“Those Chicago Blues” by Birute Serota


1968, Irene Matas

We’re sitting in a bar on Wells Street in Old Town listening to Muddy Waters, and laughing for no particular reason, when suddenly I touch my face and feel my tears. Am I crying because Muddy Waters is wailing the blues, or is it because I’ve taken too much LSD?

“There’s only the thinnest thread,” I say in my purple haze, “between laughter and tears; only the thinnest thread,” I repeat. My voice bounces back from the four corners of the room.

“Yeah, Irene, keep taking that shit and there’s gonna be the thinnest thread between you and a lunatic,” says Connie. I can see she’s in no mood for pharmacological enlightenment, but I can’t help myself.

“Lunatic. Luna. Someone deeply affected by the moon.” I smile beatifically. The blue and rose lights on the stage are pulsating wildly, extending like haloes around each person in the room. A gathering of saints. A redemptive rally of former sinners. A vision from the Old Testament. All God’s children are saved and Muddy Waters shall lead them beside the river, the beautiful, beautiful river. My eyelashes flutter in a moment of religious ecstasy.

“Irene, your miniskirt is sliding up halfway to China.” Connie tugs it back down to mid-thigh. “You’re putting on more of a show than Muddy Waters. I’ve got some Valium in my purse if you need it.” Connie rummages through her crocheted purse. Her Irish red Afro is backlit by a blue halo and her tight jeans are pushing a roll of fat out of her waistband.

The smoke-filled air pulses with the rhythms of “I’ve Got Those Walking Blues.” Four couples dance lethargically in the corner. “The blues reminds me of death,” I say.

“Everything reminds you of death.” Connie looks irritated. It’s probably her cheap-paying job at Piper’s Alley in Old Town selling scented candles and lava lamps.

I lean over to Connie’s ear: “Death never walks alone; she always walks with her sister, Lust.” I’m really tripping.

“And why is that, Irene?” asks Connie as if it were an ordinary conversation.

“Because Lust carries the seed.”

“The seed. Ah ha.” Connie rolls her eyes.

“Of Life. The next generation. Always another generation. Like waves, they keep coming despite lassitude, drunkenness, boredom, satiation, listlessness. Despite Death.”

“Baba Irene, guru to Lithuanians, wherever they may wander.”

“Baba means wise old man. Sounds like boba in Lithuanian.  Means foolish old woman.” I feel my mouth curl in disgust.  “Sexism.”

Connie grabs her purse and gets up. “Come on. I’m sick of this. Let’s go home. I’m waking you up early tomorrow for the Democratic National Convention. We’re going, in case you forgot.”

The next day starts out kind of pleasant for Chicago. Crowds of hippies watching Alan Ginsberg chanting “Ooommm” in Lincoln Park. Connie spots Paul Krassner passing out copies of his journal, The Realist.  It has a lurid cover story about Lyndon Johnson on the Air Force One trip back from Dallas and a centerfold of all the Disney characters “doing it.” Krassner is an iconoclast extraordinaire.

All of Lincoln Park looks stoned. Even the undercover narcs look happy. Music, dancing, eating, kissing–there’s the feel of festival in the air. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Connie wears bell bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirt and I’m wearing my Lithuanian blouse with the red embroidery over frayed jeans and my favorite water buffalo sandals with the strap around my big toe. I’m covering the demonstrations outside the Democratic Convention for the alternative press, which means the throwaway paper that lands on the doorsteps of incense stores and head shops once a week.

Connie and I walk along the park and head over to Michigan Avenue where Lyndon Johnson is staying at the Hilton. Grant Park is where the more serious demonstrators are gathered with antiwar placards and bullhorns. I stop dead cold when I see a long line of National Guard troops lining one side of Michigan Avenue. They’re standing at attention with rifles in hand. Behind them are Guard Jeeps with a grid of barbed wire in the front of each car.

“Geez, friendly looking group.” I don’t like this.

“It’s a police state,” says Connie. “Like East Berlin. They’re not kidding around here.”

“Off the pigs,” some shirtless hippie yells into a guardsman’s face. “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh,” another kid shouts. One hippie quietly places flowers into every rifle neck.

“I say let’s boogie on home.” I feel like creeping away, the joy seeping out the edges.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” says Connie. “This is just Mayor Daley flexing his muscles, showing off in front of his fellow Democrats, letting them know he’s one tough son of a bitch.”

“But he is one tough son of a bitch!”

“Yeah, well never mind. We’re here and we’re staying. They can’t frighten us away.” Connie marches on like the Taurus bull she is. The trouble with Connie is that she’s a true believer. I, on the other hand, am too cynical to truly be in the trenches but also too curious not to put my foot in–one foot in, one foot out–my perennial stance. My generation is having too much fun so I don’t want to miss the action, but then again, those rifles scare me to death and the barbed wire looks ominous.

I run to catch Connie by her arm. “Hey, nothing’s started yet. Let’s go over to Walgreen’s. I need to get some Tampax and a cup of coffee. My head is still throbbing from last night.”

At Walgreen’s, Connie sits at the counter sipping coffee, staring out the window towards Michigan Avenue, while I go to the bathroom and take a cube of “window pane.” Maybe the acid will give me courage. When I sit back down, the waitress pours another cup of coffee. I study it like the Rosetta stone, pour the cream in, stir it, watch the coffee swirl around in my coffee cup and then I stir it again. And again.

“I wonder if coffee swirls in the other direction south of the equator.”

“Coffee swirls in the direction you stir it, above or below the equator.” Connie finally sees what I’ve been doing and realizes I’m whacked.

“Oh bloody hell, don’t tell me you took some acid while you were in the bathroom?”

“Just a touch,” I say sheepishly.

“Oh shit, now what am I going to do with you?”  Connie is pissed.

“Nothing why?”

“Irene, we’re going to go yell ‘hell, no, we won’t go’ to the assembled Democrats. We will do this in honor of your brother, Pete and for Al Vitkus, who are in Viet Nam. Remember.” She is shrieking now and I’m freaking.

“Yeah sure,” I say, contrite. “For Pete and for Al. You think I’m not going?”

“Irene, you’re turning into a total head.”

“It’s only because I don’t know how to live my life. You got any ideas that sound good?” I’m feeling something like remorse.

Connie sighs. “Come on. Just don’t freak out on me.”  I can tell she doesn’t know anything about life either. She’s just scared of acid like I’m scared of rifles and jeeps with barbed wire.

On State Street, the usual shoppers and hawkers throng the street. Connie and I walk the two blocks towards Michigan Avenue. We hear the sound of a crowd long before we see it and figure that LBJ has just arrived. We see a group of kids come running down the street, followed by another group and then another. Some look wild-eyed with fear, others look angry. Suddenly a group of longhaired hippies blitz by, pursued by a cloud of tear gas. We feel the sting in our eyes and throats as we start running back towards State Street.

Then the Chicago police materialize out of nothing, their pale blue shirts rising up from the street, their clubs swinging, cracking the heads of protesters and onlookers alike. A policeman grabs Connie by her big hair, dragging her away to a waiting patrol car, while she screams obscenities, writhing and kicking.

I want to help her but I can’t move. I’m surrounded by kids, screaming in pain, as policemen rain blows on them. A girl falls down next to me clutching her head. A trickle of blood runs between her fingers. I long to help her but I’ve turned to stone. My mouth is open in a silent scream. Here it is. I’d been waiting for it my whole life. I grew up listening to my parents tell apocalyptic bedtime stories about World War II–bombs, camps, the running from the Communists. Now it’s finally here—Chaos, the wild beast riding a tear gas cloud, maw open wide, most ravenous of beasts, feeding on innocent blood. I’ve been waiting so long, it’s a relief to finally see it.

I shudder and feel a hand grab mine. I’m prepared to die. Truly. I can smell Death’s sour breath on my immobile cheek, and I’m ready to be the sacrificial Lamb. Oh Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. The hand pulls me again and I submit. I surrender to the beast as it draws me into the sea of the anguished. I’m swept into the crowd of screams and shouts and curses. Still the hand pulls, and then the bus door closes behind me, and the bus driver says, “We’re not letting any more in. There’s no more room.”

Bus 1968 to hell, I think. The express–no stops, no transfers. I stand pressed against a hairy young man with a Van Dyke beard. “Where am I?” I try to focus. Is this some post death bardo state or is I Alice in the rabbit hole? “Are you a Dutch captain on the Hudson River?” I ask.

“Are you crazy?” he shouts.

“Quite possibly,” I say. But I know nothing. I look out the window at the rough sea of violence swirling around the bus. Who is stirring this? I’m in the eye of the tornado. What hand had pulled me to safety, and why me and not those out there? I start to whimper, thinking all those people on the streets are from my grammar school. I know them all, don’t I? Why is one hurt and not another? Why did my brother Pete go to Nam? Why Al Vitkus? Then I’m sobbing while Van Dyke holds me.

I don’t know how long I stay on that bus. I grow old there, clinging to Van Dyke in my grief. I don’t know yet that his name is Ira Horowitz. I only know that I’m bleeding. Am I injured? I can’t remember. Nothing hurts. It takes me a long time to remember the bathroom at Walgreen’s. I forgot the tampax. Now my jeans are soaked with blood. The ambulances arrive. They want to put me in an ambulance along with the others who are hurt and bleeding. I want to protest, but I can’t. The solicitude of attendants, nurses and doctors is too much to resist. Always the redemption of blood. Or is it blood sacrifice? Why is all of this feeling so, well so, Catholic? Martyrs, torture, flagellation, and the always-dying Jesus on the cross.

The ambulance attendants lift me up on a gurney. Van Dyke goes along for the ride to the emergency room. The TV cameras are rolling. It is my finest hour. I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille. It is faux, but I’m a symbolic martyr of the Democratic National Convention. My golden aura, like a halo, covers those around me like a gentle shroud.

I don’t even begin to feel embarrassed until much later when the LSD wears off. Then I’m totally mortified. Penitent. The doctors are not amused. Van Dyke stays with me though I don’t know why. I don’t care why. He’s my savior. We bail Connie out and take her home. She’s not bruised or broken or dead, as I had imagined. Just mad.

I bow my head. Chastised. It’s true. I’m bad to the bone. I can’t hold my head up or speak for days. I would have worn ashes and sackcloth, or joined the flagellants if I could find some. Instead I scourge myself with a running inner-monologue of self-loathing. I go to all my classes at Roosevelt University, work at the dull credit office job at Marshall Field’s, apologize over and over to Connie for doing too much acid and vow never to take it again. And I promise myself I would go see my parents the following weekend. I need home.

The trouble with home is that it depresses me to go back to my old South Side neighborhood. It always looks like one of life’s forgotten backwaters. There is Life with a capital L, full of risk and excitement, and then there is life with a small l, which is cautiously lived, saved and parceled out carefully. I know every nook and cranny of this South Side life.

“We saw you on the news, Irene.” My mother is studying me.

“You did?” I feel sick.

“Last week, during the convention. What were you doing there with all those hooligans?” My mother looks at me the way Margaret Mead used to look at those South Seas islanders.

“What did you see?” I ask warily.

“You were being dragged on a bus. They kept showing it on every newscast. All the neighbors called. They saw you too.” My mother bit her lip to keep from crying. “I was so embarrassed.”

Why did seeing parents always mean you would stand in line at the Cafeteria of Guilt? “I was demonstrating against the war, Mama. For Pete and Al, so they could come home.” My face is turning red. I wonder if my mother saw my bloody pants. I don’t ask. I eat my mother’s apple cake and drink her hot tea. The clock ticks loudly on the wall, the same yellow electric clock my parents had since 1950. It reminds me of grammar school. Of sitting at the table, doing my homework for Sister Kunigunda.

My parents look at me like I’m an escapee from a perpetual Mardi Gras–colorful but not to be taken seriously. I know they’re right.

My mother pours more tea. “Mr. Vitkus told me yesterday that his son was injured in Viet Nam.”

“Al’s hurt?” I hold my breath. This must be my fault. The acid, the demonstration, the tampax–something I did wrong.

“Nothing serious. His father said he didn’t even have to go to the hospital.”

“Will he be OK?” I feel nauseated. I haven’t had a letter from Al in two months.

“His father said it was just a scratch.”

I’m not relieved. I know Al wouldn’t tell his father if it were serious. “How about Pete?”

“He’s fine. He writes that he’s in Saigon working in an office. I pray for him everyday.”

Pete’s lying too. He’s in Hue. He doesn’t want mama to worry.

When had my mother gotten so much older, so much grayer and tired-looking? When had my father gotten so bald? “Are you going to visit your old friends, Vida and Ona?” she asks me.

“I don’t have time, Mama. I have some papers to write for school.”

“Vida’s engaged, you know. To Jonas Kelmas.” My mother says those words like they were a charm. One of life’s alchemical phrases.

“Yes, I heard.” I look at my mother, knowing that she wants me to dress like Jackie Kennedy, marry some nice Lithuanian engineer and move into a brick house right down the street. Have children and send them to Lithuanian Saturday School. Have dinner at her house every Sunday after Mass. I just can’t do it. I’m certain life would be easier if I could. It’s not in my nature to be a good girl. I’m a bad girl. A wild card I have to play it to the end.

I kiss my mother and tell her that I love her. My heart aches as I realize that I’ve taken a turn in life, I can’t say exactly when, but it was irrevocably away from them. I walk down the stairs of the brick two-flat and head for the bus station. Magda, Al’s retarded sister, crosses the street, walking alongside me without saying a word. We go down Talman Street together and I remember a day when Magda was about twelve. She was in the alley wearing a blue housedress. I watched in amazement as Magda picked up her dress, pulled down her underpants, and shit like a dog in the street. When I walked by the place where Magda had been, I saw blood. I had thought Magda was dying, that something was terribly wrong with her. And for months and years, I watched Magda with apprehension, looking for signs of a fatal illness. I knew nothing about menstrual blood then. My mother had once mentioned that someday I was going to bleed, but that God forbid, I should never tell my father or my brother about it. I thought I was going to have the stigmata.  What else could it be?

I take Magda’s hand and walk to the end of Talman Street, where I know Magda will walk no further. Magda has her perimeter in this neighborhood, like I supposed her brother, Al Vitkus, has in Viet Nam.

Magda smiles like the six-year-old she still is. Why has God done this to Magda? She, not I, is the sacrificial Lamb of God. I feel a sudden sympathy for all of life’s misfits–for the slow and the clumsy, for all the rejects and queers, for the deformed and the misshapen, for the odd and the slow-witted. I know I’m one of them. I hug Magda like the sister I never had. Sisters in menstrual blood.

I take the bus to Loomis and get on the “el.” The wheels of the train screech and clack. I stare at the blur of broken back porches on the South Side. I don’t cry until the elevated train goes underground.



Birute Serota grew up in Chicago but now lives in Santa Monica. She has published short stories in Spectrum, West/Word, Segue, New Digressions, Story One, New Hampshire College Journal, Lituanus, Southern New Hampshire University Journal, and Storyglossia.


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