My dad said I had to be a little fish in a big pond in order to grow, that I needed to make some new friends, expand my horizons, leave the old neighborhood and interact with girls whose ambitions transcended beauty school. So I was exiled to a high school that required three bus transfers, a place where I wouldn't know a soul. Study on the bus ride my mother said, learn to navigate the city--like I was supposed to be some kind of Christopher Columbus in search of a new world.
Soon I was trudging to the 26th Street bus, but not before I'd sneak under our porch and ditch the embarrassing book bag and, if it had snowed, the humiliating boots my father insisted I wear. It was bad enough that the nuns required us to wear hideous black crepe-soled shoes so as not to scuff the tiled floors, but I drew the line at the mukluk look.
My new girlfriends could have been my cousins, though their names didn't end in vowels. They were first generation, European progeny who didn't eat meat on Fridays, and worried about going to Hell. I translated Caesar's Gallic Wars with the best of them, and even had a leg up when we studied the Renaissance masters, thanks to my ethnicity. The curriculum on sexuality was limited to the dissection of frogs. A couple of sluts, a new word I added to my expanded vocabulary, gossiped about French kissing, and one warned me to stay away from lesbians. I thought lesbian was a nonsense word akin to jabberwocky. While many of my new classmates' aspirations were not limited by gender or tradition, the One True Faith, like a great cement ankle bracelet, detoured us from the real world.
Until I met Linda.
My new friend was sweet and funny with a face and figure that made our flying-monkey uniform almost attractive. She lived three parishes away on the other side of a viaduct which separated our neighborhood, the other side, as we referred to it, was a smidgen more cosmopolitan, but, thanks to both of us being kept on short leashes at home, we were on equal footing when it came to worldliness--one crepe-sole rooted in parochialism, the other inching toward adventure.
One Monday, a not so exuberant Linda flashed her student pass at the bus driver, and flopped into the seat beside me.
"My life is over," she stage whispered.
"Let me guess. Your dog ate your science project."
"This isn't a joke. I'm done. My life is a disaster."
"What happened? Did you fight with your mother? Are you sick?"
"Worse. I had a horrible date Saturday night." She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her flying-monkey bolero. "I wish I was dead."
"You're crying over a boy? Are you kidding me?"
"I'm not kidding. He's awful--crude, cocky, crazy-mean, and now I'm his girl. My life is ruined. I should just finish myself off."
"Stop the drama. I don't get it. This was a first date with a jerk who asked you to be his girlfriend?"
"He didn't ask me. He said, 'I been watchin' you, and I like you. You're my girl now--you only date me.' But I can't stand him. He's disgusting, he's not even cute, he gives me the creeps, I'm afraid of him."
"One date, and he thinks he owns you? He's a nut--just tell him to drop dead when he calls, tell him you're not interested."
"Not interested? You don't understand, that's the scary part," she whispered. "He's connected."
"Connected? Connected to what? He's 17 years old, tell him to get lost, or your dad will kick his butt."
"Lower your voice," she hissed. "You don't get it. My dad can't help me. He'll kill my dad, my mother too--he's a hit guy. He's mobbed up."
"Oh, knock it off. You're being ridiculous--he's seventeen; he's a punk. You can't be a mobster at seventeen," I said. "Don't be afraid, the sicko is just trying to scare you."
The bus pulled up to the curb of our school. Linda was in a daze, and didn't move; the peter-pan collar of her blouse was damp from tears.
"C'mon, Linda, we're here. Let's go. We'll figure this out," I said, as we headed off to translate another chapter of Caesar's Gallic Wars.
That night at dinner, I told my girlfriend's story. "She had one date with this goof, and he thinks he owns her. Did you ever hear of such craziness? She thinks her life is over."
I expected my dad, who was afraid of no one, to say that the guy sounded like a loser, that she should just tell her father. Instead he said, "Eat. Your food is getting cold."
I turned to my brother. "Maybe you know this jerk. His name is Eddie Garren."
"He's a creep," my brother said, "a real bad guy, hazardous to her health."
"Get serious," I scoffed.
"No, you get serious," my father snapped. "Your brother's right, be alert; stay away. She's done."
I found a new route to school. Every now and then, I'd bump into Linda, but I'd keep my distance, avoid her at lunch, always too busy to talk. I knew she understood. We both understood. I had to stay on course; expanding horizons was a full-time job--be alert for bad influences, steer clear of hazards. She knew from that first encounter that she was in trouble--that gossip, loneliness and fear would be her new companions. That coming undone was part of a life unraveling when you're toast.
I trained for debate and symposiums, joined clubs, concentrated on my GPA. Over time, I settled into the big pond, and even got to be a decent sized fish.
I lost track of Linda, though I'd heard that she'd married the psychopath. Occasionally I'd see the monster's name in the news, but it wasn't as though I was following his career.
Then in December, 1999, Chicago headlines announced that Eddie "the Little Guy" Garren, a reputed top mobster, was shot and critically wounded in the alley behind his home as he headed to the funeral of an underworld associate.
Garren had been released only days before the shooting from federal prison after being sentenced to 25 years for masterminding an armed robbery. At the time of his sentencing, he had been arrested 58 times as an adult and convicted 13 times. He had attained special criminal status under a federal law known as the "Dangerous Special Offender Statute."
He never recovered, and died one month later in January, 2000. His obituary described him as a hit man, master thief, robber, hijacker, fence, juice collector and rapist. He was survived by two sons and Linda. A half dozen years later, his eldest, Edward, Jr., testified in Chicago's infamous Family Secrets trial that his father had trained him to follow in his footsteps as a burglar and bookmaker.
She was done from the start.