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HOT DOGS AND DEATH by Steve Brandick Dad lay as white as his bed sheets in a small private room at Weiss Memorial Hospital. I had spent the morning sitting by his side watching him struggle for each breath, an agonizing struggle that spoke of his enormous will to live, a struggle that was tearing my heart out. Still, I sat for hours watching him, staying close to him, fascinated by the awful process called death. I had been at his side for three months, in and out of the hospital, trying to help make his last days somewhat easier. Mom returned from the hospital cafeteria and we exchanged glances filled with the fear of hope. There was a time when we had hoped. We prayed, we tried all kinds of drugs and treatments, and even briefly believed in magic, but now all hope was gone. There was only the slow wait for the end. “I’m gonna go out and get something to eat,” I said. “You want me to bring anything back for you?” “I’d like a magazine or a newspaper or something Hot Dogs and Death

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to read,” she answered in a dull, flat voice. It was the kind of December day in Chicago, cold and grey, when no one would go outside without a good reason. I didn’t want to go out, but I needed a break. When I exited onto the street, I was vaguely aware of the freezing wind, but it didn’t cut through me as it always had before. I was beyond pain, beyond feeling. My mood was as bleak and grey as the day. I walked up Lawrence Avenue to Sheridan Road and turned left. I was entering a world where I didn’t belong, where I had never belonged, a world Dad had tried to protect me from, his world for a large portion of his life. On a summer’s day it would have been bustling with crowds of people, but today there were only a couple of white winos huddled together on the curb sharing a pint of Wild Irish Rose and a beatup-looking black hooker in the doorway trying to work the empty street. When I reached Sheridan Road and Leland Avenue, I stopped. This was the corner where Dad’s bar, the S & L Liquor Mart, had stood. Just a couple of doors down was the site of his restaurant, Charlie’s Inn and Carryout. It was on that street, twenty years earlier, Hot Dogs and Death

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that he had lost both businesses at the same time and suffered a broken heart which had never healed. I stood staring, trying to draw meaning from sad history, searching for something, some clue, some sign, that could help me cope with the terrible situation which had engulfed my family. I must have fit right into that crazy neighborhood as I stood on the corner staring into space, conjuring up the past which came back vividly in memories of what I had seen with my own eyes and what I remembered secondhand from family stories I had heard through the years. . . . . Two cops on the take. White guys in blue uniforms, big guys with red cheeks and cynical eyes are visiting Dad just as they have been doing once a week for a while now and walking away with a percentage of the profits in a brown paper bag. Dad is getting tired of the payoffs and tells them it’s over. Now they are in our living room, one on each side of the circular coffee table, telling Dad, with Mom sitting by his side, that if he values his family, he will stop his foolishness and keep those brown paper bags coming. We’re back at Dad’s bar and the noble prostitute with bright red hair is sitting on a stool talking about her Hot Dogs and Death

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son and how she is putting him through college with her earnings. A huge muscle man suddenly grabs a skinny little guy and threatens him with a big knife because the skinny guy was paying too much attention to the muscle man’s girlfriend. Dad, all 5' 3" of him, jumps over the bar, quickly takes the knife away from the muscle man and breaks it in two and the muscle man starts to cry because his favorite knife has been destroyed. Then two desperate punks are fighting with razor blades hidden between their fingers. They are slapping at each other, trying to cut each other up. Again Dad steps in and breaks it up. It’s over and Dad notices that his clean white shirt is full of slash marks but his skin is thankfully unscathed. Now it’s the end of the long evening and he is laying flat on his back on the pool table trying to calm his nerves before he goes home. I’m leaving the bar for some reason with my sister Susie and her boyfriend Bruce. It’s late at night and we’re walking to Bruce’s car and there is some unknown man lying on the sidewalk in the shadow of a street light, knees in the air, moaning, while two men Hot Dogs and Death

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stomp on his face and we walk away as quickly as possible, unable to help. Susie is saying to Bruce, “Do something,” but even I as young as I am, I know there is nothing Bruce can do. It’s another day now and Dad is behind the steam table in the new restaurant he just opened down the street from the bar and he is talking animatedly, hopefully, about the large insurance company which is supposed to move into the abandoned office building across the street any day now and bring in all kinds of business. Any day now that never arrives. He comes home with his hands wrapped in gauze, burned at the steam table he says, but he has stopped paying off the cops and, well, who knows? Then it’s the big mystery day when something happens to scare him so badly that he walks out of the restaurant with customers still inside, never to return, to have a nervous breakdown that we are told is a heart attack. Something so terrible that no one who knows ever talks about it. Mom and Susie are walking back into the restaurant to close up and take home any money that might have been left in the cash Hot Dogs and Death

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register, but all they get are a few checked table clothes. . . . A sharp gust of wind shook me out of my reverie and I saw the corner of Sheridan and Leland as it actually was, alive with ghosts and memories, with fear and violence, hope and despair, but none of the old buildings were there. The entire block had been razed to make way for a social security retirement home for the poor folks who managed to survive the neighborhood. The sterile ten story building stood as a bizarre monument to Dad’s youthful dreams gone sour. I started up the street again, another block to a hot dog joint that made them just the way I liked them with “the works.” A kosher dog on a fresh sesame bun hot out of the steam table, covered with piccalilli, mustard, chopped onions, tomato and cucumber slices, hot peppers and sprinkled with celery salt. The same way Tony made them from his pushcart by Waveland and Lake Shore Drive when I was a little kid. I had shared many of those big city delicacies with Dad Hot Dogs and Death

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during summers and weekends while I was in high school when I worked with him at a liquor store he was managing on the Westside. When I started college, I’d bring them home after my dates with my girlfriend, Barbara, who had the beautiful face of a Botticelli woman, but even better, lived down the street from one of the best hot dog stands in Logan Park. I loved the taste of those hot dogs and the memory of sitting across the table from Dad talking in our kitchen or at some greasy spoon. I don’t remember what we talked about. I just remember that I enjoyed being with him and feeling like a man. Outside the restaurant was a newspaper stand. I grabbed a Daily News and a Newsweek, went in and ordered two dogs with the works and a cup of coffee. I left the counter with my food and glanced at the paper. “John Lennon Slain by Fan,” read the headline. John Lennon and the Beatles had been as important to me in the 60's as they had been to almost anyone turning thirty in 1980. I had learned to dance to Twist and Shout, fell in love to If I Fell, discussed the inner Hot Dogs and Death

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meaning of I am the Walrus in class with my hip high school English teacher, Mr. Markey, tried pot to A Day in the Life, and weathered the depression of leaving home and being on my own for the first time with Here Comes the Sun. The Beatles’ message of love curing the ills of the world helped me make it through lost years hiding from Vietnam on an oversized Midwestern college campus while I drifted hopelessly apart from Dad. The Beatles represented much more to me than their music. They were an era, a chunk of my life which helped form everything that followed. During that time a horrible gap had developed between Dad and myself. I had disappointed him. I never fulfilled his dreams for me. I had not become the man he wished he had been and was certainly not the man he was, strong and steady, yet ironically, helping him die and witnessing his amazing will to live had given me the strength and confidence to get my life together and become a man that Dad could be proud of. The thing is, he would never know that it had happened. Hot Dogs and Death

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On any other day I would have paused to ponder John Lennon’s death. Maybe I would have even shed a tear. I certainly would have listened to the radio tributes, but on that particular day I had other things on my mind. I took my food and sat down at a table in a corner and ate. The hot dogs tasted great and I wished that Dad were across the table from me. Maybe I could have finally made him understand that I was going to be all right. It would just take me a few years more. That night he died.

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Hot Dogs and Death  

Short Story