He’s Not Billy Anymore

Fred E. Schwartz, author and pulse contributor, who passed away May 6, 2010.

In Memoriam

Long time Pulse contributor Fred E. Schwartz passed away May 6, 2010.

Fred resided in Wilmette, Illinois and outside Ephraim in the summers. After his retirement from a career as a pharmacist, he opened and operated Baybury Books in Ephraim. In addition to his contributions to the community as a bookseller, Fred also regularly contributed his works of fiction and book and music reviews to local publications. In total he authored five books of essays and fiction, and for years published the literary journal The Baybury Review.

Fred’s primary contribution to the Peninsula Pulse was a series of short fictional sketches all set in the Sheffield neighborhood of Chicago where he spent his childhood. At the time of his death, his most recent book which collected these stories was in publication, and has since been released as Sheffield Sketches: Chicago stories of the 1940s. The sketch below, though not included in his recent book, was his last submission to the Pulse.

People in the Sheffield Neighborhood who knew Emily thought she was an especially virtuous woman. They were not only convinced she would never commit an illegal act, they were certain she would never do anything immoral. As a result, Emily was known on the block where she lived as the ‘Old Maid of Bissell Street.’ Others, slightly more charitable, simply referred to her as ‘The Saint.’ Everyone knew that when Emily went anywhere, she went alone. No one was ever seen shopping with her or accompanying her to church on Sunday or to the movies. It was common knowledge Emily never patronized Dimple’s or Slim’s tavern – even in the daytime – for something as harmless as a coke or a glass of ginger ale.

That was the problem. So careful was Emily in her behavior that in 1945, at twenty-three, she was unmarried and had no male friends. Of course the manpower shortage caused by the war hadn’t helped any.

Emily’s complete lack of special skills was also a handicap because it prevented her from obtaining a position in a place where many draft-deferred men were employed. Instead, she worked on an assembly line with other women in a small factory at Armitage and Racine. She had started there before the war, when the plant bottled Chen Yu nail polish in small ginger-shaped bottles, and stayed on after the plant’s conversion to defense work. Only two men worked on their floor…both married and in their fifties. They kidded the women but their sole interests seemed to be their jobs, wives, beer and sports.

Emily had no brothers or sisters, and her parents had moved to the West Coast so her father could get a better paying position in an airplane factory. Emily liked Chicago and she liked her job so she stayed behind in the apartment where she grew up. Full of happy childhood memories, it was home to her.

She didn’t change it much as time went on. New curtains in the kitchen, new colored towels in the bathroom and a flower-patterned chenille spread on her double bed were all she added. At Breakfast, Emily listened to radio stations WGN, WBBM or WLS before going to work. They gave news and weather on the hour and played popular songs like “And There You Are,” “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” and “It Had to be You.”

At lunch Emily also followed a regular routine: sandwiches in the cafeteria with other women on her floor. Their conversations rarely varied. They talked about movies and movie stars, popular songs and singers, and the war that was now into its fourth year. When those, who had boyfriends in service, talked about them, Emily just listened. All told how often they wrote letters and stressed how eager they were for their men to come home. Emily wondered how they could be so dedicated to a serviceman with the worry, and the waiting for them to return. Emily assumed their loyalty was a sign of love, but how it came about she didn’t fully understand. No man had ever touched her heart or mind in that way. She often wanted to ask questions about her friends’ feelings but was afraid to reveal her ignorance.

That changed when Billy came home.

He had lived next door to Emily for years, and she had watched him grow from a skinny kid of five with a large head, big ears, long thin neck and crooked teeth to a teenager who looked much the same – only larger. At eighteen, Billy had been the shortest kid in his high school graduating class. Worst of all, Emily saw nothing manly about him. Billy slumped as he walked with his hands in his pockets, and he dragged his feet. He was always friendly to Emily, almost doting one could say. But being clumsy when he spoke to her, he usually cancelled any favorable impression he might have made.

Emily saw Billy most often in summer and shuddered whenever he took off his shirt and she saw his ribs. Smiling and showing his teeth, he inevitably said “hello” in such a mealy-mouth way, Emily caught herself on the verge of laughing before she could bring herself to respond. Under such circumstances, further conversation was useless. Billy never talked to her about anything but sports and the weather. As far as she was able to tell, he didn’t know about anything else.

If, while he was growing up, Billy had hung around with the other guys his age on the block, he might have partly redeemed himself in her eyes. But, for the most part, he was a loner. Emily never knew Billy was physically unable to tolerate the ‘rough and tumble’ of childhood play. Being the smallest and weakest around, he was invariably a victim. Only when playing ‘It’ did Billy excel. Being light weight, he could out-run everyone else. Going to different high schools, Emily never knew Billy was later a track star.

Two days after he returned from three years in the Marines, Billy’s mother invited Emily and other neighbors to a ‘Welcome Home’ party. Emily had seen him only fleetingly in almost four years. If Billy was virtually the same at eighteen as he was at eight, she had no reason to believe he would be any different at twenty-four. But he was. And his mother’s referral to him as Bill should have been the tip-off.

On the evening of the dinner, Emily, for some unexplainable reason, decided to wear a touch of lipstick and a hint or rouge. In the back of her closet, she found a colorful dress and a pair of high Lucite heel shoes she hadn’t worn in years. Pleased when she looked at herself in the mirror after dressing, Emily added a relaxed smile.

What followed was one of life’s classic scenarios. From the very first, Bill and Emily made frequent eye contact. He immediately saw she had become an attractive woman. She, in turn, quickly realized he was not the short ungainly teenager she remembered. It was if the Marines had transformed him into a handsome and husky adult male: one whose neck, arms and chest were muscular; whose eyes were bright and shining, and who sat very erect yet relaxed on his chair. Even his teeth were straight. All this had happened, it seemed, through discipline and training. Even his smile was broad and confident. So was his conversation.

When Emily was leaving, Bill asked her if she’d go to Dimple’s Tavern with him the following evening for a drink, then on to a movie. He had a broad smile on his face. Without a moment’s hesitation, Emily said yes and kissed him on the cheek as he slowly closed the door. It contained infinitely more possibilities than a grown woman normally communicates to a next door neighbor just home from the war.