Excerpts from The Rooming House Gallery – Connecting the Dots
Josh Sawicki, Age 29
Andres Rodriguez, Age 28
4822 South Justine, Chicago, IL – Back of the Yards Neighborhood
Monday, June 8, 2009
The old house smelled. To Josh, it was a musty mix of dust and age, but the closer he and Andres moved toward the kitchen, the stronger the odor became of urine and Pine Sol overlain with coarse cigarette smoke.
Manny Rodriguez, Andres’ old uncle, rested on top of a grungy, threadbare sheet in an ancient recliner, his feet up, his back almost straight. An oxygen tube ran across the floor from the large container of liquid oxygen and over the top of the recliner, its nosepiece rested close to Manny’s left ear. Josh wondered why he wasn’t wearing the oxygen. Was it turned on? And, why was a recliner in the kitchen? He glanced around and noticed the chair’s proximity to a bedroom and the bathroom. Guess it made sense.
Manny wore a stained tank-style undershirt with burn-holes and clean blue pajama bottoms. A dented plastic juice bottle, half-full, sat on a stool, tucked against the right side of the chair. A cordless phone rested in his lap, next to the twisted fingers of his left hand, his left shoulder bent at an odd and awkward angle, as if out of joint. His tobacco-stained right fingers held a hand-rolled cigarette upright, carefully balancing a tall pile of ash. Josh stared at the cigarette, then the oxygen nose piece. He took a half step closer.
Noticing Josh’s concerned looks at the oxygen piece, Manny rasped in a Spanish accent, “Only use it at night. It’s turned off when I smoke.” He grimaced and looked from one to the other as he growled, “About time you two got here. Andres, I’m still pissed your dad waited two months to send you over.” He broke into a hoarse, deep cough and hacked up a honker, leaned over and without spilling the ash, lifted the bottle with his right hand and spat into it.
“Hi, Uncle Manny,” said Andres. “You don’t look good.”
“I’m dying. Soon, too. If I wasn’t, I’d be looking better. I told your dad in April, I needed to see you two before I croaked.” He started coughing again. Josh looked around and filled a glass with water from the sink faucet and held it for him to sip. He wheezed a thank you.
More from Chapter One…
Padre An smiled. “Yes, that’s true. I’ll try to quickly bring you up to date. I know you haven’t seen Manny in years and this is a shock.” He motioned for the two men to slide back on the couch. “About two years ago, Manny learned he had advanced lung cancer, stage four. He refused invasive medical treatment. This spring, he asked me, I’m also a notary public with extensive experience in financial matters, to prepare his will, get a lawyer and finalize his desire to transfer the property to you two.” Padre An paused when Josh started to interrupt. “Josh, let me finish, then I can answer your questions.” Josh nodded, still confused and surprised. “At first, the house was going to just Andres, but when he realized how you two seem to have a solid, long-term relationship, he became so excited. He kept saying, ‘I can keep it in both families. Both families!’ He was as happy as I’ve ever seen him.”
Josh couldn’t contain his anxiety. He shifted forward on the couch, dust motes flying in the early evening light. “I don’t understand. It’s wonderful. I just don’t get it! And what’s he mean, both families? Is that what he wanted to tell me? Is that the secret?”
Padre An motioned toward Josh and Andres to remain seated. He stood, walked into the dining room and returned with a ledger. He slid between the two of them on the couch and opened it to the middle pages, where everything was written in Polish. “Josh, do you recognize that name?”
“Um, it looks like it could be Sa-wic-ki. A Josef Sawicki?” His eyebrows started to rise.
Padre An turned more pages. He pointed to a name written in English. “And that name?”
“Hank Sawicki. Oh my God! Hank Sawicki was my great-grandfather’s name, his wife’s name was Mae. They owned a rooming house that my Grandpa Joey was raised in. You mean this is the same place?” He looked at Padre An in amazement at the significance that his blood ran deep in this old place.
Stay tuned for next week’s edition!