by Leslie Fish
Chicago was not a town that Duncan MacLeod liked to live in, or liked to visit, or liked at all. The weather was miserable, the air stank of pollution and dead fish, and the city’s legendary political corruption was even worse in reality than in legend. Besides, there were a few nasty old memories here that he’d just as soon not rake up again.
Nothing short of the Dubois estate sale could have brought him here again, but that had turned out to be worth it. The Dubois family’s Victorian furniture and glassware were treasure enough, but the great-grandfather’s collection of Chippewa Indian relics were the real prize. Duncan fondly remembered old Robert Dubois showing him that collection, 70 years before, while swearing that it would remain in the family as long as he had anything to say about it, thank you. Well, old Robert was gone, and his great-grandson had died without issue, and now the items were set out for sale on a single table, already priced. Duncan merely opened his checkbook, offered ten thousand for the entire contents of the table, and had the sale-director practically kissing his feet.
Only when the workmen were — very carefully, as directed — packing everything in the shipping crates did Duncan notice something odd among the treasures. It was a small wooden box, carved with imitation-Indian designs — which was probably how it had wound up in the display with the other items — but to Duncan’s expert eye clearly not authentic Chippewa work. He took the box from the table and moved off to the less-crowded kitchen of the old brownstone mansion to study the oddity in private.
The lid was stuck on by years of slow warping rather than any latch, and a moment’s work pried it off. Inside lay a jumble of small items that took Duncan several minutes to sort out and identify. There was an honest-to-god rabbit’s foot, an authentic Crackerjack tin whistle, a watch-fob concealing a sepia-toned photograph of a pretty girl with the bobbed hair and cloche hat of a ‘20s flapper — interesting but not terribly valuable memorabilia of old Robert’s childhood…
…and a political button.
Duncan flinched as he recognized it. The button was much smaller than modern-day button-pins: maybe half an inch across. It wasn’t made, like modern ones, of a sheet of printed plastic clenched over stamped aluminum or tin, but was truly enameled brass. The device on it, in simple black and red, was a half-globe surmounted by three stars and three capital letters.
Duncan let out a long breath as his thumb unconsciously stroked back and forth over the button, wondering how on Earth a rich man’s son like old Robert had laid hands on such a thing. Those buttons were given or sold only to members of the old union — certified members of the Working Class — which Robert had certainly not been…
He might have been a secret sympathizer, Duncan considered. We did get a few large grants from anonymous donors. Could it be…?
Duncan thoughtfully closed the box and shoved it into a coat-pocket. Almost of their own volition, his hands rose and pinned the button on the back of his coat’s lapel — where it wouldn’t be seen unless he deliberately flipped his lapel to reveal it. Remarkable how that old habit returned so easily.
As if the button were an amulet, its power released by touching it, Duncan felt a nagging urge to do some quick research. He found his way to the telephone, searched for a moment, and found the white-paged phonebook sitting under it. His hands turned to the “I” section.
Yes, the listing was there: Industrial Workers of the World, 1423 Howard Street, Chicago. That wasn’t the old address, but he had a rough idea where it was. He remembered that the small street flanked a park, just off Halsted Avenue. Strange how the old memories came back.
It wouldn’t hurt to go and look, just for old times’ sake.
Duncan left some last instructions about the shipping, went out to his car and drove down Halsted Avenue until he found the right neighborhood, and the right street. Most of the buildings here were old, recognizable in style, enough to make the memories twinge.
The new IWW office was actually in a newer shop-front building, probably put up in the ‘50s. Through the large front window — Lord, the union could never have afforded such windows in the old days — he could see a cluttered office. The front area was lined with bookshelves, and behind a long break-front cabinet full of pamphlets he could see a working-office area where a muscular middle-aged man pored over a ledger.
On the left-hand wall hung a painting that made Duncan gasp as he recognized it. It was the portrait of Joe Hill, painted by the long-ago prizefighter, Max Baer. That hadn’t changed.
Almost as if hypnotized, Duncan opened the door and walked in.
The front room, now that he could see all of it, also sported an old couch, a reading table and a coffee-machine. It smelled of paper and mimeograph ink; the union headquarters still used mimeograph. Belatedly, Duncan realized that a small bell was still ringing. A glance back showed that the bell was attached to the lintel of the door-frame, hung so as to pull and ring when the door opened — just as shops had used 70 years ago.
“Can I help you?” asked the burly man behind the break-front.
All that Duncan could think to say was: “Uh, I’m an antiques dealer.” The moment the words were out of his mouth, he realized how ridiculous that sounded.
“Ah, you must be here about the Lenin autograph,” the man smiled. “Hello. My name’s Mike Hardis — and no jokes about ‘hard-ass’.”
He held out a hand for a brief shake. Duncan noticed that the hand was heavily callused, more like that of a steelworker than a clerk. The old union had always elected its officers, and most of them were heavy laborers. Duncan mumbled through the standard greetings, feeling as if time were shifting under his feet.
“We found it when we finally opened that old safe that we’d been hauling around so long,” Hardis went on, reaching into a heavy steel file-cabinet. “We figure one of the guys who went to Russia in the ‘20s must have brought it back. Here.”
On the break-front’s top he set out an old leather-bound volume with the title, in Russian characters, embossed in gold lettering. Hardis’ steelworker fingers opened the book as carefully as if he were a brain-surgeon, displaying the title page. Duncan could make out the words “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx — and below them, written in an unmistakable hand, was the signature of Nikolai Lenin.
“So, what’s the estimate, d’ye think?” Hardis asked.
“$2500, easily,” Duncan admitted. “Don’t take less.”
“Right,” the man grinned, showing a couple of well-made false teeth. “That’s what the other guy said. D’you want to bid on it, or broker the sale?”
“I hadn’t planned either, but I’ll think about it.” Duncan handed him a card. “Keep me in mind, if nobody else can do you justice.” He couldn’t help adding: “Do you have anything else that you’d like me to look at?”
Hardis laughed. “Nothing that’s for sale, but you might give us an estimate anyway. C’mon.” He waved Duncan around the break-front and led him past the file-cabinets to the back room.
Duncan bit back a yelp of recognition as he looked around him. The mimeograph was no more than 20 years old, but the tall wooden composing desks were strikingly familiar. So was the hand-cranked adding machine. So was the ancient typesetter’s cabinet, now used to store booklets. He recognized the booklets; the union’s constitution probably hadn’t changed in 70 years, either.
He also recognized the ancient address-plate maker, its Victorian filigree a little worn but still visible. The patent date — 1893 — was likewise visible. The only change was that the treadle appeared to be rusted in place, and a small electric motor sat on it now. He remembered the chore of working that treadle with his foot. The old memories were sweeping down on him like a Chicago blizzard, and he barely got out the words to say that these were specialty items, probably of interest only to a museum, which wouldn’t pay very much.
“What the hell,” Hardis shrugged, leading him back out into the front office. “We’ll keep ‘em as long as they’re still working. We don’t waste nothing.”
“Nothing at all,” Duncan murmured, feeling slightly unreal. He glanced at the Joe Hill portrait as he passed it. The long-dead martyr’s eyes seemed to watch him, amused at his confusion.
He heard the front door’s bell ring again, and a man came in, whistling softly. Duncan flinched as he recognized the tune.
Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.
He also recognized the whistle.
…It can’t be…
“Hey, Joe!” Hardis called to the new guest, moving past Duncan. “How ya doin’? Want some coffee?”
“Nye, nye,” said a dry, crisp, OLD voice. “Thee doctohrs say my blud-pressure is too high. Chust some dee-caff, if you got?”
Dear Lord, it IS him!
“Sure thing.” Hardis lumbered away to the coffee-machine, clearing the path to the couch.
Duncan found his feet taking him there without waiting for his brain to engage.
The man sitting on the couch was small and wizened and old, very old, but the wrinkled hands that clasped the cane between his knees were still huge, big-knuckled and strong. Duncan would have recognized those hands, even if he hadn’t recognized the still-merry sharp blue eyes.
Joe Vlad. He must be in his 90s by now…
Too late, he realized that those blue eyes were fixed on him. And they recognized him.
For a measureless moment he looked at the old man, who looked at him, and prayed that the sight of him wouldn’t give the man a fatal heart-attack right there.
Then Hardis brought the cup, which the old man took, and strode back to his desk and ledger. “Sorry I can’t stop to rap with ya just now,” he apologized, “But I gotta get the dues-reports finished.”
The old man simply nodded, not taking his eyes off Duncan. Finally he reached out with his other hand and patted the couch beside him. “Dooncahn,” he said calmly. “Long time, no see. Coome, sit.”
“You two know each other?” Hardis raised his head in surprise, pen paused in his big hand.
“Antiques…” Duncan mumbled.
“Hah. Anoather eight years, I be a certified antique mineself. Sit, sit.”
Hardis went back to his ledger, and Duncan could think of nothing to do but come and sit on the couch beside the old man.
“Uh, I think you have me confused with someone else… my grandfather, perhaps,” Duncan tried, keeping his voice down.
“Dooncahn’s grendsohn would not heve recognized ME.” The old man smiled wickedly, revealing yellowed but original teeth. “Coome, I em used to marvels. I am Hungarian, em I not?”
“Well, no one could mistake that accent,” Duncan smiled despite himself.
“Also — mine big secret — I em wrong-side-of-blenket descendant of Vlad the Impaler, remember?”
“Uh…” Duncan vaguely remembered Joe Vlad, a much younger Joe Vlad, telling him that one night over his 16th or 17th beer. “I…heard that story.”
“Aye. End you know what they say about mine famous encestor, no? What his title was?”
“I’ve heard the legends, of course…”
“Say the word. Dracula.”
Duncan only shook his head, afraid of where this was going.
“So, es I said, I em used to marvels.” The old man smiled keenly. “I see you walk about in sunlight, end I always saw you drink beer, not blud.”
“No, I’m not that,” Duncan shivered, and surrendered. “I’m… I think my kind might be the origin of the legend of elves.”
“Eh, thet’s a much prettier legend.” Joe Vlad grinned. “So, what you been up to, these lest sefenty years?”
Duncan shrugged. “Running around trying to right wrongs, as always. The Resistance in World War Two, smaller things since. Got into the antiques business. Found a good woman…”
“Ah. She heve nice tits?”
“Joe! …Damn, you always were a tit-man…” Duncan couldn’t help smiling.
“Oh yes!” The old man grinned, twice as wickedly as before. “There’s this one gerl in the local, nice blue eyes, hes these really great tits. I got to squeeze them et the New Year’s party, end they’re real all right. You stick around, meybe you meet her.”
Duncan shook his head, laughing. Joe Vlad would probably grab the nurses’ breasts on his deathbed. “I can’t stay. I was just in town on business, and dropped in to see how the old union was doing.”
“Well, we lost our lest big chob-shop in 1947, but we heve lots of small ones. We got big influx of new members in ‘60s end ‘70s — kids greteful to see thet they could live to grow old end not sell out. We orgenize shops no other union will touch. We got more Directive Bargaining Orders out of NLRB then eny other union in the country. We survive. We lest. Soon enough we be needed again, big-time.”
“I believe it.” Duncan looked around him at the enduring — and working — testaments to the past. “It’s good to know that… some things last.”
“Other then yourself, you mean?” The old man smiled with such sympathy that it made Duncan shiver, and took a long leisurely drink from his cup. “Eh, in chust 92 years I see the world chenge so much… I cen imechine what is like for you. You how old now?”
There was no point in lying. “Nearly 400.”
Joe Vlad barely raised an eyebrow. “In all thet chenge, what you see thet lests?”
Duncan shivered again. The old man always did have an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of anything. “Not much,” he admitted, “And…that scares me. Tell me, you wily old goat, what have YOU seen that lasts?”
“Love,” Vlad said. “Not chust for big tits, either. Ideals — which is why I em still with union for sefenty years. Art… You know, thet big-titted woman writes songs, like Choe Hill did. These things lest, Dooncahn. You hold on to them.”
Duncan only bowed his head. He couldn’t think of anything to say. The old man patted his knee, then reached for his cane.
“I no cen stay long,” he apologized. “I heve a stroke not too long ego, end the doctohrs sey I must teke it easy. I get home early for supper now.”
Duncan hastened to help the old man to his feet. The body felt light as crumpled paper, but his grip was still as strong as iron. Joe waved a cheerful farewell and shuffled to the door, whistling as he went: “Solidarity Forever” again.
Duncan’s memory supplied the words of verses never found in modern-day songbooks:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong.
Around a living marvel like Joe Vlad, in this office where the antiques worked — and walked — it was easy to believe that.
Duncan tried to remember all seven verses of that song, and found the words coming back easily. Still, he thought, he should buy the latest edition of the Little Red Songbook — the union’s consistent bestseller for the past half-century — just to keep the words fresh in his mind. Not to mention Joe Hill’s classic, “The Preacher and the Slave”…
The sudden sound of a chair being shoved back drew his startled attention to Hardis. The man was lunging to his feet, with his face gone pale as snow. “Oh, shit!” Hardis gasped. “I just remembered–“
“Was there something you wanted to ask him?” Duncan guessed, getting to his feet. “He couldn’t have gone far.”
“Gone far…” Hardis gulped, then turned wide eyes on Duncan. “You saw him too?”
“Saw?” This made no sense. “I was just talking to him. What do you mean, saw him?”
Hardis drew a deep breath, visibly calming himself. “Exactly what did you see, and hear?” he asked carefully.
“Well, Joe Vlad — telling me how the union’s been doing. Why?”
“Oh, shit.” Hardis fell back in his chair, which creaked alarmingly. “It’s true. The place is haunted.”
Hardis pulled another several breaths, and then recited: “Joe Vlad has been coming in here every couple of days for the past 20…maybe 30 years. He always sits on the couch and has a cup of coffee, stays awhile, then leaves. I’ve heard other folks say he shows up at the meetings of the local, whenever they’re held here. Everybody’s so used to seeing him that nobody thinks twice about it… until after he’s gone. We even give him coffee — or decaf — and the cup always empties…” Hardis’ voice began to shiver, and he stopped.
“Drop the other shoe,” Duncan snapped, worried at the man’s reactions. “What’s so strange about that?”
For answer, Hardis got up again and walked around the break-front. He paused briefly to cast a nervous glance at the painting of Joe Hill, then came over to the table and looked very deliberately at the coffee-cup sitting on it. He shivered visibly.
“What’s weird about it is… Joe Vlad died three years ago. Of a stroke. We all attended his funeral, at Waldheim Cemetery. And he still comes in here every few days, and nobody ever realizes that he shouldn’t be here until after he’s gone. I swear, I never believed in ghosts before I worked here. Now I’ve got no choice.”
Duncan opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked into the cup and saw that it was almost empty. He distinctly remembered seeing Hardis fill that cup. He knew that he hadn’t drunk any of it.
The feeling of unreality swept over him again, and he thought he might faint if he didn’t get out into fresh air… Well, as fresh as Chicago air ever got.
Then he noticed that Hardis was staring at the Joe Hill portrait again, and looked at it himself. The eyes in the painting were looking straight at him. He remembered that the eyes had looked straight at him before, when he’d been standing in a totally different position.
“Haunted,” Hardis repeated quietly. “Maybe it’s something to do with all the feelings people have put into this place, this union… all those ideals, held so hard for so long…”
Duncan found his lips shaping the words, the only solution he could think of. “Sell the portrait.”
“No.” The man’s expression hardened. “They’re our ghosts. Our miracle. We’ll keep them.”
“Then… sell me a copy of the Little Red Songbook,” Duncan said.
“Right.” Hardis reached into a shelf on the break-front and pulled out a small red paper-bound booklet. “Just a dollar. Used to be 25 cents.”
Duncan reached into his wallet, thought for a moment, and then pulled out a 50-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” he said. “Buy more decaf.”
Hardis nodded understanding, and solemnly locked the bill away in a battered but unbroken old metal strongbox. Duncan shivered as he recognized it.
He was out on the street again, getting into his rental car, when he realized that he was still holding the booklet in his hand. Guessing what he’d find in it, Duncan opened the book and riffled through the pages.
Yes, there was “Solidarity Forever”, and “The Preacher and the Slave”, and several more very old union songs that he recognized. There were some new ones, too.
Thoughtfully, he closed the booklet and put it in his pocket. His other hand almost idly reached up to feel the button hidden under his lapel.
Some things last, he understood. Some mortal things can last a long time. Love, and ideals, and art… What can they carry with them?
Never discount the miraculous. The world contains more marvels than we know.
As he settled into the driver’s seat Duncan threw a last look back through the window,
at the portrait of Joe Hill.
Even at this angle, the eyes were still looking at him.