Swans Commentary » swans.com July 1, 2013  





by Peter Byrne


Short Story



(Swans - July 1, 2013)   He hadn't borrowed the booklet so much as had it wished on him. Visiting Chicago or rather the North Shore suburb where his friends lived fell into a routine. They prolonged dinner with talk of the wild city he was missing by living in Greece. It was the Chicago mindset now taken up by suburbanites who had fled the city because of the very thing that thrilled them. The white collars and ties of the 1920s got kicks out of Al Capone. Their grandchildren lit up at mention of last year's five hundred homicides.

It hadn't helped that he went on about the views from his Athens apartment. He felt he stretched that thread too tight even as he spun it. He couldn't blame them for rummaging in their bookshelves for proof of Chicago's own Greco-Roman elephant.

So having left the train at 57th Street, he walked east. They'd warned him about in-between stations and talked up other areas to be wary of. He couldn't remember now which were dangerous and why. He'd leafed through the pages about the place. Science and industry couldn't get him out of bed in the morning and his friends either. This museum excited them because it was huge. Their progress northward stockpiling sophistication didn't run to visiting small museums. They'd never got away from their Chicago delight in brute size precisely quantified. He had no intention of shutting himself up in any museum whatever its dimensions.

There were few people on foot. He crossed a boulevard with a parkway and heavy traffic. It was marked Stony Island Avenue. Beyond a vast apron of parked cars the big place loomed up radiating its undefined importance. The very long building sent out two arms before it like a mechanical crab. He skirted the first one, which had columns, a peaked façade, and a green Roman dome over the middle. There were caryatids stuck on.

He reached the path to the main entrance. Before him were the same columns, pediment-topped façade, and green dome, but they had grown twice the size, enormous for reasons not obvious. There were the caryatids again. Visitors went up and down a great stairway, to and from the entry door behind the columns.

He stared. The immense pile was arbitrary, stubborn, impressive because of the way its presence didn't belong. Sacredness supposedly clung to some buildings, but certainly not to this one. It was an outsized four-sided billboard, strenuously inscribed. He thought of the effortful relaxation of grain dealers, meat packers, and railway magnates. Such men were now as remote from the parking-lot present as Pericles, and no more or less reprehensible.

He kept walking around the edge of the building. The columns had been copied from the Parthenon. They didn't march forward, however, but stood marking time. He followed the contour of the other wing, a similar mechanical claw. Symmetry had been recited like the multiplication table. It was part of the effort that was the message of the big billboard.

Lake Michigan was quiet just then, still but unlimited, a road to the north woods where nobody lived. There was a narrow beach and busy Lake Shore Drive. He turned his back that way as he rounded the wing and worked toward the rear of the Museum. He stood there taking in the scene. The building's back duplicated the front minus the thrusting arms. There were porches with pediments, a long run of columns, lower porches, another large entry with the same symbolic figures, some of them angels, above a main door.

The so-called Venetian lagoon was very much in the building's keeping. The water's edge lapped the lower steps and the direct contact of water and stone did sound a note of Venice. The trees on the other side of the lagoon were in Jackson Park that his friends had touted as dangerous. The park made a buffer zone as far as Stony Island Avenue on the west, and stretched out of sight, taking the neck of the lagoon with it, to the south.

Around the water, several people were fishing. They were black. Thinking of his friends' warning, he snickered. Could these still figures be muggers? Would he be attacked with fishhooks? Have money extorted to pay for earth worms?

To keep out of the water as he went toward the steps he kept a hand on the wall of the building. He felt like an interloper though no one showed any sign of noticing him. To adopt a tourist stance and examine the building up close didn't seem like the right thing to do. Anyway, he'd already seen the building. He wished he had something to give him a countenance, a camera or anything that would pass for a fishing pole.

He walked along the lowest step just above the waterline. Then they appeared suddenly above him, the Acropolis caryatids again. They were clean-cut ladies and, it goes without saying, big. Unlike their Athenian forebears, they weren't taking off towards anything. They weren't taking off at all, but nailed down, caught in a trap, looking coldly over the long corridor of Jackson Park.

He sat down on the steps beneath them and surveyed the fishermen. A man on the other side of the lagoon leant forward dramatically, his eyes on the point where his line entered the water. The drama didn't develop, however. The fisherman simply maintained his awkward body angle. He might have been uncomfortably asleep.

Two other men, their poles also at no-nonsense slants, sat in the grass fairly close together, giving undivided attention to the lagoon's surface. They didn't converse. No one around the water spoke or even had a glance for the others. At the far end of the steps, a man squatted over his gear and set out small items with delicacy on the stone surface. Every thirty seconds he would look up sharply at the end of his rod that was jammed between bricks on the bottom step.

The visitor stopped and sat down before reaching the nearest fisherman on the steps, who was a woman and quite old. For decorum's sake, he refrained from looking her over closely and remained turned toward the water.

He sat for ten minutes and nothing happened. Not a fish made its presence felt. The fishermen kept their attentive postures all the same. The man at the other end of the steps had arranged his gear to his satisfaction and crouched within arm's length of his rod. The old woman fisherman didn't seem to be breathing.

There was movement in the park beyond the lagoon. Big black youths, of the kind who lift weights, were in occupation there. They sat on benches, sometimes on the high back of benches, getting up nervously at short intervals to change places or pace under the trees. Their urban restlessness put paid to any pastoral exhalations that might rise from Jackson Park. The surviving Venetian lagoon was definitely big-city bucolic. Fishing, or better, la pêche à la ligne, he realized, was an alchemist's formula for producing the bucolic. Why else were the fishermen there? He imagined the imported Italian gondoliers at the World's Columbian Exhibition overwhelmed by the sights and losing their assurance of Venetian watermen, forgetting the barcarole, dropping their oar and gawking as wide-eyed as the crowd.

The huge structure pushed at his back and his own exhilaration rose. He couldn't sit still or keep his mouth shut. He shook out his legs, and at the same time turned to the old woman.

"What fish are there here?" he asked her.

She didn't bat an eye, an ear or anything else. She watched her line.


No sign of having heard.


No reply.

He was embarrassed and pulled out the booklet about the Museum. He read that it had been built in 1893 of brick and plaster as the Palace of Fine Art. The columns were wood-lattice frame covered with staff. The sculpture was plaster. Inside, a wooden floor rested just above the soil on posts. Stairs and columns were made of cast iron.

He read on. The whole building was reconstructed between 1929 and 1940 with an identical exterior and baptized the Museum of Science and Industry. New permanent materials were used including twenty-eight thousand tons of limestone and two hundred thousand pounds of copper. The structure was one thousand one hundred and forty-five feet long and contained thirteen million cubic feet of space. While the Erectheum of Athens had four caryatids, the Museum possessed twenty-four. The figures were thirteen feet tall and weighed six tons each.

"Perch? There ain't no perch," said the old woman. She didn't move her eyes from her line.

He waited. Minutes past. Then he went back to reading the booklet.

There was a reconstructed mine inside whose walls of coal were six-feet thick and whose head frame stood over sixty-feet high. A model railway system took up three thousand square feet. The U-505 German submarine was moved in at a cost of two hundred and twenty-one thousand dollars in 1954. The Apollo 8 capsule rested there after traveling five hundred and eighty thousand miles through space in 1968. Forty ethnic groups decorated the premises with trees and crèches at Christmas. Since the opening in 1933, one hundred and twenty million visitors had been received.

"Carp? You'll never see one now," said the old woman.

"They used to be here?" he asked.

She thought, still not looking at him.

"Phhew, years ago," she said, with distaste for each year.

"Do you catch anything at all?" he asked.

She cackled an old laugh, lifting the tip of her pole delicately two or three inches. Smiling, she shook her head.

He was going to get her talking now.

"I bet you get catfish," he said.

Then he worried how patronizing he'd sounded. Had he been politically incorrect? He decided to shut up.

She wouldn't let him.

"I don't know anything about catfish," she spit the word back at him like a ball of phlegm, turning her head to look at him for the first time. "Here we got bullheads."

"Ah, bullheads, good old bullheads," he said too warmly.

They were finally talking.

"Bullheads," she said, downbeat, grave.

"Do you fish every day?"

"No, no."

He saw the question was absurd, and tried again,

"How do you cook bullheads?"

"Never cook them."

"I seem to remember," he said, "you have to slit them at the back of the head, hook the skin on a nail, and rip it off with one pull."

"On a nail? Do tell!"

"Yes, on the head of a nail driven into the wall."

"An iron nail?"

He dropped fishing and pointed his thumb over his shoulder.

"Do you ever go into the Museum?"

The old woman cackled her laugh.

"Why should I?"


He was going to tap the booklet on his lap with his finger but changed his mind. There was a photo on the cover from 1893 when an overpowering statue of Athena had stood just above where they sat.

"What do you think of this place?" he asked, motioning with his thumb again. "The statues? The steps?"


She looked at him as at someone not too bright and speaking a foreign language,

"Wet and damp," she said. "The steps are no good for sitting on."

He had enough. He stared up at the caryatids. Marooned, they were. Their noses were sharper now that the sun had moved west. They seemed to see as far as Gary Indiana and be unimpressed. None of the fishermen had caught anything. They remained as alert and expectant as ever.

He walked back around the tons of limestone. Lake Michigan was still as undemonstrative as a gray cloud bank. The roar of traffic sounded friendly. He set out for the station. He thought of all those paintings of ruins in the Roman Campagna, shepherds and sheep small in the foreground. Waiting to cross Stony Island Avenue, he started to laugh. It sounded to him like the old woman's cackle and he stopped.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 1, 2013