The Woman of Belden Avenue by Michael Welch

When I was growing up my family lived in a four-story apartment building on Belden Avenue. We could see the Blue Line from our kitchen window and felt it wherever we were – in bed, on the toilet, the apartment shook from the rumbling of passing trains. The first floor of the building was a butcher shop owned by an old Polish man. On Mondays it made the apartment smell nice, but by the end of the week it reeked of rotting kielbasa and ogórek konserwowy.

The window in my room overlooked the alley and another apartment building. On Sundays, Jimmy from the floor below me would come over and we’d throw things out the window. All week we collected whatever we could find in the streets: stones and bottle caps, a few empty bottles and once, a bullet casing in the bushes. When Jimmy visited he upturned his pockets onto my bed to show me his stash for the week.

“We got a strong wind coming from the lake today,” Jimmy said, licking his finger and sticking it into the air as if to confirm.

We wanted to hit the window directly across from the alley. A young woman lived there. Usually the light blue curtains were drawn, but on Sunday afternoons she opened them to reveal to us a small glimpse of her world. A lamp sat on her desk, lighting up the stenciled flowers on cream walls. There was a painting on an easel in the corner, but it always faced away from us. I wondered if she was painting her surroundings – cramped lines of brick buildings with their small patches of overgrown crabgrass and the rusted steel of the elevated L line. I imagined the room smelling like lavender or the detergent my mom used to make the laundry smell fresh and clean.

She always wore a dress when she opened the curtains. I figured she’d just come from church. Jimmy and I would watch as she undressed. Taking a step to her right, we only caught glimpses of her – dirty blond hair ruffled by her fingers or the bare skin of her back. Once we saw her shoulder blade. I thought I loved her, although I was too young to know what love was. At school, Jimmy and I still spat at the girls for having cooties. But the woman in the window was like art drawn before our eyes.

Jimmy always took the first shot. He could throw farther than me, as his father taught him a number of pitches. His father had been a minor league pitcher for the Tennessee Smokies, a left-handed hurler with a wicked slider. Jimmy used to brag about how his dad would one day make it to the big leagues and play under the lights at Wrigley Field. But one day Jimmy stopped mentioning him entirely. I never asked why. I learned later, after the two of us drifted apart, that his father was serving 12 years for a drunk driving accident that killed a kid. The man had been an alcoholic the entire time and had even thrown shutouts with a buzz. I guess people never realize until it’s too late.

Jimmy’s shots reached the garbage can at the foot of the apartment while mine arched high in the air before crashing to the gravel below. Bottle caps were too light and were usually taken by the wind. Stones worked better, but their size and shape mattered. Jimmy chose large dull stones and I preferred ones with irregular shapes. Sometimes we got running starts from the door and launched them like shot putters. Other times we practiced our fastball or flung them like a Frisbee. We never once reached her window.

The curtain closed after two hours each Sunday, meaning we would not see her for another whole week. Jimmy would pick up whatever he hadn’t thrown that day one by one and drop it into his jacket pockets. We were quiet when the curtain closed, forlorn even.

“We should build a launcher,” Jimmy said, “like in the batting cages.”

The next day he drew up plans for one, a scribbling mess of complicated lines, figures, and fake formulas. But by Sunday we were back to throwing our stones, hoping our arms had gotten stronger since the last time.

Usually she was alone. But for a short time when she opened the curtain there was a man with her. He always wore a jacket with a hood and glasses that he took off his face and wiped on his shirt almost every ten minutes or so. The first time we saw him Jimmy aimed a screw at his head. It hit the brick just below the window, which was the closest either of us ever got. The first few times the man just sat on her bed and turned his head as she changed. I burned with jealousy. I told Jimmy that I hated him.

Once she did not change after she took off her dress. We watched through a thick veil of snowflakes as they embraced against the wall, seeing for the first and only time her bare body. Her back was pressed to the wall and her breasts were hidden against his chest. Then they closed the curtains, leaving us silent and confused. The next day Jimmy kissed Dee Gordon on the school steps, opening his mouth wide like the man in the window.

The last time we saw the man he was a bright shade of red and yelling at the woman. She didn’t change out of her dress. Their bodies were close but stiff, fists clenched. He was saying something while she listened with her teeth clenched. The man stood tall in front her. Jimmy and I watched quietly, trying to read their lips. I gasped for air, realizing I’d been holding my breath.

The woman turned to switch on the lamp. The man took a glass from the desk and threw it against the wall. It shattered at the center of one of the flower, water dripping from its petals. Then he left.

This was the first time I saw violence like that. Violence against someone you love. Sure, it was happening a lot in the neighborhood, and when I walked down the street at dinnertime I commonly heard men and women screaming about money and sex, sometimes with babies crying in the background. But the violence was always locked behind closed doors, hidden from view. I felt ashamed watching it. I tried to look away but realized I couldn’t.

The woman in the window was still. She looked down at her feet. Then, without looking up, she closed the curtain.

After that we decided we didn’t want to throw things at her anymore. The curtain stayed closed for almost three months. After the first few Sundays of waiting, Jimmy stopped coming over. I started to read more and focused my attention on school, while Jimmy began staying out later. He’d play pickup baseball games until the field lights turned off for the night. My parents had lived in the area all their lives and knew better than to let me join. My mother told me that nothing good ever happens in Chicago after 10pm. My father was robbed at gunpoint when he was in school for a pair of shoes he bought with his Christmas money. He forgave his hometown, but he never forgot. Our apartment had two locks on the front door, all of which were locked by dinner.

“Any updates?” Jimmy would ask when I passed him at school.

I lay in bed and watched every Sunday, waiting for it to open. I felt empty without her. Whenever the El rumbled by I turned to the window to check. I wondered if I’d even be happy when the curtain opened again. I wanted more than to just see her in the window; I needed her know name or hear her voice. Eventually I began walking past the door of her apartment building, debating if I should buzz. I always thought better of it, instead stopping by the corner store to buy a pack of gum.

Then on a Thursday night the curtain opened. The woman’s hair was now red, the bruised-colored bags under her green eyes seeming to darken them. She turned to her easel and began to paint.

She didn’t close the curtain. The next day she wrote a letter at her desk, so I set a pen and a piece of paper on my windowsill and pretended we were writing to each other. When she had a glass of water I went to the kitchen sink and filled a cup, waiting first for the rust to run through. Sometimes she began to cry and then I too was joining her.

“Any updates?” Jimmy asked me at school.

Jimmy and I had stopped talking after the man left. At school he ignored me, choosing instead to hang out with the older kids who smoked stolen cigarettes under the stands of the baseball diamond. There were rumors that one of them was armed and another was in the process of joining a gang. So when Jimmy asked, I felt like I was talking to a stranger.

“Yeah,” I said.

That Sunday Jimmy knocked on my door. He upturned his pockets and lined up four stones. The woman was changing out of her dress, her shoulder in view of the window.

“We got a soft wind coming from the west today,” Jimmy said, lining up his first shot.

“I thought we weren’t doing this anymore,” I said.

Jimmy didn’t answer. The first stone sailed too high. The second hit the brick a floor below. The same for the third and fourth.

“You’re out of stones,” I was relieved.

“One more try,” he said.

Jimmy reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a convincing plastic pistol with an orange-tipped barrel. I had never seen it before. Jimmy had a cold look in his eye. He loaded a single pellet into the BB gun. Then he shot.

The pellet hit the window. The woman turned quickly, the shirt she was holding in her hands barely covered her breasts. We met eyes for the first time. I expected her to be angry or scared, but after a short wave of confusion her face looked blank. I felt like an animal being watched in a cage, and I assumed she did too. Shame swept over me. I wanted to mouth that I loved her. She reached for the curtains and closed them for good.

Michael Welch is the winner of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ Florence Kahn Memorial Award and the author of the chapbook, ‘But Sometimes I Remember.’ His work has appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Litro Magazine, Mangrove Literary Journal, South 85 Journal, Welter, and Black Heart Magazine’s DISARM Anthology.