In the wake of the death of Michael DiMaio, Kara would love nothing more than to eulogize her grandfather. The only problem is that her mother isn’t terribly forthcoming with memorializing stories. When asked to describe her father, Andie responds with the following: “The fourth guy with the gun. That’s it. That’s who he was. There’s nothing more or less to him.”
“Oh, Ma,” Kara chides. “That’s no kind of answer. You can’t just spew the truth. Not unless it works for you. Otherwise, you’re just—”
“You sound just like your grandfather,” says Andie, “and you’ll have to forgive me, because I have put a lot of effort into becoming the sort of person who doesn’t fling obscenities at children, but I’ve had enough of his bullshit for one lifetime.”
Kara isn’t an idiot. What’s more, her father is Puerto Rican by way of Humboldt Park. Nester himself is reliably dull, and has spent the past fifteen years working as a mechanic at the same Kia dealership, but enough of his cousins have been sent to maximum lock-ups in the darkest depths of Illinois to teach Kara that playing the role of “fourth-guy-with-gun” isn’t a game.
But sometimes, Kara thinks her mother fails to appreciate the bigger picture. Even though she’s old enough to prefer tampons to pads, for example, she still shares a bedroom with Andie and Nester. The super never got around to fixing the radiator in hers. The people in the unit above them trudge with the heavy footsteps of death-row prisoners, but never seem to go anywhere; and the people in the unit below them (which is supposed to be vacant; every Sunday, Kara checks the Tribune’s real estate section, and verifies that the listing is still there, all neat and orderly: “Available for Immediate Occupancy: Garden Unit in Two-Flat at 5353 W. Grand”) have a never-ending series of houseguests who shout about the unreliability of the bus schedule at all hours.
But Michael knew how to entertain a person. In his stories, he made Chicago sound like some fairyland of noble thieves and ambitious outlaws. His version of the city was a place where anything could happen, a place where nobodies could become billionaires in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, Kara is beginning to forget the particulars. Whenever she tries to remember a certain plot-twist, she can only recall the way Michael swept his arms through the air when he reached that point in the narrative.
Andie could help, if she wanted. If only by virtue of proximity, she heard those stories more than anyone else on the planet. But her mother refuses to cooperate. Whenever Kara asks any of the questions that used to cue a string of Michael DiMaio’s Greatest Hits (“Did he know Capone?” for instance, or “Did he help build that tunnel between the Aragon and the Green Mill?” or even just “Who was he?”), Andie responds with a litany of truth that does no one any good.
“Rest assured, he wasn’t any kind of gangster. He didn’t own a speakeasy, never ran any booze, and wasn’t in charge of knocking anyone off. He was muscle. And not even a very big one, mind you. If there was a job that demanded numbers, he might’ve been given a gig. He knew the right people, owned a gun, and generally understood how to use it. But don’t make the mistake of thinking he was important. He was the fourth guy, in the background. If this were a movie, he’d be played by an extra. He would’ve been completely blocked by the lead. You wouldn’t even be able to see his face.”
Sometimes, her father takes her to the forest preserve on Belmont and Cumberland. As she and Nester stride beneath the trees, he regales her with stories of the abominations that allegedly stalk Puerto Rico’s rainforest. But no matter how much she wants to, she can’t believe. She’s seen too much of concrete. She knows too much about the sway that concrete has over people’s lives. She can’t believe the natural world holds any chances in store for her. But a cunning kid blazing a trail through the city’s underbelly with nothing but a cheap gun and a silver tongue: that makes sense to her, and God knows she needs something to dream about.
T. Rios is a writer, pacifist, and public transit enthusiast. In the eighth grade, she tried to lead an uprising against her math teacher. It didn’t end well. You can find her on Twitter @InSetsofThree and at www.teenagecrusade.com.