North Rush

By Renee James

Second Place Winner of the CWA Annual First Chapter Contest

Prologue: May


Prison tats. They're as ugly as a weeping boil on a nose, but he's proud of them. He has a big swastika on the back of each hand and he has small swastikas on each finger, a display he shared with me by showing me his fist. It's a huge slab of meat at the end of a burly arm that's decorated in more prison tats. I can make out an Iron Cross, but the rest is gibberish, the flotsam of an unskilled artist executing the wishes of a dim-witted bone crusher.

     He doesn't care what we think of his body art. He's flashing his crude swastikas to intimidate us, and it's working. I'm frozen in place and my client is literally shaking with fear. She's a wealthy, elderly woman who just left my salon with a new perm.

     He eyes the Star of David that dangles from a fine gold chain around her neck. It is elegant and fragile, like its wearer. He was getting ready to rip it from her body when I came along, a fluke, really. I never go this way after work, but I'm meeting friends for drinks at a posh Michigan Avenue watering hole that caters to A-listers and Republicans.

     "What did you say?" He's staring at me, his face forming the crazy look that TV psychotics get, bulging round eyes, flushed skin, lips in a mirthless smirk. His body seems relaxed, but I can feel his tension. He's going to hit me in a second, he knows it and so do I. He's pretty sure I'll be put in a concussion protocol when I wake up, and I'm pretty sure he's right. The man is as big as he is mean. I look up a little to establish eye contact, me a six-foot woman in two-inch heels. He must out-weigh me by a hundred pounds, and he's in good shape.

     "I said, you have no business accosting this woman." I have some trouble making the words because my mouth is dry with fear, but I'm not backing down. Adriana has been a client of mine for years and I won't stand by and watch her get bullied by some neo-Nazi thug.

     "Are you queer?" A sarcastic smile spreads across his face like leprosy. "You're one of those she-males, aren't you?"

     "That's none of your business," I say. "Adriana, go ahead home."

     "Nobody's going anywhere." He puts one meaty hand on Adriana's chest and reaches for me with the other one. His boldness borders on the insane. We're in the plaza by the old Water Tower, a Chicago landmark usually teeming with pedestrians, but not now, not when we need them. It's that strange Friday evening moment where everyone is at home, just before everyone comes out for the night. A few people pass by on the main streets in the distance, but they won't notice us until we scream, if we get a chance to scream.

     "Come closer," he says to me. I'm standing about a foot beyond his outstretched arm.

     When I was much younger, I would have done it, hoping to be spared. Ten years ago, I would have asked him why I should step forward. But now I'm pushing fifty and I've done some living and I suppose the conduits carrying blood to my brain are beginning to harden, which has the same effect on my attitude.

     "No." I say it with a quiet reassurance I don't feel, and I use my peripheral vision to identify some vulnerable part of his anatomy I can attack when he makes his move. My situation is hopeless. The man is too big, too strong, too young and too able for me to have any chance against him.

     "I just want to see if your tits are real." He smiles again, the grim smile of a predator getting ready to strike.

     "You should go before you get busted," I tell him. "This place is heavily patrolled."

     Another smile. He looks about us, his head sweeping deliberately, left to right. "I see more queens than cops." He laughs at his humor. It's a derisive sound. He's getting ready to unleash his violence. He'll do me first. I'm bigger and younger than Adriana. He can knock me cold before she takes two steps, and he can accost her any way he wants before I even know what city I'm in.

     "Come on," he says, reaching out again. "I just want to cop a feel. And maybe see what you got between your legs. I heard about people like you, but I never thought I'd meet one."

     "No." I'm literally scared stiff. I try to make my knees flex a little so I can at least try to move when he swings at me. I read his face to get a premonition of what kind of punch he'll use. A roundhouse hook, but that's just a guess.

     His countenance has morphed from general malevolence to righteous anger. I get that a lot from people like him. I'm a transsexual woman with a curious blend of attractive feminine qualities and unmistakable male features, which is enough to make people like him crazy all by itself. But I also don't take their crap, and that can push a bigot like Mr. Swastika right over the edge of the sanity cliff.

     "Come on, Queenie." He shuffles a half step toward me as he says it, groping with his open hand, his other hand losing contact with Adriana. I will her to run but she doesn't. "Come on, I'll let you both go. Just a quick feel. You'll love it. We could go home together. I could give you something to remember."     

     He shuffles a few inches closer to grab a breast. I whirl sideways to him, hoist up my skirt for more freedom of movement, then cock my left knee to waist level, and fire a two-inch heel at his front foot. If it connects, he'll be incapacitated for at least a minute or two and that's all I need.

     He flinches when I start my move, shifting his weight backwards, then he tries to hit me with his groping hand. It's a weak punch, but when I duck under it the movement throws off my heel-stomp. I miss his foot by a few inches. I'm toast.

     The end plays out in a blur. He rebalances on both feet and readies a haymaker with his other hand. It begins a wide, wicked arc in my direction, gaining speed and menace as it travels toward my face. It has enough power and momentum to crush my skull, but it's an amateur's punch, wide and looping and telegraphed so obviously that even an effeminate weakling like me can duck under it, and I do. I counter with a karate-fist aimed at his testicles, but I miss a few inches high. He laughs at my pathetic effort and readies the right hook that will kill me.

     Which is when Adriana comes back into view, shocking us both. She sprays something in his face. I know instinctively it's Mace and kick myself for not thinking of it when this started.

     I jump back a step to avoid getting the pepper spray in my eyes and lungs. I watch Mr. Swastika struggle to breathe and hold his hands to his eyes. Adriana retreats a few steps back too, her face a mix of horror and determination, her fingers tapping on her cell phone.

     The evening breeze sweeps the chemicals away in a few seconds. Run or fight? I'd rather run, but we might not get far enough away before Mr. Swastika is mobile again.

     I step back into the fray, cock my left leg and deliver another heel stomp. This one connects. He grunts in pain and almost falls over. He hops on his good foot, his face wrinkled in agony, his eyes still blind with pepper spray. I recoil my left leg again and shoot a kick to his groin. It lands perfectly, the heel knifing into the void between his thighs where his testicles reside. He tumbles to the ground, groaning, his hands groping for his injured manhood. As he writhes, I kneel at his side and deliver a vicious thumb gouge to one eye, deep enough to blind him for a while, to make sure he doesn't get combat ready before the police arrive. There's a chance he'll be permanently blind in that eye, or that the blow will kill him, but I can live with either of those outcomes.

     He's still alive, his body twisting in physical anguish, his mouth uttering groans and gasps. I have no sympathy for him, but I feel no satisfaction either. I hate calling upon my male proportions and instincts. Even when it ends well, it's a reminder that I'm not really the lithe, five-foot-nine woman of grace and wisdom that I have so desperately wanted to be all of my adult life.

     As I watch him suffer,  realization washes over me that vermin like this always get back on the street sooner or later, and they never forget being shown up by a transsexual. If I was smart, I would have killed him.

     I look about, hoping to see a couple of cops running toward us.

     "They're coming," says Adriana. Her eyes are round and her face animated. Her breath comes in short gulps, as does mine, I realize.

     "Quite a day at the beauty salon, wouldn't you say?" I can't help myself from a little levity. It's how I deal with my fears.

     "I thought you were going to kill him," Adriana says. Her voice blends shock and admiration in equal proportions.

     "I'm better with hair and makeup," I say. "Thank God."

     We pause a moment to catch our breath.

     "Where did you learn that?" she asks.

     "I take lessons."

     "Well, thank goodness you didn't waste your time on the violin." Adriana has her own dry humor. She makes me laugh.

     After the police take over the scene and we give our statements, Adriana and I huddle at the fringe of the action. "This has been happening since the election," she confides in me. "All over the country, Jews are being confronted like this."

     In our wisdom, we Americans have elected a new president, though the loser got a lot more votes. The new leader ran on a platform of bigotry and hate. His only redeeming virtue seems to be total incompetence. His political style seems to be part Benito Mussolini and part Three Stooges, though there's nothing humorous about his act.

     "Thank goodness we don't live in the South," I say. "We don't have too many of these types up here."

     Adriana looks at me like I'm crazy.

     Mr. Swastika is hauled away on a stretcher, his hands cuffed, his eye still shut. One of the cops tells us he's on probation, so he'll be going back to the farm for sure. We may not even have to testify because he'll be eager to plea bargain. This pleases me more than I can say. My sixteen-year-old niece is coming to stay with me for the summer next weekend. She calls it her summer of emancipation.  She's going to work days in my salon and the rest of the time, we're going to do girl stuff together the greatest city in the world.

     I'm glad she won't be exposed to something like this.






Stepping into the soft light of this early June evening is like walking into a warm, slightly moist hug from a welcoming mother. The baking mid-day sun has become a gentler, more distant orb fading into the western sky. The air is alive with the aromas of restaurant food and music from the combo playing at the corner café. There are street noises from cars inching along this quiet extension of North Rush Street, but their lights and sounds only add a pleasant white noise backdrop for the sense of adventure and possibilities that always washes over me when I step onto this street in the evening after a long, hard day of work in my salon.

     As scintillating as it is for me, it is other-worldly for Roberta.

     Her beautiful sixteen-year-old face wears a smile as bright and lively as a birthday candle. In the diffuse glow of almost-evening, she is a vision of young womanhood. This is a landmark day in her coming-of-age summer. She pauses for a moment at the doorway to the salon before descending the stairs to the sidewalk. Looking at her from below, I can hardly believe what I'm seeing. My beautiful child, the one I talked to when she was in her mother's womb and tended to all the years of her life is looking over North Rush Street like a young Royal surveying her queendom. Her heels and stylish dress announce her blossoming womanhood. She touches her newly blonde hair and self-consciously runs her fingers along the lines of her new haircut, a chic, elegant style that projects equal parts maturity and sensuality.

     She is transformed. She came to the salon this morning a school-girl, her purse looped over one shoulder like Aunt Bobbi, struggling a little with the heels, self-conscious about her walk, wanting to achieve that perfect motion that makes women look feminine but not slutty. She worked in those heels all day. Eight hours. A kid who has worn sneakers almost every day of her life up until now. I don't know how she did it. Doing shampoos and scalp massages and work station cleanups all day is hard enough in flats. I told her several times she could take them off but she just smiled and kept working. It's an image thing. She's always loved the salon and the stylists she idolizes wear heels while they work. Of course, in the break room we peel those babies off and scrunch our feet and wiggle our toes and experience the kind of pleasure that only comes from chocolate or sex in the outside world.

     Roberta's summer with Aunt Bobbi is a reward for being a brilliant and responsible student. Her new hairdo is a reward for being less irritating than most adolescents. She came in with a beautiful mix of auburn and chestnut-colored hair, a genetic gift from her mother, and she's coming out as blond as Marilyn Monroe. Gone, too, are the long, wavy locks that streamed to the middle of her back and framed her face in a way that made her look like a fairy tale princess, innocent, pretty, naïve. Now she wears a graduated bob right out of the Vidal Sassoon style book, bangs curling over her newly waxed eyebrows, her lovely face framed by sheets of hair curving from the edges of her eyes to just below her chin. She could be the cover image for a woman's magazine, or a fashion model, or a young, up-and-coming executive who left the power suit in the closet for a night on the town.

     Conflicting thoughts race through my mind in the fleeting moment I behold her. As much as I want to be there every step of the way on her journey to adulthood, I feel a deep, bottomless sense of loss as my eyes see her emergence from childhood, and my mind recalls what it was like to hold her in my arms when she was a baby and to feel her toddler body fly into my hugs and to introduce her to hairstyling, first with her dolls at home, then in the salon.

     The introduction to my salon had unintended consequences. It brought out her inner girlie-girl. Roberta is being raised as a feminist, an independent woman of courage and assertiveness. She is destined to be a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist or a rocket scientist—she's that smart and has the kind of obsessive drive that will get her there. But she also wants to be a hairdresser, an obsession which both flatters and scares me. I don't want to be a distraction in her life. 

     "You look like a movie star, Princess," I say to her.

     Her smile is both little girl and worldly coquette. "Thanks Aunt Bobbi."

     She descends the stairs and we begin walking to the El station, our heels clicking like castanets on the sidewalk in perfect harmony.

     "Can I ask you something, Aunt Bobbi?" This is fairly new with her—asking if she can ask instead of just asking a question I want to hear anyway. I think she's trying to sound more contemplative, but maybe it's just the current oral fad at her high school.

     "Of course," I murmur.

     "Do you think this would be a good time to start calling me Roberta instead of Princess?"

     My head swivels so I can see her face as she says this. She's serious.

     "Of course, Roberta," I answer. "Whatever you want to be called. It's your decision."

     "I just think I'm getting a little old for the 'Princess' stuff." Roberta's eyes are straight ahead and her full lips—another genetic gift from her mother—are bending and pressing in thought. She is as serious and focused as a preacher writing her Sunday sermon. I understand, but God, it's hard to part with all the sweet memories of the Princess in my life.

     "Okay," I say. "And you can drop the Aunt Bobbi stuff, too. It makes me sound old."

     "What should I call you?" she asks. I caught her off guard. I can tell she's not completely comfortable with the change. Actually, I'm not either.

     "Just call me Bobbi, like everyone else in the salon." I flash her a warm smile when I say it. "You're a working woman now."

     We lock eyes and smile at each other. I slide my arm through hers and we continue walking in tandem. We turn west on Superior, weaving our way through the happy hour patrons of the corner café. The outdoor dining area is flooded with after-work revelers, celebrating the end of another week at the grindstone. The air is rich and full of the harmonies of life in the big city. Light strains of music from the jazz trio float to us along with a low hum of conversation. The seductive aromas of fried appetizers raise visions of a plentiful meal to come. In the distance a voice rises, too loud, in the further distance, a horn honking. The gathering is predominantly white, white collar, more males than females, mostly thirty-somethings and forty-somethings. Roberta's eyes swivel from one face to the next, stopping longer on the younger males. She comes to a complete stop in front of the menu board at the entrance to the outdoor tables.

     "They're having half-price women's drinks," she says. "Can we stop for a glass of wine?"

     This question is released into the evening by a voice that sounds like Roberta's, but the woman who said the words has hungry eyes and a party-girl smile. I'm suddenly aware that she looks much too sensuous for her own good.

     "Let's save that for another time," I say. I almost called her "Princess."