portion of the artwork for Gail Siegel's story

Gail Siegel

Simone is cold, so she’ll take the long way. The lobby-to-lobby long cut. Inside, instead of sidewalks. So what if she’s a little late to work. She’ll be warm, dry. Plus, more steps on the pedometer. If she doesn’t hit 10,000, she goes to bed feeling a little guilty. Besides, it’s Christmas Eve. Nobody cares if she’s late to work on a holiday.

In downtown Chicago, she exits the train into the Ogilvie Transportation Center. One of the Helmut Jahn architectural monstrosities. Fever dreams of the ’80s, still haunting everyone in the 2010s, like chronic hepatitis. At least it’s not as hard to negotiate as his office-in-the-round, the taxpayer-funded circus called the Thompson Center, the state’s headquarters. That is a nightmare—the offices perch around the perimeter of a 15-story atrium, a big, empty cavern. It reminds her of the cliff-dwellings she’d reluctantly hiked through with her ex-husband in Utah when they were young and nimble. Bennett had scrambled through window-sized openings up high in the walls while Simone caught her breath on the sunny floor of Grand Gulch. She was wary of disturbing the high caves where Anasazi families had slept and cooked, as if their ghosts might take offense. The architecture seemed as haunted to her then as the Thompson Center does now. And she isn’t the only one it haunts. Years ago, a friend at the bottom-floor cafe gagged on his espresso when a jumper crashed, splat, onto the atrium tiles at his feet. One of a half-dozen jumpers since the tower’s ribbon-cutting.

So, it’s not a building she’d want her name on; it’s more of a death chamber, the Thompson Chamber. Like Ogilvie, it’s named for an Illinois governor. Like Ogilvie, Thompson wasn’t jailed. Or at least she thinks not. She’ll have to check Wikipedia. Last night she made her annual contribution to that political huckster—Jimmy Wales. And feels good about it. No matter his history as a porn purveyor, he’s given the world his wiki, and she uses it. Though Bennett never knew about her donations. He wouldn’t approve since Wikipedia doesn’t feed or clothe anyone. She used to feel guilty about that secret. But not as guilty as she’d feel if she hadn’t given. It’s relative, she thinks. Not all guilt’s created equal.

Nor all crimes, for that matter. Even George Ryan, a governor who was behind bars, wasn’t all bad. He stopped the death penalty, released innocent men from death row. Or maybe not innocent men. Those are rare, she knows. But men not guilty of the crimes they would have been executed for. Maybe guilty of other crimes, so innocent enough for Chicago.

She follows the skybridge into the old Daily News Building. Or, as most commuters know it, Riverside Plaza. It’s an Art Deco edifice, from 1929, when the stock market crashed. The year her father was born. Funny, though, she doesn’t associate either with Art Deco—her father or the Depression. But here she is, walking through the era, walls much the same as they were, facade unaltered. An Art Deco time tunnel. She doubts her fellow travelers—time travelers, pedestrians, whatever—have heard of the Daily News, its final edition pulped in 1978. There aren’t enough elderly heads bobbing in the crowd. Most of these wool- and down- and fur-swathed MBAs couldn’t have known their ABCs by then. The swarm is younger and, Simone grimaces to think, certainly better paid than she is, an underemployed government secretary with an English degree.

They are nearly all weighed down by at least two bags: a briefcase and a shoulder bag; a pocketbook and a messenger bag; a lunch tote and a gym bag, or like Simone, a backpack and a purse. She hustles to stay with them now, stride by stride through the hall, if you can call it a hall. The ceilings are high and grand—celestial—built before halls devolved into functional passages from here to there. Before drop-ceilings and square foam panels masked stained plaster, leaky skylights and vaulted heavens alike.

At the end of the hall, she pauses to rearrange her backpack; it’s always sliding down. She’s had it since the Christmas when Bennett insisted that her heavy purse would damage her spine. That was back when they eased one another’s pains and sorrows, instead of blaming each other for them. But it wasn’t anyone’s fault when their daughter Maddy’s baby died. Maybe that’s why it was unbearable to stay together. There was no one to blame.

Now the pack’s clasp is broken and yesterday a bag of nuts fell into a grimy pile of slush. Simone wants something new, something classy, something that doesn’t look like a Sherpa’s castoff. Careful of the pack, she shoulders open the southern-most door, to shave 15 chilly steps off her walk. Fifteen steps inside and warm—not outside. A few yards on, the Madison Street Bridge spans the undulating, gray-green Chicago River. Its waves, however modest, are menacing, as if it is a slowly simmering cauldron of oil, guts, and sewage. Which it may be; clouds of steam drift along its surface.

She never likes crossing the water, but can manage at Madison Street with its solid walkway, better than at Randolph Street and its flimsy wooden planks. Neither is pleasant. They both shudder as cars rumble over. Both their railings are shorter than she is tall. She imagines an icy misstep launching her overboard, or getting pushed by a briefcase-wielding madman, angry over a corporate layoff. She suspects there are many in the crowd.

There is no choice. No subterranean tunnel, no little ferryboat, no enclosed skywalk. She’d have trouble with that, anyway. She’d have been warm, but too warm. Sweaty at the image of girders cracking, purses, messenger bags, iPhones, and shoes raining into the river like an ironic plague, if gods are capable of irony—and any scrutiny of the news suggests, yes, they are: tax cuts for the rich to help the poor; wars waged in the name of peace.

She pictures it, this non-existent skywalk, crumbling under the weight of commuters, glass, and steel, flailing bodies plummeting into the deep, like the doomed revelers crowding a skywalk at that hotel tea dance in Kansas City back in 1981. Once, at a party in Chicago, Simone had met a tea dance survivor. The survivor had married the lawyer who’d won her case and put 500 miles between herself and Kansas City. Maybe she thought distance would keep her safe.

* * *

Simone hates working Christmas Eve, but it will keep her mind off wondering if Maddy will be home for the holiday, and if she is, where she will stay. With Simone? With Bennett? An old friend? She hasn’t seen Maddy for a year, except for the occasional Instagram photo. Bennett says Maddy won’t answer her calls because Maddy doesn’t want to hear her mother’s voice crack into a sob.

Simone thinks enough time has passed since Maddy’s baby died that she, like Bennett, will be able to talk instead of weep. They might discuss Maddy’s new job as a ski instructor. And Simone’s … what? Her monthly volunteer shift at the animal shelter? Her new collection of single-serving recipes? She wouldn’t blame Maddy for staying with Bennett, who always has dazzling underwater photos from his snorkeling trips.

A long walk still stretches ahead. It isn’t yet 9 o’clock, so most panhandlers aren’t at their stations. The morning shift is different from the evening, when one fearless soul sits mid-bridge on an orange bucket, drumming away at a white bucket, calling out news commentary or insults between riffs. A third bucket is reliably full of cash; it allowed him to move up and add a real cymbal last summer. But he’s been missing lately. Perhaps he’d traded even higher up, to a job, food, and shelter—out of the wind and snow.

Or perhaps he’d slid into the river. One fate was as likely as another.

On the far side of the bridge is an early bird, a regular whose cardboard now reads HELP ME MAKE IT THRU THE DAY. She’s been at her post three years. At first, she sported office finery and a jaunty beret, and kept a stack of resumes under a plastic cover. Her sign was hopeful then: HELP ME FIND A JOB, with a reference to work experience and her name, Carol Ames. She’d been well-coifed and cheerful, with an older sister-ish resemblance to Illinois’ first black senator, who was also named Carol. Though the resemblance wasn’t something to flaunt since Carol 1 had been shamed for cozying up to a Nigerian dictator. But, hey, nobody’s perfect, and even less so in politics.

Her own boss is a so-called political reformer. His biggest flaw is petty greed. He’ll split a lunch bill with Simone, say $15 each. Then he charges the whole meal to his contributors with a campaign credit card. He pockets Simone’s $15 as profit. One day he came up short at a Starbucks and raided the barista’s tip jar to buy his java while Simone cringed. Still, that theft was small change. And he doesn’t consort with Nigerian dictators.

Would her boss give someone like Carol 2 a handout or an interview? One passerby surely must work in human resources, have the power to help. Carol 2’s signs have become less ambitious, don’t mention work, just ask for cash, and now, plead for help. HELP ME. HELP ME MAKE IT THRU THE DAY.

Simone doesn’t mine her pocket for a dollar or a dime. The wind stings her eyeballs. She lowers them and hurries for the next shelter. It’s still a block away and just one-third of the way to her office. Simone does a quick calculation. If she uses every lobby on her route, she’ll be inside nearly half the time, just enough to make it tolerable.

She stifles any regret over stiffing Carol 2. She has an excuse because, now, she has her own panhandler. She catches him most days, or he catches her, on the return commute. He’s in a wheelchair on a corner near the Metra train station, cardboard propped on his lap. He calls out, “Help the handicapped,” like a street vendor. Simone can’t say why she picked him for her very own panhandler. She did break an ankle one winter and spent months hopping behind a walker, cursing the tilted sidewalks. So, maybe it’s empathy. Or maybe it’s fear. Or both, thus this offering, this bribe, to the god of broken bones. Please accept this change and spare me from falling down the stairs, ever again.

She’s relieved when her Wheelie guy is at the same spot at the same hour. Having her own beggar lets her off the hook each time she passes another. She gives the Wheelie guy bills. She gives a fistful of change, avoiding a glance at the coins. If she knew their value she might feel guilty for giving too little, or get an urge to give less and shove her hand back in her coat.

One dusk, she gave him a pricey chocolate bar from Hannah’s Bretzel, sick with guilt over spending so much on Vosges squares in a hungry world. She felt beneficent, bestowing fine chocolate on someone who—what?—should only expect Hershey’s from life?

Next time she saw him, Simone asked if he’d liked it.

“Yes,” Wheelie said. “It was good. I ate it on the bus on the way home.”

Where was home? A shelter? The underside of a viaduct? She tried to not picture him boarding the bus in his chair, riding the lift like a sack of goods in a warehouse while other people waited, staring impatiently. She shuddered, shaking off the images like a dog shaking off water.

Today, inoculated against guilt, she passes the Civic Opera where a twenty-something with dirty-blonde hair is folded into herself behind a cardboard sign: I JUST NEED MONEY TO GET HOME. It was always home. Never, Iowa. Never, Palatine or 87th Street.

Did they all really want to go home? Not the vagrant in her compartment last week, begging for train money. Simone had handed him an extra ticket. He looked at his palm with quiet revulsion, as if it held a turd or a cockroach. Perhaps he’d never seen a Metra ticket before. Home was an excuse, a code. More polite to invoke than money.

But surely, they all want some kind of home. Someplace warm, with someone to love. Maybe a different home than the one they left.

Simone shields her face with her hood and scuttles past Blondie. She crosses Wacker Drive for her favorite refuge, the UBS Building. A block-long vestibule, its glass walls are lined with flowerpots, blooms changing with the seasons. Today there are poinsettias, of course. It is Christmas Eve.

Each time she passes through, she admires the architecture: round steel beams punctuating the glass panes; grooved marble floors to prevent skidding; brushed nickel bannisters cool beneath her fingers. A solitary silver wreath adorns the glinting marble elevator shaft. Simone smiles at the idea of a wreath. She could have hung one on the door. She hasn’t had a tree for—what?—two Christmases? Since Bennett took the lift-back in the divorce.

Here at UBS, she would like to linger on a bench or chair, but it is a lobby built for egress, not leisure. So she enters one end and pops out the other, where warm air wafts up from vents fronting the revolving doors. She times her exit with the traffic light, synchronizes the passage across Franklin Street and darts into the PNC bank lobby, for another half-block’s protection.

The PNC guard, a short woman in a blue blazer says, “Hello,” as if Simone works there. What is feminine for guard? Guardette?

“Morning,” Simone nods, rounding a corner.

She takes a quick break at a pay phone counter, long without pay phones. Simone had felt like an intruder at PNC until she bought an overpriced egg-white wrap at its lobby coffee shop as a kind of rent for using the building. The way paying a shrink is like renting a place to cry, or a dollar in a beggar’s Bears cup is a toll to cross the sidewalk. Today she tugs off her gloves. Her hands are shaking. It could be the cold; it could be nerves. She slips her smartphone out of her coat and scrolls through her emails for a hint of Maddy’s plans. There isn’t one. There are 1,252 steps on her pedometer.

PNC is the half-way point to work, and has helped her escape the one panhandler she loathes, the Rover. He strides the pavement bellowing, “Happy Tuesday,” and “Watch your step” with surprising anger. His “Happy Tuesday” is a challenge. Is she happy? How dare she be happy? “Watch your step,” is a dare; she might trip and fall.

One summer night, Simone left a meeting late. The stretch from her office to the train was desolate and dark. Commuters had gone, vacationers were at the lake. She hurried through the vacant in-between. Then he was there, the Rover, coming at her out of a lobby. “Happy Tuesday,” he demanded, and flung his arm out, shoving a cup at Simone and rattling his change. His voice was sharp, nasal. He planted himself in front of her, forcing Simone to dodge him. But he kept at her, “Hey, Happy Tuesday. Hey, hey you, help me out.”

That night, he was wearing the grimy blue mechanic’s jumpsuit he wears all year. He doesn’t dress for weather, maybe generating his own heat with movement and rage. He seems combustible. If she refuses him, Simone imagines he’ll explode.

So she avoids him in PNC. Warm now, she exits and a train clatters overhead. She raises gloved hands to her ears. She is going deaf, and blames the trains. In restaurants, she hears a whiney background hum, but not what people say. She tried to be clear with the otorhinolaryngologist—as if he were a mechanic—so he could tune her up like a car.

“My head won’t stop buzzing,” Simone said.

“Tinnitus,” said the O-doc.

“But my skull is like a fluorescent bulb that’s not fully on,” she said.

“Well, mine is like cicadas.” He lifted his chin in challenge. Meaning, So what. Live with it.

It’s gotten worse. Loud noise hurts. The screech of brakes on the rails. Sirens. Even the whoosh of forced air. She hunches her shoulders and muffles her ears, but no one else recoils. She presses her tragus closed—the pointed eminence over the entrance to the ear, according to a Snapple bottle cap. Nearly everyone else is plugged into music, or marching forward, oblivious. Those who aren’t must have tougher eardrums, like the chubby, bearded panhandler who parks a padded folding chair under the Brown Line tracks each morning, unperturbed.

She crosses under the train to 181 W. Madison. She rarely enters its half-block lobby, but the wind bites. Today the lobby’s transformed from a stern, empty rectangle into a room-sized railroad with a train. A bunny rabbit engineer is pulling four child-sized cars and a red caboose stuffed with ribboned packages. A timetable announces holiday rides. Simone wonders what size or gauge to call something that big, nearly big enough for her. Bennett would know. She can’t ask the receptionist, who is steadfastly looking past her at the slowly chugging engine and its magical passengers: elves and teddy bears. Her granddaughter would be just about the right age to ride that train, if she’d lived. She’d be a toddler, eyes wide in wonder at the nodding puppets and fairies.

Simone turns the corner into a hidden passageway and then dashes out a door opposite 110 N. LaSalle. She thinks of Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, escaping death when he takes a secret short-cut to avoid the rain at lunch.

She’s avoiding two likable vagrants: a weathered Vietnam Vet, and Gospel Girl. Vietnam Vet holds a frayed cardboard asking for medical funds. A worthy cause, but isn’t that the VA’s job? Her father was a vet and got top-notch care. This isn’t a state with a two-year wait. She should mention the VA to Vietnam Vet, but hasn’t bothered.

Gospel Girl sells Streetwise, a bi-weekly that loosely employs the homeless. It’s $2 a pop. The company sells the papers to the vendors, who keep their own take. Gospel belts out her pitch in a warm alto singsong: “Streetwii-iise, Streetwii-iise.” She’s sung in a choir somewhere, you can tell. She has a big girl’s big strong lungs.

Gospel and Vietnam remind Simone of those sad footnotes to films “based on” real stories. Like Renoir’s muse, who went from silent screen star to death in obscurity. Or the “Big Eyes” art impostor Walter Keane, dying in poverty.

Except Gospel Girl is young enough for the other story, to go from urchin to star like Edith Piaf. To claw her way up from hunger to fame. Simone reassures herself with that possibility. Even if she doesn’t buy a paper, Gospel Girl might be saved.

And now, after a walk through the block-long Bank One, she averts her eyes from the Chagall mosaic on Madison. That’s where she was eating a burrito when the text message came with an ultrasound photo of her grandchild. Luckily she’d printed it out. Just days later, she lost the phone. That was seven months before the baby reached full term. Seven months of shopping for organic mattresses and onesies. Seven months of debate with Bennett over what the baby would call them. Grandma and Grandpa? Nanna and Poppa? Seven months of picturing afternoons at the beach, a chubby-chinned baby in a sun-hat digging a hole to China with a plastic yellow shovel. Seven months before the baby died in childbirth.

Simone still has the ultrasound photo in her planner in her backpack. She hasn’t looked at it in months but feels better, knowing it’s there. Now she’s almost at work and feels smug about avoiding the weather. Nearing her vestibule, the pedometer registers 2,250 steps but least 1,000 were warm and inside.

She’s eluded so many panhandlers that she considers giving to the one-armed Streetwise vendor who is often at the door. Last time she bought his paper, he needed help putting the cash in his pocket.

“I only have one arm,” he apologized.

“I can see,” she said. “You’re doing a great job.” Was it the wrong thing to say? What’s the right thing to say to a man without a decent job or two hands to do it?

She doesn’t see One-Arm. She’s secretly thrilled he’s not there.

* * *

Her building is quiet. Are the Christians still shopping? A smattering of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews ride the elevator. In her mind, Simone chants: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews. Together they have a nice cadence. If only, in real life.

She pushes open the glass door that reads OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT COMPLIANCE. On the front counter, a plastic tree with garlands thick as Hawaiian leis hovers over the crooked candles of an electric menorah. Burt, the receptionist, says, “Merry Christmas, Simone,” from behind his collection of mugs from the annual Christkindlmarket in the plaza across the street. A dozen mugs in different shapes and hues dating back to 2001 line up like sentries guarding his computer. A burgundy mug in the shape of a teapot is from 2008; 2010 is an orange ceramic boot spackled with yellow stars and a wreath. Christmas Eve is the final day for the market, with its food huts and toy stalls.

“Merry Christmas, Burt.” Simone notes his frayed red Santa frock, his patchy beard of cotton balls.

“Any special Christmas plans, Simone?”

Simone hesitates. “Not really. My daughter’s so far away. What about you?”

“Going to Wisconsin to see my nephews if the roads aren’t too bad.” He sweeps one hand along his costume like a lovely game show assistant modeling a mink coat.

“I’m leaving from here,” he says.

“Will you give them this year’s mug?“

Burt lifts a tufted eyebrow. “I’m not sure if they haven’t been naughty, Simone. They’re not always nice to their old uncle.”

“Well, drive carefully, Burt.”

* * *

The phone rings twice all morning at her desk. First, a telemarketer for a cruise line. Then her boss, gloating from a poolside bar in Cancun. He can’t enjoy a vacation if he doesn’t make someone jealous.

“It’s 88 and sunny,” he baits her. “I’m drinking a giant Margarita.” He laughs his smug little laugh, mission accomplished, before he hangs up.

Annoyed, Simone puts aside her filing and cruises the Internet for festivity-turned-tragedy until lunch. Beside entries for the Kansas City tea party walkway collapse, she visits the S.S. Eastland disaster (844 factory workers drowned on a boat in Lake Michigan before a company picnic in 1915) and the Iroquois theater fire (602 victims, largely children, killed during the second act of Mr. Bluebeard in 1903). A party, a picnic, and a play—what lesson was there in that? To avoid activities beginning with P?

She clicks off the old news stories to check her boss’s email: an invitation to a panel on property tax abatements; a newsletter about education reform to distill into pithy bullets. Then a peek at her own email, hoping for Maddy’s name. It’s not there.

By lunchtime, the day is sunny. It’s not quite warm, but there’s the illusion of warmth. Simone quickly circles the booths of the Christkindlmarket. The crowd is buoyant, not worried over snipers in the belfry of the neighboring Methodist church, or City Hall’s corner roof garden. She blinks away her lethal thoughts and inhales aromas until she can’t distinguish between the strudel, the chocolate, and the cider. If the baby had lived, Simone would be buying trinkets: hand-painted angels, crystal snowflakes, stuffed pandas. She still has a box of unopened toys in her attic. Giving them away would be another death, killing her dreams.

* * *

Back inside she nibbles a sandwich between photocopying studies on “campaign finance” and, then, “government ethics.” Oxymoron is the tired joke, but it doesn’t seem funny today. She watches the copier’s light undulate below the glass and considers texting Bennett. Maybe he’s heard from Maddy. She hates the slowly ticking hours of uncertainty. What if she baked Maddy’s favorite cake, then had to eat it alone? The only gift she bought this Christmas is a Nikon camera wrapped in shiny red paper and a gold ribbon. It’s perched on the freshly made guest bed, in case Maddy shows up when Simone is asleep. The copier throws off heat, and leaning against it Simone feels the office chill at her back. The thermostat’s turned down; she should go.

It’s dark when she kills the lights and piles on her layers: sheepskin boots, fleece vest, wool scarf, down coat, knit hat. In the revolving door, her pack slips off and she hikes it up again. Outside, the quiet startles her. The Christmas tree still glimmers with giant green and blue baubles, looming over the plaza like a counterpoint to the enormous, drab Picasso. But Santa’s Village—the wooden shops of Christkindlmarket—is shuttered and bleak. She thought they’d be selling silver beer steins and miniature wooden sleighs all night. Instead, everyone has vanished.

She must be one of the last workers in the Loop. It’s a hushed walk to the train. But it’s a clear evening. Stars are already sparkling, perhaps the same stars that led three kings on their middle-eastern pilgrimage. Simone never learned enough astronomy to know. Where do kings sleep when there’s no room at the inn? Maybe they had already booked tents through some biblical Travelocity, or an advance team. They were only scouting the manger to make sure their quarters were better, first-century schadenfreude.

Simone’s in the gifting spirit now. Maybe she’ll give Wheelie an extra dollar. She tips her beautician; she tips the paperboy. Why not her beggar? She’s pleased with herself for remembering.

It’s milder than the morning, so she zig-zags west, racking up 1,500 extra steps. MB to PNC to UBS, an alphabet soup of office towers. At the bridge, between small ice floes, red and green lights quiver on the dark water. She’s the only one crossing, the only one to see the colors melt into the river. Then she spies a lump in the middle of the span, like someone’s dropped a coat. She can’t see clearly in the dark, but it seems to inflate.

A dark figure rises and unfolds itself. Her first thought, a vampire, but it’s just a man in a Santa hat. He looks familiar. He reminds her of something. Then, “Happy Wednesday! Watch your step! Happy Wednesday!”

The Rover.

She surveys the bridge, the snow-slicked ironwork between her and the far side. There’s no exit, except backward. Her momentum is forward so she power-walks on, tries to hurry past.

“Merry Christmas,” he blurts again, more assault than greeting, like an ice ball in the face. She feints right and he jerks, too—waving one arm like a point guard and leaning at her, his mouth spewing sour white puffs.

“Hey,” she says, “I’ve got to catch a train.” She lifts her arm across her forehead, a shield against his noxious cloud, his flailing hand.

“Merry Christmas,” he insists, thrusting a plastic soda glass at her chest. She sees more bills than change, and something striped, a candy cane.

Excuse me,” she says.

“But it’s Christmas,” he says, his mouth agape, more teeth gone than there.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” she says—as if the distinction matters—throwing out her arm and warning him off. Money jangles.

She settles her backpack and watches his cup fly up, dimes and quarters skittering down the bridge, rolling under the railing and into the river.

For an instant, Simone and the Rover both stare as if the coins might spin back, might defy gravity.

Then, “NO!” the Rover wails, long and loud. “NO!” His anguish is terrible, like a hungry baby torn from a bottle.

His NOs keep coming, thick with sobs, clogged with sputum.

His NOs echo down the canyon of buildings along the river: The Civic Opera, The Daily News, Boeing, Citicorp, General Growth. Simone doesn’t budge. She’s as scared as she’s sorry. But the echoes are eerily beautiful. A chorus of NOs. She thinks, This is where carolers should sing.

And then, what? He pushes her? Slides into her? Somehow they collide. But she can’t say who does what. He grabs at her pack. To steal it? For balance? He yanks and whips her around in a clumsy pirouette. Her knee buckles and her bad ankle gives way. With her pillowy layers, it hardly stings her bottom when she lands. But her cheek smacks the gritty ice, then vibrates as a truck thunders by.

Time lags while she cowers on the decking, eyes squeezed shut. She rolls onto her back on the chilly span, runs her tongue inside her mouth and tastes salt, dirt, and blood. When she looks up, it is starry, but flurries float on a gossamer breeze. No more echoes, no more wails. No Rover.

She pushes up to a sit. Her backpack is missing. She feels oddly peaceful. Yes, the Rover might have it, or it might be in the river, but she is not in the river. Her purse is strapped on, messenger bag-style. What was in the backpack, anyway? Scuffed shoes from 2002. A New Yorker without a cover. A paperback from the free shelf in the train station. Stained Tupperware. Pens from mortuaries that sheltered her dead: her stepfather in Wisconsin, a college roommate in Montreal, her infant granddaughter in Seattle. Then she remembers the ultrasound photo and blood rushes to her gut, a tidal wave of nausea.

Oh, she wants that photo as if it’s the actual baby, and a hot tear, searing in the chill, slinks down her cheek. There’s a random cascade through her brain: Of course three kings would kneel before a baby swaddled in a bed of straw. If only her granddaughter with her rosy, serious brow, her perfect, tiny ears, had the power of resurrection. Why is one miracle too much to ask when a child is one breath away from death?

At that, she hears voices. A train or a bus pulls in across the bridge. Simone grasps the barrier and gets to her knees. They are wet and cold with slush. A young couple trots up. “Are you all right?” He is wearing a Blackhawks jacket; carrot-nosed snowmen do a can-can across her red scarf. They grab her elbows and lift.

“I’m OK,” Simone says, sweeping snow and muck off her arms.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” Their eyes glitter in the dark; a gust of flurries spin around them.

“I’ll be fine,” Simone says. “I’m just fine.”

“Well.” He looks at his girl, who nods. “Be careful, then.”

“Oh, and your friend dropped this.” Blackhawk smiles and hands her something. Her hat.

Her friend, what friend? The Rover? Had they seen him? How could they think he was her friend?

A pain spikes her arm, elbow to shoulder. Simone winces, tries to smile. “Thank you so much.”

They pause to be sure, courteous. Then, “Merry Christmas.” They wave as they walk away, disappearing into a lacy veil of snowflakes.

Simone clutches her hat, then unfolds it. A wet fifty-dollar bill is crumpled inside. Was it the Rover’s stash? Did they just scoop it off the bridge by chance? Or was it charity? Did she look like a beggar? Her scalp goes fiery with humiliation. She tugs at her zipper to cool off. She shoves the fifty in her pocket and unties her scarf, lets the wind soothe her neck. Fifty dollars. Well, she could replace the backpack. After-Christmas sales start Friday. Or she might look for Wheelie. She wishes him onto his evening bus, on his way home. Home, to a clear front walk with a ramp up the stairs to a wide oak door.

* * *

Inside, finally, in the women’s room, Simone wets a paper towel and wipes at the grime on her coat. How odd that the pedometer is still clamped to her pocket, but she doesn’t check the number. She stands at the same sink where a homeless girl completes her toilette most mornings. Curling iron, makeup kit, toothbrush—the girl pulls them from a cloth grocery bag and uses them in turn. Once, when Simone peed after an early train, the homeless girl was snoring in the adjacent stall, red Chinese slippers on her feet.

After she smears off the worst streaks, Simone finds a seat in the waiting room. It’s toasty warm. At the next table, two women—one caramel-colored, one a pasty white—grouse about Christmas.

The white woman says, “I know they used to be my in-laws, but seriously, why can’t they see the boys Christmas Day instead? They know my family is a Christmas Eve family. I swear, they do it just to spite me. Screw them. Next year, I’m taking my kids to Mexico for the whole Christmas break.”

Her friend says, “Why not Jamaica?” She has a Caribbean accent.

The women have shopping bags from Macy’s, The Gap, Nordstrom, H&M. They brim with boxes and red tissue paper. While she eavesdrops, Simone grips the fifty in her pocket. If she could just get up and look outside, she knows she’d find Wheelie and make his day. “Ho, ho, ho,” she pictures saying, and her lips twitch into a smile.

The intercom crackles with a garbled announcement. The BOARDING sign starts flashing at her train’s gate. She fights a swell of exhaustion. It’s 32 steps up the stairs to the platform and home; it’s 32 steps back outside, to Wheelie’s corner.

Simone is weary, cozy, and dry. To her house or to Wheelie, out in the cold? BOARDING, BOARDING flickers in red lights. Her eyelids droop while the women complain. She’s weary of walking to work, tired of the baby being dead, tired of missing Maddy. She tries to envision the ultrasound photo and then, Maddy’s Instagram smile. The women fade to a murmur but words break through: Aruba, wiener schnitzel, Cabbage Patch dolls. Now they are laughing, one with a Jamaican lilt. She could sit here and listen all night.

Gail Siegel’s Comments

I’ve worked in various parts of the Chicago Loop for 30 years and I’m always seeing something I want to put into a story—because it’s beautiful or sad or I simply don’t want to forget it. As a woman who has suffered terrible losses, Simone became a lens through which I could see elements of urban life (holidays, loneliness, homelessness, death, hostile weather, futile work, and menacing architecture) in a particular, cohesive way. Like many of us, Simone has to keep moving just to endure her familiar tragedies. The landmarks (human and not) provide a kind of discourse for her, even in the absence of much dialogue. However painful the story may feel, “Commuting” is also something of a love song to Chicago.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 45 | Spring 2015