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We heard the music even before we got to Union Hall. Turned the corner and there it was, big double doors flung open, yellow light bright as butter spilling into the cold October air. Kids swarmed the front steps of the hall, the boys in ties and their good shoes, the girls' skirts shimmying below wool coats. More were coming. Hustling up the sidewalks from all directions. I didn't recognize a single person.
"Mother of God," Angie said, "the whole Back of the Yards must be here!"
"Go on, go!" I said, pushing her, and in two shakes we were in the thick of the crowd.
This wasn't any Saturday night at the corner drugstore, hoofing it to a dinged-up jukebox with the same kids we saw every day of our lives. This was the Young Men's Club annual dance, the biggest in the Yards. Some said the biggest in Chicago. I'd been trying to talk Ma into letting me go since I was eleven. This year, she said yes.
Not that it didn't take some work. But if fifteen and a half was old enough to drop out of school and get a job, then it was old enough for the Young Men's Club. Ma had to see that, and I'd kept after her until finally, she gave in.
At the front door of the hall, Angie grabbed my coat sleeve. "Ruby, wait! Damn, this girdle's tight...How do I look?"
"Gorgeous," I said. I meant it. Angie had a kitten's face, wide across the eyes and a little pointed chin. "How about me?" I asked.
"Hotsy-totsy," Angie said. "Togged to the bricks."
This was why I loved Angie. She'd give you the truth straightbut she knew when a lie would do you better. I was wearing the only good dress I owned, a lime green wool crepe handed down from my cousins in Wicker Park. Ma had sewn on lace cuffs, to hide the grape juice stain on the left sleeve, but she'd refused to let me dye it a decent color. Lime green made my skin look three days dead. The dress showed off my figure, at least. Angie was prettier, but below the neck I won, no contest.
We plunked our quarters into the can at the door and shoved our way inside. A real five-piece band, drums crashing and saxophone wailing, maybe two hundred kids already jitterbugging and plenty of room for more. First thing, we dumped our coats and pocketbooks in the checkroom, then headed for the ladies' room to put on lipstick. Angie loaned me hers: Magnet Red. I loved the way it made my mouth feel heavy. Important. I'd have to remember to wash it off before I went home, though, or Ma would make me scrub my face until I was raw.
As soon as we left the ladies', someone hollered, "Hey, Ruby! How about a dance?"
"You bet, handsome!" I yelled back.
"Who is it?" Angie said.
"I don't know and I don't care," I said, just as Stan Dudek came side-shoulders through the crowd. Stan wasn't good-lookinghis face had too many knobs and angles, somehowbut he was a sweet guy, he'd had a crush on me since third grade, and, most important, he was the best hoofer I knew. Smooth and snappy, plus he let a girl show her stuff. He'd make me look so good, the boys would line up for me the rest of the night.
And they did. Not just fellows I'd grown up with, either. Why should I care if someone was from my parish, or from St. Rose of Lima or Holy Cross, or if he lived north of Forty-seventh Street or west of Ashland? Other girls did, but not me. Me, all I cared was that he could stomp to the beat.
I'd always loved to dance. But now that I was working, I couldn't get enough. Maybe if I'd kept my big mouth shut and kept my place in sliced bacon, it wouldn't be so bad. Sliced bacon was the easiest job in the whole packinghouse, and the cleanest. But no, I had to tell the girl working with me to move her fat, lazy tush or I'd move it for her. It was only my second day on the job, how was I supposed to know she was the foreman's girlfriend?
Quicker than you could spit, they stuck me in pickled hog's feet. Hog's feet wasn't easy. It sure as hell wasn't clean. Grab glass quart jarsten at a time, one on each fingerrush to your table, shove in the pig's feet, don't drop them, fill the jars with brine, everything slick, the feet, your hands, the glass. Shove the jars onto the belt, run back for more, start over. Slipping on floors sopping in greasy pig-water, the stench enough to make you puke, every knuckle scraped bloody from the rough jar edges. Tape the cuts but the vinegar seeps underneath the tape and boy howdy, then you see stars. But can't slow down or the foreman hollers. Got to hustle. Get them trotters packed. Half hour for lunch then back at it. If you don't make your quota by the end of the dayevery daythey'll can you sure. Lots of girls in line for your job, the foreman won't waste time on you. That's how Ma got sacked. Her hands got bad, she couldn't make the base rate. Ten years in the packinghouse, and they booted her out the door.
I'd been there only a month and already I felt a hundred years old. Just another packinghouse worker in a bloody, soaking apron; fingernails soft and cracking from the brine; and a smell I couldn't get out of my skin. Eight hours a day in a stinking gray room with a bunch of ladies older than Ma, listening to them complain about their bunions and hammertoes and changes of life. That's why I'd pestered Ma to let me come tonight. I needed to feel good, and nothing made me feel better than jitterbugging until I was ready to drop.
So I danced, with one boy after the next, until I had to rest my dogs. Then I searched through the crowd for Angie, spotting her finally with Helen Orszak and Viola Bauer and all our bunch from school. Their heads together, throwing narrow-eyed looks at someone on the dance floor. I made a beeline. I didn't miss memorizing battle dates and writing essaysI was no egghead, like my little sister, Bettybut I hadn't heard a down-and-dirty gossip session since I'd dropped out. My palms itched to get in on it.
"...caught them kissing," Helen was saying, "in the alley behind the Olympia, and..."
"Who?" I shoved between her and Angie. "Who?"
"Bea and Eddie," Angie said.
"Who cares about that?" I said, disappointed. "They've been sweethearts for years."
"Not since she jilted him for Jack Cipinski."
"What? When?" But nobody paid attention. Even Angie batted her hand at me: Hush, I'm trying to listen! And then they went on to somebody else, while I stood there with nothing to say.
Well, I'd come here to dance, not listen to tittle-tattle nobody cared about anyway. A little ways off stood a dark-haired boy; I didn't know him, but I'd seen him Lindy. Not half-bad, and no girl on his arm. One smile later, we were out on the floor. When the dance ended, the boy shouted over the hubbub, "Buy you a soda?"
"Sure!" I yelled. We threaded hand-in-hand through the crowd to the refreshment stand. I was glad he knew where he was going; short as I was, I couldn't see a thing.
A girl bobbed in front of us. Skinny, like she was built out of rectangles, sharp corners everywhere. My partnerwhat did he say his name was? Robert? Roger?stopped so suddenly I practically ran up on his heels.
The girl looked past him at me, tucking one of her bony shoulders back, like she was thinking about roundhousing me. "What parish are you from?"
It was the first question you asked anybody, in the Back of the Yards, and you could ask it two ways. Friendly, like nice-to-meet-you talk. Or like the way she said it. Get home before you get hurt.
"Excuse us," I said. "You're in our way." The boy wasn't going to be any help, I could tell. He still had hold of my hand, but his had gone limp, as though he'd died.
The bony girl grabbed his other hand and pulled. "Come on, Ronald!" To me, she said, "Word of advice. Leave the St. Augustine boys alone. You'll live longer."
I smiled at her, sweet as pie. "You can have him," I said, "after he buys me my soda."
She shoved me. Reached out with both hands, smacked them on my chest. Right away, the boys started hollering for a catfight. If I'd walked away, they'd be calling me yellow to this day.
So I shoved her back. She started flailing her arms, the way some girls do who don't know better, and landed a lucky shot. A good one, right across my eye. That's when I got mad. She was goggling at her fistI think she was more surprised than meand I saw my opening, under her elbow, a nice spot of belly. I hauled back my own fist and let fly.
But instead of a good solid thwack, my hand whooshed through empty air. Somebody had grabbed the back of my collar, and it wasn't the bony girl, number one because she was in front of me, and number two, because at the same time I was yelling, "Let me go! Let me GO!" I heard her shrieking, "Ow! That's my EAR, sweet Jesus, OW!" I was getting dragged. I stumbled, trying to keep my feet, yelling for Angie, yelling at the gorilla who had hold of me to let go. All around us, roars of laughter. Then the gorilla said, "You wanna fight, take it into the alley!" and he shoved me out the Union Hall door. I tripped and stubbed my big toe hardsomewhere, I'd lost a shoeand grabbed a lamppost to keep from falling.
"That oughta cool `em off," someone said. More laughter.
Cool? I was cold. More than cold. Mother Mary on a shingle, it was raining.
Over by the wall, the bony girl was crying. Well, she could stand out here and get soaked if she wanted to. I was going back for my coat and my pocketbook. And my other shoe. And if any of those boys had swiped it, they'd regret it. I was little, but I was mad. Mad counts for a lot.
I limped to the Union Hall doorwalking tippy-toe on my shoeless foot, trying to keep my ankle sock dryand jerked it open. Two big Irish galoots from the Young Men's Club blocked my way.
"No fighting," one of them said.
"I'm not fighting, I'm getting my coat." They didn't budge. I tried shoving between them but they each took hold of an arm and pushed me back. My sock foot landed smack in a puddle of water. "ANGIE!" I bawled. "Angie, get me my coat! My shoe! ANGIE!" The galoots slammed the door in my face.
If it wasn't for the shoe, I might have left and gotten my stuff from Angie later. Maybe not, though. I was steamed but good. After all, I hadn't started the fight, and what do they expect a girl to do when she gets provoked like that?
I pounded on the door hard. No answer. "Open up, I need my COAT!" I hollered.
"What's it look like?" a man's voice said behind me.
"None of your business," I snapped. And then I turned around.
He was wearing a blue shirt, the sleeves rolled halfway up. No tie, brown trousers. "I can make it my business," he said. He stepped close, put out a hand. "Paulie Suelze."
For a second, the name didn't mean anything. Then I remembered. Clothesline gossip, whispers in the grocery store or the butcher shop that hushed whenever his mother came in.
The whispers said he was handsome. He wasn't. Not like the movie stars in Angie's magazinesbut they were so handsome they were boring, and Paulie Suelze wasn't boring. His eyes shone pale under the streetlamps. I couldn't tell their color. Blue, maybe.
He looked at his hand, hanging out in the air. Just as he started to pull it back, I grabbed it. Too hard. But he gripped harder, so that my cut-up knuckles hollered and stung. I blinked back tears.
"Come on," he said, "Let's get this coat of yours." He glanced down. His face crumpled when he grinned, messy as an unmade bed. On another man, it might have been ugly. On him, it looked perfect. "Your shoe, too."
I'd tucked my shoeless foot behind my other leg, hoping he wouldn't notice. But of course he had. Eyes like that must notice everything.
"They won't let me in," I said.
He stepped close and put his arm around my shoulders. "They will now," he said.
When he opened the door, the galoots faded back like smoke. "Hey, Paulie! It's Paulie Suelze!" they said. "How long you been back, Paulie?"
Paulie dropped two quarters into the can on the table. Paulie paying admission to the dance struck me as strange as a grown-up running after the ice wagon in summer or playing crack-the-whip in the street. He must have been the same age as the boys of the Young Men's Club, nineteen or twenty, but next to him they seemed like a bunch of snot-nosed kids.
"Those blowers up there know any Benny Goodman?" Paulie asked.
"Sure, Paulie!" "You bet, Paulie!" Boys scrambling to tell the band what Paulie wanted. The kids who weren't dancing poked each other and pointed, sss's and zzz's like bees humming, suelzesuelzesuelze.
Paulie looked down at me. He wasn't tall, or big around. But he was solid. Tough. Like the harder you pushed him, the harder he'd push back. He'd been a boxer in the Army, people said. Won all his fights. Thenthis was when voices loweredhe'd half killed a private in a bar fight over a girl. Did time in military prison. The ladies on their stoops tsk'd and shook their heads. A disgrace to the neighborhood, they said. His poor mother, God bless her.
His arm was warm and heavy across my shoulders. Thick with muscle. He smelled different from all the boys I knew. Better. Across the hall, Stan Dudek stared at us openmouthed. So did all the other boys. Most of the girls, too. But some of the girls stared at me, the looks on their faces saying, If only I'd been the one thrown out in the rain when Paulie Suelze came walking up.
"You want your coat, I can get it," Paulie said. "Or you can stay and dance with me."
The band struck up "In the Mood." I tipped my head back against Paulie's arm. His eyes were gray. Not cold, though. Like rain with sun behind it. Flecks of blue, green, yellow mixed deep. Dark blond hair, not as streaky as mine, more gold on top. Pale blond eyebrows and ears that stuck out the tiniest bit too much.
Not boring at all.
"You don't know it yet," I said, "but I'm the best dancer you ever saw."
He grinned his rumpled grin again. "Yeah? Prove it."
I kicked off my other shoe. And then I was doing the boogie-woogie in Union Hall with Paulie Suelze, and didn't nobody laugh at me then.
He walked us home. Me and Angie. It had stopped raining, but the wind had kicked up. My wet sock clung inside my shoe, and the wind on it made it feel like an anklet of ice. I jammed my hands deep in my coat pockets. Freezing weather and only going to get worse. Ma's gloves were too old and too thin, she'd have to have new ones. But first the back rent had to be paid. New gloves wouldn't help if we were out on the street.
Only ten minutes gone since the last dance, and here came all my worries, skittering back like rats.
Paulie walked between us, Angie on the other side firing questions at him like a Tommy gun. Paulie didn't seem to mind. Yeah, he'd missed the Back of the Yards. No, he didn't think it smelled worse than when he'd left. He was staying in a rooming house over on Forty-ninth and Marshfield. Yeah, right by the railroad tracks. What was he doing? Still looking around, getting the lay of the land. Seeing which way the wind blew. When Angie asked if it was true he'd killed two sergeants with his bare hands, he laughed.
"If I did, they asked for it," he said.
When we got to Angie's buildingher folks' tavern on the first floor, their flat on the secondshe offered to keep walking with us. "We'll both see you home, Ruby," she said.
"You're here, you better go in," Paulie said. "I ain't coming back this way."
It wasn't every day a boy told Angie Wachowski she wasn't worth his time. But Paulie wasn't any boy, and besides, he'd seen me first. He must have liked what he saw.
Sure enough, as soon as the door closed on Angie, he put his arm around me. I smiled, ducking my head a little so he wouldn't see. He'd try something for sure now. Kiss me, run a hand up under my coat. Ever since I was thirteen, boys always tried something. Kissing I liked, but mostly I put the kibosh on hands. You let a hand get someplace it wants to be, good luck getting it out again anytime soon. And then word goes around you're easy, and that's it for you.
It wasn't very late, but the streets were almost empty. Windows closed, drapes pulled down against the cold. I prayed nobody would recognize me. Otherwise, by the end of first Mass tomorrow, the whole Back of the Yards would know Paulie Suelze had walked me home, and Ma would have a fit. Just last month I'd stayed out past ten o'clock with Hank Majewski, and she'd grounded me for a week. And Hank hadn't almost killed anyone.
Maybe Paulie hadn't really hurt that private. Maybe none of it was true at all. Just rumors people made up to make themselves feel important.
We kept walking, our heels hitting tunk, tunk on the sidewalk. Keeping perfect time. Away behind us, a train whistle shrieked; on Forty-seventh Street, streetcar bells clanged. Just a couple more blocks to home. I wished I lived across the city so it would take us all night to get there.
"Let's go to Davis Square," Paulie said.
He must have been thinking the same thing. I smiled up at him. "You bet," I said.
Only a few boys rambled across the park, kicking a can between them as they went. The hottest nights this summer, when it was too stifling to sleep inside, we'd come here along with half our neighbors to spread blankets and sleep on the grass. That had been only two months ago. Now it was almost Halloween, and the weather had turned sharp.
"What school you go to? Sacred Heart?" Paulie asked.
I shook my head. "I work," I said, and then wavered over telling him everything. About Ma losing her job, and the back rent, and the grocery stores not extending us any more credit. About the two days last week the three of usme, Ma, my little sister, Bettylived off canned milk and a sack of stale, broken cookies Ma had bought for a quarter from Loose-Wiles.
I didn't say anything.
We came to the benches in front of the library and sat down. Damp leaves whirled high on the wind. In the light of the lampposts, they looked like shining, crazy wings. Wings with no birds attached.
"Cold?" Paulie asked. I nodded so that he'd put his arm around me again. He did. It felt more than nice. It felt like it belonged there.
"So you work in one of the packinghouses, or what?"
"Yeah. But just in the offices. Not...not on the floor."
He grunted. "I've lived in the Back of the Yards all my life. All that time, I never met a girl from the packinghouses who actually packed meat."
"Really?" I'd known dozens.
"Nope. They all worked in the offices." He dug in his pocket, pulled out a cigarette pack. "Every single one."
Another girl might have gotten mad. But I busted out laughing. "Let me guess," Paulie said. "They put you in bacon. Right?"
"How'd you know?"
"My ma used to work for Scully's. She said the prettiest girls always got put on bacon, `cause that's where they bring the visitors through."
I felt myself blush. He thinks I'm pretty. For sure I wasn't going to tell him about the pickled hog's feet.
He lifted his arm off my shoulders. Cold air drifted across the back of my neck, and I shivered. "Any girl can hoof it good as you," he said, "don't need to work in no packinghouse."
"There aren't any other jobs." Not for me, anyway. If I'd been smart, and taken classes in typing and shorthand, maybe I could've landed something in an office. But the typing instructor insisted all the girls cut their nails. And I'd had no patience for shorthand's squiggles and lines.
Paulie offered me a cigarette. I took it. He lit a match and I leaned into the tiny flame, puffed until the cig caught.
"What are they paying you?" he asked. "Twelve a week? Thirteen? I know it ain't more than that."
"Twelve and a quarter." All of which went straight to Ma. I walked to work, to save the streetcar fare. I'd had to borrow a quarter from Angie to get into the dance tonight.
"Girl like you could pull down forty, fifty a week," Paulie said. "Easy."
I laughed. "Pull the other one." I'd never heard of any girl making that much, not even in an office.
"No joke. A guy I know runs a dance academy. He's always on the lookout for girls to teach fellows the newest steps. You..." he turned on the bench, eyed me up and down, "the way you dance, the way you look...yeah, you'd do good."
He seemed serious. Fifty bucks a week...we'd have the back rent and the grocery bill paid off in no time. We could buy meat for dinner again. I could get Ma's wedding ring back for her... I'd pull it out of my pocket and there it would be, shining in my palm. I imagined her mouth falling open in surprise.
"I never heard of anything like that," I said. "What kind of girls work there? I mean, are they respectable?"
"Sure they are. You think this guy wants the cops raiding his joint? But hey, if you're not interested, it's no skin off my nose. Stay in sliced bacon." He stood up, dropped his cigarette, and ground it out underfoot. He reached down a hand. I took it. His palm was so warm, I thought my fingers must feel like icicles to him. I was embarrassed, but he didn't seem to notice.
Fifty dollars a week. Warm gloves. Pork roast. Ma's ring.
But Ma wouldn't even let me wear lipstick. I could only imagine what she'd say about dancing with strange men for money.
We crossed South Wood Street. Home only a block away. Tomorrow was Sunday. Mass at Sacred Heart, then sit around the flat, listening to the radio, helping Ma make the bean soup we'd eat all week for dinner. Then Monday, seven in the morning, slopping hog's feet in brine. Bone-tired, wondering if this was the day I'd see the first sign of pickle hands, like all the old ladies had. Great red blotches, and sores that took months to heal.
At the corner of Honore Street, I stopped. I could just see my building from here, gray like most of the other two-flats and four-flats on the block, with a wrought-iron rail on the front stoop.
"If...if I was interested in this dancing thing," I said, "where would I go?"
"It's called the Starlight," Paulie said. "Madison and Western, on the Near West Side. Ask for Del. He's the manager." He looked up the street, squinting a little. Already thinking where he was headed next, probably.
I wanted him to ask if he could see me again. I wanted him to say, Boy, Ruby, am I glad I came to the dance tonight. I sure am glad I met you. I wanted him to try something.
"I should go," I said. Ma would be sitting up, waiting for me.
"Yeah, OK." Neither of us moved. Paulie's eyes like rainclouds in the dark. I wondered if I'd imagined the little flecks of color.
"Thanks for getting my coat for me," I said.
He kissed me. Not like Hank Majewski, who'd fidgeted and fussed until I'd felt like telling him to get on with it. Or like Robbie O'Brien, who'd grabbed me like I was a piece of ice on a hot day, and he'd better slurp me up before I melted. Paulie cupped his hand under my earhow did his fingers stay so warm?and he leaned down and laid his mouth on mine, easy, everything he did was easy, and his lips were gentle and warm and then he opened them and he was warmer yet. He tasted of cigarettes and beer and earth. I slid my hands under his coat. He felt solid. Tough.
The kiss ended. Paulie tilted my face toward the streetlight. His fingertip brushed the bone over my left eye. It hurt. I jerked away in surprise.
"You're gonna have a shiner," he said. "You better cover that up. Del thinks you're a scrapper, he won't take you on."
"I'm only thinking about it. I didn't say I was going to do it."
"I bet you will." Paulie's gaze wandered down my face to my mouth. "Just like I bet," he said, "you'll go out with me."
It was cold enough, now, to make our breaths puff like smoke. Mine and Paulie's, clouds mixing between us. The look on his face smug and sure, like he knew exactly which way I'd jump. And he was right, and more than anything that rubbed me the wrong way.
I stepped back. "I don't know," I said. "Maybe I have to think about that, too."
He laughed, short and hard. Surprised. And angry. Ruby, you and your big mouth! Take it back, tell him, Sure, anytime, Paulie...
"Think you're a pretty tough cookie, don't you?" Paulie said. He reached up and mussed my hair, like I was some kind of baby. I ducked and swatted at his arm, and he laughed again, still angry, a little mean.
"So long, squirt," he said, and walked away. I tried to think up something bad enough to yell after him, to show him I didn't care. But the rain started coming down again, and I couldn't think of anything, and then he was gone. I turned to run home, and that's when I saw Mr. Maczarek, our front-flat neighbor, standing on the stoop of our building watching me.
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