and to have spent some time reading her work today.

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