My husband had been stateside for 18 months when he got a temporary duty assignment overseas. It was in the UK and would last a few months. The Navy told him he'd be landlocked most of the time and to bring me along. En route, we stopped in Chicago to see old friends.
Cooperman's Grocery was in the same place, the building showing wear but the produce stands full and brimming over as usual - the plums fat and juicy and the grapes... I had to have some and grabbed a handful! I heard soft laughter as I popped the fruit into my mouth and turned to hug my dear friend Annelise.
"I heard you were in town, Sari girl. 'Bout time you showed up."
"Did Alli tell you I was coming?"
"No, Glory did."
Before I had a chance to question her further, I found myself swung up in the air and twirled around. "Will you just look at what the cat dragged in?" a familiar voice laughed and hugged me tight before putting me back on my feet.
Bobby Ham and Bobby Bacon were close friends all through childhood - drawn together in a joint effort to withstand the cruel taunts the other kids threw at them because of their names.
I liked them. They were nice boys for boys... Bobby Ham was nicknamed Hambone but Bobby Bacon was always Bobby Bacon - not Bobby but Bobby Bacon. I thought they might be rich; both had their own bikes and where I lived, nobody had bikes. Bobby Bacon had a crush on Pam Wilson, a stuck-up blonde, blue-eyed, daddy's princess type. She mostly ignored him and never got too close to me for fear my status in life would taint her, I guess.
I lived with Glory and Vi and Max in those days - a pimp and two ladies of the evening. Everybody knew they had "adopted" me and it drove the social services people crazy but it was the most loving home I'd ever had and probably, the strictest. I'll have to write a story about them one day.
Ol Hambone used to give me rides on the handlebars of his bike and scare the beejeebees out of me when he took us on a whirlwind ride right down the center of the railroad tracks! He and I and Bobby Bacon spent a lot of late afternoons playing marbles in the church parking lot. Bobby Bacon taught me how to skim a shooter and wipe out the other marbles. In turn, I taught him how to pick the lock on the backdoor of Berghoff's restaurant over on Adams Street. Late at night, when the restaurant was closed, we'd sneak in there and steal the leftover pies.
One night we got caught by the headwaiter and thought we'd go to jail but the punishment turned out to be far worse. The guy told Max and I was grounded for a month! Max said I had to eat veggies for that whole month but Glory did the cooking and she just rolled her eyes and said, "Ya want the child to turn green?" Thank God for Glory or I'd have died for sure. Vi yelled at me, too but she didn't care about my being with the boys late at night or stealing food. She told me if I kept eating all that pie that I'd get fat! Vi prided herself on her slim figure; her priorities were always in order.
I smiled up at my childhood friend and felt that old familiar tug at my heart when I saw him put his arm around Annelise and drop a kiss on the back of her neck. She cupped his cheek and chided him for kissing her in public which made him grab her tight and kiss her hard. He was still so in love with her - it made my heart sing.
Annelise lived in Boston growing up and came to Chicago when her folks moved back. The first time ol Hambone saw her, it was love at first sight. He proposed when he was 18 but Grandpapa Cooperman said he'd turn the grocery over to him if he went to college first and when he graduated, he could marry Annelise and inherit the store. And that's what he did. All these years and three sons later, the two were still lovebirds.
We caught up on our lives. Annelise and Hambone were going to be grandparents. Their oldest, Hans Karl, had married his high school sweetheart several years earlier and were expecting a babe that week. Hambone thought it was the darndest thing - making an appointment to birth a child. "What odd times we live in," he said. I wanted to know if their grandchild would call him Grandpapa Hambone and when he said of course it made all of us laugh.
They wanted to know if I had time to go by St. Anthony's to see Bobby Bacon and I said yes. I couldn't be in Chicago and not see him. Bobby Bacon was spending most of his free time at St. Anthony's Hospital these days; his son was critically ill and the prognosis wasn't great. Charles Jamison Bacon could have been treated at a Veteran's hospital but his father wanted him surrounded by the good sisters of his parish. And if the young man was to meet his Maker, then Bobby Bacon wanted the family priest in attendance for the last rites.
Pam Wilson's father was in the Army and they transferred to Germany. Bobby Bacon had been devastated but fate stepped into his life in the form of tiny Marsha Mason, a life-like doll. Marsha was small for her age, dark brown hair and huge round eyes in a pixie face. She always walked with her head down, afraid someone would notice her. We all looked out for her; her dad was a drunk and her mom spent most of her days on her knees in church. Marsha kept house and cooked all the meals from the time she was tall enough to reach the stove. She was a little younger than our crowd of kids and as little as we all had, we knew she had a lot less.
Coming out of Cooperman's Grocery one afternoon, Marsha ran smack into Bobby Bacon on his bike and dropped the quart of milk she had been carrying. The bottle broke and Marsha burst into tears. Bobby Bacon noticed her for the first time and told her she was pretty when he picked her up to dry her tears. She was 8 and he was 12 and they were married as soon as she graduated high school. Bobby Bacon was a natural salesman and years later, owns several successful used car lots. Marsha gave him one son and four daughters. All the girls are married and their one son was severely wounded in a skirmish in the Middle East.
"Bobby?" I whispered his name as I walked into his son's hospital room?"
"Sari girl," he said without looking up. His wife, Marsha, and I are the only two people in the world who call him Bobby and not Bobby Bacon. "I always knew you loved me better than ol Hambone," he said softly as he rose to hug me.
"What makes you say that?" I asked and choked back my tears when he hugged me. He was so thin.
"You hate hospitals. You're not crazy about nuns and you're in Chicago in the summer time," he rattled off his reasons. "But you're here to see me, anyway. That's how I know you love me best."
"I've been worried about you, Bobby," I told him. "You need some of my good cooking. You're too thin. I bet I weigh more than you do."
"Not quite, little girl," he laughed and picked me up with one arm. "I've missed you, Sari. You treating that sailor right?"
I nodded and told him that sailor would be by to see him later. We'd take Bobby and Marsha out to dinner along with Hambone and Annelise and spend an evening together like old times. He suggested we go to Berghoff's where we had spent so many childhood nights. I punched him remembering all the trouble we used to get into stealing their pies.
My husband encourages my continued association with my old friends. He believes in loyalty and long friendships and openly delights in learning what I was like as a child. Over the years, I haven't volunteered too much but my friends were never good at keeping secrets.
We all grew silent when Charlie Neggin came into the room. Dr. Neggin was the surgeon who operated on Bobby Bacon's son. Bobby Bacon swore by him and so did Marsha. I wasn't crazy about Charlie but I respected his position. He had a good reputation as a physician but I couldn't help remembering when he tried to rape me. I was 11 and he was 16 and the star basketball player at St. Catherine's. All the girls gushed about him but there wasn't any doubt in my mind that he thought he was God's gift to the female population.
I was still living with Glory and Vi and Max at the time and Glory told me Charlie had a reputation with the street whores. It seemed he paid well but he played rough. At 11, I had an idea what that meant but Glory always spared me the details and simply told me to stay away from him. Vi was more vocal. "He's bad business, child. If he ever gets too close, do what I showed you. Put his equipment out of business."
He got too close one night, cornering me in a run down warehouse where some of my friends and I used to roast marshmallows on a makeshift campfire. Lots of homeless folks would sit with us hugging the warmth of the fire and we shared our food with them. The police usually left us alone as long as we didn't cause trouble and only shooed us away when the politicians were out campaigning for more shelters. We were drifting away from the fire when an arm reached out and grabbed me. I automatically kicked backwards but found my feet had left the ground.
"Gonna teach you what it's like to be a woman," a familiar voice hissed.
"Charlie?" I asked, dumbfounded.
"Don't Charlie me," I remember he said and shoved me up against a wall. "And don't yell 'cause if one of those no-good bastards comes over here to help you, I'll cut them. You understand me, Sari girl?"
Yes, I understood and as soon as he unzipped, I kneed him hard and when he bent over, I kicked him in the shins and made a run for it. If I hadn't kneed him and had screamed... those no-good homeless bastards would have stomped him to death. The way I looked at it, Charlie owed me big time.
"What's his prognosis?" I asked Charlie when he stepped into the room.
"Sari girl," he smiled. "Nice to see you again; it's been a while." And then he was all business, checking charts and the gauges attached to Bobby Bacon's son. "It's going to be a long haul but I'm optimistic this boy will be up on his feet again," he said softly.
I wasn't crazy about Charlie but I knew he'd do right by Bobby Bacon's son. His medical reputation was a good one; I let the past drift away and offered my hand to him before he left the room.
"I always wanted to apologize," he said for my ears only.
"I accept," I said and closed the door on that memory.
There's a strange phenomenon that happens in hospitals when the patient is military. Cowboy arrived in uniform and when Charles Jamison Bacon saw him standing there, as incapacitated as he was, he managed a short salute and tried to sit up. Cowboy acknowledged the salute with one of his own and pulled up a chair to sit by the young man's bedside. I don't know what he said to him but whatever his words, both Bobby Bacon and his son looked grateful for them and both wore smiles when the conversation ended.
As soon as we left the hospital, I rushed into my husband's embrace. He hugged me tight and murmured "Sono qui, bambina. Sono qui. I'm here, baby. I'm here." and my world was right again.