“Ghosts of State Street” by Eileen Lynch (2024)

“Don’t get lost,” the driver told his passenger, a trim lady with a sure step. As Emmeline Wood disembarked from the Orchards Home van at the Barrington train station, she was tempted to tell the young man that she had worked in the Chicago Loop longer than he had been alive and that she never got lost, except in memory.

A cold wind forced commuters inside a red brick station. Emmeline joined a few hardy souls huddled on the platform. She had commuted from Barrington before the station was built, braving subzero temperatures and scathing heat. Being acclimatized to Chicago weather had kept Emmeline healthy for seventy years. She searched the pockets of her tailored black wool coat, anxious when she realized she had left her glasses on the retirement home van. No time to call and wait for the driver to come back, or she would miss her rendezvous. Without glasses, her trip downtown was going to be as impressionistic as a Monet haystack.

Parents with small children boarded, fracturing the silence with bright chatter and pounding feet. Children climbed stairs to the upper level, kicked her seat. A stern look made them return to their parents downstairs. Unable to read the Chicago Tribune, Emmeline peered at old suburbs gentrified by McMansions and luxury condo developments. Memories attached to every station, but she refused to let them board. Park-like suburban settings gave way to the Kennedy Expressway where drivers played cat and mouse.

At the downtown terminus, commuters darted down concrete stairs to Randolph or flowed onto the Madison Street concourse. Why had the powers that be renamed the facility Ogilvie Transportation Center, after a politician no one remembered? In the old days, Northwestern Station sufficed as that’s where the train went – the northwest suburbs of Chicago. The old station was high ceilinged and severe, a large waiting room pre-internet when time had to be passed reading a book or staring at fellow commuters. Stevie’s Oyster Bar was a sanctuary where the talk was witty, drinks dispatched with alacrity. The spot where Stevie plied his trade had been replaced with soulless fast food stands. Emmeline boarded a downward escalator, passed Fannie Mae and Hudson Bookseller without a backward glance and moved through a revolving door.

Rain was falling as she walked east on Madison past the Civic Opera Building. The wind pushed her tiny frame across Canal Street. A pricy Hammacher Schlemmer umbrella was no defense against slantwise pellets weathercasters called “graupel.” Cabs passed but Emmeline did not allow herself to hail one. Her resolution was to walk the Loop as long as she was able. Fur-lined ankle boots kept her feet warm.

A short stop at St. Peter’s Church across from Chase Bank to light a candle for her dead mother, who named her Emmeline: hard-working. Emmeline had fulfilled that promise, working hard from her sixteenth birthday to sixty-sixth, saving for a decent retirement. The Orchards featured a lap pool kept at the proper temperature to enjoy her favorite exercise. She was proud and glad she had avoided a geriatric ghetto where residents dropped like flies during the pandemic.

Four more blocks fighting a lashing wind delivered her to the Carson Pirie Scott building at State and Madison, designed by Louis Sullivan at the dawn of the twentieth century. As an eighteen-year-old girl, Emmeline had been a shop girl, glad to walk through the cast-iron ornament of delicate floral motifs, hoping some of Sullivan’s artistry would rub off on her.

Research at the main library on Michigan Avenue revealed Sullivan strived for “applied beauty, a garment of poetic images.” Her first purchase after she got the job during the 1972 Christmas rush was a leather-bound journal. She wrote Sullivan’s quote on the first page. During her commute she sketched what she saw in words.

Emmeline entered through a revolving door. Target now leased the space. Everything was changed. No wooden counters on the sales floor as during her time: Fine Jewelry, Handbags, Scarves, Notions, all gone. Emmeline searched for the escalator that had led downstairs to the Tartan Tray where employees and shoppers enjoyed coffee breaks and lunches. Lower-level access was blocked.

She checked her watch. Almost noon. Time to walk to the library on Michigan Avenue. The great love of her life, Guy Leveque, had promised that no matter what happened in their lives, he would find her on the 50th anniversary of their meeting. Snow covered the sidewalks as she passed Marshall Field’s flagship store. Generations of Chicagoans possessed a collective memory of descending from every corner of the city and suburbs to view magical Christmas windows.

The day they met, Guy was reading Bonjour Tristesse in the foreign language section. So taken by his handsome face and casual absorption, Emmeline had forgotten her shyness and said,“J’adore ce roman.”

They chatted. He gave her his card: Guy Leveque, importer of fine French cheese. After walking her back to work at the corner of State and Madison, Guy kissed her cheeks in the French manner, then touched his lips to hers. Emmeline felt a connection, sweet and romantic, underpinned with an electric energy.

The day after she met Guy, she was stocking Timex watches at Carsons when a man cleared his throat and said, “Je voudrais acheter une montre.”

Remembering his hobby was wind surfing, Emmeline showed him a Timex Expedition sports model, explaining a waterproof model performed better than water resistant.

Reddish-brown hair lightened by sun exposure suggested a Viking lineage. Azure eyes shaped like almonds were Guy’s best feature. Emmeline dreamed of touring the Normandy coast as she dozed on the train home.

A cloud of marijuana saturated the air, jolting Emmeline into the present. A group of teenagers bickered on the steps. Emmeline walked inside the library, now The Cultural Center. Guy wasn’t in the lobby or in exhibit spaces. She climbed wide marble stairs adorned with jeweled mosaic patterns to Preston Bradley Hall where a group tourists exclaimed at the beauty of the world’s largest Tiffany dome. Guy was not among them.

She hadn’t really expected Guy to show. He would have had to fly from France, leave his family behind. They had sent Christmas cards sporadically, then stopped. She didn’t check social media as she had deleted Facebook when old friends started sending political diatribes.

Disappointed and a bit disoriented, Emmeline headed a block west on Randolph toward a Starbucks nestled inside Macy’s. A cup of tea would chase away the ghosts of memory clinging to her damp wool coat. As she reached for the door, she felt a sharp jab in her ribs followed by hot breath and the smell of French fry grease clinging to fabric.

“Give me your phone,” a young voice said.

She dug her Jitterbug from her coat pocket and handed it to the mask-wearing teenager.

He palmed the phone. “What the f*ck is this?” the boy said. “Where’s your iPhone?”

A tall, wiry Black woman with an athletic build exited Macy’s brandishing an athletic shoe.

“Give the lady her phone back before I paddle you.”

Cowed, the boy did as he was told, then ran toward State Street, disappeared down subway stairs.

“Are you all right?” the woman asked. Her nametag read Angela Watkins.

Emmeline patted her hair back in place. “I think so. Should we call the police?”

Angela shook her head. “Cops won’t find him.” Replacing the Air Jordan on a display, Angela led her inside the store. “I snapped a picture. Fool was wearing a high school jersey. Name on the back. I will call his principal, then his mama.” Angela ushered her to an upholstered chair with arm rests. “What can I get you, Miss Lady?”

Emmeline examined Angela’s tone for sarcasm, but she was met with a wide smile and a conspiratorial wink.

“Tea, please.”

Light glinting from gold eyeglass frames reminded Emmeline of the woman who shared her sales counter fifty years ago, Bertha Washington of Ladies Handbags.

Angela brought a frothing chai latte and a warm blueberry scone. “You rest, dear. You are perfectly safe while I am around.”

As employees and customers bantered, Emmeline enjoyed her snack. A song that only seemed to have two lines played. A far cry from the days when Marshall Field’s played straight up jazz by hometown greats like Ramsey Lewis and Herbie Hanco*ck.

Somehow, Emmeline felt more herself downtown. Dreaming was difficult at the Orchards, an ambulance parked at the entrance a reminder of her final transportation.

A memoir class was offered at the retirement home. Perhaps her youthful memories might produce a good story, at least for herself. Emmeline drew a journal from her purse to describe how she met Bertha Washington.

Days before Christmas 1972, Emmeline had appeared on State Street scared and alone after dropping out of the University of Illinois.

Much to her shame, Emmeline’s shyness coupled with severe allergies provoked by cornfields surrounding the university provoked a homesickness she could not shake. She begged her parents to let her come home.

Her parents were upset but relented when they saw her distress. Emmeline sat at home reading until her parents issued an ultimatum – find a job or move out.

Grandma took her downtown on a shopping trip and suggested she apply at the major department stores: Carson Pirie Scott, Marshall Fields, Wieboldt’s, and Stevens. Carson’s offered her a job on the spot. The personnel director let her know employees were not allowed to wear jeans. Grandma bought her a pair of black dress pants and several white blouses.

Her first day of work, she hid in the second-floor restroom, eating lunch behind a closed stall. As winter turned to spring, she realized the city was the place to be. A place where no one knew her, her failure to go to leave home and go to college went unnoticed by people who did not see beyond her store clerk persona. The city became her classroom. She learned the Loop’s east/west streets: Lake, Randolph, Washington, Madison, and Monroe followed by north/south: Michigan, Wabash, State, Clark, Dearborn, LaSalle, and Wells. She dissolved onto crowded sidewalks as just another person going to work, eating lunch, spending a paycheck.

Angela brought hot water for her tea. Emmeline nodded her thanks and returned to her story.

Week One was orientation on “The Carson’s Employee.” Movies were shown detailing customer relations, employee relations, and personal hygiene. Emmeline was affronted her new employer doubted her use of deodorant. Taking the course were men with heavy accents who gave off a tangy scent.

Week Two, the Personnel lady led her to the first floor to introduce her to Ester Morse at the Timex watch counter. Red hair tinging orange, rings on every arthritic finger, a neon pink polyester blouse redolent with peonies. From her conversation, Emmeline soon found out Mrs. Morse was on the cusp of retirement and the crabbiest lady she had ever met. Ground rules were established. Mrs. Morse was to have her choice of break and lunchtimes. Emmeline would do all the stooping to replace stock as Mrs. Morse’s back was bad.

“In twenty years,” Mrs. Morse said, “I have never done more work than necessary.”

Emmeline believed her. Ester’s face was framed by lacquered carrot red hair, her mouth bracketed by frown lines. Emmeline’s mother claimed old people ended up with the faces they deserved.

Ester’s days were divided by morning coffee break, lunch, forays to other counters to scout upcoming sales. Customers were an interruption. As Contemporary Watches was the first counter from State and Madison, shoppers often stopped for directions.

A matronly woman buttressed by shopping bags asked, “Where is the closest Ladies’ Room?”

Face full of bored disdain, Ester pointed a bejeweled finger toward the directory.

A white-haired gentleman sporting a carnation boutonniere approached. He held Mrs. Morse’s hand. “Ready for coffee, my dear?”

Ester Morse followed, spritzing herself with a crystal decanter from the Chanel counter. “Empty those boxes before I get back.” Wagging her plump behind, Mrs. Morse accompanied her friend to the Tartan Tray.

Emmeline’s stomach rumbled with hunger. She wondered how dumpy Mrs. Morse attracted a man so elegant. The open stock drawer was a muddle of men’s and women’s watches. Mrs. Morse would yell if the mess remained when she returned from break.

A jangle of bracelets preceded a low throaty voice. “Hey little sister, how do you even fit down there?” The generously built woman standing in the pass-through smiled. Her gold eyeglass frames matched a cascade of gold bangles adorning her brown forearm.

Emmeline closed the stock drawers and stood. The suburb she came from was all white. The most diverse student at her high school was Jewish. She had seen black people on shopping trips downtown with her grandmother but had never talked to one.

The woman laughed as she offered her hand. “I’m Bertha Washington. What’s your name, Little Bit?”

“Emmeline Wood.”

“We’ll have to see about putting some meat on your bones. Walgreen’s cafeteria serves pancakes. Get yourself a stack tomorrow morning. Today you can join me for lunch when that nasty Mrs. Morse returns.”

“Is she always so crabby?”

“Today’s a good day. Her boyfriend’s taking her to coffee, hoping she’ll buy him breakfast.”

“The man with the boutonniere?” I asked.

“Probably stole it from a display. Man rents an SRO at the Croydon.”

Noting Emmeline’s confusion, Bertha said, “SRO means Single Room Occupancy. Romeo lives in a cheap hotel, baby.”

As the weeks unfolded, Bertha never asked Emmeline why she made a long commute from the suburbs to work as a store clerk. Instead, she circled Emmeline like a matador, picking and poking with friendly jabs of conversation followed by introductions to her network of friends throughout the store.

Mrs. Morse paid little attention if Emmeline did what she was told. Her coworkers bore no resemblance to the suburban mothers and career teachers who raised her. Coworkers didn’t care about grades or accomplishments as long as Emmeline completed her tasks. She ventured from the store at lunchtime, eating a sandwich in Daley Plaza under the Picasso. A wild-eyed man sat with her several times and told her he’d seen her in Room 214 at the YMCA. Emmeline gave him half her sandwich.

Many people were alone in the city, anonymous and welcome at the same time. High school friends asked to take her to lunch. She didn’t want them to see her selling watches, so she met them at the Palmer House coffee shop for grilled cheese sandwiches and French onion soup. After lunch they stood under the hotel canopy where bellmen plied their trade. Her friends shook hands and told her she was a city person.

***

Angela set a ham and Swiss croissant on Emmeline’s table. “You’re going to need more than sweets if you’re going to write all day.”

A loud crash followed by a woman’s scream triggered a memory. Emmeline returned to her story.

“Cookie is tearing up the clearance rack at O’G’s,” Bertha said. I told you never wear those pink pants again. Drives him wild.”

O’G’s stood for O’Connor and Goldberg, a shoe store Ester Morse called goy and landsman. The store was connected to Carson’s by a sliding glass door, so customers needn’t brave the elements passing from one store to another.

“He’s on something for sure. Move fast, we must get out of here before Cookie finds you. Let’s take an early lunch.”

Emmeline met Cookie through a cute shoe salesman at O’G’s named Bobby. She and Bobby started talking during a break at the Tartan Tray. Bobby’s friendliness put her at ease. They met as often as they could. Bobby enjoyed discussing the meaning of life, a passion Emmeline shared. One afternoon Bobby invited Emmeline to share a joint with him on a back stairway. She took one toke, afraid of being high at work. She swam in Bobby’s pure blue eyes, swore they exchanged souls as he discussed Buddhism.

The next day Emmeline perused a sale rack at O’G’s hoping to see Bobby. A salesman named Cookie sporting a huge Afro told her it was Bobby’s day off. Cookie helped her find an exquisite pair of pumps for her narrow feet, double A width with a quad A heel. He asked Emmeline if they could meet after work. She assented, thinking the encounter would be as innocent as moments with Bobby. Cookie led her to a room on the lower level behind the Frango mint display and locked the door. He described in detail what he would do once he removed her pink pants. She pushed him off her and ran.

Emmeline’s fingers cramped. She eased her grasp on her pen and rotated her wrist before returning to 1973.

“Let’s go, Little Bit,” Bertha said. They ducked into a down elevator and entered an underground pedway used by commuters to avoid the weather. After climbing cement stairs, they emerged on State Street. A Buick Skylark waited at the light behind an AMC Gremlin. Men in suits, women wearing dresses. Bertha’s skirt swayed as she walked. A warm breeze blew through the folds of Bertha’s paisley blouse. Emmeline wore a summer weight sweater floating over a pair of pink pants. Seals and Crofts sang “Summer Breeze” from a boombox.

“Where are we going?” Emmeline asked.

“Follow me,” Bertha said. “I know a place.”

They crossed the street and entered a building next to Walgreens. A downward ride on an escalator took them to a dark restaurant. Two long-legged men in wide collared shirts topped by vests occupied a table for four. “Maurice and Thomas work in the stock room. Let me introduce Emmeline,” Bertha said. Thomas tipped the brim of his Super Fly hat.

Without her glasses, Emmeline was unable to edit her work. Her pen flew over the page. A delightful experience compared to eating lunch at the Orchards with painted old dolls dramatizing their aches and pains.

She returned to her memory of the underground restaurant where soul music played. Maurice and Thomas sipped rum and co*kes. Emmeline ordered what everyone else was having: cheeseburger and fries.

Maurice slid quarters into the jukebox. The Chi-Lites sang “Have You Seen Her?” Thomas tapped the sole of his leather boot to a lilting beat as old friends dreamed their own daydreams together.

As the song drifted to an end, Thomas tipped his hat and said, “Dig.”

Maurice held Bertha’s chair as she rose. “Cops were outside when we left. Taking that cat with the huge ‘fro out of O’G’s in handcuffs.”

***

French was to be Emmeline’s college major. Her prized possessions were a navy beret and her Larousse Dictionary.

Walking the neighborhood near Carson’s, Emmeline came upon Alliance Francaise. She entered the lobby where brochures were set on a table.

“Bonjour mademoiselle,” a girl about her age said.

“Je voudrais etudier Francaise,” Emmeline said. I would like to study French. Besides being the most beautiful language in the world, speaking French would help her become a buyer.

“Bienvenue,” the girl replied. Dark eyes fluttered behind dark frames. Her hair was cut short like Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse. Beginning Conversation met late Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Emmeline’s next step was to schedule a salon appointment to cut off her college girl locks. “You’ve been hiding your gamin looks,” the stylist said as she snipped. Piles of auburn hair surrounded her chair.

***

A snippet in the Chicago Sun-Times announced film critic Roger Ebert was to offer a class on the films of French director Francois Truffaut. Emmeline was concerned about taking a late train home from the Loop. White flight sent most commuters to suburban train stations right after work. Nietzsche insisted that which didn’t kill her made her stronger. Emmeline registered. The class was to meet on Wabash Avenue down the block from Jeweler’s Row near Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore, one of her favorite lunch time haunts. All under the rumble of the “L” on a rusty track.

More than intuition, the class was an outright sign that she follow her dream of becoming a Carson’s buyer. The Personnel supervisor who had once been dismissive told her a foreign language would seal the deal. French was the language of fashion.

Film nerds sat in the first three rows. They knew the answer to any question Roger Ebert posed. They watched The 400 Blows, Day for Night, and Bed and Board. Emmeline felt safe in the dark, thrilled when she could understand the dialogue without reading subtitles.

***

Spring arrived early in April of 1973. Emmeline walked through Grant Park on her lunch hour, dropping breadcrumbs for crowds of pigeons. Some despised the short-necked city dwellers, calling them pests; Emmeline admired their multi-colored markings, their hunched shoulders as they huddled in the entryway to the Wrigley Building when wind chills dropped below zero.

Emmeline submitted her resume for assistant buyer. Under foreign languages, she checked French: speak, read, and write. The Personnel lady smiled for the first time during their interview. “If you want to be a Carson’s buyer, you must complete your college degree.”

Undaunted, Emmeline signed up for weekend college classes with a plan to finish her degree in two years. In the meantime, selling Timex watches to every customer who visited her counter became her goal. Flattery worked. Telling a customer, “A Timex Marlin looks good on your wrist,” often produced a sale.

Ester Morse was counting the days until retirement. Her coffee breaks became prolonged, long as her lunch breaks. Left alone, Emmeline attempted writing poems in French between customers. During lunch, she studied for final exams at the main library on Michigan Avenue.

Guy met her for lunch when he was not busy. They walked across Madison Street to Le Bordeaux, a walk down basem*nt room. Intoxicating food smells distracted from shabby carpeting. Guy requested a seat in the terrace where the banter among tables was in French. Guy explained that employees of French banks and travel agencies frequented the restaurant.

As warm days coaxed tulips from planters, they fell in love walking Grant Park. Guy couldn’t stop kissing her. At first Emmeline was embarrassed at his public displays of affection. Further study of French movies revealed Frenchmen couldn’t help themselves, being more romantic than American men.

During the month of May, Emmeline spent more on clothes than she earned, buying spring dresses in flattering floral patterns. She deserved to splurge on herself. Life wasn’t giving her hints and clues anymore; she was living her destiny. Dreams of visiting France, perhaps living there kept her awake.

On the sixth of June, Guy took her to Le Bordeaux for dinner, ordering her favorite dish, coq au vin. He toasted her with vin ordinaire from a fingerprint-smudged carafe. His tone turned serious. “Je dois dire adieu, mon petite chou.”

Adieu meant goodbye, not until we see each other again. Emmeline asked, “Ou vas-tu?”

Guy held her hand. “My father is sick. I will take over our family business in Normandy.”

Covering her shock, Emmeline excused herself. “I must return to work, or I will be docked. Adieu.” She kissed him on both cheeks as she had seen the French do in films.

Despair tore through her as she crossed State Street. How could she have misread Guy’s intentions? She didn’t think she could live without him. She assumed Guy felt the same.

***

July was unbearably hot. Emmeline wrote sad poems between customers.

A brown paper package arrived decorated with foreign stamps. Inside was a first edition of Bonjour Tristesse. Hello Sadness, indeed. A postcard showing the beach at Normandy was tucked inside the pages of the book. Je t’embrasse tres fort mais il faut que je m’habitue ici.” I kiss you fiercely, but I must habituate myself here.

Love seemed impossible. No one would ever hold spring in his hands as Guy had.

Emmeline never married, concluding her love was imperfect in some way. Her flaws were not visible to the naked eye, but detectable, nonetheless. Despite her sophisticated wardrobe and witty conversation, she had never conquered her shyness. A therapist she consulted claimed lack of confidence might forever hold her back unless she unraveled her early difficulties.

Therapy was not for Emmeline. She burrowed further into her study of French until she was able to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. She took drawing courses at the Art Institute, volunteered in a literacy program. Men still flirted with her, asked her out. She said no often enough they stopped asking. It was no use. Once they got to know her, they would know her love was as defective as a slow running watch.

***

Someone jostled her arm. “I’m going off shift now, Miss Lady. This man has been guarding your purse while you were writing like a demon.”

Emmeline had a hard time coming back to the present. She peered at the woman’s nametag. Angela Watkins, the woman who had saved her.

“I called that boy’s mama, the one who tried to take your phone. She will punish him worse than any cop.”

“Thank you for everything,” Emmeline said. “You remind me of a dear friend.”

“You take care of yourself,” the woman said.

Blinking, Emmeline reached for her purse. “I apologize,” she said to a man with thick white hair. “Silly of me to leave my purse unguarded.”

“Do not trouble yourself,” the man said. He handed her a faded business card. Guy Leveque – Honorary Attaché to the French Embassy.

Surprise and shock made her drop the card.

Guy did not notice. “I find myself losing things all the time. My keys this morning, last year my wife.” His kindly expression turned sad. “Would you have time to talk to an old man?” He gestured toward the empty chair.

“That sounds wonderful,” Emmeline said. She tried to speak calmly. Her pulse pounded. “Journaling puts me in another dimension.”

“Memory is a powerful portal.”

An attractive oddness to his speech made Emmeline wonder if the man understood her or if he were continuing a conversation he had been having with himself.

More impossible things had happened on this odd day. Emmeline sipped her tea.

“Are you in a hurry to get home?” Guy said. “I would like to see Millennium Park. When I lived here years ago, I walked with a charming young woman. Thought of her often over the years. We were going to meet today. My flight was delayed making me late to our meeting place.”

Emmeline rose and put on her coat. “I have time.”

Guy bought an orchid corsage from a refrigerated case, pinned it to her collar. He walked ahead of her through a revolving door.

A light snow muted incandescent streetlight.

Guy offered his arm. “Do you know the way? I don’t know if I mentioned my memory plays tricks these days.”

They walked east on Madison, crossed Michigan Boulevard into Millennium Park.

“Everything is changed,” Guy said. An outdoor concert pavilion had been added along with a skating rink. “There was a fountain.” He removed a weathered leather wallet from his pocket. “Here she is. My first love.”

Emmeline squinted, wishing she had her glasses. The woman wore a lemon-yellow blouse cinched at the waist. She had waited until the outfit went on sale in designer fashions. Guy did not recognize her. The years had marked her: auburn hair a wiry gray, rounded chin bony, sorrow imprinted on her wrinkled mouth. Only in her notebook was she beautiful.

“Let’s walk toward Buckingham Fountain,” Emmeline said, hoping a familiar landmark might help Guy see the young woman still alive in her.

Guy put his arm around her, protecting the fragile bloom of purple orchid with his palm. “Flowers show us our hearts,” Guy said. “At the center is something beautiful yet fragile.”

Fingers cold inside her gloves, Emmeline squeezed Guy’s hand. She willed herself not to cry, afraid a tear might freeze on her cheek. The flower of her heart had blossomed too soon; like a tulip sprouting through hard dirt to meet a cold wind.

Eileen Lynch is a writer, editor, and teacher who has lived in New Mexico and Illinois. After managing an ethics program for an international association, she switched careers to teach in a suburban Chicago high school. She has participated in writing workshops at the University of Chicago, Albuquerque, and Taos, New Mexico. The city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs are a backdrop for her work. www.eileenlynch.com

“Ghosts of State Street” by Eileen Lynch (2024)

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