This story is by Matthew Gaspar and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Joe plucked an errant hair from his eyebrow and then scanned his head for grays. It was his 40th birthday, and he had become increasingly analytical of his existence and reflective of his past. Joe was not unhappy, though he felt he had lived his life without much personal influence, and this made him feel detached. He considered the qualifications of those who had raised him and shaped his opinions. How much of my thoughts are my own? he contemplated.
He remembered his 8th birthday which was spent at the zoo. In particular, he vividly recalled observing the lions with his dad. The male lion looked at Joe and let out a thunderous roar. “He’s tryin’ to scare you, Joey,” his dad said. “He’s letting everyone know dat he’s da king of dis zoo.” Joe was intimidated but also impressed at how the lion commanded his domain.
Joe D’angelo was a real Chicago guy. A working-class guy, born and raised on the South Side. He loved his White Sox and Bears. He normalized rampant political corruption. He honored the sanctity of dibs. He even liked to drink Malort. Joe could show you the best local spot to get a beef sandwich or a pizza. And he’d tell you that the real Chicago pizza is thin crust, square-cut with big hunks of sausage, not the deep dish that so many people talk about.
Chicago is wonderfully diverse and noticeably segregated. Joe’s neighborhood was no exception. Many Chicagoans exist with a quasi-racist tribalism. Of course, most of these people wouldn’t identify as racist; they might call it ethnic pride. Joe started to think it was strange to take pride in something over which you had no control.
The beautiful autumn colors decorated the city, and the early November weather was quite charming. Joe stepped outside to soak it in. The sights and smells of autumn proved a pleasant companion as Joe rode his bike to the lake. He traveled with no clear agenda but was suddenly drawn to the zoo about eight miles north. Joe turned down an unfamiliar side street that was drenched with yellow ginkgo leaves on the west and peppered with red maple leaves on the east.
He arrived at the zoo and walked toward the lions. A male lion laid solemnly, indifferent to his surroundings. Joe reconsidered what his dad had said thirty-two years earlier. He now believed that the lion was crying out for help, longing for his home. Joe figured these lions should be romping around the plains of Africa rather than be trapped in a holding cell waiting for a Chicago winter.
He made his way to the café to have a coffee and sit with his thoughts. Joe settled himself on the outdoor, second floor patio and took in the beautiful views of the city. A young woman was walking up the stairs to the patio, and she entered Joe’s view. She was stunning. She had an exotic, almost foreign look. Her eyes were big and expressive. Her tight dark curls hung and bounced above her shoulders. She was elegantly dressed. She sat down and removed an unfamiliar magazine from her bag.
Joe was captivated. He had to be near her. Every cell in his body demanded it.
All at once, the prejudiced attitudes of Joe’s family and friends bloomed in his brain and fell like leaves, covering his thoughts. Joe’s desire swept them away, and he possessed a clear mind to talk to this woman.
He walked over to her, too focused to be nervous. He knew he couldn’t let this moment slip away. He had no idea what he would say, but he knew he had to say something. He drew closer and his confidence increased.
“Hi. My name is Joe. I saw you sit down a while ago, and… I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t talk to you,” Joe said.
“Hello, Joe. That is very sweet. My name is Grace,” she said.
She was warm and kind. Joe fell in love instantly. She laughed at the perfect times. She shared wonderful insights. Joe felt whole and significant. She was an educated woman from the North Side. She was strong and assured. Joe was ready to ask for her hand in marriage. Instead, Joe asked, “Would you like to get a hot dog?”
“Yeah, that sounds great. I’d love to,” she responded.
They walked back to the café. Joe held the door for her, and it occurred to him that this could be the start of forever. He was experiencing the story that they would tell their children someday.
Joe bought two hot dogs and handed one to Grace. He swore he heard the lion roar. They made their way to the condiment stand, and Grace applied a liberal amount of ketchup to her hot dog. Joe watched her, horrified. A surge of disgust overwhelmed him. He was barely able to spit out the words, “This ain’t gonna work,” before he strode away.